Frank Langella recently said in an interview on NPR that he doesn’t like to look at his movies. He made the analogy of going up into an attic and paging through photo albums, which forces you to look at your own aging over the years – and, as I extrapolate – the loss of the past, which is now contained only in a fragile image and perhaps an even more fragile memory.
For me, I don’t have to page through photo albums. Just watching old films, especially ones from childhood, sometimes brings me an acute sense of time passage and loss. Since I associate movies, TV, and music with specific periods of my life, I am often drawn back to my first viewings. I could never watch Star Wars without a little residual pulse of the electric jolt I received watching it cinematically and repeatedly until my mother forbade me from further viewings at the run-down Rogers Theater.
So that analogous photo album in Frank Langella’s attic awaits me on every screen that I activate. Sometimes I don’t know it’s coming.
With the interweb, this takes the form of an instant obit that lands a sucker punch while I’m sipping my first cup of tea in the morning. A recent punch arrived with Phyllis Diller.
Phyllis Diller died last month. 95 is a pretty good damn run, and I think mentally she was sharp for almost all of it. That’s the way to go, I guess.
She led a pretty fantastic life, and the fact that the back half was probably the more fantastic makes it all the better. I feel sad that Phyllis Diller died, for her, but for me too, as she somehow took a little bit of me with her.
That would be the nine-year-old kid who sat watching the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts in the seventies, when the humor was barbed but not venomous, crude but not obscene, insulting yet still delivered with a wink of admiration at the target.
I didn’t get half the jokes, but I knew everyone on the daïs, from Nipsey Russell to Buddy Hackett to Ruth Buzzi to Don Rickles to Phyllis Diller. The podium was a place to shoot zingers, but most of them were extensions of the stars’ already self-deprecating humor or public personae. Behold LaWanda Page at George Burns’ Roast. This was an era when insult comedy routines could be followed by kisses that seem genuine, even to the grown-up Raúl:
Phyllis Diller needn’t have been insulted by LaWanda Page. If anything, Diller might have been cribbing notes for her own act.
It’s different now, meaner, with more authentic insults using real personal crises and career failures as fodder for cruel routines that aim more to shock than bring out laughs. Times change.
When a public personality passes, I really do feel a sense of mourning, part of it for the person who I’ve never met but appreciate for how they’ve entertained me or informed my life, but more for myself, as the loss means another tether severed from my own past. I’ve still got the memories, but if I want to access them concretely, I’m back at a strangely distanced screen, looking at a forty-year-old image through the eyes of a child as well as the eyes of an adult.
The growing chasm between the child and adult’s eyes remind me that I’m getting old. I’m starting to reach the age of some of the comedians on the daïs, and they had to be seasoned to get up there, Freddie Prinze and Jimmie Walker excepted.
I don’t really mind growing older; I’ve always expected it and I’m not investing much energy in fighting it. What I mind is the disappearances that come with death. When a public figure dies, a fragment of my memory flashes like lightning and then settles in for a permanent dim. It’s not as if I ever even met Phyllis Diller, but knowing she was still on the planet made her Roast routines more a part of me. Now they’re a part of my childhood. Over.
This year a lot of lights have been dimmed on Raúl’s Memory Lane.
My teenaged self, planted in front of the TV on Saturday mornings, got a double-whammy with Don Cornelius and Dick Clark both permanently leaving the schedule. Neither music show host would fit in today’s splintered music scene. They were both far older than their core audiences even during their peaks, which, in today’s youth society, would have made Soul Train and American Bandstand the subjects of mockery.
I still remember feeling disheartened when MTV fired their first slate of hosts while I was in college. I thought these guys were the video age answer to Don Cornelius and Dick Clark. I would have to adjust to a faster rotation and shorter shelf-life of music hosts.
Actually, I think this is where I checked out of pop music. Part of me must have wanted familiar faces to introduce new music. Without the guidance of an enthusiastic Martha Quinn or a veteran J.J. “Triple J” Jackson, I figured that I could find my way on my own, which I did, and stumbled my way into used record stores to find older folk music, Tin Pan Alley classics, and treasure troves of sixties and seventies music that had been forgotten by radio, not to mention the later discoveries of boleros and French chanson. Maybe cutting the cord was good for me in the long run.
So change can be good, but death is always hard. Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson dying on the same day? There went a chunk of childhood in a single newscast.
Sure, there is a legacy left behind. Dick Clark, low on personality but high on reliability, takes me back with his onstage chats after (often badly) lip-synched performances. His presence, vanilla though it may be, seems ideal for introducing relatively green performers to a television audience. Note him shepherding The Go-Go’s through an interview, acknowledging each member, and encouraging their future.
Don Cornelius, high on cool charisma, gave Raúl a chance to see the Black performers from the hit charts then labeled Soul , hence the name of the train. Speaking of the Soul Train, what more can one hope to give the world than the Soul Train Line? Check out the respect Don Cornelius rolls out for Mary Wilson before consenting to join the line himself!
Don Cornelius may not have stood for any competition in showcasing soul on TV, but he knew how to treat the post-Ross Supremes without making them look like leftovers, and he even knew how to rib himself for being too old for the line – and I wholeheartedly disagree on that count.
So Dick Clark and Don Cornelius aren’t Jonas Salk. They were both savvy capitalists with cutthroat instincts against rival intrusion into their respective markets. Jonas Salk made sure that I never got polio, but he wasn’t on my TV once a week, so I never really connected to him. Dick Clark and Don Cornelius were familiar strangers, ones who stamped their mark on my childhood and teenage years, which, rightly or wrongly, were largely consumed by pop music. Over.
Maybe the biggest divorce from my adolescence came with the unexpected death of Donna Summer. She was far and away my favorite singer, and though I eventually lost interest in her music and patience with her piety, her voice still brings me to a halt when I hear it.
Her 1980 album, The Wanderer, got the most repeated play on my record player, and surprisingly, stands up 32 years after its release, and the adult Raúl can far better appreciate it for what it is: a musical account of a spiritual awakening. She really should have gone gospel after this one because she never regained its musicality or intensity.
Even though I hadn’t really given Donna Summer much thought in decades, I did feel my heart sink when I saw her death announced in a headline. We never made amends. I know, it’s preposterous. She didn’t know Raúl, but he knew her, and he hates leaving important things unresolved, which is what often happens when someone dies without warning.
That cord to adolescence snapped in a second and left me wobbling with dizziness.
Who am I without my touchstones? Touchstones that I’m no longer temporally touching. Somehow, occupying that same slice of history links a part of me to a broader culture, to the outside world, even one that goes back 35 years. Donna Summer’s passing makes the link to her Soul Train appearance tenuous. Even Don Cornelius is gone. I’m watching apparitions now, ones not connected to anyone left.
Somehow occupying the same time, if not space, forges a connection that is tenuous but meaningful. I identify points in my life with songs, shows, and films that I came of age with and grew older with. The milestones are still with me. When they’re gone, I find myself grasping into the air.
How do I choose these milestone-bearers? Some of it is just demographics, some of it is quirk, and some indicative of a real identification or fascination with a person. Usually a pop star or film star.
While I enjoy reading, the confinement of the written word somehow lacks the same personal connection for me. The experience of reading for me is solitary, and therefore less of a phenomenon that I can share and plot on a personal or even societal timeline. Moreover, I seldom read books when they are published, and frequently read them by authors who are already dead. This doesn’t weaken their words, but it does lighten the personal stamp that the works and the authors leave on me in terms of time and place.
Carlos Fuentes, whose El espejo enterrado, (The Buried Mirror) gave me a deeper insight into the formation of Latino identity through a weaving of prose and photographs of art than I could have ever imagined. But when he passed, I quickly thought of Gregory Peck, who played the title role in the film version of Fuentes’ unfilmable novel, Old Gringo.
Movies and music seem to trump even intellectual epiphany. What does that say about me? I don’t feel guilty or stupid or even shallow, but I do feel like I need to spread the love, or sorrow, as the case may be, to a broader set of personalities. Either that, or I need to narrow the set considerably, which is difficult, for as public figures die, they not only flip open and then immediately snap shut chapters in my personal history, announcing the passage of time like an unwanted bell tower, they remind me of my own mortality and what I have done and not done with my life.
Marcel Proust’s flood of involuntary memories famously came from a madeleine cookie from his childhood. Mine flood in unexpectedly from death announcements, often regarding people who I’ve not thought of in years, people whose brand-new ghosts burst into the room, show themselves as vivid apparitions from my childhood or adolescence, and then quickly fade away, taking with them what feels like a bit of my soul that had been built up decades ago but lying dormant until awakened by death.
When the Sweathogs started dying off this year, I didn’t think much of it, until I realized that I’d considered them something close to peers at one point, when as a child I watched them play high school students on Welcome Back Kotter in the seventies. First Robert Hegyes, who played Juan Epstein, the Puerto Rican Jew who always had an excuse for not doing his homework. (My brother sent me his death announcement via an email which read, “Dear Mr. Kotter, please excuse my son for not doing his homework. He has died. Signed, Juan’s Mother.”) Then recently, Ron Palillo, who played Horshack, passed away.
I became somewhat intrigued by Ron Palillo’s story, as death had outed him, just as it had Sally Ride around the same time. Both had long-term partners who became uninivisible, not because they were with their famous partners, but, ironically, because they were standing alone without them.
A homosexual Horseshack. Who knew? The story of his post-Kotter life seems rather pathetic. His Horshack character and the trademark snorting laugh stereotyped him and probably exhausted the public with his presence. He couldn’t get back on track, even when agreeing to appear on Celebrity Boxing in the match-up of the TV geeks, Palillo’s Horseshack from Kotter vs. Dustin Diamond’s Screech from Saved by the Bell.
I recall watching the match – yes, I watched it on purpose – with a visiting out-of-town friend, who I’ll call Jackie, who flew into a rage before the two has-beens even squared off: “Horseshack is like 25 years older, 25 pounds lighter, and a foot shorter. This isn’t fair!” The match went even worse than Jackie had feared, with Diamond landing one punch after another onto his senior’s face, making Palillo angrier and the fight all the more futile. Half of Horseshack’s energy rode straight into his eyes, which shot out blistering bolts of anger.
Was he angry at Screech, for whomping him in the ring and not respecting his TV forerunner, or was Palillo raging against himself for submitting to a public humiliation so supreme that it didn’t even draw laughs. The crowd even booed Screech as he strutted around the ring in the thrall of victory while Horseshack panted fumes of frustration and fury over a badly swollen eye and very badly dyed bleach blonde hair. It didn’t work as comedy and was simply too sad for Schadenfreude. Ron Palillo became the object of pity, puffing away in the corner as we saw the extent of his bruised face and damaged soul.
At least someone was in Palillo’s corner, though unseen by the camera: Palillo’s partner, who lashed out at Diamond, warning karmic retribution for what Screech had just done to his boyfriend in the boxing ring. The whole account is right here.
Reading about Ron Palillo and his real life outside of mine – with its sadness and hidden layers under a silly surface – popped up repeatedly rather than bursting and fading. There was a real person there behind the Horshack laugh and hand-raising “Ooh-ohh” that made him a temporary phenomenon and a more permanent figure of ridicule. Ron Palillo wasn’t Horshack; I already knew that. I didn’t know how badly he tried to continue acting, the great pains he must have taken to hide his homosexuality, or the failed career and possibly financial desperation that led him into that boxing ring. I certainly could have imagined all of that, but reading it after he died made that Horshack-Ghost take on new forms, unconfined to Welcome Back, Kotter.
It wasn’t about me.
Snap out of the solipsism, Raúl!
Horshack still occupied the 1978-ish spot on my timeline, and indeed, my chronological radar still issued a blip on Ron Palillo’s passing, but his ghost drifted away from ’78 and spilled spectral ink all over the place, as if to announce to me what he’d been trying to tell the world: he wanted more than Horshack.
I was left wondering, in an age where coming out is no longer instant career ruination or necessary limitation, why didn’t he show up at an opening with his partner and kiss him on the lips in front of the one camera that a low-rent paparazzo might have trained on him? It certainly couldn’t have hurt his career by that point. In his sixties, was he still cowed by familial influence or just sitting inside the closet out of anxiety, having made it a way of life for his public adulthood?
What did he think when acting elders like Richard Chamberlain and Tab Hunter and George Takei came out? Did it not register that he could too?
George Takei is now bigger than he ever was as Sulu, his character on Star Trek that he had never really slipped away from. Takei put his name in a political spotlight and walked away with a new generation of social media fans and a real influence on how the public views gays and lesbians. (I’m less certain of his effect on the BT in LGBT.) With eyes back on him, he had a new audience to hear about life in Japanese internment camp during World War II, raising consciousness about something not related to gayness that drew in the shared experience of an entire generation of Japanese Americans. Hear his testimony about his childhood experience in the camps:
And it isn’t all heavy. George Takei’s sometimes cute and sometimes political interweb quotation/photo collection gets posted and re-posted on Facebook, frequently by my high school acquaintances who in their greener days were not hesitant to slurs to denigrate others. But now they celebrate his wit and kindness, rather than dismissing him as a Jap faggot, the phraseology of which now seems mostly confined to anonymous message boards and Youtube comments. The closet has been reversed, and Takei is now out enjoying the natural light.
Publicly coming out is not career-killer when you’re a figment of the pop culture past; it thrusts you into the immediacy of the present for multiple generations and forces the public to reconsider your real life and reflect anew on what it means to them.
Kristy McNichol and Meredith Baxter – a micro-cluster of lesbianism from the 1970s show Family, just made public announcements. I doubt Baxter would have landed on The Today Show otherwise. McNichol seemed to just want it out of the way. Done. She’s got that off her shoulders. I don’t know if a book deal is in the works, and I don’t think she wants to act again, but in thinking about Little Darlings, I realize that if she has even a sliver of the purity she put on the screen then, Raúl would throw his arms open to welcome her back. She gets to find her blip on my radar while still keeping both feet planted in our earthly dimension.
What did Ron Palillo think of the younger generation of actors going public as gay? Ricky Martin? Neil Patrick Harris? That guy who plays the nerdy genius on The Big Bang Theory, the one who wins Emmys for playing a simple caricature that Raúl finds just as horribly unfunny as the sitcom itself – despite unbridled family enthusiasm for the program, expressed both in conversation and in the audible volume that seems to publicize to the entire neighborhood that the show is on.
This guy – okay, Jim Parsons, I looked it up – is like the Horshack of today, except he’s gay, not unapologetically, just incidentally. I don’t see any real difference when I have to watch BBT; it’s an easy, broad character with quirks repeated ad nauseam for laughs. Sheldon and Horshack fall into the same category of characters for me, but Parsons is winning Emmys and doesn’t think twice about picking them up with his boyfriend in tow.
Did Ron Palillo feel a little resentful that the premiere geek of American TV outed himself with no fanfare and continued to perform on his hit show without a ripple? Was there a lingering bitterness that he had been born into the wrong generation?
Did Palillo fear the catty homosexuals who would not embrace Palillo, but ridicule Horshack, preferring their mainstream gays to be young-ish with viable careers, rather than laughingstocks from yesteryear, with the most recent public achievement being beaten to a pulp by a disgraced actor from Saved by the Bell?
Did he feel out of place, not having twins like Ricky Martin and Neil Patrick Harris?
Palillo was not of the openly-gay-celebrity-dad-raising-a-wholesome-family generation.
Neither is George Takei. The opportunity was there. Why Palillo didn’t take it before he crossed over is a mystery to me, an unknown that makes him more real to me as I’m forced to ponder his existence beyond the set of Welcome Back Kotter.
I’m of a generation in between Ron Palillo and Neil Patrick Harris. As a result, I think I understand both. I feel happy for NPH and the success he’s forged out of genuine talent which supersedes his gayness. People respect him. But let’s face it, his life would have turned out very differently had he been born twenty, or even ten years earlier. We need to focus on the present but keep a sharp eye on the past. LGTB people can stand taller now, but they need to remember they’re taller from standing on the broken bones of their forebearers, who carried heavy burdens that crushed some spiritually and physically.
Horshack doesn’t seem funny to me right now. I see Palillo’s ghost instead, and I’m not sure he can leave just yet.
Everybody has a real life, but not everybody’s life gets serious consideration from me.
What happens when a real person, as in someone I know, slips away as suddenly as a Ron Palillo? When someone passes away without warning or without any goodbyes?
Solipsism takes a back seat. I wonder about God. I think about all the people whose lives have been touched and who are now mourning. The standard stuff, I suppose.
Last month this happened. An unexpected passing. After a flood of photos began to appear on the facebook, some including me, I looked at my friends and myself from ten and twenty years ago. Frank Langella’s figurative attic is now a mainstay of social media. You don’t have to pull down a ladder from the ceiling and fight through cobwebs to get at the old photos. They’ve already been scanned and posted. Lo and behold, I no longer look 22. Thankfully, I don’t claim to feel it either.
Strangely, I can’t place when most of the photos were taken. I can usually guess within a couple of years, but that’s not what occupies my mind. These real events take place on a time line semi-parallel to the distinctly linear pop culture one, this other one full of inaccuracies and grey zones rather than plotted points that can be substantiated by looking up sitcom runs on Wikipedia or IMDB.
But it strikes me in a different way. I see a recent birthday party that I showed up hours later for, but then I marvel at the cake, intricately engineered from fucking Zingers™ and splendiferously, lovingly decorated in shimmering, probably toxic red – by someone who is now suddenly, permanently gone. I wonder at the passage of time and the joy of life captured in a proudly displayed birthday cake – and that moment in isolation, when a memory was captured in a blurry photo, though the reproduction carries more than the scanned image suggests, at least to the person who bit into the cake. It was an experience that cannot be watched or listened to again. The cake serves as an access door. What lies behind is for me to find for myself.
And one memory blends into another. I jump from a backyard birthday party to a communal video viewing in a apartment. When? I dunno. Five years ago? More? It’s in the grey zone – the time, not the experience. I remember everyone draped on armchairs, crashed on couches, lying belly-down on the floor, all facing the old tube TV playing a completely unknown 1974 Italian film starring Elizabetyh Taylor, titled in English The Driver’s Seat, picked up at the Dollar Store by our sharp-eyed hostess. Nobody knew what to expect; what we got was gasp after gasp, repeated calls for pausings to examine frames, and demands for rewinds to fully take in what we thought we’d just witnessed. When Liz has a shocking, inexplicable encounter with Andy Warhol, we had to stop the film entirely for a recovery period:
The clip, I realize, serves a mirrored purpose. Instead of making me feel forlorn about a shared group of friends that can never be reunited on this earth, it brought something back that was lost, something that I wanted to share, something that could be recreated. I instantly feel the shared shock shot out from the screen into the room. It wasn’t my experience; it was our experience. When I see it now, even alone, in an entirely different context, I have that moment again. I don’t relive it. I just have it and I clutch it tightly. Is it Proust’s madeleine? No, not an involuntary memory – I sought this one out, though I didn’t realize how deeply I would feel what came with it.
Not knowing that depth can be scary. I’ve been toting around a set of cassette tapes for almost twenty-five years, from the first year that I lived abroad. My parents would phone me once a fortnight at great expense, I imagine just to hear my voice, since I actually wrote letters back then. (Oh, letters, how I miss you.) My father’s toys were his technology, and he used to tape record all of our trans-oceanic conversations. I used to feel irritated that everything that I said would be recorded, listened to repeatedly, and then maybe shared with grandparents. Couldn’t we just have a simple conversation, albeit one that took place in two hemispheres? I was a young adult, but I’m now stunned at how much went past me without thought: my parents missed me, they worried about me, they wanted my grandparents to hear me speak because my absence to them in their old age might be permanent. I just wanted to chat, and I blithely ignored what my voice, not my words, meant to my family.
Appreciation comes with age and with loss. My father died over ten years ago. I cleared out his piles of tapes after his death. The ones from my first year abroad now sit in a drawer in a bureau in a closet, about as far removed from my eyes and ears as I can make them without ascending to the attic, that Frank Langella attic. I want the tapes close but invisible. I’ve never listened to them. Not once. Of course I am curious. But more I’m afraid and unprepared. I mended a very damaged relationship with my father before he passed away. Listening to our conversations would take me back to a point in my life when I felt I’d escaped my family by moving across the Pacific Ocean, but the physical distance could not overcome the bonds, healthy and unhealthy, that still tied me back to them. I don’t know what I will hear in my voice. Youthful giddiness, post-adolescent insouciance, gratitude, ingratitude, sugar-coated lies, badly concealed homesickness mixed with glee at my first taste of adult semi-independence? I’m betting on everything.
What I can’t bet on is hearing my parents’ voices, and if I remember correctly, the occasional contribution of a visiting grandparent. My own voice I’m almost ready to confront. The voices of the dead I am not. Their spirits don’t scare me. The old voices do. They’re gone and this is the closest I can come to revisiting them. But I haven’t been able to because I will feel the overwhelming rush of the loss again.
Or maybe not. Maybe, like the Liz Taylor movie, the cassette recordings can bring me back without breaking me. I know even the tapes have an analog shelf life. I’ve got to listen to them before they degrade and can’t even preserved in a digital format.
This isn’t nostalgia. It’s about memory and loss. I don’t believe in the good old days and I don’t long to return to my past, but I do want a connection to it, be it a stunning moment of cinematic revelation shared with close friends, my own recorded conversations with people I loved who died ten and twenty years ago, or hearing Shalamar’s irresistible Make That Move while watching the Soul Train Line.
I just got home from meeting the same friend who graced us with the Liz Taylor experience. Another friend with us noticed that conversations always seem to circle back to parents’ deteriorating health or how we are taking care of them. And a peer just passed, making death seem more present and real than ever. My time lines are filling up. My friend, I’ll call her Hostess, gave me a hug on parting and said, “It’s going to get tougher for this second half of life.” Yeah, I replied, wishing I had something more soothing to say, but what can you say to the bare truth?
I just watched Goodnight, I Love You, a 2004 film about Diller’s final stand-up performance. As showbiz documentaries go, it’s a lot like a middling project for cable, save for Diller pulling off the mask of the cackling comic and letting us see what it takes to become another persona. She’s extremely proud of her career and wants to leave it while she can still perform without cue cards. Touring and traveling have gotten too difficult, and her pacemaker literally makes the standing part of stand-up too grueling. She’s gotten too old for the gig; the good thing is that she knows it.
Watching her in rehearsal demonstrates that she’s still a pro, ensuring that the lighting, sound, and musical cues are all to her specifications. She even directs the announcer with moments for pausing, just in introducing her longtime opening act, magician Robert Strong. Phyllis Diller may have had a hard time getting to the stage, but once there, she’s in her element.
She likens getting a room maintaining laughter in a dark room full of people to Atlas lifting the world – and loving it. But she’s tired, her memory isn’t as sharp, and the light is dimming.
Her best moments come in both the rehearsals and her interviews, from which we learn that unlike her stage persona, she is a gourmet cook, auto enthusiast, and accomplished pianist. She even plays the harpsichord for us! What we’ve seen on the stage and on the screen is a magnification more of something she recognizes in others than in herself.
By walking onstage in the 1950s stinging herself her self-deprecation, she was unthreatening to male audiences and comics, and slyly appealing to women, who may not have heard a woman in public proclaim herself a horrible cook who hates housework, doesn’t enjoy her children, and thinks her husband is a numbskull – with jokes to back everything up. Roseanne is quite right in acknowledging her as an important forerunner. I did not get that until now. Phyllis Diller may have had to look ridiculous to get our attention and to keep us from identifying with her observations too closely, but she found her schtick and worked it like she does the keyboard on her piano: she knows where to put every note, set each pause, and how hard to tap the key to make her routine work. The fact that it looks like a casual performance brings her the greatest reward.
On the way home after that sad note with my friend on the second half of life, I thought of Phyllis Diller. Her second half, as I mentioned at the beginning of this now Proustian piece, was her greatest half. She was well into middle age when she made the zingers stick and became what her obituaries trumpet as the queen of the one-liners. What we saw was an act, but reportedly, the crazed staccato cackle was for real. Phyllis Diller was real, and even though she’s gone, she flared up once again in my mind, this time in a new light. An inspiration. The second half is harder, but it can also be, in some respects, better. We don’t really get to choose how we go out. Ron Palillo had a rough go and ended early. Phyllis Diller made the back half the better half. George Takei has become the biggest star of Star Trek by embracing social media to gain laughs and make influential political statements. And Frank Langella? Though he claims not to look at his old films, he certainly looks unflinchingly back at his long life, at least judging from his filterless memoir. And he’s still at it. The Frank Langella Attic is still filling up, and we’ve got plenty to rummage through after he’s gone.