Tag Archive | theater

Banana in the tailpipe

It was the mid-1980s and my brother and I were visiting my mother in Yonkers and going to the Westchester County Fair. She lived within walking distance to Yonkers Raceway where the fair was held every year. But this particular Saturday night my mother and I left the fair early so I could watch the movie Beverly Hills Cop on cable television.

We ran through the crowds at the fair and down the quieter streets off of Central Avenue to get to the house where my mother’s apartment was. We made it just in time.

There’s a point in the film where Eddie Murphy’s character makes fun of the way someone says “banana in the tailpipe” that I found uproariously funny. I perhaps laughed harder than I had every laughed before.

From that time forward, if I was taking life too seriously or my mother wanted me to smile in a photograph she would whisper “banana in the tailpipe” and despite my efforts at serious, curmudgeonly dignity I would eventually smile. She had long ago decided that life, even at its most solemn moments, should be met with a certain levity. When I danced with her at my wedding and she looked as if she might be overcome with emotion, I got to tell her “banana in the tailpipe,” to keep the occasion’s needed levity.

My mother was a theater person and that’s how she and my father met. My brother and I are proud to be descended from theater folk on both sides of our family. My mother’s life was an extension of her love for life upon the stage. For her life was a grand performance where she relished every part she played and interpreted each role in her own unique way. She lived life with the expectation of celebration and a disdain for conventions that would get in the way.

When I learned my mother had ovarian cancer, I was hopeful. They were doing surgery, and that’s a sign of hope for ovarian cancer, which is often detected very late. I started planning the victory party early. We would do the T.E.A.L. 5k Run and Walk and have cool t-shirts made up about my mother making cancer her bitch. We’d enjoy a jack-o-lantern show every year from then on out to make up for the one she missed when she first became ill. Things would go back to normal, I was sure of it.

I made the mistake that is so common; I thought I had more time. I thought that my mother would be able to see her grandchildren at least once more, that I could say goodbye to her in some organized way that would leave me with no lingering regrets. I didn’t know that the last time I saw her or spoke with her would be the last time. I don’t really remember the conversation that well. She told me she didn’t have long to live and I believed her, but I left that conversation thinking we had a few more weeks or even months. Two days later I got a call from my stepfather informing me that my mother had passed away the night before.

If there is one moment in time with my mother that I could somehow freeze or replay forever, it would be the moment I went to the waiting room at the hospital after our first two girls were born, and seeing my Mom as a grandmother for the first time. I don’t know if I ever saw her happier than at that moment. I had made her dream of becoming a grandmother come true and she had years of happiness ahead of her as a Grandma.

While I mourn my mother’s loss and regret all that we have lost with her, I’m comforted by the fact that our older girls were gifted with very early memories of her and saw her almost every week of their lives until she was diagnosed.

A few weeks ago, we held a memorial service for my mother at Bear Mountain. Bear Mountain was a popular place for us to meet up and it was the last place I saw my mother. Friends and family from all over came to remember how my Mom had held a special place in their lives. I had a few prepared remarks that I kept brief, and signed off with this:

“My mother did not believe in funerals or being memorialized with an engraved stone. She left it up to us, her family and wider family of friends, with the lives we live and the love we share, to create her monument. We thank you for joining us in this.”

Getting our Irish up ahead of St. Patrick’s Day

St. Patrick’s Day is the time of year when everyone wants to be Irish for a few hours and their definition of being Irish is being an obnoxious drunk. There are actually a lot of nice things about being Irish and Ireland has given us a lot of great things besides a love of the drink.

Among the many positive contributions the Irish have made to the world is music, and around St. Patrick’s Day every year a litany of Irish groups come through the Big Apple to quench our thirst for authentic Irish art.

The Chieftains have been popularizing traditional Irish music since the 1960s and with some luck of the Irish and the busy schedule of generous in-laws, my wife and I scored tickets to see them at Town Hall in midtown Manhattan.

Most of the crowd at the show were well-dressed middle aged people like me or older. I thought I might be overdressed but I wasn’t, which confirms yet again I’ve reached middle age where I can blend in with a crowd that used to look old to me.

But sitting behind us was a loud, possibly drunk, but definitely rude women who acted as if she were in her living room, talking loudly and even shouting ahead to a woman seated in the row ahead of us. After sitting through several songs listening to this absurdly inane and incredibly impolite chatter, my wife asked her to keep her voice down.

The woman took great offense and spent the rest of the show muttering under her breath about how she planned to confront my wife. ‘Go ahead lady,’ I thought to myself. ‘It’s your funeral.’

The Chieftains put on an outstanding performance. They’ve had many celebrated collaborators in the past and had an impressive cast of guest musicians and dancers joining them throughout the evening. A good time was had by all.

Once the show was over and the lights went up, the woman told my wife that she had no right to ask her to be quiet, that the show was for everyone to enjoy and some such malarkey. My wife told her in no uncertain terms that she was wrong and needed to learn some manners. The woman, embarrassed to be called out for such puerile behavior, wouldn’t let go. But my wife can dish out whatever you send her way. The woman’s friends were horrified and did not want to see their friend get thrashed by a visibly pregnant woman.

One of her friends motioned to me and implored me to get my wife out of the building. I told her it was her friend that needed the help, not my wife. The rude woman’s friends eventually corralled her and we all went our separate ways.

No punches were thrown, no chairs hurled through the air. I’m glad for that, though I think it would have been great to watch my pregnant wife knock out this nasty shrew of a woman. I’d take a video of it and then yell, “WORLDSTAR!!” and post it to WorldStarHipHop web site, a popular place to post videos of altercations.

In the end we walked out into the sweet Spring New York night and walked to Times Square, where my wife once reminded me that sometimes you have to enjoy being a tourist in your own city.

We will survive the stupidity of this St. Patrick’s Day as we have survived all others, with pride in our Irish culture intact and our tempers only a little bit the worse for wear.

How to Do Spring in New York

Even though the first day of spring was officially several weeks ago, we are only now beginning to get real spring-like weather in New York. That’s fine by me. I hate the heat and like to keep as much distance between myself and summer as possible.

Spring is a great season to be in New York. The blanket of cold is lifted and the blanket of overheated humidity has yet to descend. The hum of outdoor social life returns and the parks become alive again.

I know that summer is coming and that it will be several months of sweltering misery, so let’s enjoy the spring while we have it here. Here are some ideas of how you can best enjoy the springtime in New York City:

Go to Coney Island before it gets crowded. Coney Island is a fun place to go and enjoy the amusements and atmosphere. It gets choked with people during the official summer season (though if you walk far enough along the boardwalk you can find your way away from the worst of the crowds. Ride the Cyclone, visit the freak show at the Coney Island Circus Side Show and visit its freak museum. Get a hot dog at the original Nathan’s. There’s even the New York Aquarium there.

Go bird watching in Inwood Hill Park. Inwood in northern Manhattan is one of the city’s great treasures of a neighborhood and central to that is Inwood Hill Park. Where else in Manhattan can you see eagles and hawks and get lost in the woods? Bird watchers get to see a lot of interesting birds in the park, and not just eagles and hawks. Eagles were hatched in the park years ago to increase their likelihood of returning as adults. Hawks are long-time residents of Inwood (and other city spots). So go and enjoy watching nature’s predation at its most beautiful.

Visit a botanical garden. The city’s largest botanical garden is in the Bronx near the Bronx Zoo, but did you know that Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island all have their own botanical gardens also? Lots of abundant park land and plant life abound at the botanical gardens, plus they often have special exhibits.

Take a historic walking tour. No matter what your interests are, there is history in New York for you. Interested in learning about the American Revolution, gangsters, labor strikes, punk rock? There’s a walking tour for you. When you can walk past something and tell someone something interesting about it, that’s makes you a better traveling companion. You might learn something interesting and historic about spots you walk by every day.

Enjoy some free outdoor theater. There is free Shakespeare in many public parks throughout the city and it’s a shame not to take advantage of that. There is so much good theater, art and creativity to sample for free that you should never jones for your theater fix. The New York Public Theater, New York Classical Theatre and Hip to Hip Theater Company all do a great job bringing free theater to the people of New York.

The Iceman Cometh to Brooklyn

New York is the best place in the world to see theater in the English speaking world. You’d have to go to London to come close to what New York has to offer in terms of plays being produced. Chicago has a thriving theater scene, but it still doesn’t compare to New York’s.

The one problem with New York’s theatrical offerings is that there is so much good stuff to see that it’s impossible to see even a fraction of the worthwhile productions, and inevitably stuff gets lost in the shuffle.

I had no idea that a well-renowned production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh was coming to New York until I read a review of it in The New York Times. The production was brought over from Chicago and stars Nathan Lane in the lead role of Hickey and Brian Dennehy as Larry. The play was scheduled for a very limited run, from Feb. 5 to March 15 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

I scrambled to get tickets online and managed to get a couple for last Thursday night.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) is located in downtown Brooklyn, an area that straddles the line between old-school ghetto and clueless gentrification. There are check cashing storefronts and other run-down areas not far from these stages. And BAM is not one theater but several and it’s easy to go to the wrong place (or in my case two wrong places) if you haven’t been there before.

But once I found the theater everything went smoothly. The BAM Harvey Theater lacks the upscale decorative charm of many of the Broadway theaters but it is otherwise audience friendly. Unlike your average Broadway show, the BAM audience is mostly New York City residents who know basic theater etiquette (I counted only one cell phone going off during the production).

And this production of The Iceman Cometh lives up to the hype. Nathan Lane, who is more of a well-known comic actor, makes a great Hickey. Because the characters he often plays on TV and in movies are so jovial, it puts an added barb to the soul-crushing dialogue and dark personality of his character.

Brian Dennehy’s Larry Slade broods over each act perfectly as well. And the rest of the cast, especially Stephen Ouimette as Harry Hope and James Harms as Jimmy Tomorrow, bring O’Neill’s words to life with gut-wrenching performances.

The play is about five hours long and has three intermissions, but the time passed by easily. When you’re watching a play done that well, you can lose yourself and don’t mind.

The Iceman Cometh resonates very well with audiences because everyone has some part of themselves that’s doubtful, unfulfilled and wanting. No one escapes self-doubt and no one has avoided procrastination and self-pity, though we’d like to think we do. Everyone has a problem facing harsh truths about their own lives, no matter how good your life may be.

Iceman works so well because just about every one of us has been that drunk at the bar, high on liquid courage and doubtless in dreams that we would never see through. Everyone has engaged in self-delusion at some point in their lives, everyone has something in their past that they’re ashamed of. O’Neill’s Hickey knocks the wind out of our sails with his quest to bring us peace by giving up our pipe dreams.

Art this good is always worth the investment of time. If you have a chance to see The Iceman Cometh, go see it.

Best NYC Celebrity Encounter Ever: Geoffrey Holder

Years ago, when I worked as an immigration inspector at JFK Airport, I would sometimes encounter celebrities that would come through my line. The first one I remembered was Joan Collins. People I mentioned this too asked me if I remembered what her actual birth date was from looking at her passport, but I didn’t pay it much mind. She was very well dressed and seemed very polite and proper.

Among the other celebrities I has pass through my line were Sting, Geoffrey Rush, George Clinton, Sally Jesse Rafael and Brian Cox. I also met the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, who were very nice. When I told Graham “Suggs” McPherson, singer of the band Madness, that I liked his music, he replied, “You have a good memory.”

But by far and away the best celebrity encounter I had at JFK Airport was the actor Geoffrey Holder.

Working at JFK Airport was actually a big drag. Things changed a lot after the September 11 attacks, so I can’t attest to what the job is like today. But the pre-September 11 era was a miserable place where inspectors often worked seven days straight and could be held for mandatory overtime with no notice given.

I was so unhappy working at JFK that I lived in a state of near permanent miserable anger. Any sign of other people’s happiness made me immediately angry and resentful.

I was coming to tend of my day at the old T.W.A. terminal, thinking that the most recent flight was done processing and I could prepare to go home. I was still in my booth when I noticed people from the airline wheeling a passenger in a wheelchair directly towards my booth. The passenger was singing.

‘What kind of horrible freak are they bringing me,’ I thought to myself—indeed, my resentment of all things happy even extended to the elderly and disabled.

The airline escort wheeled the passenger into my booth and he put his paperwork on my counter. He was a green card holder from Trinidad and once I saw his name I knew exactly who he was: Geoffrey Holder.

Geoffrey Holder spent most of his long entertainment career on stage as a dancer, actor and director. He was one of the lead actors in the first all-black production of ‘Waiting for Godot,’ a choreographer for the famed Alvin Ailey American Dance Company, a Tony-Award winning costume designer and successful painter. He was the bodyguard Punjab in the 1982 version of ‘Annie’ and may be best known for 7-Up commercials he made in the 1980s. He was characterized by his height (he was six-foot-six) and his deep, Caribbean voice.

Geoffrey Holder was also one of the best James Bond villains in history, playing Baron Semedi in the 1973 Bond film ‘Live and Let Die.’ Being a Bond villain counts as movie royalty in my book.

“Are you the actor?” I asked him.

“Yes.”

“Well it’s very nice to meet you. I’ve very much enjoyed your work.”

“Thank you. And thank you for paying my rent,” he said, and then let out a big and sincere booming laugh that I couldn’t help but share with him.

Our business together was finished quickly. I stamped his documents and handed them back to him or the airline employee who was escorting him. He thanked me, said, “God bless you.” And then was on his way. It was an encounter that changed my mood and brightened my whole day, and is one of the fondest memories I have of working at the airport.

Geoffrey Holder passed away recently from complications attributed to pneumonia. He was 84 years old. He was remembered for his many contributions to the stage and screen; Broadway theaters dimmed their lights in his memory.

New York is packed with celebrities, and the cool thing to do is pretend to not notice them and then tell all your friends about seeing them later. I had many New York celebrity sightings before and since, but Geoffrey Holder will always be my favorite and best.

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