As I wander back through all the could-have-beens of my so-far-not-so-brilliant career in showbiz, panning for that real fool's Gold I first set out to seek in them thar hills...lo, those many years ago now, rose-colored glasses epoxied to my nose...and sifting through fields of passive-aggressive, exhaustive-depressive frustration, I do, yes, aha!, retrieve a speck, a sliver, and -- now and an all too rare again -- a shining nugget of a moment, and -- not unlike the pot-bellied old quarterback reliving the perfect play of the homecoming game -- I give the battered, limping Pollyanna within me a little something to roll around in the palm of her hand, and smile back on:
It's 1987. I'm playing Maleficent, Mistress of All Evil, in the Disney Summer Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall. A rottenly written theme park transplant, spilling over with every conceivable Disney character ever invented or stolen, all played by terrific singer-dancers, a few kid-actors, me, and the one and only Radio City Music Hall Rockettes -- all shmushed into a manic, forty-five minute revue, 21 shows a week, like vaudeville.
"Return to Oz" is the movie they run along with us, that dazzler of a Disney flick that opens with little Dorothy getting electroshock treatment. Appalled mothers with wailing children run from the theatre in waves; I write to Michael Eisner, I implore him to pull this horror trip, to put in something tried-and-true like Dumbo, or Pinnochio, but oddly, he doesn't respond...
Now, Radio City resents the hell out of Disney: Disney's relentlessly breathing down their necks like Radio City has no idea how to put on a show and behaving as if their beloved, historical home is just some really big rental space. Also, they've sent much abused, badly built sets and costumes that the crew spends all its definitely unpaid extra time just to keep from being lethal.
The singer-dancers resent the hell out of Disney because they're busting their butts in used, smelly, hyper-hot, hyper-heavy, animal costumes and blowing their teensy paychecks at the chiropractors. The Rockettes resent the hell out of Disney because they're forced to wear mutant eight-foot Broom costumes in the Sorcerer's Apprentice. You never heard such curse words coming out of a broom.
Oh, yes, and me -- I resent the hell out of Disney because I'm green.
Yes, in some stupid stone manual, it had been carved, and probably misspelled, "All Evil Witches Must Be Green."
No matter that, in the city-block-long cavern that Radio City is, you can't see my face past the tenth row anyway -- that, by all accounts, being green, it's just a gray splotch -- no matter that the movie Malificent morphs through many a skin tone, no matter that I'm the only person trapped in the theatre in between shows, that I can't ever seem to get all the green off, so even when I'm not green, I look seasick.
And no matter that the rest of my getup already over-does the trick: I mean, I enter, rising from below the stage, evilly laughing -- pretty pathetically, I might add -- but there's thunder, there's lighting, there's a pyrotechnic thing -- I got the big black horns, I got the big fuscia-Elvis-collar attached to a black body suit, I got the over-the-elbow evening gloves with three-inch red nails on 'em, I got the massive black velvet cape, heavy as a fire curtain, and I also just happen to be wearing a nine-foot high motorized black velvet skirt -- driven expertly by a great guy named Nick...well, expertly, except for the rare, but interesting occassions when he falls asleep. Nicky and I, understandably, bond. But, really, the green has so gotta go.
Now, one of the more angelic characters of the summer, Ken, happens to work for the other side. Ah, life is never simply good or evil, black or white, green or fleshtone, is it? Anyway, Ken was our company manager, the liason guy, the bridge between these two warring American Institutions, and, as such, he's inscrutable, but he's been a Broadway stage manager for most of his life, so Ken gets what needs to be gotten; and he nobly, steadily goes to bat for me, eventually eroding the theretofore unalterable Green Witch Policy. Yes, I do believe that it's just as I begin to crack from cabin fever, and, on a dare, go, in full green face, to the Clinique counter at Sax Fifth Avenue to buy moisturizer, that Ken brings me news of my freedom from green, my freedom to join my pals at Woolworth's in between shows for chocolate cake and chocolate sundaes.
Now, Disney happens to have this other written-in-stone policy that I laugh at and mildly ponder the effects of, but don't mind much, and that's this: "Evil Characters Don't Get Curtain Calls." Mice, dogs, ducks, humans, yes -- witches, no. Okay, whatever, fine.
So, during the curtain call-finale, I climb down the ladder from my skirt, I hang out with Nicky and the crew, I watch from the wings, and I try to never miss the one truly sensational thrill of the show: the vast Radio City Music Hall Orchestra climbs a few tantalizing keys, breaks into a fantastically Broadway-ized version of -- okay, "Zip-idee-doo-dah" -- but --
-- in all their silver-sequined, silver tap-shoed glory, in the undisputed mother of all kick lines, those Rockettes rise majestically up out of the floor and well, I usually tear up a little... and somehow, I can't help but begin to dream that, maybe, some day, somehow, maybe I could, nahhh -- but, aw, gee, maybe, just once, just one show, wouldn't it be swell if I could -- nahhh, everybody'd just say no, and it's too conceited too ask for, nahhh...but it sure is nice to dream, anyway, waiting in the wings.
I then get a small, but significant gift from the gods, which comes, as they so often do, disguised as a slap in the face. Never -- especially if you're afraid to want too much, or to aim too big -- never underestimate the motivational value of a direct insult:
The perfectly moronic bearer of this little divine awakening, has the distinction of being one of the first truly monumental cementheads of my career. The program says he's our producer, but he's Disney Quality Control. In his powder blue suits and shiny print shirts and huge tinted aviator glasses and sprayed combover, he shows up to cluelessly scrutinize and otherwise pointlessly mess with all elements of the show, to make facistically sure no one is being photographed without their animal heads on, to give performance notes with his astonishing artistic acumen, and to leave, in his ignorant, toxic wake, a sea of cursing, spitting red faces and five suicidal stage managers. I'll call him Dennis, and he is a poisonous pimple on the happy tushy of our planet.
So, between his last haunting and this one, I've been told to add three tiny dim-witted new lines that have been handed all the way down through the Disney hierarchy to Ken, and then, to me.
Dennis comes up to me after the show and says, with a smile, but he's serious:
"Are you drunk?"
And -- always so absolutely On It when someone fires such a toxic Stupid-Bullet into my head, I fire back, on a dime, and I say,
"Those lines you said," he says, "have you been drinking? Are you drunk?"
Well, I'm so shocked and so furious, that, of course, I laugh. And then, insanely, I explain, completely reasonably. Oh, sure, please, of course, I would love to have done the movie version -- slowly I turn, and I say, "How I get through twenty-one shows a week of this warmed-over, pureed crap WITHOUT DRINKING is a bloody MIRACLE, and you should get down on your pathetic combed-over powder blue knees and kiss my -- "
-- but, no. I digest the inanity, and my system, instead of taking the usual rageful nap, converts this poison into fuel -- to turn a wisp of a daydream into a deliciously wicked scheme, like every good witch oughta:
Policy could go straight to hell. I was gonna kick policy's butt but good. And I was gonna be wearing a pair of silver tap shoes to kick it with.
I state my plan to Nick: On the very last show, when all the Disney brass is there -- ha-ha! -- I would take my incredibly well-deserved 21-show-a-week verboten evil-character curtain call, thankyou, and I would put an exclamation point on the end of that sentence by kicking in the center of line with the actual historical Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. Nick is ecstatic. He figures they'll dock my pay, which scares the hell out of me, I need the dough, and this is the first real paying gig I've landed in all these years -- but he tells me not to worry -- if they do, the guy's'll chip in and pay my salary themselves. Course I'd never let 'em, but it gives me guts to hear. He tells me I need to go to the Head Rockette Lady and ask permission.
Such a quiet, old-fashioned Lady of a lady she was, who used to be a Rockette herself, of course, and who'd had such a wearying summer so far.
I knock on her office door, I almost curtsy, I tell her my wish. She asks me how, what would I look like, so I lay out the plan: Bottom half, I'm a Rockette -- flesh-tone stockings, silver taps -- top half, I'm Malificent -- fuscia-Elvis-collared black body-suit, long-nailed evening gloves, big black horns -- after Mickey comes running out of the Disney castle archway, takes his now penultimate bow, then I appear in the castle arch, work it, to the right, work it to the left, then walk on downstage, joining fluidly with the Rockettes as they rise from the floor, kicking and rising with them, then Rockette good-bye wave, curtain down.
The Head Rockette Lady smiles softly, and moves the stapler from one pile of paper to the other. And she's only worried they'll dock my pay. I tell her it doesn't matter, and I almost believe it. She gives me the nod, and sends me to ask the gals, but I must be sure to approach the core Rockettes, the alpha Rockettes -- the Rockettes as old and wizened as, why, as I am now.
And the old MGM movie springs to life: I knock on the door and I stick my head into a dressing room full of sequins and cigarette smoke and raucous laughter, and I respectfully propose the plan to these all-time-great dames, and they scream and laugh and say yes instantly, and they decide that Jeannie, the tallest Rockette, the one in the center, would teach me the tricks of the trade.
One last hoop to go through or around: I didn't want Ken to get called on the carpet by Disney, after he'd been my hero -- do I tell him, do I not, do I tell him, do I not, I tear my hair, I take my chances, I go to his office, I confess my dream, I tell how it'll all go down, I wait for the verdict.
He listens -- not a single muscle moving in his face -- and he says, right away, like I'd asked him the time, "What I don't know anything about, I don't know anything about. Bye."
And I'm off like a shot, to buy tights and tap shoes. Those in the know agree not to tell the rest of the cast, we want no chance of a leak.
Jeannie the Rockette has the patience of Job as I make her rehearse with me 6,247 million times. Not that there's so much to learn, but, there's this wierd little back-step, cross, up-into-the-kick thing that if the right was where the left oughta be, or the left was where the right oughta be, well --
-- it's what would either springboard me into perfect synchrony with the most famous synchronized kickline in the whole history, or what could lead to, sure -- Almost Unfathomable Disaster.
I lie in bed at night in the grinding jaws of the obsessive anxiety monster: I'm going to be the only person who isn't a star to ever kick in the center of the line with the actual Rockettes -- and without a group rehearsal !! And every once in a while, I'm still screwing up the wierd little backstep!!! I see the headline, over and over: "STUPID KLUTZ-WOMAN PULLS DOWN ENTIRE LINE OF THE LEGENDARY ROCKETTES FOR THE FIRST TIME IN THE HISTORY OF RADIO CITY --"
-- there would be sprained ankles, torn ligaments, dislocated disks, endless concussions, and yes, of course, a death -- we were, after all, on a stage that was continuing to rise as we were kicking -- I could hear the innocent skull crack, I could see the bloody sequined tourquoise-velvet bellboy-cap flying slo-mo into the blackness of the orchestra pit --dream, schmeam!! What was I thinking?!?
Well, Time taps inexorably on, and it's the last day, the last show.
Instead of my black tights and sneakers, I've got on nude tights and silver tap shoes. I run down to the basement, climb up the ladder and get into my skirt without anybody seeing me, and I sit there, alone, underneath the stage, in the bowels of Radio City, my big black horns in the pipes, praying.
The show goes almost smoothly, except for one exceptionally alarming hiccup: because of the taps, I slip inside my skirt, kick Nick in the head, and almost fall in -- but, unfazed, Nick tells a now frantically apologizing and freaking out me, "Suzie, don't worry about it -- you can't slip now -- y'already got it out of the way!" God bless St. Nick.
So, it's time, it's now, it's Curtain Call!: I'm behind the Disney Castle on one side of the arch, my dancer-buddies in their character costumes waiting to take their very, very last bows on the other, the soft white light from the stage shining onto the floor between us -- we're all blowing kisses and yelling, "I love you! You're the best!", and, thank God, only on his way through the arch, only the guy who plays Goofy thinks to ask,"Wait -- why are you wearing those shoes? " -- and then Donald ducks out, leaving me alone with Mickey Mouse --
-- and maybe it was because the girl who played Mickey never spoke when she was in costume -- I know, I know, but with her, it was about art -- but somehow, in that moment, I'm suddenly on this higher vibrational plateau, and I'm looking over at the actual Mickey Mouse and he's looking over at me, and he slumps, so sadly, and he wipes a tear, and he puts his hands to his heart, then out to me, and then, with a wave and a leap into the Light, he's gone -- and just as I can feel my heart break clean in two, I hear -- "SUZIE!!"
-- and I'm in that great movie again, and there's Jeannie on the other side of the stage, waving and screaming, "I'll see ya out there, Suzie!! You're gonna be great!!" and just as I'm wondering how she's gonna make it back into the line on time, I hear my cue, and I think I'm gonna die, and I step into the archway, and my Moment begins:
I step into this surprisingly blazing, blinding White Light, and this profound Calm washes over me -- and I work the arch to the left, and I work it to the right -- so what if I'm wearing big black horns, I'm a Ziegfeld Girl! -- and there's this symphony of screams and laughter and "oh my God!"s, and applause and whistles from the wings and the stage and the catwalks, I can't even hear the audience, and I float forward and I melt into line with those actual historical Rockettes and we kick and we kick and we kick and I am indeed One with the Universe -- and then we come to a perfect peaceful stasis, we do our Rockette good-bye wave, the mighty Radio City curtain falls, and I am swarmed by screaming, crying Rockettes -- and I feel just like Miss America.
Turns out that the white light had been so very blinding because Nicky had fixed it so that all of Radio City's twelve spotlights had been shining on me at once. Turns out they didn't dock my pay after all. I figured that must've been Ken again. And it also turns out, that, about a year later, Ken died of AIDS.
And when I heard that he'd become an official angel, I thought of our conversation at the party, on that last hilarious, victorious night:
"So Ken," I say, "tell me, honestly -- I mean, I know I had one of the most pathetic evil laughs on record. Surely, there were far, far scarier evil laughers."
And he says, "Yeah -- there was one woman in particular. But I didn't like her. And you know what? Life's too short."
So, with this perfect morsel of pay dirt, oh, sure, there's a slight sliver of satisfaction that it was also a bit of grit in the eye of the group-soul corporate creature, sure --
-- but now, what shines through as the authentic gold of the piece, is that rare heavenly harmony of comedy, music, and a choir of huge-hearted people, a loving, electrifying touch of the motherlode that always seems beyond our grasp, but is, in truth, always within our reach. And I remind myself, that -- every once in a true blue moon -- that, too, is showbiz.