Thursday, May 26, 2011

Hollywood Chivalry May Be Old, But It’s Not Dead

Seventeen years ago, I was new to Los Angeles.  Since I had lived and worked in New York City for five years – prior to changing coasts – I was not typically star-struck.  However, not long after my arrival, I found myself face-to-face with old Hollywood royalty and one of the most dashing men I have ever seen on the silver screen.

But let’s start at the beginning: I’d like to report that my writing career took off as seamlessly as I had alluded to in a previous post; sadly, that was not the case.
When I first moved to Southern California, I had a difficult time finding a journalistic opportunity – so for the first three years – I went back to my old stand-by – working retail management.  At the same time, I supplemented my income by working for a catering staffing service part-time.
I both dreaded and loved that job.
Basically, the company called Party Staff provided “servers and bartenders” for small, private events to star-studded galas.  Party Staff found it beneficial to – before a server could be sent to work an event –complete several hours of training which included dining etiquette training.  It was a great pre-cursor to my own social life and taught me everything about fine dining, but I hope to never have to serve ballet-style again. 
Also, I enjoyed the people that I met working at PS.  Most of them were creative types: aspiring actors, writers and Production Assistants.  I met some cool people that I am still friends with today. 
The aspect that I liked least about the job was that I typically worked most Thursdays and Sundays, but every Friday and Saturday.  When I was 24-years-old, this was torture – especially when my now husband, then boyfriend, was out living it up every weekend.
But the pay was surprisingly good and each assignment was always different so it never got boring.
I remember on of my first jobs; I went to the home of a UCLA professor and helped her prepare the family meal for Rosh Hashanah.  I was the only server but found it very interesting as she taught me about the symbolism of different foods: apples and honey symbolize the sweet New Year; cooked tongue or other meat from the head of an animal or fish symbolize the "head" of the year; and dates, black-eyed beans, leek and spinach, all of which were mentioned in the Talmud, a central text of mainstream Judaism.
Since I didn’t have too much prior experience with traditional Jewish cuisine, the feast looked amazing and, after completely bonding with her, I reluctantly declined her offer to join the family for dinner.

Another highpoint of this part-time job was when I worked the Governor’s Ball after the Academy Awards in 1996.  I had the opportunity to see celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Oprah Winfrey, Al Pacino and a quick glimpse of Meryl Streep.  At first, I wasn’t sure who the photographers were snapping pictures of and it seemed like a strobe light was going off – but I was able to get a peek through the crowd – and it was Streep. She definitely seemed larger than life and had a star quality about her.

Coincidentally, my serving partner and I were actually the assigned to the “Braveheart” table and got to meet Oscar up close and personal.  Actually that would have been five Oscars and we were even included in one of the table’s group photos. I would have been one of the two women in a tuxedo, alas, another aspect that I didn’t like about that job – the uniform.
Since I was a bartender in my previous life in NYC, I was usually assigned to tend bar at the movie premiers.  I wasn’t too impressed with nouveau riche on the Hollywood scene at the time.  I mean, most of them didn’t even tip.  Obviously, not everyone started as a starving artist, but I was certainly disappointed by the amnesia of those who did have to work to get where they were, and the lack green that never came my way. 

This behavior was the complete opposite of what I would encounter while working a private party for a celebrity from yesteryear. 

As I drove up the windy streets in Pacific Palisades, I had no idea that the party would be for Walter Matthau and his wife Carol Marcus in their home.   I thought the neighborhood was quaint and the homes were very nice, but not mansions or even a gated community, so I was shocked when I realized the caliber of the event.

As usual, the staff arrived a few hours early to get everything set up.  In the beginning, none of us suspected anything out of the norm.  I loved the house – which was decorated shabby chic before it became main stream – and each room was set up as its own dining room with a different themes.  Some had only one table and were overflowing with roses while another room had a half dozen tables and everything was red.  Even to this day, if I had the space in my home, I would steal that idea.

Then the buzz started among the servers.

Wolfgang Puck arrived and started setting up a portable kitchen in the backyard area underneath a basketball net.  He was personally doing all the cooking for the evening. 
Then it was back to business as usual.  By then, I knew it was Matthau’s house but, in my mind, I thought of him as a celebrity – but older – not really my generation.

Someone handed me a tray and I started walking through the crush of guests.  It was actually quite crowded in the great room where everyone was converging when they first arrived.  As I got deeper and deeper into the room, I was having a very hard time walking while carrying my tray.

Suddenly, I heard a booming voice say, “Hey everyone, come on, make room for this young lady.” Suddenly, the crowd parted like the Red Sea. I turned to say thank you to the man and realized it was Matthau.  He just gave a laugh and said you just need to yell loud for these “old folks.” 

I was touched by how nice and thoughtful Matthau had been.  This was highly unusual to even be acknowledged at these events.  Then as I continued along my way, I saw him and I my heart did start to pound. 

Now, he didn’t look the way I remembered him and much, much older version of himself, but Gregory Peck.  He was my absolute favorite actor and who could resist him as Atticus Finch in “To Kill A Mockingbird.”  Also, he was the stud in “Roman Holiday” starring with Audrey Hepburn; Among many, many other great movies. 

I didn’t speak to him but he did smile at me as I walked by with my empty tray.
There were other younger celebrities – who were hot back then I swear – Lea Thompson, Ted Danson, and the Spelling family.

I was assigned to one of the small rooms and the two older couples at my table chatted with me all night.  They wanted to know what I did when I wasn’t working in catering; where did I live; where was I from; and so on.  One of the gentlemen was an Emmy-award winning writer.  Unfortunately, I don’t recall his name and his body of work was from my grandmother’s era, but he was such a nice man. 

At the time, I told him that I was frustrated that I hadn’t been able to land any writing jobs.  He told me to stick with it and, if it was my passion, I had to have dedication and just keep at it.  “Nothing comes easy; you just have to reach for the stars.”

Later that night, I left the job feeling uplifted and completely motivated.  It had been a long day and a lot of hard work, but the kindness and gratitude of the guests made it seem not so bad.  It made me realize that chivalry may be old, but it’s not dead.

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