Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Part 4 of "How I Learned to Love a Loincloth"

The Non Believer

“What’s this?”

“I don’t know.”

She continued gathering my costumes - the Caribbean woman whose job it was to gather the performers’ costumes. Man, did she really hate that job. I don’t blame her. All she did was clean, steam, and hand out a warehouse full of costumes to a bunch of wannabe actors, writers, and directors.

I stared at and examined the striped pajama top and bottoms. And then the large, furry, yellow head.

I lifted the ticket and read. “It says ‘Bananas In Pajamas’. Have you ever heard of them?”

Caribbean Woman shrugged.

“I really don’t know. I’ve never given this out to anyone. It’s brand new.”

I consulted with one of the company’s owners, and she explained that this was a popular children’s show in Great Britain called – unsurprisingly – “Bananas in Pajamas”, and that it now was gaining popularity in the U.S.

“What do they do? Or how do they act?” I asked.

“They’re just super silly characters with English accents. Just be goofy with an English accent and you’re golden.”

Excellent. I was to be a golden banana. With a really shitty fake, British accent.

I do remember this weekend being insanely hot, because prior to this show, I’d performed in *another “head costume” (costumes when you have to wear a fake head over your own. Most companies pay a little more for this type of costume. This one did not.) and downed two big bottles of water afterward, and was still thirsty. Quick theorem I developed:

San Fernando Valley + summer temperatures + head costumes = possible renal failure.

I can still picture the back yard of this house: Concrete deck, swimming pool, and not a damned sliver of shade. Not a single tree in sight. God dammit, that pool called to me with its siren song.

“’allo, kids! I’m a Banana in Pajamahhs! ‘ow are we doin’ this ahfternoon?” I announced as I entered the party, feeling 100% of the dipshit I must have appeared to be.

I inquired (or “enquired”, as I was British, you see) as to the birthday boy’s whereabouts, and I was quickly led to a toe-headed 4 year old in short pants, playing by the pool. I knelt beside him.

“’allo, birthday boy. An’ what’s yooor name?”

I saw two little eyes peer through the translucent eyes of my costume. There was a pause. Then:

“You’re not real.”

He said it just like that. “You’re. Not. Real.”, as though he had never been more certain of something before in his life. I’d like to believe I gave him his first opportunity to feel true pride. I panicked, hoping none of the others heard.

“Of COURSE I’m real! I’m ‘ere, aren’t I?” (I picture myself doing some sort of clod-hoppy, stupid, bouncing dance to prove I’m a real…whatever I was.)

He stood, looked me dead in the eyes (again, MY eyes, not the costume’s) and repeated himself, like the bad guy in an awful action movie:

“You. Aren’t. Real.”

Regardless of the sweltering temperatures, I broke into a cold sweat. What the fuck do I do? I have to spend an hour entertaining a kid and his friends who will probably utilize the time by trying to yank off my head and screaming, “Faker! Faker!”

Resigned to my fate, I decided that honesty would be my best course of action. I whispered:

“Okay, you’re right. I’m not real. You figured me out. But,” I paused and pointed to the group of his friends getting situated for my show, “THEY think I’m real. Can you keep a secret and help me make them believe?”

This was a major roll of the dice. If he understands my point, excellent, I have a clean slate and can start over. But if he can’t comprehend what I’m saying, or if he simply calls bullshit, I’m fucked. In the ass. With a banana. Wearing pajamas.

A crooked smile crept across his face.


He proceeded to grab my hand and lead me to the party goers, announcing that I was a REAL Banana in Pajamas, and that we were to do whatever I said.

I don’t recall how the rest of the show went, if I face-painted kids or opted for the crappy magic show, or if my kidneys shut down under the sweltering blanket of the sun, but I did learn that if you show a child respect, they might, just might, give it right back.

Or they could possibly tear off your head.

*I’ll let you in on a little secret: Those poor suckers you see in the head costumes? They can’t see SHIT. Especially tiny children that are knee to waist high. I’m sure I have trampled more children than Godzilla did Tokyo highrises.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Part 3 of "How I Learned To Love a Loincloth"

When “The Man” Comes To Town

Even if you’ve never visited, the phrase “South Central LA” probably puts a few drops of pee in your shorts.

Cue the, “Russ Has To Perform A Kid’s Birthday Party In South Central” theme music, please. Thank you.

To say that I was nervous would have been like comparing the tragedies of 9/11 to a blind date that ends with the two of you discovering that you’re cousins. I mean, yeah, gross, but at least you didn’t screw before figuring it out.

I remember pulling slowly into the neighborhood, searching for the address, wondering what the hell I was doing. Sixty bucks for an hour of work. THAT is what you’re doing my brain reminded me. You’ve learned to really like eating and having a roof above your head.

Stupid brain, always thinking.

I parked around the corner, as the house was in the center of the block, as I didn’t want to destroy the illusion. What illusion, you dare to ask? Let me tell you something:


Yes. There I was, in South Central LA, dressed in a bright blue and red, skin-tight unitard and cape, wandering up a side street. The outfit was complete down to the curl of hair on my forehead (ah, the “hair days”), as the birthday boy’s mother had informed me that her son was insistent that the REAL Superman had a curl on his forehead. A few scoops of hair product later, and I had the sassiest forehead hair curl seen since Shirley Temple.

Not a very macho comparison, I know, but my internet is down, and that’s all I’ve got.

The kids were at the far end of the driveway by the garage, in a moonbounce, jumping wildly and screaming. What the fuck do I do? I kept thinking as I peered around the corner of the house. If Superman can’t fly or throw a car, there’s nothing “super” about him. I can’t shoot lasers out of my eyes or see through shit. I don’t even work as a reporter at a major metropolitan newspaper. I’ll just be some stranger in tights at your birthday party…


“Kids!” I yelled, as I ambled up. “Hey, kids!”

Ten or so 5 year olds came running to me, as I kneeled, slumped at the end of the driveway, my cape over my shoulder.

“Superman! Superman!” came the concerned chorus of soprano voices rushing toward my heaving carcass.

“Superman, what’s WRONG?!?”

“It was…it was…Lex Luthor…he put kryptonite in my bag,” I grunted, holding out my duffel bag jammed with party paraphernalia.

Good ol’ brain. Always thinking.

“No!” they yelped in unison.

They assisted me to the back yard, where I continued to stumble and groan. One boy pointed at the curl of hair I’d created on my forehead and screeched, “It IS him! It’s him!” The birthday boy had bought it. I was in. Because, as I’d been learning, if the birthday child believes you’re the real deal, everyone falls in line.

Once the kids had “helped” me regain some of my strength, I asked if they’d like to play some games with me, since I can’t do my normal show of lifting cars and bending pipes (and seeing through their mom’s skirts). An enthusiastic roar leapt from their tiny mouths, and I proceeded to have one of the single most fun children’s parties of my short career.

They were captivated. Entranced. Eager to have a super hero paint their faces like a kitty, or Spiderman, or whatever – as long as SUPERMAN was drawing it, it didn’t matter.

Sixty minutes later, after wrapping up, I revealed that their having such fun really helped me regain some of my powers. I couldn’t quite yet fly, but I told them that I’d walk for a few blocks and give it a shot, and that they should watch for me in the sky in a few minutes.

As I walked more confidently (and more “Supermanly”) away, I thanked them, and that tiny chorus of voices all coalesced, yelping and screaming their goodbyes.

Dropping my bag in my trunk, I took a mental photo of the moment: The boarded up houses, the dried out lawns, stray mattresses on the corners, the general disarray of the neighborhood, and I remember thinking how much that single hour likely meant to that group of little boys. Even now, as I type this, touching those memories, I’m filled with emotion.

And I do believe in my heart, at least one of those kids was positive he saw a red caped figure flying above South Central that sunny afternoon.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Installation # Deuce

Los Angeles County – the area that the kid’s party company served – splays across Southern California for a staggering 498.3 square miles like a giant, polluted amoeba. This is slightly less than half the size of the entire state of Rhode Island. I’ve been to Rhode Island. It isn’t paradise (no offense R.I-ers, but c’mon…), but I’d rather spend a lifetime beneath an overpass in Rhode Island than try to cover the entirety of LA County in a single day by car. Which was expected of us. Regularly.

My 1971 VW Beetle was a $2,000 cash purchase, one that to this very day, I proudly crow about. It was in excellent mechanical and physical shape (come to think of it, back then, so was I). Each Thursday, I’d ritualistically putter over to the children’s party’s offices, pick up that weekend’s costumes, receive my marching orders (packets done up with the parents’/kid’s info), stuff the costumes (ranging from Batman, to a Power Ranger, to once, some kind of evil, menacing dinosaur that terrified every child I approached) into my trunk, and head back home to contact the parents.

Being the days pre-GPS, or even Mapquest or Google maps, or any other variety of online mapping system that leads drivers down the wrong direction of one way streets, I had to get in actual touch with my contacts to receive directions. I would then pull out my *Thomas Guide and begin the long process of figuring out whatever the hell a Laguna Nigel is, and how to get there from Pomona, wherever the hell that was. Depending on the number of parties stuffed into a weekend - a Saturday could sometimes be a 14 hour day - and the logistics of the locations, this mapping could take upwards of 2 hours.

To be fair, once we were asked to drive outside 20 miles of the immediate Los Angeles area, service charges were tacked on, in increments of $5, starting at 20 bucks. On a busy day with a shit-ton of driving, I could rake in 60 or more extra greenbacks. The strain of trying to navigate to these exotic locales, coupled with the stress of sitting in LA traffic, usually meant that money was to be spent on single malt scotch for that night, enjoyed while *sitting in my apartment, dazed, on the floor.

* A massive, detailed map of all of Los Angeles County. They are seriously about 800 pages thick. And nearly everyone's has the same tattered, fucked up pages (page 532 rings a bell).

*No one likes to see a drunken Batman.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

My life as a children's show character, or, "How I Learned to Love a Loincloth"

Having grown up in suburban Chicago, circa 1975-1983, the timeframe when birthday parties seemed to matter most to me (save for the unavoidable liver destruction on my 21st and the thrill of purchasing an arsenal of handguns on number 18), birthday celebrations usually involved a group of sugar-wasted preteens running around a back yard, pausing only to shove squares of cheap sheet cake in our yowling mouths, only then to return to chasing one another and maybe, MAYBE, if the family was “rich” enough (in my case, this would be my best friend Timmy Mace’s parents. Looking back, the term “rich” meant they could afford to build a two room addition on their tiny, two bedroom house), we children might receive a little goodie bag, filled with more multi-colored sugary products, to help us come down from our respective highs until we faded like a lightbulb being smashed by a ballpeen hammer.

On my 5th birthday, Mom and Dad pulled out all stops and treated me and a small group of friends to a celebration at McDonald’s. This was pre-playland McDonald’s, so we were relegated to a large booth, enjoying such celebratory activities as “Squirming Around” and the ever-popular childhood game, “Being Good”.

And that was it.

Flash forward: Late summer of 1998, my friend Todd and I trucked his, my, and my then-wife’s belongings cross-country from Nashville to Los Angeles. Following a grueling 6 WHOLE weeks in our new city, I was shocked to find that my writing career wasn’t panning out the way I’d planned. Which is to say, no one knew that I existed. This is a phenomenon that is almost solely reserved to a move to LA in pursuit of a creative career: The more insulated you are, feelings grow that range between, “Oh shit, was this a major fucking mistake?” to, “Um, HELLO! I’M HERE! WHERE’S MY MOVIE DEAL?

In Southern California, as in space, no one can hear you scream.

A close friend of mine had displaced himself in Hollywood about a year prior and told me that on weekends, he’d bring in a fairly decent payday, for a mere 2 days per weekend, performing at children’s birthday parties. He regaled me with tales of hilarity: How he once purchased a six pack of beer dressed as Wolverine from X-Men and told the two kids behind him in line: “Remember: Wolverine says, ‘Don’t drink and drive’!”

Hungry for fame, and even more so, food, Todd and I signed up at the kid’s party company which consisted of 2 days of training (“How to Play ‘Parachute’”, and a handful of magic tricks a blind duck could figure out) and finally, at long last, an AUDITION.

Yes, welcome to Los Angeles, where the opportunity to make balloon poodles for a gaggle of three year olds requires an audition.

Thankfully, I was notified after my audition (which was comprised of each of we – the auditioners- doing a kids party WITH one another. That was a looong afternoon of adults face painting one another) that I was “qualified” and therefore, put in active duty. I use military terminology to describe the following 6 months because that’s what I was getting myself into: A full blown, fall-of-Saigon-style-finish war. My enemy? They stood 3 to 4 feet, blinked eyes filled with pie-plate-sized innocence, and were duly trained in the art of the stealth thigh-bite, the ankle-kick, and the cock-punch.

to be continued...