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BAD STUFF, TOO: Ali Wentworth’s (Mostly) Charmed Life

by David Lefkowitz

 

On the day I was to phone writer and comedian Ali Wentworth for this article, she texted to reschedule owing to a nasty bout with norovirus. “Aha,” I thought, “her life isn’t perfect! I can help readers overcome their jealousy and find her sympathetic.”

Awful thinking, I know. But check the facts: Alexandra Wentworth was born 54 years ago to a well-off and well-connected Washington D.C. family. After attending a tony girls’ school followed by Bard College, the pretty blonde actress joined the L.A. sketch troupe The Groundlings and then made the cast of TV’s In Living Color (amidst cohorts like Jamie Foxx and Jim Carrey). Minor roles in movies and TV episodes followed, as did a long and still-happy marriage to news anchor George Stephanopoulos, resulting in two healthy and blossoming teenage daughters and a mansion in the Hamptons that the family sold last year for nearly $6 million. Oh, and Wentworth recently completed two seasons and counting of Nightcap, the TV comedy show she created and stars in on the Pop cable network.

So, yes, Wentworth’s life does have a fairy-tale sheen to it. (In fact, her 2012 book of humorous autobiographical essays was titled Ali in Wonderland.) But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t faced harsh challenges along the way—and not just the “vomiting, fever, and body aches” she admitted came with her norovirus bout.

“So you don’t have a charmed life?” I asked when I spoke to the fully recovered actress three days later. “I don’t think so!” she laughed.

“Fine,” I retorted. “Then tell me something horrible, anything. Help a writer out.”

“Well, I had depression when I was in my twenties, and I was attacked by a gang in L.A.”

“Oh.”

Turns out, Wentworth did suffer clinical depression during her early years in Hollywood, though now—big surprise—“I’m completely fixed!” she jokes. She stopped seeing a shrink awhile back, though she is “not averse” to returning if she needs to. Asked how she climbed out of the chasm, Wentworth points to “therapy and Zoloft. I was getting over a breakup with a boyfriend. At times like that, all the other stuff—like my parents’ divorce—comes bubbling up to the surface. So the cure was two-fold: talking in therapy, while the Zoloft provided a nice floor.”

Just as matter-of-factly, Wentworth speaks of her scariest encounter—with that Los Angeles gang. “I had just done a show with the Groundlings on a Saturday night,” she recalls. “The actors had parked their cars in a back alley behind the theater, so me and Mark, another actor, were out in this dark alley talking about our rehearsal schedule. That’s when this cholo gang of six guys with hairnets and tattoos circled us. They slapped me around a little bit and tried to get me into the car. As I wrote in Ali in Wonderland, I could tell their idea was to take me to a park, gang rape me, and kill me. And I had one of those split seconds where your survival instincts come forward, so I just ran.

“They stabbed Mark in the chest. He had a thick coat on which caught the blade, so he got cut up pretty badly but wasn’t killed. I survived. He survived. I called my mother, hysterically crying, from the emergency room when Mark was having surgery, and her response—which is her response to every horrific thing in life—was: `go to the Four Seasons Hotel.’ So I did. I didn’t know what else to do.”

As readers might know, Wentworth’s own encounter with a knife was more recent, better publicized, and fully voluntary: in 2012, she underwent cosmetic surgery to remove the bags she’d had under her eyes since her youth. “I realized it was like my Moby Dick,” she explains. “I had to do something about it. So I went online, but there was nobody being honest. Nobody was saying what the recovery was or how much it might hurt. I’d see my actress friends in L.A. and ask them, `Who do you go to? Who’s your doctor?’ And they’d answer, `What do you mean? I don’t do anything.’ And I’d think, `Oh my God, really? You’re pretending you haven’t had anything?’”

Meanwhile, Wentworth would be on film shoots and overhear “the lighting guy and makeup person fighting about whose problem it was that I had these dark bags under my eyes.” That’s when the actress decided not only to undergo the procedure but document it, in words and before/after photos, in Elle magazine. “I have to tell you, I get stopped as much about this as anything I’ve ever done in my career,” notes the actress. “I’m stopped by women saying, `thank you so much’ or `you’re right, it didn’t hurt that much.’ It’s very funny how I became the poster child for blepharoplasty.”

Wentworth adds that she’s all for other people getting various kinds of plastic surgery and that she might even try Botox herself at some point, but she doubts she’d ever go for “big-deal elective surgery” along the lines of a face lift or tummy tuck: “I’m afraid to get my teeth cleaned, so more than that seems like a lot of pain and agony.”

Painful in a different way was Wentworth’s sole foray into standup comedy. It was back when she was doing zany characters on In Living Color, and she noticed all her costars were making big bucks during the show’s hiatus weeks by hitting the club circuit. “So I went to the sports bar in the Marriott Hotel next to LAX,” Wentworth recalls. “There was a hockey game on, but it was an open mic night. So I came out, and the announcer was yelling `Strip! Strip! Strip!’ I came to this crossroad in my life where I thought, `Well, here we go. What am I gonna do? Am I gonna be a stripper?’ I dropped the mic and left.”

It’s not that Wentworth let that one hellgig get to her, though. “I realized the medium wasn’t for me,” she explains. “And that life wasn’t for me. I’ve talked to people like Amy Schumer about it; going across the country, living in Motel 6’s, eating out of a vending machine, and having people heckle and scream at you just didn’t appeal to me on any level. Plus, I prefer to hide behind characters.”

In fact, Wentworth still feels most nostalgic about one particular character: Sue Goober, the clumsy supermodel that landed her the In Living Color gig. “I auditioned eight million times for that show,” recalls Wentworth. “At the time, I had a manager—the kind of manager who lived in a van—but still, he knew they were doing a nationwide search for a black guy. A black comedian. Somehow that didn’t deter me. I went into the assistant-assistant-assistant casting agent and did a bunch of characters. After that, I must have auditioned ten times. Then I had to audition for the network. Then I had to go meet Keenan Ivory Wayans. It was a very long process, but it worked out in the long run.”

Asked when she knew she nailed it, Wentworth surmises it was when she was doing the network audition for “fourteen guys in Armani suits. I played a young actress auditioning for a James Bond movie. So I come in and think I’m gonna be reading lines as a Bond girl, when it’s really just to be one of the naked girls who dances around the gun during the credits. All of a sudden, the James Bond music comes on, and I do this whole physical thing where I end up flying and hitting the wall. When I did that for the network and these men, they were laughing and clapping and also wondering, `Oh my God, who are you?’ So I think it was that moment of total physical and emotional abandon.”

That caution-to-the-wind approach, nurtured at The Groundlings, served Wentworth well in the joyful tumult that was In Living Color. “There were so many funny, creative people in one room,” recalls the actress. “The perfect image of a rehearsal was Jim Carrey on one side of the room doing a character, while Jamie Foxx would be on the other side, pulled up to a piano and playing some piece of beautiful music. There was a frenetic energy all the time, and I was quieter than I’ve ever been just because there was so much going on around me.”

Wentworth’s memories of Carrey as a colleague are just as rosy. “He was incredibly kind and helpful and supportive,” she remembers. “Yet he was at a high decibel of funny—doing characters and physical comedy—even when we were just having lunch. It never stopped. I doubt he’s that way now; in fact, I know he’s not, but back then he wanted to be that person who was on all the time.”

Another hilarious person Wentworth speaks of fondly is…Mariska Hargitay. That’s right, the beautiful and soulful detective on that laugh riot, Law & Order: SVU, has a side only her close friends—like Wentworth—see. “We met at a party 25 years ago,” Wentworth recalls, “and it was akin to when I met my husband. It was like I’d known Mariska my whole life. We immediately fell in love and hid ourselves in a corner talking and laughing. She is one of the funniest people I know. You know how, when you’re a funny person, you seek other people out? Like when you want to play tennis with someone who’s as good as you? She is hysterical.”

On the other hand, George Stephanopoulos, Wentworth’s spouse of 17 years, is not. “Not a big surprise, right?” the actress chuckles. “I mean, he has a great sense of humor, but he’s just not funny himself. That’s what makes the relationship particularly good; he’s a great audience.” Asked if she ever suggests questions for the anchorman to fire at a newsy guest, Wentworth replies, “only in a joking way. I don’t tell him to do his job in the same way he’s not allowed to say to me, `Oh, you know what would be funnier…?’ We stay in our lanes.”

Except in bed, that is. Wentworth’s latest collection of essays, Go Ask Ali: Half-Baked Advice, has received the most attention for its chapter—titled “Shh, I Love My Husband”—on her sex life…and how good it is. She notes that while all her female friends gather for lunch to complain about their intimacy-challenged unions or confess to affairs, in order to avoid angry looks, Wentworth has to keep her happiness “on the down low” and later “weep in the back of the subway about the tenacity and fortitude of my marriage.”

Which brings us back full circle to Wentworth’s (mostly) lucky life—including being able to work as “creator, writer, executive producer, and star” of Nightcap. “When In Loving Color ended,” she notes, “I was surprisingly optimistic. My feeling was, `Okay, what’s next?’ I thought of TV like the corporate world; you just move up. And I did get a deal at NBC soon after—which meant they paid you a lot of money to do nothing. It wasn’t until after having a few deals that I realized, `Wow, it’s actually very difficult to get on television!’

“Even now,” she adds, “when I’m predominantly just writing, and there are so many more outlets, it’s very hard to get a show on the air. You have to have a big celebrity attached or some shiny thing you can present [the decisionmakers] with, because all they’re thinking is, `How do we sell this internationally?’. Luckily, I have some nice friends who are well known, like Sarah Jessica Parker and Paul Rudd, who will come and play.”

Lucky indeed, since Wentworth—still recognized for being Schmoopie on the Seinfeld Soup Nazi episode—can’t even think of a career she might have pursued had comedy not worked out. “I wanted to be a performer since I was a little girl. Always, always, always. I would have done it no matter what—even if on a much smaller scale. I’d be teaching it, or maybe I’d be an assistant to some porn director, but I’d be in the industry in some way. I just love it so much.”

And go figure: for Ali Wentworth, things worked out perfectly.

*

SIDEBAR:

WORTH-Y INCLUSIONS

Favorite vacation spot?

Any place where there are seashells and ocean.

Exercise regimen?

Not really. I do what I need to do. We have two dogs that I take for an hour-and-a-half walk in the morning, and I just started swimming, which I’m loving. But I’m a sporadic exerciser.

Favorite funny movies?

Private Benjamin and Manhattan.

Songs on your device?
I’m very nerdy, so there’s no pop music. It’s either classical (Rachmaninoff or a good Brandenburg Concerto) or The Grateful Dead (American Beauty).

Last two books you’ve read?

Emily Giffin’s All We Ever Wanted, and I’m about to start Heather Morris’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz. I wanted something dark.

Do you procrastinate?

Some people can sit down at a computer and just write. I can’t do that. The apartment has to be cleaned. I need my tea to be hot. There’s probably four hours of procrastination for every 45 minutes of actual work and focus.

Best advice you ever got?
Don’t take no for an answer.

Worst Advice you ever got?

Lose weight and get a nose job!

BYLINE:

David Lefkowitz hosts the long-running comedy program Dave’s Gone By (davesgoneby.com) live on Saturday mornings (facebook.com/radiodavelefkowitz). He is also an adjunct professor of English at the University of Northern Colorado and serves as editor in chief of Performing Arts Insider and TotalTheater.com.

  

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In Bloom: Marcia Gay Harden Writes a Memoir for her Mother

by David Lefkowitz

(This article was published in the Nov. 2018 issue of Long Island Woman)

 

“How is your mom doing?”

That is the central question—the one everyone who reads Marcia Gay Harden’s book, The Seasons of My Mother: A Memoir of Love, Family, and Flowers, will want to ask her. It’s also the question she considers daily.

Beverly Bushfield Harden was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and has been deteriorating, bit by bit, ever since. Watching the woman who raised her slowly disappear has turned Marcia into an advocate for Alzheimer’s research, as well as a reflective and lyrical writer as she shares her own story intertwined with her mom’s best years and later decline. In fact, Seasons was originally going to be a mother-daughter collaboration on a coffee-table volume celebrating Mrs. Harden’s mastery of ikebana, the delicate arrangements of flowers. Instead, it turned into the daughter’s autobiography, covering her years as a budding actress, her success in such projects as Miller’s Crossing, Meet Joe Black, and Pollock (Supporting Actress Oscar); the landmark original Broadway production of Angels in America; TV’s Law & Order:SVU and Code Black; her marriage and divorce from film location scout and prop master Thaddaeus Scheel, the loss of her niece and nephew in a 2004 fire, and the raising of her children as a single parent while balancing a full slate of film and television work.

And yet, we return to the simple question, “How is your mom doing?”

“I wanna say she’s the same,” replies the actress, chatting by cell phone as she is on her way to take her actress daughter, Julitta, out for a celebratory dinner on the occasion of the 14-year-old having wrapped shooting on a new Jim Carrey TV project. “I can’t say anything good about Alzheimer’s. It’s a progressive disease that has robbed her. She’s still pleasant; she’ll always be kind and pleasant. But it’s only a nod towards her tenacious spirit that she is still those things. And I’d be lying if I said, `Oh, that makes me feel comforted. At least there’s the essence of mom.’ There’s just the essence, not the actions, the communication. When you talk to a person who has Alzheimer’s at the late stage she does, it’s a fairly one-way conversation, and it’s sad.”

Asked what she wishes more people knew about the disease, Harden points to Seth Rogan’s “Hilarity for Charity” organization and his Senate testimony before the Senate four years ago. “He said, `First you think—not that Alzheimer’s is charming, but it’s small.’ You think, `Ehh, they forget where they put their keys. They forgot a couple of faces.’ But the diagnosis is really like an avalanche. It’s a snowball tumbling down the hill creating devastation in its path.”

That said, Harden agrees with many experts that lifestyle choices can affect or impede the onset of dementia. “From what I understand from the research, they’re the common-sense things: exercise to the point that you sweat, eat well, and avoid or cut out sugar and carbohydrates—which has completely changed the line-up of my pantry!” she laughs.

More seriously, the actress, though acknowledging the complicated nature of Alzheimer’s and the failure of drugs to help, ascribes to the “gut-brain connection” theory, which again points to lifestyle: “There’s a reason some call the disease `Diabetes 3,’” she notes. “We need less inflammation in our bodies and, therefore, less in the brain. Initially, people talked about tau and tangles, but we all have tangles. Something’s blocking the ability to empty them. And at this point, I’ll do whatever I can to stave it off, because as I watch what happened to my mother and to other people, `exercise’ for them is playing with scarves, so to speak, and they completely lose the ability to control their bodily functions. So anything we can do, we should do.”

Which, of course, leads her to call for more research—especially in relation to Alzheimer’s and women: “Why are two-thirds of the people getting it women? Maybe if we study women, we can understand what occurs hormonally at a certain age. Anything we can study, we need to study to find a cure.”

Granted, unlike other grown children faced with similar parental health crises, Harden’s acting success has allowed her, for the time being, to keep her mother at home rather than in a facility. Even so, coordinating caregiving is always a challenge. “I have two sisters who go down and visit,” Harden explains. “My brother visits occasionally, and I visit when I can.”

All three siblings have read Harden’s book, “respect it, and are thrilled that it’s this love story to our mother,” Harden adds, “but they do they different responses and don’t always remember things the same way I do. We’ve had a few conversations on the order of `no, that wasn’t the car she drove’ or `mom would never have liked that.’ And I’ve just had to say that I understand we all have different stories and memories. I mean, when police interview people who’ve witnessed a crime, there are 15 different perspectives. It’s the same way in a family. But my family is proud of it and hopes the book will make a difference in Alzheimer’s awareness—especially the stigma.

“In fact, the last chapter, `Star Navigator,’ talks about when I was doing Angels in America,” Harden recalls. “During that time, the AIDS community was just breaking the bubble of shrouding who had AIDS in shame. By doing that, they really galvanized and showed us a way to lead in research and in conquering a disease. We must do that with the Alzheimer’s community because they can’t speak for themselves. My mom can’t be a spokesperson. But now, more and more, people living with Alzheimer’s are being voices and faces for the disease. They’re helping change the tide of how we talk about it.”

Asked if writing the memoir gave her perspective on her own life, Harden points to “maturity” as the biggest takeaway. “Going through the many different things I’ve gone through in the last 20, 30 years changed me. At the time, I was a bit green and raw. But, of course, in life, we grow up, we change, we control. Things that bothered me then or that I’d stand on a soapbox for, or my desire to be right—those wane, to a degree, with maturity. You choose your battles. Even the passions of life. I’m still incredibly passionate about the things I do. But the passionate expression changes as we get older. Perspective is a very interesting educator. It certainly educated me.”

Also teaching Harden—in terms of her first literary effort—was her friend, screenwriter Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People, Julia). “Early on,” the actress explains, “my publisher, Atria, recognized that I write in a way that they say is “lyric” and told me I should just listen to that voice. Alvin would say, `stop thinking about it and let it go! Let your brain go where your thoughts are taking you.’ That was really helpful to allow myself to move forward. I mean, I know enough not to put too many adjectives in the same sentence—anybody who’s taken writing in college knows that. But it was a pleasure to discover my voice, and I wonder if I wrote something different, would I write in a different style? That will be interesting to find out for me because actors often get dismissed as being vain, uneducated people whose opinions don’t count. But when you write a book, maybe you can’t be dismissed as readily. That remains to be seen!”

Although Seasons of My Mother changed from a glossy how-to volume about flower arranging to a personal narrative, Harden chose to keep to a floral theme: “I’d think, in January, what were the flowers mom would use? But rather than linear—January, February, etc.—it became seasonal. And the flowers were always there because they were always there for her.”

 What has always been there for Marcia, from her first appearances in Kojak and Simon & Simon episodes thirty years ago through her role as Grace Grey in all three Fifty Shades movies, is the work. “It’s been a wonderful life for me,” acknowledges. “But I tell my daughter, `don’t be a red-carpet actress. If you’re gonna act, be a real actress.’ My son Hudson, also an actor, loves musical theater, while Julitta loves film and television. But I want her to do theater, too, because that’s where you really hone a lot of skills. Theater actors can be film actors, but film actors can have a very tough time going into theater.”

Harden’s last Broadway role was her Tony-winning turn in God of Carnage nearly a decade ago, but Hollywood still beckons. “After three seasons, Code Black was cancelled,” she says, “so I recently booked an action movie called Point Blank. It’s a kind of character I’ve never played before—a very complicated cop—so I’m excited. I’m also working on some projects of my own because I love television. I love the daily-ness of it, the stories where you don’t know where it’s going, and all of a sudden it changes and the character grows—even if it’s sometimes tough not being in charge of your character. It makes me think of when I was playing Claire in Damages. You assume you know your character, but then the writer gets a whim and wants to up the stakes. So you start as an innocent flower girl, and now you’re a mass murderer!”

Harden is a big believer in researching roles, especially since some of her best known parts—Lee Krasner in Pollock, Ava Gardner in 1992’s telepic Sinatra—were real people. “You want to research the times they lived in, the customs, their mental processes,” she notes. “And that’s a gift because the accent, the stride, the behavior, the attitude—those have to be so specific. And yet, you still bring yourself into it. There’s only one you. Watch the greats—like Meryl Streep, who transforms in everything she does, yet there’s a core of Streepness about it. Actresses like her—Judi Dench, Ellen Burstyn, Nicole Kidman—always bring their touch of humanity to the work.”

Since she brings up acting superstars and legends, it’s only fair to ask Harden about some of the notables with whom she has shared the screen. For example, Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn, and Bette Midler in 1996’s The First Wives Club. “Oh, that was so long ago,” Harden sighs. “I mostly worked with Diane Keaton. She always wore headphones and was listening to music to get herself in the mood. I will tell you that the moment in the film when she hit me in the head was a mistake; she wasn’t supposed to actually hit me. But she blasted me—100 percent real! Still, back then I was really just a girl sitting in a chair and watching the greats work.”

A year later, Harden would co-star with Robin Williams in Flubber—a memory that instantly makes her laugh. “Loudest set you’ll ever be on in your life!,” she recalls. “Robin was always entertaining the crew and making jokes. You were thrilled when the director called `Cut!’ because that’s when Robin would begin his one-man show. And when they’d say `Action!’ again, he’d be so inventive and bringing what wasn’t on the page to the page. It was really buoyant for me.”

Not surprisingly, back then there was little hint of the demons that would surface for Williams two decades hence. “He was shy in certain ways and incredibly generous,” Harden continues. “And when he was quiet, he was quiet. In those times, you want to make sure that everything’s okay, but really they’re resting. You don’t disturb that. And Robin and I did have one-on-one, deep conversations. But mostly it was seeing his mind working; that was so exciting.”

Harden felt excitement of a different kind appearing with Brad Pitt in Meet Joe Black.

“He was so beautiful!” she gushes. “Couldn’t take my eyes off him. I was thrilled when he noticed my cleavage in one scene! But I found him to be an incredibly classy person. He was going through different things in his private life at the time and breaking up with Gwyneth, but he was just very classy, and his family was there—including his mother—so he was just all-American and respectful of the process of acting and bringing his work to the plate.”

Romance taking a back seat to work has also been Harden’s story the past few years. She’s still single and not exactly looking. “There’s not a lot of interest or great candidates at the moment,” she confesses. “Plus, I’ve got a lot going on, so I’m not really around and available. Now, if the right person came along, great. But I’m deliriously satisfied and incredibly content with the rich, beautiful life I lead. My friends are great, and romance could be fun, but I’m okay at the moment not sharing a sink with anybody!”

 

*

SIDEBAR:

Since flowers are so integral to Marcia Gay Harden’s book, we thought we’d get her quickie impressions of various blooming beauties:

Roses

I think of English gardens and Valentine’s Day. I like wild roses. Store-bought roses are beautiful, but they wilt so damn quickly.

Hyacinths

The aroma is heavenly. They’re an early bloomer. It’s like a jiggling lady.

Daffodils / Jonquils

I’ll always think of them as “a little lady wearing a perky bonnet,” as my mother described them. Or Katharine Hepburn. They grow wild in Vermont, and my ex put hundreds of jonquils on my car when he was first courting me. When I told my mother this story, she said, “Oh, daffodils. The happiest flower in the garden.” I was thrilled that she made the connection that daffodils and jonquils are the same flower.

Tulips

They’re fantastic. They’re spring to me. One can’t help but think of Holland and the fields and fields and fields of them.

Hibiscuses

They’re like a piece of thin, thin, paper. Very delicate.

Irises

A lakeside lover. Little purple ones that bloom by the lake. They make me think of a dark night because they’re purple and edged in black, but then they get lighter until the center is yellow. They’re a dramatic sunset. Like when you look at one side of the sky and you see the sun setting, but the other side is already night.

Orchids

There’s an odd sterility about an orchid. It’s very exotic and delicate and enticing, but without an aroma. You put a white orchid in a home, and it’s immediately elegant.

Amaryllises

Very sexual.

Stargazer Lilies

It’s big and white and aromatic. It’s often in hotel lobbies, so you walk in and you get this beautiful, fresh smell. Instant elegance. My favorite flower.

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BYLINE:

David Lefkowitz is an adjunct professor of English at the University of Northern Colorado. He also co-publishes Performing Arts Insider (TotalTheater.com) and hosts Dave’s Gone By (davesgoneby.com) live on Saturday mornings (facebook.com/radiodavelefkowitz).

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Riding the Waves: Christine Lahti on the Feminist Path

by David Lefkowitz

(Note: This article was first published in Long Island Woman, July 2018)

 

With fourth-wave feminism inspiring marches, activism, and hashtags against violence and harassment, women are once again feeling pressured to decide where they “fit” in terms of society’s demands on them. If you are a proud housewife and mother, are you a throwback? If you are militantly unisex in dress and style, are you denying your natural muliebrity? If you use your body and sexual power as a facet of your career, are you falling into the traps of male-constructed desires and stereotypes?

Though these socio-political questions are constantly debated on a macro level, every woman, of course, has her own beliefs, boundaries, and experiences that shape her response to society’s shifting mores. Going back to look at your choices along the way can be painful but also edifying and satisfying. To quote the Talking Heads, “You may ask yourself: how did I get here?”

Someone who rose to that challenge—and lived to write about it—is award-winning actress Christine Lahti. Since landing the plum role of Al Pacino’s girlfriend in 1979’s And Justice for All, the actress has worked steadily—never quiet reaching a mega-hit status but giving memorable performances in such respected films as Swing Shift and Housekeeping, and holding the spotlight as a rival surgeon on Chicago Hope and a sobriety-challenged ADA on Law & Order: SVU. Along the way came stints on Broadway, an endearingly embarrassing moment at the Golden Globes, an Oscar for directing a short film, marriage, motherhood, and a lot of anecdotes about what it meant to be an aspiring actress in the pre-#MeToo era of casting couches and offhanded cruelty disguised as career advice.

The result is her newly published memoir, true stories from an unreliable witness: A Feminist Coming of Age, which is as much about Lahti finding herself as an empowered woman as it is about her mostly charmed life as an actress. Memories range from her mother breaking through a suffocating Stepford Wife-Meets-June-Cleaver persona to become a professional artist, to Lahti being hired as a dinner date for a rich gentleman (and being too naïve to realize that dinner meant, well, more than dinner), to auditioning for a casting director who said she didn’t possess the looks or talent to succeed it unless she slept with the men who could give her jobs.

“He didn’t assault me or try to rape me,” Lahti recalls in our late-winter conversation, “but he devastated me by trying to convince me that my work was only in my sexuality, that I would never make it unless I `slept my way to the top’—which was how he put it. Part of me believed he might be right. An internalized misogyny made me think, `Oh my God. All my training, my intelligence, my education, my heart—everything about me was dismissed in that room when he said, `the only way your dreams will ever come true is if you become a prostitute.’

“That was the day I became a feminist in my bones,” she adds, “although the scars of this kind of treatment are lifelong. So you just have to be mindful and work on the distrust you develop about male aggression. You hopefully move on and treat everybody as individuals and not assume that you’ll be harassed or mistreated.”

For all her residual anger and disbelief, Lahti doesn’t call out the bad guys in her book by name. She didn’t even report the casting director back then because “I felt wouldn’t be believed and it wouldn’t do anything. And as I said, I thought, `Maybe he’s right. Maybe I’m just new at this and naïve.’”

Lahti has traveled a long way since then, and she says that by reexamining her life “through the sexism of show business, and now navigating through the ageism of show business, it’s all through the lens of being a feminist, which I define simply as a person who believes men and women should have equal rights. I saw my mom being treated like a second-class citizen, and I saw the mothers of all my friends being treated that way. So I was determined not to be like that.”

As such, Lahti has generally been careful to take roles that feature complex, vulnerable, but multi-faceted women, be it Wendy Wasserstein’s consciousness-building Heidi on Broadway, or playing a former Sixties radical still on the run in Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty. In fact, her rare career regrets included doing, in her pre-fame days, a Joy dishwashing liquid commercial (not exactly ground zero for women’s lib), and a 1995 horror movie called Hideaway: “Over the years, I tried to be really selective about what films I did, but sometimes it just depends on how long it’s been since I’ve worked or how much I need to pay the rent. So I hadn’t worked in a long time, and the director was able to convince me somehow that Hideaway was a feminist thriller, a psychological thriller. And it’s so not! It’s a horror movie! And not a movie I put on my resume.”

Missteps aside, unlike other actresses forced to decide between being a role model or fashion model, Lahti doesn’t feel the need to justify her nude scenes . . . because she hasn’t done any. “Saying `no’ was a typical, second-wave feminist reaction, I guess,” she explains. “If I was in a movie, and if I was nude, or partially nude, I thought I would not be taken seriously as an actress. At the time, we felt the only power we were given was in our sexuality. So that by denying it, at least externally to the world (by dressing down, not wearing a lot of makeup, not dressing in a sexual way), we would force men to take us more seriously.

“What’s different now is that younger women tend to be pro-sex feminists. They get to be as sexual as they want—which doesn’t mean they want to fuck you. If men objectify them, that’s the men’s problem. These women are empowered and love their sexuality, they celebrate it. So if I were 25 now, would I make different choices? Maybe. But no matter what, it’s always about doing good work and choosing projects that portray women in a three-dimensional way.”

To demonstrate, Lahti proudly lists such credits as the Bill Forsyth film, Housekeeping (“a little gem of a movie”), her off-Broadway turn last fall in Suzan-Lori Parks’s Fucking A, and a short-lived series on the WB Network, Jack and Bobbie. “That show had a small but devoted, passionate fan base. It was on the wrong network, so it lasted only one season, but it was really smart, and I loved the character. She was a very flawed professor and mom who smoked dope and was insecure about her boys’ rebellion. The show was from the teenagers’ point of view but also explored how a parent hurts when a teenager rebels or is disrespectful.”

Lahti’s own three children with husband Thomas Schlamme are doing just fine. “One’s an abstract painter,” she notes, “one’s a composer-musician, and one’s a singer-songwriter-actress. They’re all finding their paths. My advice to them? Just work your ass off. If you love it and work really, really hard, the sky’s the limit. I was told that by my parents—even though I was `just a girl.’ That was a great gift that they gave me, so I wanted to impart that to our children.”

And yes, feminism is also a component of that parenting paradigm. Lahti recalls, “When she was 11 years old, I took my daughter to a march in Washington for reproductive freedom. Millions were there, and she got a big taste of activism. So that was the day she became a feminist in her own way, for a younger generation.

“My sons are also feminists,” she notes. “My husband and I want to model for them that parents can be equal partners with mutual respect. Also, my sons must respect women and not treat them as sex objects or objectify them. My sons truly are respectful men—and they just couldn’t be any other way because they grew up with this in their faces every day. They also learned from their father and me how it is so limiting when you narrow gender definitions. For men, if you’re living by a classic, patriarchal model, you don’t get to be nurturing or cry or be celebrated in the home the way women are. As Gloria Steinem said, `Women will never have power outside the home until men have power in the home.’ I think that’s what feminism gives to men and women: it broadens all our human potential and doesn’t limit us to some patriarchal gender definitions.”

Lahti adds that although she began writing true stories two years before the so-called Weinstein effect, she dreamed about this movement her whole life and is thrilled to be living through “such a heartening reckoning in our culture. Women are finally being heard and believed, and there are actual repercussions for their poor treatment. Yes, it’s definitely complicated, and there needs to be lots of nuanced conversation, but it’s unbelievably thrilling.”

Married life, too, has proved to be “fantastic” for Lahti. Asked the secret to her 35 years of bliss, the actress replies, “Don’t see each other that much. Really. Tommy and I both have careers we love, so we spend a lot of time away or on location. It’s so great because we both bring back tales of our adventures and share what we learned. That’s helped us a lot: having a partnership of mutual respect, and both of us loving what we do.”

In her book, Lahti also points to honesty as the best way to keep a marriage solid. One time, she and a handsome co-star found themselves getting particularly playful off camera. Though a full-on affair was averted, Lahti nevertheless confessed the flirtation to her husband, which led to constructive discussions about how they’d been taking each other a bit too for granted.

Readers paging through true stories for juicy name-dropping about Lahti’s days as a single woman will likely be disappointed, however. She spends less than a paragraph on her three-year “on and off” relationship with And Justice for All co-star Al Pacino. Asked to elaborate, the actress admits, “I fell madly in love with him—or at least at the time, I thought I was in love with him, and it was intense for me, but it just didn’t work out. I guess we weren’t meant for each other. But he’s an incredible actor and a great, great guy. I wouldn’t say we’re close friends, but we’re still friendly, and it was all good.”

Even better are Lahti’s self-deprecating stories about nearly missing her Golden Globe moment because she was in the bathroom, and her worst night playing Maggie in a 1985 Long Wharf Theater staging of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It’s a laugh-out-loud tale worth reading in full, but the short version is that Maggie’s ineffectual husband Brick, fed up with her relentless need, hurls his crutch at her. On this night, however, Brick’s throw proved errant, and Lahti noticed the crutch being held by a woman in the front row. A tug of war ensued, with the actress trying to stay in character as the older lady resolutely clutched the prop. Needless to say, the audience began seeing the humor in the situation—especially when they noticed what Lahti didn’t: that the prop crutch had landed elsewhere on the stage, and Lahti was trying to pry a real crutch from an old woman with a broken leg.

“No, I did not laugh,” Lahti recalls of the incident. “I was such a serious, Uta Hagen student and still in character. I just gave a little shrug that said, `Well, I don’t need your crutch anyway.’ Meanwhile, Brick was not looking the entire time and had no idea what was going on. After the curtain came down, Peter Weller came up to me and said, `God, the audience was going crazy! What did I do that was so funny?’”

In her youth, Lahti did laugh at, and admire, actresses like Marlo Thomas (in That Girl) and Mary Tyler Moore, for being funny and vulnerable yet independent. “I had never seen a woman be able to have her own apartment and, apart from a few boyfriends, not have a particular man in her life,” Lahti says of the Mary Richards character. “She had a career, and she was fine with that. That was really informative and influential for me. I even ended up working with Mary Tyler Moore in a movie called Just Between Friends, and I got to tell her that!”

Now 68, Lahti is at the point where she can serve as the role model for younger generations, which she’s doing by telling her stories and continuing to seek worthy roles. “I got into my fifties and was hit by a tsunami of ageism,” she admits. “I’m still battling that, and it’s been the primary motivation for writing the book. I wasn’t gonna shut up—no way! I needed to stay creative, and my daughter, who’s a kick-ass feminist, said, `Go write yourself a one-woman show or a screenplay. You have so many stories, mom. Why aren’t you writing them down?’ So I took it to heart and started writing about three years ago. I developed the stories as monologues at first and did a workshop at [NYC’s] Cornelia Street Café.

“My only regret is that I didn’t start this in my thirties. Back then, when people used to say, `Don’t you have a production company?’, I would say, `Oh, no, I’m just an actress. I’m not entrepreneurial like that.’ Now, however, I’m feeling so empowered and not listening to all the ageist crap about women. I just want to produce and direct and write. I feel so liberated from that dependency of being `just an actress’—which is part of my journey as a feminist. I don’t have to listen to those casting directors or anybody who diminishes me. All of you can just shut up and let me go about my business, do the work that I love, and help other women by telling stories about women that aren’t being told.”

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A LITTLE MORE LAHTI

How do you stay in shape?

I love exercise and the endorphins I get from it. I just bought a Peloton bike, and I’ve been going to spin classes forever. Before SoulCycle, I was spinning.

Are your eating habits healthy, as well?

Sometimes I’m really bad, but most of the time I try to stick to low-sugar, low-carbs, and lots of vegetables. Still, I love ice cream and burgers and fries. So I don’t deny myself anything. Being tall may help. It distributes the weight over more surface!

Favorite Meal?

Thanksgiving. I like all those carbs and the care. I don’t cook much, but I love the cooking of that.

Favorite Dessert?

Hot fudge sundae with walnuts.

What books have you been reading?

I’m in love with Maggie Nelson (The Argonauts, Bluets), who is a wonderful feminist writer. Also, Rebecca Solnit’s collection of essays, The Faraway Nearby.

What music have you been listening to?

Cardi B. I like to work out to her. Because I’ve got a 24-year-old daughter, I know some of these younger performers. But I still love and listen to Joni Mitchell constantly.

Favorite Vacation Spot?

Torch Lake in Northern Michigan. My parents had a cottage there, and I think it’s still my favorite spot. Recently, we’ve been renting a house in Sag Harbor for a week in the summer, and that’s pretty remarkable.

Favorite Movies?

Recently, I liked Three Billboards and Lady Bird. All-time: Gone with the Wind was lifechanging. I don’t know why, and not sure I’d still feel the same about it, but back then… Also, Sidney Lumet’s version of Long Day’s Journey into Night. Both films left me gutted; something changed in me after seeing them.

 

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BYLINE:

David Lefkowitz is an adjunct professor of English at the University of Northern Colorado. He also co-publishes Performing Arts Insider (TotalTheater.com) and hosts Dave’s Gone By (davesgoneby.com) live on Facebook on Saturday mornings (facebook.com/radiodavelefkowitz).

 

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BOUNDS FOR GLORY: A New L.I. Theater Troupe Pushes Boundaries

by david lefkowitz

Note: This article was published July 2018 in Long Island Pulse magazine, under the title “Pushing Boundaries: Comfort Zones Realigned.” http://lipulse.com/2018/07/03/pushing-boundaries-studio-theatre/

 

Three movie-theater ushers endure a long night of boredom and drudgery. Two lovers hide out in a seedy motel and become increasingly paranoid, berserk, and itchy. A victim of a botched sex change sings about his failed relationship with a rock star. Not your typical Saturday night theater fare—especially on Long Island, where habitual musicals, children’s shows, and acting classes sometimes seem to be the only activities with any sustainability. And yet, this season, audiences in Lindenhurst have been treated to The Annie Baker’s Pulitzer-winning The Flick, Tracy Letts’s early psychodrama Bug, and now the rocking but decidedly off-the-wall Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Who would dare put on such a creepy, volatile piece in a landscape that tends to favor Nunsense, The Wedding Singer, and I Hate Hamlet? A theater company that calls itself, aptly enough, Theater Out of Bounds. It’s a new troupe run by twenty-somethings Scott Johnston and Joe Rubino, actor friends who saw an opportunity to bring edgier shows to our shores. So the pair approached David Dubin, artistic director of Studio Theater, where Rubino works as technical director.

The timing was perfect. Dubin, who took over Studio just a couple of years ago when the previous owner, BroadHollow, was about to shut it down, had been looking to do more challenging plays but feared alienating his subscriber base. He told Pulse, “Studio started 50 years ago as a place for edgier work. I wanted to restore that, but a lot of our subscribers are older people who want comfort food. Believe it or not, some have even been here since we opened. So along with original works, we still have to do Neil Simon comedies and Agatha Christie mysteries. What’s great is that Theater Out of Bounds takes our dark weekends to do three performances of work I wouldn’t dare put in our subscription series. I’m just hoping it catches on so down the line, that’ll be more of what we regularly do.”

This partnership, with Studio Theater offering free space and paying the bills, allows Johnston and Rubino to concentrate on creating instead fretting over the bottom line. As such, the company might be able to avoid the recent failure of Northport’s BareBones Theater, which started out with a similar ethos but had to swing rent and other costs based on a venue holding only 40 seats (Studio has 140). “Northport is a great town to be in,” Johnston told Pulse, “but it’s hard working across the street from the John Engeman Theater, which was also been doing straight plays.” Johnston added that Studio’s magnanimity allows Theater Out of Bounds to do “darker shows that maybe wouldn’t have been produced otherwise.”

Such as Hedwig, which will be staged by NYU directing student Tommy Ranieri and star Boston Conservatory at Berklee grad, Dylan Whelan. “Last August, another company brought in Jonathan Larson’s Tick…Tick…Boom to the Studio,” explains Johnston, who played Larson in that semi-autobiographical musical. “David saw it and thought right away the intimate space was perfect for a good small musical that we can make big, like Hedwig.

Meanwhile, plans are already shaping up for next season. Though not confirmable at press time, likely productions include Lauren Gunderson’s I and You, about a high school athlete who volunteers to help a sick classmate with her Walt Whitman project, and, just in time for Halloween, Rubino’s adaptation of Night of the Living Dead. Comedian Jamie Campbell’s solo, The Devil on the Wall or, That Time I Got Kidnapped, seems poised for a tour stop at Studio in late September, while Steven Adly Guirgis’s dark comedy, The Motherfucker with the Hat, is being considered for January. Asked if he was worried the title might put off more comfort-foodie theatergoers, Johnston replied, “Well, David’s really good at giving pre-show speeches about the season to a 60-and-over crowd. So he’s sure to say the title and make a quirky joke, and then the audience will start whispering to each other to show they’re comfortable and they get it.”

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Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs July 13-21 at Studio Theater, 141 South Wellwood Avenue, Lindenhurst, 631-226-8400. studiotheatreli.com.

BYLINE:
An adjunct English professor at the University of Northern Colorado, David Lefkowitz hosts Dave’s Gone By (davesgoneby.com) a long-running radio show streaming live on Facebook (radiodavelefkowitz) every Saturday morning.

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MILLER, MONROE & KAZAN AT BAY STREET THEATER

(c)2018 David Lefkowitz

(Note: this article was first published in June 2018: http://lipulse.com/2018/05/21/fellow-travelers-bay-street-theater/)

“How do you reconcile your friendships and relationships with your belief system? When someone you love doesn’t adhere to the same code, what do you do?”

Asking those questions is playwright Jack Canfora, who explores themes of camaraderie and betrayal in his drama Fellow Travelers, world premiering at Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theater May 29. The plot follows a love triangle of sorts, as two close pals both obsess over the same complicated woman. In this case, though, the buddies are playwright Arthur Miller and director Elia Kazan, who originally staged Miller’s landmark Death of a Salesman but also went on to name names during the McCarthy eraThe woman? Miller’s wife Marilyn Monroe, with whom Kazan—as shown in confessional letters published posthumously in 2014—had an affair. “Miller, Monroe and Kazan had an intense and enmeshed relationship,” Canfora explained. “And it always fascinated me that nobody wrote a story about it.”

Canfora penned his story seven years ago, with Broadway’s powerful Shubert Organization holding the option to produce it. “My main producer Leonard Soloway gave it to them a while ago, but it can take a long time for plays to get momentum behind them. They did a table reading this past summer, which led to the premiere.”

Michael Wilson, former artistic director of Hartford Stage and director of 2013’s The Trip to Bountiful Broadway revival with Cicely Tyson, helms the play, which features “fictionalized” dialogue to go with actual events. “What happens in the play really happened,” Canfora avowed. “There are no ninja attacks or car chases! It’s just that some things had to be compressed. For example, Mark Blum plays Hollywood film producer Harry Cohn. The real Harry Cohn didn’t do all the things this character does—though he did a lot of them—but all the things he does in the play were done by somebody.”

Asked if Arthur Miller was a particular influence on his own playwriting, Canfora claimed, “I wouldn’t compare myself to him in terms of quality, and I don’t see myself writing like him stylistically, but he’s a tremendous influence.” Canfora’s style perhaps owes more to the likes of Stoppard, Kushner, Albee and…Elvis Costello. “My plays tend to be very oriented in language. Characters have fairly witty responses to things, which helps because I often write dramas that are heavy thematically but have light moments and comedy in between.”

As for what he hoped to achieve by writing about the legends in Fellow Travelers,Canfora replied, “These are iconic figures sealed into our collective consciousness, but in the process they’ve become ‘typed.’ Treating them three-dimensionally is sometimes lost when that happens. But the same tropes that were politically and socially at play then are still valid now. Miller was a universal writer but also an extremely American one. He’s writing about what it means to be a thinking, feeling person in our culture. That doesn’t get old.”

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NOTES & BACKSTORY:

When planning my monthly column for Long Island Pulse magazine, I’m always happy to do a piece about Bay Street Theater on Long Island, since, sadly, they’re one of the only venues producing new plays in the region.

 

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PRIDE AND JOY: Entrepreneur Joy Mangano Celebrates New Book and Old Values

(Note: This article was first published in Long Island Woman magazine, May 2018)

The world may still be awaiting the invention of a better mousetrap, self-cleaning toaster, and 3-D food printer, but improved mops, coat hangers, and luggage wheels? Been done. And they’ve been done by Joy Mangano. The entrepreneur whose self-wringing floor mop sparked a multi-million dollar empire has lost none of her can-do optimism. If anything, thirty years of success through hard work and television has made her only more eager to share her story and, just as importantly, her advice to anyone struggling to bring an idea to fruition or simply persevere through a tough time.

Mangano did both when, as a divorced and struggling mother of three, she tired of cleaning filthy mops by hand and built her own solution. With financial help (and hindrances) from her dad and his fiancé, Mangano was able to make molds, and then mops, which sold well enough to get the attention of TV. Despite an initial setback, wherein a male QVC host bungled the product’s debut (yet still sold 500 of them), Mangano rebounded in a huge way to become a mainstay of home shopping. Millions of Piatto bakery boxes and huggable hangers later, the President of Ingenious Designs LLC and founder of the Joy Mangano Foundation remains one of the top sellers on HSN and an object lesson in David beating Goliath—that is, a lone woman with an idea and sense of fair play who conquered all the manufacturing obstacles, legal hassles, and outright fraud thrown in her way.

The leap from cult figure to mainstream icon came when director David O. Russell (American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook) chose to semi-fictionalize Mangano’s biography in the 2015 film, Joy. Playing the protagonist was none other than Russell’s artistic muse, Jennifer Lawrence, who notched an Oscar nomination and Golden Globe win for her performance. Although the movie takes numerous dramatic liberties small and large (the real Mangano, 62, has three children, not two; and she doesn’t have any siblings, let alone a seethingly jealous half-sister), Mangano doesn’t mind the fictions. After all, Joy the movie is a Hollywood fairy tale, complete with Bradley Cooper as its prince-(mostly)-charming and Robert De Niro as its complicated villain. If some scenes deliberately eschew literal truth for melodrama, the overall effect is still Mangano-esque: stick to your core principles, never quit, and success is just around the corner.

To hammer that resourcefulness home even further, Joy the person has now penned a memoir. If anything, the book, co-written by Alex Tresniowski, treats Mangano’s life with a lighter touch and less gritty detail than the film—which is just how the author wants it. The point of Inventing Joy: Dare to Build a Brave and Creative Life is not to rehash Mangano’s rise to riches but to turn each event in her herstory into a teachable moment. Nearly ever chapter begins with the next twist in her biography, quickly followed by what she learned from that setback and how fans could benefit from that example. “I wanted readers,” Mangano explains in our chat, “not only to say `Wow!’ but to transfer that touchpoint into their lives. I truly believe we are all alike. That’s why I hear so often, `my life has changed. I didn’t do this for 30 years, and now I’m finally doing it!’

“We all have ability,” she continues. “I know brilliant people, but I am not brilliant. And there are no `experts.’ You do not have to be good to get started in anything. You want to start a nursery school? You want to be the best nurse that America has to offer? You want to start a coffee shop or invent a product? I say that everybody has the ability, and you make your luck. You just have to get started and then keep putting one foot in front of the other. And you can’t stop, because if you do, 100 percent—nothing will happen. But if you don’t stop, your path may change.”

Mangano adds that the worst mistake a would-be inventor can make is simply not inventing. Being scared of failure. “As children we’ll build a bicycle ramp, and if we fall, we’ll build it better,” she explains. “We’ll build the swing hanging off the tree, and if it’s not strong enough, we’ll make it stronger. Children fail, but they just get back up and try again. As adults, we have a million reasons to talk ourselves out of things that seem a little beyond the envelope. We should not do that.”

Certainly, naysayers can claim that Mangano is a one-in-a-million combination of talent, gumption, and just plain luck, but the inventor of the fluorescent pet collar notes that a successful journey tends to be circuitous rather than a straight line to glory: “I began with a picture of `success’ in my mind, and the result is completely nothing like I started out thinking. But it put me on the road. I kept going and kept absorbing, no matter what was thrown my way. Therefore, I ended up in a different world, but it was the one I was meant to be on. The one I loved and was good at.”

Speaking of love, Mangano’s parents—portrayed so unflatteringly in the film and more sympathetically in the book—are still very much alive and, says Mangano, “proud of everything. My father, who is now 86 years old, focused on the fact that Robert De Niro was playing him. That’s all he thinks about!”

It is true that Mangano’s ex-husband remains a trusted friend and executive at her company, and that since her brand took off, she has had little time and energy for any further romantic entanglements. “I would have to invent more time in a day to include, with realistic caring and attention, another person in my life,” Mangano says. “I would love ten, twenty years down the line—being the age I am—to meet someone; that would be fabulous. But I will tell you that as a result of the movie and the book and the world I’m in, I can’t work fast enough. The velocity of what I do has increased so much. I manage thousands of people and am part of a major company, and I’m fortunate to love every aspect of what I do. But when you’re doing that, there just isn’t enough time in the day.”

There is always time, however, for family—especially since all three of Mangano’s children are in the business. Her son Robert, a Columbia Law School grad, ditched his associate slot at the uber-presitigious Cravath, Swaine & Moore to become Executive Vice President of Ingenious Designs. “At the law firm, he was working seven days a week, twenty hours a day—we didn’t see him for six years,” recalls Mangano. “So I started noodging him because I needed his brilliant mind. Eventually, his wife tells him, `You want to help people so much? Your mother needs help.’ And now he runs all my business strategy and retail roll out.” Christie Miranne, Mangano’s oldest daughter, left a public relations firm to work in IDL’s product development, while daughter Jackie serves as the company’s fashion expert. Even Mangano’s son-in-law is part of the team: “He was a producer for me before he married my daughter,” chuckles the entrepreneur-turned-matchmaker. “I won’t say I had a lot to do with that, but I did have something to do with it!”

For thirty years a specialist at creating handy items that make life easier, Mangano is nonetheless thinking bigger these days. Although she’s not ready to divulge specifics, the inventor of Forever Fragrant odor neutralizers and Clothes it All luggage has spent the last ten years developing a new product line that “will impact lives, universally, in such a positive way. I’m very excited because it will be one of the broadest things I’ve ever done.”

That said, she makes no apologies for championing the small triumphs. “There’s a cute little saying: you don’t have to re-invent the wheel,” she explains. “I don’t know if you’ve seen my luggage, but I re-invented the wheel. It took almost four years and many, many patents. It’s the most amazing luggage, with 20 percent more packing space. You know, 97 percent of all luggage damage is the wheels breaking off. But you can’t break these wheels! Still, I don’t just innovate for innovation’s sake. It has to be meaningful innovation that really matters. The customer is the most important person in my life, so I try to do the best quality at the best possible price. That probably takes me almost as long as inventing or designing. I can build luggage that costs $1,000, but when you can offer it for $99, that opens the universe to so many more people, which makes me so proud.”

Regarding the wide world of inventors bellying up to the “Shark Tank” crew with their own billion-dollar brainstorms, Mangano admits she rarely watches the program. “They asked me to be on it as a judge back when the movie was getting underway, and I chose not to be.” She regards with some dismay the show’s ethos that unless you’re willing to spend five years living on ramen and three hours of sleep, you’re not truly serious about your invention. “You don’t have to jump off a cliff!,” she contends. “You don’t have to mortgage your house or give up your career. If you’re an accountant, but you love surfing, and you want to open a surf shop one day, then be an accountant in a surf shop! Go into the arena. Start learning about what you don’t know, and wiggle your way in gradually to follow what you love.”

Long Islanders will be proud to know that East Meadow native Mangano still loves her hometown—loves it enough, in fact, to keep living here, even though she must regularly commute to Clearwater, Florida for her HSN hosting duties. “I grew up on Long Island, and raised my family here,” she recalls. “I took classes at Stony Brook and later took the Long Island Rail Road—it’s not that bad!—to a side job. And then I started my business on Long Island. The first place I went to hire people was the local church. And when they started, some of them were literally riding bicycles to come to work. I still have certain people with me from almost 30 years ago; now they’re driving beautiful cars. And when I moved my business ten years ago, I moved it only a couple of miles away in consideration of the people who work for me. I’m very conscious of loyalty: business, family, friends, so I’m thrilled. Long Island is home for me, and I don’t see that changing.”

Nor does Mangano see her lifestyle changing anytime soon—and why should it? “I’ve never been healthier,” she says. “I exercise and I’m conscious of healthy eating. But then again, as a young woman, I tried to do everything, every day, all the time. I was a box-checker, checking off every box. And now I look at these young girls who work for me. They walk in my office for a meeting; they look amazing, they’re totally prepared with a presentation. So I say to them, `What did you do this morning?’ And they say, `I started the presentation at five; at six o’clock, the kids got up. I got them dressed, I fed them. I took them—one to my mom’s, one to daycare—came in here, finished the presentation . . .’ So I’m like, `What do you do when you get home?’ `I’ll pick them up, and I’ll bring one to soccer, and I’ll feed them dinner, I’ll bathe them and . . .’ So I tell them—and this is the best advice I could give any young mom or young woman with family and a career trying to do it all: you can’t, and you don’t have to.”

What you do have to be is your best self; that’s what people respond to. Mangano recalls the time Gayle King told her, `Joy, you are not selling; you are informing me. You’re telling me everything I need to know about your product, so I can make the decision as to whether I want or need it.’ That made me feel really good. When I stand up onstage, it feels very organic. I’m their neighbor, I’m their best friend. If I go through an airport, people feel totally comfortable coming up to me, hugging me and kissing me and saying, `I watch you all the time, and I feel like you live next door to me!’ That’s a wonderful thing. But there’s work involved to get there, because I was there before there was a product. It’s not about achieving financial success; it’s about success at all different kinds of levels.”

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SIDEBAR:

More Mangano

Favorite Vacation Spot?
That’s an easy one for me: East Hampton. That’s where I used to take my children on vacation. My father had a boat out there, and I still go there for a week at a time.

Favorite Website to Surf?

It would be the fashion sites. I get very addicted to the Net-a-Portes and things like that.

What’s on Your Playlist?

Keith Urban—I design guitars with him, and I absolutely love him and think he’s amazing. Natalie Cole, Celine Dion, Zac Brown, and Neil Diamond. That’s probably who I listen to 99.9 percent of the time.

Favorite All-Time Book?

The Godfather, which shouldn’t surprise you.

Favorite Movie?

The Godfather, and equally, the movie Joy. Jennifer and I still have a beautiful relationship; we do a lot of philanthropic things together.

Favorite Meal?

Pasta and arugula salad, especially at [my restaurant] Jema in Huntington. They make the best Long Island duck that you will ever eat.

Favorite TV Shows?

I watch very little TV, but when I put it on, it’s HSN and QVC, because that’s my business. But I also love M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore, Laverne and Shirley, Will and Grace. I love comedy.

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BYLINE:

David Lefkowitz is an adjunct professor of English at the University of Northern Colorado. He also co-publishes Performing Arts Insider (TotalTheater.com) and hosts the long-running show, Dave’s Gone By, which recently began videostreaming live at http://www.davesgoneby.com.

 

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DISCOVER THE ARGYLE THEATER IN BABYLON VILLAGE

©2018 David Lefkowitz

(This article was first published in Long Island Pulse magazine, May 2018, under the title “It Takes a Village: Babylon Unveils the Argyle”: http://lipulse.com/2018/04/23/argyle-theatre-babylon-village/)

For 92 years a movie theater stood in the middle of Babylon’s West Main Street—well, not 92 straight years. In fact in 1924, only two years after the Riley Brothers constructed the Capitol Theatre, the place went bankrupt. Running under new management just a year later, the rechristened Babylon Theater spent succeeding decades alternating between movie-palace glory and post-fire reconstructions. Recent years have been cruel to old-fashioned cinemas however, and after a screening of Guardians of the Galaxy in September 2014, the doors shut for good. A former Babylon Village Chamber of Commerce president told Newsday, “It’s another part of a vanishing Long Island. It’s a sad thing.”

But with every death comes rebirth. This spring, the period of mourning comes to an end thanks to the efforts of a clinical psychologist and his actor son. Last year, Mark Perlman and his son Dylan purchased the Babylon Theater and, using savings, recent earnings and some tax help from the local Industrial Development Agency, set about birthing The Argyle Theatre, a legitimate house for Broadway-caliber shows. On 500 high-backed seats that used to be part of the Beacon Theater, patrons can enjoy a cultural night out watching Equity actors and well-known musicians.

The creation of a new performing arts center flies in the face of the attrition that has gutted the Island theater landscape over the past decade. How then do the Perlmans think they can make it so close to, yet so far from, Broadway? “We want a convenient and affordable alternative for Long Islanders,” Dylan stressed. “We’re using union talent to try to replicate the Broadway experience, from the customer-service end to the venue itself.”

Mark elaborated that they have “a team of about twenty people experienced in Broadway and regional theater on board to handle artistic, technical, sales and marketing.” Hofstra-educated Dylan also emphasized the use of the venue for such alternative revenue sources as concerts, comedy series, film festivals, day camps, theater classes and fundraising events.

Still, creating an in-house theater company is priority one. “We’ll be casting both in Babylon and at a studio space in Manhattan,” explained Dylan, who expects to hire Broadway performers “who may be in-between shows or off a tour” alongside homegrown newcomers seeking “a launchpad for their own careers.”

The Perlmans anticipate each production will run five-to-six weeks, at six performances a week, and cost more than six-figures—a daunting prospect considering The Argyle is a for-profit venture and must rely on revenue rather than subsidies and grants. As such, the pair are targeting frequent theatergoers. “It’s increasingly difficult for the average person to see multiple Broadway shows. Tickets are $115! Even discounted tickets are pretty out-of-control,” Dylan noted.

“We’re five minutes from the Babylon train station,” Mark added. “A person can go on a Thursday night and not have to worry about expensive parking. We want to become part of the fabric of the community and be a thing to do on the Island: have dinner and walk right to a show.”

The Argyle’s inaugural Broadway season begins May 10 with the premiere of Guys and Dolls, which runs through June 17. “It’s been seeming real for a while, now it is real,” Mark said. “It is fun to stand on the stage and look out at the imaginary audience when that was only an abstraction just a year ago.”

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NOTES AND BACKSTORY:
Hey, anybody building a theater on Long Island deserves kudos and best wishes, so I was certainly happy to write this piece, if skeptical.

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