Not Non-Fiction

Stories.

Living Or Dead Is Purely Coincidental (Part 1 of 4)

“Avoid stepping on Bela Lugosi

‘Cos he’s liable to turn and bite,

But stand close by Bette Davis

Because hers was such a lonely life.”

-The Kinks, Celluloid Heroes

Most of the characters have been working Hollywood Boulevard for years. This means that the main cluster, the ones who dress like figures who are more than likely coming to a theater near you this summer or next, frequently know each other. It’s not unusual to see Superman and Thor chatting at a coffee shop, with the original Robocop in line behind them, as though their universes had quietly overlapped. Lattes and mochas in hand Superman, Thor, and Robocop will make their way up a few blocks then cross the street to King’s Shanghai Theater, where Spider-Man and a heavily padded Hulk are already posing for tourists.

It’’s Kelly and Michael who interest me, though, both because they’’re unlike anyone else on the Boulevard. They’’ve worked it long enough to see more than two dozen of their fellow players come and go, in addition to fights over everything from territory and copycatting to outright muggings of other costumed crusaders.

The origin of dressing up as famous characters from movies, or taking advantage of a resemblance, aided with makeup, to a living or dead film star and letting tourists have their picture taken with you is obscure. Doubles were used to promote films even in the days when you could see a Chaplin feature for just a nickel. But people who do it regularly, who aren’’t promoting a specific film, are something very new. It’s also a bicoastal phenomenon–—you can find many of the same characters in New York, but Hollywood Boulevard is, if not the epicenter, then the place that has the greatest concentration.

Some collect money. Is it a job, then, or a hobby? For many, Kelley and Michael tell me, it’’s just a hobby. If I come back on Saturday I’’ll meet a Star Wars Storm Trooper who has been doing it just for fun for almost ten years. The ones out here on Wednesday morning, though, are mostly like buskers, hoping strangers who’’ve opened their cameras will also open their wallets when the hat is offered.

“Is there any resentment toward the weekend warriors?” I ask.

““No.”” Kelley’’s answer is decisive. ““If you don’t get along with the other players you don’’t last on the Boulevard.””

““And it looks bad if there’’s bad blood,”” Michael adds. ““A couple of years ago there was a big fight, and it blew up all over the internet. People didn’’t realize it got so much press because it was so rare. We still talk to people who think fights happen all the time, or who think they’’ll get punched if they don’’t pay us for taking a picture.””

I don’’t tell Michael that I’’m familiar with the incident–—or at least one of them. I have a file of stories, starting with a person in a filthy Elmo costume harassing tourists in New York that first piqued my interest in sidewalk characters. The file is thin because such incidents are rare. Because they’’re mildly sensational they get attention, and this explains why even players like Kelley and Michael, who aren’’t shy about offering the hat, insist they’’re not in it for the money. Those who don’’t contribute are still thanked for stopping. What Kelley and Michael, and some of their fellow players, really hope for is to be noticed. That’s why the prime spot is in front of King’’s Shanghai Palace: it’’s the most famous movie theater in the world, home of more premieres than any other. It’’s also the starting point for the hundreds of tourists who make a pilgrimage to Hollywood Boulevard to study the names on the Walk Of Fame, or to look at the hand and footprints of bygone stars and marvel that Douglas Fairbanks could do such fantastic stunts with such little feet. Seeing characters who, mostly, look like they’’ve stepped right off the movie set onto the sidewalk is an added bonus.

And yet Kelley and Michael have staked out territory in front of the less famous King’’s Babylon Theater. Older than the Shanghai, three blocks away, but also built by Samuel King’’s partnership, it’’s an artifact of art nouveau opulence, a beige rectangle framed at the front with bas relief palm trees. It’’s topped with a ziggurat where, according to legend, William Faulkner would sit on moonlit nights with a candle and a bottle of bourbon and punch up scripts. It fell into disrepair in the seventies, but was restored in the late nineties, and now attracts a steady, albeit small, stream of enthusiasts. Does Hollywood keep these monuments out of reverence for an imagined golden era of the silver screen, or will they only stand as long as history is profitable? Either way it’’s comforting, especially when contrasted with the other side of the street. Directly across from the theater is the coffee shop which has become my observation post, and which has a sign proudly boasting new management. On one side of it a sandwich chain is moving in, the traces of the burrito chain that moved out still lingering. On the other side is an empty space for rent, one of the front windows smashed, and the interior littered with wine bottles.

The location Kelley and Michael have staked out is unusual, but even stranger are the looks they’’ve chosen. When they started they, like the rest, dressed as recognizable characters.

““I was Wonder Woman,”” Kelley explains. Her costume was from the campy ‘70’s TV show, since Wonder Woman is one of the few heroes who hasn’’t gotten a big budget makeover yet. ““But I got tired of the leers, the pawing during pictures. Wonder Woman was a hero to me when I was growing up. I liked her. A lot of guys like her too, but for different reasons.” Too many wanted me to kick them in the nuts. Not that I wouldn’t have liked it in some cases…”

Michael was Magneto. Even then he took the odd tack of being a super-villain, “”but only because I thought I couldn’’t pull off the hero look,”” he says with a trace of bitterness. At just five-foot-six he also lacks Ian McKellan’’s stature. And, in spite of the success of the X-Men franchise, he was still the Boulevard player most likely to be asked, “Who are you supposed to be?” Aside from Darth Vader villains occupy a much lower tier than heroes.

When Kelley and Michael began working together they decided to do something different.

My Dinner with Oscar

February 14, 2014

Hey, I’ m sorry you missed the dinner party. You heard Michael was going to bring this guy he met in his English class, right? And then it turns out Michael couldn’t make it, but this guy shows up anyway. Maybe you’ve heard of him. He’s a writer, mostly plays I think, named Oscar Wilde. I wish I’d known he was coming, so I could have told him it wasn’t really going to be formal, since he showed up in a long black coat, wearing a tie and striped gray slacks. I introduced him to everyone and gave him a glass of wine. He took it saying, "Work is the curse of the drinking classes." None of us were sure what to say to that, but I laughed politely and went back to the kitchen to finish dinner. Chaz came in a few minutes later. I could hear him saying hi to everyone in the living room, and then he came to the kitchen, helped himself to a Dos Perros from the fridge, and started telling me about how much he hates his job again.

Chaz followed me to the dining room when I took out the appetizers. When I came in Kelee was saying, "I don’t know what I can do to keep those two from talking about me behind my back."

I was about to ask who they were when Oscar spoke. "The only thing worse than being talked about," he said, "is not being talked about."

We all looked at each other, except Chaz, who chuckled and said, "Oh yeah." He put his fist up to Oscar, who stared, wide-eyed, at it.

"Come on, dude," said Chaz. "Don’t leave me hangin’ here."

Oscar put up his fist and Chaz bumped it. "Right on!"

I excused myself and went back to the kitchen, followed by Chaz, who wanted another beer. Then Simon came in, puffed up . His eyes were blazing.

"Do you know what’s going on in there?"

"Is anyone choking on a canapé?"

"This Oscar guy lit a cigarette."

"Did you tell him to put it out?"

"Yes! He stabbed it out on your incense burner."

"Great. Thanks." I turned up a burner on the stove. "Thanks for stepping up." I handed him the Chardonnay bottle. "Here, does anyone need more wine? Help me out and refresh everyone’s drinks."

As Simon went back Chaz started talking about how in the sixties people who worked in Mission Control at NASA were required to smoke. I handed him a spoon and got him started stirring the risotto. When he excused himself to "drain the dragon" I sprinkled feta over the salmon and called everyone into the dining room.

Dinner was quiet at first. I assumed this was because everyone was a little uncomfortable with a new guy in our midst. Everyone was digging in and seemed to be enjoying the food, so I said, "I hope it’s all right. This is an old recipe but it’s one I’ve never made for a group this big before. I was afraid I might make a mistake adjusting all the amounts for this many servings."

Everyone around the table said how good it was, except Oscar, who said, "Experience is merely the name men gave to their mistakes." Chaz laughed and gave Oscar another fist bump, but everyone else was silent and glanced around at me. I wasn’t sure whether this was meant as a compliment or not, and didn’t know what to say, so I just quietly said, "Thank you," and let it go.

"This asparagus is delicious," said Lydia.

"I got it at the farmer’s market. I finally gave up on trying to find good asparagus at the grocery store. It’s always thicker than a tree trunk." Kelee looked over at me. "Would you believe my mother only likes the canned kind?"

"I can’t stand people who do not take food seriously," Oscar said. Chaz laughed again and did a fist bump again, spilling a little wine as his arm hit his glass. Everyone else seemed tense . Rose cleared her throat. After a few seconds that dragged like hours we all started eating again. I sat back and let the silence persist. At least everyone was eating, although with the tension in the room every bite was like ashes in my mouth. I started to ask if anyone would like water or something else to drink, but instead turned to Simon.

"Hey, Simon," I said, "don’t you have a gig coming up?"

"Yeah, in two weeks, at the Cannery." Simon looked around at us. "I hope y’all can make it."

"Simon’s trying out some new songs," said Kelee. "They’re really good." Oscar spoke up. "If one plays good music, people don’t listen, and if one plays bad music people don’t talk."

Chaz nearly choked on his wine and reached over and slapped Oscar on the shoulder. Simon stood up. "What is your deal?" He glared down at Oscar, who merely smiled at Chaz. "Really, what the hell is your problem? You talk like you’re." Simon gestured into the air. "Like.I don’t know." I leaned forward. "Simon, it’s okay, really."

"No, it’s not okay." He turned to me. "Dinner was delicious. Really, it was really good. I’m glad you invited us. And I hope you can make it in a couple of weeks, but I can’t take any more of this. I’ve got to go." He moved to the door and Kelee got up with him. I moved after them.

"Thank you, and I’m sorry," said Kelee to me. She looked over at Oscar who had his back to us, and Chaz, who was holding his empty wine glass over his open mouth and sticking out his tongue. "It was nice seeing everyone, and I hope we can try this again."

As I was seeing them out Lydia and Rose got up and came to the door. "I’m sorry," said Lydia. "It’s late, you know, and we’ve both got to get up early tomorrow." She and Rose both thanked me and apologized again before going out into the night.

"Well," I said, returning to the table where Chaz and Oscar were still sitting. "That was interesting. Let me take your plates. Would you guys like some dessert?" I was thinking of the huge bowl of chocolate mousse in the refrigerator, how I’d overestimated the recipe and made too much even for seven people, let alone three.

"Yeah," said Chaz, holding up his plate. "That was interesting, wasn’t it?" "After a good dinner," said Oscar, "one can forgive anyone, even one’s relatives." This time he held up his fist and looked expectantly at Chaz, who let out one of his loud barking laughs and gave him a bump.

When I came back from the kitchen with heaping bowls of mousse the table was empty. They’d left the front door standing open. I went to it and saw both of them out in the street, walking away. Oscar had his arm around Chaz’s shoulder.

"All of us are in the gutter," I heard him say, "but some of us are looking at the stars."

Chaz yelled, "I LOVE THIS GUY!"

I’m sure I’ll hear about that from the neighbors. Hey, when does Chaz’s girlfriend get back?

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