I, Claire Zulkey, Present I, California. (By Stacey Grenrock Woods)
Zulkey.com friend Stacey Grenrock Woods has a new book out. It's called I, California, and I loved it--you can tell from my Amazon testimonial, which I wrote 98% because I meant it and 2% because I love seeing my name in as many places as possible. You should buy Stacey's book, especially you females out there who like to laugh but feel like there aren't too many clever books by and about ladies that don't have the word "chick" in the genre name.
Please enjoy this excerpt from the book as Stacey describes life in the star-making machine that was her childhood dance/drama academy.
Maybe this new place would be better.
It wasn't, but after school on Tuesdays and Fridays, (as well as all day on Saturday) I'd race home from school, pull on one of my many unitard/sweatshirt/legwarmers/jazz shoes getups, pack my dance bag with all that I'd need, and mom and I would drive down the four mile Trail of Trepidation to the Academy. A long night of drama and dance lay before me, the dread of which filled my mouth with the sour memory of vomit - as if there was nothing more to vomit and hadn't been anything to vomit all winter. My stomach was a mix of metals unknown.
Inside the building was a quiet foyer, off which went some hallways and a string of irregular rooms, (library? lounge? office? other lounge? other library?) each with gold-toned marshy carpets and the smell of soft dust. Plastic flowers and books and things soured in corners, where the little mushrooms grew and paint curdled, and now and then big wall plaques with hand-painted quotes reminded one:
"Our job, is to hold as t'were the mirror up to nature"- Shakespeare
"Speak the speech I pray you, as I've pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue" - Shakespeare
"It's not what I say, it's how I say it. It's not what I do, it's how I do it."
On one foyer wall were the framed headshots of all the favored students. "Stars of the Academy," it said above.
Let's see: there was Cathy, blonde and braided and eighteen, the maidenhead of Academy, apple-cheeked and Aryan flushed. She was the favorite, the bossy one, and also the tap teacher. She had a fresh smile, a big voice, big legs, and a small heart. She'd go on to be an extra in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
And there was stout, Mediterranean Nancy, whom we rarely saw. You could imagine Nancy in lots of roles that had her laboring a rustic kitchen, surrounded by hungry men, before whom she set down great bowls of fagioli and then stood back to curse at everyone in Italian with the tops of her wrists resting on her aproned waist. "I might get hit" was the vibe one got from Nancy. When we did glimpse her, it was usually just long enough to see her perform her signature song, the Black Widow, before she vanished, to a flurry of applause, our own little pudgy Liza Minnelli. It was she who choreographed the Magnum PI dance. I couldn't talk in her presence. In her headshot, she posed with a white bunny. Why?
Then there was D'arcy, a former student so limber that she was actually known for her limberness. Her limberness was industry-famous. Think how limber you'd have to be in order for other dancers to notice. More than that. More so. More. Right about there. She took off her shirt in horror films.
And let me not forget the Czechs, Ingrid the older, and Karin the younger, two lovely sisters with enviable noses and brown round eyes like forest animals, but whose combined credits to this day add up to just one appearance as "Teenager 2" on Trapper John, MD.
Notably missing from the star wall was the place's only connection to legitimate fame, former student, Helen Hunt. Yes, Helen Mad About You Hunt. Academy Award nominee, Miss Helen Hunt. Helen "Hells Bells" Hunt. Lady Helen Huntington of Huntsville. Helene de Tocqueville. Hell of the D'Urbervilles. The very same.
She was only ever alluded to and then only in whispers, vibrations, pulsations, thought pictures: "Helen Hunt went here." I cold current grazing your cheek seemed to say: "Helen Hunt went here." On stormy nights, the creaking of the old tree branch: "Helen Hunt went here." No one I knew had ever actually seen her. She wasn't even famous yet, she had only starred in a movie of the week about a high school girl who overcame obstacles to play on the boys' varsity football team, but it was more professional acting than all of us combined had done.
But she wasn't one of our stars. To be a Star of the Academy meant to be initiated into a special club that meant absolutely nothing to anyone for years and years to come. You were part of a long tradition of having your picture up on the wall. I was fringe star because I didn't yet have a headshot to put on the wall, and a star without a headshot is no star at all.
The main room had a gold-carpeted riser for a stage and heavy ceiling to floor curtain along the wall behind it. There was a little set: brocade loveseat, white rattan coffee table, dinette set, plate of Cheese Nips, (hopefully), and a built-in shelf with just the essential props: plastic mugs, magazines, nylon flowers, wicker tissue box covers, and Spanish dancer figurines. The class sat in stackable chairs in what doubled as the main dance room
The first human you'd likely encounter upon entering was Academy administrator Dorothy Barrett. She was an aged chorus girl and gingham-enthusiast, as well as a relentless wearer of bows, who lived behind the locked door that led to the second floor of the Academy Where No One Ever Went. Her bright little half-moon eyes were in perpetual frenzied movement. Questions darted and dinged around like pinballs in her mind: "Who's doing, saying what, when? For how much? Why? All over the dance floor? About me? Who says? Since when?" When she listened to you, it was if she was preparing to be slapped, but also as if she would like it just a little bit. Her cheeks were freckled and powdered, her mouth a slick of strawberry lipstick. A square mat of salt and pepper pin curls on top and old lady musical comedy shoes down below rounded out the whole thing.
Dorothy let it be known at every turn that she had once shared a years-long, deep, abiding friendship with dearly departed screen legend and massive jerk, Joan Crawford. If one were perhaps stepping into the office to deliver one's forty-dollar tuition payment for the month of April, one might be received with "Oh, thank you dear. Will you just set it on the desk next to that photo of me and Joan Crawford? No, not that one, the other one. Oh, how I miss that great lady."