I love movies. Growing up in 1960s Duluth, Minnesota, going to a movie was a really big deal. But like 99 percent of books, television shows, and life in general, movies were meant for grownups. This was so well understood there wasn’t even a rating system to protect innocent youth. Of course, sex was a steamy kiss, sitting or standing up, and violence a high noon shootout on a dusty street in front of a saloon.
Duluth had three movie theaters and one drive-in. The Skyline Outdoor was open only July and August and was a place of legend if you were lucky enough to have been a teen in The Golden Age of Questionable Choices and No Consequences.
We drove past the movie theater in West Duluth when my mom took us to visit Mr. Magoo, the mongoose at the depressing and smelly Duluth Zoo, and ride in the teensy train that chugged around the front of the zoo.
The slightly grimy Granada Theatre was downtown, right next to Granada Books, Duluth’s smutty book store. As you waited to buy tickets you could admire their window display of Stag, True, Swank, and a bunch of magazines celebrating the fun of volleyball and barbecuing and archery at family nudist camps.
The Norshor Theatre, one block north of the Granada, was where the annual Disney movie release was always shown.
On opening day of Pollyanna, The Swiss Family Robinson, Son of Flubber, etc., the Norshor was packed with interchangeable Minnesotan families, mothers looking bored and put upon, fathers patting pockets for cigarettes, kids peeing their pants with excitement, having been roused to a fever pitch by the tantalizing movie trailers shown Sunday nights at the end of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.
The Norshor Theatre was a once-elegant jewel of Art Deco that rivalled Radio City Music Hall. The Norshor began life as a vaudeville stage, when troops of strolling players sang, tap danced, yodeled, spun plates on sticks, played the saw, and juggled weird objects, until the talkies arrived. The curtain came down and the movie screen went up.
A few decades later, television was eating the movie biz’s lunch and the Norshor had become Gloria Swanson, a former beauty battling the ravage of the years, faded and worn but still glamorous.
The Norshor had a balcony, which was closed off with a piece of string. Young lovers in search of a place to neck were always sneaking up there and always getting caught. The Norshor also had the world’s most lavish snack bar, which was enjoyed by every movie-going family except mine.
In my mother’s Depression-era philosophy, going to the movies was treat enough. Spending a dime on a box of Hot Tamales was over-egging the pudding.
I stood dimeless and hopeless, drooling at the wonders of the snack bar: fresh popped popcorn doused with real melted butter; Coca-Cola and Bubble-Up in waxy paper cups that went limp almost immediately, dripping pop onto the already sticky carpet; Junior Mints and Sno-Caps and Jujubes and Twizzlers and Sugar Babies and Good & Plentys to rot your teeth; big pickles floating in a wooden vat that looked like a prop from Pinocchio, the pickle was handed to you (but not me) in a little white paper bag; the sweating hot dogs rotating on their hamster wheel; the freezer filled with Eskimo Pies and Fudgsicles and ice cream sandwiches and Nutty Buddys.
1962 was the annus horribilis: not only was there no snack bar, there was no movie. The motion picture industry had been self-censoring since the Hays Code; married couples slept in twin beds and “Darn!” was almost a swear. There was, however, another censor. The Catholic Church. The priests at Holy Rosary deemed Disney’s “Bon Voyage!”unfit for good Catholic families. (Ten years later with the release of The Exorcist, priests’ heads were exploding across the country.)
They saw an Opportunity for Sinful Thoughts in Bon Voyage! in the scene where the clueless dad, played of course by Fred MacMurray, has a bumbling encounter with what may or may not be a Parisian hooker. (I finally saw Bon Voyage!; that scene is as sexy as a ham sandwich.)
The Protestants and the five Jewish kids in Duluth got to see Bon Voyage!. Catholic children had to wait another 12 months to go to the movies.
And now I’m in the movie biz. Yes, I’m gobsmacked. I thought my creepy high school drama teacher and the sole acting experience he granted me (three lines in the last act of the final play of senior year) had squashed any Hollywood fantasies.
Back in the lovely normal days, which we thought would go on forever, my pal Betsy and I went at least once a month to the movies (I still couldn’t bring myself to buy popcorn). If someone had sat down next to me and told me one day I’d be up on the screen, I would have nudged Betsy and shot her the universal female look for let’s move seats. But here I am, the accidental actress.
Actress is pure hyperbole. I am background, a face in the crowd, an extra, or as we are known by the crew, “props that eat.”
When I was living in Costa Rica, basically under a rock, I went crazy for a NYC friend’s Facebook photos of herself in the most adorable, wasp-waisted, full-skirted dresses, accessorized with cunning little hats, leather handbags in the crook of her arm, gloves, seamed stockings, and stilettos: she worked (when she was not selling real estate) as an extra on The Marvelous Ms. Maisel.
When I found myself back in New York, I messaged her: “How did you get to be on Maisel?”
I vaguely remembered Backstage from when newsstands sold newspapers and magazines, not just lottery tickets and dollar bottled water. Backstage was the actor’s trade rag, with pages of cattle call auditions for shows on Broadway, Off Broadway, and So Far Off Off Broadway as to barely be in Manhattan.
Like everything else, Backstage is now only online. I subscribed for twenty bucks a month, uploaded some photos of myself I didn’t hate, and immediately got a job. Well, this is easy, I thought.
My first role was a protestor in a movie called The Warming Planet, which is in post-post-production (don’t hold your breath). A props person gave me a half-a-dozen fake bottles made of sugar to heave at realistically helmeted police coming at me with plastic shields and truncheons. There were no stunt people, so the director asked for volunteers to smash up a car, which sounded exciting. Once the sledgehammers started sending shatters of glass and steel through the air, I handed my crowbar to another extra and fled back to the holding area in time to grab one of the remaining slices of cold pizza. After six hours of this fun, four of which I spent sitting down reading my book, I was handed $125 in cash.
I didn’t get another job for two months.
Then I began to get the nod from TV series: Bull, And Just Like That, Gossip Girl, Power, City on a Hill, Succession, and finally, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Those people are insane.
Maisel insisted I wear their vintage underwear (where do they find this stuff?). The wardrobe woman put me in a girdle, a big pointy bra, and even pointier bra cups to tuck inside; my breasts looked like the taillights on a 1950 Cadillac Eldorado. This was underneath a sweater and a winter coat. I did get a jaunty hat and buttery elbow-length leather gloves.
Being an extra is money for nothing. Go there, now go over here. Walk across the street. Look like you’re buying radishes. Hold your auction paddle up and nod. Poke a fork around a plate of unrecognizable food while making silent small talk. Mostly sit and wait to be called to set, and then wait some more.
What extras have to do along with what they are told to do, is not talk to the stars, and learn the jargon. I puzzled over job postings for “ND Background;” while I could definitely be from North Dakota, I couldn’t figure out why so many TV shows needed Midwesterners. ND stands for “non-descript”; they want unmemorable faces like mine that will not distract from the glow of the stars.
The first time I was told to report to HMU I thought I had to find a government bureaucrat or a cooling system. HMU means Hair and Make-Up, two things I managed to avoid most of my life. “Have you ever used foundation before?” I was chided by a makeup person, who scrubbed my face and then turned me into a 1950s lady who lunches.
I’ve been doing extra work for a year and am still thrilled to pieces when I land a role. Then I get to set and turn into a first grader: when is lunch and when can I go home? For one HBO show, we extras were on set for five hours before film started rolling. After the first hour, men in tuxedos and women in ball gowns were sprawled on the marble floor, sneaking peeks at their phones (theoretically forbidden on set, in case you snap a pic of Cynthia Nixon scratching her nose and sell it to the New York Post).
When the director finally thinks she has the perfect take, she’ll yell “Checking the gate!” and it’s on to the next scene, thank goodness. The most beautiful phrase in film jargon is “the martini shot,” the last scene of the day.
If I want a snack (I have developed an addiction to mini bags of Cheez-Its), I go to Crafty (craft services), which also has coffee, water, sodas, candy, packaged cookies, and Rice Krispie treats, pretzels, chips, energy bars, apples, bananas, and oranges. (I pass on the fruit.) Most shoots feed us, and most of the time, the food is pretty good. While working on Challengers, a movie about tennis (?), I had a super delicious vegan chickpea curry over jasmine rice I would have paid good money for.
That shoot was a juggernaut, 200 extras in the bleachers at Arthur Ashe Stadium, pantomiming watching a ball going back and forth across a net and then politely clapping. When we broke for lunch, I got lost and ended up in the wrong lunch line: the one for SAG union members. I didn’t realize this until I had paper plate in hand and saw the man in a chef’s toque carving filet mignon, the five kinds of salad, the salmon in lemon dill sauce, and the platter of French macarons, my favorite cookie in the world. I took six.
The caste system is alive and well in show biz. There is SAG (the gentry), and there is non-union (the peasants). Along with fancier food, SAG members get to sign in and out first. If we have to get on a bus, they get on and off first. They have mandatory breaks, and if they don’t get them, they get “a bump” in pay. For Maisel I was paired with a tall handsome SAG member; we were playing a couple shopping for a Christmas tree. “Here,” said a production assistant, passing Mr. Handsome a six-foot fir, “Carry this around.” He recoiled as if asked to handle a boa. “I’m union! I don’t have to do anything!” The assistant handed me the damn tree.
People ask me, “Are you going to join the union?” There is the little matter of the $3,000 admission fee. Plus I can’t act. I suspected as much and then it was confirmed.
The casting notice in Backstage said, “Looking for female 50+ non-union to play over the hill movie star. Not a speaking role.” I could stand in for the Norshor Theatre, I thought. (Happy news: The Norshor has been brought back to its former glory. I’m still waiting for my restoration.)
I submitted some of my best not-dead-yet pix, and was invited to audition. The assistant director had me walk across the room, pick up a book, read a letter, and pantomime making a cup of tea.
“Wow, you really can’t act” she said.
“I thought this was a non-speaking role!” I protested.
“It is, but your walk, your facial expressions.” She shook her head and showed me the door.
I got the part. If you watch Call Me Kate, a Netflix documentary on Katharine Hepburn coming in spring 2023, you may see me, hair in a messy bun, dressed in men’s trou, square-cut jacket, and brogues, wandering about Miss Hepburn’s estate trying to act wistful. I’m just a blur in the background, but hey, that’s show biz.
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