When writer-director-producer David Eric Brenner arrives at 7 a.m. to oversee an open casting call for Pythons and extras for the upcoming Hippofilms feature Gin and Tonic — the story of Graham Chapman’s rise from the depths of Cambridge medical school through the plateau of Monty Python’s Flying Circus to the heights of death at age 48 from cancer — he finds about 100 people outside the casting office on Hollywood Boulevard, many in zany and/or wacky costumes, including French knights, Spanish cardinals, Gumbys, King Arthur and some kind of goat boy. Twenty of the highly motivated auditionites stayed overnight on the sidewalk.
Inside, each auditionist is given a bracelet with a number, for easy cross- referencing. “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition,” auditionist X-122 informs Brenner and his co-writer, Jim Yoakum (also director of the Graham Chapman Archives), on the power side of the audition table, with precisely the affect Dick Cheney might muster to read aloud a laundry list or the names of the people he’s killed so far this year. “Our chief weapon is surprise, surprise and fear, our two weapons are fear and surprise and ruthless efficiency, our three weapons are fear and surprise and ruthless efficiency, and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope, our four, no, amongst our weapons, amongst our weaponry are such elements as fear, surprise, I’ll come in again.”
“Thank you. That was great. Thanks.”
Next, to expand on X-122’s theme of Monty Mamet’s Flying Beckett, X-125 performs John Cleese’s dead-parrot routine with a funereal stiffness rivaled only by your reading it quietly to yourself now, with the following punctuation: “It is not pining, it has passed on. This parrot is no more, it has ceased to be. It’s expired and gone on to meet its maker, this is a late parrot, it is a stiff, bereft of life, it rests in peace. If you hadn’t nailed it to the perch, it would be pushing up the daisies. It has rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-parrot.”
“Thank you very much. That was great.”
Several less and more accomplished actors perform, and just as I begin to lose hope, in walks X-120, looking every inch a heartland hooker or junior-college cheerleader circa 1974. It’s not a costume. (Remember, though: These auditions — with New York, London and Tokyo to follow — are not only for the parts of Jones, Palin, Idle, Cleese, Chapman and Gilliam, but also of remarkable characters/extras of natures yet to be determined. So don’t write off X-120 yet.)
“What is your favorite color?” Brenner asks her.
“Black, red and black-and-red,” she replies. “And blue. Black, red and blue.”
“Whenever you’re ready.”
“Okay.” X-120 seems lost, spaced out. Utterly unlike anything Python that anyone’s ever seen, or wanted to see. And yet, here she is, on Earth, for us to watch.
“I cahnt believe you came!” she begins. “I will make. You believe. Oh — the laundry’s over there, Dahling. Be careful. I don’t want you to get dirty. Let me put this robe down. For you. Your Highness.” At this last bit, the “Your Highness,” X-120 composes a subtle but extremely disturbing sneer that triggers a mild sensation of freaking out in at least one of us. This is not a healthy parrot.
“Tell me,” X-120 continues, “did you wash your hand? I hope you did. Because you know how it is when you get dirty. You might just get hepatitis, probably. Or, it could be something else. Or worse. Hepatitis A is just for, you know, when you eat something, and you get it inside your body. And after this, you might just end up getting a hepatitis B that could beeeeeeeeee . . . you know, you get the sexual kind of disease, mostly. You get your John Dice. And. Okay. We’ll meet again, and hopefully soon. And when we do meet, I will make you believe. And from then on, Dahling, when we meet again, I will see you then. And I shall sing a song before I go. Oh. Goodbye. Goodbye, Dahling.”
And she sings: “This little light of mine. I’m gonna let it shine. This little light. Of mine . . .” As she sings, she flips us the bird — extends her middle finger in brazen disdain and passes it around as if it were a candle and she’s illuminating us. Slowly, she flips us all off, so very, very frighteningly slowly. After the song ends, she continues to show us her flipped bird in silence for a few more seconds, so that we . . . actually, I’m not too sure why she’s doing it. But she does, and it’s quite disturbing.
“Well, that was very nice!” says Brenner. He’s a polite fellow. “I don’t think I fully understood it, but it — ”
“It’s actually one of the scenes. I’m doing a scene. This scene is more of a Bible scene. Even though it may have some bad words in it. Because the guy was an atheist. And then I told him the next time I see you, I will make you believe. Because I’m trying to make him believe of what a certain prophesy is. Because I’m doing my own script.”
“So this is something that you wrote?”
“Very nice. Have you ever seen the famous Monty Python movie — ”
“Yes, I have.”
“Monty Python . . .”
“. . . and the Holy Gargoyle?”
“Thank you. That was very nice.”
Now you can write her off. And I can run, very, very quickly, out to the late- afternoon parking lot, where kindly staffers invite me to shake off X-120’s curse with a cathartic session of Monkey in the Middle. I get to be Monkey first.
The Heat Is On
When our girl started spotting, just a few red drops here and there at first, she was confused and a bit scared. I tried to be the mensch that the situation called for.
“Listen, Willa [short for Wilhemina], this is perfectly natural,” I told her. “There’s nothing wrong with you. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
But soon enough, dudes came calling — they have radar for this sort of thing.
“Go on, get out of here, you horny old dog. She’s just a kid!” I shouted at the first suitor, chasing him down the street and throwing a few stones to make sure he got the message.
Then I realized he probably wouldn’t get the message, since he was, in fact, a horny old dog.
And Willa was in heat. We found this out after we took her to the vet when the blood started showing up in little droplets on the floor. We had assumed she was fixed, since she was a rangy, almost-grown pup when a friend of a friend who didn’t have enough room for a shepherd dropped her off about a year ago.
They do grow up fast, don’t they?
The vet told us Willa couldn’t be fixed until a couple months after estrus, which she said would last seven to 10 days.
The dogs that started stalking around our house weren’t much to look at, and Willa seemed more concerned than attracted. I was worried there’d be a rash of missing-dog notices going up around the neighborhood.
At first, the whole thing was a minor inconvenience. Then, a couple of determined mutts managed to get between the wrought-iron posts of our gate and started to tunnel under a wall into our back yard, where Willa, a pretty shy girl, wondered what they wanted with her. Aside from not wanting to bring more puppies into a world that has a puppy problem, I felt that Willa wasn’t emotionally ready for this sort of interaction, despite what her body was saying. I tried my best to be reassuring even as Willa’s world turned upside down. As far as I was concerned, her fleeting innocence hung in the balance.
Then, she turned our favorite furry bed cover into a giant tampon. That was problematic.
Soon, we noticed the effect Willa’s condition was having on Max, a battered old guy with an empty change purse whom we had taken in several years ago. Max doesn’t have any teeth, let alone live ammo, and he can barely walk. Still, he seemed forlorn that he couldn’t be of more service to Willa, who was becoming increasingly agitated — less worried and more curious about hounds hovering around on the street. The simple things that used to mean so much to Max — a solid shit, an occasional treat and a rub on the belly — seemed less satisfying to him as Willa started soliciting him in a way that made us all feel a little uncomfortable.
Still, Max tried to punch his man card by chasing away Willa’s courtiers, who didn’t have much in the way of manners, anyway. He accomplished this with surprising verve, given that his top speed is about 4 miles an hour and his bark is more like a yelp.
I got a call at work the other day from
“You wouldn’t believe what’s going on here,” she said. “Willa’s practically throwing herself at Max, and he’s moaning like he knows he should be doing something.” They say amputees can still feel their missing limbs.
She told me that Max, who eats lying down, actually dragged himself across the room on his front legs in a futile attempt to salve Willa’s flaming kootch with his tongue.
That evening, while my wife made dinner, Willa nearly jumped out the window. I ran outside and saw that same horny old mutt from before lurking around.
“Don’t tell me you want him now, do you? What kind of tramp are you turning into?”
Willa looked at me like I was nuts and tried to jump out the window again.
I chased the dog away and patrolled the grounds. I noticed the underground tunnel was now nearly complete. I filled it in with rocks and pulled my car right up to the wall. After dinner, I went out back to get some laundry from the dryer, and somehow that damn dog was there in the back yard. I was almost starting to admire him. Even so, I growled like a wolf and the dog fled.
The next morning, after a night of Willa prancing around in frustration, Max sulking in defeat, and me recoiling in horror, I took our dogs for their walk. An aristocratic Doberman, the one with a full change purse who sometimes deigns to come down from his perch to indulge Max’s lame woofing — but who heretofore had all but ignored Willa — was out on the sidewalk. Suddenly, Willa was all he was interested in. It was like he was seeing her for the first time. He followed us all the way home, venturing a few well-mannered pokes into her nether region with his nose. Willa seemed a little too receptive, and Max and I finally sent him home. He’s not a very brave Doberman.
“Honey,” I said to my wife when we got home, thinking now of the possibilities, “I think Willa’s kind of into that Doberman.”
“No,” my wife said. “She’s not into that Doberman. She’s into the idea of that Doberman.”
In the Lap of Lobbyists
Call him A-Pad. Like A-Rod or J.Lo. Except this tag belongs to L.A.’s own hottie, City Council President Alex Padilla, who made the girls at the exclusive Harvard-Westlake School swoon last year when he came by for a visit. Eighteen-year-old Laura Berghoff reveals that bit of information at Thursday night’s Seventh Annual Los Angeles Political Roast, hosted by three big City Hall lobbyists — or rather two lobbyists plus a lobbyist-turned-councilman-chief-of-staff. The bash, which raises money for the American Diabetes Association, has become a mandatory ritual of L.A. politics and fund-raising, the must-see-and-be-seen event for anyone who aspires to City Hall clout.
Picture Padilla, this year’s victim, seated onstage as strip music comes on. Out wiggles councilman and ex-cop Dennis Zine, blond wig on his head, wispy red dress over his gray suit, pink feather boa around his neck, sidling up to Padilla, wagging his butt and — wait, is he really? — yes, he is. Zine is giving Padilla a very convincing lap dance.
Everything has shades of meaning, layers of spoof covering over battles lost and won on the council floor, insults that are really jokes and jokes, if you listen carefully, that are really insults. Remember that the council banned lap dancing last year, only to backtrack once the lobbyists out in the audience forced them to. Now here comes Cindy Miscikowski, ridiculed at the time as a schoolmarm for sponsoring the ban, and she’s laughing as she pulls out a tape measure to be sure Zine follows the (rescinded) law to keep six feet from A-Pad. And look, now onto the stage marches Councilman Greig Smith, an LAPD reserve cop, and with him Police Chief William Bratton. The two slam Zine against the wall, cuff him and march him away.
Lots of lap-dancing jokes. Lots of jokes about breaking into the Mayor’s Office, since it was for this very event that Padilla and Smith’s chief of staff and dinner co-host, Mitch Englander, pressed a security guard a few Saturdays back to unlock Jim Hahn’s office so they could shoot some video. The mayor said, when he found out, that he felt violated. The guard was suspended. But everyone at the dinner cranes to watch the video, which, alas, shows only the word censored when it gets to the part where Padilla enters Hahn’s office.
And there are pictures. One has A-Pad reading Dr. Seuss, with the narration recited by Art Torres, chairman of the state Democratic Party: “I do not like green eggs and ham, I do not like LeeAnn Pel-ham.” Huh? But you see, Pelham is director of the Ethics Commission, which fined Padilla a record amount for campaign fund-raising violations, and sent to the council a slew of lobbying restrictions that Padilla didn’t like.
Now Councilman Eric Garcetti sits at the piano singing words that, at the wrong time or in the wrong place, could get him decked. He sings of a boy who grew up wanting to do good, but, “One day, that boy, he woke up/Next to a horse’s head/With a note scrawled by James Acevedo saying/I’m running Alex Padilla instead.” See, Acevedo is a political boss, a city commissioner, a developer, and he’s the one who got Padilla to . . . oh, but you knew that.
Listen carefully, and you can just make out that the true butt of much of this humor is likely the mayor, who delivers some weak jokes with
a thud early in the evening, then takes off to another event. There are lots of cracks about a grand-jury probe into “pay-to-play” contracting allegations. Padilla’s name is used, but everyone knows the jokes are directed at Hahn.
Finally, young Laura Berghoff — daughter of Arnie Berghoff, lobbyist for the operators of the Sunshine Canyon landfill and founder of this event — reminds the audience at the $300-a-plate (minimum) evening that they are here to do more than test the humor of their friends and adversaries.
Diabetes is the fastest-growing disease among teens in Los Angeles County. Zev Yaroslavsky has it. So does Padilla’s mother. So does Laura Berghoff.
She has graduated from Harvard-Westlake and is now a freshman at Columbia, but Berghoff tells the crowd it’s best to speak plainly.
“Having diabetes sucks,” she says.
Mr. Phoenix’s Wild Ride
Charles Phoenix, the raconteur who performs “retro slide-show tours” of the good life in sun-drenched, prosperity-bound Los Angeles of the ’50s and ’60s, has now turned his eye from interpreting a past frozen in photos to the remnants of bustling city life suspended in the bricks and mortar of downtown L.A. Along with 49 other “tourists,” I meet up with Phoenix on a Sunday morning near the sundial at the main entrance to Union Station, where we’ll board the Gold Line to start his “Disneyland Tour of Downtown Los Angeles.” (www.godblessamericana.com/downtown)
But first, the train station. Phoenix, wearing dressed khakis, white bucks and a Mickey Mouse hat with “Charles” embroidered in cursive on the back, speaks into a microphone connected to a megaphone slung over his shoulder. Moving at a clip but talking with the casual confidence of a ’50s high school geography teacher, he marches through the main waiting room, commenting on the incongruity of a giant pair of Baroque loudspeakers in the otherwise flawless Art Deco and Spanish Colonial Revival. “The style police must not have been around when they installed those,” he notes.
Then he’s off, pied piper to the likes of Joanne and Steven Brause, a 50-ish couple from Whittier revisiting their honeymoon days, or Colleen Robinson, a 1940s Hollywood High alum who has brought her daughter and granddaughter along to soak in the history of these streets — from Chungking Road on the western edge of Chinatown, to Olvera Street, down Broadway, around the horn of the garment district and onward to Carroll Avenue and Disney Hall. Clifton’s Brookdale Cafeteria on Broadway, with its famous theme-park décor of cascading waterfalls and redwoods, is the obvious place to stop for lunch and one of Phoenix’s patented slide shows. Up in the third-floor VIP dining room, over sliced turkey, pickled beets and lime Jell-O, we look at someone’s family photo of Disneyland: four girls in identical dresses standing next to two “street guys,” all waiting for Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Says Phoenix, “Those two toughies will ensure that Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride will remain Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.”
Phoenix, who has a knack for seizing on overlooked but telling details in old Kodachrome images and rendering sly judgments on how our parents really lived, is doing something similar downtown: By merely stopping to look, he is seeing. It almost doesn’t matter where he levels his sights or, for that matter, just what it is he sees. Warwick Stone, creative director at the Hard Rock Hotel Casino Las Vegas, saw Phoenix do his “Tiki Festival” show of 1950s Hawaiian-vacation slides, and a later show, which included “a vintage slide of a woman in a completely see-through nightie,” notes Stone
ruefully. “And he did five minutes on the shower
curtain!” Without Phoenix, Stone admits, he might never have traipsed through downtown. “The
problem,” he says, “is people who live in L.A. stay
in their neighborhoods.”
No one would say that of Phoenix, who pokes his nose into pockets of downtown no sane tour guide would dare investigate. Like the curvy Winston Street, in the center of the toy district. “Winston Street is kind of rundown, but I have a dream it’ll be turned into, well, a pedestrian mall.” He says this as the bus we’re now on chugs along the narrow street where the principal view is of bums in makeshift toy-box homes. The buildings and the arc of the street are a mere backdrop to this all too up-to-date Dickensian portrait. The diesel roar of our bus has stirred the local populace — and they cast resentful eyes on what must be the first tourist bus ever to trespass their doorsteps.
“Maybe a charming little pedestrian mall down this charming little curved street isn’t so good an idea after all,” Phoenix cheerfully remarks. Still, you have the feeling he’s right: This is a fine street of splendid 1920s storefronts aligned on an easy curve in the very heart of the city. And nobody, save the bums, has noticed for 50 years. Phoenix as well as his tourists now have. Such sidewalk discoveries are the true nucleus of revitalization.
On a gilded Saturday afternoon in what could not yet be called spring, I and an anti-war contingent of thousands massed at Hollywood and Vine for an early dose of renewal. The sun was brighter but the mood was notably darker than it had been a little more than a year ago, when protesters were still giddy with the possibility that the Iraq War might not happen because of their action.
Now, after months of a sour economy, steadily mounting American casualties and the recent terrorist bombings in Madrid that realized the worst fears of war critics who were pointedly not listened to, the crowd was peevish. Signs and banners were less about catchall leftist ideology and creative wordplay than terse messages like “Bush Lied/Our Soldiers Died,” and “Bush Is an Ignorant, Arrogant Asshole.” Unfunny reality at least had the effect of focusing people where they might have been too flippant before; when we finally pushed off and began moving west down the boulevard, there were few of the stragglers, ditchers or idly curious march-crashers that I recall from last time.
The formation was, dare I say, almost military. The cops lining the march route laid back. The whole thing was re-affirming but over much too quickly for me, like Christmas, and I wandered off Highland to Selma feeling a letdown take hold — would this not work, again? Then I thought of Bayard Rustin, the little-known brain behind the historic March on Washington who had agitated for change his whole life. Rustin biographer John D’Emilio said recently that Rustin never thought of not marching because he wasn’t getting a desired outcome — the complete absence of a desired outcome is precisely why he took to the streets, again and again. I resolved to do this again, though I sincerely hope I don’t have to.
—Erin Aubry Kaplan
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