Friday, August 12, 2011

My Wife Married an Actor

So my wife married an actor – me.

I can’t tell you why, as I don’t know myself.

We dated a long time, and she saw all the ups and downs – the years I made a living performing singing telegrams all over St. Louis dressed as a gorilla; the six weeks I made a living as a stand-up comic until the owner of the club got drunk, got on the mike, cursed his patrons and told them all to get the hell out; the summer I was hired as a comic / M.C. on board a riverboat and told three days before the first cruise that I was expected to perform as a magician instead (although I wasn’t one); the tour to Japan, Korea and Australia with four actresses who hated each other until halfway through the tour when they all decided they got along fine because they were united in their hatred of me; and so forth.

So by the time we got married and had Colin, our son, I was going to college to make something of myself, as it was obvious a career in show business – although it was my vocation – was a waste of time and was nothing that would reliably support a family.

But the very week I graduated, this ad ran in the paper: “Seeking comedy improv troupe to perform historical skits at Six Flags.” It turns out a company out of Texas, Living History Productions, had produced a series of cartoons on historical American figures, was setting up outdoor kiosks at Six Flags Theme Parks around the country, and was looking for improv troupes to perform short skits to attract attention to these kiosks.

Now, I had never performed comedy improv, I knew of no one who had, and I certainly didn’t run a comedy improv troupe.

So I had my agent call and tell them how great my comedy improv troupe was. We called ourselves the Fallen Arches, and, according to our agent, we were great.

The audition was set, I gathered a bunch of actors I knew and the day the Texas big wig flew into town to check us out, I told my cast, “I realize we hardly know each other’s names and we’ve never worked together before, but this guy thinks we’re a comedy improv troupe, so we have to pretend as if we’re used to doing these bits.”

Anyway, the guy loved us. “I thought St. Louis would be the last town where I’d find good comedy improv, but it turns out you guys are better than the troupes I’ve found on either coast!” I am not making this up, this is exactly what he said.

So we were hired to perform a full summer at Six Flags over Mid-America, six shows a day outdoors, and I scheduled the entire summer from my pool of actors who were allegedly members of this non-existent troupe. We all had to go to training with the teenagers at Six Flags, we were all issued badges, we all had official picture IDs.

Finally my career was coming together – and though this had nothing to do with my college degree, a good five or six months of paid acting work stretched before me.

The first day came and my troupe and I performed our skit about Ben Franklin outdoors on a hot early summer day at Six Flags. We literally “chilled out” in an air conditioned trailer while waiting to perform our second show. The second show went better than the first, the audiences were laughing, and everything was going great.

We returned to our trailer to rest up for our third show, and found, to our surprise, that the trailer was locked. We got a quick lunch, headed back to the trailer and found a note on it, “Call the front office”.

I got a hold of someone in management and said, “What’s going on here?”

“We do not have a contract with Living History Productions of Dallas, Texas, and you have no permission to be performing at our theme park.”

“What do you mean? You trained us, issued us badges, gave us permission to be here.”

“The contract had not been finalized and negotiations have fallen through. Security will now escort you from the park."

And we were forcibly ejected and asked not to return – at least not dressed as Ben Franklin or Thomas Jefferson.

I told Karen.

“That’s it! I’ve had enough! I can’t stand this! You have to give up show business. We’ve got a baby now and you’ve got to find a way to support this family that does not involve this kind of emotional and financial roller coaster.”

That fall we began performing murder mysteries regularly at restaurants, wineries and dinner trains around the country. Karen told me it would never work. She was very angry at me that I took the first gig.

That was eighteen years ago and not long after that, Karen was able to quit her job and we’ve been depending on murder mysteries ever since. I write this in Duluth, Minnesota, where we’ve been performing on the North Shore Scenic Railroad for twelve seasons, and where we’ve added a Theater of the Word show to our 2011 tour, a fund raiser for a crisis pregnancy center (and where we just performed to a standing ovation).

And the point of all this is – actors, our spouses often have it worse than we do.

My big suggestion – have a plan. When Karen’s cousin Jenna Fischer moved to L.A. to make it big, she had a five-year plan. She had to hit a number of goals in her acting career by the end of five years or she would return to St. Louis and do murder mysteries with me again, or even work as a secretary in an office somewhere. As it turns out, she’s working as a secretary in an office on NBC’s show The Office, a role she landed in her fifth year in Hollywood.

Have a plan. Don’t leave your wife guessing. Set a goal for the sort of stuff you’d like to be doing in five or ten years and have a B plan and a C plan if your A plan doesn’t work out – which it probably won’t. Remember, this is the hardest business in the world, the most unforgiving, the most brutal, and if you’re in it just to be famous, you’re in it for the wrong reason. Your plan should be about making a living and doing good work – enough of a challenge without mixing in your sad and pathetic desire for vainglory at the same time.

And be ready for the day your wife or husband says, “I’ve had enough. You can never do this again.” And just smile and say, “But, darling, you marred an actor.”

Then run.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's the exact same situation with musicians.
Thanks for writing this Mr. O'brien, your amusing illustration of the thing brings your point across very effectively.