Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Planet of the Apes

As a kid, "Planet of the Apes" was my introduction to fanaticism (a few years before Lincoln, even).  I don't remember when I first saw the films, as I was only 2 when the original movie aired in 1968, with the 4 sequels to follow annually beginning in 1970.  But somewhere in my youth, before the TV series began in 1974, POTA appeared before my eyes.  And I was a changed boy because of it.

Let me first admit here that I am not really into science fiction; I'm a history buff.  I like knowing that the people who interest me really did walk the earth, that events really happened, and that places really existed.  I like "Star Wars" as much as the next guy, but my dorkdom is firmly rooted in non-fiction.  So looking back and knowing what I know about myself, I have to wonder what it was about POTA that flicked a little switch for me.

In any event, I was hooked.  I had the POTA Hallowe'en costume, lunchbox, trading cards, several posters, action figures, treehouse set, records, board game, coloring book, and probably much more stuff that I've forgotten about.  I. Couldn't. Get. Enough.

There were some things about POTA that I knew I did not like, even as a kid of, say, 8 years old: 
  1. I didn't like Charlton Heston at all.  I liked his character, Taylor, okay but I didn't like the actor (I've always been a critic).  To me, he always looked thirsty.  I dunno, it was a just a feeling I had as a kid; a feeling validated when Heston became an outspoken proponent of the NRA.  ("..from my cold dead hands," indeed.)
  2. I initially didn't like "Beneath the Planet of the Apes", the franchise's second movie.  As a kid, I guess I didn't really understand it, what with mutated humans, the bomb and all.  But as an adult, I've come to understand it.
  3. It took me several years to realize that the chimp babies were switched in "Escape from the Planet of the Apes".  Like, maybe, 30 years.  It wasn't shown; the viewer had to draw a conclusion.  (I never said I was quick.)
  4. Most recently, I have not been a fan of the new POTA movies.  I was very eager to see the Tim Burton remake in 2001, but was left disappointed.  As a result, I've not seen the other two which followed.
When the POTA series aired for one season in 1974, I watched it every Friday night from my favorite place on earth, my grandmother's house.  This was a big deal because the show was on CBS and she almost never turned the channel from NBC.  It helps to be the favorite.

And today, my devotion remains intact if not more sedate.  I now own the box set of the original 5 movies, and Kevin created a piece of art using Cornelius (a main protagonist) as the centerpiece.  And while POTA has not been as consuming as Mr. Lincoln, it has gone where no other SciFi has gone before in my life.  So much so, that even today, I can remember Cornelius's recitation of the 23rd Scroll at the end of the original film:

"Beware the beast man, for he is the devil's pawn. Alone among God's primates, he kills for sport, or lust or greed. Yes, he will murder his brother to possess his brother's land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him. Drive him back into his jungle lair: For he is the harbinger of death."

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Time I Was In An Off-Broadway Play

My senior year in college, I got a call from the head of my university's theater department, Mr. Herman, who asked me if I would be interested in performing in a visiting play called "Johnny Got His Gun", based on the book by Dalton Trumbo.  The cast was largely made up of alumni visiting from NYC; the person playing my character could not make the trip.  The play would run for 3 performances.

I was a bit astounded by the request.  I was an English major in college.  And while all of my friends were in the theater program (I dated a music theater major) and I had been cast in a few productions, I was somewhat shocked that Mr. Herman was bypassing ALL of his theater students to pluck me for the role.  I could only figure that all the other students who could play this part were actually busy in other productions and either didn't have the time or couldn't be spared.  Nevertheless, I said yes.  These were the days when I was young and brave and would try just about anything.  Ah, youth.

When the time came, I met the cast and had just three days to learn my part.  The entire cast had to relearn the staging since we were performing the production in the studio theater, a black-box theater much smaller than where the play was performed in NYC.  My part was simple enough (about 20 lines throughout the course of the play) but was physically challenging.  Set during World War I, the play was narrated by a soldier horribly disfigured during battle.  My character was a dual role, "Sergeant/Jesus".  I opened the play by carrying a practically dead soldier (both of us in full, authentic WW1 war gear) up a flight of 10 or 11 steps, pause for dramatic effect while bombs exploded behind me (silhouetted for dramatic effect), then traverse around several obstacles on varying levels of risers to the other side of the stage where I then lay the body down on an wooden "army cot".

My costume.
Carrying the man (who was about 5'10", 170) in my arms across stage was one thing; carrying him as dead weight while he was in full fatigues and covered in a heavy wool blanket (and I was in full uniform and wearing a heavy wool coat) was quite another.  During the 6th rehearsal of the opening scene, my legs turned to jello.  As I moved to lay the soldier in the cot, I lost my balance and basically just dropped him onto it, practically falling on him in the process.  The director loved the look of that so much, he told me to keep it in for the performances.  (Whaddya know, I'm a 'method actor'.)

I don't remember any of my lines except for one:  every time a bell rang I was to place my hand on a specific soldier and firmly but compassionately say, "It's time." (that was the Jesus side of my character).  Just two words, but they were the hardest to say.  I couldn't get the emotion correct.  The director tried several line readings with me and I just could not emote what needed to be conveyed.  I either underplayed it or over-emoted.  At one point following me saying "it's time", he looked at me and drolly said, "That was more William Shatner than Jesus."  Oof.

I said the line differently in all 3 performances.  Sorry, but this is what you get when you go outside the theater department for actors.  I was not an actor.  I sucked and I knew it.  And all of my theater friends who came to see 1 of the 3 performances knew it too.  I wanted to be SO GOOD, but/and I knew I wasn't.  However, my mom and my sister, who came to see the final performance and thought I was amazing (that's what moms and sisters do, right?).  But I carried the hell out of that soldier across stage.

A few months later, I auditioned for Mr. Herman for the upcoming summer stock shows.  And although he cast me the year before, he didn't this time.  Can't say I blame him.  Still, it was an overall great experience.  And if i were to undertake such a task today, I'm sure I could do a better job.  But being in that scenario, surrounded by the most talented people I knew and being judged by their criteria, I choked.  My friends were kind and sweet, but we all knew.

This essentially ended my theater career.  And I thank God for it. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

My First Job: McDonald's

It's not that I am embarrassed about my first job; it's that I was actually so bad at it that I came within days of actually getting fired.

It was a job that I think most people would believe to be fairly straightforward and simple: working at McDonald's.  Sitting adjacent to my high school, McDonald's was a popular place, especially following high school events like football games and concerts.

I'd just turned 18 and got the job of working the grill in my hometown restaurant.  I'm not sure how restaurants are run today, but in those days (the mid 80s), you either worked the registers or the grill.  Working on the grill meant that those working the registers would bark orders back to you about what to make, how much to make, and how many items required cheese.  There were beepers going off all the time and there was always something that needed to be pulled out of a grease vat someplace.  You were constantly stocking supplies, washing dishes, and mopping up the slippery floor so you didn't lose your footing and fall into grime.  It was usually you and just one other person for a 4-, 5-, 6-, or longer-hour shift.  Job training was trial-by-fire, and let's just say I was burning up.

I was neither sure what I was doing wrong, nor how to correct it.  There was a definite rhythm needed to flow through all the procedures, but I just didn't have it.  Nor, apparently, could I obtain it.  And it seemed that after 4 months of this, my days were numbered.

One of the assistant managers, Chris, suggested moving me to the registers as a last-ditch effort.  The general manager, Bob, originally said no - he was ready to fire me.  Chris asked for two weeks "just to see"; that it would take that long to train a new person anyway.  Bob reluctantly agreed and I was moved out front.  The change in my performance was immediate.

Within days, I was controlling product, directing other crew members, assigning tasks, and taking orders.  I had no idea of it at the time, but it was this transition that taught me that my career would be based on managing and developing people.  What was originally done as a last-ditch effort ended up defining my eventual occupation.  This job taught me to quickly recognize strengths, assess abilities, delegate responsibilities, and listen to needs.

You wouldn't necessarily think that serving burgers at McDonald's could teach these skills.  But it's all about getting out what you put in.  Training and development is always there; sometimes you have to look for it or even create it yourself.

One month after this change, I was given my first achievement award in my career: Crew Member of the Month for September 1984.  I still have the plaque to remind me to never give up.  My mantra has always been, "They'll just have to fire me if I am not doing well; I refuse to quit."   I was lucky that Chris recognized my potential.  And that's what I continue to try to do in my management career.

Monday, November 04, 2013

When October Goes

"And when October goes
The snow begins to fly
Above the smokey roofs
I watch the planes go by,
The children running home
Beneath a twilight sky.
Oh, for the fun of them
When I was one of them.

"And when October goes
The same old dream appears
And you are in my arms
To share the happy years.
I turn my head away
To hide the helpless tears.
Oh, how I hate to see October go.

"And when October goes
The same old dream appears
And you are in my arms
To share the happy years.
I turn my head away
To hide the helpless tears.
Oh, how I hate to see October go.

"I should be over it now I know.
It doesn't matter much
How old I grow.
I hate to see October go."