At around thirty years old, I hit a rough patch in my acting career. Actually, let’s call it what it was…a year and a half with zero work. I was broke. I was feeling hopeless. I was desperate. I needed to make some money.
Taking a day job is always a slightly dangerous proposition for a struggling actor in Los Angeles. If your job becomes more successful than your art, it threatens to move from “the back-up plan” to just…the plan.
And when your art is dependent on confidence like acting is, even questioning whether to stick with the dream, and keep going at all costs, or quit, and start a more stable (rational) career, can be toxic.
So, instead, you shut off the voice in your head, push your pride aside, and you get a job with…a catering service.
My first (and as it turns out, also my last) assignment was to serve finger foods at a funeral.
A funeral. Sounds depressing, but I was broke, and waiting for the phone to ring was getting old.
I put on my only white button-down I owned and arrived ready and eager to see what I would look like in the provided bow tie. Upon arrival, I stepped into a well-groomed, garden oasis. The only clue that it was a funeral was a message projected on a backdrop, “In Memoriam, Montgomery Clift.” It struck me as a little odd that Montgomery Clift had been dead for quite awhile, but after being in Los Angeles for eight years, a party for a dead man was not going to throw me.
A woman with platinum blond hair, pink lipstick, and, of course, a bow tie, greeted me. This was my boss. She was friendly, upbeat, and a little nervous. She quickly gave me the “tour,” while she explained how important this client was to her.
As she walked me around the property, I realized I had actually been there before for an event…a gifting suite held for “stars” of the upcoming television season. A gifting suite is where they shower you with gifts during the one time you could finally afford those gifts. I was one of the potential “stars” of the upcoming season. I kept this information to myself.
Instead I tapped my new boss on the shoulder and asked, “Whose funeral is this?” She replied with zero irony, “Monty, the dog.” And we were off to the back room. This lady was funny. I hoped.
Luckily, I didn’t go with my first instinct and held back my laughter just in time to see a laminated photo of Montgomery: a regal, chocolate lab. He was almost glowing as he sprawled on the grass beneath a tree. There was a passage printed besides it that read, in white cursive lettering, “My son, Montgomery. To my dearest son, we have spent nine glorious years together that no one can take away. My life has been enriched by your presence and I know we will be together again someday.” I turned back to my boss expecting a wink, or a “Crazy, right?” but instead she was reading the passage with gravity, as if it were her own grandfather under that tree. I nodded politely, and then stared at the floor waiting for instructions.
First order of business was to fill glasses with ice and a fresh raspberry. On top of the ice, we were to pour a homemade juice. This was a refreshing, sparkling, blueberry/ pineapple/cranberry concoction cleverly named “Monty Berry.”
I held back my judgment and walked out to the crowd of mourners, holding my tray of “Monty Berry” with all the confidence and pride I could drum up. With my head held high, I approached the first table. And then with my head held low, I asked Mindy Cohen if she’d like some Monty Berry juice. You may know Mindy Cohen as Natalie from the FACTS OF LIFE. I know Mindy Cohen as my co-star in the very first pilot I booked. Mindy Cohen, my co-star in the very first pilot I was fired from. Mindy Cohen, my co-star in the pilot named…“The Help.” I played Maria, the maid. The irony was not lost on me. There was a glimmer of recognition but I quickly ran back inside to fill glasses with the next beverage, “Full of Grace,” named after the surviving dog.
“Monty Berry” and “Full of Grace” were hits. That is until we served the wine. Here is where I thought the party would begin. Here is where I thought someone was going to let me in on the joke. But here is when the Metaphysical Minister gave her speech.
She was a homely woman in her forties with frizzy black hair and dark rimmed eyeglasses worn in a way that warned you that she was, in fact, looking down on you. She wore a flowing, white, linen shirt over white linen pants with some sort of white sash around her neck giving us the illusion that she was definitely holy. She held a bible in one hand and the microphone in the other and stood directly in the path of the projector light so that the photo of Montgomery lay partially on her face. This may have been a choice to show that, yes, Monty was with her.
The speech took on a serious tone from the start. It had nothing to do with Montgomery and everything to do with Monty’s dad. Let’s call him Charles. “Charles,” was the owner of the celebrity hair salon where the event was taking place.
The minister began with a long winded story in the most monotone voice she could muster about how Charles saw this property and knew he just had to have it in order to fulfill his vision. How without a dime in the bank, he bought the property next door because he had the faith that his vision would be realized. There were stories of Charles as the all-giving patron who even allowed a homeless person to live with him. Charles, the all-forgiving person who even invited his ex-lover and his ex’s new lover to Thanksgiving dinner. And this, of course, was all relevant because his ex- was the one who had brought Monty and Grace, formerly named Ike and Tina, to Charles looking for a home during that fateful Thanksgiving dinner.
This went on for another fifteen minutes more before Miss Metaphysical read from Corinthians 13:4; a passage often read during a wedding or off a Valentine’s Day card. “Love is patient; love is kind and envies no one,” and so it goes. And she finished, staring straight into Charles’ eyes, and said, “I love you Charles. Montgomery loves you. Nothing can change that. Love is ever lasting.” And the crowd murmured in agreement. The staff handed out tissues to the guests.
Charles announced that the mic was now open for anyone who wanted to share a story or a kind word about Montgomery. There was a pause. And for the briefest of moments I thought, okay, that was nice. Love is kind. And it sure can be everlasting. And, well, I get it. A dog is part of the family. Of course its death should be mourned.
The first hesitant guest approached the stage. She was a beautiful girl in her twenties that clearly had received a haircut from the famous Charles. She was the receptionist at the studio. Her story was short and sweet and portrayed Montgomery as a gentleman who watched out for her at night while she closed up the studio alone. She called him “her shadow.” This was the same nickname she has for her boyfriend, which was only mildly disturbing. She teared up, gave the obligatory hug to the mourner and sat down. As she made her way to back to her seat, she received warm smiles and gentle hand pats.
And then one after another, the speeches came. No pauses. No beats. They were lined up and ready to share how they had been affected more by Montgomery than the last speaker. Each speaker gave the next the extra nudge they needed to admit and believe that, yes, their experience was divine.
An Animal Acupuncturist/Masseuse gave a heartfelt speech proclaiming that Montgomery and Grace were her favorite visits. She cried for two days when she heard the news. She knew Monty was special when she first met the two dogs. Grace entered the office prancing around and demanded to go first, you know, because she was a princess. But Acupuncture lady told her, “Now, Grace. You have to let Monty go first. He has cancer.” Grace replied, “But I’m a princess.” Montgomery boldly stepped in and said, “Ladies first.” Almost unable to say the next words, she took a breath and through the tears said, “Monty didn’t care how much pain he was in. He was always a gentleman.”
She went on to explain how she knew Monty was with us because when she was driving here, it was…raining. And when she walked up the steps to the salon, she saw the spirits (she always sees spirits when she comes here) and Monty welcomed her and… the rain stopped. The crowd ooh’d and ahh’d and I excused myself to go pee.
When I returned from my purposefully lengthy break, people were still speaking. Luckily, I got back just in time to hear the Animal Communicator tell the story of her magical healing she received directly from Monty that morning. She had been laid up in bed for days and had called Charles to give him the awful news that she couldn’t make the service. When she hung up the phone, Monty popped in her head and an overwhelming tingling sensation went up and down her spine. At that very moment, she looked out a window and she saw a rainbow. That’s when she said, “Ah, now I know what’s happening.” And then…she was healed. Applause was doled out and heads shook in wonder. I invisibly rolled my eyes.
Finally, Charles stood center stage. He thanked everyone and said he had a few more words before he gave them a short break to eat before they played the video. A few words turned into a half-hour speech.
He relived the first days Monty and Grace came into his life. He shared how Monty was more of a human soul than a dog’s. He mentioned some of his finest conversations with the Animal Communicator. My favorite being when he just had to know why Monty loved chewing on wood so much. The animal communicator answered for Monty, “I like wood because it comes from trees and every tree has a story.” Charles giggled and asked, “Well, could you tell him to stop because I’m scared he’s going to get a splinter in his throat.” Monty replied, “Well, that’s just silly.” Yep, Monty simply replied, that’s just silly.
In honor of Monty loving wood, he had placed Oyama seeds at each place setting so everyone would be able to plant a tree in Monty’s honor.
He chose Oyama because the day Monty died was the same day Ben and Jerry’s, an ice cream company (Monty loved ice cream) out of Vermont (Charles was from Vermont), donated lots of money to Obama (Oprah’s favorite candidate who Charles had just donated money to).
Along with the seeds, everyone would receive a black memorial t-shirt with a photo of Montgomery. Charles suggested to, “go smaller than you’d think.” He pointed to the t-shirt on his six-foot, muscular body and said, “See, I’m wearing a small.” This was the only time someone from the crowd made a remark remotely calling anyone out for their outrageousness, “You like yours tight. I’m going medium.” Laughs all around.
As I write this all down, I feel a bit guilty. What if I’m just some kind of underhanded snoop revealing privileged information about an enlightened society that I just don’t understand? Maybe everything really is connected. Oyama to Obama. Mindy Cohen and “The Help” to me being the help. Oprah to everything.
But beyond that, while I was standing on the sidelines judging these people, Charles was the one with the successful celebrity hair salon on a beautiful property in Hollywood consisting of two houses and an amazing garden that he designed himself. Charles was the one who created his own line of hair products that he offered freely to the staff and guests. And through Charles’ dream and vision, he was the one, oddly enough, providing me with the ability to continue to go after my dreams. I mean, after all, if he hadn’t risked everything and bought those two houses and started his own business and invited his ex over for Thanksgiving, Monty would have never been his and then Monty would never have been important enough to hold the event where I was hired to make some money.
So maybe I’m a little jealous. Maybe I want to believe in something so strongly that I have the balls to invite fifty people to my home and make them sit through an entire two hour service sipping juice named after a dead dog without ever questioning the absurdity of it all and never once being scared that someone out there would ruin it all by simply announcing, “It was a fucking dog!”
And maybe that’s something to take away from this experience. That crazy belief is still belief. If I believe in myself as much as those people believe in their dog psychics and “Charles Bean” Hair Products, then the decision to go on acting or quit is an easy one. Stick with the dream! Go on at all costs! Because I believe I will succeed.