What I Didn’t Plan That Worked Out

Some of the best things in life are those we didn’t carve with precision. Some best careers, relationships, adventures or else were divined when the universe served those up because we were in a momentum of electricity. We were drawing superb energy to us by being present to just being. This is part of “flow”.

When in “flow” there’s so much that might bump into you, dance by you, shine around or above you, or literally knock you so hard you frankly cannot ignore it. I think I’m lucky that I’ve experienced many versions of flow. At times the magnitude has been like a thunderbolt. Maybe this is why I’m so fond of the lightning-bolt symbol, which I’ve long claimed is a totem of mine.

I’m charmed and enchanted speaking to others about career. I especially enjoy talking with those younger than myself as a form of encouragement and support. I’ve often been asked by family or friends to speak to someone they know who wants to get into some part of “the biz” (entertainment and/or Hollywood). Those close to me are aware of some advice I have to impart, knowing especially that I stumbled my way into this show business life almost 30 years ago. Remarkably, it was what I didn’t plan that worked out for me.

Flashing back to my junior/senior years in high school…. My dad helped secure my first job the summer of my sweet sixteenth year. I joined his University of South Carolina teaching assistant Cecile as a camp counselor for the local Muscular Dystrophy Association’s (MDA) summer camp for kids. I was hooked. It was charity work I loved and kids, nearly all in wheelchairs. It led to a couple stints helping with local MDA telethon fundraisers on television. There was also the infatuated influence of my grandfather “Ompa” (I’ve written about before), having been a Grand Ole’ Opry theatre director, and working for years in Pittsburgh as an accomplished producer and director with WIIC-tv, in addition to having attended Yale Drama School where he befriended Academy Award-winning director Delbert Mann (Marty). I used to listen to him for hours on end telling tales of the golden years in television and basking in memories of his theatrical directing. So, this inkling of tv and film had begun seeping into my pores.

Next, I bounced off to college out west — Arizona State University (ASU). My adoring dad had a close associate in one of the poli-sci professors, who in turn had twin daughters two years above me at ASU, whom I’d become close with during a pre-orientation week I’d flown out to on my own. And, not ironically, ASU was close to California, which I’d fallen in love with on a family trip when I was thirteen and had my sights set as a possible post-graduation resting place. (Also, the home of Hollywood, if you’re following the theme of where things unplanned kept teasing me, or lining up, all the same.)

A ripe eighteen in 1988, I’d barely arrived to settle in my dorm freshman year when I received a phone call in my room. It was the weekend before school started, as ASU began classes after Labor Day. On the phone was a Hollywood guy named Eddie. He called me “kid” and asked if I wanted to help him by volunteering to work the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon that weekend, as they needed more bodies. He explained that some soul with the South Carolina MDA network had floated him my name and they tracked me down at ASU.

I was ecstatic! But then the girl in me started crying to him when I rationalized I didn’t have the money to afford a trip to Vegas on the monthly pocket money my dad was covering in addition to my education. I remember Foy quickly not knowing what to make of all this blubbering, so he handed the phone to a woman named Donna. She calmed me down and reported they just needed my commitment, as they would handle paying for my flights, hotel, a per diem (expenses spending money, I’d never heard of, but soon learned to like), and I was going to receive a small salary fee for working. I thought I’d won the teenage lottery and was on my way in no time!

Turns out Eddie Foy III, fondly named King 3 Sticks (“III” get it?!), was the longtime casting director for the national Telethon, friends with Jerry Lewis and Dick Clark and a host of others. He came from a Hollywood family of primarily famous vaudeville comedians, his father and grandfather well known in the business, but pointedly for their Eddie and the Seven Little Foys act. I spent a mere three days in Vegas and worked around the clock for the telethon, but didn’t care about the lack of sleep, as I was very high on adrenaline with my first ‘bigtime’ VIP experience. As fate would have it, I’d been hired as a VIP Talent Escort. I’ll never forget the glow in my smile after just landing at McCarran airport in Vegas and being driven to the Caesars Palace Hotel production office, only to be given a binder the size of an encyclopedia bursting with VIP headshots, stats, rehearsal and run of show information, but told to rush back to the airport straight away to pickup (childhood favorite of mine) Kool & the Gang! From there it was a dominoes of VIP wonder and on the job learning. I was not only in charge of this band during their stay, but also: Casey Kasem, Charo, Joe Williams, Ray Charles, and many more.

It was like summer camp, only better because I made some money and had the time of my life, working! Eddie was also a widow and his daughter Dina worked with him. I became fast friends with both of them and much of his longtime crew. I felt like I found a new family, but this one on the left coast. It was a life turning point. Only later did we find out my parents never received a call, knew nothing of this, and Foy’s team couldn’t ever locate a name of anyone I could send a thank you note to at the MDA in South Carolina for this supreme serendipity. I continued the next year 1989 working the national MDA Jerry Lewis telethon again. Then, being a youth still in transition (and this being well before computer, pager, or mobile phone days), I forgot to call Foy to let him know I changed colleges and obviously my phone number during the summer of 1990.

I’d had a serious talk with my dad as my sophomore collegiate year was winding down. I made friends easily, as I always have. I helped start a club on the ASU campus called Future Filmmakers of Tomorrow (redundant, yes, but equally a small and fun group of Hollywood nerds/wannabes, who got permission to borrow the school’s limited video equipment and pretend we were going to “make it” in the business). However, I’d changed my major three times already, and even I was concerned I’d never graduate on time in four years. And I really wasn’t the type seeking long-term upper schooling. I’d had the taste of being paid to work doing something I enjoyed and I assumed there was more where that came from. I wanted my degree and the freedom to seek my place in that working world full time. Hence, an astute move on my dad’s part to save some money and transfer me to the in-state (SC) college I’d been accepted originally. A lot of my friends were already there, and my sister was entering. I only failed to give a heads up to the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon team. So, when Labor Day 1990 edged closer and no phone calls came, I thought they’d forgotten about me. I sulked and kept sulking through nearly two telethons before I made the leap to hunt down Foy’s number and reach out. Of course he remembered me, and they thought I wasn’t interested and didn’t know how to track me across on the other side of the country. We promised we’d keep in touch better.

My senior year in college I was competing with the famed College of Charleston sailing team. We were ranked in the top five and won second place as the Women’s team for the ICYRA intercollegiate nationals. It was exhilarating! I’d decided at the start of my final semester that I was planning to use my political science degree as a backup only, and not pursue teaching like my father. Though he was paying for my education, I hadn’t quite managed to divulge my scenario to him. Instead, I determined I wanted to earn my Captain’s License for open sea crafts and run boats around the world. I knew a few friends on the sailing team with connections and planning the same. I was high on the idea of an ocean life, as I’d long dreamt about.

Then one fated day that last college semester the movie business came to town and turned all my plans topsy-turvy. Looking back, there was all the foreshadowing that I may fall into an entertainment career. But I truly didn’t see it coming and certainly hadn’t orchestrated any of it.

It was a crisp Saturday morning. I’d been out partying late Friday night and was seriously hung over. I’d seen the mention in the local newspaper during the week commenting on a television crew production visiting Charleston, South Carolina for a week to film their new pilot tv show called Class of ’61, based on the real-life West Point military Class of 1861. It was a Civil War television series, Executive Produced by Steven Spielberg himself- the ET guy! They would be downtown Charleston starting Saturday morning and shooting in the area through the following weekend. I’d never seen a real Hollywood production being made and I wanted to try to get a look. My sister woke me from my hangover and saying something like “Hey, I thought you were going to go see that film thingy today?” It was all I needed. I got dressed and walked downtown to where the paper had stated they would be.

The tiny one-block-long cobblestone street that boarded the Intracoastal Waterway was packed with people, equipment, security and tons of vehicles in all shapes and sizes. I was spellbound, markedly that they would be allowed to fit all of this where it was and that they somehow needed all of this for whatever they were doing. After a good few hours, this guy on the film crew walks over to where I was etched into the street as close as I could be, but behind the security tape keeping public off their set. He was young, but older than me, and cute. He offered me a Coke and a smile, asking if I wanted a closer look (at the filming). I was grinning ear to ear and accepted, of course!

I learned he was a “grip”: their department technicians on set, whose responsibility is to build and maintain all the equipment that supports the cameras. I think he’d taken pity on me baking in the sun, without beverage and not moving for so many hours. He was so nice. And he gave me specific instructions on how I might be able to stay where he was placing me closer to the set for a better view. He explained what the craft service (snacks and drinks) table was near where he placed me. He suggested I stay put, keep a sharp eye to stay out of the way of people and equipment, and help pickup any trash the crew or cast might leave behind, not placing in the proper bins. I had a sense of purpose and a squealing inner pride at my success being so close to the action.

I completely lost track of time. I know it was many more hours and none of it mattered because I was on the set of a real live Hollywood production! The sun was setting and they were not appearing to stop work anytime soon. I didn’t care. There even came a moment when the crew started to pack up and move everyone and everything into their trucks and vans. My grip guardian came to find me, ushering me easily into a van and onto the next location about a mile away. I got out at the next stop and proceeded to do exactly as I’d been taught at the first location. After a short while, it was very dark and many lights had been added to the production areas. As I was stooping to grab some trash, a man I’d not yet met abruptly called out to me asking what was I doing, who was I, and what was I doing on his set?! I nearly exploded in tears again, but since I was surprised to be caught and startled too, I fumbled through the story of honestly: I’m picking up trash, and just trying to help, and my name is….

He stopped me and began laughing so hard. He said he wished his crew were as attentive as I was to “his” set. He thanked me. He was the local Location Manager. He called me “kid” too I seem to recall. Then, he asked if I wanted a job. I immediately lept toward him with a giant “Yes!” He told me he couldn’t pay me, and that I’d be required to be one of the first on set wee early in the morning and last to leave late evening, just like him, but he would teach me as much as possible in the remaining few days they would be filming locally, if I wanted to learn. Cutting classes for almost the entire next week wasn’t a hesitation for me. I was in! He pulled out a map and started to explain where I needed to report at four am the next day. My eyes welled with tears. His map was a for a plantation outside of town. I explained I lived downtown near the college and only had a bicycle that didn’t seem safe to take out on the highways to get there. Once again, my industry angels (I’ll call them) were on my side. He sighed and smiled all at once, then asked for my address to pick me up in the morning. He picked me up and dropped me off enthusiastically each day. He was another name in lights shining on my potential career I still didn’t know I fully wanted.

I worked less than a week and crammed my head full of production. It was the ultimate crash course I never knew existed and almost couldn’t bear to leave behind. I gravitated heavily towards the film department, having the opportunity working as a location department intern to move around the set to meet all of the crew and some of the cast. I became as attached as able to the camera and it’s crew, between all my job needs. I was very thrilled to hang out with the polish DP Janusz. All the while thinking my dad would forgive my cutting classes knowing I was hanging out with a great polish cinematographer, considering my father’s sincere Eastern European expertise, coupled with our family’s polish heritage, notably my godfather from Poland. Mainly, I welcomed anyone willing to share anything they wanted to teach me and so many ponied up. Of note, in hindsight, this was the first production Steven Spielberg worked on with the (later same working together) famous “DP” (Director of Photography) Janusz Kamiński, who’s accomplished two Oscars in their work together.

When the crew wrapped their final day in Charleston they popped champagne on the set after the last shot, cheering wildly and hugging one another. I was presented with a thank you card from the directing and locations team, along with twenty-five dollars* as a token of appreciation. I was crying for joy. I was overwhelmed with emotion. My entire life’s focus had (once again) changed so well and so fast. It was like that fabulous camp analogy all over again. I never wanted to lose this sense of family. I wanted to run away to Hollywood!

I was depressed for a few weeks when the crew pulled out of town. Luckily, another originally-hired and local intern had befriended me. I stayed in touch with him. He told me another production was coming to Charleston soon and filming through part of the summer. He told me he’d put in a good word for them to hire me too, as he was certain he’d get on the crew. It worked. It was the sequel to renowned Alex Haley’s Roots. This was a miniseries titled Queen. I was hired — paid — originally as a casting intern; later working in the camera department as well, even one day as a stand-in for the (then unknown) Halle Berry. The overall cast was star-studded with names I knew well. It was so glamorous, despite the searing heat of summer, period costumes atop that, and long work days. The production used rain machines, explosives, and I fast found out what “day for night” and vice versa meant in the world of filming. I was saving every penny and enamored with every minute. I started this work during my last month of college. Somehow, I made it through graduation, and without extremely poor grades. (Though, I remember having stress dreams for a few years after that I’d missed my final exams and didn’t graduate. It was funny in retrospect.)

So, then I made the fateful call to the one person I knew best in Hollywood, in hopes to begin crafting a plan to move to California to try to make it in the entertainment biz — Mr. Eddie Foy III. As it turns out, my timing was fortuitous. Foy’s daughter Dina was moving out on her own for the first time. Her room in his home apartment was soon to be vacant. He offered it to me at a steal of a price for a first timer in LA la land.

As soon as the production wrapped in South Carolina, I asked my dad to help me use a good portion of my earnings to buy a used car. The Transportation Captain was a good southern man, who looked after all the crew. He suggested I could follow his eighteen-wheeler rig on the cross-country trek back to Hollywood, where he had to return it after wrap, and where I was moving to build a new home life. And another crew member from the wardrobe department, who’d taken me under her wing, was planning to follow his rig too. He even offered to share his per diem to allow us hotel stop overnights, with me and my wardrobe friend sharing a room. I was elated. It was all unfolding before me, like a yellow brick road showing up. I lived with Eddie my first few years in Hollywood. He got me my first job on the ground as a runner for Dick Clark Productions (back in the Thomas Guide days, for those of you millennials who only know the era of GPS). I worked the Jerry Lewis Telethon with him again. And this was only the beginning. I still refer to Foy as my mentor to this day. He’s part of an impressive list of many who helped craft the progression of my entertainment career.

As I’d grown up on a lake and sailed my entire life, when I first breathed the idea to my parents of my post-college boating plans they weren’t entirely shocked. Though maybe a bit disappointed I wasn’t following a traditional career, especially after receiving a college degree, but there was no major distress. However, the movie business was an entirely other reaction. I will never forget the day my dad just shook his head repeatedly asking “Why? What?” and noting “You had to pick the one thing I know nothing about, didn’t you?” Like all doting fathers, I think he cared so much he wanted to keep guiding me with great connections. He said it kindly, but it was an ironic choice considering. It took me years later to own the underlying subconscious of a fiercely independent streak in me that was likely the impetus. I wanted to prove to myself, my family, but preeminently being a daddy’s girl — my father, that I could do this life thing all on my own!

To memory, my parents didn’t try to talk me out of any of this. I doubt they’d have succeeded, but it is a commendation of great glory that I was gifted the mom and dad I have. I’m sure they saw the twinkle in my eyes, but it was a true testament to their parenting to allow me the mobility to prove myself.

The funniest part of youth, looking back now as solely a youthful feeling adult, is how driven many of us are to be our own person, yet deep connection lies at the heart no matter where you do or what you do. Without the significant counsel of my dad, my family, and friends, I wouldn’t be who I am. Not even a little bit of what I consider myself today to be as a mega blessed person. We are better from all of those who have created our paths, supported them, or only crossed them. And we are better knowing so, when we wise up to this stage.

The moral of this story, of (my) life, is balance. Let go of too much planning. Let yourself be taken along for the ride sometimes too. The journey is as much the point as the destination. Follow your heart, your passions, your joy and don’t be afraid to follow the unbeaten paths.

When you bask in the flow, it reflects flow back for you!

*Btw- I’ve kept that twenty-five dollars and thank you card, as a reminder of how golden “flow” moments are when you seize them.

LOVER of life. Especially people, places, philanthropy and photography.

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