Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Christopher Reeve And The Irony Of Celebrity

It was October of 1978. I was a third grader, infatuated with super heroes, comic books and afternoon cartoons. My friends and I split our playtime between baseball cards, superhero action figures and our Star Wars play-sets. Then came one of childhood's most memorable moments. The "big reveal."

Every Tuesday, our 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Meshenberg would hand out our Scholastic Weekly Reader newsletter. And in this particular issue, we were going to find out who was picked to play the title role of Superman in the upcoming big screen blockbuster. My friends and I had heard that more than 200 actors had been auditioned for the part. Some of us sat in the playground at recess guessing as to whether the man they picked would look like our comic book hero. And then finally, the moment arrived. Mrs. Meshenberg opened the package of the folded newsletter and handed out a stack to the first person in each row. As the Weekly Readers made their way back, you could hear the turn of the page and the oohs and ahhs of our classmates. The name Christopher Reeve had been purely anonymous to us up to this moment. But that muscular man in the blue spandex and red cape flying over the NY skyline pictured in the center-spread of our newsletter was absolutely perfect. He had the hair, the face, those blue eyes. We were mesmerized.

I carefully packed up my Scholastic newsletter and brought it home for the first and only time. That night I grabbed a scotch tape dispenser from my Dad's desk, unfolded the 2-page spread and carefully hung the mini-poster on my bedroom wall, opposite my bed and just beneath my window. It would hang there for more than a decade, one of the proudest souvenirs of my childhood.

A few months later, my parents took me to see the first Superman movie. My heart was beating out of my chest with anticipation. The movie was loaded with award winning actors including Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman and Ned Beatty. None of them meant anything to me at the time, although Hackman was convincing and excellent as the wicked Lex Luther. But from that day forward, Christopher Reeve became permanently heroic in my life. There would be an excellent sequel a few years later, followed by a watered-down third film and then a train-wreck 4th one. I pretty much lost track after that, though I never stopped rooting for Christopher Reeve to remain a success... even when he seemed to have vanished from the public eye.

Flash forward to the spring of 1992. I was a senior, majoring in Communications at Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. This was one morning in March. A memo had been sent from the Theater department to the Communications students, inviting us to join the Theater-Arts majors at a special assembly that afternoon in the Olmstead Theater. It happened that I would be free during that hour, though I was reluctant to give up my study-time for some random, unknown presentation. It was only at the urging of one of my favorite teachers, Professor Helen Stritzler, that I elected to pop in. Suffice to say, it is an hour I will never forget.

Christopher Reeve in 1992
Just after 1pm the overhead lights were dimmed, the stage lights went on and out to the podium walked my boyhood idol, Christopher Reeve. There were some audible gasps from the audience as he approached the microphone. Here was one of the most famous faces of our lifetime, standing just a few feet away, looking every bit as tall, robust and handsome as we remembered him from the big screen. And then he uttered the opening line that stunned the room: "Superman was the greatest thing to ever happen to me. But as an aspiring serious actor, it was also the worst."

He paused for dramatic effect and watched as jaws dropped collectively around the half-full theater. "I'm here to talk to you today about the subject of typecasting. It is one in which probably no one else is better versed."

Yes, Christopher Reeve, Superman, the face whose likeness had been turned into a million action figures, made an untold fortune and whose face stared at me from my bedroom wall for a decade was now right in front of me, explaining his "Superman curse." It was a shocking revelation that required clarification, which would soon be forthcoming.

Mr. Reeve told us that the first Superman movie turned him from acting obscurity into an overnight superstar. He talked about the perks of fame, of being recognized on the street, signing autographs wherever he went and getting comped for meals at restaurants. "I was only paid $250,000 combined for those first two Superman movies. Didn't make me rich, but it sure put me on the map. I went from being an actor in training at Julliard to local theater to one of the biggest roles in movie history. It all happened so fast. Doesn't usually happen that way," he said matter-of-factly.

For continuity purposes, the first two Superman films were
shot consecutively, leaving Reeve little time to pursue other acting roles. But after the release of Superman II, he found that other parts were oddly hard to find. "My agent would send me to auditions and casting directors. And everywhere I heard the same thing. You're too clean, too perfect, too heroic to play this part. No one will buy into it with you being a superhero."

Christopher Reeve & Jane Seymour
He went on to explain how he tried to land roles that would enable him to distance himself from the ultra-good guy. A role in a low-budget romantic fantasy film, Somewhere In Time opposite Jane Seymour seemed to be the departure he was seeking. But an actor's union strike prevented him from promoting the film and it was in and out of the theaters in only 3 weeks. When other lead roles in movies eluded him, Reeve left Hollywood and moved to Boston, where he starred in a theatrical play. This led him to a role on Broadway in a production called The Fifth Of July. Reviewers praised his performance. For his next film role, Reeve managed to land the part of a homicidal playwright in the film, Death Trap. He said of that turn: "I wanted to play a morally ambiguous character who was neither clearly good nor clearly bad, someone to whom life is much more complex than the characters I've played previously." He earned praise for his portrayal, though again the movie proved another box office failure. And with few viable options for his next big opportunity, Reeve agreed to again don the spandex for another turn as the man of steel in Superman III.

Christopher Reeve and Richard Pryor in Superman III
"This time, the money was there. Well over a million dollars, plus merchandising royalties. It wasn't a great film, but it made me wealthy beyond my dreams. If I didn't still consider myself a serious actor, seeking a lead role in a big award caliber film, I probably could have quit right there and lived happily off the Superman money."

A number of smaller film roles kept him busy in the late 1980s, but none that earned him more than minor acclaim, and little financial reward. "I found most of the scripts they were sending me were poorly constructed heroic characters, and I felt the starring roles could easily be played by anyone with a strong physique. They didn't need me specifically, aside from my Superman persona." In an attempt to further distance himself from the hero role, Reeve accepted a shocking part, playing a vicious child molester in the TV movie, A Bump In The Night. He said of this performance: "I was sure that this one would finally drive the wedge between me and the Superman character. And critics thought I was great at it. Well, all except for TV Guide. The week that the movie aired, they ran this dreadful review saying: Who would ever believe that Superman could hurt a child? Purely sacrilegious and painful to watch. Can you imagine?"

There was an audible laugh in the room as he completed this story, though the look on his face seemed to indicate that he was seeking sympathy and not chuckles.

Toward the end of the presentation, Mr Reeve recounted an incident that had happened to him and his then girlfriend, Dana, in New York City. They had been picnicking in Central Park on a beautiful Sunday afternoon with the two children from Reeve's first marriage. "And then suddenly, out of nowhere, I hear this commotion in this distance. And here comes this man running in our direction at top speed, being chased by this older woman. As they got closer, I heard someone shout that the man had snatched her purse. Well, there was no way this woman was going to catch the guy, and here he was, running almost in a straight line right at me. My instinct kicked in and I jumped up, stood in the guy's path and did my best to tackle him to the grass. And sure enough, he did have the woman's
pocketbook over his shoulder. So I pinned him down and waited for the police to come and sort out the whole mess. Some people were clapping. A few might have recognized me. But honestly, I was just being a good Samaritan, nothing more. Anyway, the woman got her purse back and the guy got arrested. Oh, and someone just happened to snap my picture. And the next day, would you believe there I am on the front page of the New York Post, the Daily News and probably The Daily Planet, all with the same headline: SUPERMAN SAVES THE DAY. Even doing a good deed that anyone would have done, I somehow get linked right back to being the guy I tried so hard to get away from."

Christopher Reeve ended his lecture by taking a few questions from the audience. He then graciously offered to sign autographs for the students, given that the crowd was less than a hundred people. For a moment, I thought to myself that it would have been truly fantastic if I had known in advance that Mr. Reeve was going to be the surprise presenter that day. For sure I would have taken down that 1978 Scholastic Superman poster from my old childhood bedroom wall and... and after that speech he just gave about Superman and typecasting, there was absolutely no way I would have had the courage to ask him to sign it. In my imagination, he might have seen this as some form of career-blocking Kryptonite. 

Sadly, we all know how this story ends. On May 25, 1995, some four years after he visited my college, Christopher Reeve suffered a devastating spinal injury during an equestrian event. It left him paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of his life. But life didn't immediately end for Reeve with this tragic episode. A complicated surgery and months of rehabilitation enabled the actor the ability to speak again. And not long thereafter, he became an activist for Spinal Chord research, and later launched a foundation to raise funds in an effort to find a cure for paralysis. His movie career didn't end with this tragedy either. In 1996 he narrated an HBO documentary called, Without Pity. A year later he got to direct an HBO film called, In The Gloaming. And in 1998, Reeve starred in a remake of the Alfred
Hitchcock classic, Rear Window, for which he won a SAG award for Best Actor. 

Most ironically, the respect that had long eluded Christopher Reeve throughout his career as a healthy man due to the bias of his seemingly unbreakable Superman persona had finally arrived. And yet, no matter how much frustration Christopher Reeve expressed that day at the Olmstead theater about the perils of typecasting, undoubtedly he would have traded in all his post paralysis acclaim in an eyeblink to have continued a normal, healthy, awardless life, forever in the shadow of the man with the long red cape.

Poet Of The Wrong Generation by Lonnie Ostrow is now available in paperback and eBook format. CLICK HERE TO ORDER YOUR COPY.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Summertime Nostalgia At The Twin Towers

The Stage Between The Twin Towers at Austin J. Tobin Plaza

Writing a novel which takes place in the early 1990s in New York City had me frequently thinking back on what life was like in that not-so-long ago era. It’s remarkable how much things have changed in a relatively short time period. Not just the skyline, the ballparks and the presence of Uber cabs on every street. For as sophisticated as the big city is, our existence was notably simpler back then. Email was in its infancy. Amazon was solely a desert without prime customers. Wi-Fi was not yet a concept (let alone a civic requirement). Security was far less of a presence. And you didn’t have sidewalks cluttered with distracted pedestrians checking their phones and texting their friends persistently.
          One of the simple joys that I recall both with fondness and a tinge of melancholy is a summertime ritual lost to time and terror. From 1987 – 2001, thousands of downtown workers would gather each week at Austin J. Tobin Plaza during their lunch hour for a series of free concerts. Tobin Plaza served as a park, performance venue, and crowd-funneling area in the open space directly between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. It was the ideal spot in lower Manhattan to entertain a large mid-day crowd.
          I’ll never forget the pure joy of escaping work for an hour on a warm day to grab a Frozefruit bar and join thousands of fellow New Yorkers for a free lunchtime concert by some of rock & roll’s legendary names.
          I first learned about the summer concert series from my late cousin, Michael Greenberg, who worked most of his adult life in lower Manhattan. It was June of 1995. I’d been employed a few months at a direct mail agency down on Hudson Street. Mike, who had been working just blocks from the Trade Center, often met me for lunch when the weather cooperated. We’d regularly wander the neighborhood, shopping for CDs at Tower Records, or duck inside the basement of the Century 21 department store.

          Like me, Mike was an aficionado of classic rock & roll. He and I attended many memorable concerts together. Through his broker “friends,” he’d often manage to score us tickets to some of the most in-demand shows including Paul McCartney in ‘89 at Giants Stadium and Fleetwood Mac with Squeeze at Jones Beach in 1990. But by the summer of ‘95, work had mostly overtaken play. And in my case, office life was exceptionally demanding.
          The job I had interviewed for was an assistant accounts manager, helping with the subscriber renewal campaigns for some popular magazines. I was hired at a low salary, trained by my supervisor for two weeks, then handed over the full responsibility of these clients when she departed ten days later for something more lucrative. My employer offered me none of the compensation, or perks of my predecessor. He even continued to refer to me as an “assistant” to justify the entry-level pay. It was delightful.
            The one perk that I was sure to make full usage of was my one-hour lunch break. Each day around 12:30, I’d forward my phone line to an answering machine (this was the pre-voicemail days) and step out to grab some fresh air and a sandwich. I’d even found a favorite pizza hangout down on Chambers Street, near Broadway.
          Personal calls at work were more difficult to manage in the era before cell-phones. Still, Mike and I did touch base regularly, usually late in the day to chat about last night’s ballgame, or a recent family gathering. Then came that Wednesday morning call in early July. “Hey Lonnie, come on down at the Trade Center at noon. Peter Noone and Herman’s Hermits are doing a free show.”
          We met up at the bustling curb just before Tobin Plaza. Mike knew we weren’t likely to get much closer for a popular attraction on a sunny afternoon. I’m not quite sure how we managed to find each other in the crowd without cell phones or GPS. Yet somehow, this is exactly what people did over the centuries that proceeded today’s technology. We each bought a snack from the Good Humor truck on the corner, then maneuvered about halfway through the crowd toward the stage area.

          What I best remember about these summer concerts is the incredible backdrop that the towers provided. Each Wednesday, another musical star of the 1960s would play a free mini-concert on a wooden stage, framed by metal stanchion and draped with a huge rectangular banner for WCBS-FM, NY’s Oldies Station. At 12:15, the classic artist and his/her band would be introduced by a CBS-FM on-air personality, like Cousin Brucie or Norm N. Nite. The audio system was powerful enough for passerby’s to hear the music even a couple of blocks away. And the sight of the soaring steel and glass directly above the stage was dramatic, even breathtaking.
          Peter Noone’s free show was the first of many we would gather for that summer. The following week it was The Grass Roots, followed by Lesley Gore and later Felix Caveliere and the Rascals. Each week, the artist would perform a set of 6 – 8 of their best known tunes, sometimes interrupted by a lesser-known album track, or cover song. They would usually save their biggest hit for last, which resulted in a joyous sing-along. It’s My Party by Leslie Gore and Good Lovin’ by The Rascals had the crowd in whipped up in a frenzy. Midnight Confessions by the Grass Roots saw hundreds of New Yorkers playing their best air guitar and keyboards.
          One week in mid August, we headed to the towers for a show by The Association. Even as a listener of “oldies radio,” I didn’t recall the band’s name being terribly familiar. An overcast morning kept early crowds to a minimum. I met Mike at the iconic bronze Sphere sculpture right in the center of the plaza. We were fortunate enough to get just steps away from the stage; the closest we had gotten for any of the shows. To our utter amazement, The Association were fabulous. For 45 minutes they played hit after hit (Along Came Mary, Cherish, Windy, Never My Love), as the crowd swelled in numbers and volume. So good were they that the group was urged on to play an unscheduled encore. It was the only time we witnessed something so spontaneous at one of these tightly scripted performances.

One convenient aspect of the summertime shows was that each artist actually played an identical set both at 12:15, and then again at 1:15. Latecomers who caught the tail end of the early performance could hang around and see the balance of the show after a 15 minute intermission. This format worked wonderfully for artists with a solid catalog of hits. Then there was Chubby Checker.
 It was a beautiful August afternoon when Mr. Checker took the stage between the towers for his summertime spotlight. A strong crowd filled ¾ of the standing room on the plaza. And things got off to a roaring start with his biggest song, The Twist. Hundreds of New Yorkers were clapping and swiveling their hips. Next came his follow-up hit, Lets Twist Again, also fondly received. And then… the singer – apparently short on worthwhile material - elected to repeat the same two songs twice more. And this just to round out the opening set! A good portion of the early crowd left, looking perplexed during the first repeat. Later arrivals headed for the exit after the second duplication, leaving just a handful of spectators to take in the 1:15 show. The confused faces of the departing fans summarized the shortcoming of this sometimes limited format. Especially when the headliner was a legendary two-hit wonder.
Davy Jones of The Monkees at the World Trade Center

          The biggest crowd that summer at the Trade Center was for a concert by Mickey Dolenz and Davy Jones of The Monkees. Mike and I arrived at 12:10 to find the audience stretched all the way out onto West Street. Getting anywhere near the vicinity of the stage was a pipedream. But from our vantage point at the curb, we were at least able to hear the full performance and the roar of an adoring 6,000 fans. That didn’t even include the hundreds of workers watching through the glass inside the north tower. Monkey-mania was still very much alive in the summer of ’95.
Back in 1995, cell phones were not as commonplace, or as sophisticated as we now know them to be. As a result, few photos and even fewer videos exist of these magical summer freebies. One would have had to have owned a bulky camcorder and been close enough to the stage to pick up both the audio and video of the show. Only a handful of YouTube clips have surfaced.
By the next summer, I had been firmly ensconced in a new job up on west 34th Street. Lunch-breaks were infrequent at best. And the Trade Center was now a good 25 minute commute. Mike still worked downtown and would often call me to meet him for the ’96 concert season. He mailed me a tri-fold pamphlet (which I still keep to this day) listing all the shows including Opera Mondays, Swinging Tuesdays, Jazz Wednesdays, and Country Fridays. But only Oldies Thursdays held any appeal to us. Just once was I able to escape work that summer. And that was to see a revamped lineup of The Mamas and the Papas featuring Papa John Phillips and a trio of non-original members. Uninspiring as the performance was, it was still great to bond with Mike and get away from my desk for a mini-summer vacation. Hard to believe that this would be my last time standing in the formidable shadow of the soaring Twin Towers.
The summer concert series continued to draw large lunchtime audiences right up to the tragic morning of 9/11. An afternoon show had been scheduled there for that very day. One which would obviously never be played.

When I gaze upon the skyline of lower Manhattan today, my heart aches for what is no longer there, rather than to admire the structure that stands in its place. So much of our youth, our past and our history was robbed from us on that fateful September Tuesday morning. That and the lives of nearly 3,000 New Yorkers, some of whom I likely rubbed shoulders with down on Austin J. Tobin Plaza on those warm summer afternoons.
In spite of all of the unfathomable destruction from the 9/11 attacks, one singular landmark from Tobin Plaza remains mostly intact. The 25-foot tall bronze Sphere sculpture that served as a meeting-place for thirty years somehow emerged from the rubble of two collapsed skyscrapers with only some punctures, dents and scrapes. Today, it has been relocated to nearby Battery Park where it now stands next to an eternal flame as a memorial to everything and everyone we lost.
When I tell my daughters about what life was like in the early 90s, I get a quite an array of surprised reactions and eye-rolls. They find it hard to believe that society once functioned without wireless tablets, Instagram and streaming video. “You mean you didn’t get a cell phone until you were 33? How’s that possible?” It’s a foreign concept that they will never quite wrap their mind around. But when I share stories of my summer afternoons with Cousin Mike, catching free concerts at the foot of the old Twin Towers, I detect a gleam of comprehension. An appreciation and disappointment of a time and place that they will never get to visit outside of their imagination.
Quite an irony that a series of shows intended to celebrate an earlier yesteryear has now become my own nostalgia.
Poet Of The Wrong Generation by Lonnie Ostrow is now available in paperback and eBook format. CLICK HERE to order your copy.