I have been friends with Angela since the forth grade. Actually, she was in the sixth grade, and I was in the forth grade. Or was she in the eighth grade or I in the sixth grade. It was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Angie and I are still friends even in two separate time zones and climates. We might not be in touch for months, but when we get to talking, we're talk real easy. It's a classic friendship---the kind greeting card companies dream about but can never describe without being vomitous. Angie and I were girl scouts together. We loved real Star Wars together. We met Alan Alda together. When you meet Alan Alda together, you are friends for life.
In 1986, the closing film of the Cleveland International Film Festival was Sweet Liberty, written by, directed by, and starring Alan Alda. Sweet Liberty is a comedy about history professor's book which gets adapted into a movie and all the comedy hijinks that ensue when the film crew shows up in his quiet college town. First, the professor (played by Alda) has to help the screenwriter (played by Bob Hoskins) on the script. Then, he falls for the lead actress played by Michelle Pfeiffer (2 or 3 films from superstardom). With a great ensemble cast that included Lillian Gish and Michael Caine (stealing the film as a pompous British actor), Sweet Liberty was Alda's first big post-MASH project. It's a sweet movie with some nice mid-eighties clothes, a pumping synthesizer score, and Patti LaBelle singing over the closing credits
When I watched the movie again for this story, I realized I learned two things from it. First, you can get the stem out of a head of lettuce by slamming it into a counter. I love doing that. You can release aggression while eating healthy. Second, according to the movie, there are three things people like to see on the big screen: defiance of authority, destruction of property, and people taking their clothes off. Nowadays, that might seem so blatantly obvious, but it was quite clever back in the mid eighties.
When I was a kid, MASH was always on the television. It ran from 1972 to 1983 which is pretty much the bulk of my childhood. One of my earliest memories of television is looking up from my toys and seeing MASH helicopters during the opening title sequence. After MASH went off the air, episodes were syndicated, and it was always on in the early evenings or late nights. I still see it occasionally on cable. A year ago, I hiked in Malibu Creek State Park and saw the mountains that the helicopters flew past as well as an old burned out jeep (the only relic of the old MASH sets I could find). It was a moment for me.
There are a lot of reasons why I liked MASH so much, and while writing this piece, I realized how much MASH has influenced my life. I wanted to go off on a long tangent and talk about the destructiveness of war and the brilliance of comedy. But those are ideas far too big and long for a quick anecdote about meeting Alan Alda.
Something really big that I got out of MASH was the writing. As a ten year old kid in Cleveland, words like ‘character development' and ‘five act structure' were not part of my vocabulary. I didn't know how television shows were made or how scripts worked. I just knew I wanted to do what those people were doing and it wasn't being an army surgeon. It was pretending to be an army surgeon. It was the little plays with olive green costumes and heightened reality. I was excited by the humor which could be even more cutting than a scalpel.
Back in 1986, Angie and I attended an all-girls Catholic High School in Cleveland Heights. It was a world of saddle shoes, plaid skirts (even now, I can't wear plaid---ugh), white blouses covered by navy blue vests, sweaters, or blazers. I think all the navy blue forenza sweaters at the local Limited sold out.
The nuns were super feminists and worked from a belief not only in God and the Catholic Church but also the undeniable idea that girls can think for themselves and be whoever they want to be. They never said ‘if you go to college'. They said ‘when you go to college'. ‘When' is a very powerful word. It makes dreams seem possible. It helps you look beyond puberty, term papers, gym classes, and snow storms. ‘When' gives you a future.
By 1986, I had discovered classic films and was aware of foreign films and art house independent films. I lived a mile from the Cedar Lee Theatre. Even today, it still plays the art house stuff---an Angelica in the snow belt. I would walk up there on Saturday afternoons and watch movies with old people. It was the only movie theatre in walking distance from my house, and I liked how their cherry coke tasted.
Back then, the majority of the Cleveland Film Festival happened at the Cedar Lee. The opening and closing nights were at the restored State Theatre downtown. When Angie and I saw the schedule had the premiere of Sweet Liberty with a scheduled appearance by Alan Alda himself, we wanted to go.
After getting some tickets and scoring a ride from my Mom, Angie and I went downtown. The event turned out not only to be a movie but also a pre-movie reception with finger food and an open bar. Not yet the adventurous drinker, I had a too sweet coke.
It was glamorous and swanky by my young Cleveland teenage standards. Angie and I stood on the lobby balcony, ate finger sausages, and surveyed the crowd around us. They all were such adults with their suits and wine glasses. They laughed. They conversed. They socialized. Live music played. People in American Revolution costumes walked around. There was even talk of Alan Alda. His name was dropped so casually that everyone seemed to know him. I never realize he had so many friends in Cleveland. I didn't know it at the time, but I was having my first experience of celebrity bullshit on a social scale.
‘Hey Jen, look over there, doesn't that look like Sister Mary?'
Angie pointed toward a group of five women standing together. I wasn't sure. Usually, I saw Sister Mary in a habit, and the Sister Mary look-a-like was habitless.
‘I'm not sure, but that woman next to her looks like Sister Beatrice.' I said.
‘Yeahhhh. A lot. And I think that's Sister Dorothy.'
‘Nooo. I don't think so. Her hair is too grey.' I said. Like I would know the color of Sr. Dorothy's hair under a habit.
‘But that's definitely Sr. Bridget.' Angie and I said at the same time.
Wow. Our nun teachers were there too. I didn't know nuns went out at night, but on the other hand, nuns are people too. Also, many of our nun teachers spoke fondly of MASH. Sister Beatrice also liked Bruce Willis on Moonlighting.
Angie and I scrambled down the stairs toward our nun teachers as the call came for audience members to take their seats. Our nun teachers were all surprised smiles, then introduced us to their non-nun friend, Annette.
As the rest of the audience filed into the theatre, we stayed in the lobby and laughed, conversed and socialized. We wondered if Alan Alda was going to show up. Sissy Spacek had bowed out of opening night at the last minute. Annette speculated that he would show up after everyone was seated in the theatre.
Angie and I figured it was okay to hang out in the lobby for a few more minutes. The seating was assigned, and our nun teachers were still there too. We wouldn't get in trouble for tardiness if we were going in at the same time as our nun teachers.
The lobby was empty except for the caterers cleaning up. The nun teachers weren't going anywhere, and neither were we. I might be a fallen Catholic, but something I do believe is that God favors nuns. God listens to nuns. If a nun says ‘bring Alan Alda to us', God will help her out.
I don't know if the nun teachers were praying or not, but suddenly there was Alan Alda walking toward us.
Alan Alda is easy to recognize. He is very tall, lanky, and he's got that smiling expression that takes over his whole face. He's one of those people who smiles and turns into a hundred watt bulb. He glows---very high energy.
‘Mister Alda. Mister Alda.' The nuns flocked toward him, but Alan Alda was too quick for them. He ducked into the mens room.
Never underestimate nuns. They might come off as all cute and sing-songy with habits and happy pink cheeks. But every nun I've ever met (except for Sister Blanche who was a real wuss and easily blushed when anyone said S-E-X) has a will and a strength that goes beyond iron. No, the nuns did not follow Alan Alda into the mens room. They waited until he came out.
‘He can't stay in there forever.' One of the nuns said. When a nun says ‘forever', she means the big eternity. ‘Forever' is more than a really long time, so no man---even a man as extraordinary as Alan Alda---could not stay in the men's room for the big eternity.
Sure enough, Alan Alda popped out of the other men's room door with a ‘hahhah you can't catch me' look on his face, but the habitless nuns were in hot pursuit. Angie and I were right behind them.
How exactly the nuns caught Alan Alda, I'm not exactly sure. Maybe you get taught the Catholic mind trick in Nun school. The next thing I remember is that Alan Alda was standing with his back to wall of the lobby and still smiling while a Security Guy in front of him kept repeating ‘Ladies, please'.
‘Ladies, please. Ladies, please. Ladies, please.' He repeated over and over again. I think a peace treaty was negotiated. Annette could take pictures of Alan Alda, but no one else could be in the picture with him.
The camera flashed twice. Then, Alan Alda shook hands with the four sisters, the non-nun friend, Angie and myself. At a lost for words, Angie had just shook his hand and said nothing. As the last person on the line, I became more and more nervous and more and more courageous at the same time. Nineteen years later, I still smile slightly embarrassed at what I said.
‘Mr. Alda, I want to write, act, and direct just like you.' I blurted out while shaking his hand. Yep, for a brief second, I became Katharine Hepburn in Morning Glory. I was pure potential ready to write, act, and direct.
Alan Alda did not laugh his ass off like I was the biggest idiot on the planet. He did not condescend or frown. He spoke to me as if I had said something very normal.
‘Well, I think you should go for it.' He said.
Really? Go for it? Then, I was speechless. I may have even gulped. Alan Alda looked down at me. I recognized that look, and suddenly my mouth ran away from me.
‘Wow. You know, you're giving me a Hawkeye look.' I said.
What the Hawkeye look is---I'm not exactly sure. But I got a Hawkeye vibe from him. So yes, my postmodern confusion got in the way of my truly sweet ingenue moment. But it didn't matter. None of it mattered. I was floating.
Angie and I floated into our seats in the balcony and watched the movie. After the screening, there was a question and answer with Alan Alda. Apparently, the Sisters were seated in the orchestra and got quite a few questions in.
Every Monday, in religion class, Sister Beatrice asked us for stories from our weekends. On the Monday after the Sweet Liberty screening, Sister Beatrice asked about our weekends and immediately called on me to talk about my weekend. I obliged and told the Alan Alda story.
Sister Beatrice liked hearing the story. In hearing the story, she got to relive it over again. I tried to tell it well that day. I wonder sometimes if the nuns still tell that story. It's a nice story about meeting someone admirable who was simply nice to them. It's nice to be nice to the nice. I think that was a line from MASH.
While at NYU, I realized that I didn't really want to direct. I still write though. When I write, I still go for it. No other way to do it I suppose.
Angie is still in Cleveland, and she just had laser eye surgery. She says she's ‘seeing great!!! Yeah!!!'