In the summer of ’73, when I was still in high school, actor/comedian Charles Nelson Reilly (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir/The Match Game) was on a plane to NYC where he was scheduled to teach …
In the summer of ’73, when I was still in high school, actor/comedian Charles Nelson Reilly (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir/The Match Game) was on a plane to NYC where he was scheduled to teach musical comedy at Herbert Bergdorf Studio; an acting academy whose alumni includes Lily Tomlin, Marlo Thomas, Liza Minnelli, Al Pacino, Barbra Streisand and more.
I don’t exactly remember why I, a seventeen-year-old who had never appeared in a single school musical, connected with the idea of auditioning for Reilly’s class.
Perhaps it was just another attempt at escaping suburban Jersey, a place so eerily perfect in an artificial way.
The call for student actors attracted over 250 hopefuls, but only 25 would be selected. Babysitting money provided bus and subway fare to the West Village home of HB.
When I arrived, scores of actors and singers lined the halls, stretching, vocalizing and reciting random lines in a cacophony of disjointed voices.
I was the only one holding a guitar case that contained my ultra-wide-necked-nylon-string-classical-guitar that I thought would pass as an electric. I took guitar lessons, three to be exact. I knew some chords, three again. I was running on sheer chutzpah.
When my name was called, I walked into a cold, windowless room with a concrete floor where Reilly, pen in hand, asked me to stand under a harsh light a few feet in front of his desk.
Actors before me probably sung a show tune and recited a monologue. Reaching for chords and pitches, I sang:
I'm an alligator
I'm a mama-papa comin' for you
I'm the space invader
I'll be a rock 'n' rollin' bitch for you
Keep your mouth shut
You're squawkin’ like a pink monkey bird
And I'm bustin' up my brains for the words
Throughout my audition, Reilly laughed uproariously. The dream of myself as rock star, created solely in the privacy of my own bedroom, was unravelling in real time. Luckily, I had kept the audition a secret, and a secret it would remain…or so I thought.
Two weeks later, the phone rang. It was James from HB Studio, no doubt to thank me for my audition and tell me that I didn’t make it.
But no, James tells me that I did make it. I quickly hung up on him because I thought he was joking. But James called back and said we must have gotten disconnected.
That’s when I realized I was dealing with a mature person, and yes, I passed the audition. At the time, it never occurred to me that Reilly had mistaken my very sincere effort to sing Bowie’s Moonage Daydream as genius comedy. He probably also did not know any Bowie songs.
From that day forward I reported to HB on a regular basis. I was paired with Broadway actors who could actually sing, dance and act. I could do none of that. My idea of acting was to fake everything, the voice, the stance, the walk. During one lesson, wherein I walked across the room with a hip sway that even Mae West would envy, Reilly asked what the hell was I doing?
“Walking,” I said.
“What kind of walk is that?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, “Do you want me to use my regular walk?”
“Yes!” he said slamming his fist on the table. “Yes! That’s it! You’re regular walk.” And then he laughed so hard, he cried.
Despite my desire to keep all of this under wraps, Reilly decided to mention me, by name, on all the popular talk shows including Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin as an example of how not to act. He described in detail the scene where I asked if I should use my ‘regular walk.”
The studio audiences laughed heartily at my ineptitude. Our phone rang. The newspaper came. My secret was out but not in a good way.
So much for chutzpah!
RAMONA JAN is the Founder and Director of Yarnslingers, a storytelling group that tells tales both fantastic and true. She is also the roving historian for Callicoon, NY and is often seen giving tours around town. You can email her at email@example.com.
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