There's a lesser known Circle of Hell reserved and engirded with a red-velvet v.i.p. rope for unrepentant name droppers, and that is precisely where you will find me when I palm some coins off on the ferryman. Alright, I'm mixing mythologies, but the point is that star-gazing is fun! and that's precisely what I got an eyeful of this last Saturday night.
The band played a song at the 34th Annual Vision Awards, a benefit for blindness and award show for visionary work in the arts and sciences. Yeah, I'd never heard of it either. Nonetheless, it was held in The Beverly Hilton which, while famous for many reasons, is mostly known to me via the Merv Griffin Show, as "Friends and guests of the Merv Griffin Show..." always stayed there, capping the end of his talk show. I watched that all the time as a kid, and it's a wonder that my tastes developed as they are, in spite of that particular influence. That, Lawrence Welk and Dinah Shore. Anyway, The Hotel is inextricable from the idea of Merv Griffin and all he represents, as Merv once was from Eva Gabor.
Needless to say, an odd venue for the band, but conscious as we were of the sense of dislocation, we were happy to be there. After all, the amusement factor was first rate. There was that tiny gal on the parking elevator whom Tex is sure was Renee Zellwegger, and look who's on the red carpet... Charles Durning and Dick Van Patten! And there's Matthew Modine and that tall chick from That 70s Show! And the B-list just keeps getting longer.
Once you entered the doors to the lobby of the auditorium/dining room, you saw the endless display of ticky-tacky auction items - most of them poorly matted and framed film and sports memorabilia. Notable was a heavyweight championship belt, with photos of past winners, the most remarkable of which (for me) was the presence of Ken Norton, who broke Muhammed Ali's jaw in '73, and then went on to star, two years later, in the titular role of a trashy plantation drama, Mandingo. Tex, my friend, Billy, and I just saw it at the Egyptian Theater. Later, when the stage auction was happening, and they sold the old USC helmets belonging to the few that were Heisman Trophy winners, the auctioneer called out their names, skipping right over the photo of O.J. Take THAT!
But sports were not what really interested me about the evening. What did interest me was walking up to the bar and standing near Robert Evans. Robert freakin' Evans, people. Even if you aren't aware of his illustrious producing career (Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, Godfather, Marathon Man, Urban Cowboy... ring a bell?), or his famous romance with Ali McGraw, before Steve McQueen got his hooks into her, you might have a notion of his imitably slick presence and hedonistic lifestyle. If you haven't seen the "documentary" biopic (I shackle it with quotation marks, because it isn't typical convention to have the subject narrate his own filmic biography.), The Kid Stays in the Picture, don't hesitate to rent it.
Then there was Wes Craven, who received an award, and whose speech was the very best of the night. Truly a thoughtful, intelligent, witty, slightly mischieveous, and sweet man, hardly what you expect from one of the biggest horror masters in film. I want him to be my dad. A friend informed me today that he has a master's degree in philosophy, and his oratory reflected that. He was very polite when we met him, and his wife was very sweet, also. I reminded her not to forget his award, which they left on the table. Actually, quite a few people forgot their little statuettes. I doubt that happens so much at Oscar time, but I think it was Meryl Streep who left on of hers in the bathroom.
Mr. Craven (talk about a great ironical name - 'craven' means 'cowardly'), told a great story about being at a dinner party at Robert Evans' home sometime in the last few years. "Bob turned to me and said, 'I think I'm having a stroke.' " So they phoned the fire dept., which was at the other end of Evans' property. Before they arrived, Evans said, "I promised you an exciting evening, didn't I?" Then, as they were rolling him away to the ambulance he pleaded, "Please, stay and enjoy yourselves!" Kid's got nerve.
Dare I mention the tense and hilarious moment in the Green Room when the hostess, who is, er, sight impaired, was throwing an absolute fit and came out yelling at a woman who must have been her assistant? In self-defense, the beleagured lady entreated, "Please don't blame me, I'm only doing what I'm told." To this the Grande Dame if the evening roared, "You NEVER do what you're told!" It was straight out of Mommie Dearest. Then, as they were headed for the exit, the elder lady walked right into the door. I'm just sayin'. I was holding back the tears, one more reason why I'm taking the down escalator after I croak.
Andy Garcia's acceptance speech revealed that his first "break" in Hollywood was employment as a busboy in the very same hotel. He pointed out that his former captain was still working there that night.
The strangest moment for me occurred when Linda Blair was onstage talking about the honored scientist whose ocular research on Abyssinian felines has restored their sight, which will assist human macular regeneration. Surrealing, I turned to a friend and said, "I feel like I'm in an episode the Simpsons right now." On cue for the stage departure of Miss Projectile Vomit, the orchestra struck up the theme from "Cats." I kid you not. John turned to me and replied, "Well, that just sealed it."
Standing a foot away from Stevie Wonder was pretty great, as is the man himself. I never guessed he was that big! He made a surprise performance for the second song of The Blind Boys of Alabama, who have been doing this for over 60 years, and simply must be heard. After they sang "Amazing Grace," set to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun," Stevie got up there with them for "Higher Ground." Phenomenal. Could I love him more?
Tex and I recently just rewatched Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, Barry Lyndon, a personal favorite for us both, so it was exciting to speak with Leon Vitali, who played Lord Bullingdon, or "Lord Bowling Balls" as he was dubbed on set, or so he told us. He was also Kubrick's right hand man for what I believe was nearly twenty years, though he had slipped into virtual obscurity as an actor. He looked terribly sickly and had been left out of the big prizes, so I gave him one of the pieces of swag intended for the band (a really amazing roller suitcase that positively SPINS!). While I defended myself to our lead singer, who happens to love that film too, Nathan looked at me for a hard second then forgave my choice. "I like your style," he said.
Perhaps the best celebrity encounter came when Nathan recognized an aging rocker, to whom I slipped both of the band's cds. He wished us good luck, through his impenetrable mop of hair and dark shades. Nothing so notable about the actual interaction, but after all, it was Jeff Lynne. We were pissing ourselves.