Monday, December 31, 2018

The Usual Glamour

Dressed as the Tin Man, handing out party favors at a casino on Dec. 31st, I assumed things wouldn't worsen. Then they confiscated my plastic ax. 

I was working a Professional Actor -- barely deserving of the capital-P or A.

I've oft conjured odd job experiences here on Essay Daily-- on many a New Year's (and ChristmasEve. It's like a holiday tradition (minus any majesty).

But I've never narrated the most humiliating.


What's the definition of arrogance in your early twenties?

"I'll support my writing with my acting!" I thought.

I'd dropped out of a top-notch acting program because I knew, finally, that I was to be a Genius Writer – still, I was practical. In the unlikely event that it took a while for said genius to pay dividends, the solution was simple:

I'll sully my artistic soul with endless dollars starring in TV commercials!

Attempting to support your writing with acting is like -- what? Propping up your juggling career with your slam poetry? Street miming to finance your podcast?

But I was determined. I saved up for headshots, then sent them to Agencies; readied my monologues. A few places called back -- and one hired me.


"Hi, hey, hello."

This is how the usual audition would go.

A cavernous warehouse downtown, ready for a post-apocalyptic photoshoot -- or conversion to luxury lofts. Bland-cool: whitewashed brick and high metal rafters. 

Your mission: Find a loading dock elevator, to find a floor, to find a room, where a man behind a desk asks:

"Who are you?" Hand him your headshot and wait in stylish chairs with other talky types, now quiet with concentration -- but a few can't help themselves. As they run their lines, they ask, "Who you with? They're good, right? God, that Delta audition, did you hear about who got...? Cool, cool..." 

Then the Casting Director emerges, calls your name, and ushers you into the sanctum sanctorum: An inner room filled with six men (maybe a few women) ensconced behind a conference table – watching with a tripod and a camera's eye, recording all. Pinning you to the wall.


"Can you take your shirt off?" one of the men asks.

"And put a stick in your mouth," another adds, "and swim around the floor?"

So, shirtless, I put a stick in my mouth and 'swim' around the room; I carpet-burn my stomach -- my chest hair embedding in the nap via my ground-bound breaststroke.

"He should— should he try a back stroke?" one man asks another.


Keeping the stick between my teeth, I roll over to try the backstroke.

"That's great," one man says. "Thanks. Thank you." I don my shirt and leave the room.

This was a real audition (and it wasn’t even the most absurd I attended); this was just the audition right before the casino gig on New Year's Eve. We were vying for a spot with the Minnesota State Lottery: A man paddles about with beavers, humorously showing how the lottery supports wildlife. 

The casting director was right -- that man was a better beaver.

Still, it's hard to not question one's life choices walking out of that room. I'd spent my Monday morning half-nude and supine, biting a wooden branch. 

Grabbing my jacket as I left the waiting room, another actor asked, "What's it like in there?"

"You know," I replied. "The usual glamour." He nodded.


That's how it was -- not just for callow kinds like me, but real artists, too.

Robert was the best actor I'd ever seen in person – but he’d show up at the same shitty auditions as myself. So we’d chat.

Robert owned endless, low-level IMDB credits -- but his theatrical exploits? They deserve endless acclaim he'll never know. I saw him perfectly embody Artie in House of Blue Leaves and Didi in Waiting for Godot; Beringer in Rhinoceros and "Robert" in A Life in the Theater.

Yep, Robert actually portrayed "Robert"--  an old actor portraying a guy in a play about an old actor. But there was one difference: in the play's script, Robert lost his job to a young up-and-comer.

In the real world, Robert’s rival wasn’t someone younger; Robert’s rival was something on YouTube, or social media. It was declining theatre audiences. He was one of the best theatrical actors in town but could still barely make ends meet.

The last time I saw him he said, “I’m down to the last five for the big Bing spot!” Bing, that failed search engine. But had Robert landed the commercial, Robert could’ve done all the theatre he wanted for the rest of his days. That spot payed over $200,000 – we heard it finally went some amateur in Houston.

Still, sometimes we hit the lottery.


My auditions were occasionally "successful" – as long as I make sure those quotation marks are big and bold. 

I play that ad for my Composition II students; it's a reward, so they can laugh at me after our unit on the rhetoric of Super Bowl ads.

I'll never know why the director opted for the take where I sexualize "Martha's Vineyard Black Raspberry" – though, of course, that is pretty sexy! I mostly remember the food stylist glaring at me, her ice cream melting beneath hot lights, as I messed up the monologue.

I've never looked that young – even then. My face was shorn and powdered for the shoot. They say the camera adds pounds but in this case it subtracted years. I can't remember that person. 


But who wouldn't want an extra $400 right before the New Year?

"They're sending out groups, there's a Star Wars group,” my agent was saying, "you'll be in the Wizard of Oz group…"

A local casino wanted wandering actors to hand out party favors to gamblers on the casino floor.

These were the wonderful weird gigs that sometimes popped up -- and they paid instantly! It wasn't like waiting for royalties. For example, I'd previously dressed up as a large M&M (the yellow one) for 3M’s company party. "I'm in!" I told my agent.

So, around 5:00 PM on New Year's Eve, a thick slab of silver icing was slathered across my face by Dorothy -- then she slathered a second coat. My face had to be fully covered with thick, metallic-grey paint. Finally, I was ready: my layered face embedding within the head of a 20-pound, highly-professional Tin Man costume. I looked like I was straight out of the movie. I was perfect.

And I was feeling no pain. Dorothy had provided us all (the Scarecrow, Lion, and myself) with many, mini-bottles of Schnapps. We'd conspired ahead of time, knowing this wouldn't be a great gig to do sober.

Casinos have many cameras, even in the empty conference room where we dressed -- but we outsmarted them: hiding and imbibing in the employee bathrooms.


I'd worked with Dorothy on a previous shoots -- our most memorable being one for Total Fitness. Together, we'd pretended to run the last part of a marathon (breaking the ribbon) fourteen different times. Afterward, we had wine. 

"Any liquor there?" she'd texted on her way to the casino.

"Not for us," I replied. "Find something!" She came through.

So: a boozy Lion, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Dorothy all hit the casino floor, a bit loose and exceptionally enthusiastic.

We bore baskets filled with candy, confetti, noisemakers, blinking buttons -- the customers loved grabbing at the treats, and I felt expansive.

"Can I have a second candy bar?" asked an older woman. She'd just turned away from her slot machine. "No," I said, "you can take three!" She smiled and rummaged around until she found a full-sized Butterfinger – then held it up, triumphant.

"Happy New Year!" I yelled. Everything was lovely, within my happy Schnapp's haze.

But Dorothy was being harassed by odd old men. 

It started slowly but crescendo-ed quickly. Guys side-mouthed comments to her that I couldn't quite hear -- or pretended I couldn't hear. Why make waves? But the gamblers were enthused by her (not really) low-cut gingham dress.

Nearing the night's end, we walked up to a bank of slot machines; we offered noisemakers and Snickers-- but one old man blared back at us:

"Dorothy should sit on my lap!" 

We didn't know the right reply, so he helpfully added, "It's Christmas Eve!"

It wasn't. 


Luckily, Dorothy was surrounded by a cast straight out of a Frank Baum fever dream. Dorothy was protected by the Lion, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man…

But we did nothing.

Then, after a loooong pause, I heroically intervened: Shaking my basket, I said, "Hey man, how 'bout some candy! Happy New Year!" Yes, I'd courageously rewarded his crass comments with an offer of sugar. 

He detached his gaze from Dorothy and turned his drunken head--slowly--like a tank turret, targeting me: "I oughta kick you in the balls," he said.

We all laughed awkwardly and ran off; soon after, security confiscated my ax (“no weapons on the gaming floor,” they said, and I wondered about the other teams’ lightsabers). We clocked out shortly after midnight.


If you want New Year’s Optimism, don’t look to Literature. I researched a lot of it, prior to this post, and most of it's dour. Poets pouring out misgivings, fears, about the New Year (Sylvia Plath's "New Year on Dartmoor" sees her delivering bald truths to her two-year old, portending that the new calendar will be filled mostly with disillusion and "the blind, white, awful, inaccessible slant"; A. E. Housman's "New Year's Eve" hears the holiday's bells "ringing no tune" with their "dead knells"; etc.) . The poets are rarely celebratory on the 31st, it seems, and the prose writers aren't much better (Rosemary meets her baby, the Antichrist, on that date; and both Zadie Smith's White Teeth and Nick Hornby's Long Way Down feature major character intending to off themselves on the portentous day).

I mention this because there's such forced merriment on New Year's Eve -- but if you're feeling a little wary rather than celebratory, you're in good company.

And I mention this because I think some of that dour air pervaded our little foursome as the night wound-down at the bar, post-casino.

In the clean, overly-bright lounge of the Residence Inn, Dorothy held up a toast. We’d decided on shots, for our success. “For the Wizard of Oz,” she said. “And our glamorous lives!” 

We all smiled one of those smiles -- half-fake and half-sincere, unsure which would be the most appropriate for the coming year.

Dave Mondy's essays have been named Notable in Best American Essays 2015 and 2017, Best American Sports Writing 2017, and have appeared in Best Food Writing 2014 and 2015. He has also received multiple Solas Awards for his travel writingHis work can be found in Slate, The Iowa Review, The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. He received his MFA in Creative Nonfiction from The University of Arizona, and he's currently working on a book about the true stories and strange truths hidden within famous sports photos.

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