L.A. (Confidentially)

Last year, in the summer of 2015, my wife Sara and I sat down and had a very serious discussion about my moving out of the house.

Couple TalkingTo be clear, we were getting along just fine. The prospect of packing my bags had nothing to do with the stability of our marriage. Instead, it had to do with work.

See, I’m an actor. And I’ve been an actor, (mostly on stage, but sometimes on the little screen), for over 25 years.

But I’ll be honest with you:  Almost ever time someone has asked me what I do, what I am, and I reply “I’m an actor,” I’ve felt like a fraud.

FraudNot because I don’t think I am undeserving of the title, necessarily. And not because I don’t think I’m any good at it. (Actually, when it comes to my ability, I’ve got a healthier ego than most. I always say: If you don’t think you’re good at what you do, quit and explore a new field. Like accounting. Or maybe macrame.)

No, the reason I’ve so often felt uncomfortable referring to myself as an actor is because, very simply: I have never been able to support myself financially in my chosen profession. And unless I’m making my living as an actor, (I told myself) I felt as if I wasn’t allowed to refer to myself as such.actor_waiter_director_la_la_land_hat-p233286373579298250bch2e_512

Pay your bills with you acting wages? Congratulations. You’re an actor.

But act for nothing, or for chicken-scratch, or simply for the pure joy of performing?

You’re not an “actor.” No, in the second scenario, acting is your hobby. Instead, you’re a paralegal. Or a waiter. Or a secretary. Or whatever else you do to earn your daily bread.

ActorWhat are you, at the end of the day? Well, I used to think: You are what you get paid to do and nothing more.

But that simply isn’t so. As Kurt Vonnegut so wisely put it: You are what you pretend to be. So be careful what you pretend to be.

Me? I’m an actor. A professional, card-carrying actor. And I’ve got the scars to prove it.

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Career-wise, though, as I discussed it with my wife, it became clear that things were not where Sara and I had hoped to be at this point in our lives. When you work as long and as hard in this business as I have, you begin to dream that one day, someone will tap you on the shoulder and say :

old-school-dues-paid-tattoos-on-fingers“Hey there.  You remember those ‘dues’ you were supposed to pay before making it big? Well congratulations! You’ve paid them! Yes, we checked our records and it turns out that you’re all paid up and, consequently, it is finally your turn, Mr. Theis, to be a big, fat star! Well done!”

You then get escorted to the limo, handed the keys to the beautiful new house and you begin work on your new sitcom “That Hilarious Fellow” (or, alternatively, the crime drama “This Truculent Gent.”)

House and Keys in Female Hands

Then all your financial and career worries blow away, your bank account swells, the offers roll in and, in short, you’re artistically fulfilled and happy forever, amen.

Yeah, that never happened.

So, consequently, there we were, Sara and I, talking about the future.

We kicked it around for awhile and finally agreed that at this stage in my acting career, it would (or might) be a good idea for me to, at long last, test the waters in Los Angeles.

Wile_E_Coyote_300“So why now?” you may be asking.  (You may also be asking “Who cares?” or thinking “I’m hungry.” I really have no idea.)

Anyway, here’s why now:  In Chicago, I had begun to feel (and had been for some time, really) that I had been spinning my wheels.

That’s not to say I wasn’t working.  Hell, I was working all the time.  I would estimate that, for each of the past twenty years, I had been lucky enough to land three, sometimes four, occasionally five shows. Every year. That’s pretty cool, looking back on it.

OPFT_logo_redcircleFINALAnd, being a moderately smart cookie, I had also managed to become affiliated with two separate theatres – one in an Artistic Associate capacity (Oak Park Festival Theatre) and the other as an ensemble member (Irish Theatre of Chicago,née Seanachai Theatre Co.).

What this meant was that, first, I would be able to work for – and contribute to the betterment of – two companies I truly believed in as an artist. But it also meant that I would be under consideration for at least two, sometimes three shows a year just from these two theatres alone. Nothing guaranteed, but I knew I would be in the running for whatever they were putting together that year. Which is also pretty cool, right?Irish-Theatre-of-Chicago-logo

And it has worked out just about as well as can be expected.  As far as theatre work went, I have been extremely lucky over the years, no question about it. Between Festival Theatre and the ITC alone, I had played some of the greatest roles ever written for any actor on any stage.

Richard IIIIn the past ten years, I’ve played the title role in “Richard III,” Mr. Lockhart in “The Seafarer,” Benedick in “Much Ado,” Salieri in “Amadeus,” George in “Of Mice and Men,” and a laundry list of other amazing parts.

As if that embarrassment of riches wasn’t enough, I had also been given the chance to direct at least four shows each for both Festival Theatre and ITC, and a couple dozen others with some of the best companies in town, including Lifeline Theatre, City Lit, Buffalo Theatre, greasy joan and co. and CT20 Ensemble (the latter of which was a company my college friends and I founded which flourished briefly in the mid-nineties. The company died a merciful death in 1998 and we scattered its remains over Wrigley Field.)Fair-Maid-2-1024x687

Add to that the voice-over work, the live radio broadcasts, the occasional writing project, readings, fundraisers, etc. etc.

Oh, but that’s not all! I also have the love and support of a terrific team of agents, too. I am represented by the fine folks at the Grossman & Jack Talent agency and I dearly love them all. As I have previously attested, they have stood by me through good times and bad,grossmanjack continuing to submit me for auditions even when I had gone months without a booking. (That is the hallmark of a great agency- they have unwavering faith in their clients.)

So, by almost any measure, I was doing just fine. Steady work, artistic challenges, first-rate colleagues and good representation.

Naturally, I had to get away from all that, right?

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Okay, here’s what happened:  I had hit some kind of ceiling. Banged my fool head right up against it.Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 7.21.16 AM

Sure, I was working a lot. That wasn’t the issue. When I say that I was “spinning my wheels” I’m talking instead about advancement.

And as far as advancement went, there wasn’t a whole lot going on. I was running hard. But I was standing still.

I had my Equity card…but I couldn’t get work in any of the largest Equity houses. (Seven years of “Christmas Carol” at the Goodman notwithstanding.)

I was very often going from show to show to show without a break…but I couldn’t make enough money from any theatre job (or string of them) to even once cover the cost of my mortgage (much less the rest of my expenses).

mr incredibleI was an actor, yes…but I made my daily bread in an office, working at a computer monitor and not, as the goal had always been, from the sweat of my artistic brow.

But there was another factor that was contributing to the idea of a move to L.A.:

The beard. (I’m only half-kidding about that).

In the summer of 2012, when I was getting ready to play Richard III, I decided to grow a beard. No big deal, right? Some whiskers. Not exactly Dylan going electric, news-wise, was it?

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 6.40.09 PM

Richard “Dick” Cop

Except…about two minutes after I grew it, I got booked on my first network TV show. Then, a couple of months later, I booked another one. Then a short film. Then, the following spring, another network show.  For those of you counting, that’s three television shows and a movie. For a guy who, up until that time, had assumed he was a vampire and that his image could not be captured on film.

So, all of a sudden…I had a video acting reel. (And a good one, too.)

Oh, and the beard? That wasn’t going anywhere.

The bad news? Well, I had now been on three of the four shows they were shooting in town- “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago PD” and “Betrayal.” And for some reason,  try as I might, I couldn’t seem to convince anyone that I would be a great candidate to appear on “Empire.” (I can be urban, dammit.)Chicago_Franchises_embed

So my burgeoning network TV career appeared to be over. Because those were all the shows that anyone was shooting. Anywhere in Chicago.

But then- a miracle! The Dick Wolf universe was set to expand and two more shows were announced to begin filming in town- “Chicago Justice” and “Chicago Med.”

Excellent.

Until…I discovered that because I had appeared on two of the other shows in the “Chicago” pantheon (“Fire” and “PD”), I couldn’t audition for either of the others for two years.

Super.  Back to square one.

Unless.

stockexpert

Sara and I- after flirting with the idea for over a year- began to seriously discuss the idea of giving L.A. a shot. All signs seemed to point to giving the mythical “pilot season” a go.

After all, I had been unhappy with my day job for what seemed like forever. Not because of the work, necessarily (I liked my co-workers just fine and was paid a more-than-decent salary), but there was no denying it: every day I spent in the office was a day I wasn’t doing what I felt I had been born to do.

And yes, the fact that I turned fifty last year might have had something to do with the sudden urgency of this plan, sure. I mean, I didn’t necessarily feel old.  It’s more the fact that the dues- those famous show business dues- felt paid several times over.

placeholder_hollywoodSo after a long gestation, wherein we addressed the pitfalls and the potential rewards of the move, we finally made the call.

I was going to Hollywood!

It wasn’t going to be easy. We would need to prepare. I needed to get into shape, nail down some new headshots, save up all my nickels and dimes, find a place to live on the coast, figure out a way to part amicably with my employers, try and set up some representation in L.A. all the while politely explaining to my Chicago agents that I was blowing town, no hard feelings.

All told, it took about a year.

checklistAnd now, as I head back to Chicago- my live-blogged mid-life crisis finally coming to an end- I am faced with the task of assessing whether or not the entire enterprise- from idea to execution- was a worthwhile endeavor.

Objectively speaking, I think most people would agree, it went better than expected.

Within two weeks, I had a voice-over agent and have auditioned regularly for them ever since. Within five weeks, I had an on-camera agent who began submitting me regularly as well. Everything I had been hoping for and more.

Then, all on my own, I booked and shot a short film. Soon afterwards, writing on deadline, I completed a play that I’ve been playing with, off and on, for the past two years.

In my free few seconds, I honed routines for my new career as a stand-up comic and- after a spur of the moment audition- was actually hired to perform at one of the city’s largest clubs.

audiobooksThen, having been given a peek at the lucrative world of recorded books, I nailed down partnerships with two audiobook companies in a week, both of whom agreed to add me to their respective databases.

Soon after that, I even managed to get hired to tape two actual audiobooks (and recorded both in a single sitting).

downtown-los-angeles-skyline-cloudy-dayPlus, all the while, I made sure to take the time to try and get to know this strange, legendary city. Not just the tourist sights (though I’ve taken those in as well), but the small theatre scene, the comedy clubs, the mind-boggling transportation challenges and natural beauty of the city, as well as the urban history that shaped this town into the world-class metropolis that it has become.

And in addition to all of that, I also managed to reconnect with dozens of old college friends and former Chicago colleagues who have, over the years, come to call Los Angeles their home. Each of them had offered to help me out in any way they could, sometimes with a kind word, sometimes with a recommendation or a hot meal, but never with anything less than encouragement and unwavering support.

So those, I believe, are all the positive things that have happened since I arrived here twelve weeks ago.

deniedOn the negative side, I was- frustratingly- never able to achieve my one, elusive, final goal: an actual network or feature film audition. I had been submitted for plenty of them by my new agent, but had not been given the chance to read even once. As an unknown quantity in a town full of known quantities, I finally realized that to get called in by casting agents to audition for these types of jobs, I would need to be here for a lot longer than the brief time I had allotted for myself.

Also:  While I had recorded and electronically submitted dozens of voice-over auditions to my new VO agent, none them- not one- had resulted in a booking. Not so great there, either.

handshake_with_the_devil_crop380wIn addition, (though mainly out of curiosity) I had wasted my time and money attending this city’s greatest shame: the casting workshops that have become so controversial over the past few years. I had followed advice that I knew to be bad and, worst of all, had not trusted my own instincts, which had told me that it was a deplorable practice and should be avoided.

Lesson learned.

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But, I’ll tell ya.

In the end, if you want the truth, it all seems worth it.  I’ve learned so much since my arrival- about this city and this business- that I wouldn’t change a thing that happened.

person-thinking-rfWell, I probably should have written more, but when is that not the case? (No one ever says, “Gee, I think I wrote too much this month.” Except maybe Stephen King.)

But apart from that, I can’t really say that this trip was anything less than a positive experience. Yeah, it’s missing the big, “wow” ending where, despite the odds, I manage to book a TV show in just three months but…to be honest? I think there are some people out there who would have killed me dead if I had pulled off that particular trick.

So I head back home, my future uncertain.

FutureWill financial considerations force me into a regular day job again, putting me right back where I was before?

Will my new, just-out-of-its-crib career in the audiobook field allow me to meet my expenses by just…talking?

And, the big question: After discussing it with my family upon my return…

…will we even stay in Chicago after this?

I mean to say:  How can you keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paris Hilton? (That may be the worst thing I have ever written. My apologies.)

All these questions, and many more, will be answered in the coming months.

Stay tuned.

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Before I officially sign off, I would like to personally thank each and all of you who chose to read this blog and go on this journey with me. It has meant more than you know to check my daily updates and see that a dozen, three dozen, a few hundred people have looked in on my progress, shared a post or two and taken the time to “like” and comment on one of these chapters.stock-thank-you

Being this far from my family- and spending more time alone than I’ve ever spent in my life- the experience of having this blog as a sort of lifeline to reach out to and communicate with all of my friends and loved ones so far away has been an incredible experience.

There are some additional folks to thank as well:

Primarily, my deepest appreciation goes to my three hosts on this trip:  Paul Stroili and Monica Kaiser (who housed me the first two months) and Ed Burgess (who put me up in March). Their generosity in opening their homes and lives to me has been a humbling and heartening experience. My sincerest and most heartfelt thanks to Paul, Monica and Ed. I will never be able to repay them for their boundless generosity.support-sign

Special mention should also be made of Adam Meredith and Shantelle Szyper (who I saw, perhaps, more than anyone else during the trip and who so often hosted me as a guest in their home), Michael A. Sheppard (who helped me land my wonderful agent, Orion Barnes, and never failed to come to my aid during the trip), Orion himself for laboring so hard to try and get me work, Chuck Constant for helping me so much with my audiobook work (and for allowing me access to his recording studio) and Vanessa Lanier (one of my Chicago VO agents who assisted me in getting my West coast VO representation).

To my other Los Angeles friends, who have fed me, squired me around town, recommended me to their agents and managers and generally made my stay in this city so memorable and fun:

Auditions-300x191Chet Grissom, Jasmine Ryan, James Sie, Douglas Wood, Jeff Eyres, Chris and Bill Rickett, Cat O’Connor, Tom Kelly, David and Caron Mellblom-Nishioka, Paul Sandberg, Renee Sicignano, Richard Courtney, Jim O’Heir, Gus Buktenica, Marc Vann, Warren Davis, Ben Carr, Sara Gorsky, Matthew Miller, Vanessa Gilbert, Jazmin Rangel, Amy Ludwig, Ann Noble, Kyle Gibson, Ellen and George Shannon, Erin Philpott, Sara Isaacson, Jamie Pacino, Michael Sterling, Andrew David James, Cindy Katz, Jeff Ahern, Debra Deyan, Celine Hoppe (and the rest of the crew and cast of “Double Dead,”), the Sins o’ the Flesh cast at the Nuart Theatre Rocky Horror show, Jeremy Aluma and Trudy Blair.

Lucky guy, having friends like that, aren’t I?

But most of all, and from the bottom of my heart, I need to thank my family. My father, brother, uncles, aunts and cousins, all of whom have given me their unwavering and invaluable support throughout the entire process.chicago-skyline

Finally, to my kids, Milo and Gwendolyn, and to my patient, strong, loving and generous partner in this life, my wife Sara. Thank you, my loves, for allowing me the opportunity to take this journey for sacrificing so much to allow it to happen. I am breathless at your confidence in me and so deeply grateful to have you in my life.

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And so, as this jaunt of mine comes to an end, it is time to see what’s around the next bend. What further adventures await?

Because if you haven’t figured it out by now, my friends:

This is just the beginning.

invading nirvana

 

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Rounding Third

As I head for home in a few days, I thought it best to try and summarize some of the few bits that I’ve overlooked from the past couple of weeks.

Yes, believe it or not, I’ve actually managed to leave some stuff out of this blog. And some of it was pretty wild, too.

So, to rectify things before I post the final “adios”missive, here are a few things that were left on the back-burner until today:

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OSCAR NIGHT

What a mess, huh? Not only was the show itself a snore, the attempts by the Academy to address the #OscarsSoWhite controversy were mostly so tone deaf and defensive that the jokes (what there were of them) fell absolutely flat.Oscars 2016

But that observation I could have given you from Chicago.

There is something fascinating about actually being in LA during Oscar season.  First of all, if you’re a union-card carrying actor, you get invited to all these special screenings and are given the chance to check out the movies’ stars at the various talkback sessions the studios arrange around town on certain nights.  As regular readers may recall, I got to see Alejandro Iñárritu and Leonardo DiCaprio at the Directors Guild screening of “The Revenant” a while back which was a lot of fun (even if the movie itself was a bit of a chore to sit through).Oscars

I had never seen a multi-million dollar movie star right before my very eyes, though, and I have to admit: there was a certain “say, I’m really, really close to this guy” fascination.  I was never, at any point, within a hundred yards of ol’ Leo but…there was something about being in the same room, hearing him talk live and, OMG, breathing the same are as Leo that was…

…not nearly as OMG as you might think. But it was still a lot of fun.

Oscar VillageActually, the most interesting thing about the lead-up to the Big Night is that the neighborhood surrounding Hollywood Boulevard, which is where the Dolby Theatre is located, goes on high alert as they get closer and closer to the ceremony. First the street is shut down completely to allow for the creation of “Oscar village” (the bleachers and the gigantic red carpet area in front of the theatre).

 

Terminators

Then, a week before the show, security kicks into high gear and they lock down the entire neighborhood around the Dolby.  Security guards, bomb-sniffing dogs, drones and Terminators roam the streets, trying to suss out bad guys. Try to get near the Dolby in the days leading up to Oscar Night and you wind up bound and gagged in the Academy jail, forced to watch Adam Sandler’s entire oeuvre, just to teach you a valuable lesson.

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

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FOREST LAWN

Yeah, that’s right. More dead people.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I went to my second big Hollywood cemetery about a week or so ago and was really struck by the difference between the Forest Lawn and Hollywood Forever graveyards.

For one thing, Hollywood Forever seems to encourage visits from tourists. They have a flower shop that offers you $5 maps of the stars’ graves and the folks who run Hollywood Forever appear to revel in the fact that they’ve got so many celebrities planted there.

George&Gracie(Large-Ron)Not so at Forest Lawn. No helpful map for you there. In fact, most of the big stars interred on the grounds are in private graves behind large, insurmountable walls or in backroom mausoleums that the public is prevented from visiting.

You want to see Humphrey Bogart, Mary Pickford or Clark Gable? Let’s see some ID, pal. And you’d better be related.

The public graves, though (there’s an odd expression for you) are impressive enough.  I paid a visit to Gracie Allen and George Burns, Nat King Cole, Jeannette McDonald, Casey Stengle, Jean Hersholt, Walt Disney (who I mistakenly thought was frozen somewhere- or maybe that’s what they want me to think), Red Skelton, Alan Ladd and Philip K. Wrigley, for example.Tracy

But, most of all, it was truly an honor to stop by and pay my respects to Errol Flynn, Jimmy Stewart, Marie Dressler and Spencer Tracy (at whose grave people leave small tokens of appreciation).

DavidAlso, for some reason, the grounds of Forest Lawn have, scattered about, a complete collection of Michelangelo statue replicas. David, the Pieta, Moses, all of them. And not tiny versions, either.  As big as the originals.  Bizarre.

And that about cured me for cemeteries.  I mean, there’s stalking and then….

…there’s night stalking.

From here on in, I stick with the living.

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FORMOSA CAFE

I am a sucker for a great bar and one of my favorite watering holes in Los Angeles is, without question, the Formosa Cafe.

formosaA true throwback to the Golden Age of Hollywood, the Formosa is located bang on the Southeast corner of Santa Monica and (if you can believe it) Formosa Avenue.

Apparently unchanged since it was first opened up in 1925, the Formosa is, despite its long history and tourist appeal, a real bar.  Booths line the windows, but you wouldn’t catch me at one of those.  I plopped down on a barstool both times I was there (yes, I went twice) and just sat there soaking up the history. (And the house IPA, of course.)

Formosa 2I was in good company.  Bogart, Gable, Sinatra…they all wet their whistles at the Formosa and the stars’ pictures, naturally, line the walls.

The bar has two TV’s going, as most bars do but…at the Formosa, one television carries the current scores from the latest all-sports-all-the-time channel, and the other…

…plays classic movies.  The first time I was there- “Victor/Victoria.” The second time? “Lust for Life.”

The Formosa has excellent taste in films.

Oh, and it is also the setting for one of my favorite scenes in L.A. Confidential, in which Lieutenant Exley confronts Johnny Stompanato with who (he thinks) is a hooker cut to look like Lana Turner. (You can watch the scene here.)

So…visit to the Formosa: check.

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LAKE HOLLYWOOD

Just below the Hollywood sign, snuggled in between the opulent Hollywood Hills, is a reservoir commonly known as Lake Hollywood.

Hollywood_Reservoir_1928Created when the Mulholland Dam was constructed in 1924, Lake Hollywood is an important source of water for a good many LA residents but, more importantly…it is simply a beautiful body of water tucked away in the hills and, not incidentally, a terrific place for a run.

The path around the reservoir is itself a bit odd as, to protect the reservoir, the city has constructed a fifteen-foot tall fence that rings the lake, complete with razor wire strung across the top, so it is a little like running around a prison with a lake inside it.

Mulholland DamNo matter. It was still lovely to run around. It helps that the trail encircling the lake, at 3.5 miles, is just the right distance for an easy afternoon trot. Standing on halfway point in the center of the dam, you can look one direction and see the Hollywood sign towering over you and reflected in the water below.  And then, if you do an about-face, you get this beautiful view of Hollywood itself, stretching away in the distance.

The best part: due to its remote location and lack of accessibility by car, there’s almost no tourists there.

Paradise.

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BOB’S BIG BOY

Remember how my dear friend Chuck Constant came to my rescue and let me use his home recording studio to tape my audiobooks a couple of weeks ago?

DSC02092Well, I offered to treat Chuck to a lovely meal out on the town and, when the big day finally came, he chose, as our celebratory eatery…the original Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank.

Apart from being wonderfully alliterative (“Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank!”), it seemed like an odd choice…right up until the moment that I bit into a double-decker Big Boy combo. Then it all made sense.

Everything about this particular Bob’s Big Boy is a throwback to a distant era. The towering sign. The iconic statue of the mildly flirtatious “Big Boy” himself out front. The 40’s style architecture outside and the 50’s style diner seating inside.

DSC02091But that’s all smoke and mirrors if the food isn’t any good.  And…oh, my. One of the best burgers I’ve ever dispatched and, I’m proud to say, in record time.

Oh, and if you like classic cars, Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank proudly sponsors “Classic Car Night” every Friday in their parking lot.  And they have old-fashioned carhops zipping around the place, too!

Yowza, yowza, yowza!

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IN ‘N OUT BURGER

I know, I know.  More burgers, right?

In n outIn my defense, you cannot come to Los Angeles for a visit and not stop in to In N’ Out Burger at least once. And I managed to put off a visit for three months before finally giving in.

This being my last weekend, I finally let Cherry pilot me over to the Hollywood branch right around lunchtime, waded through the sea of hungry tourists and ordered up a #2 combo, cheeseburger and fries.

in n outNow, understand: I could have ordered off the “secret menu” at In N’ Out, (which comes in different varieties, actually), but the place was so jammed, I just opted for the traditional cheeseburger.  I did manage to avoid ordering the towering double-double (which, while probably fantastic, would have wiped out about three weeks of exercise) but I did not suffer. The cheeseburger was amaze-balls.

But.

Let’s be clear about something:  The In N Out fries suck. Just awful. I’m sorry.

Susie'sGreat burgers, yes. I’ll grant you that. But honestly, if you want the best fries in North America, you drive to Chicago, zip up to West Montrose and go to Susie’s Drive-Thru. And then you send me a thank-you note for turning you on to, seriously, the best fries in the continental U.S.

You’re welcome.

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THE MUSIC BOX STEPS

Rounding out my LA bucket list, I finally got around to visiting the world-famous Music Box Steps. Never heard of them? Let me explain.

Music Box 2In 1932, the already celebrated comic duo of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy created what many have called their cinematic masterpiece.  It is a 27 minute short entitled “The Music Box” (which you can watch by clicking this link) which was not only a smash hit film at the time, but also won the Academy Award in ’32 for Best Live Action Short Film.

Music Box StepsThe premise of the movie is that Laurel and Hardy are tasked with delivering a piano but…the destination of said piano is at the top of an enormous set of stairs.  They try pushing it up, it slides back down.  They try again but…

…well, if you’ve ever wondered if the myth of Sisyphus could be hilariously funny, the answer is yes.

800px-Music_Box_Steps_2010It just so happens that the stairs that Stan and Oliie made famous are still there, only now they are surrounded by houses and are graced with a little plaque at the bottom to commemorate the steps’ place in film history.

And seeing as how I went to visit the steps right after eating at In N Out burger, I thought it best to climb them.

Oy.

Stan? Ollie? I feel for ya, fellas.  Woof.

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There are few other sights in LA that I did not see. True, I never ate at Pink’s Hot Dogs (I was warned away by my Chicago friends who knew I would be appalled at their fare). I couldn’t go to Dodger Stadium (games don’t start until next week) and I skipped Disneyland.

hollywood_signOtherwise, I feel as if I’ve gotten the true LA experience.

Griffith Park, Venice Beach, the Santa Monica Pier, the Getty Center, Hollywood Forever, the Pacific Coast Highway, Downtown LA, the La Brea Tar Pits, the Grove, the Farmers Market, CBS Television City, Hollywood Boulevard…I’ve been all over this town in the past three months, seen all there was to see (and more) and would- upon reflection- happily do it all over again.

Maybe…you know…show the family around.

Just a thought.

She’s All That

Downtown Los Angeles is like the girl in the movie who is smart, funny and classy…but who never gets the guy because she’s just not as cute as the other girls.  Forget that she’s better read, more authentic, intelligent and hilarious. No, forget that.Daria

When she walks down the hall, nobody looks at her.  She’s in none of the “Top Ten” lists. She’s not the pretty one. She’s the sort of offbeat older sister that everyone looks past because….

…oh, my.

“Yeah.  I know,” she says. “No, no.  I understand, it’s fine.  You want to go out with my sister Hollywood?  Yeah, I get it.  No, I do. Everyone loves Hollywood. Why wouldn’t they? Hollywood is so cool, and so sexy and so thin with her perfect fucking teeth.  (Beat.) Nothing. I didn’t say anything. (Pause) No, I do. I understand. Of course you love Hollywood. Of course you do. (Pause) No, really.  I don’t mind if you ask her out.  (Beat.)  Go ahead.”

Downtown NowAnd so Downtown Los Angeles just sits at home, staring at the phone, wondering why it doesn’t ring more often…but really knowing exactly why.

Well.

I went on a date with Downtown Los Angeles last week and I’m here to tell all you single fellas out there:

You don’t know what you’re missing.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Over the years, Downtown LA has gone through some huge, landscape-shattering changes.

In the beginning, Downtown was- as the name implies- the center of the city.

LA TrainsCreated after the advent of the railroads, L.A. was among the first metropolitan cities in America to have far-flung suburbs connected to the city center by train and, by the 1920’s, had more train track mileage both in and around L.A. than there was in New York Flippin’ City.

That, my friends, is a lot of dang trains.

Accordingly, residents and businesses flooded into Downtown LA on the backs of both of the city’s municipal and private train lines.

Early LAAnd, unsurprisingly, as it grew in population and stature, Downtown LA naturally became the center of the area’s banking industry. And then the home of the area’s largest and most luxurious hotels. And it’s fanciest and best-kept department stores. And finest theatres. And biggest movie palaces.

Los Angeles was, in a very good way, blowing up.

In fact, by 1939, due to the dramatic expansion of the city’s business center and it’s steady influx of residents, the city was forced to fund and build the Los Angeles Union Passenger Line (or, as it is better known, Union Station) just to handle all the people zipping in and out of the city by train every day.

Downtown LA was the central hub of the entire West coast.

And she was gorgeous.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Then, something dramatic happened that knocked Downtown off her pedestal.

Los-Angeles-Suburbs-111215World War II. Tens of thousands of Southern California boys went off to war. And when they came home and wanted to marry their girlfriends and start manufacturing little Boomers in Southern California, they didn’t want to live in some dirty city.

No, they wanted…the suburbs.

The nice, safe, roomy, lawn-covered suburbs.

Suburbs!And so they started to move out of Downtown. They built houses nearby the city- or even a bit further out- and commuted into work by train.

When Los Angeles saw that so many of it’s residents had chosen to live so far away, it committed suicide by building highways to allow people to drive into the city faster.

Which meant that a lot more people bought cars.

FreewaysWhich meant more people moving out of Downtown because the commute was so easy.

Which led to the car and tire companies (this really happened!) buying and dismantling the public transportation system so that people would buy more cars and continue fleeing the city.

Which turned the Downtown mansions people had been living in into flophouses.

Which were demolished to make way for the parking garages needed to store all the cars people were driving in on the new highways.

Which necessitated more highways and…

…well, you can imagine where that led.

DemoFurther and further out from Downtown the city’s population spread. Until commuting Downtown stopped making sense.

And the businesses that used to be headquartered Downtown, well… most of them moved to the suburbs, too.  Cheaper rent, don’t you know.

And better, safer neighborhoods.

Soon, the theatres lost their luster.

And the hotels went bust, because people didn’t visit Downtown as much anymore.

Planting SkyscrapersWithin just a couple of decades, Downtown was a disaster. The people who used to live there had fled to the outskirts- up to Pasadena or out to Glendale, over to Santa Monica or to Larchmont or Hollywood. And those who remained were the lowest-income residents of the city.

Finally, in 1955, the city took action to recover from the blight and started knocking down the low-rent houses, making way for more skyscrapers. I guess they figured, “If people are just going to come down here to work, let’s just turn Downtown into a corporate mecca and let the people live somewhere else.”

Skid RowIt mostly worked. As the skyscrapers did, indeed, spring up all over the Downtown LA area, but…the low income residents just moved slightly to the East and created one of the nastiest little skid row neighborhoods in America. (It’s still there, by the way).

But in recent years, the people have started to creep back into Downtown to live, primarily because the prices in the rest of this town are so ridiculous and partly because of the many condominium conversions that happened to a lot of vacant office and commercial buildings.  Suddenly, they weren’t abandoned, vacant offices. They were spacious, affordable lofts. And people swarmed to buy them.Downtown Again

And the city fathers and mothers, being smart cookies, started investing more and more in the revitalization of Downtown and, unlike, say, Detroit…it actually worked.

The result? Downtown has seen a resurgence. And it is, today, a very cool place to both live and to visit.

Unfortunately, the rest of the world hasn’t really caught on yet.  Because…I mean…

…have you seen her sister Hollywood? Wow. Is she a cutie.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

My current roommate, Ed Burgess, is a walking encyclopedia on the history of Los Angeles. It’s just his way; he’s a curious person and likes to know the back story of wherever he happens to be living. So there was no better tour guide than Ed, who took me on a stroll through the Downtown area last Sunday.

MOCAWe started off by parking up on Bunker Hill and walking down to the Museum of Contemporary Art (or MOCA). On the way, we passed this huge, outdoor Greek-style theatre/fountain area called California Plaza, where they hold weekly concert performances in the summer. It looked like the perfect performance place for a production of Aristophanes “The Frogs,” actually. (Call me, Cal Plaza. I’ll do you a deal on the production.)Cal Plaza

We also passed a real Los Angeles curiosity known as Angels Flight. It is a sort of train/gondola thingy called a “funicular” that they built to scale Bunker Hill. A funicular is a cable car that rides up and down steep inclines and Angels Flight was, at one time, a very popular attraction.  Unfortunately, after shutting down after a fatal accident about a decade ago, the city has struggled to keep it open (it does not run these days but with any luck, someday will again).Angels

Then Ed and I made our way into MOCA to check out the contemporary LA arts scene and…holy moley.  What a fun collection. It was made even more enjoyable by the fact that I had not only a student of LA history on hand, but also an artist. I would step up and examine a painting or a sculpture at the museum and then, at my prompting, Ed would give me the history and/or provenance of the piece or point out how it was made and why. It was absolutely fascinating.

PollackThey had something from just about every great contemporary artist, too.  Rothko, Warhol, Johns, Rauschenberg, Giacometti, Pollack and roomfuls of others who I had never heard of before but whose pieces absolutely knocked me out. Ed took me on a virtual audio tour of the museum and I ate it all up.

Broad MuseumFrom there, we scooted past the Broad Museum (rhymes with “Road” by the way) and would have gone in but…the line was down the block. (Yay! People rediscovering Downtown!).  The outside itself is worth a visit, though. It looks like what would happen if an enormous sound stage mated with a cheese grater. Amazing design.

Disney HallNext door, I was able to goggle at the Frank Gehry designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, which swoops up into the sky and seems to hang there, like a frozen, metallic wave about to crash down onto the sidewalk. Truly astonishing.

MarketBy this point, we were both starving but…we were in luck!  Just down the hill was the famous Grand Central Market (which reminded me of both Faneuil Hall in Boston and the Eastern Market in D.C.). Central Market is this HUGE indoor market with all manner of vendors: butchers, fresh produce sellers, restaurants, cheesemakers, liquor stores, jewelers, bakers, the works. And the place was packed.

Finding a pair of open seats, we literally jumped at them, barely looking at the name of the place where we had accidentally decided to dine. It turned out to be Sticky Rice and the open seats turned out to be a happy accident as I wound up dining on the finest curried chicken rice I have ever had the pleasure of shoveling into my gullet.

EggslutThe Central Market, by the way, is just about to celebrate its centennial. Opened first in 1917, it used to be your run-of-the-mill city market but, since its renovation in 1984, it has actually become a hip, trendy place to go.  Which explains why its most popular breakfast eatery is called “Eggslut.”

Kids today, I swear.

Cole'sAfter that, we thought it high time for a late afternoon beer and so Ed escorted me over to Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet, which, while famous for its French Dip sandwiches, also bears a striking resemblance to the Terminal Bar from Roger Rabbit.  Claiming to be the “oldest bar in L.A.” (it opened in 1908, after all), it is this wonderful, dark, subterranean joint just dripping with history.  And au jus, I’m guessing.

BradburyBack on the road, we peeked into the Bradbury Building, as Ed told me it was not only a super-cool architectural design, but it was also a favorite spot for film and TV location shoots (the Bradbury shows up in “Chinatown,” “Blade Runner,” “Wolf” and a hundred other films). So, naturally, when we tried to get in, we couldn’t.  They were shooting a movie there that day.  Jeez, L.A., really?

Last Book Store 2Finally, we made our way back into Downtown proper, past Pershing Square, the Spanish Steps and the legendary Union Station (where they were celebrating Johann Sebastian Bach with an indoor, live concert, if you can believe it). We eventually found ourselves strolling past a place I had visited weeks before and loved: The Last Book Store.

I could write an entire post on The Last Book Store, if I felt I could get away with it. It is this funky, dusty-looking place that looks as if its been in its current location for damn ever. In point of fact, it Last Book Storeis actually only 11 years old. Started up in a loft in 2005, it was quickly moved to its enormous 22,000 sq. ft. space in the Spring Arts Tower at 5th & Spring and has been there ever since.

LabyrinthLos Angeles’ largest old and new book/record store, it is a double decker, two story wet dream for fans of the printed word.  Upstairs features what they call “the Labyrinth,” this winding trail through the stacks that is as cool as it is inventive.  (I could have spent the entire day just in the Last Book Store alone.)

But, happily, I did not. I spent the day getting squired around the once-thriving, then dystopian and now resurgent Downtown L.A. by my friend and host nonpareil, Ed Burgess, who made it as clear as could possibly be:

Hollywood may be cute and pretty.  But her sister Downtown L.A.?

She’s the real deal.

Dirty Laundry

Here’s something about actors that you might not know:

Generally speaking, we understand it when we don’t get cast.Auditions-300x191

We may not like it, of course. We may very well think that we were better suited for the part than the schmuck you hired instead, naturally. But at the end of the day, we get it.

You saw lots of people, you only had one role. You saw what you wanted- whatever it was- from the other guy, so you offered him the job instead. Understood. Not thrilled, but…that’s the business. You can’t win ’em all.

Most of all, we appreciate the opportunity to be considered.

Actors WantedAnd this, more than anything else, is what is most crucial to our survival as performers. You may not actually give me the part, but the fact that you let me read for it? That makes all the difference.

It’s about opportunity. 

Let me see if I can explain it better:

You ever buy a lottery ticket? Okay, the minute after you buy it, two things should happen:

LottoNumber One, you should realize that you just wasted your money. Because you did. You’re not winning the lottery. You’re just not. But you didn’t spend your two bucks to win the lottery anyway, did you? No. You paid your two bucks so that you could move on to…

…Number Two: The fantasy about what would happen if you did win the lottery.

(There is, by the way, a great way to size up someone’s personality. Ask them what they’d do if they won 30 million bucks. If they don’t include “take care of my family” and “give some money to my favorite charity,” in the top five, you’ve got a real asshole on your hands there.)

money-dreamOkay, back to the analogy:  That two dollar lottery ticket isn’t going to get you millions of dollars. That’s a given. Instead, that ticket allows you to imagine that you have millions of dollars. Which is fun. And sometimes even worth the two bucks.

Similarly, actors know that when they go in to read for something, they are playing long odds. (Especially if there’s money involved, of course, but that doesn’t matter so much in this equation.) For every available part- in a play, movie, TV show, doesn’t matter- there are five, ten, fifty, a hundred actors lined up for it.

monster auditionsSo when the part is cast…do the math.  For every happy actor, there is a parade of disappointed ones.

But the fact that we got a chance, that we were given a bite of the apple, that we were issued our lottery ticket…that’s important. It is critical. Because when you are given that chance, that opportunity to vie for the part…you’re in the game. You’re a player.

Apple BiteConversely, without the chance to read….you’re not even in the stadium. Not even on the team. No lotto ticket for you, pal. We’ve got others to see. Move along.

And that, my friends, is the difference between Los Angeles and Chicago. An that, I’m sad to say, is the most important lesson I’ve learned during my trip.

(And here is here I start to seriously mix my metaphors.  Stay close and you won’t get hurt.)

up to batIn Chicago, more often than not, you’re handed a bat and allowed to step up to the plate. Yes, you’re mostly playing in minor league clubs and the pay is for shit. But you’re given your allotted three strikes.  Good luck.

In L.A.? Wait over there. Have a seat. We’ll get to you. Eventually. Maybe. Just be patient. Lots of people in line ahead of you. Don’t make a fuss.

Of course, when you are allowed to step up to the plate in L.A. (assuming they ever get to you), you’re playing in the Big Leagues, baby. You’re facing Roger Clemens with men on, the outcome of the playoffs hanging on this at-bat, the MVP trophy in reach.  So you better bring your A-game.

benched.jpgBut there’s no guarantee that day will ever come. You could spend your entire career in Los Angeles sitting on the bench if you’re not careful. You can grow old and bitter, watching the younger players move ahead of you, seeing them get showered in money and accolades, while you wait patiently for a turn at the plate that will never come.

And then, like the man said…boom. You’re eighty.

And you think, “What the hell just happened? Shit. That was my life. Where…where did it freakin’ go?”

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Of course, let’s not kid ourselves. The same thing can happen in Chicago.

KCC-theatre-auditionsExample: I’ve been a working stage actor in Chicago for over 25 years and I’ve never so much as auditioned at Steppenwolf in all that time. Ditto Writers Theatre. And I haven’t seen the inside of a Court Theatre audition space in over ten years. And Chicago Shakespeare only calls me in whenever Bob Mason loses a bet to someone.

I’ve tried to get into these theatres by the usual channels, of course.  Sent in my pictures, gone to their general auditions, asked my agents to submit me there.  Nada. Zip. Zilch.

So the opportunities in Chicago- primarily on the big stages- can be few and far between, too. I do not mean to paint the picture in too rosy a light.

audition-picBut, happily, there are plenty of other options in Chicago. There are, in my home town, lots and lots of people who know me and like my work and hire me consistently, so generally speaking I’m fine about the folks who can’t be bothered to call me in. There’s more than enough work elsewhere.

No money, of course. But plenty of work.

And there’s your trade off.

Live in Chicago…work like crazy. But work your day job, too. Most likely, for your entire career.

Live in L.A…and wait for your chance at the plate. For your lotto numbers to finally hit. Because if they do?

Boom.

But in the meantime, here’s your L.A. day job, too.

Enjoy the wait.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

There are other options out here on the Coast, though. And they pop up in the most surprising of places.

Dirty Laundry LitI stumbled into one earlier this week when I finally went to see my dear friend Jeff Eyres emcee his spoken language show, “Dirty Laundry Lit.”

Jeff, I should mention, has been a writer and performer of his own brand of avant-garde, philosophical, hilarious spoken word pieces since before spoken word performances were cool. (They are cool now, right? Okay, good. That’s what I thought.)

So Jeff was, I’m sure, a natural choice when the founder and creator of “Dirty Laundry Lit,” a lady named Natashia Deón, was first putting together the program. It was conceived of – and continues to be- a showcase for writers, poets and musicians to perform their pieces in front of a live and (judging from the night I was there) extremely enthusiastic crowd. “Dirty Laundry Lit” is usually staged only four times a year, presumably so folks don’t get burned out by it.Jeff Eyres

One of these performances happened to coincide with my trip West, so I happily signed up to go, partly out of support for my buddy, but mostly out of curiosity. Here was exactly the type of performance I almost never get to see and, bonus, my old college chum was hosting.

Then…double bonus. In addition to Jeff being up on stage, it turned out that the performers that evening would include my old Chicago friend Douglas Wood. Doug, when I knew him, was primarily a composer but had recently been exploring creative writing. Taking a local class, he happened to have my friend Jeff as a classmate.doug

This is because, in case you didn’t know this: it is a teeny, tiny, itsy, bitsy world.

The festivities were set to commence at a bar called “The Virgil,” which, from the outside, looks like it has been vacated and boarded up for years but, inside, proves to be this cool, funky-looking bar with a large performance space in the back (generally used for stand-up comedy).

I met my friend James Sie (Doug’s husband) at the bar and, after a short wait, we were finally admitted into the performance space. Jeff and Doug were back there, both looking pumped up and slightly nervous about the proceedings.

They needn’t have been. The entire night was a glowing, smashing success.

Virgil

The Virgil

After a brief, heartfelt and hilarious introduction by Jeff (whose birthday was celebrated that night, cake and all) Doug led things off with this powerful, original story about school shootings that brought the entire room to a standstill. You hardly dared breathe during the reading, the story was so riveting and, sadly, relevant.

The rest of the lineup was just as good.  Each writer/performer (the lineup included writer Ashley Perez, Buzzfeed editor Karolina Waclawiak, poet/activist Mike Sonksen, novelist J. Ryan Stradal, short fiction writer Lisa Mecham, writer/editor Joshua Mensch and poet/performance artist Conney Williams) brought their own energy, their own, specific style of both writing and performance, to the stage. Short story writers, poets, essayists…there was a wonderful mix of styles- some aggressive, some shy, some teasing – that seemed to both support what came before it and launch you into the next performance.

open micAnd each of them, happily, knocked it right out of the park.

Jeff held court throughout, reveling in the chance to be among (and celebrate) the various performance artists and I have rarely seen such a gleeful, happy-to-be-here-doing-this emcee in all my days.

Finally, the night came to a close and we retired to the bar. I made no secret of the fact that I wanted to steal it all- the idea, the venue, the performers, the host– and bring it lock, stock and root beer barrel back to Chicago.

No doubt. This show would kill in my home town. Just knock people right the hell out.

So…Viva live performance in Los Angeles!

Again!

Television City

So much to cover, so little time…

Before I bring this adventure to its thrilling conclusion (which mainly involves my stepping on a plane…so hold on to  your hats), I need to make sure to transcribe all of the things that have happened over the past couple of weeks that haven’t made the headlines.

It has been a mad dash toward the end out here and I wanted to be sure not to leave any gaps in the narrative. So here goes:

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Ever since I packed my bags and left Paul and Monica’s place in Tarzana at the beginning of the month, I have been crashing at the home of my old college chum, Ed Burgess out here in East L.A.East L.A.

Ed is, unlike most of the folks I know from school, a visual artist, not an actor. He works by day for CBS Television, running lights for, among other shows, “Real Time with Bill Maher” but by night Ed is also a painter, working out of his basement studio here at home and emerging with some of the most striking and interesting pieces you can imagine. (His work appears at various galleries around town, too.)

Burgess self portrait

Ed, a self-portrait

Ed lives in this funky two bedroom house on top of a hill in Eastern Los Angeles. It’s tough to nail down the exact name of this neighborhood, but it’s somewhere between “City Terrace” to the south and “El Sereno” (translation, “The Calm”) to the north. So let’s call it “Calm City” and leave it at that.

On the second day I was here, I went for a morning run and, trotting down the hill from Ed’s house, I found myself encircling the perimeter of the Cal State L.A. campus, which lies just to the East. It was a gorgeous run but, when I went to make my way back to Ed’s, I discovered to my dismay that the last quarter mile or so of the run was almost entirely uphill. Cal State

And it wasn’t a kind hill, either. It was a monster.

Panting, sweating and with my heart fairly bursting out of my chest, I finally stopped running about half-way up the incline and walked the rest of the way. But I vowed, by the time I left Ed’s at the end of the month, to make it all the way up the hill running.

Because, apparently, I hate myself.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Being a bit of a political junkie, I am also a big fan of Bill Maher, the fellow Ed lights up every week on HBO.  Knowing this, Ed kindly made arrangements for me to attend a taping of “Real Time” last Friday and I dutifully showed up, big TV grin on my face.Maher

The CBS studio where they shoot “Real Time” is located just to the north of the Farmers Market at the legendary CBS Television City. Ed had requested that I show up for the taping at about 5:30, so I made arrangements to spent the morning hanging out with Chris Rickett, a buddy of mine from Chicago who was in town visiting his brother, and then walk over to meet Ed when the taping was to begin.

ToastChris’s brother works at Toast, this trendy little breakfast place that just so happens to be down the street from the Grove so, after an excellent brunch (thanks, Chris!), the three of us made our way over to the Farmers Market to hang out, enjoy a late afternoon beer and catch up while I waited for my call time.

Finally, as the witching hour arrived, I bid the boys adieu, grabbed a quick dinner (the shrimp po’ boy at the Gumbo Pot at the Farmers Market being the spot of choice) and I toddled over to the back door to CBS where Ed was to sneak me in.

File photo shows CBS logo and signage at CBS Television City in Los Angeles, California

Television City at CBS is simply dripping in television history. For over a half century, they’ve shot all manner of shows there- soap operas, game shows, talk shows, comedies, everything- and I soon learned that some of the most famous moments in television history were captured on the stages of CBS.

“The Burns and Allen Show,” “The Jack Benny Program,” “All in the Family,” “The Twilight Zone,” “Welcome Back, Kotter,” “The Gong Show.” The list (which is right here) is endless.Carol Burnett

Studio 33 alone, where they film “Real Time,” has been, for many years, the home of of such TV game shows as “Family Feud” and “The Price is Right” but is perhaps best known as the world-famous studio where the Carol Burnett Show was shot.

Heady stuff, wandering into that building.

Studio-33-1952-copyEd took me up on the stage to see Maher’s set and I couldn’t believe how small the place was. On TV, these studios look simply immense. Nope. All TV trickery. He escorted me around the building, which housed several sound stages for a number of longtime shows.  I saw, for example, the studios where they shoot both “The Young and the Restless” and “The Bold and the Beautiful.” (Soap opera name idea: “The Fastidious and the Mildly Obsessive.”)

Y&R SetIf you’ve never seen one, a soap set is pretty wild. Picture a large sound stage with various types of common “room types,” all sitting one next to the other. A “hotel room” next to a “jail cell” next to a “kitchen” next to a “hospital room,” with a path snaking through the various sets to allow the cameras to travel between each one.

Eventually, we made our way back in prop storage where all the “Price is Right” games are stored. It was bizarre, seeing all the idle Plinko and Cliff Hangers games sitting around collecting dust. Ed, seeing the coast was clear, even let me spin the famous Big Wheel. (I got a 35 which means…I have no idea what.)Screen Shot 2016-03-21 at 7.03.59 PM

Showtime was nearing, so we went back to the booth where I got to watch the sausage being made. Interesting thing: there is no window from which to view the stage from the booth in Studio 33. There was once, of course, but they long ago deemed it unnecessary. Now, if it ain’t on the monitors in the booth…you can’t see it.

It was fascinating to watch the show from the booth for many reasons (hearing the director call for the various cameras “Go one….go three…get in tighter, two.”). But it was extremely odd to be sitting in the booth watching the show on television…while it was being performed live just a few feet away in a room I couldn’t see.  You’d hear a joke on the monitor, then hear the laugh from down the hall. Crazy.

[Side note: one of Maher’s guests that week was the political pundit I loathe most in the world- Bill Kristol, the founder and editor of the conservative “Weekly Standard.” An idiot of the first order, Kristol is almost always wrong in his political predictions (i.e. “Barack Obama won’t win a single primary” and “Biden will run in  2016” and “Trump will explode if he eats any more chili.”) and yet he still continues to be allowed onto talk shows to spout his nonsense.

Panel left to right:  Margaret Hoover - Political Contributor, CNN, Author, American Individualism, President, American Unity Fund; Bill Kristol - Founder/Editor, The Weekly Standard, Contributor, ABC News;

“Hi! I’m always wrong! Blah, blah, blah!”

The only thing going for him: Even Kristol recognizes that Donald Trump, should he be the nominee, would destroy the Republican Party. But that’s no great feat.  My dog Dodger could have told you that.]

Maher and Co. had a fine show (I did not get to meet him afterwards; Bill is a very private guy and likely had to rush off and hit the hookah) and I hurriedly thanked Ed and rushed off to the wrap party for the short film I shot earlier this month, “Double Dead.”

My only thing to report from those festivities:  There’s nothing quite like going to a party where you, by yourself, raise the median age in the room by ten years the moment you step in the room. Oof.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Bit of business:  both of my audiobooks were approved by both the rights holders and by Audible.com, so they should soon be available for purchase on Amazon.

PassageBut honestly, unless you want to hear me describe a medieval Scottish highlands sex scene in exacting detail…I’d steer clear.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Oh, and one last thing.

Earlier this week?  I made it up Ed’s hill.

Running.

Boo-ya.

The Church of L.A. – Part II

Now.

You’d think that my first couple of experiences with the Church of Scientology might have soured me to any further contact with them, wouldn’t you?

Celebrity CentreNot a bit. After all, I had visited two of the three main Scientology buildings in the city. I could hardly pass up visiting the final one during my last, few precious days here in L.A., now could I?

And so, finding myself in the Hollywood Hills early Thursday, I decided to poke my nose around the legendary Celebrity Centre and see if they would be willing to welcome a confirmed non-celebrity like myself.

Turns out- they would. In fact, the Centre graciously conducts tours all day long, every day, 9AM to 10PM.

So I signed up for one.

What, I thought, was the worst that could happen? (And the scene cuts to Kevin, on board a Sea Org boat, swabbing the deck and saying “Hmmm.  Didn’t see that coming.”)Swabbing

Once I got past security and was inside the fabled building, I was greeted very kindly by a receptionist who, in turn, introduced me to a fine, strapping fellow named Blake who said he was more than willing to show me around the Centre.

But first, a film. Again.

“Jesus, this really is a Hollywood religion,” I thought. “Every step of the way, you have to watch a movie.”

Celeb CentreThere were, in total, three short films I was invited to view at the Centre, but…two of them I’d already seen at the Information Center earlier in the week.

The third film, though: That was worth the entire trip.

To view it, I was again escorted to a private screening room and, though the room had enough seats for twenty people, I was left alone to behold the magnificence.

For this cinematic adventure, I was treated to a peek into what it must have been like in the early days of L. Ron Hubbard’s life, back when he was a young and virtually unknown writer of pulp and science fiction.

screening roomIn those days, Hubbard was (if you believe the film) struggling with the fact that he’d already discovered this brilliant method for curing people of their ills, but had no way to spread the word about his magnificent creation.

An interesting note: During the course of the movie, the character of L. Ron Hubbard never speaks.  That is to say, you see him, but he is only shot from behind and in shadow.  All the other characters speak either directly to him or about him.

Young Hubbard 2

“How many l’s are there in ‘bullshit’?”

It struck me that this was a lot like how, in the Islamic faith, nobody is allowed to draw the Prophet Muhammad. In this case, no one could possibly portray LRH in a Church-created film about him. It would, apparently, be blasphemy to try. He was just too cool for his essence to be captured by some..some actor on the screen. (Even a clear, Scientologist actor, it seems.)

Anyway, in this depiction of Hubbard’s early days (before the Church was founded), he is portrayed as a brilliant, visionary and selfless man who discovers the secret to curing people of their various, incurable illnesses but…just doesn’t know what to do with his world-changing, life-altering discovery.

Young HubbardLuckily, he is surrounded by three men who recognize his genius and encourage him to share his secrets (with no monetary recompense of course) with the world.

It is, after all, the right thing to do.

So Hubbard, in the movie, tries valiantly to reach out, both to the American Medical and American Psychiatric Associations to offer them- free of charge- the secret to his medical miracle. In both cases, however, the evil overlords of these power-hungry organizations summarily dismiss Hubbard’s world-changing discoveries.

And they do it in the most over-the-top, mustache-twirling way, too.

evil doctor“Cure people by…by talking to them?  Ridiculous. We don’t need such nonsense,” one evil-looking doctor intones in the film. “Now,” and here he smiles a wicked and avaricious grin.  “Prepare the patient for surgery!” He doesn’t actually say “Bwahahaha!” but it is implied.

The dialogue in the film is hilariously bad. “First the APA, now the AMA has rejected us,” says one of Hubbard’s friends, looking over a letter. “I don’t know what to do.  How will we ever manage to get your message out to the people who need it, Ron?”

ConfusedHow indeed? Despite the fact that this movie takes place in the 1950’s, the people in it are apparently completely ignorant of the existence of television, radio, newspapers and other means of mass communication. Which is understandable, given that the premise of the movie is pure hokum anyway.

Finally, the light bulb goes off.

“I know!” says another friend of Hubbard’s excitedly (and this is the real line, my friends): “You need to write a popular book! Then people will finally be able to access your visionary ideas!”Idea!

Okay, Paddy Chayefsky it ain’t.

Mercifully, the projector broke about halfway into the movie (no kidding) and- presumably as a treat for having endured it- I was invited by Blake to take the famous Scientology “Personality Test.”

Personality Test 3It is actually a very long form – 200 questions in total – but I dutifully filled it out. You were instructed to answer either “Yes,” “No” or “Maybe” to each question.  And the questions were just about as bizarre and varied as you might imagine:

“Do you often find yourself unwilling to start a conversation in social situations?”

“Are you irritated around children?”

“Are you often resentful of past wrongs or failures?”

“Do you find human flatulence amusing?”

(Okay, that last one isn’t real. But it totally should have been on the test.)

Personality Test 2You fill out the- remember 200 question– form and turn it in.  Then, the Church runs your numbers through their computer and they give you an evaluation.

Well, you’ll never guess, folks:  Turns out that I’m aggressive, articulate, opinionated, and not particularly tolerant of those who disagree with me.

I mean, are these people perceptive or what?  

Personality Test 1At the end of the evaluation of my test- wherein Blake and I discussed the things I could do to improve my personality (Blake: “Listen more.” Me: “Come again?”), I finally told Blake that I should hit the road.  I thanked him for his time and bid him a fond farewell.

As with everyone else I had met in Los Angeles who had an association with the Church, Blake had been nothing less than kind and accommodating. I found it odd, though, that when all was said and done, he didn’t even bother to try and sell me a frickin’ book.

UniformsLooking back on it, I got the feeling that I was simply too old and poor for them to bother with. They needed young, enthusiastic and, presumably, well-to-do youngsters to keep the lights on and the bills paid.  Sadly, my sell-by date has long since passed, as far as they are concerned, and I don’t think they were much interested in a middle-aged, unknown actor like me.

Et tu, Scientology?  Well thanks a whole lot for that.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

One last note on the Church:

Do you know what Scientologists really and truly hate?

sigmundNo, not Catholics, Jews, Muslims or Buddhists.  Not the Italians, the Turkish, the Irish or the Egyptians. Not drug dealers, pimps, burglars or insurance brokers.

Nope, what Scientologists hate most of all…is psychiatry.  No joke, the Church and its members absolutely hate the entire field and practice of psychiatric medicine.

How much do they hate it?

They hate it like a scarecrow hates fire. They hate it like a beaver hates a double entendre. The Church of Scientology hates psychiatry like a Trump supporter hates rational freakin’ thought.

In fact, the Church hates psychiatry so much, that they went out of their way to create an entire museum dedicated to denouncing the concept and practice of psychoanalytic therapy.  And yes, they did it with their usual subtlety. They call their museum:

Psychiatry: An Industry of Death.

Psychiatry MuseumGee, Scientology. Tell us how you really feel.

In the museum, they level various accusations against the purveyors of the evil, rabidly greedy and horrifyingly cruel field of psychiatry. (The religion doth protest too much, methinks.)

Psychologists, at least according to the museum, are responsible for a number of the world’s worst atrocities: the death of George Washington, the 9/11 attacks, the Holocaust, racism in general, school shootings and, most horribly, the cancellation of “Firefly.”

Psychiatry Museum 2Goddamn shrinks. They ruin everything.

Psychiatry, you see, gives those people with negative feelings, utter sadness and personal turmoil in their lives a solution that does not involve the Church.

So, naturally, it has got to go.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In conclusion:

It.  Is.  Everywhere.

symbols 3The number of buildings the Church owns in this town is entirely unknown. They have so many shell companies and subsidiaries (each one of which snaps up property all over town), that there is no way for anyone outside of the Church to keep track of their various holdings.

But rest assured: they own a lot of property. Here in L.A., across the country and around the world.

symbols 2And truly, if success can be defined in strictly financial terms, the Church is incredibly successful. Rich beyond measure and growing in assets, if not membership, every year.

But the financial success of the Church has only occurred because of the ruthless and avaricious approach that the Church has taken toward its own members. That, truly, is what makes them so evil, in my opinion. They way they prey on the Church’s own adherents, sucking them dry with each step on the “Bridge to Total Freedom.”

I mean, every church survives financially on the support of its members. No question about it. But see- you don’t have to pay an entrance fee to go to a Protestant worship service. You don’t have to fork over some dough to talk to a priest.  You don’t have to make a donation to be allowed into a Buddhist or Jewish temple. In those cases, “All Are Welcome!” means “free of charge,” too. hubbard-and-miscavige-2

But in the Church of Scientology, they run things a little differently.

First, there is the primary goal of the Church’s members. They demand the same thing from everyone who joins and they are diligent about putting each member’s greatest aspiration front and center in all of the literature.

You must strive to become “clear.” Clear of negative thoughts, bad feelings and resentment about your life’s earlier heartbreaks.

Achieve clarity and receive total freedom.

symbols 4And each step of the way towards clarity…that’s going to cost you. Each auditing session comes at a price. And they get more and more expensive, the higher you climb. But since your life’s goal, as a member of the Church, is total clarity, you have no choice but to keep moving up the Bridge and- oh yeah- keep paying for the privilege.

But that’s not even the worst part.

xenu2The real trouble is that, as far as anyone can tell, almost no one ever achieves the ultimate goal. You’re always just a few steps away, just a few dollars shy, of total clarity. Cut another check or two and don’t worry…you’ll get there.

It’s the old carrot and stick game. And that’s one damn expensive carrot.

The Church of Scientology is, as has often been pointed out by those who know, a scam. A highly successful, multi-million dollar, tax exempt fraud being perpetrated on both its own members and the American government, which is inexplicably unable (or unwilling) to revoke Scientology’s religious status and begin to charge the so-called “Church” taxes.

symbolsSo despite all the evidence of it’s nefarious practices- bolstered by the testimony and well-publicized warnings from former members- along with all the recent, negative media attention about what Scientology really stands for, let me tell you:

The Church of Scientology is here to stay.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Unfortunately for this city, Scientology has become, for good or ill, the unofficial Church of Los Angeles. Yes, the CoS has welcome centers and offices on every continent, but…there is no denying that L.A. and Scientology go together like beans and really spooky, creepy, money-hungry rice.Church-of-Scientology-Lon-006

One day, we may discover just how many buildings, institutions and human beings the Church owns, controls and operates here in this city and across the world.

One day, we may find out just how pervasive and all-powerful the Church’s secret societies and private army have become over the years.

CrossAnd on that day, should it finally arrive, the length and breadth of the Church’s influence on this city and the world at large will become absolutely clear to us all.

That should make everyone happy, right? I mean, from what I’ve been told…

…Scientology is all about clarity.

Isn’t it?

The Church of L.A. – Part I

It is everywhere.

Their buildings litter the city. Their signs and billboards pop up all over the place, inviting you to seek out their centers- “All Are Welcome!”- so you can learn more. Their volunteer recruiters walk the streets and distribute literature, often trying to lure folks inside their offices for a chat. And their celebrity adherents make no secret of their devotion.Cruise

You know their names: Tom Cruise. John Travolta. Juliette Lewis. Jenna Elfman. Kirstie Alley. Kelly Preston. Elisabeth Moss. Isaac “But I’m Talkin’ Bout Shaft” Hayes. Nancy “Bart Simpson” Cartwright. Beck. Freakin’ Beck for crying out loud.  The list is loooong.

And the organization itself?  It’s actually a lot bigger than you might have thought. Sure, you’ve heard that they own some buildings around town and control a robust printing empire, but did you know that the Church of Scientology is worth, on paper, approximately $1.7 billion?  Well it is.

And those are tax exempt dollars people. Because Scientology is a religion.

Not a cult. Oh, no. Don’t want to call it that.

It’s a religion.  

And no kidding:  They’re everywhere.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

So much has been written, especially in the last decade, about the Church of Scientology, it almost feels cruel to pile on more. But if you’re going to create a blog about what its like to travel to and live in Los Angeles, it would be irresponsible to avoid talking about the tumescent elephant in the room that is the Church of Scientology.

Hubbard

“This is a good picture of me. Can you believe it?”

Once upon a time, the mythology behind the Church was a closely guarded secret and the real story behind the Church’s founder- L. Ron Hubbard – was almost entirely unknown. Even those things that were known about him proved to be, upon examination, largely mythological.

The truth? Hubbard was, in his own way, a genius, in that he literally built a religion around himself from the ground up. He affixed himself at the top of the Scientology pyramid- as a sort of prophet, savior and spokesman all rolled into one- and created his own, tax-exempt, multi-million dollar mega-empire, one that now straddles Los Angeles like a colossus.

Say anything shitty about Hubbard that you like (and there are plenty of shitty things to say)- that’s pretty impressive. I don’t admire him, mind you. I’m simply in awe of what he did.

There’s a difference.

fsmscientologyAnyway, I do not intend to explore the inner workings of the Church, their positively nutty mythology, their “therapy” sessions, their con man founder…none of it. So many people have done absolutely brilliant jobs at pointing out the ridiculousness of this crazy cult, I could not begin to do it justice.

Going ClearMy advice: watch the documentary “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” a devastating and incredibly detailed takedown of the Church that was released last year. Better yet, try to catch a live performance of Cathy Schenkelberg’s “Squeeze My Cans!” which painstakingly (and hilariously) describes her descent into (and journey back from) the bowels of the Church. (Where she spent about a million bucks trying to go “clear.”)Squeeze

All I will really say on the topic of the Church itself is this:

I have been thoroughly educated in the history, actions and clandestine behavior of the Church of Scientology (look up, for example, the “Guardian’s Office” or the “Sea Organization” if you want to have the shit scared out of you). And my conclusion is:

TimeScientology is one of the greatest scams ever perpetrated in American history. It is a money-mad, entirely bogus, power hungry, rapacious and terrifying organization and it’s “religion” is based on the pseudo-scientific, inane rantings of an admittedly brilliant, but ultimately cuckoo-bananas, self-important, goddamn lunatic.

I also hear the Church is super-litigious, so I’d like to remind everyone reading this that I don’t have a dime to my name.  Thanks.

Okay, with that out of the way- let’s talk about how this Church has, in less than half a century, come to dominate this city’s landscape.  And we’ll leave the debunking of the Church itself, if you don’t mind, to the professionals.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In every major hub of this city there it is: a building owned and operated by the Church. They do not try to be subtle about their existence or seek out a “low key” profile in this town. Far, far from it. They are loud and proud and brother, you better get used to it.

The three best known buildings owned by the Church of Scientology are as familiar to the citizens of L.A. as the Capital Records Building or the “Hollywood” sign.

The first is the “Information Center” on Hollywood Boulevard.

Scientology- Info CenterBuilt in 1920 as the Christie Hotel, it is an eight story, newly remodeled, gorgeous building. Back when it first opened, the Christie was a 100-room luxury hotel and one of Hollywood’s early skyscrapers. (Each room boasted it’s own bathroom, which in those days was pretty fancy.)

Over the years, the hotel bounced between owners and had different names (the Drake Hotel and the Hollywood Inn among them) before the Church of Scientology bought the place in 1974.

Hollywood HomelessNow if you’ll remember from an earlier post, this section of Hollywood Boulevard hasn’t always been a tourist mecca. For many, many years, the neighborhood surrounding Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (which is just down the street from the Information Center) was- and this is being kind- a shithole.

Homeless people lined the streets, the sidewalks were filthy, half the shops were boarded up…it was awful. Those brave souls who ventured into this section of Hollywood to take in the Walk of Fame were wandering into one of the nastiest parts of the city.

No longer.

Holllywood_Blvd._by_night_01These days, that entire strip is among the most valuable and spiffed up areas in town, featuring the Dolby Theatre (which hosted this year’s dismal Oscars), the El Capitan theatre, the Pantages, as well as dozens of high-end shops, restaurants, souvenir stands, bars and, in the center of it all – the newly refurbished Scientology center.

LobbyRe-opened in January of 2015, the Information Center of the Church of Scientology is a wonder to behold. A spotless, beautifully designed lobby. Sparkling TV monitors with a video depicting the (grossly aggrandized) life of L. Ron Hubbard playing in a loop. And, towards the back, mini screening rooms and a bunch of monitoring stations for you to be evaluated (or, as they call it, “audited”).

Finally, milling in and around the place, you’ll find a tiny army of good-looking, squeaky-clean, fresh-faced, charismatic young believers who would love nothing more than the chance to talk to you about your life, your problems and how they and their Church can help to make things better.

I paid each of the Church’s three main headquarters in Los Angeles a visit this week. Don’t let it be said I don’t do my homework.

And the truth is, I was actually scared only once, and very briefly.

But…I was awfully scared in that one moment. Thank God it didn’t last long.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The second, slightly more noticeable Scientology building in town is the world-famous “Celebrity Centre.”

Scientology-Celebrity-CenterPlease note the spelling. It isn’t a “Center.” It is a “Centre.” A “Center” is where you go for treatment. A “Centre” is where you go for a foot massage provided by someone who tells you how awesome you are every couple of minutes.

The Celebrity Centre is located on Franklin Avenue at the foot of the Hollywood Hills. It is a really spooky looking building, actually, and resembles nothing so much as Disney’s “Tower of Terror.” (Or, rather, the Tower of Terror resembles the Celebrity Centre. That can’t be an accident.)tower-close-up

L. Ron Hubbard (or “LRH” as his followers call him) had a particular affinity and fascination with celebrities. (Which has been passed down to his successor, a truly slimy dude named David Miscavige. Oh, man. Ted “The Lizard” Cruz has nothing on this guy. Nothing.)

Miscavige

Really? “Captain”? Really?

And while the Celebrity Centre is, like the other Scientology buildings across the globe, open to everyone (“All Are Welcome!”) this particular building is especially reserved for “artists, politicians, leaders of industry, sports figures and anyone with the power and vision to create a better world.”

So if you’re not Tom Cruise or Jenna Elfman?  Go to the Information Center on Hollywood Boulevard, if you would. This place is for the big shots.

The Scientology Celebrity Center

Built in 1927, the building was designed to be a replica of a French-Normandy castle and was christened the “Château Élysée.”

Originally, the place was created for actors in need of short- or long term accommodations while shooting movies in the area and, according to the research I’ve seen on the place, the hotel served as host to most of the major stars of the 30’s and 40’s.

Under the creepy guidance of the Church of Scientology, the Celebrity Centre has been courting the rich and famous since it first opened up in the early 70’s.  Check out this quote from a 2008 article on the Celebrity Centre in the New Yorker:

From the outset, the conversion of celebrities was important to Scientology. An internal newsletter produced by the Hubbard Communications Office, probably in the mid-fifties, asserts, “There are many to whom America and the world listens. On the backs of these are carried most of the enthusiasms on which the society runs.” It goes on, “It is obvious what would happen to America if we helped its leaders to help others. Project Celebrity is part of that program. It is obvious what would happen to Scientology if prime communicators benefitting from it would mention it now and then.” The piece concludes with a list of the day’s stars—Orson Welles, Howard Hughes, Walt Disney, and Greta Garbo among them—referring to them as “game” and “quarry” for Scientologists to “hunt.”

Nice, huh?

Laura+Prepon+Church+Scientology+Celebrity+XOph_mQ1uQLlToday, the Celebrity Centre continues to serve a resource for actors, both the famous and the merely aspiring. They offer a place to stay for their big-ticket stars (John Travolta has attested to how “safe” he feels there) but the building is also used as a training facility for up-and-comers, offering Industry Seminars like “Breaking Into Commercials” and “How to Get Cast in the Pilot Season.”

But don’t be fooled. Each of these “seminars” is, if you scratch the surface, nothing more than a pitch session for the Church. Hell, everything they do is a pitch session for the Church.

Want to feel better about your life? Join the Church, they say, and we’ll get you “clear.” Want to further your acting career? Join the Church and you’ll have access to the Church’s many (and connected) industry professionals. Feeling uninspired? You won’t believe it but…joining the Church might just be right for you!

All for a price. Of course. Nothing is free in this life, is it?

And the costs connected to taking courses within the Church- their famous “auditing” sessions on the “Bridge to Complete Freedom”- are unbelievably expensive.

But you want your career to be all that it can be…

…don’t you?

Sign here.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The grandaddy of all of the L.A. CoS buildings, though, is the Scientology Center on Sunset Boulevard. This bright-blue collection of buildings- complete with enormous “SCIENTOLOGY” sign practically bursting out of the central tower- represents the real headquarters of the Church in Los Angeles.

Fountain Avenue in Los Angeles is the site of a Scientology Center. Lawrence Wright examines the religion and the man who made it what it is today.

Once the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, it was bought and refurbished by the Church in 2010, painted Scientology blue and then inhabited by a virtual CoS army.

I went there on Wednesday to check it out and really could not believe my eyes. It looked like something out of a Tim Burton film. Every inch of it is painted that (presumably calming) powder blue color, save the windows, each of which is covered in a pristine white shade.

(What is behind those shades? Horrors too disturbing to contemplate, I imagine. Or they store pamphlets there. We’ll never know.)

sunset cafeTo the East of the main complex is a cobblestone street that was paved by the Church and rechristened “L. Ron Hubbard Way.”

I wandered down Hubbard Way looking for an entrance to the facility (curiosity will be my downfall) and stumbled upon a little cafe where small groups of people were enjoying coffee and lunch in the small courtyard adjacent to the main building.  As nobody seemed to mind, I strolled inside, ordered a coffee at this quaint, unremarkable little cafeteria and encamped myself at one of the tables outside.

Mostly, I wanted to see if anyone from the Church would approach me. I was, after all, fresh meat. Could they resist trying to rope me in?

Turns out, they could not. I was sussed out within five minutes and soon saw this woman in my periphery wearing what looked like a Navy uniform trying to get my attention.

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 12.15.29 PM“Got time for a short survey?” she asked, her voice accented from…somewhere.

“You bet!” I responded. My new friend took a seat at my table.

She introduced herself as Lise and said she was originally from Sweden. She was an older woman, maybe in her mid-sixties, and in her uniform looked trim and sharp. She was oddly (but not quite) military in her bearing. Based on my knowledge of the way the Church worked, I guessed immediately that she was in the Sea Org. (I was soon proved right.)

Lise began her survey simply, asking me things like “What do you feel is the best way to reach people who need help?”  I gave her some generic answer like, “Communicate with them, find out how they got into their situation. Listen to what they might need.”

BUG_ScientologyYou know- unpasteurized, pharmacy-grade pap.

Pretty soon she got down to it:  “What would you do, if you could, to clear the planet?”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “What do you mean by ‘clear the planet’?”

“Oh,” she responded. “You’re not a Scientologist?”

“No,” I said. “Is that okay?”

“Sure, that’s perfectly fine but…” she gestured to the cafe. “What are you doing here?”

“Nothing, really. I’m a little early meeting a friend for lunch down the street,” I said. “So I just stopped in for coffee.”

“I see,” she said, smiling. “That’s fine.” She looked me over, appeared to deem me harmless and went on. “All right…let me explain.”

Reactive MindShe then went on to tell me, in great detail, about the very, very basic tenets of the Church’s philosophy. How we human beings have two minds, the analytical mind and the reactive mind. (The reactive mind being where we store bad, unconscious and negative memories and thoughts.)

She went on to tell me how the great L. Ron Hubbard discovered how to make you aware of and banish these bad thoughts and make you “clear” through a series of therapy sessions (“auditing”) the various levels of which are known as the “Bridge to Total Freedom.”

Bridge(There’s a lot more to it, of course (I’m simplifying it as much as I can) but, again, my purpose with this post is not to analyze and tear apart the Church or its dogma. Others have, and will, do that job a lot better than I could.)

So…the survey went on like that- inane, generic questions that I answered with equally inane generic answers- and then…

…we were done. Lise stood up, shook my hand and then promptly didn’t invite me inside to explore the Center. (I was a little sad not to be among the chosen, actually.  But Lise was otherwise very polite and charming.)

Having spent some time with her and truly enjoying her company, part of me wanted to grab her by her crisp lapels and whisper urgently “Get out! Get out while you still can!”

ContractBut the truth is…she seemed happy. Every time she discussed a part of Hubbard’s philosophy, she couldn’t help but heap praise on his brilliance, his insight and his forward thinking. She was, it looked like to me, at home and it was not for me to rescue her, even if I could.

Lise is, I know, without question, a devoted victim of one of the most crackpot religious scams ever conceived of by a member of the human race…but knowing that is only half the story.

The other half is: This woman was deeply enfolded in the warm embrace of this titanic, almost unimaginable fraud.

And she loved it.

We shook hands, I said goodbye, polished off my coffee and hit the road.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Things were a little different at the Information Center on Monday. That night, I had plans to meet my friend Chris Rickett and his brother for drinks, but found myself in the neighborhood of Hollywood Boulevard with a couple of hours to spare, so I decided to stop by Hubbard’s biggest recruitment center in town and give it a look-see.

hello-hollywood-information-centerUnlike the way things went down at the CoS headquarters, it didn’t take long for me to be approached and invited inside at the Information Center. Truly, if you walk by the place and so much as dare to look up at the sign…they will pounce.

He introduced himself as Robert and looked to be all of seven years old. (Okay, maybe he was, in reality, in his twenties, but to me he looked like an infant.) He asked if I wanted to step inside, wondering if I would be interested in improving my life.

Would I! Thanks, Robert!

I was soon handed off to a young lady named Sandy, who asked if I’d be willing to watch a short video that explained the basic philosophy of the Church.

Would I ever! Thanks, Sandy!

Travolta

No, not THAT Scientology movie.

After agreeing to see the film, I had expected to be led to a big screening room with a bunch of other potential recruits. But no…I was given my own, private screening room, with a big plasma TV, to watch their very brief promotional video all by my lonesome.

Just before it began, (and once she had me cornered) Sandy asked me: “Hey- do you ever feel like there’s any part of your life that you’d like to improve?”

Oh, the things I could have said.

But I was good and played the polite, slightly confused outsider. “Well,” I said, “It would be nice…to be a bit more disciplined.”

“Really?” Sandy said, looking super interested. “How are you undisciplined?”

Scientology“You know…everyone means to do more with their lives than they actually do.  Let’s say you…have something to do around the house. A project or a chore, you know? Something you’ve been meaning to do but…you get distracted. Life sure does have a lot of distractions!” (I was making myself a little sick, talking this way.)

“It sure does!” Sandy agreed. “Well, have a look at the video and we can talk after.”

“Okay, Sandy! Sounds great!” (It wasn’t easy, maintaining this level of enthusiasm.)

Then she cued up the video, dimmed the lights, slid the door shut and left me in L. Ron Hubbard’s warm embrace.

It was at this point that I got kind of scared.

ParanoidNo one knows where I am,” I thought. And a tiny, paranoid part of me said: “If they kidnap and brainwash you…no one will ever find you, either. You’ll be trapped on some Sea Org boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean scraping barnacles for the rest of your life and no one will ever know!”

This bout of mild paranoia only lasted a second and then I was able to sit back and enjoy the film.

And I have to say- they don’t mess around when it comes to their propaganda. These guys are good. The message is very enticing, the problems it purports to address are universal, and the production values in the film are awesome.  (I’ll bet craft services was just amazing on that set.)  You want to see the movie I watched?  Here.  Have a look.

problems_of_work_dvd_englishThe genius of the message, of course, is that it can fit anyone:

“Do you have negative thoughts?” it asks. Who can say no to that question?

“Is there something missing from your life?” Now that you mention it, yes. I could use some more Doritos. Oh, and fulfillment.

“Would it be helpful to increase your abilities?” Without question. And if we could do it without involving a radioactive spider, that would be ideal.

Each question could easily be asked of any living person and answered in the affirmative.

That’s some top-notch marketing right there.

After the movie, the door slid open…and I saw a new, even fresher face.  This was a young lady named Chris, who had apparently replaced Sandy.

(My presumption is that Sandy wasn’t doing all that great a job and had been summarily executed. Or she was filling out some paperwork. We’ll never know.)

volunteer

Not Chris, but close enough.

Chris had even more questions for me. She wanted to know my profession and was delighted to hear I was an actor.

She asked if I lived in town and I explained that I was visiting from Chicago.  “Neat!” she said.

Boy, she was sure interested in my life!

Then Chris said, “So let me ask you, Kevin.” And she smiled. “Be honest. Do you think you’re living up to your full potential?”

willyAnd I wanted to say, “Are you kidding me, man? I’m absolutely killing it! I’m the fucking Willy Wonka of acting! I’m freakin’ awesome!  Hooray for me!”

But one doesn’t say such things. How can one? One instead says:

“My full potential?  Well, no…I don’t think so.”

Which then triggers the sales pitch.

dmsmh igen nep.inddChris led me back out into the lobby (Yay! No kidnapping!), reached behind the counter…and handed me a copy of “Dianetics” by L. Ron Hubbard, along with the accompanying DVD/audiobook. She explained how all my answers could be found in this book and that I definitely should buy it and give it a read.

Well..that was her first mistake. Trying to get Kevin Theis to part with money. Was she unaware of how unlikely that was to happen?

“Hmmmm. I’ll tell you what,” I said. “Let me think about it.” And I tried to hand the book back to her.

She wouldn’t take it.

“I don’t understand,” said Chris, looking genuinely puzzled. “What do you need to think about?”

“It’s…well, I mean…” I stammered out. “I’ve heard a lot in the past hour or so and I find a lot of it very interesting, of course, but…I don’t know if I’m willing to buy the book and DVD right now. I’m sorry. I hope you understand.”

And at this point, Chris actually started to get a little pissed.

“But there’s no reason to wait,” she practically hissed at me. “You’re here. You should just get it.

Uncle SamI needed to diffuse the situation.

“Listen,” I asked, “Let me ask you. How long have you been working here?”

This seemed to calm her a bit. “We don’t work here,” Chris said. “We’re volunteers.”

“Really?” I tried to look surprised. “So…do you have, like, day jobs that allow you to volunteer like this?”

“No,” she said. “We live here. They house us. Feed us. Everything.”

And I’ll be honest:

In that moment, I looked deep in her eyes, searching for some sign of her unhappiness.

I tried to see if there was a glimmer of regret, of embarrassment or shame that she had chosen this life, this religion, this path.

trappedI looked for some kind of frightened, “get me out of here” spark in her eye. Something that indicated, even in the smallest way, that she felt trapped and needed to escape her hellish existence in this kooky little set-up on Hollywood Boulevard.

But no. Chris was, it seemed to me, at peace. The Force was very strong in this one.

In fact, if there was anything at all that was upsetting her in any way, it was the fact that I wasn’t buying the cocka-doody book she was trying to sell me.

“I really think you should buy those,” she said emphatically. “There’s no reason to wait or think it over.”

I had to get the hell out of there.

“Look,” I said, setting the stuff on the counter (since she wouldn’t take them from me), “I’m going to take off. Thank you so much for your time and your kindness. I really, really will think it over.”

“Okay,” she sadly intoned.

I walked away. She looked balefully after me. She was really, really good at this.

“And thank you,” I said again, moving away as quickly as I could.

escaping_reality_by_andycapI made my way toward the door but, once in the foyer and out of Chris’s sight, I was briefly distracted by the lobby viewing area, which was playing this biographical film about L. Ron Hubbard over and over again.

I paused to marvel at the display. That was not a wise choice. Within seconds…

“Would you like me to start it from the beginning, sir?”

I turned. Aiyee! Another one!

“No! No thank you! I’ve…got to go. My…my parking meter is almost up!”

I made for the door again.

“All the parking meters are done at eight, sir! You don’t have to worry about those.”

Oh, God! A technicality!

“Yes but my meter is…on another, very…faraway street…a different…part of…town,” I was at the door. “Good bye!”

And I was out.

On the street.

Walking just a little more quickly than usual, back to my car.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * ** *

TOMORROW:  PART TWO

Yeah, that’s right.  PART TWO

(Audio) Booked It.

The Scottish highlands. A man. A woman.

Both are confused, frightened.  They are from a different time and place. And yet here they are, in Medieval Scotland, forced to lead a tribe they do not know against the advancing Roman horde.Scotland

Will this time traveling couple- who wake up in the bodies of their great-great-grandparents- find out the truth about their ancestry?

Is their daughter sneaking off late at night to meet with her secret paramour who is….gasp!…a Roman soldier?

BraveheartWill the clan, under our heroes’ leadership, win a military victory over the trained Roman legion that stands between them and freedom?

Well, buy the audiobook I just recorded this weekend and you can find out the answers to these questions and many more.

Yep, that’s right:  Got a job.  Two actually.

So..let’s back up.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

As you may recall, if you’ve read my blog posting on audiobooks (Tell Me a Story), there are many different ways to get into the business of recording books.

JohnMarshallMediaYou can, as I have done, reach out to audiobook producers directly- like Deyan Audio and John Marshall Media- and try to get on their databases.  If you manage to do that, the idea is that audiobook producers will go to these databases, listen to your demo sample, deem you to be the right person to read their book and…boom, you’re hired.

And while I did communicate with both Deyan and John Marshall in the past month (and they both agreed to put me on their respective databases), I haven’t gotten that anticipated tap on the shoulder yet from either producer.

So what am I gonna do, just sit around and wait?  Nossir.

ACX-Logo-High-ResInstead, I went to ACX.  As you might remember, ACX is a subdivision of Audible.com (which is, itself, now owned and operated by Amazon which, in turn, owns…everything)).

What ACX does is to put narrators and authors (or, as they call them”rights holders”) in the same room together.  All the heavy lifting is done by the performer and the writer; ACX is- right up until the end- mainly just a conduit. More on that later.

So let’s say you wrote a book and you don’t want to narrate it yourself. (That’s the norm, by the way. Most authors aren’t interested in reading their own stuff. They’re writers, not actors. And they know it.)

Auditions-To connect with a potential narrator, you- the rights holder- will post an audition notice on ACX. You will specify several things:  The sex of the reader you are seeking.  The age range of the voice you’re looking for (Teen, Adult, Middle-Aged, Geezer).  The genre of your book (i.e. Fiction, Romance, Erotica, Goat Porn, etc.).

They even let you filter it by vocal style, a list I find particularly hilarious.  Choices include (and I’m not making this up): Flirtatious, Booming, Childlike, Hip, Straightforward, Rough/edgy, Nasal, Informed, Wistful and Urban/street (among many others).

I’ve always wanted to give actors direction like that, just to see what they’d do.

blue-velvet-600x347

“You mean like this?”

“Yeah, I liked the scene but…can you be a bit more nasal, a tiny bit hip and just a little rough/edgy?  Let’s go again.”

Finally, you would- as the person seeking a narrator- specify how much you’re willing to pay your reader for the project.  These amounts can range wildly, from $400 to $1,000 a finished hour all the way down to what they call “Royalty Share.”  Do a project as a narrator for “Royalty Share” and you get nothing up front but, down the road, you will receive 50% of all sales.

KnightAs I’ve previously stated when addressing this topic, this can be a double-edged sword. Narrate a book that sells a lot of copies, you could be looking at some serious money. Narrate a book that flops…you could get nothing at all for your work.

So, Dr. Jones…choose wisely.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Searching through the ACX database, I filtered my choices down to what I might be interested in reading and, during the course of the past week, I trooped off to my bedroom closet (where I have my makeshift recording studio) and where I recorded and sent six auditions out into the ether.  Some were for Royalty Share but most were paid gigs.

Data DumpAnd then I promptly forgot about them.  This, as I’ve said, is the healthy thing to do when you’re an actor.  You go on an audition, you do your work and then…you try and do a data dump, washing the entire experience out of your head.  (You need that space in your brain for other stuff, like memorizing the new Cubs lineup or the names of the minor characters from “Game of Thrones.”)

Then, if you hear that you got hired for a gig, you can just be delightfully surprised.

“Oh, that?  Did I audition for that? I guess I did. Yay!”

inboxAnd, sure enough, after sending off my six auditions, I heard back from a “rights holder” asking if I would produce their audiobook.

And then I heard from another.

And then I heard from a third.

And then I thought to myself, “Uh-oh. What the hell have I done?”

portabooth

It is almost this fancy.

See, back home in Chicago, I have a much more professional setup than I have here in my little closet. At home, my computer sits up in my office and I have a little mini-booth shoved into the corner of the basement where the microphone cord snakes down.  The booth has foam and other sound-absorbing materials (which we call “baffling” because…um…they are confusing maybe? I don’t know.)

This means that, when I have an audition to send in to my agency in Chicago, I can record it at home and shoot it to my agents via email without actually having to take the train downtown and use up the valuable booth time down at Grossman & Jack. It is very convenient.

COATIn fact, it was at this home booth that I recorded the audiobook for “Confessions of a Transylvanian” the year before last.  I took a week off of work and hammered away at it for seven days straight, emerging on the other side with eleven and a half hours of audio that I then had to edit and clean up.  (A process that took another two weeks.)

Audible1But in the end, the audio passed muster and before you could say “You read your own dirty book, Kevin?” the audiobook for “Confessions” was available on Audible.com.  (You can download it for free, by the way.  Just go to Audible.com and sign up for their 30-day no-cost trial and your first audiobook (which should be mine, dammit) costs ya nothin’. Here endeth the commercial.)

Trouble is, I’m very, very far from my home studio and I suddenly had three audiobook offers staring me in the face. Be careful what you wish for, right?

So what to do?

Help-Button-on-keyboard-500x375Well, not being a complete fool (I’m only a semi-professional fool), I reached out to my friend Chuck Constant. Chuck, being a professional audiobook narrator for years, has a home studio of his own but, more importantly, he’s also this really nice guy who, I hoped, might be willing to help a brother out.

But before I called Chuck, I looked the offers over carefully.  The first was a “Royalty Sharing” offer, which was not ideal. But when I saw that the entire book was only about a half hour long, I perked up right away.  I needed audiobook credits and here was one I could probably do in less than an hour (allowing for mistakes, corrections and preparing the files for upload). So I clicked the button and agreed to do that one.

Sound ProductionThe second offer was for “Royalty Sharing” as well, but…it was a ten-and-a-half-hour book.  No go. I politely declined the offer. I was not about to (a) ask Chuck to let me camp out in his home studio for an entire week while I recorded a book that (b) did not guarantee me any compensation at all.

That left the last offer. And this one- lo and behold- was for real money. Even better, the book was just over an hour long so, if I was really, really efficient, I could potentially do two books in one sitting.

That was the plan.

It would be a neat trick…if I could pull it off.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I shot off an email to Chuck who, mensch that he is, agreed immediately to help me out. He was planning to be away from his place for about five hours on Saturday morning and was willing to turn the studio over to me for the duration.

RecordingPerfect.  That gave me plenty of time (theoretically) to lay down both books. I uploaded the manuscripts to my iPad and had everything ready to go when I arrived at Chuck’s on Saturday morning.

Chuck knew that I was somewhat familiar with the software (as I had recorded my samples at his place a couple of weeks earlier) so he left me to my work with little fanfare or instruction.

sound-production-2It was only after he left that I realized that I was a little more at sea in front of his control panel than I had hoped to be. After a while of poking around and experimenting, I believed that I was recording the book properly but…I lived in fear that I was blowing this golden opportunity.

The first book went just as planned. In a little more than an hour, I had my half-hour of finished audio ready to go. (It was a strange little text- a summary of another book (written by a different author) on the subject of billionaire Elon Musk. It almost amounted to a Cliff’s Notes version of the original biography but I wasn’t there to judge.  I was there to read. So read I did.)Cliffs Notes

The Musk book in the can, I turned to book number two: my Scottish romance novel. And as I am now the official narrator of this ribald little tome, I will lay off commenting on the quality of the piece. Suffice it to say that I won’t be lining up to receive any Audie awards for my work on this book. But I got through all nine chapters- including the dirty bits- and put it to bed before Chuck returned.

After he got back, my poor friend had to then go through the calisthenics of preparing the raw audio for upload to ACX, which was no small task. But Chuck is no amateur. In record time, he had converted all of the files, processed each MP3 so that it met ACX’s upload standards and then copied both books to a thumb drive for me to take with me. (Needless to say, my friend Chuck will be enjoying a fine night on the town with me some time soon. It is the very, very least I can do for all his help.)

After that, all that remained was to get back to my home computer so I could upload samples of what I had done to the ACX site.

Approval rejectionI should clarify.  See, the way it works is: Once you have a fifteen minute sample of the finished product to share with the rights holder/author, you load up the sample to ACX and the rights holder gives it a listen. If they approve of the quality/tone, etc. of what you’ve done, they electronically approve the sample, which gives you- the narrator- the green light to upload the rest of the book.

But you’re not done then.  Oh, no.

After that, the rights holder listens to the entire book and then sends you notes and corrections (if there are any). You then have to go back into the studio and make whatever corrections are requested.  After which you then re-load the corrected chapter(s) to the site and go through the process again.  Eventually, the entire thing is approved by the author and you move to the next step.

south-park-bzzzt-wrong-i5068Yes, there is a next step. Of course there is. And it’s the worst step of all.

See, ACX then shows you exactly why they get such a large cut of your audiobook money. Because before they approve the audiobook to be sold on Amazon/Audible…they listen to it. The whole thing. ACX actually pays professional audiobook listeners to preview your book. And these “professional listeners” can (a) approve your audiobook as is, (b) request corrections or re-takes (within reason) or…

…(c) reject the book outright.

If they hate the levels, if they hear persistent or annoying background noise, if there is a hum on the track, if a dog is consistently barking somewhere and the mic is picking it up or if your narration is deemed to be total crap…there are a bunch of reasons they can give to say “Nope. No good. Do it again.”

And if that happens, you’re screwed. You need to trash what you’ve done- likely everything you’ve done- and go back to the drawing board.

Scary, huh?  Don’t ask me why the ACX listener is not brought in to listen to the preview (see Step Two). I mean, that would make sense.  But no- they don’t enter the scene until after the book is done, when it is too late to change things.

Isn’t that special?

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

So I get back. I upload the samples for approval. Then I bite my nails, hoping there isn’t any issue.

thumb-up-terminator pablo M RBoom. Sample one approved by the right holder. I upload the entire Elon Musk book to the site and wait for the corrections.

Then, boom. Sample two approved from the second rights holder. I upload the Scottish romance, too.

Then…almost as quickly..boom.  No corrections needed for the first book. It’s off to the ACX listener (which can take two weeks).  Sigh of relief there.

thumbs upToday, I’m waiting to hear back from the Scottish romance producer to see if I need to make corrections or if it, too, can be sent off for the final approval.

Because after that…I get paid.

This will be, by the way, the first paying job that I’ve nailed down since arriving in Los Angeles in January that I did not have before arriving here.

And as gratifying as that is, it isn’t nearly as important as the fact that I will, at the end of this brief process, have two audiobook credits on my resume that I did not have last week.

Progress.

Chicago Pretty

I heard it again.  Twice in one week, actually. And at least five times since I arrived here.

At first, I thought it was just general frustration. We all get that.

Desperate BusinessmanI mean we all get that- actors, teachers, lawyers, doctors, marine biologists, beggarmen, thieves. Everyone gets frustrated at some point or other. Very few people are, 24/7, absolutely over-the-moon-thrilled with the way their lives and/or careers are working out. (And those of you who are, thanks for keeping it to yourselves.)

But it kept happening. One after the other, and usually in that same, Eeyore-off-his-Prozac tone.

I’d hear, apropos of nothing and out of nowhere:

“I should probably just quit acting.”

The tone was unmistakeable.

This wasn’t frustration. Nope. This was different.

surrenderThis was…defeat. It was surrender. It was the least, feeble, dying breath of hope.

And I – trying to be the sensitive, supportive, thoughtful and mature veteran performer I believe myself to be- said, to each of my defeated friends, in the exact same tone, every time:

“What,” I asked them, “The hell,” I would add “Are you talking about?” I concluded.

And then I would get the story. They were similar, which I’m sure is a surprise to no one:

Screen Shot 2016-03-13 at 11.55.47 AM“I came out here to work. Nothing has turned out like I planned. I feel like I’m wasting my time/life/talent/youth here. And my solution is…

(And here things really went off the rails):

“I’m going to quit doing what I love to do. What other choice is there?”

I took this in. I tried to understand.

But it was- the longer I thought about it- totally….completely….

Oh, what’s the best way to put it….?

I think…

…crazy pajamas.

Yeah, that’s it. They were all crazy pajamas.

So I chose my next words very carefully.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I would say to my friends- slowly, as you would to a lunatic- and in a calming tone:

Recovery“Okay, so things didn’t work out in Los Angeles,” I’d say.  “Big deal. Because of that, what…you’re not an artist anymore? You don’t want to pursue your dream, be on stage, perform in front of a crowd, create thoughtful, memorable characters, explore different texts and ideas and themes, examine the human spirit and collaborate with like-minded artists while doing it?

“Well, if that’s your decision, let me tell you,” I’d say to them, leaning in close so they could understand every word.

And in my sincerest tone, I would say:

“Congratulations.”

EscapeAnd I’d mean it.

“You’re better off” I’d say. “I envy you. I truly do. You did it. You licked it. Not many people can. You have my admiration.

“No joke.  I’m really impressed.  Because I’ll tell ya: For far too many people, the arts are a lifelong affliction. So, many…so, so many people spend their youth, their adulthood, their middle-years, their decline and their dotage wasting their time/life/talent/youth in the arts without ever escaping, so, honestly:

“Well done,” I’d say.

“Please accept my kindest wishes for your future,” I’d say.

“I wish you all the luck in the world.”

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Oh, of course I wouldn’t say that. What an absolutely obnoxious thing that would be to say to someone, especially at such a vulnerable moment.

I would never be so callous. Perish the thought.

So what I’d say instead was:

galaxyquest.thumbnail

Never give up.  Never surrender.

“Don’t do it, my friend,” And I would grab their shoulders and look them in the eye. “Don’t ever, don’t ever give up. Never abandon your dream. Stay with it. Don’t lose faith.

“Quitting is not an option. You must always hope- hope against hope that the answer to your prayers is right around the corner. And keep that faith,” I’d say.

“Forever.”

prison doorThen I’d remember, and say: “Oh and be sure to sacrifice everything else in your life for your artistic pursuit, while you’re at it. Relationships, marriage, children, money, travel, even happiness.

“This,” I’d say,”is a lifelong commitment, being an actor. So if you do decide to stay with it, you’re locked in to this decision and will be required to remain an artist- forsaking all else- until death do you part. Are you willing to make that promise now and never go back on it? Ever, ever, ever?”

“Are you,” I’d ask them, “staying in the club, [insert name here]?”

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

And I’ll never know how they responded to that because, of course, I didn’t say that obnoxious bullshit to them either.

 Okay, here’s the real story, strictly according to Hoyle:

Giving Up“Look,” I’d say, “That’s up to you. I’m not going to push you either way. You want to stay in the arts, you want to get out…that’s your decision entirely.

“But,” I’d say, because I’m incapable of not injecting my opinion into almost any discussion: “Let me add just one thing, if I could:

“Before you make such a big decision, giving up on acting or whatever creative dream you’ve been pursuing, let me ask you:

“Why exactly are you giving it up? Are you quitting because you don’t like performing anymore or because you’re being prevented from doing it, living here in L.A.?”

CouchAnd they would all look at me and say, “Well sure, I want to do it. But I can’t. I can’t find even the smallest job in my chosen profession out here. What’s the point of staying with it?”

And I only had one response to that:

“So you’re basing your decision about whether or not you want to remain an artist based on the way you were treated during your time in Los Angeles?”

See? Like I said. Crazy pajamas.

child-letting-go-of-balloon1“Look,” I said, “You want to quit, quit. But quit because you don’t want to do it anymore, not because the casting agents of L.A. didn’t line up to invite you to star in their new crime drama or hilarious new rom-com.

“Quit because you’ve gotten everything you wanted or because you’ve gotten nothing you’ve wanted. But do me one favor:

“Don’t quit because of how you were treated in the world’s largest and most notoriously cruel market in the world. Don’t base your sense of self-worth on the opinions of a group of strangers who have never seen you work. Don’t make a life-altering artistic decision based on your experience living in the commercial capitol of the entertainment industry.”

RejectionAnd, then, because it was the right thing to do, I’d offer a suggestion.

“Maybe,” I’d say. “…you’re just in the wrong town.  You know?”

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Here’s the thing:  I’ve been in this business for my entire adult life and only recently I heard one of the worst things I’ve ever heard about this profession.

toothpaste-smileA friend of mine, who I will not name, was in Los Angeles recently to direct a commercial for a toothpaste company.  Now, naturally, you’d expect that the actresses he would be seeing for a spot like that would be beautiful.  The prettiest of the pretty girls, with perfect teeth, one after the other, lined up to be the next Colgate girl or Crest chick or whatever.

And since he is a well-traveled fellow and knows actors from all over, my director friend also called in someone that he knew from Chicago. He remembered, correctly, that she was a very pretty actress and might be right for the spot.

auditionsIt was only after the girls all showed up for the audition and he saw them in a group that he realized:

“Oh.  My mistake,” he thought, looking at his beautiful, Midwest friend.  “You’re not L.A. pretty. You’re Chicago pretty.”

And I must emphasize: He thought this. He would never dream of saying it.  Just so we’re clear.

So, based on this story (and trust me, it represents an accurate microcosm of this business out here), why would anyone- and I’m sorry, especially a young woman- use their experience as a performer in L.A. as a means of judging themselves as an artist?

rejectionYou’re not getting hired for the Colgate spot? Who. Cares?  You’re not being judged on your acting chops, intellect or interpretive skills as a performer for that spot. You’re being judged on your smiling ability.

And if you’re a beautiful, twenty-two year old actress (or actor) and you can’t get an agent in Los Angeles? Guess what- it’s because you’re one in sixty thousand beautiful, twenty-two year old actors in L.A. You’re a lump of coal in Newcastle.  So if you strike out, guess what?

It ain’t you. It’s them.

Hollywood

Oh, and I’m one to talk, right? Because if anyone embodies the “Hey, I’m going to California to try and make my fortune!” ethic, it is yours truly. I’ve been writing about pursuing exactly that dream since freakin’ November and I’m showing no signs of slowing.

So, yes, I’m here to make my fortune, it’s true. And against all odds. Like all the other schmucks.

I know. You don’t need to remind me.

But the difference is:  I’m not going to quit the business if it doesn’t work out for me here.

BullyAfter all, it is expected for me to fail. I’ve traveled to the most difficult place to work as an actor to…look for work as an actor. So naturally, the likelihood is that I will- when it calls comes grinding to a halt- go home empty handed.

But for crying out loud, I’m not going to quit acting because I feel unappreciated in this particular zip code. I can work anywhere. And will.

No joke:  I’m going back to Oak Park this summer to play one of the greatest roles ever written for a stage actor. So if you think I’m asking for- or expecting- any pity because I didn’t nail down a regular TV role in the three brief months I was here, don’t kid yourself.

My belief in my own abilities is undimmed. I still think I’m pretty goddamn good at my chosen profession. If I didn’t, I would have quit long ago. And- parenthetically- if you don’t think you’re good at your chosen profession, that is one of the few, legitimate reasons to quit.

ExitBut if I ever decided to turn my back on life as a performer- if I were ever to quit acting- it sure as hell wouldn’t be because of the reception I received from some casting agents I never met, doing guesswork about my as-yet-unseen abilities and- worst of all- basing their opinion of me on nothing more than what I look like in a one-in-two-thousand digital headshot.

At the end of the day, there are plenty of reasons to decide not to pursue acting as a profession. I know a lot of people who’ve walked away from it and were happier for having done so.

bowBut if you love it? If performing is the one thing that gives you joy and fulfillment? If it’s in your blood and just won’t get out?

Maybe- just maybe- you should change area codes before you turn in your papers.

Maybe- just maybe- you should look for work where there’s work for you to do.

Maybe- just maybe….

…you’re Chicago pretty.

And there ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.

The Money Clock

Lest you think that my entire time out here in Lala Land has been nothing more than basking in the sun, going on the occasional audition, polishing my stand-up routines and then- zip – back to the basking because the sun, she shines so brightly…

…no.Poolside

Actually, every once in a while, I worked. I mean, like, for money. At union rates and everything. And in doing so, I criss-crossed the country four-and-a-half times since the beginning of the year.  Crazy, huh?

Okay, here’s the story:

Airline MapFor regular readers of this blog, you might have noticed that there have been two- or three-day gaps between postings every once in a while. The reason for this is because, on four separate occasions in the past two months, I was traveling outside of L.A. for work; first to Dallas, then Chicago, then Newark, then Orlando.

There is this company out of New York that I ingratiated myself to about two years ago- thanks to my friend Brad Armacost- and, every month or so (sometimes more often), I get a call asking if I can travel somewhere (Phoenix, San Diego, Ft. Lauderdale) for a gig. I’ve always accepted and, at least judging by the fact that they keep calling me, the jobs have apparently gone very well.

Confidentiality-AgreementAnd I would love to describe both the company and the gigs, but I’m usually working for a client that has very strict confidentiality policies, so I should probably keep my big actor yap shut about what exactly we do.

Sounds a little creepy, all the secrecy, doesn’t it?

“I’m working for this company I can’t describe, traveling to exotic locales and performing work that is too confidential to discuss.

Bond“Oh, and also…I defeated SPECTRE.  You’re welcome.”

Anyway, the point is that I’ve gotten these very nice, semi-lucrative gigs every few weeks since my arrival in L.A. but…sadly, what I make doing these jobs simply isn’t enough to cover my nut (if you’ll pardon the expression). So every month, I go into the financial hole a little bit more.

These few jobs (though giving me as much compensation for each two-day gig than I earned in an entire week at my old day job) aren’t enough to cover the cost of both my mortgage and expenses in Chicago and my duties in Los Angeles, which require me to drive around aimlessly, polish my stand-up routine and bask in the sun (yes, the rumors are true).Money Hole

Eventually- and likely very soon- this West coast experiment will come to an end. Because while I’ve had fairly steady voice-over auditions come in (and go out) via email from both my Chicago and LA agents for the past nine weeks….I haven’t booked an actual voice-over job since I arrived on the West Coast.

VO MicAnd while I did, indeed, manage to get an agent out here in my first month (and accepted the pats on the back for having done so)…the poor guy representing me hasn’t been able to get me one on-camera audition since I signed with him.

And don’t misunderstand: I have no doubt he’s submitting me to casting agents.  It’s just…there’s some very bad news I need to relate to you about agency submissions here in Los Angeles.

See, in Chicago, if you have a reputable agent (and there are more than a few), you will regularly get submitted to one of the casting agents in town when an appropriate role that fits your type comes around. After that, you may not always get the call from the casting agent actually wanting to see you (they usually winnow that list down a bit and call in only a subset of the folks submitted) but…the odds are pretty good that you will- every once in a while at least- get a call, provided you fit the casting bill.

bus driverBUS DRIVER:  40’s-50’s.  White or similarly pale ethnicity. He is a friendly, but not stereotypically friendly driver of a bus. Big, but not fat. Deep, sonorous voice but..not announcery.  Maybe try British.  Or female.  Hell, we don’t know what the fuck we want.

And there’s a reason why, in Chicago, you will often have the opportunity to audition at a casting agency.  Because there, when a role is posted by the casting agent (and submissions from talent agencies are requested), the response is fairly moderate. Let’s suppose…ten or so submissions, more likely less, from each agency.  Half immediately rejected. That’s five people or so from each agency…maybe twenty to twenty-five people total for each role.  (I’m totally guessing at these numbers, by the way. But it’s an educated guess.)

People standing in line

At that rate, you- the Chicago actor- should get at least three or four auditions a year at one (or more) of the casting agents. At the very least. Every year. (If you’re not going that often…either get another agent or some new headshots. Stat.)

Okay. So that’s how we run things Chicago. Things are a bit different out here in Los Angeles. The following is not guesswork. I have confirmed it to be true:

LONG lineFor each request for actors that goes out to the talent agencies, your average L.A. casting director is flooded with actors vying for the role.  Most roles average 2,000 or more submissions from the hundreds of talent agencies across the city.

That’s two thousand people.  Trying to get one role.

resumesSo let’s be fair to the casting agents. With submission rates like that, they can’t possibly see all the actors.  Hell, they can’t even see a goodly fraction of them. So what do they do?

They weed them out, sight unseen. Ability unknown. Based on…who knows? The reputation of the agency? The quality of the headshot? The credits, or lack thereof? You’ll never know the truth of why you were rejected. Because- and this is for your own good- you won’t even likely know you were submitted for a role at all.

Your Résumé Thrown Away in the Garbage

So I understand the fact that, try as he might, Orion is going to have trouble getting me in the door of any casting director anywhere in town. He doesn’t have one of those big, powerful agencies that can force a casting agent to see a particular actor.  And me? I’m an unknown quantity. With a few network credits and a decent reel, maybe but…an unknown, out-of-town actor with said network credits, so who cares?

foot-in-door1-Terry-L-HansenOrion could submit me every day but, given what happens with each submission, I have a better chance at the California lottery.

And what that means is that there’s a good chance that, apart from the auditions I drum up for myself from Actors Access or Casting Networks (and there have been quite a few of those)…it could be weeks, even months before I get an actual audition for a real-life TV show or movie through my agency.

Money Clock #2So there you have it. The money clock is running. Barring some miraculous submission, followed by a knock-your-socks-off audition and then a once-in-a-lifetime offer of a real, paying job for yours truly…the clock will- most likely at the end of the month (and right on schedule)- finally run out.

And after that, I’m going home.

So, you know…happy ending either way.

Tick-tock.