Tag Archives: once we were toddlers

In the last six weeks, it feels like a great deal of talent has left this earth. Maybe I’m more sensitive to it than I would be normally, but really, July and August have been rough on the Hollywood farewells. Really rough.

Monday morning, after learning of the the passing of Phyllis Diller, I thought about how, in some small way, I thank her for my being here. Because for many years that was how the story went. Kind of.

Diller didn’t introduce my parents, but for many years, up until Monday, I was under the impression she’d played a part in letting them know they were meant to be together.

My grandfather is an entertainment attorney and did a lot of work in London. That was where the giant rhinos came from. But somehow, someone tied Diller to the story at some point. I don’t know who. It was just a side note. The rhinos came from London.

A six-foot leather rhinoceros. A four-foot one. And a three-foot one, too. Like The Three Bears only with horns and fine with being sat on.

Crated and shipped from a small workshop in England to Los Angeles, my dad remembered them showing up at the house when he was in his early teens. My grandparents traveled a lot. They brought home different things. He just remembers them one day being there.

When you grow up with giant leather rhinos, you never think to ask, “Where did the rhinos come from?” They’re simply there. Like ottomans and ends tables. Only more fun to climb on.

I grew up in with the Papa rhino in my nursery. I used it to cruise along as I began to walk. Later, my sister and I would go on safaris and have tea parties with him, and he was so well-loved that his tail would end up like Eeyore’s, held in by a nail.

We never named him. I don’t believe any of the rhinos were ever named in our family. Edie Sedgwick called her Papa rhino Wallow, which I remember first seeing at about 15, as I read George Plimpton’s Edie: American Girl. From the pages of VOGUE in the mid-sixties, there was Edie doing an arabesque upon Wallow’s back. It was a pose I’d struck myself many times, only I’d been much smaller and wasn’t holding a cigarette.

The rhinos hold memories for me and my friends, as they do for my father and his childhood friends who always had stories to tell when they see the big guy in my parent’s living room. But the one I grew up with didn’t come from my dad’s childhood home.

It was from my mother’s.

Of all the living rooms in all of Los Angeles, that family of rhinos showed up in both my parent’s childhood homes.

I always loved that. Loved that beyond the story of how my parents met was the Day of the Rhinos. The moment where one saw the trio of Rhinocerotidae at the other one’s house and realized that maybe it was a sign that they were meant to be together. At least that’s how I always imagined it.

If you both live in homes where a trio of rhinos fit nicely amongst the art and furniture and people and pets, it’s kismet. Fate. Call it what you will. It was a sign.

What are the chances that a tiny company in the UK that used the leftover scraps from Liberty’s of London luggage makers to stitch their menagerie would end up crossing paths? Animal footstools were their biggest seller, still are, but the rhinos, especially the larger ones, were a rare order. The one’s on my mom’s side came via Abercrombie and Fitch. Back when Abercrombie was more Mad Men selling cool lucite bar sets then half-clad men outside their flagship stores.

They all began in this same little factory, where even today they’re hand stitched and stuffed, regardless of whether my grandmother bought them on a whim while shopping at Liberty’s of London on Diller’s recommendation or if they were, in fact, a gift. I doubt I’ll ever find out what really happened. But it doesn’t matter much.

Boy meets girl. They place rhinos in rooms instead of elephants. And they live quite happily ever after.

P.S. Jonathan Adler has brought some of these critters stateside. So while the chances are slightly less bizarre that two people could own Omersa pets, they’re still fabulous. You can find the Baby Rhino on his site.

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master class

JAZZ HANDS, 1983

We do on stage things that are supposed to happen off. Which is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else. – Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

I had an email yesterday informing me that auditions were open for a Master Class with a director I knew long ago. My acting career was short lived. Actually, if there is a descriptive that falls between short-lived and nonexistent, I believe it would be more fitting. I haven’t acted since college, but by the age of fourteen, I certainly knew I didn’t want to do it professionally. And I have that director to thank for it.

From as early as I can remember, I loved to perform. Sing “Happy Birthday” to me in a restaurant and I’d hide beneath the tablecloth, but standing on stage before a hundred people I’d happily sing, act or dance. Looking back at a long gone Disney show I was on a few episodes of with my grandmother, I’m surprised to see I didn’t play to the camera. At five, I was more comfortable in front of a camera than I am now. In a tutu or sporting jazz hands, above.

The summer before high school, I spent my second year at a Shakespearean drama camp I loved. We had improv and dance classes, stage combat, fencing and costume making. Most of the kids there had parents in the industry, below- and above-the-line. Maybe their parents, like mine, felt it was fine and well if we wanted to join the family circus, but first you had to study. I mean, this was the sort of place where one sent their six-year-olds to play Pyramus and Thisbe instead of making lanyards and swimming all day.

Each summer season ended with a performance of various scenes from Shakespeare’s works in the great amphitheater nestled in the canyon. Initially, I was disappointed when I was cast as Gertrude in Hamlet – at fourteen I wanted to play Ophelia or Juliet or Kate. The Prince of Denmark’s mother? Not so much. Yet I took my director’s words to heart, the gravity and the burden of telling Laertes that his beloved sister, Ophelia, was dead. I would practice my lines in the early evenings, pacing around our swimming pool. (I didn’t see the irony then.)

One day during rehearsal, we had a guest. An actress and director, she of the Master Class. She was the head of the theatre company that held the camp. For whatever reason, on this particular day, I decided to reblock my entrance. It just seemed right that I should come through one doorway instead of the other. My director asked what I was doing. The visiting director was livid. And deservedly so. Who was I to reblock my entrance? I didn’t have an answer for her. I was mortified. Too embarrassed to cry. She said, You’re an actress, not a director. And in that moment, I realized I wanted to be on the other side of the stage. I thought my entrance was better through door number two. It wasn’t my place to make that decision, but I wanted it to be.

I began high school that fall, and I began to write with a new sense of excitement and purpose. I wanted what was on the page to come to life. That moment of shame was a gift in disguise. It saved my parents years of tuition studying drama at Yale for naught. (Humor me. I was fourteen. I thought anything was possible.)

I grew up hanging around sets and cutting rooms, seeing all the hurry up and wait of making movies, and yet, I loved nothing more than reading a script and seeing those words come alive on stage and screen. I loved the words. Loved watching people transform into the characters on the page. I realized I didn’t want to play those roles as much as I wanted to create them. Blocking entrances as I deemed fit.

I deleted the email. I wasn’t interested in the workshop. I took her Master Class that summer afternoon years ago, and it had made all the difference. xo a.