Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Sid Caesar -- Comic Genius

Another show biz legend has left us. Sid Caesar, comic genius, died Feb. 12.

The closest I ever came to being struck stupid when meeting a real star was when I wangled a backstage interview with Sid Caesar. He was in San Francisco appearing onstage in LITTLE ME. I was a new stringer for the Fresno Bee and the minute I walked into his dressing room I knew I was out of my league.

I pulled out my steno pad and fountain pen and promptly dropped the pen. It rolled over to Caesar's chair. He picked it up and handed it to me. I looked into the bluest eyes I had ever seen and was struck stupid.

I kept a death grip on my steno pad but didn't take a single note the whole time. Every time I stumbled through a question, Caesar would open his mouth and his "handler" would reply. Only once did Caesar actually get a word in edgewise.

 I asked him why he was so much funnier on stage than on TV.  He raised one of those expressive eyebrows and offered a simple explanation for the magic of live theater. He said that because I had bought a ticket, dressed for the occasion and made an effort to get myself into a seat, I was primed to think he was funny. In short, performer and audience worked together. We expected to be entertained and we helped to make it happen.

That’s a lesson I never forgot and I pass it on to anyone who quakes at the prospect of appearing before an audience. What the great comedian told the green reporter is as true as ever. The audience is not your enemy. The audience is part of your presentation. Whether they know it or not, the people behind those smiling faces want you to succeed. The interaction that Caesar described is 99 percent of a successful program. With a little preparation and practice you can handle the other one percent.

**Adapted from my post to the DorothyL list serv on Dec. 19, 2013, and my article in the SouthWest Sage of August, 2007.
**Photo scanned from a PR handout when I met Sid Caesar.





Monday, February 10, 2014

Outlaws, Indians and Family Fables

Photo: Cousins, from left, Pat Browning, Beth Ridle, Doug Yarholar, Tom Lucas, Carolyn Smith

 Grandpa was Scots-Irish, and illiterate. Grandma was full-blood Muscogee Creek, educated in the white man’s mission school. They lived in interesting times, on a farm at Greasy Creek, Oklahoma.

I’d like to say Greasy Creek got its name because oil ran under the land, but I don’t want to start another family fable. More likely, the name came west with the Creeks who were removed from their ancestral homelands in the southeastern United States.

The Creeks are great storytellers. As my cousin Doug said, they can be a little windy. Take the legend of Grandpa, the illiterate Scots-Irishman with a reputation for reading the Bible, speaking French and curing sick horses.

At a family birthday dinner I sat with my brother Tom, who loves those old fairy tales, and my Cousin Doug, who could probably recite family history in his sleep. Tom heard this story from an elderly relative who merely smiled when you caught her in a flight of fancy.

The story goes that Grandpa was fetched to treat a horse lying prone in a barn. Grandpa said a few words in French, read a few Bible verses, and “laid hands” on the horse. Then he went up to the farmer’s house for a hearty supper. After supper, lo and behold – Grandpa found the horse up eating hay and swishing his tail.

Tom later double-checked the story with an aunt, who said, “That’s absurd. Dad couldn’t read or write and the only languages he spoke were English and Creek.

We had a good laugh. “So much for his fluency in 28 Indians dialect,” I said.

Tom’s wife, who was half-listening, said, “I heard it was nine.”

I did hear a couple of true stories. One concerned my great-grandfather, Old Frank, who was some kind of deputy marshal when Indian Territory outlaws were tried in federal court at Fort Smith, Arkansas. The judge there was Isaac C. Parker, the famous “hanging judge.”

Old Frank was either a volunteer or appointee who transported non-Indian miscreants from Indian Territory to Fort Smith. Since there was no jail in his neck of the woods he kept the prisoners in his home. It’s said that he let them borrow his rifles to go hunting while they waited for the trip to Arkansas. When it was time to go, Old Frank chained them to the horses and away they went.

Indians had their own tribal courts and tribal police for Indian lawbreakers. In the Creek Nation, a tribal member of a violent crime was given a year to put his affairs in order and make arrangements for his family. At an appointed time, he appeared before the council and chose his one-man firing squad. It was usually a friend, or a marksman who could make one shot do the job.

Shortly after the birthday dinner I went to a family wedding on the hottest day of the year, low 100s in the shade. I arrived drenched in sweat. Fast-forward 50 years. A little kid says, “Grandma, tell us about your wedding and the old auntie who stood up and took off all her clothes when the preacher said, ‘Who gives this woman?’” A family legend is born. Didn’t happen, but who will be around to say so?

The truth is, the wedding was lovely. The chapel was once a dance hall, designed like a Spanish hacienda, with ornately carved doors and massive furniture. The ceiling was draped with twinkle lights and Japanese lanterns. The couple wrote their own commitment vows, including this great line: “I promise to love you as you are, and not as I want you to be.”

Five generations occupied the pews, from babes in arms and little girls with flowers in their hair and glitter on their shoes, to a couple of old cowboys wearing straw hats. The bride’s friends had arrived earlier with trays of homemade hors d’oeuvres. After the ceremony there was a rush to the bar. Guess who got to the food first. That’s right. You’re looking at her.

And I was home before dark. Families, God bless ‘em, fables, foibles and all.