Friday Free-for-All #92: Birthday Edition

Some random birthday memories over the years, in Q&A form.

In which I answer random questions — this time, my own questions about things relating to my birthday, which is today. An ongoing series.

Least favorite birthday party?

Ironically, it’s also the first one I vaguely remember, and was ruined by… a flu pandemic. (There were a lot of those going around when I was a kid, apparently.) It was my 4th birthday, and everyone had the flu, although I don’t remember anyone I knew of dying from it.

Although my mother had planned a big party for our backyard and sent out all the invitations, in the days before, invitee’s parents apparently started calling in to cancel because their kids had suddenly broken out in high fevers and were very sick.

Ultimately, the only kid who showed up, Scott, lived a couple of doors north of us — the one direction on the street I never went — and although I didn’t really know him, we did have sort of a small party together, with cake and that was about it.

I don’t remember getting sick, but I do remember our moms lifting us up onto the picnic table in the backyard so that we could both blow the candles out together. Facing each other. As you do when there’s a pandemic going on.

Sigh. Still — it could be worse. All those unvaccinated parents with sick kids could have just shown up because, “It’s just the flu.” At least people weren’t that stupid back then, and we had all the Moms to work as the CDC contact tracing network at the time. If one person came down with it (flu, measles, mumps, chicken pox, etc.) pretty soon they’d all have a good idea of who had it and who was going to start showing symptoms.

Memorable birthday faux pas?

When my play Bill & Joan was produced, we timed it around the centennial of William S. Burroughs’ birth, which was on February 5. Mine is the day before but something we didn’t know until we were in production was that his wife Joan’s birthday was also on February 4th. (That detail hadn’t been added to his biography when I’d originally read it.)

I think that our show nights were Thursday through Sunday, so my birthday had already passed before our next show, and I don’t even remember whether it was a Thursday or Friday night; possibly a Saturday.

Anyway, an old friend of mine had come to see the show but the gathering afterwards was generally always theatre company members and the friends of the cast who’d come to see it. My friend was the only one outside the company I knew that night. So we went down the block to a bar that was the unofficial hang-out for the theatre company to catch up.

Then I started to get texts from our AD. “Where are you?” I told him and he called me. “Your director wants to talk to you right now.”

“What about?”

“Just get back here.”

I excused myself and walked back — maybe it was notes or something — only to arrive and be greeted by “Happy birthday” and a cake fashioned out of a bunch of cupcakes. I blew out the candles, thanked everyone, then grabbed two cupcakes and headed back to the bar with the intention of bringing my friend back. I eventually did, but the whole thing may have seemed kind of assholey on my part.

Still, no one had told me “stick around” in the first place — and I really don’t like impromptu birthday observations with mostly strangers.

Most interesting birthday activity

This was been when I turned 21, although it’s a lot more wholesome than it sounds. Two friends of mine took me out to see a movie on opening day, although it must not have been that good, because I don’t remember what film it was.

Next, they took me out to dinner (their treat) and we went to the fancy place — Denny’s actually connected to the mall. Okay — fancy for starving college students. The other two were both seniors who had already turned 22 and were a few months from graduation.

Anyway, we had dinner and when the waitress came over to ask about dessert, the other two insisted to her, “Card him! Card him!” She did, realized what day it was, and explained that Denny’s had a very special special for 21st birthdays — a drink called the Hurricane.

I had no idea at the time what it was, but the waitress announced that it had a lot of rum in it. I looked it up just now, and it was actually created in the early 1940s in New Orleans. Apparently, they had a lack of fruit juice but a surplus of rum. Go figure.

This drink certainly didn’t lack in the rum department, and it came in a glass that was huge — in fact, one that became known as a “hurricane glass,” named after the drink.

And yes, I see the enormous irony in a drink from New Orleans being called that. Maybe because this one could probably get you as wasted as Katrina.

Anyway, I had the drink and we eventually left, but it wasn’t the hurricane that made the evening fun. Nope. Their last surprise was that we were all going ice-skating — something I’d never done before but had expressed an interest in.

Now let’s do the math here. Take friend out for birthday. Get him a pretty strong drink. Take him to the ice rink to do something he’s never done before. Was their intention that maybe I’d be so relaxed that I’d take right to it or so drunk that I’d fall down and break my ass?

Surprisingly, I actually took right to it, and didn’t fall down once — and yes, that surprised the hell out of me. We were on the ice long enough that the cold and the physical activity plus time started to cut the effects of the alcohol, and I got to love the whole experience.

Fortunately, I hadn’t driven, but you can bet that I sought out the ice rinks closest to the university and made it a habit to regularly visit after that.

Favorite celebs I share the day with

There are so many, surprisingly, and a lot of them are very interesting people. There’s the eccentric

Emperor Joshua Norton, who became a beloved figure in San Francisco and is still practically a saint there today; Charles Lindbergh, although not really a favorite because he’d probably be a big TFG supporter now; Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto; Rosa Parks, who wouldn’t give up her seat; Ida Lupino who, like Lucile Ball, was a very powerful woman in Hollywood in her time; George Romero, noted horror film director; Alice Cooper, noted rock star and horror film character; Jonathan Larson of Rent and Tick Tick Boom fame; Hunter Biden, son of President Joe Biden; and singer Natalie Imbruglia.

It’s a really eclectic bag, but I think the one thing in common can be summed up by the word “eccentric.”

Worst thing to happen on my birthday

Well, this was the worst thing for her, not for me, since I don’t even remember it happening. But it was on my birthday that Patty Hearst was kidnapped.

Most traumatic

I went to school. When I came home, my mom was in the E.R. and my dad had burned my birthday cake. For some reason, Mom had started to hyperventilate, so next door neighbor, who was visiting at the time, drove her to the E.R. Dad was called home early, really couldn’t do anything at the E.R. at the moment, so decided to bake my cake and managed to incinerate a basic Betty Crocker mix. No, I have no idea how one manages that.

This was the beginning of a long medical odyssey for my mother, although I never thought of it as my birthday ruined. Rather, it was the start of a difficult period for all of us as we and her doctors tried to figure out what was wrong. They never did, but to this day I’m convinced that it was actually the treatment attempts that ultimately killed her.

Now, I believe in modern medicine, I had great doctors that saved my life once thanks to it — but doctors were also different when my mom got sick, and I remember meeting her primary care physician one time. Total asshole who apparently didn’t think that women had the ability to know or report on what they felt happening inside of their own bodies.

Repeat: Total asshole.

Best gift

I’m really not into material gifts and actually never have been, not even as a kid — my birthday was close enough after Christmas for that former holiday to be the big one.

As an adult, the best birthday gifts I’ve ever gotten have been time with friends — just hanging out to celebrate, and that’s it. Although out of those, the bestest has been when one of the many times one of my best friends took me out to dinner for one of my favorite foods — usually Mexican or Thai — and we just hung around and talked one-on-one for a long time.

That’s better than any gift that can be stuck in a box, wrapped, and then very soon thereafter be lost, stolen, or break but, in any event, will never last as long as the memory of time with loved ones.

If it’s your birthday today or around this time of year, happy birthday Let me know when it is/was in the comments, and share a memory of your favorite celebration.

Holiday Sunday bonus: Memories of Hollywood

I was born in Hollywood and although I didn’t grow up in it, I’ve always had a strong connection and soft spot for the place.

I’ve always had a very strong emotional connection to Hollywood, California, and I mean the actual city and not the industry itself — although I’ve lived most of my life in that industry anyway.

No. To me, it’s that I’ve spent so much time in the place over the years that I have many, many memories and have got to see it evolve and change down the decades, facing its good times and bad.

For starters, I was born in Hollywood, at the very east end, at Sunset and Vermont, which is where one of the Kaiser Permanente medical centers is still located. This is just south of Barnsdall Art Park and just north of L.A. City College and, nowadays, right on top of an L.A. Metro station.

My father was born not far away, somewhere to the south on Vermont, although I’m not sure where.

Although I have no memory of it, I lived my earliest days in Hollywood, on Orange Drive. This was right around the corner and up the block from Grauman’s Chinese Theatre — and if you want to sound like a local, you’ll call it that and not the “TCL Chinese Theatre.” We’ll know what you mean.

My family and I weren’t there long, though, before we moved out to Woodland Hills, in the West Valley, to a suburban tract home far away from the city.

That didn’t mean we never went to Hollywood, though, and one of my childhood memories was during the beginning of first grade and going to a huge bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard because they happened to stock all the same official readers that the L.A. Unified School District used.

Called the Pickwick Bookshop, another bookstore originally opened in 1931 and then the spot was continuously occupied by a bookstore under the Pickwick name from 1938 until it finally closed in 1995 after being taken over by Barnes & Noble. I remember that it was huge, and that the books smelled really great. The old space is currently occupied by an Italian gelato place, the typical generic store-front tourist trap shop, and a Starbucks. But of course.

But I remember my excitement at walking into the place and seeing all these copies of the big, hardcover readers we had at school, which looked brand-new and fresh instead of worn and run-down like our in-class only copies. Their covers were a shiny red, the ink was crisp and not worn, and the pages were bright.

Now, my parents didn’t have to buy the book. As noted, the schools provided copies. But we couldn’t take those home, so my parents wanted to give me the advantage of having them at home to read. This was a brilliant move on their part.

And this wasn’t the only book my parents bought for me there or on any of our other visits. I was interested in astronomy, biology, and history from an early age, so those subjects were always on the agenda. There was also always plenty of Dr. Seuss.

Every visit there was magical — just like any visit to a bookstore still is to me.

We also would find ourselves in Hollywood playing tour guide whenever we had family friends or relatives visiting. Hollywood Boulevard was one of the standard stops on Dad’s tour, which included not only Hollywood, but the Hollywood Forever cemetery, a trip along Mulholland Drive, a turn through Bel Air and residential Beverly Hills to gawk at the expensive houses before going through the business district in the BH, not forgetting to include Rodeo Drive, although more because everyone had heard of it, not because it was ever really a big deal to us.

We’d inevitably wind up at the beach — either Santa Monica or Venice depending upon how adventurous our guests were. And, somehow, they always seemed to be most impressed by Hollywood.

When I turned 12, I was allowed to take the bus from home into Hollywood for movie night with Dad. This was no short trip, either. Most of it involved the 81 bus down Ventura Boulevard until it transitioned into Cahuenga and then Highland, with the first stop in Hollywood at the same place the Metro stops now: Hollywood and Highland.

I don’t remember whether I had to take one bus from my house down Winnetka to Ventura to transfer or not, but it’s surprising how similar the route is now. The only difference is that I wouldn’t have had to go all the way down to Ventura.

Rather, nowadays the G (Orange) Line Busway runs just south of the house I grew up in, and there’s a stop a block or so away. That busway goes right to the NoHo Metro Station, where the B (Red) Line sets off and, two stops later, you’re at Hollywood and Highland.

It’s a lot faster than the old bus trip used to be, too, with the slowest part being — you probably guessed it — the busway bit. It was supposed to have originally been light rail like all of the other connecting lines in the city, but one neighborhood full of rich NIMBYS stopped that. Jerks.

Anyway, movie night with Dad was great, and it would always be to see the latest science fiction, disaster, or action movie. We didn’t always see them in Hollywood, though. Sometimes, that was just where we met before heading off to Century City or sometimes even downtown, depending on what had opened where.

Once I was in high school, I used to do the great bus adventure just for the hell of it, partly because I loved to haunt the bookstores and magic shop on Hollywood Boulevard. Although I really couldn’t afford anything at the Hollywood shop, it was always nice to watch the staff behind the counter demonstrate an illusion, and a lot of working magicians wandered through there as well and would often show off their own tricks.

Of course, the staff there were not as nice as the ones at a magic shop called Whichcraft which was way up in Chatsworth in the West Valley. I used to ride my bike up there, and the owner would let us kids hang out as long as we wanted to, plus he’d show us the secrets behind some of the tricks.

His stuff was also much cheaper than in Hollywood, although I think it may have been because Hollywood catered to the crowd that worked the Magic Castle, while Whichcraft catered to teenage Valley boys with limited funds.

In college, I was in Hollywood all the time, often to see movies at the historical theatres, but I also interned there my Freshman year. Plus, since I was majoring in film, it just seemed like the place to go. I’d gotten so attached by that point that I’ve had a P.O. Box there ever since. It’s P.O. Box 2149, Los Angeles, CA 90078-2149, in case you’re inclined to send me anything.

During the years I lived in West Hollywood, Hollywood was right next door, and so a frequent place to go for dinner, movies, and the like. During this period, we also loved to take visitors down to see the two tacky but fun museums that used to be right across the street from each other — The Hollywood Wax Museum and the Ripley’s Believe-it-or-Not! museum.

The former was eventually eclipsed when Madame Tussaud took residence in a bigger space a few blocks to the west. Meanwhile, the Believe-it-or-Not! museum is still there, although Robert Ripley was notorious for just making stuff up.

During the WeHo years, we never went into Hollywood for clubbing, though. I think there was one gay bar still in Hollywood at the time, but it was in an area that had been one of L.A.’s first cruising spots back in the 50s and 60s, and it looked like a lot of the clients there has been in town that long.

It was basically a hustler bar, so those of us from WeHo just avoided it. I think it actually lasted until fairly recently; definitely into this century.

By the time I moved back to the Valley, the Metro Rail had become a thing, and I used to hop the train to go to Hollywood or Downtown all the time just to play tourist, photograph everything, and occasionally buy stuff. That only stopped when COVID happened, but it was great to get out, see the sights, gawk at the tourists, and marvel at how tacky the street really is and how it panders to the impression that non-industry people have of show business.

Of course, celebrities never really lived here after the silent era, the only production studios left here is one owned by the Jim Henson Company, which began life as Charlie Chaplin Studios, and Paramount which, while is technically in Hollywood, is only accessible through gates that are decidedly in Los Angeles proper.

All of the other studios are in places like Burbank, Culver City, Playa del Rey, Glendale, Austin, Vancouver, or Atlanta.

I hope to some day be able to hop the train and go back down to Hollywood, to see how it’s holding up. It’s always fun to look at the tackiness of the Walk of Fame, check out the forecourt at the Chinese, and see what new and bizarre temporary attraction has opened in some storefront.

There are also the old classics, too — the Hollywood Bowl and the Magic Castle are both places that I love — especially the Magic Castle, because the building itself is one big illusion.

Hollywood may be going through a rough patch right now and it’s really getting overdeveloped, but the city always bounces back. I hope to have many future adventures there in what really is my true home town.

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