From when I was nine until I was twenty, I spent my summers at Camp Ogama, a co-ed sleepover camp for children six to sixteen, located a hundred and fifty miles north of my home town of Toronto. I’ll be starting a series of posts about camp starting next Tuesday. July the First. It’s Canada’s birthday. Send a card.
Today, I want to tell you about the first summer I didn’t go to camp. I was twenty-one when I attended an eight-week Bertolt Brecht summer theater workshop at UCLA. The experience was the first step in changing the entire direction of my life.
Here’s the chronology. I graduated from college in June, I attended the theater workshop that summer, and in September, I started law school. Which I quit after five weeks.
I quit law school for two reasons. One, I wasn’t cut out to be a lawyer (“I’m sorry I lost your case. Good luck in prison. Here’s my bill.”) And two, my experience at the theater workshop gave me an illuminating glimpse of where I actually belonged.
I always wanted to be an actor. Some day, I’ll return to my highly praised series, “Why I Can’t Be A…”, glowingly cited for its relentless negativity, with a post entitled “Why I Can’t Be An Actor.” When I was twenty-one, I had this not totally formed thought that I could be.
I knew I couldn’t be a movie star – I have a mirror – but I never wanted to be. I wanted to be a character actor. Character actors rarely carry the picture, but there’s something about their ability to command your attention that often allows them to steal it. I wanted to be that guy.
My acting heroes were Paul Muni and Spencer Tracy. Muni, a product of the Yiddish Theater in New York, went on to great acclaim in the movies, first playing gangsters (Scarface), and later portraying imposing characters of varying nationalities. He played French guys (Pasteur, Zola), a Mexican (Juarez), and – hey, it was the Thirties – a Chinese fellow (The Good Earth). At the end of his career, he found time to play a Jew (The Last Angry Man).
Spencer Tracy was a star, but he wasn’t your classic leading man. If Clark Gable was in the picture, Tracy had no shot at getting the girl. Sometimes, they’d make him a priest, so he’d be out of the running from the get-go. It softened the blow. No girl, but he still had God.
I’d been in a lot of plays at camp. People seemed to like me. I thought I had, though maybe not to the same degree, the same attributes that drew audiences to Muni and Tracy – “regular people” looks, and the ability to, I don’t know…not act, exactly, but “be”– it’s embarrassing to say this – in an eye-catching manner.
When I graduated from the University of Toronto, I had this unrealistic notion of studying acting at an American university. It didn’t really make sense. My family had little money for tuition, I had never taken an acting lesson, and my entire experience was camp. (That, and a Purim play in Hebrew school, where I played a Babylonian palace guard and somebody stole my bathrobe.) There was nothing else I was dying to be. So why not try to become an actor?
I went to our university library and leafed through the tiny number of catalogues they offered for American colleges. There were no current catalogues whatsoever. The ones they had were yellowed and tattered. Some of them had a picture of President Roosevelt on the first page.
Somewhere, I discovered that UCLA was offering a theater workshop that summer. It sounded perfect. The course was eight weeks long, just like camp. I had a plan, I thought. I’d go to the workshop, I’d come back, and I’d start law school. I didn’t say it was a good plan. But people like me, you like to have a plan.
I applied to UCLA. I had no idea who Bertolt Brecht was; it didn’t matter. It was acting. In California. California had sun every day! Have you any idea what that means to a Canadian?
A week before the workshop was to begin, I still hadn’t heard if I’d been accepted. My friend, Alan, agreed to make the call to find out. (I was emotionally unready to hear “No” directly.) It turned out they had forgotten to contact me. They told Alan to tell me I was in.
Alan quickly helped me prepare the scene for my audition. (Everyone would audition the first night, so they could decide how to cast us.) I had selected a speech from Inherit the Wind, playing the Clarence Darrow prototype, “Henry Drummond” in the dramatic depiction of the “monkey trial”.
You know, it just came to me today. The role of “Henry Drummond” was played by both Paul Muni and Spencer Tracy, by Tracy in the movie, and by Muni in the original play. I wonder if that affected my choice of an audition piece at the time? I’m not sure. Maybe I just liked it.
Mirroring the celebrated 1925 “show trial”, Drummond defended a Tennessee schoolteacher’s right to teach evolution to his students. The speech I chose to audition with involves Drummond’s observation that progress is not a bargain. There’s always a trade off.
DRUMMOND: (SPEAKING TO THE JURY) “Sometimes, I think three’s a man who sits behind a counter and says, “All right, you can have the telephone. But you lose privacy, and the charm of distance. Madame, you may vote. But at a price. You lose the right to retreat behind the powder puff and your petticoat. Mister, you may conquer the air. But the birds will lose their wonder. And the clouds will smell of gasoline.”
I think I just liked it.
The week went fast, and before I know it, I’m on a plane headed for the other side of the continent. It was the first time I had ever traveled anywhere alone.
We land at Los Angeles airport. I was alone. And totally lost. Did I mention I was alone? I was alone. And lost. In America, a country ranked very high, possibly first, in random slayings.
I spot a bus. I was familiar with airport buses from my many visits to New York. (Though I never went there alone.) Airport buses are cheaper than taxis, and they stop at prominent hotels. I needed a hotel for the night. I wasn’t expected at UCLA till the following day.
The bus driver informs me he stops at the Hilton. I’ve heard of the Hilton. I stayed at a Hilton in New York. The New York Hilton was downtown, in the middle of everything. I figured it’s the same in Los Angeles, so I get on the bus.
“Take me to the Hilton,” I instructed, as if stepping into a taxi.
“Okay,” replied the bus driver, but his face said, “It’s a bus. We have scheduled stops.”
The bus dropped me off at the Hilton in downtown Los Angeles. I had no idea I was twenty miles from UCLA.
Los Angeles is different. It’s really, really big. The downtown Hilton and UCLA are in the same city, but they’re really far apart. There’s another Hilton, in Beverly Hills, which is closer to the college, but I wasn’t aware of it at the time. Who knew a city could have more than one Hilton?
The next morning, a Sunday, I’m sitting at a bus stop, the bus stop the Hilton doorman had directed me to when I told him I wanted to take the bus to UCLA. I had totally missed his look of incredulity.
Sunday morning. Waiting at a bus stop. In Los Angeles. I’m about to learn my second lesson about the city. My first lesson was Los Angeles is really, really big. My second lesson was that in Los Angeles, buses don’t come by too often on a Sunday morning.
In Los Angeles, buses don’t come by that often at the best of times. Sunday mornings, it’s a joke. So there I am. Sunday morning in Los Angeles. Me and my suitcase, stuffed with two months worth of clothing. Waiting at the bus stop. For two hours.
Between my increasingly desperate checking for approaching buses, I look up a sign indicating the current temperature. The sign says: ninety-eight degrees. I’m thinking this could be it. I could actually pass away at that bus stop.
Finally, the bus arrives. It kind of shimmered in the heat; I wasn’t certain it was real. I peel my sweat-drenched self off the bench, hoist up my overstuffed suitcase, and I drag it onto the bus.
The bus ride seemed endless. I’ve never seen a city this big. Maybe it wasn’t the same city. Maybe the driver, lulled by the leisurely Sunday morning schedule, had had a lapse in concentration and had driven us out of town.
After what seemed like hours, we arrive at the corner of Wilshire and Westwood Boulevards, and the driver tells me we’re there. I drag my suitcase off the bus. I look around. I don’t see a college.
Time for my third lesson about Los Angeles. Lost and headed for sunstroke, I hail a taxi. You don’t hail taxis in Los Angeles. You call the cab company and they send one over. I didn’t know that. So I hailed one.
And he stopped. He must have noticed the desperation in my eyes. And my giant suitcase. And it’s ninety-eight degrees.
The cab driver takes me to UCLA. It’s about three minutes away. Although on foot, with that suitcase, in that heat? Yeah, I never get there.
I go to the Registration Building. They check the list for my dorm assignment. I’m not on the list.
There it is. The Final Touch. I’m in a strange country. Three thousand miles from home. It’s ninety-eight degrees. And they’ve never heard of me. Crying cannot be far away.
I insist I’m expected. They find me a room. I drag my suitcase from the Registration Office to the dormitory. It takes half an hour. It makes sense. Giant city. Giant school.
I go to my dorm room. It’s tiny. The beds, when pulled out, are six inches apart. My roommate, the stranger I’ll be sleeping six inches away from, is already there and set up. He says he’s an engineering student. His classes start at eight o’clock in the morning. I’d be doing shows till midnight, and my first class was at ten.
Throughout the following eight weeks, when I got back from the show, he was asleep, and when he left for class, I was asleep.
We would never speak to each other again.
Coming Monday: The audition and the aftermath.