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Friday, November 3, 2017

Really? You’re Famous?

Other than when I’m interviewing them, I don’t pay much attention to celebrities. I’ve often said I wouldn’t recognize most famous people if I bumped into them on the street. It turns out that’s true.

Many years ago, I was at the San Diego Comic-Con and I had reached the point where I needed a break from the hustle and bustle so I wandered away from the throng over to the hotel bar. I ended up passing the next 25 minutes downing scotch and sodas with a group of four or five other jovial men. I can’t recall what we talked about, not because of the passage of time or the abundance of liquor but simply because it was the sort of small talk one makes with strangers so that one doesn’t have to drink alone. There was a particularly gregarious young man, a few years older than myself, seated next to me who was really fun to talk to. Honestly, I felt as if we had all known each other for years and we were drinking at the local watering hole, and not strangers at a hotel bar on the other side of the country.

Eventually, I rose from my bar stool to return to the pandemonium of the convention, having been appropriately immunized with the sufficient number of shots of scotch. I said my goodbyes, waved nonchalantly to my drinking buds and headed back. I had gone about 10 feet when a young man stepped up excitedly to me and asked, “Do you know who that guy you were talking to is?”

I shrugged, slightly embarrassed at not being able to remember the name of someone to whom I’d been speaking for nearly half an hour. “Mike? Mark?” After all, what did it matter? I would speak to hundreds of people by the end of the convention and remember few, if any, of their names a day later.

“That’s Mark Hamill,” the young man said.

I remembered having watched a TV show as a kid starring a young actor named Mark Hamill and now that he mentioned it I could see the resemblance, although he was now much older. “The actor from The Texas Wheelers?” I asked. From what I later learned, I was probably about one of a dozen television viewers who had watched the show when it aired on ABC in 1974.

He looked at me incredulously. Obviously, he had never seen The Texas Wheelers but he had seen the movie Mark Hamill was cast in three years later; an obscure science-fiction film called Star Wars. At first, I couldn’t see the resemblance. Hamill was about my height, and no one has ever mistaken me for tall or anything near it. Luke Skywalker towered over the movie screen as a larger-than-life figure. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that had been simply the illusion of Hollywood.

A few years later, I was back in San Diego staying at the Marriott Marina Hotel with my full complement of pets in tow, having driven cross-country in a minivan. I learned San Diego had a doggie bakery that prepared confectionaries edible for canines so I decided to drive my Siberian Husky and my Weimaraner there one morning. What I didn’t know was that the hotel, which is adjacent to the convention center, allowed non-guests to park in its parking lot, even though the guests were paying an exorbitant daily parking fee. When I returned from the doggie bakery with my dogs I discovered the lot was full. That made me quite upset, since I had paid for parking space, so I parked in front of the lobby and brought both dogs inside and stood on line at one of the concierge desks to complain. The front desk was L-shaped and there were several lines, as this was an extremely large hotel.

My Siberian Husky became excited when she saw a woman standing in line on the other side of the L. I didn’t know why she would become so excited over a stranger until I realized who the stranger was. My Husky loved to watch television but only shows that featured animals; when humans came on, she would lose all interest and turn away from the screen. I’d often keep the TV turned to Animal Planet and at night we would watch Lassie. It was then I realized my Husky had somehow recognized June Lockhart, Lassie’s “mother” (Timmy’s mother, if we’re being technical).

The couple behind me noticed how excited my dog was, so I explained the situation to them. We had a good laugh about it and they complimented me on how beautiful both my dogs were. They told me they wished they had known the hotel accepted pets because they would have brought their dog. We talked about dogs and other things for about 20 minutes or more while we waited in the slow-moving line, and the entire time we spoke I couldn’t shake the feeling the man I was speaking to was familiar. I was certain I had seen him before, so I steered the conversation around hometowns and such but they were not from my state. Then I noticed he had a portion of a name tag jutting out from beneath his lapel. I strained my eyes, trying to decipher the writing whenever his jacket shifted, without appearing too conspicuous. Eventually, I could make out his full name and I knew immediately why he seemed familiar. After all, this was a man I had grown up watching on television. His hair had begun to gray and his face was lined with deep wrinkles but that was to be expected after 30 years. The name tag on the lapel of the man with whom I had been chatting so amicably about dogs read Walter Koenig. I had been talking to Ensign Chekov, who had appeared each week on my family’s 19-inch black-and-white Emerson TV set on Star Trek.

Back in the late 80s or early 90s, I was binge watching some of the early Dark Shadows episodes on VHS – the black and white ones introducing the 10-year-old ghost Sarah Collins, who had these haunting eyes. The next weekend, I attended  a Dark Shadows Festival in New York and received an invitation to a party at Studio 54. Even though it was past its heyday, I figured I couldn’t leave the Big Apple without checking Studio 54 off my bucket list so I popped in. Had I been expecting to see any of the brilliant Sy Thomasoff sets from the show I would’ve been disappointed; the only indication it had once been a soundstage (aside from its odd shape) was the architecture of the rafters above.

So I mingled, feeling a bit out of place as a tourist alone in New York City. Then, I saw a young woman my age (as I said, this was decades ago) who looked familiar. Naturally, I approached her (she had some friends around her) and told her she looked familiar, asking if we had met before. It must have seemed like the lamest pickup line possible, and she replied she didn’t think so; but I was certain I had seen her before so I pressed on. “Are you from Florida?” I asked. “Have you ever been to Florida? Where did you go to school? Work?” I knew I recognized her but the more questions I asked, the more I saw that “Omigod, he’s a stalker” look in her eyes, and her friends were giving me dirty looks, so I slowly backed off, hoping to lose myself in the crowd.

An even younger woman, who apparently had been standing behind me, approached me and asked, “Do you know who she is?” I replied I thought I knew her but apparently I didn’t, although her face was so familiar deep down I was certain we had crossed paths. The girl told me, “That’s Sharon Smyth. She was one of the stars on Dark Shadows.” I explained that wasn’t possible because she was my age and all the stars on my favorite childhood television show had been a good 20 years older than me. “Not her,” the girl replied. “She played Sarah, the 10-year-old ghost.” Immediately, I realized I had recognized the same haunting eyes at Studio 54 that I had been seeing for hours every day on television before coming to New York. Oops.

Flash forward about another two decades. I’d been invited to spend the week at Seaview Terrace in Newport, Rhode Island, the original “Collinwood” mansion used in the photo props for the Dark Shadows television series. The mansion was in need of repair and as part of the fundraising process I did a special limited-edition print run of about 300 copies of a short story collection and donated it so that it could be sold with all the proceeds to go toward restoration of the mansion. I know there weren’t 300 guests there that week, so either they sold them all over time or there’s a box of my books sitting in the haunted attic of Collinwood guarded by its resident ghosts. I also agreed to read some excerpts and be available to sign books during the weekend. The first evening there was a cocktail party and a few people approached me for autographs, so I kept the pen in my hand. I turned and bumped into a woman, apologizing of course, and she saw me holding the pen. She asked if I wanted her autograph. I replied, rather awkwardly, “Actually I was just signing autographs. Who are you?”

She introduced herself as Sharon Smyth, “I played the little girl Sarah on Dark Shadows.” This time there was nowhere to run and no large crowd to fade into. Oops again.

So I apologized profusely, first for not having recognized who she was, and then retroactively for having recognized her two decades earlier at Studio 54 and coming off as an obsessive stalker, LOL. A few days later, several of us attended the wonderful Judi Dench movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Sharon and I sat together to watch the film. All was forgiven, although she hasn’t invited me to another movie since.  ;­)

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