As a kid, I’d watch the Academy Awards on a black-and-white TV in my bedroom in Lakewood, mentally transporting myself to the ceremonies to give my acceptance speech. Standing there in my tuxedo, I always thanked my mother and tried to appear gracious while basking in the imaginary glow of my imaginary performance. At the swanky after-party with other famous people, we’d talk about future projects.
As I grew older, I developed an intense interest in Tinseltown’s glamorous and tragic history. E!’sTrue Hollywood Story became must-see TV. I was captivated by shows about the inner workings of Hollywood, about sitcom sets and movie soundstages. The lives of actors and directors seemed exciting and effortless compared to my nine-to-five grind at a telecom call center. They were adored by millions. I wanted to be adored by millions.
Then, in early 2001, my company sent me to its L.A. office for a week. During my stay, I toured Hollywood Boulevard, the Sunset Strip and Mulholland Drive. I was mesmerized: L.A. was a magical, intoxicating universe full of possibilities. Bars and restaurants bustled with the young and beautiful, mansions lined the winding roads through the Hollywood hills, the Pacific Ocean sparkled blue and the sun shined every day. I had to move there.
When I was downsized six months later, I set out for California. I arrived soon after 9/11, so jobs were hard to find. I spent my abundant free time driving past studio walls, mansion gates and nightclub velvet ropes, imagining what lay behind them.
By spring, desperate for income, I was hired as a bartender for a caterer that staffed parties throughout L.A.
One of my first jobs was at Warner Bros. Studios, where I was sent to the wardrobe department to get fitted for a costume.A costume? I thought.Wardrobe? How cool! The gate guard handed me a studio map.
“Make sure this is visible at all times, or you’ll be shot,” he joked as he hung a pass around my neck. “You’re all set.”
I can’t believe this is happening,I thought as I walked past the enormous sand-colored soundstages. The vast maze of huge barns featured plaques listing the films and TV shows shot there —Rebel without a Cause,Bonnie and Clyde,Lethal Weapon, All the President’s Men. I was on hallowed ground. I walked past the sets ofFriends, Gilmore Girls andThe Drew Carey Show, looking in vain for actors I recognized.
At wardrobe, two women dressed me as Aladdin: bare-chested, wearing only an open purple vest; golden, baggy MC Hammer pants; and curly toed genie shoes for an Arabian-themed party. I felt like an actor being fitted for a role, and I liked it.
The party was like a circus. Parading elephants ridden by women dressed as Arabian princesses circled the party. Belly dancers mingled among studio executives. The only face I recognized was that of Alex Michel, the bachelor from the first season ofThe Bachelor.I had to suppress my laugh as he approached the bar.This D-list celebrity is it? I thought.Where are the real stars?
My next assignment was on July Fourth in Malibu. A mogul was throwing a party at his mansion, complete with fireworks shot from a barge in the Pacific. After passing through security in the driveway, I walked around to the well-manicured backyard, which ended with a 100-foot drop to the ocean.
I set up the “bar” (folding tables and boxes of booze) by the pool, where a couple of attractive 20-something girls in yellow bikinis were splashing about. “I think we’re gonna see some stars today,” said Tony, another bartender.
Before he could finish his sentence, I heard another voice behind me.
“Are you guys serving yet?”
I turned to see Jim Carrey walking toward me, dressed head to toe in black.
“Of course, Mr. Carrey,” I stumbled. “What can I get for you?”
While I poured his Cabernet, he asked if there really was a barge being pulled out into the ocean for the fireworks.
“That’s what they tell me,” I said. Turning away, I saw a stunning brunette in blue jeans and sleeveless white top. In a second I recognized her as Jennifer Connelly.
“I’ll have a cosmopolitan,” she said.
“I’ll have one too,” chimed in a familiar voice: Steve Martin, who strolled up behind Connelly. They started chatting.
While Tony and I mixed their drinks, Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening approached, her husband, Warren Beatty, lagging behind. Bening asked for a gin and tonic, while Spacey settled on a vodka tonic. The bar had no gin, so I asked if I could make her something else.
“I’ve never had a vodka tonic,” she said. “I’ll try Kevin’s.” She liked it.
As I mixed her a drink of her own, I saw Beatty was distracted, much more interested in the yellow-bikini girls than any libation. Ben Stiller and his wife took advantage of this and slipped past Beatty to order Rolling Rocks.
I was definitely star-struck. I held it together pretty well until Kenny G came up behind me, holding up a pitcher of liquid.
“Is this lemonade?”
“Yes it is, Mr. G,” I replied, which brought a few laughs from the guests.
“First time working one of these?” asked Tony.
“It’s that obvious, huh?”
“Don’t worry about it,” he assured me. “You’ll get used to it.”
But as the party wore on, my initial excitement turned to a surprising sadness. The immense distance between my life and those of the stars a few feet away hit me like a frying pan in the face. They’d go home to their mansions in Bel Air and Beverly Hills, while I’d schlep back to my sweltering apartment in the Valley.
Still, I began working steadily at Warner Bros., Universal and Sony studios, bartending movie premieres. I came face-to-face with more stars than I had ever imagined meeting. At one premiere, I was Clint Eastwood’s private bartender. (Clint’s a Merlot man.) The next night, I worked at a private Beverly Hills nightclub where Ben Affleck mingled at the bar with models Gisele Bundchen and Molly Sims. A week later, at theAnger Management wrap party, I served Jack Nicholson, Adam Sandler and Heather Graham. At the Emmys, I learned that Ray Romano really is a nice guy, and at the Golden Globes the Friends cast quaffed my martinis.
Fun times all, but my sadness lingered. I realized my problem: When I was growing up, I didn’t fantasize aboutserving the stars. I wanted tobe a star. The more I worked these events, the emptier I felt. My co-workers were struggling actors and musicians. I was just struggling.I could take acting classes, I thought,but I don’t really have the money.
And working as an extra pays less than what I’m making now!
The epiphany came on a sunny January day on the Warner Bros. back lot. As a Cleveland kid, I should have been happy that it was 75 degrees and I was setting up the bar forThe Matrix Reloaded premiere. But I wasn’t. The thrill was gone.
My manager told me the company was preparing for the Academy Awards show and he’d like me to tend bar.The Oscars? I thought.The holy grail of award shows?
“No thanks,” I said. “I’m going back to Cleveland.”
My friends thought I was crazy, just as they had when I’d turned down a chance to work a party at the Playboy Mansion. But I was done. The next month I packed my car and drove back across the country.
Watching the Oscars from my new apartment in Lakewood, as I envisioned the scene offstage and the after-show parties I would have bartended, I thought of a quote I’d once read but never really agreed with. “You should never get too close to your idols,” it said. Now I knew why.