Can you believe we’re approaching August? This year a lot of friends have mentioned how they feel the days and weeks seem to be flying by. Last Saturday on our way into town for dinner, Bob and I saw three young men dressed in festive sweaters heading to what was probably a Christmas in July soiree. It was a very cold night, and I can only imagine that this trio felt very wise indeed in their warm garments as they crossed Pulteney Street. We both wondered out loud where exactly they had bought their Rudolph sweaters with bright red pom-pom noses. Then it started to rain and the traffic became the focus of my attention. Please tell me if this isn’t specific to my city, but I get the distinct impression that Adelaide drivers experience a type of Gremlins effect when it rains. Just like little Gizmo in the film who gets wet and spawns some ballistic creatures, the ability to drive or act in any rational way on the roads seems lost when even a few drops fall.
I emailed my mentor and friend, Professor Emeritus Rosalind Cartwright, at the end of 2012 about how the last couple of years had seemed to fly by. I must have given her the impression that I had been drifting along, rather than using my time and talents effectively. Writing back just a few hours later, Professor Cartwright advised me to “spend your young adulthood wisely so that in the following decades you will have something valuable to do that lasts”. And her reply ended with “I saw promise in you that needs to be a focus so that time does not continue to slip away”. I return to her email often. It really was the start of three years of more productive work in my day job, as well as the start of this blog.
Professor Cartwright’s words echo whenever I resist the urge to do what I love the most: write. Two other psychologists, Hugh Kearns and Maria Gardiner, discussed procrastination and time management among other topics in a series of seminars I attended last year. They’ve also written some pithy columns on these issues for Nature, including “Waiting for the Motivation Fairy” and “Turbocharge Your Writing Today”. Their take home point regarding time was that you are never going to have more time than you do now. Hugh also had some cool visual props, but I keep their trade secrets fresh for attendees. From these seminars, I learnt to be really honest with myself as to when I was procrastinating and avoiding writing, and when there wasn’t enough time for everything I wanted to do, which meant some things had to go to make way for others.
And so I write to you after not posting here since May. Being honest with myself, there has been maybe 5% procrastination and 95% of what feels like a faster-ticking clock than usual involved. Procrastination is peculiarly strong in writers. Anyone who writes for a living or a hobby (and I do both) will tell you that writing is the hardest part of writing. Odd given I’d be concerned if a teacher told me the hardest thing about teaching was teaching, or a doctor telling me it was, ah…doctoring. Wait, that’s forgery, right? Which a good doctor would never do, unless it’s one of those “based on a true story” TV-movie doctors who someone like Judith Light or Melissa Gilbert has to bring to justice.
Like those doctors, a lot of writers believe they’ll be discovered for the frauds that they imagine themselves to be. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes came up with a memorable title in their psychology research for this tendency: impostor phenomenon. I rarely see 200 lightbulbs of recognition go off so consistently than when I introduce this concept to psychology undergrads. My other consistent mental patterns are overgeneralizing and catastrophizing. If I can’t come up with a new idea, a coherent way to get my point across, or if I write a piece that I am not happy with, I start to think I’ll never write again, I’m a bad writer, and I’ll never write a piece as good as that last one. Although that last time was pure chance you impostor, you.
But I don’t only operate on a diet of procrastination, fear, and tapas alone. There are also more practical reasons for finding it hard to write. Since returning from Japan in late April, work has been incredibly busy and, more to the point, mentally taxing. Usually I write for the blog at night, but I haven’t had the energy after days of particularly complex and difficult research. It’s been all I can do to sit in front of the TV and watch MasterChef while thinking, Why can’t you cook like that 23 year old, you impostor… But I’ve had to realise sometimes it’s OK. I also made the decision to put on hold some initial ideas for articles as I work on three very large projects for the blog. The first is an interview conducted in late May, and is now in the writing-up stage. The second and third are two articles I am researching on actors who have passed away, but who left big impressions and much love for them behind. Although I do wish that I could increase the speed of my progress, I relish the research phase.
What do I do when I have ideas but not the time to write about them? I have notebooks all over my home office with the beginnings of articles. These may be a paragraph or two; sometimes even just an opening line. Some of these will be completed and others may fall away. But I find so long as I write them down, put the notebook to one side, and return to it every now and then, I will finish these initial ideas at some point. For those occasions when I don’t, I usually realise that’s OK, too.
There are lots of ideas in those notebooks. One of them is reflecting on the end of Mad Men in May, specifically critiques of the final episode. A lot of reviews centred on how much of a conclusion the final episode was to the series and its lead character Don Draper. Many of the shows I loved growing up didn’t have finale episodes. Often they had already been off the air for almost 10 or 20 years by then, and finales weren’t really the done thing when those shows were made. My favourite, Bewitched from 1964-72, certainly didn’t. Another favourite, M*A*S*H* (1972-83), did. It was even released on video. When I found it in Video Mania, I rented it, watched excitedly, and ran (not really, it was a distance from our house and I didn’t really run anywhere in those days) back to ask the 15 year old behind the counter if they had the last episode of Bewitched. He looked a little surprised, but to his credit he did type it (or something) into the computer. To this day I don’t really expect a show to have an end episode, although cancelling a show on a cliffhanger was done to maddening effect a few years back for my friend Paul with Kyle XY, and for me with the reboot of Dallas just last year.
I was happy with the way Mad Men did it. There was a good balance of the change required of central characters in a fictional narrative and the continuity of personality and behaviour in a person that is real life. Don would get up the next morning and his life would go on, whether he learnt to develop trusting relationships with his children, friends and co-workers, and a partner; and whether he returned to advertising. I think it was a good choice in the final season to have Don work at the real-life McCann Erickson, an agency that had existed in its merged form for 40 years when Don entered it, and which is now in 2015, 85 years old. We know that the agency would go on with or without him. When I left my first university job, I walked down the corridor, past the room where I had taught (and was, before that, a student) and almost expected the walls to come down. Metaphorically, at least – I’m sure the structure was sound. It’s like the episode of The Simpsons where Homer becomes the voice of a cartoon dog named Poochie and advises the scriptwriters, “… whenever Poochie’s not onscreen, all the other characters should be asking ‘Where’s Poochie?’” I had to realise that’s not the way the world works, and Don had to do the same. Mad Men stops telling the characters’ stories in 1970. I am sad that’s where I leave them. But, come what may, I wish them all well.
I was also pleased with a nod Mad Men gave to Bewitched in one of its final episodes. They have done this many times before. I’ve always felt that inspiration for Don Draper and co. was drawn from their adman predecessors in Bewitched. I guess since Mad Men is set in the ‘60s and briefly in the ‘70s, Darrin, Samantha, and Larry Tate from Bewitched are actually contemporaries of Don, Betty, and Roger. I’m sure it was no coincidence that that decision was made to film part of the Mad Men episode “Lost Horizon” at the Warner Bros. Ranch, formerly Columbia Ranch. On this lot is the neighbourhood known as “Blondie Street” that is home to the facades of a whole range of shows, including Bewitched. It is here that Don’s attempts to track down the mysterious waitress, Diana, end. He rocks up at the home of her husband, which was used 50 years ago as the home of Samantha and Darrin’s nosey neighbours, Mr and Mrs Kravitz! Well, The Partridge Family house if you prefer dreamy Keith Partridge. When Don leaves, Samantha and Darrin’s house can be seen across the street! I like to think Samantha was at home at the time, waiting for Darrin to come home from a hard day at his office on Madison Avenue.
I haven’t started a new show since Mad Men finished. However, I have been engrossed in Donna Tartt’s novel The Secret History, which has also given me some ideas for a piece. In fact, about how quickly time feels like it passes. Of course, I went away to Japan in April and I should really write about that. But I know if I try to write about all of these things while I am so busy, I will probably end up writing about none. Ah, my old friends anxiety and catastrophizing, we meet again.
I am actually sitting down to write this on July 24. Some 46 years ago the Apollo 11 mission ended with the safe return to Earth of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. The date was one I remembered from school, but I was reminded of it after watching a story on TV about the discovery of an earth-like planet, Kepler-452b. What a title. Guess “Earth” was already taken, but still.
I’ve just put on the record player an LP of The Walker Brothers before I go to get ready for my friend Adam’s birthday in the city. I usually prefer original albums to buying compilations or “greatest hits” on record, but this one was on sale. One of my favourite songs is “Stay with Me Baby”, and besides their version being included there are other great tracks. Right now “Make It Easy on Yourself”, the lead from their album Take It Easy with the Walker Brothers, is on. All right I see what you’re doing Scott, John, and Gary Walker. I’ll take it as easy as I can as I navigate the rain soaked roads, and likely more Gremlins.
Thanks to David Pierce for verifying that I did, indeed, see the Kravitz house on Mad Men. I was more focused on Samantha and Darrin’s.
One of my favourite opening lines in a novel is from The Go-Between (1953) by L. P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. In a later introduction to the book from August 1962, Hartley wrote about what shaped his story of an older man reflecting on his past. It was largely one summer in 1900 that left such “a mark on my memory” at only four-and-a-half years of age: “From then on, for many years, I always hoped that the long succession of hot days would be repeated, but unless my memory betrays me it never was, in England at any rate, until 1959”. He concluded that, “I didn’t want to go back to it but I wanted it to come back to me, and I still do”.
Patricia Florio would likely understand that sentiment. She has written a memoir, My Two Mothers: A Memoir with Recipes. My Two Mothers tells the story of a girl raised by two women in Brooklyn in the 1940s and ‘50s: Patricia’s mother, Millie (actually Amelia), and Millie’s sister, Jennie. Patricia writes that “Mama got her ideal situation – and so did Aunt Jennie – a daughter for her childless sister, a daughter to dote on so Mama could fulfill her need to work “outside the house” content that her youngest daughter was safe and well attended to”.
The book originally came from Patricia’s MA thesis at Wilkes University. Theses and dissertations are often destined to languish in library basements. In this case, publisher Gina Meyers of Serendipity Media Group thought that Patricia’s work could make a book. In line with Gina’s interests in cooking, she felt that the book should also contain some of the recipes from Patricia’s growing up in an Italian-American house in Brooklyn.
The result is the addition of actual recipes to a memoir already filled with food: the J&M Grocery store that Jennie and Millie opened, with the tomato cans stacked in a pyramid; the “smell of fried meatballs [that] wafted out of the windows on Sunday mornings” in the largely Italian and Irish neighbourhood on and around Union Street; and family gatherings – be they for holidays, birthdays, or a death – that “began and ended around a kitchen table”. It is a wise move, for food holds such memories for people, particularly (in my experience) children of Italian immigrants.
In addition to the rich characterizations of the Prano sisters, other family members, and neighbours like singer/songwriter Teddy Randazzo and his group The Three Chuckles, Patricia says that there really is one other character in the book. That is Brooklyn, New York. Brooklyn seems to be one of those places very much representative of a collective past, even for those who have never lived there. Perhaps it is the nature of a place that was inhabited so largely by people who all left different pasts and foreign lands to start a common future (in my brother’s genealogy research, even some of my own family). Children of these people, and their children’s children, may have left long ago but many seem to still carry Brooklyn with them. In Walt Whitman’s poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” Whitman speaks to imagined future commuters (fifty, a hundred or many hundred years from him) on the ferry between Manhattan and Brooklyn:
It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not, I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence, Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt, Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd, Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d, Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried, Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.
When I visited Brooklyn a few years ago, I looked across that water and, in particular, up at the very tall apartment buildings. My mind wandered not to the future, but to the past, and all those who had lived, loved, fought, and broken bread there. Those who had felt as Whitman had.
In this interview with Patricia, I asked her to reflect on researching, writing about, and grappling with family history; nostalgia; the changing face of Brooklyn; where her writing has taken her; and, of course, good old Italian cooking.
Adam:My Two Mothers was your Master’s thesis. What led you to choose your topic of growing up in Brooklyn within a large extended family? Patricia: “Write about what you know”. This is a simple suggestion, one that most writing professors encourage their students to take seriously. So I did. Sometimes I thought of my family as Damon Runyon characters, like from Guys and Dolls, each one a distinct character from the other. Thinking that way put me in touch with my feelings, sights, smells, sounds and tastes for the old neighbourhood in Brooklyn and my family members. I sincerely thought Brooklyn could be a character in and of itself. It has so many definitions: home of the Brooklyn Dodgers; Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island; Coney Island beaches; the Cyclone, Thunderbolt, and the Parachute Jump; and the aromas of all of the above. How could I not write about such an eclectic past? Some of the best writers come from Brooklyn, and I certainly wanted to be remembered as one of the good ones.
Adam: Tell me a little about the house on Union Street. How long was the house in the family? Patricia: The house on Union Street was a gathering place for “la famiglia”; a fun place, not only where I lived with my parents on the third floor, but where everyone came to see grandma, the holidays were spent, tomatoes were grown in the backyard for the Sunday sauce, and where grandma had her basil bushes and fig trees. It was also where we connected to our neighbours: Philip, my best friend, and his family; and the Sconzos on the other side of us who had a contingency of family and friends bigger than ours. The house always evoked festivities. And to tell the truth, it still does.
The actual construction of the house was red brick facade, grey concrete steps, and beige/pink stone balusters. It looked like a mini fortress. There were windows in the front and back of the house. The front windows overlooked Union Street, a busy traffic street, and the windows at the back of the house overlooked backyards of neighbours and the steeple of St. Agnes Catholic Church on Sackett Street.
There were only two apartments in the early 1900s, where the entire Prano family lived in and slept. When I was born, there were three apartments: Grandma living in the basement apartment, Aunt Jennie and Uncle Frank on the second floor, and then up a steep staircase was our apartment. At one time, the apartment my Aunt Jennie and Uncle Frank lived in before I was born were the bedrooms for Grandma Petrina and Grandpa Giovanni’s children (my aunts and uncles, of which there were nine altogether that lived. Grandma miscarried a set of twins later in life). I lived with my sister and brother, who were older than me, and my father and mother, of course. Some of the hallway decor I still possess today: beautiful frames and pictures of early Americana, and one of the Rialto Bridge in Venice.
Adam: Your book wasn’t originally a food memoir. How did it become one? Patricia: Gina Meyers had the idea to insert recipes into My Two Mothers, creating the new edition that you’ve read. I first sent her a version of what I called Cucina Amelia, a celebration of food and family. It was a hardcover cookbook that I made for family and friends with a local printer, using standard 8 by 11 typing paper and old pictures of family members from my parents’ photo album. Gina loved it and utilized some of my grandmothers’ and mother’s recipes. She selected the recipes that are in the new edition of My Two Mothers: A Memoir with Recipes. Eventually, Cucina Amelia became my next project for publication.
Adam: How were the family recipes passed down to you? How did you choose which recipes to include in the book? Patricia: Since the only time I spent with my part-time working mother was as she prepared our meals around four o’clock in the afternoons, I learned my cooking skills from watching her. The house on Union Street and all the family members celebrated the holidays as one entity every year for as long as I can remember. My mother and her sisters prepared all of those meals, and some of the stories of those holiday events are the head stories in Cucina Amelia. Again, watching and assisting in preparing the dishes, I picked up tips, influences, and the art of cooking for my own family after I was married.
Adam: What was good about choosing to write a family history? What was not so good? Patricia: When a person chooses to write about family history, it’s kind of scary. I remember that I pitched My Two Mothers as my thesis in this way: what if a woman who has a sister who cannot have children decided to give her unborn daughter to her baron sister, on loan that is, would you read that story? My classmates and professor wanted more. And I embellished, or got creative, about how to tell the story. The original thesis has more pages in it than the memoir that was published. There were some things that I didn’t feel I had the right to tell, even though most of the people had since passed. It’s the Italian guilt left attached to the psyche that did me in!
Choosing to tell this family story, even abbreviated, as it was, for me kept my mother and Aunt Jennie alive a bit longer. It’s a bittersweet story, one I enjoyed telling especially during the time the women went into the grocery business together, and when I had them to take care of in their old age. I feel as if I had such a rich childhood, even with its depressive days, that I wanted to share these two women, Millie and Jennie, with the world.
Adam: Italians (I know) are notoriously guarded with the family secrets. There’s the whole “don’t let the neighbours see” attitude. Was this an issue or barrier when you were writing the memoir; both in terms of other family members finding out and for your own creative process? Patricia: Yes, I’d have to say I was guarded, especially about their younger brother, whom I called Uncle Sly Fox in the book. His daughter, one of my favourite cousins, and I had always been friends up until the time she aided her father in taking Aunt Jennie away from my home and never bringing her back. I haven’t been too forgiving about that. My mother yearned for her sister; they should never have been separated. It’s still painful, even as I write these words. I allowed my creative process to go so far. I believe I didn’t cross the line. Yet, when I look at my bound thesis, there is a painful aspect of my mother dying that I didn’t put into in the book you read. She (Millie) died in 2004 at 95 years old. Jennie died in 2006 at 99 years old. I agonized over how painful it was for me to write. I just made a decision at the last minute that the book was going to the original publisher to leave that out and summarize the ending. But I can’t say it stunted my creative process. I’m sure it didn’t.
Adam: I’m interested in the allure of nostalgia, and how we may remember a time through rose-coloured glasses. How did you manage this natural human tendency while writing? Patricia: I am a nostalgic person, but I don’t live in the past. I just embrace it. I have a wonderful present life with my husband, children and grandchildren, and several good friends. I live in a beautiful section of the Jersey Shore with the Atlantic Ocean 50 steps from my front door. It has given me poetic license to dream and think and focus on my writing. But I loved Brooklyn and my family growing up there, both sides of my family, even though I’m more aligned to the Sicilian roots inside me. I love to listen to the aria “Nessun dorma”. Different arias give me the vision of what used to be, how Italians celebrated life. The culture born inside me I allow to flourish whenever I come in contact with people. I love people. I love company. And I have plenty of it during the summers living in a beach community. I embrace the old ways, yet I’m as modern a woman as my mother and Aunt Jennie were. Nostalgia fills me on certain days and I allow it to enter into me. I don’t chase its warmth away.
Adam: What was your family’s reaction to the memoir? What did your two mothers, Millie and Aunt Jennie think of it? Patricia: There are several reviews on Amazon, a few from my family members. My brother said, “You killed me”, when we first spoke after he had read my story. My writing caused his emotions to flow. Others thanked me for the memories. My brother’s daughter Christine said, “My father won’t tell you this, but he felt like he abandoned when you needed him most as a child”. Those years that separated me from my sister and brother were like a whole other generation; they are 14 years and 10 years older. My sister married when I was six years old. My brother went into the Air Force when I was eight. In essence, I was an only child.
My mother and Aunt Jennie had both passed when I wrote My Two Mothers. I think my mother would have been extremely happy knowing how much her life impacted mine. We weren’t really friends until my mother was about 80 years old. I have to admit I was closer to Aunt Jennie. I had taken Aunt Jennie’s infirmities and loss of two husbands, Frank Richmond and Nick Coniglio, as my job to handle. That’s why it was so hard for me when she went with her younger brother: the fact that she allowed them to lure her, to go and live with them and abandoned my mother. It took a lot of praying on my part and years for me to get over it.
Adam: Tell me about your participation in the Fellowship program at the Norman Mailer Center. How did this come about? Patricia: Norman Mailer was on the board of trustees of Wilkes University’s Creative Writing programs. He helped get the courses accredited with its founders Dr. Bonnie Culver and Dr. J. Michael Lennon. Dr. Lennon is Norman Mailer’s official biographer. Mr. Mailer had a stake in all of its students/writers. And we in turn had a stake and an opportunity to be mentored after graduating with our degrees by other faculty and professors from across the country. These scholarships and fellowships were set up by the Norman Mailer Society or the Norman Mailer Center, I forget which one, and anyone around the world could apply by sending 30 or 40 pages of a project that they are working on. I did this on two occasions. In 2012, I was a fellowship finalist and went to Provincetown to Mr. Mailer’s home for my memoir workshop. In 2014, I was granted a scholarship and went out west to Utah for my week’s workshop.
Adam: What are some of your other works? Patricia: On my website, patriciaflorio.com, I have some of my other works that I’m proud of. One called Theresa is about my sister-in-law Terry. Phyllis Scott published a lot of my short stories. I’m especially proud of how I entered into the writing world via newspaper travel pieces and commentaries being published by local and major newspapers. I covered the Scene Page for the Two River Times, a Red Bank weekly newspaper, for a couple of years. I’ve written for stripedpot.com, a travel e-zine and my work can be found in numerous anthologies and literary journals.
Adam: Brooklyn has undergone tremendous change since your grew up there. To you, what is the most noticeable change? Patricia: Ah, Brooklyn, to me it has never changed, although I know it has. The face of my grandmother’s house has been modernized. Obviously, that’s especially noticeable. But nowadays, the people in the neighbourhood where I grew up, now called Carroll Gardens, are rich or at least well-to-do! We were poor white Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans, struggling to better our lives. Now, I guess the neighbourhood is considered gentrified; people are tagged as nouveau riche.
Ebbets Field is no longer there, where the Brooklyn Dodgers were nicknamed the Brooklyn Bums. Brooklyn people loved the Dodgers when I was growing up. The “Boys of Summer” from 1955 when they beat the New York Yankees, will never be again. Brooklyn Heights is still upper class. I go there often to look out across the river and marvel at the skyline. My mother-in-law still lives in Brooklyn, downtown, as it was referred to in the good old days, so I still have plenty of opportunities to eat in restaurants that I had eaten in as a kid.
Adam: As you’ve gotten older, have your memories become less dependent on the physical house on Union Street, or do you still long to be in that place? Patricia: My memories are not dependant on the physical house on Union Street. That’s why we have memories. I can conjure them up anytime I want. I don’t long to be in that place anymore. I can be anywhere where my husband is. We were just married 43 wonderful years. My life and his are joined at the hip. Well, that’s what a lot of people say about us. We were in the same career for almost 30 years as court reporters. I still have occasion to transcribe his notes from the District Court at Newark, NJ, when things get hairy and he’s on a long trial.
Adam: Do you have any recommendations for people wanting to document family history? Patricia: I think documenting family history is a fun thing to do if you’re up for the job. I spent several months researching my family’s history from Palermo, Sicily to the United States, the ship they came on, etc. I even went on a trip to my father’s parents’ village in Avellino, Naples. I think I found the right spot where my Prato grandparents came from. I’ve learned a lot of interesting things going to Italy and reading other authors’ books about Italy: recipes, culture, their holiday traditions, and so forth. I’m none the worse for all the reading.
A few interesting facts: my parents Amelia Prano and Rocco Prato, almost the same last name, were both born on August 16, five years apart. My mother’s name Amelia is similar to my father’s mother’s name Amalia, whom my sister Molly is named for. Both of my parents had nine brothers and sisters.
Adam: What are you working on at the moment? Patricia: At the present time, I’m working on what I’ve entitled Confessions of a Court Reporter. It’s a book that starts out about a young girl who tells a very potent lie to her father when she is 10 years old. It also weaves in some of the cases I’ve worked on as a court reporter and/or transcriptionist. I’m not giving away any more of the story. The first half of the book is now revised and is being edited, while I continue to work on the second half. This is definitely a labour of love that I’ve been toiling over for the past two years and have workshopped at the Mailer Colonies. It even contains some poetry.
Excerpts from The Go-Between are from the 2002 edition published by The New York Review of Books (New York, NY). Excerpt from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is from Leaves of Grass, available through Project Gutenberg.
There have been some changes around these parts. I am still trying to figure out where exactly these parts are. In late February, we were notified that our landlord was selling the house and the lease would not be renewed. This was not welcome news. We had a long-planned trip to Japan scheduled for early April, and I had a lengthy work promotion application due the day we were to leave. It also became apparent that I couldn’t buy us an additional couple of months with subtle hints or out-and-out flattery. Flower shops don’t sell “Please Don’t Evict Me” bouquets or potted pink quill bromeliads. Logistically, we would have to move out of one house and find and move into another before leaving for Japan. That and I wanted to learn some functional Japanese words and phrases for the trip. Friends assured me the most important would be sumimasen – sorry or excuse me. I’m still not sure if that was general advice, or advice specifically tailored to me.
It was not only all the tasks before us that overwhelmed me. I was bereft. I loved that house. Work getting the property ready for sale started around us. There is dissonance in caring so much for something that doesn’t belong to you. At the same time, as one friend pointed out, landlords may not always realise you’ve made their house into your home. This is the great landlord-tenant divide. It’s hard to have workmen coming into your home, praising the doorknobs that, over night, are no longer yours.
After about a week of silent (or not so silent) grief on the couch, I sprang into action. We looked at new places, slowly packed non-essential books and records, and ticked off an every-growing list of things to do. We found a place, and the application process was extremely efficient. Now it was time to pack in earnest and move on.
It’s funny how when it’s time to leave a place, you develop affection for things that were hitherto disliked. There is a gargantuan gum tree on the property. It’s the kind of tree that engenders admiration from most visitors. That’s unless your visitor is Italian. Whoever amended Julius Caesar’s much-referenced phrase to the Roman Senate from “I came; I saw; I conquered” to “We came; we saw; we concreted”, describing the perspective of European migrants in Australia (and perhaps elsewhere) was only half-joking. At its worst, a bin could be filled in five minutes with all the leaves and twigs the tree had dropped. Musician and poet Chad Sugg wrote, “Love the trees until their leaves fall off, then encourage them to try again next year”. Maybe so, but I often pictured the tree being replaced by a replica of Laocoön and His Sons, a statue unearthed in Rome and considered by Dr. Nigel Spivey “one antique sculpture [that] furnishes us with the prototypical icon of human agony”. What seeing that depth of human emotion through the kitchen window every morning would do for a house’s feng shui, or my general disposition, I had no idea; but I made no secret I detested that tree. If you are interested, the tree is the backdrop to my picture on the About Adam page. Remember, I said I hated it; not that I can’t spot a good photo opportunity. But I did find myself making peace with the tree, even taking a series of photos when the sunlight shining through it was most splendid, and the honeyeaters and lorikeets on its branches plentiful. You tend to cling to the old and ill-remembered when faced with change.
Moving into a new place is all about new things: learning where the closest supermarkets and takeaway eateries are, memorising the litany of street names, and finding a new way to travel to work. Then there’s the actual house. Playing Tetris with furniture largely bought for one home was not the most difficult. It is actually adjusting to the little things, such as where and how bright the indoor lights are, the water pressure of the shower, and even where to fold out the clothes horses when the weather isn’t right to use the outdoor clothes line. Necessity is the mother of invention; but it all felt a little weird.
Once we had moved in, we still had the old house for a couple of weeks. A friend remarked to me one day how quickly a home becomes a house. The furniture was gone; pictures on the walls were taken down. On the last day, everything had been ticked off the lists and the final inspection complete. I took the last packing box in my hands and walked out the back door. I thanked the house. I think we used it well. The one thing I would have changed was using the house more with friends. It was a great entertaining house. Two days later, we jetted off to Japan.
It may seem odd to write largely about moving house when the most exciting thing to have happened recently would be the trip to Japan. This will, of course, come later. We only returned home last week. I’m still processing all I saw of those beautiful people and their country. This is more of an explanation of why there hasn’t been a post here in a while. While I didn’t post during the move, I was still deep in research for some interviews. One involved looking through old 1960s Australian newspapers, which had not yet been digitised, at the State Library. I hadn’t used a microfiche reader since high school. The readers are much updated, with the ability to save a newspaper page as a JPEG or PDF. It was a lot of fun, so much so that I found myself saving articles not only relevant to my subject. Pages I copied included one with photographs by Cecil Beaton of the Royal Family and infant Prince Andrew; another detailing an 18-year old dress maker’s apprentice spitting at Marlene Dietrich at the Park Lane hotel in Dusseldorf; and still another with reviews of three new books about Japan. Closer to home, there was an advertisement for Shelley Berman’s show at the Palais Theatre in St. Kilda, Melbourne. Another story covered a worrying trend, for some, of poodles being treated at beauty parlors. Mrs. A. Davies, poodle shop proprietor, felt that, “People are pampering poodles and making fashion fools out of them”. I didn’t realise treating poodles to “roses, pink toe nails, bows and jewelled collars” was a relatively new trend. One or more poodles had already “been shaved, tinted and shampooed” at a beauty parlor (The Age, September 5, 1963, p. 3).
It’s time to settle into the new house. More posts are on their way. It’s also time to catch up on TV we missed while in Japan. I was late to the party in starting Mad Men, a fact many friends found outrageous given my love of the ‘60s. We started watching shortly after moving into the old house. One night after watching three back-to-back episodes of Season 1, I went onto eBay and bought a vintage wooden lamp. Unfortunately, it didn’t come with a lampshade, and finding a lampshade with the spider fitter has proven a bit difficult. Consequently, the lamp sat on a sideboard for most of our time there. Mad Men finishes its run soon. Strangely, paying the old house’s last electricity bill a couple of days ago made that chapter final. Now that the show is coming to an end, maybe it’s time to get the lamp rewired and dressed.
Gavin Harrison has always worn many hats. Of course, one of them was acting. On Australian television he played cyclist Hugo Strzelecki on the Seven Network’s revered drama series A Country Practice. Before that, he had several stints on Home and Away as Morris “Revhead” Gibson, one of the soap’s first bad boys. At the moment, Gavin’s main role is as a producer with his own advertising production company, Section9 Productions. The Los Angeles-based company engages in global print campaigns for everything from Kia to BMW to Tesla in the automotive industry, to Absolut Vodka, American Airlines, and Philips. It’s no surprise to find that it is a “full-service” company, meaning Gavin and his crew are involved right from pre-production, to shooting, and then to post-production. That includes scouting locations, casting, co-ordinating production, lighting, and working alongside photographers. After all, Gavin has worked in all these areas at one time or another, and has done so since he was 15. He’s clearly happiest when he is doing multiple things.
Gavin was accepted into film school as a teenager. From starting out as a second-assistant director, he ended up at Priest Productions. It’s perhaps difficult – given how woven into the music industry the video clip has become over the last 30 years – to imagine how pioneering on a worldwide stage its Australian owner, Steven Priest, was in the ‘80s as a producer and director of videos, live music specials, and commercials. The work of him and his team included videos for Elton John, KISS, The Angels, Cold Chiesel, INXS, Mi-Sex, Duran Duran, Noiseworks, John Farnham, and Little River Band. This was Gavin’s apprenticeship in production. Acting came into the picture around the same time, when Gavin got his first role (a different character to Hugo) out of high school on A Country Practice.
There were early roles in Australian productions. In You’ve Probably Saved His Life, Gavin played a schoolboy swimmer named Tom whose father dies unexpectedly. In one scene, Tom and his sister (played by Sarah Lambert, who is the creator of the Australian Nine Network’s current hit series Love Child) try to cheer up their grieving mother, Pam (Judy Morris), by cooking her dinner. It’s a spectacular disaster, but a poignant scene in this short film produced as an education tool for St John Ambulance Australia. If you were in an Australian school at the time, you probably saw it one day in class; along with the “where do babies come from?” video. Another part was a guest role as Kieron Taylor, who may or may not be the long-lost son of a dangerous dictator played by Gerard Kennedy, in the 1980’s version of the television series Mission: Impossible. This was a U.S. production filmed on the Gold Coast in Queensland, and again starred Peter Graves.
From there, it was on to Home and Away in 1988. Revhead may have been somewhat misunderstood by the folk of seaside town Summer Bay, but there’s no denying he was a dirty guy. The panel beater (for non-Australian folk reading here, someone who repairs damaged motor vehicles) made enemies of good boys Steven Matheson (Adam Willits), Adam Cameron (Mat Stevenson) and Blake Dean (Les Hill), and was often found hassling (a very Home and Away word) the likes of Roo Stewart (Justine Clarke), Emma Jackson (Dannii Minogue) and Viv Newton (Mouche Phillips). Gavin played nice guys in between his appearances on Home and Away. He was Renato Santinelli on the short-lived Family and Friends on the Nine Network in 1990, and had a guest appearance as a boxer on the acclaimed ABC drama GP. This was one of his favourite roles, and one with significant training involved to get Gavin to have the look and feel of a boxer. When Revhead was finally put away for good in 1991 (he must have been paroled by now), Gavin took on a full-time role on A Country Practice.
Gavin played Hugo Strzelecki on A Country Practice from 1992 to shortly before the series ended in 1993. In his first episode, which aired in Australia on January 27, Hugo’s dreams of the Tour de France are sidelined after a car accident, leading him to stay in rural Wandin Valley. The accident was at the hands of the person who eventually becomes his best pal, Darcy Hudson, who was played by Kym Wilson. Admittedly, most of the people who got anywhere near Darcy’s driving didn’t fare much better. Once she even ran down someone who was just borrowing Hugo’s bike. It all seems a little sinister. Nonetheless, Gavin and Kym were a great pair on-screen as the new kids in town, as were Gavin and Judith McGrath, who played Darcy’s mother Bernice; Maureen Edwards as the hospital’s director of nursing, Matron Rosemary Prior; and Joyce Jacobs, the town gossip, Esme Watson. Hugo even engaged in a croissant bake-off with Esme. He was a brave boy to go up against someone who had been baking since before he’d taken the training wheels off of his cycle.
A Country Practice was one of the premier dramas on Australian television at the time, and mixed light and dramatic moments with dexterity. Some of the heavy for Hugo included significant injuries and illness; conflict with his father (something that seemed to be prevalent for many of Gavin’s characters); and a moral ambivalence that was involved in some of Hugo’s decisions, such as when he had the chance to inflict a damaging “sucker punch” on a boxing opponent. In the two-part “Little Boy Blue”, which was very much ahead of its time in dealing with gay issues on television, Hugo and training friend Brett Cooper (Simon Stokes) are beaten up in a homophobic attack. It remains one of Gavin’s favourite storylines.
Eventually it was not Darcy or the Tour de France that kept Hugo in or out of the Valley, respectively, but a romance with Christina Agapitos, a young woman with leukemia. She was played by Gavin’s real-life friend and former Home and Away co-star Rebekah Elmaloglou. For those episodes, there was significant consultation between A Country Practice staff and CanTeen, the Australian support service and charity for young people living with cancer. At the time, Gavin also had significant involvement with another support service for seriously-ill children, the Starlight Foundation. His involvement with Starlight was driven initially by the loss of a childhood friend to cancer.
After Gavin left A Country Practice, he headed to L.A., where he hit the ground running in a string of programs. There was the British-American mini-series Signs and Wonders involving a mother trying to wrestle her daughter from a cult with the help of a de-programmer played James Earl Jones; Amazing Grace on NBC starring Patty Duke, in which he played a runaway named Link, and where Gavin felt he experienced one of his best moments on screen; and bad-guy roles on CBS’ Chicago Hope and Diagnosis Murder. You’re pretty bad when you have Mark Harmon, and especially Dick Van Dyke, in your path of destruction. In film, he co-starred as real-life Fred “Freddie” Barker, the youngest of Kate “Ma” Barker’s (Theresa Russell) boys, in Public Enemies.
After a role in 1998’s Exposé, Gavin realised that he wasn’t going in the direction that he wanted. After some downtime, which in many ways was some of his first since he was 15, he started working again as a camera assistant. Among those he worked with were Helmut Newton and his wife, June Browne, known for her photography by the name Alice Springs. While Gavin had always intended to work in front of and behind the camera in the U.S., part of his decision was that his current career would be disconnected from his acting work. In his words, he “buried” his old life as an actor. He built a new career in photography. One night, after an accident, he found that he couldn’t work in that role anymore. It was then, at this potential crisis point, that the seeds were sown for what would become Section9 Productions.
Gavin and I spoke recently, and in great detail, about his early life, roles on the iconic television series that he was a part of, and his life for the past 20 years in Los Angeles. I think you’ll be particularly interested in Gavin’s perspective on how all the components of his life – what he has done as an actor, producer, photographer, and filmmaker – have recently come together for him. We also spoke about his relatively new foray into making music under the artist name mtrack. Oh, and he told me to come join him next time I’m in L.A. for (depending on the season) snowboarding or water skiing. Gavin assures me that “it doesn’t matter what level you’re at”. He might just eat his snow hat.
Adam: How did you start in the business? Was it an interest in production or acting that initially led you down this road? Gavin: Basically I used to love photography and music when I was younger at school. I was a day boy at Newington College. I played violin from third grade through and so I played violin in the Chamber Orchestra. I really enjoyed it for the most part and then you got exposed to a bit of theatre at school, which was great. In Year 10, I really wanted to get into film. My parents basically said if you can get into a college you can leave, but they were not about to have me leave Newington in Year 10. My mum’s an artist too – she’s an amazing painter and does ceramics, she’s a really fantastic, grounded woman – and she was really supportive. My dad was too, but he’s a bit more pragmatic; he’s an engineer so he’s a little bit more nuts and bolts while my mum is a bit free-flowing.
My mum helped me look into KvB College. You had to be 18 or be in an industry where you could submit some work. I went to the AV studio and asked Mr. Swain, who was also really supportive and a great teacher, to let me use the gear at lunch time and after school. I was making music videos. I was shooting them, editing and I was in them, because who wants to give up their lunch time or after school? I was the nemesis in it so I’d wear different clothes and then I’d chase myself around in the same music video. That’s how I started to produce something to see if I could leave school and pursue something that I loved.
KvB College really liked what I had done and they gave me an aptitude test because I was 15. Based on the aptitude test and the work, they actually made an exception and I went straight into that film school. I hadn’t even turned 16 yet.
Adam: You were probably a bit of anomaly going in fresh without having done a lot? Gavin: I think even just given my age. I had so much energy at the time – I kind of still do – and was so into it. If anybody needed anything done, I was doing it. I was a cameraman if they wanted to work late. I was only 16 so I didn’t really have a social life, and I didn’t have a girlfriend. Of course you’re running around at that age and doing your thing, but I was in there late night working, editing, and just doing a mammoth amount of work because I loved it. It was very easy for me to put the time in.
Adam: Is that how you started working with Steven Priest or am I getting ahead there? Gavin: No, that’s correct. I was working with a first assistant director as a second assistant on sets of TV commercials and some music videos. I met a director, John Jobson, through this first AD. He started to do some work at Priest Productions, some music videos, and then he brought me in there as his assistant working with him in the back office. I got to know those guys there, and when John Jobson went back to L.A. they asked me to stay on. I became a part of the production team coming out of college when I was around 17.
Acting had kind of started a little bit before that as well. I got my first role on A Country Practice when I was 15 or 16, just when I was leaving Newington College. I played my first character. I was really more focused on being behind the camera rather than in front of the camera. I felt that if I couldn’t be stable in front of the camera all the time, I might as well learn behind the camera. My parents felt that was a good decision for me to want to understand the complete medium of film and television, wherever I might be working.
Adam: Did it kind of feel very bang, bang, bang, like it kind of all happened at once? Gavin: Yeah, I think so. How it really started was I would pick up my sister from dancing in the city. She was at a ballet school that merged with a talent school. My parents felt safer if I take my little sister home so when I finished playing rugby I would go in and wait for her. I was waiting in the lobby all the time, and a talent agent asked me if I wanted to take any classes or get involved in any part of what the school was about. I landed a role in what I think was an international Coca-Cola commercial, skateboarding or doing something like that.
Adam: Just completely kind of random. Gavin: Yeah it was random. I mean I was into photography and film and music, but I didn’t think that it would start before leaving school. I started going on some auditions and then I landed my first role in A Country Practice. I think I did A Country Practice twice before I became a regular.
Adam: I think that I remember them. You were a musician or something like that? Gavin: I was a musician, yeah, and I played guitar and had a crazy drunken dad. I think I played really quickly a jockey or something as well. It all started happening pretty quickly and I was learning as I was going.
Adam: Did you know Steven Priest well? Gavin: Yeah, I worked there for a while. It was kind of toward the end of the company’s time, like Russell Mulcahy and those guys had come out of that house. I worked with them for 14, 16 hours a day and you get to know them pretty well. I even saw Steven just before he passed away. He had a pretty colourful life throughout the excessive superstardom era of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Adam: What are some of the videos that are you worked on which are memorable to you? Gavin: I think working on some Noiseworks videos when they were just coming up and some really great shots out in the desert, Cronulla in the sand dunes with these massive lunar crane arms and seeing large production happening. Then working with Jimmy Barnes was a lot of fun. Anywhere where you’re on a set and the camaraderie is there and people are being creative and there’s loud music.
Johnny Diesel was super cool. He was like the Australian version of Johnny Depp. I thought he carried himself really well and was very professional and really together. He had a stand-alone unique kind of energy about him that I thought was really interesting.
Adam: I like that description because when you come across people like that, it’s there, it’s all in the way they carry themselves. Gavin: It’s innate, it’s not put on, and they don’t dress up. It’s just innate in their nature and their energy and it’s kind of nice to be around that.
Adam: Were you ever star-struck by anyone who you were working with? Gavin: I don’t think so because I’d been on the set as an actor before and I’d been around all the guys in A Country Practice and GP. For us as kids in Australia there were three or four television stations so they were really famous people besides your movie stars. They were local, home grown, really fantastic accomplished actors. But I think it was mitigated in me because I had been in front of a camera with them. I was pretty comfortable around these kinds of people who were in the public eye.
Adam: I think that describes it really well. It was a very different time over here in terms of TV. People on A Country Practice and shows like GP were really at the front and centre. Gavin: Yeah, unless you went to theatre, but as the general population at home GP, A Country Practice, and Home and Away were the people who were amazing and you could be star-struck by it. Then there were the musicians. We covered a Hall and Oates concert and we did Julio Iglesias. It was always interesting to see the big international productions. We worked on the opening of the Melbourne Tennis Centre and I accidentally ran into Martina Navratilova. I was running getting all these banners set up and it was busy. She stepped out of one of the dressing rooms and I pulled up really quickly, and she was right there; I almost really slammed into her. She was in my eye line and I was like, Wow, that’s Martina Navratilova. I was pretty in awe of who she was at the time.
Adam: Were you into sport? Gavin: At school yeah, I liked rugby and I liked running, swimming, and water skiing. I tried to watch some sport – you know how you’d watch cricket with your parents while they were having a cool drink in the afternoon on a weekend – but, in general, I played more of it than I watched.
Adam: I remember a photo shoot in TV Week where you were water skiing with Dieter Brummer and Tristan Bancks from Home and Away. You were on A Country Practice at that point. Did you start water skiing young? Gavin: We grew up in southern Sydney in Oatley. My parents bought a house on a valley on the river there so that’s where water skiing comes in. A good friend of mine’s parents would go up to the river – they had a little house – and they kind of taught me when I was 10 or 11. I would just ski every weekend. One of my closest friends and I would just grab some friends and we’d ski all day long. Dodging jelly fish and having a good time, basically. Later on, I bought a boat and some friends and I would go to the Hawkesbury River on the weekend. I just love being on the river and skiing. I find it very meditative. I still do it here when I can get the chance. Summer I’ll go water skiing and then winter my wife and I go snowboarding as much as we can.
Adam: Returning to Steven Priest and working at Priest Productions. When he died was that the first loss that you’d experienced? Gavin: No, I had a really good friend of mine pass away when he was 21 and I was 16, 17 and that’s why I got involved with the Starlight Foundation. One of my mum’s closest friends growing up, her son got cancer and then he fought that fight and then he lost that fight. I saw him before he died and went to the funeral. I found that really hard to wrap my head around at the time. You know you have those knee-jerk reactions of, “Why him? Why this? Why that?” In the end there’s really no reason why, but I grew up pretty quickly at that point seeing my friend die from cancer.
At the height of A Country Practice, I did a lot of work with Starlight Foundation going to the children’s cancer ward and spending spare time there. It kept me grounded rather than running around being on TV, so to speak. Even when I moved to the States, I took some people who were having their wishes granted to Disneyland. One of the guys who I met, Steven Walter, passed away. I became really friendly with him and his mum. I’m still really good friends with his mum. She’s legendary in how she’s kept her son’s legacy alive, and how much money they’ve raised for the Steven Walter Children’s Cancer Foundation. They do the Snowy Ride, a motorcycle event. He was a motorcycle fanatic, an amazing rider. That was another young death, he was 19. It’s very grounding and gives you perspective.
Adam: I guess with time you get to understand these things more and, like you said, there’s no reason to it; it just is. But at a young age it’s an experience that changes you. Gavin: It does, it challenges you, and you just have to be more accepting. I mean you obviously feel the emotional side of it, and sometimes there are no answers to some of the questions and you have to make peace with that. Then you also can’t use that as an excuse to be down, because I don’t think that’s a great way to move forward. You can’t bury the emotion, but you just can’t use it as an excuse to be down.
Adam: I found with some losses that experienced later on, in particular two suicides, I didn’t realise how hard they hit me. When you’re older, you kind of keep going, get ready in the morning, and go to work. And you do it until you stop and realise, Hey, I’m not really functioning here. Gavin: Yes, especially if you’ve got that and suicide. I’ve had a few friends who I went to school with commit suicide. Sometimes it takes a while because I think as an adult your safety mechanisms come into play and they only let you feel enough not to basically go off a cliff yourself. So I think it’s the slow, unravelling of being able to deal with emotions, like you said. It slowly starts hitting you as these things come on. It could be a year later and you’re sitting down in the morning just crying your eyes out and you realise it’s all of these things.
Adam: Can we talk – oh I sound like Joan Rivers – that’s what she used to say. Gavin: She’s gone too. Adam: I loved her. I met her in a hotel lobby once. Let’s talk about some of your early acting work. Do you remember You’ve Probably Saved His Life, which was a public educational video from St John Ambulance, but one that was structured as a dramatic story? You played Judy Morris’ son and your father dies because no one knows how to perform CPR. Gavin: Oh yes, Judy Morris, I totally forgot about this. What year was that? Adam: 1987. Gavin: So I would’ve been 16. That was probably around the first A Country Practice. I can’t remember now what the premise of the story was, but what I did know at the time was that was a pretty amazing opportunity to be working with Judy Morris.
Adam: The other one I wanted to talk about was Mission: Impossible. You were Gerard Kennedy’s potential son in that. Gavin: Yes, his holographic potential son.That was around the same time I think. It was really interesting to watch again because it was one of the first things I had ever done. You’re going off whatever instincts you might have at the time. It was really a great experience. I had to learn how to scuba dive and swim without a mask, and be trained in all these pools up on the Gold Coast. Terry Markwell was really great. Peter Graves was also very nice, and so was Thaao Penghlis. They were all very welcoming, and to be a new member of the Mission: Impossible team in that episode at my age was pretty amazing. Then there were the helicopters and people chasing you down with guns. It was kind of this fantasy land that I got to run around in, and one that you’d watch on television as a kid.
Adam: When you look at it now does it take you back? Gavin: It really takes me back and you look at it as a different person completely. It’s amazing how, if you get caught on video or film at a really young age and you look back at it, it really gives you a good perspective on who you were at the time.
When I was watching it, I was actually quite separated from it. I was enjoying it thinking it was kind of, not funny, but endearing to see this really young guy – who happens to be me – stumbling my way through and trying to find my feet as an actor. I was going for it and doing the best I could, and trying to wrap my head around being really young on this international show. I kind of felt proud of myself for going after it at the time without a ton of experience.
Adam: How did you start working on Home and Away? Gavin: I think I auditioned for it. I can’t quite remember. I believe that Revhead was the first and only role I did on that show. They kept bringing me back all the time. Naomi Watts played my sister in a few episodes in a wheelchair.
Adam: What do you remember of her? Gavin: She was a sweetheart. I thought she was really sweet and grounded. I saw her outside of the show a couple of times with different friends and she always was grounded and very nice; and she was really easy to work with. With all her success, I think she still comes off that way. Naomi’s also a little bit private, which I like. She just lets the work speak for itself.
Adam: Were there other people on the show that you particularly liked working with? Gavin: Rebekah Elmaloglou was a good friend of my sister’s. They did ballet together, so Rebekah and I had a long relationship just as friends from my sister. And then Ray Meagher was nice. I’m switching here, but when you said who did I like working with, Judith McGrath on A Country Practice was a person who I thought was amazing, too. She was great.
On Home and Away everyone was pretty nice. Belinda Jarrett was nice. I think when you’re playing these characters and you have to be in different situations or have a love interest, and you’re pretty young, that can always be a little bit difficult. We had to kind of work at those things on set because she was quite young and she had to have this relationship with my character – and I’m nothing like Revhead – in front of cameras. I think that was a little bit challenging just because of people’s ages at the time, but she was a nice person absolutely.
Adam: Not that Revhead was a teen idol as such, but did those sorts of labels sit well with you? Gavin: I think at the time I didn’t mind whatever they wanted to call me so I could continue to do what I was doing. That is completely a part of the business and a part of the publicity. Jane Nagel, who did publicity at Home and Away and A Country Practice, gave me a good business perspective on it, especially on A Country Practice. Since I had also been involved in both sides of the industry, I learnt really young that there’s the person, the professional, and the product, and that these three aspects of my life should be viewed as such when I was doing certain things.
Adam: Was being associated with playing a character like Revhead difficult? Gavin: At the beginning. I didn’t really like the name at all, and as a kid I’d copped a few hits from guys like him. Then once I realised that I could fit the character and it was a challenge, then I found a lot of fun in it. I could tap into this kind of rough “Westie” ocker-type guy, but you could actually style it in a way that was a little cooler out in amongst a beach town. I resisted it at first and once I realised it was a challenge it became a lot of fun actually.
You know what’s funny right now is that my nieces and nephews are playing reruns of Home and Away, so Revhead is back on the screens. I think my eldest recognises me but the other two say, “Is that really Uncle Gavin?” Then they search me out on YouTube and they think it’s really funny that their uncle is running around with this heavy Aussie accent looking the way I do, playing Revhead the spanner man on television in Australia.
Adam: They’re probably not used to Uncle Gavin saying, “Rack off!” Gavin: No exactly! It’s so funny, all those colloquial terms that we used to throw out there – all the “mates” and the “rack offs”, and all that kind of stuff.
Adam: How did you get you get Renato on Family and Friends? Was it through your association with people working on that show who had been involved in Home and Away? Gavin: It was a Channel 7 show and I’m trying to think whether they offered it to me or I auditioned. I can’t really remember. I don’t think I really knew anybody going into it. Adam:Home and Away producers John Holmes and Alan Bateman were on there. Gavin: Well that’s probably why. I think if I had been working on that show with them they probably had me audition from Revhead to Renato, the Italian-Australian kid in lots of scenes in speedos. He was a swimmer. I really enjoyed that show. Jonathan Hardy was great. Rachael Beck and I became friends. I thought she was an amazing artist also and, to this day, I think she’s a really consummate professional. But I enjoyed the show and I think it came from A Country Practice early on and Home and Away that maybe the producers thought it would be a good fit and I auditioned for it.
Adam: One show that you said at the time was a really good professional experience was on GP, when you played a boxer. You trained with Bernie Hall for that? From what I’ve read, he was quite a character. Gavin: He was a character. I remember going up there to the gym and asking him about it, and he’s straight out of that leathery old – like the trainer from Rocky. He was just in the gym his whole life and he felt like the gym, smelt like the gym, looked like the gym. There was an authenticity to him, and I think training with him really prepared me mentally to understand what it was like to be a boxer to the certain degree that you could.
I trained incredibly hard for that role and it was really important for the dynamic of the character. I think that the guy who I fought against in GP was a national champion. He was a very accomplished guy and he had to lose to my character, which he graciously did. I was in good shape at the time but I realised that you don’t have to look like The Rock to pack a punch. I got hit a few times in training with the guy, and he was so powerful and so fast. I didn’t know what it was to be fit until I trained as a boxer. My whole life I’d been pretty athletic, but to train as a boxer it was a whole other level.
Adam: Let’s speak about to A Country Practice. How did you get that role? Gavin: That was an audition process as well. That’s the most vivid audition I remember because there were two or three guys sitting outside and we all kept coming in and doing the scene with Kym Wilson. We obviously knew it was for a recurring role or to become a new cast member so I knew it was a big deal. But I really enjoyed the process. It was one of those times where I told myself to just let it go, enjoy yourself, and be in the moment. I really loved the show. I had done it a few times before and I felt pretty comfortable. I also knew Kym Wilson briefly from the talent school or something like that so she wasn’t so foreign to me. Of course, I hoped that I would get this part, but I didn’t really have this crazy energy of “I’ve got to get this – this is going to change my life”. At the time, I was directing some music videos and working on other different sets when I auditioned so it wasn’t the thing that was going to make or break my life at the time. It was amazing when it did happen.
Adam: How old were you when you started on A Country Practice? Gavin: I was 21. Adam: And Kym Wilson’s great, I love watching her. Gavin: I think she’s working in fashion and is over here in the States. I’ve kind of gone back and forth talking through people and friends that say “Hi” to her. We had a great time working on the show. We had great chemistry and she was always fun to be around.
Adam: At the time that you and Kym came on to the show it was a period of change for the series, in particular with a number of cast changes. Was it a difficult time or was that not really in play? Gavin: No, it wasn’t really in play. I think for the people who were still in the show it was probably exciting to have some changes since it had been on for so long. Maybe the ratings also weren’t where the network wanted them to be so they said they were going to bring a younger storyline in and introduce some other characters to add some new flavor or energy to the show. It felt good. It kind of felt like you were a part of something that had been around a long time, but you were also responsible for helping it to continue. For me, it was exciting to be there and you really wanted to do an amazing job and maintain the integrity of the show.
I thought A Country Practice was one of the most respected programmes that you could appear on at the time. Everyone wanted to support each other so it made it fantastic to work within the cast. It had social depth and it had humour, which I really liked. When your storylines would come around and they were about heavy issues, you felt that you had a responsibility to do it well and to tell the story. There were so many levels to the show that it helped me mature and really taught me a lot as a person, just from working on it and reading the scripts.
Adam: How did you approach Hugo? Gavin: With Hugo, for me, it was an open canvas to bring parts of my life to this guy who was riding through town getting ready to go to Tour de France and had all the promise in the world. Then he just got sideswiped and ended up in Wandin Valley Hospital, and the challenge was to accept what had happened to him. As I said earlier, I think you need to go deep and feel disappointed and ask questions like, “Why me?” Then it’s how you deal with those set of circumstances that define you. The beginning of the character in the series was a defining moment: his dream just got shattered and everything changed in that moment. It was really him redefining himself because he had put everything and every bit of energy into this one goal of going to the Tour de France.
I found a journey of Hugo trying to figure out how to build new dreams, and how to deal with who he was in this new place. He also had the ability to be anybody in this new place. I was really trying to be open to and interpret the writing and what they saw for the character. Because there wasn’t really a great idea of who the character was, except that this is where he’s going and this is what happened. From there, I was kind of open to build on it.
Adam: I liked the subtlety in the character. Hugo comes across as a very happy-go-lucky guy, but there are those levels of change and transformation going on. Gavin: Yeah, and I think he was happy to be in the town, and he hadn’t really had a home. Hugo’s always been on the run to get somewhere. Then his dad came and they fought and it’s basically like, “Hey, I’ve finally found some happiness somewhere, and you’re coming in here and reminding me of why I wanted to ride my bike to get away from my life”. When things hit him hard, like his Lyme disease, he got a bit aggressive. I think that was because he just started to like what was happening, and then it was changing again.
Adam: Hugo’s experience is like when you find yourself moving along and then all of sudden something stops you. It may be getting ill briefly or something like that, but there’s a reason for it. Your body or something else is saying to you, “If you don’t stop I’m going to stop you, because you’ve got something to learn here”. Gavin: Yeah it’s the Universe putting the brakes on for you and it’s hitting that Universal wall. At some point you’re going to hit it: emotionally, personally, self-created, out of the blue, an accident. I think sometimes it’s a really good thing. Sometimes in life when those things happen, they’re good.
Adam: You mentioned Judith McGrath before. Was there anyone else that you really enjoyed working with? Gavin: I would say everyone. I’m not just saying that, but everyone was great. Some people you know better because you’re in more scenes with them. I made good friends with Jamie Croft. He’s a great young talented actor who was on the show. Shane Porteous just commanded so much respect; he was almost like the Buddha cruising around because he was the consummate professional and so he commanded a lot of respect.
I worked with Syd Heylen and Gordon Piper in the scenes in the pub. Since they’d been on the show for so long, it seemed like Syd, Gordon, and Joyce Jacobs were always having an incredibly good time. You just loved them and thought for each of them, What a life. Michelle Pettigrove was a sweetheart. Georgie Parker was there when I started, and she was really nice too. They were so welcoming. It was incredible. I hate to say it, but when you get a bunch of actors together who really care about what they’re doing they seem to really take you in. I found when I was younger that they took you in and wanted you to succeed.
I got to do a bunch of scenes with Joyce Jacobs. She’d come in to the bar and I’d always have some interaction with her. I thought that was always really great for my character because she was such a classic, funny woman. I really enjoyed those moments that I got to spend with her. Brian Wenzel, he was tough and down the line, no messing around, super pro, get it done. And Maureen Edwards was really sweet. She couldn’t be nicer actually; a classic wonderful woman. I think we were really lucky with the crew and the cast that were on the show.
Adam: What were your favourite storylines? Gavin: The episode when they had the cyclist and he was gay and we got beat up. That really rang true to me because I used to get hassled on the trains. I had a school uniform on and we would get roughed up and beat up and spat on, and called a bunch of names as well. When that character came in, I lived in Sydney and was a big part of the gay community. The most comfortable and safest I felt when I was on television was in Darlinghurst. I would go out to the clubs and dance. I loved it because I felt safe and accepted. There would never be some guy who wanted to flatten me because I was on television. Being a part of that community at the time was really healthy and it was very protective. And I love to dance my ass off all night long.
I remember thinking that it was important to do it right. I thought it was a pretty amazing thing to do at the time. Also those blurred lines with the two characters. Hugo was a bit naïve, but to be meeting this guy and go on the journey with him was great; especially because the community at the time was like my incredibly safe family. That’s why I remember that as one of the most important ones.
Adam: Even before A Country Practice you had the intention to head to the U.S. at some point. How did American come to be part of the plan? Gavin: I have such fond memories of A Country Practice.I could’ve stayed and kept doing all of that, but it was in my nature to keep testing it out and there were no other TV stations at the time. The producers weren’t upset. They were really supportive about doing it. At that time you’re just young and running as fast as you can, to experience as much as you can. That’s why I really loved the show and was thankful to the producers on the show. They had a lot of class and integrity.
Adam: That’s great to hear. I guess they’d had a lot of younger people on the show before and saw the need for them to go and spread their wings and develop and keep moving. Gavin: Absolutely. They were great. I think it was based on me just wanting to see what’s out there. It’s not that I didn’t want to be in Australia or be on Australian work. I had been working with production companies and talking with international people. When I was on Mission: Impossible, some actors and people who were coaching me then all said that whenever I came to the States to look them up. The door was open to me that, if I went there, I knew somebody. That made it easier to talk to my parents and tell them that I really wanted to go and check it out. I had no real idea what it would be. I knew some people there, and I thought it was best at the time to go and test myself on a global stage. It was really more the exciting pursuit of adventure.
Adam: Did you get an agent straight away when you were there? Gavin: I spent a few years going back and forth so I had a manager and then I had an agent. I had all this stuff set up and then I set up all my legalities while I was on A Country Practice so that when I got off the plane I was legal and ready to go.
Adam: Was Signs and Wonders the first project you did once you were there? Gavin: I think the first thing I did was a voice-over for Disney, Toto Lost in New York. I did a Kahlúa commercial voice as well, and then the first thing I booked was Signs and Wonders. It was a BBC miniseries with a bunch of amazing people in that as well. That particular experience doing a two-hander with James Earl Jones when we were in scenes together was a little bit mind-blowing for me. I remember sitting down with him in between scenes and he was very relaxed and quite talkative and a really nice man. Then he opens his mouth and you’re like, It’s Darth Vader and Mufasa from The Lion King; and it’s all of them in one. I’m talking to all of these people in one go. Then he says my character’s name and you’re thinking, Oh man, this is Darth Vader talking here right now. His voice is so amazing.
Adam: Do you remember that episode of The Simpsons where James Earl Jones’ characters – Darth Vader, Mufasa, and even his CNN voice-over – talk to Lisa one-by-one? Gavin: It was like that. There’s a scene where he walked down the stairs to talk to me and I’m just standing there looking at him. I was quite amazed that he was walking down the stairs to talk to me, or my character. That was one of those out-of-body experiences that I did have when I first arrived because he’s pretty huge as far as his career goes and just him as a man and his talent. I obviously snapped back in and had a conversation with him in the scene.
Adam: There were some heavy hitters in Signs and Wonders. Gavin: Yes, Jodhi May, Prunella Scales, Donald Pleasence, David Warren, and Colin Farrell was in some of it. I did most of my work with Jodhi May and just a few scenes with James Earl Jones, but that was just amazing unto itself.
Adam: Were your parts filmed only in L.A.? Gavin: Yes, I think it was shown in the UK and it was shown here. We just did the L.A. part of it.
Adam: I think that was Donald Pleasence’s final role. Gavin: I think it was one of his last screen appearances. I think he died soon after that or at the very end of that. And Jodhi May was in The Last of the Mohicans. I really love that movie and the soundtrack to that movie. I thought that film was another great cinematic masterpiece in how it was shot. So to work with her was also fantastic.
Adam: Was Amazing Grace next? Gavin: I think I came off of Signs and Wonders and then I was cast in Amazing Grace. It started off really well when I first arrived here.
Adam:Amazing Grace had a struggle from the beginning. It was supposed to premiere in the fall and it didn’t. Then when it did premiere it was up against Dr. Quinn, Medicine Women, which you imagine may have a pretty similar audience. It seemed to also have that problem striking a balance between being a religious or a spiritual show and appealing to a non-religious audience. Did you enjoy that one? Gavin: I enjoyed the character and working with Patty Duke immensely. That was shot up in her home town. I don’t think she wanted to move and there were a lot of challenges with the weather being up there. I think they struggled to find a balance, as you said. It was a police show then they had spirituality, and ex-addiction coming back. I don’t know whether she also wanted to continue on with the show. It was quite grueling shooting it in Idaho during the winter. It was really cold. I loved it, but I think it was quite grueling doing it. I moved there to be in the show.
Adam: What was Patty Duke like to work with? I enjoy her as an actor but also her mental health advocacy is very much an interest of mine. Gavin: I thought she was very stable and very strong. She really cared about the welfare of the younger actors who were her son and her daughter on the show. Of course you have to because there’s SAG and there’s welfare and all of that. But she took it to another level I think because she was a child star herself. She was a producer on the show, as well, and so she really rallied around the show. I think it was a lot of work for her but she believed in it. I found her to be very warm.
One of the best moments I’ve ever had as an actor or doing a scene with somebody was a scene with her on the porch. In that show I finally felt what it really, really meant to be in the moment with somebody. Still to this day, I think that was the best experience that I’ve ever had. I had done a lot of work beforehand, but something was different in that one scene on the porch.
Adam: That’s such a good progression as well. Gavin: Yes, to realise it and to not really know that it was happening. When it happened it was so calm and connected, and then when it was over and I watched it back later, I really believed it. That’s something you want to achieve.
Adam: I thought that Fred Barker in Public Enemies was the most interesting of the Barker brothers portrayed in the film. He changes and it’s a change you believe. You can see his development from being a rather innocent kid to becoming this sort of cold-blooded killer. It also made me realise how much I’d missed seeing you on TV or in movies. Gavin: It was an incredibly interesting fun adventure to be working with Eric Roberts and Theresa Russell and the other guys who were in the film. I felt very honoured just to be a part of it. It’s a run around, shoot ‘em up kind of movie, but you’re working with people who are really accomplished. In scenes you’re putting yourself in your craft with really great people who you have a deep respect for. In a way, it brings some kind of comfort that you feel you’re growing and moving in the right direction. So there’s some validation by working with these guys.
Theresa Russell was a beautiful, professional person. Similar to working with Patty Duke, there were those scenes where you feel that you’re no longer outside yourself looking in. You actually become present and the moment becomes real. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does it just passes you by like you experienced it without any objective self point-of-view. You could get that with her. It was the same with Eric Roberts. His timing and watching him was like going to class so I felt very fortunate.
The character itself had a really fantastic arc, from basically being mummy’s boy to becoming the most ruthless of all the brothers. As an actor you could find these markers where you could shift and change and evolve the character. It was really great to do a period piece as well. I hadn’t done that before. The extent of using weapons was interesting. It’s intense because you know it’s dangerous, but you have a really good time doing it.
Adam: When you talk about being in that moment with Theresa Russell you can really see that. The mother-son relationship that Ma and Fred Barker have is a very complex relationship, but it’s sort of a natural fit in a very weird way. Gavin: Back in those times, if they were on the run, they were never exposed to any women or even just other people. Her having that kind of intimate, weird relationship with her son, or sons, was all they really had so blurring those lines at the time seemed like it was natural. It’s almost an extreme version of home schooling with weapons. They see none of the outside world and the only female around him at the time was her. The other brothers were older and they were off doing their thing, but he had just come into that age where he was looking outside his mom. He never really got there.
Adam: There’s that great scene where Eric Roberts’ character is coming to his end and Fred is the one responsible for that. Gavin: It’s straight jealousy. I put a gun to his head and basically it’s a man-to-man stand-off. It’s not only “You’re hitting on my mom”, but in his mind it’s his woman. It was this blurred line about who she was. When it came to being able to kill the guy, it was quite satisfying for the character. It erased the competition.
Adam: Was Chicago Hope filmed in Las Vegas? Gavin: Yes, it was filmed in Las Vegas. It was quite brief, a little street scene with Mark Harmon. But it was fun being from Australia in Vegas, and I had a great time being on set shooting with Mark Harmon. That was another one of those unique characters you kind of get in their world a little bit and you find out what’s happening at that level, which was making money and no fear of committing some violent act if you have to. Adam: Nothing to lose. Gavin: Exactly, yeah.
Adam: Let’s talk about Diagnosis Murder and your character Aaron Ving. That was a big part. Gavin: That was a big part and I loved the character. He was very single-minded, ultra-violent, and believed in everything that he was doing. Aaron was almost this pre-programmed person, whether he was brought up that way or whether he found his belief somehow, but something snapped in him and then he became so single-minded about what he had to achieve. It was such a focused energy that he couldn’t have any objective perspective. I found the intensity of that character really enjoyable to play.
Adam: He was completely committed to the cause. I thought it was quite a sophisticated script. It almost drew on that 1960’s kind of idea of revolution and militants. Gavin: I thought so too, and they were kind of addressing those things. It’s not a family show, but similar to A Country Practice it’s got comedy and humour, and then it has its deep stuff. This was before all the things that are happening in the world now. I think the approach taken made it come together.
I remember going into that audition and L.A. traffic was brutal. I think it was a producer session where they make their decision. I just came in there and, with the energy of dealing with the traffic, I couldn’t overthink it. I just had to get in there and unload. Before I knew it, the audition was finished and I walked out of there and thought, What really just happened? It was another one of those moments where I didn’t really know what just happened, but it felt really good. Then they called and offered the part to me.
Adam: You can do all the preparation for something, but sometimes it’s just being in that moment. Gavin: Yeah you can’t overthink it, but that’s the challenge sometimes.
Adam: Your characters have a penchant for trying to kill off loved characters. Revhead in Home and Away was kind of responsible for killing off Guy Pearce’s character. Then there was Mark Harmon in Chicago Hope and Dick Van Dyke in Diagnosis Murder. Gavin: Yes, I think Revhead was responsible for his death. It was same with Dick Van Dyke. I was playing this militia-type domestic terrorist guy, and all I’m thinking about is, I’ve got a gun to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s head right here. I grew up watching his movies and all of a sudden I’m on top of him with a 9mm hand gun and then taking fire. I don’t know what it is. I’m really laid-back and I like to get along with people, but for whatever reason those roles seemed to work pretty well for me at the time.
Adam: I watched Exposé last night. Gavin: How was it? Adam: I enjoyed it. I think your character was set apart because everyone is completely out there and he just kept it all together. He was a photographer as well so that’s quite close to you. I thought it was interesting what they were trying to do with dealing with the idea of adoption and foster care systems within this thriller. Gavin: I thought the idea was good. It was a first-time director and I don’t know how well it came together for what it was doing; but I liked the idea of the character. I got time to go out with the “stringers”, the guys that get the calls on the police scanners and drive straight to the event or the incident. Sometimes they arrive there before the police officers. This is kind of before TMZ, before everyone’s running around with cell phones and capturing reality incidents, horror shootings, car wrecks. Because my character was a stringer, I got to go out and run around with some of these guys around L.A. in their vans. It got pretty intense because a scan comes across and there’s a shooting they’re rolling straight over to the location. It certainly gave me the feeling of being in amongst the brutality of a city and when you’re on the front line, so to speak, of looking at the aggression and the violence it really opened my eyes to what these guys deal with every day. The character was also me coming back from Amazing Grace, and being able to be a little bit more laid-back in my own skin instead of being the guy that wants to go around and shoot everybody.
Adam: Was that the last thing that you did? Gavin: I think that it was the last thing that I did, and then I made the decision to stop acting.
Adam: Tell me about what was going on. Gavin: I wasn’t really comfortable not having control of where I was going in my life. I’ve always done multiple things, being a freelance filmmaker or working in music or being first assistant like what I was doing in Australia. In America, I was so busy auditioning. That’s the part of acting where you can have 10 good actors, but only the person who is completely right in the director’s mind is going to get booked. Then there’s that factor of the Universe coming and slapping you in the head a little bit. There were a lot of people who I met and thought were a certain way, but weren’t really who I thought they were. I felt a bit disillusioned with everything that was around me, and what I had built in L.A. felt very uncertain.
I moved down to Huntington Beach, out of L.A., to a really good friend’s. It was to take a breather and a break from the energy that I’d used to get from Australia to the States. I had also been working since I was 15. From a really young age up to 28, my life had been a whirlwind. I think my mind and body were telling me that I needed to stop and look at what I really wanted to do.
Adam: What did you do next? Gavin: I took about year off. I really just did some odd jobs, played music, wrote and did a lot of drawing. It was slowing my life down for the first time since I was 15 years old.
I got back into the production side of things. I just wanted to do something that, when I showed up, was based on my technique and my abilities, and not just on whether you are right or wrong for the part. I really wanted to own what I was doing and so I decided to get back into being behind the camera.
I started working again as a camera assistant in print. I had spent so much time being photographed in Australia and had a really good understanding of it. I didn’t tell anybody that I was ever an actor. I had this random disconnect from acting where I buried my entire past of being an actor in this country or anywhere else. I wanted the people I was working with to see or judge me for my abilities as a camera assistant or a lighting designer, DP at the time. So I went on this journey. I don’t know how healthy it was, but the only way I could do it was to absolutely bury everything that existed to me as an actor.
Adam: It may seem like an intense decision, but at the same time it was based on everything that was leading up to it. Gavin: I think so. I think sometimes it seems intense, but it gets to the point where it can be the only decision. You just have to see in front of you and let go and trust the process somehow, and have some solid people around you to do that.
I started camera assisting for some celebrity photographers. As well as dealing with all the cameras and the film, I was pretty much the DJ at the photo shoots in the studio because I love music. Over time, I became really good at being a first assistant, doing a lot of lighting for different people: whether we were doing British Vogue and you’re working with people such as Pamela Anderson; or you’re working with Helmut Newton and shooting Mickey Rourke. I was handling all the technical side of it, a lot of the lighting for photographers, and running film before it went digital. I spent a lot of years doing that.
One night I was in a taxi coming home from an L.L.Bean shoot in L.A. The cab driver fell asleep at the wheel and careered off the freeway. The car hit the curb and some signs that broke and smashed. It was quite violent smashing a bunch of things on the side of the freeway, but we didn’t hit something dead ahead. I thought that I was okay. I went back to my place, and in the middle of the night I tried to move and I couldn’t move my head or my neck.
I was taken to hospital. I had a bulging disc in C6, C7 and all this nerve damage in my arms. I couldn’t move and I couldn’t pick anything up. It was really bad. I had to do two or three months of rehab. Part of the job was setting lights and moving cameras so all of a sudden I’m no longer employable.
A producer who I’d worked with as a first assistant called me about a Toyota job or something. I told him that I’d been in an accident, but that I can pick up the trash and I can make some really great tea and coffee; I just need to work. So from being at the level that I was as a camera assistant to basically being really humble and sort of saying, “I need to pay my bills. Can you at least give me the opportunity to pick up the trash and serve tea and coffee and sort out craft service? I would be indebted”. They knew me so they were able to help me out, which was nice. From that point I started back in production as a PA and then going from there to location scouting and location co-ordinating for other companies.
Adam: How did Section9 begin? Gavin: This accident took me out, but then it started to make me use my mind and skills that I’d learned over the years to tailor into what would become Section9. I saved up enough money to insure myself, which is a big part of owning a production company. I insured myself and went out on my own with Section9 as an advertising production company in print. As soon as that happened, people in the industry heard that I was doing this on my own, and we got incredibly busy. It was satisfying because I could do things creatively, and work with all the layouts and great photographers. I understand lighting, casting, so in a way all those things that I had done set me up to be a very calm, deliberate producer. It started to shape itself as what a gift this was that I could create something I never thought I would – out of necessity. It’s something that I’ve really loved to do over the last 10 years.
Adam: You do a lot of work involving high-performance and luxury cars. Is that your core business? Gavin: Yes, it’s my core business. Section9 core business is advertising nationally and globally, and it’s completely encompassing when you’re in production. We did a job that was a 54-day shoot schedule and I was on the job for around 90 days. People look at photography and say, “Oh wow you got a photo”, and think that it’s done in a day, but the kind of production that I specialise in is like doing mini-motion pictures. It might be a 12, 15 day shoot and you’re prepping for three weeks, and wrapping for another two or three weeks. Generally I take on these larger, technical, complicated jobs where you’re shutting down roads or closing down bridges and landing helicopters. You’ve got people flying in from all over the world and it’s a very big logistics creative production. We also do a lot of technical stuff where they shoot standing cars, and then add CGI vehicles in later.
I mix those sorts of projects in with some of the simpler logistical productions. With Philips electronics, we cruised around downtown with a small crew. I really enjoy that as much as I enjoy closing down parts of the freeway and shutting bridges and things like that.
Adam: The Philips ones were very creative. Gavin: They were really good and the talent was great. We did a lot street casting.
Adam: I guess location, particularly for the vehicle advertising, is really important to what you do as well. Gavin: It’s paramount. It’s really about finding amazing locations to put the product in to represent the demographic and reflect the feel of the vehicles. You want to come back and present locations to a creative director and a client where they say, “This is amazing. Our car will look incredible here in this light”. I find the preparation and the scouting of the location really exciting and very interesting.
Adam: Did you work with Helmut Newton for Gillette? Gavin: He died just before we shot Gillette. I worked for him up until he died when I came out here for two months at a time. I had assisted a guy for Vogue when I was a camera assistant, and then I had the car accident. I kind of just recovered and was getting physically back and he said “Helmut Newton is looking for a new assistant in L.A., and I really want to recommend you to him”. I asked, “Is he gear heavy”. I was thinking that if he’s going to do massive lights, I won’t be able to help. He told me, “No, he’s not gear heavy at all. He’s got a couple of cameras and small amounts of lighting, and I think you’d really connect with him”. So I was called by his rep and his agent and then they set up a phone call with Helmut and I had to be available.
He called me and he said “So you’re the Australian, right?” I said, “Yeah”. He told me, “I’m married to one”. I said, “Lucky for you”. He laughed, he was just laughing, because his wife’s Australian. We kind of hit it off, and he asked me to come to the Chateau Marmont and sit down and look at his equipment. He took me out into the hallway and made sure that I understood technically everything that was happening with the negatives, film, making sure nothing was thin; making sure that everything was how he wanted it and how he expected it. From there I started working with him shooting Ben Kingsley and all sorts of different people from there.
Working with Helmut Newton was amazing because he showed me that you don’t have to be an asshole to be a world-class artist. You can actually be really focused and have all of this success, and have an incredibly long career, and still be a really consummate and nice professional individual. Another thing that I took from working from him was that he said, if you don’t have a point of view or a vision from which you see the world, all you are is a technician. Being a technician is not bad, but what made him who he is was his strong vision and point of view from which he saw everything. His perspective on the world was his and it’s very distinct. When you see a Helmut Newton picture, you know it.
I became really friendly with him and his wife. I spoke to Helmut the day before he died. We were about to do a big Gillette campaign and everything was ready. I got a call from the producer saying that he passed away. We met at a café and the producer was talking to myself and June, his wife, who’s a really accomplished photographer in her own right. She’s Alice Springs. June says, “I’m going to shoot it, and Gavin you’re going to light it”.
I went back to the studio the next day. I remember standing there looking up and wondering what I should do. In that moment I realised that he wasn’t around and I needed to do what needed to be done. I would take the Polaroids back to the Chateau every night and June gave me direction and input on what was happening. We created a really amazing bond through the time from him passing away to her and I going through this whole job together. I think it helped everyone get through it that she really took the lead. She’s an amazing woman for doing that.
Adam: When did you start making music? Gavin: I spent years not doing anything because I had a bunch of excuses of why I wasn’t at the level that I needed to be to start: I don’t know how to use Logic, I don’t know how to record anything, and I’m so busy doing production. One day I finished this massive campaign and I was pretty exhausted but it felt really good to be at home. My wife was sitting on the couch talking to her brother and I was thinking, How happy am I right now. Then I realised I have an iPad and I can program the music. I didn’t know how to record on it so I plugged the Bose speaker in, put my iPhone next to it, downloaded a recorder, and hit record. My mind just went don’t be so precious and find a way to record this. I recorded it on my iPhone off a Bose speaker playing it live off the program in my iPad. That’s the first kind of starting point of me doing music.
I don’t set out to make a song or sit down and compose or write a song. I’ll be at home after a job and my computer’s there, and I just have a certain energy or someone will be talking to me about something. I’ll sit down at the computer and I’ll write and compose it in that moment and then tweak it later. I was having a big conversation with someone and they had a friend who had just died. We were talking about life and funerals, and going through life. He left and I just sat down and made the song “Calm Life Mind”. When I sent it to him it allowed him to cry and that he could let go and feel good energy about his friend. That’s what I love about making music.
Adam: “Gentle Gloves” has a very ambient chill-out type thing, and “Nava” almost has a Thom Yorke style to it. Gavin: People mention some stuff like that. Those two songs and “How Happy Am I” get the most kind of feedback from listeners. “Gentle Gloves” came from my friend being really hard on himself about something that didn’t work out and I just said, “Hey, it’s okay to be hard on yourself, but when you’re kind of knocking yourself down you should at least put on some gentle gloves”. I understand the need to be hard on yourself for maybe a wrong decision, but if you’re going to do it just be gentle about it.
Adam: Music seems to happen for you organically, when the need or thought arises. Gavin: I think so. For “Okay Ole”, Ole is a really good friend of my wife’s and he’s this unsung super positive amazing guy, always calm, always in the background, and really reliable. Everything’s always okay with Ole, everything is cool. There’s this really incredible strength in his calmness and his consistency. I was walking around a store with my wife, and when I got home I started that song.
Adam: I guess your house is not necessarily everyone around the piano, but it’s a musical house. Gavin: Yes, there are three guitars out there. If someone comes over and wants to pick up a guitar and play, they can do that for sure.
Adam: Just one more to talk about, “Low Rolling Cinema” is pretty different from some of the other songs. Gavin: That’s me just checking into beats and fields that I like, and blending certain styles and sounds that I haven’t necessarily heard so much in my life. It’s a part of me discovering new music that I haven’t really heard myself. I remember hanging out in the lounge room listening to Triple J super late night as a kid with the boom box, and then falling asleep with a transistor radio under my pillow and waking up with a screaming ear ache. Then when I had a double tape deck, I could actually start making mix tapes of what I’d spent weeks taping off of Triple J. I was 11 when I used to do that.
Adam: I hope kids still make mixed tapes. I mean they probably make mixed playlists now. Gavin: Yeah, I think it’s all mixed playlists now. I used to love the art of the albums. All the art I try and produce myself for all the singles and whatever music I’m putting out. I use that as a creative outlet now so music gives me music and it also gives me photography. All of the images on the mtrack Instagram are my photography.
Adam: What is your life like today? You’ve been travelling? Gavin: Yes, I was gone for a little while ago for about three weeks to France, Germany, and Monte Carlo. I was looking into some new technology we’re working on for mobile apps. In Monte Carlo, I spent some time with Helmut’s wife. We also just got back from Sydney. I hadn’t been back in a while. I used to always go home every 18 months or so to see mum and dad, and see my brother and sister and their kids. Since I’ve bought a house, they’re all, “Let’s go to L.A.”. I’ve kind of been the Hotel Harrison in L.A. for my family so it’s been really great.
I did an audition on tape just recently for fun for myself for a project in Australia and it felt really good. I love my life today, but the fact that it is opening up and it’s reflecting my life up until this day is making it a little more interesting. It’s giving me a wider perspective to have a little more fun, and do a few more things that I used to love to do again.
Adam: Acting is something you’re open to again? Gavin: Absolutely. I’m starting to look at doing more acting in the future. I miss the process and connection. Recently I just decided to let go of all these ideas of who you create yourself to be – whether it’s an actor, a producer, a writer, or whatever. You actually are who you are, and all of those elements of your life really link up. It’s very simple to say but when they’ve taken you in extreme directions, and when you have had to make some really big changes to refocus your life and see yourself in a different light, that’s when you compartmentalise parts of your life. Part of opening that up was when you actually reached out to me. I started looking back at some press and things from the past and put them on IMDb. It was very much a reconnecting thing for me to do, which was to look back at all that stuff and say, “You know what, I did it and I actually really enjoyed doing all of it”. That’s why it’s really great that you reached out to me because it was a part of me reconnecting with this whole chapter of running around doing stuff with guns and everything else. So you’re a part of that because if I was to say yes to you, I had to say yes to my life.
You can visit Section9 Production’s website to see and read more about Gavin’s work, and the company’s Tumblr page provides images and a behind-the-scenes perspective on some of the shoots.
Gavin’s music is available from iTunes, SoundCloud, and Spotify. He also has a Tumblr. I highly recommend looking at the art and images there as you listen to the music. You’ll stay on the site for a long time, and have a great time doing so. Music videos for his singles will be among Gavin’s next projects.
Gavin’s photography is available on Instagram. His IMDb page is here.
Saturdays have never really done it for me. I’m probably in the minority, but I prefer Sundays. Part of the reason for my mild aversion to Saturdays is because, until relatively recently, I didn’t really have them. While I was studying at university, I worked 9-5 every Saturday for almost nine years. First there was a job at a department store, then one at a supermarket, and finally, while I was a PhD student, Saturdays more often than not were spent at my office desk writing lectures and catching up on research. Or washing the coffee cups that I’d used in the office during the week. Caffeine consumption surely increases the closer a PhD student gets to thesis submission. PhD students tend to be “close to thesis submission” for about three years. This meant that I had few free Saturdays, as well as regularly chapped hands from the no-frills dish soap kindly provided by the University.
I will digress for a moment to tell you about the department store job. This is not really anything to do with Sunday, but I recently did some research on my old stomping ground. The position was over Christmas, and some of us (i.e. me) might still have our trees up, so it’s at least relevant to the season. I also can’t rule out not working at all on Sundays. Although I have no such recollection, I wouldn’t imagine that even 15 years ago the opportunity wasn’t seized by retailers.
The department store gig at David Jones was a mere few months, but rather memorable for two rocking horses named Nimble and Nipper. You see, I didn’t work in, say, men’s shoes or haberdashery (because, well, it wasn’t 1975). I worked in the Magic Cave. This is where Santa takes up residency in Adelaide every year. I don’t care about those vicious rumors that he’s also been spotted in a couple of the other department stores around town, the Surf Lifesaving Club, or even enjoying pintxos and sangria down Gouger Street with someone who is definitely not Mrs. Claus. The true home of Santa Claus in Adelaide has always been the Magic Cave. If you’re wondering why Santa chooses to stay here over the holiday season, Adelaide was just named by The New York Times as 1 of 52 places to visit in 2015, and is the only Australian city to be on the list. Evidently the trip a few friends and I (a sextet in the purest sense of the term consisting of Carlo, Luke, Mark, Paul, Simon, and moi…that’s Paul and Simon, not Paul Simon) took to New York in 2011 wasn’t enough to sour them on our city, even if it did the people. What can I say? I’m sorry we misconstrued the true meaning of the Meatpacking District.
These rather engaging, if somewhat wooden, equine have been draw cards at the Magic Cave since the early part of the 20th Century. Nimble has been there since 1914, and Nipper followed a little later in 1926. The Magic Cave was originally housed in the John Martin’s department store in Rundle Mall. On 18 November, 1933, the first Christmas Pageant made its way down the main streets of Adelaide, and Nimble and Nipper “with their attendant jockeys” were on hand (“Father Christmas Arrives Tomorrow”, The News, November 17, 1933, p. 8). Even then, the “well beloved Nimble … was hailed with delight by the crowds of children” and “when Nipper, the smaller pony, followed, their joy was complete” (The Adelaide Chronicle, November 30, 1933, p. 60). If you say neigh to horses, there was also a seven-foot high Christmas pudding. To provide some perspective on how long Nimble and Nipper have been part of Adelaide’s collective affection, on the same page of the News article it was reported that “Clark Gable’s Distinction” was that he “Did Not Fall in Love with Greta Garbo” while filming a movie called Susan Lenox. Readers were told that a half-page picture of Mr. Gable “printed on art paper, suitable for framing” would be in the paper the following day.
Here’s the Christmas Pageant from 1980 (Nipper and then Nimble appear 45 minutes in and close to the arrival of Santa Claus/Father Christmas).
I worked at David Jones in late 2000, shortly after the opening of its sparkly new building. The store had inherited the Magic Cave from John Martin’s when that much-missed store closed after 132 years of trading. I was tasked with being a “rocker”, which is exactly what it sounds like. You essentially grab the ear of the horse that you are tasked with rocking (in the most humane way possible) and use your same-side leg to move the rocking base while a child rides it. Until a couple of weeks ago, I’d never bothered to find out whether the horses who I worked with were the originals. While I would like to say that I was too busy at the time, the only things I really remember from that year off the top of my head are dancing to the song “Who the Hell Are You” by Madison Avenue, and putting a picture of Sydney Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe in a PowerPoint presentation for an assignment.
Having long since given up hope that Madison Avenue would stage a comeback, I decided to email the good people who run the Pageant. It turns out that the current Nipper and Nimble are likely from the time when John Martin’s expanded from its flagship to also have a number of suburban stores (which I think was in the 1960s). The original Nimble still exists ensconced safely away, but the very first Nipper is said to have been a straw horse. Eventually a wooden Nipper was made. While I wasn’t working with the originals (and frankly one of them sounds like a fire risk), it’s kind of neat to think they’d be there since the 1960s, a turbulent or, dare I say, rocky time (all right, I’ll stop now).
But returning to Sundays. I think the reason that I like them is that Saturdays are filled with too many expectations. Now I know I’m once again writing about Saturday when I should be focusing on Sunday. It’s unfair to Sunday, much like relentless comparisons between Jan Brady and her more glamorous sister Marcia. But it’s here that perhaps the difference lies. People expect Saturday to be perfect. While Jan’s middle-child syndrome meant that she could fly under the radar, quietly achieving and doing well in school, there was so much more expectation on Marcia. When Marcia was less than perfect, even through no real fault of her own, she was considered a failure. The famous case in point is the episode “The Subject Was Noses”, also known as the time Marcia got hit with the football. All it took was a ball to the face and hunky Doug Simpson put the kibosh on their impending date. Marcia was then stuck with nerdy Charlie. I don’t care what brave face she put on under all the bandages – it wasn’t Charlie she wanted in that tic-tac-toe lineup during the show’s opening credits.
Sunday (AKA the Real Jan Brady) doesn’t have such expectation attached to it. It is largely still considered (at least implicitly) a day of rest and, if you are a person of faith, worship and quiet reflection after church. Of course, Sunday trading has become the norm in a lot of Western countries including Australia. But even then it’s far from unanimous. In Germany, you’re constricted by something called the Ladenschlussgesetz. Some states in America still don’t allow car sales to go ahead on a Sunday under “blue laws” that attempt to maintain Sundays for worship. Even those driven by more secular interests may find that not a lot is open. As a result of this tradition, Sunday has largely been a day where it is expected that you will do very little.
I’m a person who has a very hard time relaxing. So for me, a day when there is no expectation is just wonderful. No one can really mess up a day of rest. Okay, those who are religious might worry that they’re not being pious enough. But if you’re worrying about that, chances are you actually have nothing to worry about.
Sundays seem perfect for walks in the museum, reading that book which just wouldn’t feel right on a Saturday, or doing very little at all and still feeling that you’ve accomplished something. In high school, I used Sundays to write the essays that I liked doing the most (or despised the least): Ancient History and Italian. In between, I’d watch reruns on cable TV of The Invaders starring Roy Thinnes as David Vincent. It was a later series from Quinn Martin, the producer of The Fugitive. In his first series, the villain was known to be “the one-armed man”. In The Invaders, the aliens threatening Earth were only distinguishable by a pinky finger that jutted out weirdly. And that they liked to annihilate anyone who got in their way.
As I mentioned, it is hard to stuff up a day of doing nothing. But sometimes one likes to be contrary. It has only been relatively recently that I’ve found the joy in Sunday. It was really a forced few weekends on the couch after some particularly busy work weeks that I started to realise how great this could be. Gradually, the couch moved to reading outside on the deck, to cleaning out a cupboard, to writing blog posts like these.
I think the opportunities posed by a Sunday are obscured by early experience. I haven’t always loved Sundays. Sundays were largely dreary and meandered at home when you were a child. There was nothing to do. The television shows you – or at least I – loved were largely on during the week (for enquiring minds, mine were A Country Practice, MacGyver, Family Ties, and a short-lived show about policewomen called Skirts), and toys that were exciting on, say a Wednesday, were a bore. It’s kind of like in that episode of The Twilight Zone where the ventriloquist dummy comes to life, but only Cliff Robertson can hear him. In that case, Cliff Robertson was tormented – rather than excited – by that dummy coming to life. None of my toys really tormented me. Maybe my knock-off of the Teddy Ruxpin reminded me that I didn’t have a real Teddy Ruxpin. But this was the ‘80s – children weren’t such brand whores then.
Almost all stores except delicatessens were closed. I remember getting a carton of milk from the deli every Sunday. My memories must be from after we disentangled ourselves from the milk man. Not that it was an acrimonious separation, but it did go on for a while. Gradually, we ordered less and less stock from him. When we cancelled our order of chocolate milk, I think we all knew that it was over but didn’t want to admit it. We find it hard in my family to let go sometimes.
Sundays were also when you’d be dragged along to visit extended family. Lack of open stores meant the choices for a token gift for your hosts were largely restricted to the deli and a Cadbury block of chocolate or, more often, a pack of Savoiardi. Either was carried in a brown-paper bag to give it that “I went to the deli on the way and it was a choice of this or 500 grams of Borlotti beans” kind of look. For those of you who have never had the pleasure (or never invited me over on a Sunday), Savoiardi are large sponge-finger biscuits covered in sugar. They are good for dipping into a hot drink, but you can’t hesitate in biting off the soaked part of the biscuit for even a moment. There’s a window of about three seconds before it will fall off and land in your cup of tea. You will spend the rest of your drinking time trying to fish it out.
I actually had the chance to ask a few people the question: What is your idea of a perfect Sunday? Emmy-winning actor Billy Warlock (Days of Our Lives, Baywatch) and Oscar-winner Tatum O’Neal (Paper Moon, Rescue Me, She’s Funny That Way) agreed with each other. I don’t think that they colluded, although Tatum was an on-screen grifter and Billy’s A. J. Quartermaine in General Hospital was always rather shifty. They both said that Sundays are for “doing whatever you want”. Billy described it as “A get out of jail free card if you will”. Tatum said that for her, “I do all the girly stuff like hair and face masques”. Strangely, my face masque day is actually Thursday, after a couple of drinks and the potential for misadventure.
Tim Ferguson probably will need a little down time on weekends after reteaming with his comedy troupe (“troupe” makes it sound like he was born in a suitcase), the Doug Anthony All Stars, as well as penning his recent memoir, Carry a Big Stick. Tim’s perfect Sunday involves, “A Sci-Fi movie at Hoyts Extreme Screen (it’s HUGE!), then partying hard till the movie comes true”. Rapper Cazwell, whose recent songs include “No Selfie Control” and “Dance Like You Got Good Credit” (so this is why he doesn’t call) has a similar idea of a perfect Sunday, but prefers his entertainment at home. You’re likely to find Cazwell spending the day with Lumpy Space Princesses, “watching Adventure Time on the couch”.
Bed does figure prominently in another couple of people’s Sundays. Rutanya Alda (Mommie Dearest, The Deer Hunter, Old Dogs & New Tricks)said her perfect Sunday involved “sleeping in until noon”. I can’t always manage to sleep until noon, but I guess if you’ve had to stay in The Amityville Horror house (as she did in the second film in the series), you can sleep anytime and anywhere. Chris Noel (Elvis Presley’s Girl Happy, Soldier in the Rain) also mentioned bed. Chris is the sweetheart of Vietnam vets for her tours and radio show A Date with Chris during the War, and for her advocacy which followed. She’s also been writing. A date with Chris on a Sunday is a much more sedate and charming affair: “Either a road trip, which I love, or a day in my comfy bed with Deva (my Maltese), Bentley (my Yorkshire), and Hollywood (a cat). We would have delicious food, and listen to beautiful music while I read a book”.
Simone Buchanan (Hey Dad..!, Neighbours, and the upcoming short Monsters) and Breckin Meyer (Road Trip, Robot Chicken, Franklin & Bash) have both recently played lawyers so perhaps they are particularly aware of work-life balance. Of course, one was a rather shonky (I think that’s a uniquely Australian phrase, but I’m sure people will get it) lawyer, and the other lawyer spent a good deal of his time trying to best Rob Lowe. Simone said, “It would have to be a sleep-in followed by a leisurely brunch with my husband and two boys. Preferably with a water view”. For Breckin, it’s “golf or basketball, and then hanging with my youngins”.
A few people have more active Sundays ahead. Gabrielle Carteris (Beverly Hills 90210,and the upcoming Send Me: An Original Web Series) said that hers would involve, “Sunshine, yoga, breakfast with my husband, hike and a big barbeque with friends and family”. This would be followed with a “hot tub and wine. That’s perfect!” Then there’s Tim Matheson (National Lampoon’s Animal House, The West Wing), who is currently busy with the TV series Hart of Dixie, but who will find time for the “Hollywood Farmers’ Market, a bike ride, binge watch some great TV, cook some personal specialties, and then sex with my girlfriend!”.
Maybe I’m doing exactly what I set out not to do: put too much expectation on Sunday. Perhaps Lucas Neff (Raising Hope,and soon in Glitch) has got it in one. He said that what makes a perfect Sunday are “the same things that make for a perfect Monday: fresh water, world peace, and fast Internet”.
Finally, of course times are certainly changing. For example, a survey published last year found that 65% of participants reported that they were actually busier on a Sunday than during the week. Tasks included seeing family (might explain why Savoiardi biscuits are still popular), grocery shopping, and ironing. Come to think of it, I do remember Mum being tasked with doing all the weekly ironing on a Sunday and the sound of the steam rising from the hot part of the iron. The survey also found that people experience “Sunday blues” knowing that they have to go to work the next day. When I first thought of writing this, my friend Mark – over pintxos and sangria funnily enough – mentioned that sinking feeling, which comes on at about three in the afternoon. I don’t really get that. I tend to have a general sinking feeling most of the time. Maybe Sunday then isn’t much better than other days – and maybe it hasn’t ever been – but for me it still has some edge. Perhaps we need to be more like Lucas Neff (I never thought I’d say that) and make every day a Sunday. Just don’t forget to go to work or wear pants.
The holidays can be a stressful time. I’m usually pretty on top of Christmas shopping, but this year I wasn’t – and it seemed a lot of people weren’t either – really in the festive spirit. We were also away in Sydney mid-December and some Christmas shopping was done more or less at the last minute.
Book shops at Christmastime are a useful starting point. I was in one of the large chain stores a few days before Christmas and watched intently as two police officers walked sternly toward a timid assistant. Fearing the worst, I was relieved to hear the taller officer raise his gruff voice to ask, “Do you have Hairy Maclary?” I had actually forgotten about the adventures of this little black terrier. As a child I had the first book, Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy, but had no idea that Lynley Dodd has continued the series to the present day from the first adventure in 1983.
I was speaking with my friend Mikaila a few months back about the series we loved as children. She was looking into books in preparation for the birth of her first child. Mikaila found that another favourite, The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch by Ronda Armitage, had continued into breakfast the next morning, a picnic, and even Christmas. With this in mind, I was curious to check out the children’s section in the book store and made my way to those aisles. A little way down one of them a young girl of no more than eight or nine explained to her friend the plot of a novel, “Her parents are divorced and her mother goes out a lot looking for men”. The solitary life of the Lighthouse Keeper hadn’t prepared me for that kind of story.
For my Christmas shopping I was also happy to make my way to Adelaide’s Pop-up Bookshop in Rundle Mall, where I found a mammoth book of Audobon’s paintings. Once I’d purchased it, I was curious to see how mammoth it actually was and did the usual trick you might try with a suitcase: you weigh yourself on a scale and then add the suitcase (in this case, the book) to the scale. This book clocked in at just over 4kgs (almost 9lbs). I also found a gift for myself (because what does Christmas shopping do other than let you know how well all the department stores have got your demographic cornered) of A History of Greece by J.B. Bury and Russell Meiggs.
As the year draws to a close, I want to sincerely thank all the people who have participated in interviews that have made their way on to my site in its first year (you can click on their name to revisit the articles): Kellie Flanagan, Adz Hunter, Kevin Mitchell, Mark Smith, Wendy Strehlow, Charles Tranberg, and Mikey Wax. The same goes for the talented individuals who participated in my All We Need is an Island posts (click here and here): Jesse Bradford, Mark Deklin, Fabian, Yvette Freeman, Dick Gautier, Eric Hutchinson, Sheila Kelley, Ben Lawson, Rick Lenz, Matt Long, Donna Loren, Chad Lowe, Matthew Jordan, Josephine Mitchell, Erin Murphy, Dylan Neal, Don Rickles, Holland Taylor, Mikey Wax, Shane Withington, Lana Wood, and Francine York. All of you have a place at my table if and when you’re in my neigbourhood.
I would also like to sincerely thank you for reading. My site stats for 2014 report that I’d need several NYC subway trains to transport all of my visitors (that’s a nice metric). I’d happily ride with you, and our travelers would come from 83 countries. I so look forward to sharing more with you in 2015. I haven’t read T.S. Eliot in a long time, but I came across his words when looking for something about New Year:
For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
Mikey Wax has had a busy year. His third album, Mikey Wax,was released in June, and its lead single, “You Lift Me Up”, has been doing just that. The album is his first after signing with Toucan Cove/Universal Music, and was produced by Scott and Ed Cash. Having producers from Nashville is rather fitting, given the New York-born Mikey went to university there (for those who are wondering, he graduated with a teaching degree). That Nashville-New York hybrid should tell you something about the diversity of sounds you’ll hear on his album. He might be best classified as pop/rock with his acoustic guitar and piano, but as stated on his website there are parts electronic, country, funk, and folk. I wouldn’t usually reference the artist website to sum up work, but when I read his biography on there after listening to the album and taking notes, those were the words I came up with too. I also got blues. I wonder if Mr. Wax gives out gold stars.
Signing with a label is certainly a new chapter for Mikey, but in many cases a continuation of what he’s been doing since his first shows in New York in 2008. That is, writing (something started at eight years of age), performing, touring, and continuing to stretch himself. In addition to his three full-length albums, he has four EPs, including one very topical one, “And a Happy New Year”, the title track of which will be heard next week on ABC Family’s Switched at Birth.
Mikey would be a familiar face to his followers (and hopefully, after reading this, there will be more) on social media, video sharing, and digital music platforms, and these are integral components to getting his music out there. On Spotify, the Live City dance remix of his anthem “You Lift Me Up” from Mikey Wax has been streamed over 4.5 million times. That is worthy of a Dr. Evil-style moving of your little finger to your mouth. I can’t do that right now, I have a drink in my hand. Of course, someone who wrote a rather funky song called “Bottle of Jack” would hopefully understand that. The album itself has hit the iTunes Top 100 Pop chart, somewhere Mikey has been consistently since his first album Change Again in 2008. That album included the song “In Case I Go Again”, which did the rounds on Ghost Whisperer, Pretty Little Liars, and a little something called the 2012 Summer Olympics. I remember the joy I felt when one of my articles was (I think it still is, I haven’t checked in the last few hours) the most viewed of all articles in the journal where it was published. That may be only 10 people reading it though; it’s hard to know with all the complicated metrics. I won’t get into it here…
In any event, his 2011 album Constant Motion got iTunes and Billboard attention and included “Counting on You” that also got a lot of attention. It was included in the contestant elimination part of the series So You Think You Can Dance. While the song has lovely associations for me (do give it a listen), I kind of wonder if it is part of some Pavlovian nightmare for those who were eliminated on the show and had to hear it. Every time they hear it now, they might just be bracing for rejection.
Perhaps a digital native like Mikey finds these new frontiers easy to navigate. I checked, supposedly “natives” are people born post 1985…so he scrapes in and I miss out by a couple of years. I’m an “immigrant”, supposedly. But it’s more than that. He is willing to connect with his fans in these ways and does so regularly and earnestly. This includes over 250 concerts that he has performed for fans in their homes.
On his YouTube channel, Mikey also documented his recent tours with Brendan James, and Parachute and Matt Wertz (he also just finished touring with Michelle Chamuel). These were not, however, just excerpts of live performances, but the getting to and from gigs (sometimes driving for hours), shopping for air mattresses, laundry day, or hijacking a hotel piano. Think about how you are after a long road trip with good friends. I have what I think is a fake memory (on my quick review of the movie there doesn’t seem to be such a scene) of Bette Midler’s rocker character in The Rose starting a food fight in a diner with her entourage during a tour. So when first watching these videos, I was expected that sort of thing or even a couple of trashed hotel rooms. However, Mikey and his posse just seem too polite to do anything other than clean up after themselves at the various places they visit. There is, however, copious chicken, guac, and brown rice at Chipotle Mexican Grill, where Mikey tells us it’s “All about that rice, ‘bout that rice”. I’m starting to realize where he may have got his inspiration for his recent mashup of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” and Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass”.
Mikey has been a pal of this site (click here to read an article from earlier in the year) and we recently chatted about his year and what’s next.
Adam: Tell me about your recent shows with Michelle Chamuel of The Voice. Have I got you after some sufficient rest? Mikey: Ha – Yes! The shows were a blast. Michelle is so cool and being on the road with her and her crew was a lot of fun. Thanks so much to all the fans that came out to see us!
Adam: You’ve spent a fair amount of time on the road since the release of Mikey Wax in June. What’s the best thing about being on the road? Mikey: It’s definitely a very freeing experience, and it’s a thrill performing for fans every night. It’s a great chance to continue building my audience and getting to meet awesome people.
Adam: What’s not so good? Mikey: You eventually miss your bed and your friends and family, and sometimes getting a good meal can be a challenge.
Adam: Your YouTube followers would be familiar with the #WaxOnTour video diaries, covering your back-to-back tours in September with Brendan James and then Parachute. Travel pals were Joe Striff, guitarist, and Sammy, band mom/tour manager. Oh, and a GoPro. Are there any stories from the tours that didn’t make it through the editing process? Mikey: Ha – I’m sure there are a few. But they don’t make the video for a reason! 🙂
Adam: Has going from being an independent artist to signing with Toucan Cove, which is a part of Universal Music (but with very independent roots), been a smooth transition for you? Mikey: Yes, very smooth. In general not much on my end has changed. My job is still to tour as much as I can, write music and stay close with my fans. I love what I do and I’m so thankful for all the people who support me.
Adam: How did Scott and Ed Cash, producers of Mikey Wax, come into your life? Mikey: I was a fan of a few albums they did, including those with my touring buddy Matt Wertz. I had sent them the stems of one of my songs to see how they would produce it and it came out incredible. I was so blown away, that I knew they had to produce the entire record. Fortunately, they loved my other songs and were on board.
Adam: It’s hard to choose favourites from your new album, but I particularly like the almost blues or country “Baby Don’t You Let Me Down”, the very lush “Take Me Home” and the rolling ballad “The Calm”. I’m going to ask you to pick a favorite child from your album and tell me why it’s special to you. Mikey: That means so much! Thank you. I know artists say how difficult it is to choose, but it really is! I go through phases – At first I thought “Take Me Home” was my favorite, then “The Calm”, but I think a consistent favorite and fun one from the album to play is “Bottle of Jack”.
Adam: New York, and in particular the promise of that city, features prominently in a few of your songs, including “Alive in New York City” and “Last Great Song”. Being a native of Long Island, what still excites you about the city? Mikey: The city is still so inspiring to me. Whenever I feel like I need an escape or some clarity, a walk in the city always opens my eyes and helps me see things clearly.
Adam: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you to describe one of the musicians who you recently appeared with, Teddy Geiger, in a sentence. As an aside, I have one of his paintings in my house (no, that doesn’t mean that Teddy Geiger is missing one of his paintings). Mikey: Hah! I didn’t know he did paintings; that’s so cool. Teddy was a really awesome and chill guy. We only got to hang out backstage for 10 minutes or so, but I hope to be able to do more shows with him soon!
Adam: The remix of “You Lift Me Up” recently hit 4.5 million streams on Spotify. Plus a lot of people temporarily without Wi-Fi would have enjoyed you with their dinner and a (miniature) bottle of Jack as Artist of the Month on American Airlines in October. Is it hard to get your head around numbers like that? Mikey: That number is pretty insane! Yes, it’s extremely hard, so I try not to check back too often to see how it’s doing. I feel like the less I know the better ha. I’m so thrilled that people are relating to it and including it on their playlists. The American Airlines interview/performance was incredible to do. I get tweets every once in a while from fans who are listening to it from thousands of feet up in the sky.
Adam: A month ago you covered Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” in a mashup with Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass”. How did this mashup and the incredibly inventive music video take shape? Mikey: I was in the studio with my bandmates doing live performances to a few of my songs, and I was trying to do a six-second vine. Those two songs were being played so often on the radio that I thought it would be funny to mash them up. The melodies worked so well with each other that I ended up being able to do it for the entire song, not just six seconds.
Adam: When will your song “And a Happy New Year” be heard on ABC Family’s Switched at Birth, and what are your plans for Christmas and 2015? Mikey: It’s being featured on the show next Monday, December 8 at 9/8c. I’m really excited for it and I know my fans are too. On December 21st, I’m playing a free online show available worldwide to help celebrate the holidays (Stageit.com/MikeyWax). For Christmas I’ll be spending time with family and friends in New York and Michigan so I’m getting ready for lots of snow!
Adam: Thank you, Sir! Mikey: Thanks for the awesome questions!
Mikey’s has many homes online, including his official website, YouTube, and Spotify. If you’re feeling social, visit Mikey on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Vine. To purchase his albums and singles (through iTunes, Amazon, or signed from Mikey himself) click here.
In 2015, Mikey’s song “Drive On” will be heard in the film The Road Within starring Robert Sheehan, Dev Patel, and Zoe Kravitz.
Maybe it’s happenstance, but there’s something just a little delightful about where Kellie Flanagan lives and the career that she has chosen. In her most well-known role, Kellie played the young daughter of the eponymous Carolyn Muir in the television series, The Ghost & Mrs. Muir. Mrs. Muir (Hope Lange) moves with her two children, Candace “Candy” (Kellie) and Jonathan (Harlen Carraher), housekeeper Martha (Reta Shaw), and the family dog (Scruffy who played…well, Scruffy) to the seaside Gull Cottage. Her real estate agent (Charles Nelson Reilly) warns her against it, thinking of any excuse including its isolation (it is, of course, haunted). Mrs. Muir is, however, not fazed telling him, “That’s perfect, I’m a writer”. Today, Kellie is herself a writer and while not living in a seaside shack, she does live in the Sierra Nevada foothills with her husband and teenage daughter. No word on whether she’s encountered a ghost of the likes of Captain Gregg (Edward Mulhare), but she did encounter a “bobcat and her twin cubs emerged from their den to play tag” in her neighbourhood park. That neighbourhood park is Yosemite National Park.
Kellie once posted on her blog Willa Cather’s words: “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen”. In talking with Kellie, you find that she has many more stories to tell after 15; although by then she had started journaling her experiences. It was also by 15 that Kellie had lost both of her parents, and she had left show business a few years before. Kellie was “discovered” at three in Santa Monica and put into television commercials before a role in a classic episode of Star Trek called “Miri”. The episode dealt with a place where adults had been decimated by a disease they had started in a scientific attempt to prolong life; and one which the children would contract once they entered adolescence. Did I mention it causes you to go mad? It may be that entertainers are told to never work with children or animals, but you could understand if Kellie subscribed at that time to “Don’t trust anybody over 30”.
That being said, in one of her next roles, as Hal Holbrook’s daughter, Mary, in Wild in the Streets,Kellie faces off with a rock star named Max Frost (played by Christopher Jones) who sets out to make 30 the mandatory retirement age, and put anyone over 35 in rehabilitation camps, with his plan, “in groovy surroundings we’re gonna psych ‘em all out on LSD, babies”. Young Mary (Kellie was eight at the time, although she is likely playing younger) thinks that she may know a thing or two more than this 24-year old. Well, Max and his counterculture band (literally and figuratively) do have trouble focusing on the cause – they always seem to be coming down from something or, in the case of Diane Varsi’s character Sally LeRoy, tripping out while lying in the top of fountain.
Lucky for Kellie, there were some more benign senior forces at play when cast in The Ghost & Mrs. Muir. In the first season of the show, Candy didn’t see the Captain. But with a switch from NBC to ABC, she did. In one episode in the second season, Candy is the star as she falls for a boy (played by Mark Lester of Oliver!) from London, England. It’s not all smooth sailing, with the nine-year old Candy worried that compared to her rival Penelope Hassenhammer (try saying that one as many times as the cast; she was played by Debi Storm), “I haven’t any sex appeal” and asking her mother for a training bra, “I need all the help I can get, look at me”. It’s a shining moment for Kellie.
Lucky for Australia (other countries await), both Seasons One and Two of GaMM recently received a DVD release from Madman Entertainment, and Kellie can be seen again in this and the other episodes. Being an Australian myself, it’s only fitting I guess that Kellie and I have been in contact. And what better way for a writer to communicate than with writing, which is how we conducted this interview. In The Catcher in the Rye,J.D. Salinger refers to those rare authors who, after reading their work, “you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it”. I think you’ll find in Kellie that type of person.
Adam: You didn’t come from a “show business family”. How did it all start for you? Kellie: While it’s true that I didn’t come from a show business family, my mother Geraldine was very stylish, as I recall, and loved fashion. My two older sisters, Jill and Wendy, who are 17 and 16 years my senior, did some local modeling in their teenage years.
The story goes that Geraldine was working part time for a small department store called Henshey’s in Santa Monica. I was about three years old at the time and precocious for having been raised by a bunch of adults and teenagers. I also have two older brothers; my birth was an afterthought, when my parents were almost 50. They called me “how-come-you-come”.
My mom also went by the name Jerry. She could really sew, and made me little linen masterpieces for holidays like Easter and Christmas. Her trademark was a seemingly endless trail of button, because she adored the buttonhole setting on her sewing machine. Often I would wear outfits that included a crinoline skirt, a dress, a little coat, hat and patent leather shoes. My mom got a big kick out of dressing me up, I think.
Geraldine organized a fashion show at Henshey’s Department Store, the story continues, and put me on the runway at the end of the program. Someone in the audience with some Hollywood connection called an agent and described me as “like a little Shirley Temple without all the curls”.
The very next day, I was sent out on an audition and I got the part. It was a toothpaste commercial starring June Lockhart, and I played her little girl. I remember there was a pool, a very blue and inviting swimming pool. The sun was hot. By the end of that job, I had a new agent in Dorothy Day Otis, who handled children exclusively. The career took off from there, with my mom and Dorothy at the helm.
Adam: The Trekkies won’t be happy with me (not that I have any reason to think that they read my blog, but I hope they do) if I don’t ask you for a couple of memories from the set of Star Trek. What struck me of that episode (“Miri”) was the intensity of the scene where Captain Kirk is pleading with the children. Was this your first television role? Kellie: That was the first season of a show that wasn’t expected to be much of anything. The big excitement on the set, as far as I knew, was that Mr. Shatner was rather attractive and scandalously being divorced (I think he was Catholic, and we were Catholic, and I remember overhearing my mother complaining).
The episode was my first television show – prior to that I’d done print and television commercials, but never a series TV show. My agent, the fabulous Dorothy Day Otis, got me the job and the set was lots of fun because of all the kids and all the dust and disarray and wildness of the episode.
The Starship Enterprise lands on a planet that’s just like Earth except there are no adults, or what the remaining population of children call, “grups” (I still think of the word adult as grup in my head, today). When kids hit puberty, they get this horrible skin rotting condition, waaay beyond acne, then basically foam at the mouth, go mad and die.
So there’s the big scene where the kids are sort of revolting and Captain Kirk is talking with them, and I remember the director or someone put me on the table – physically lifted me up so I could be seen (wearing a green wig) and plopped me on the table, which felt quite special. There was lots of commotion between takes, and at one point Dorothy came up to me and whispered in my ear. She told me what to say when the scene started up, a very simple line any kid could remember. I was only about six or seven years old, and petite, so I looked younger. When the camera rolled and the scene started up, I hollered out what Dorothy had told me to, “Call the police!”
As I recall, it was a cut/print at the end of the scene – they wound up keeping the scene with the Dorothy-dialog in it, and that’s how I got my SAG card. Dorothy was the greatest.
Adam: There was some time between Star Trek and other television guest roles, but then you appeared in Family Affair and The Andy Griffith Show. Newspapers singled you out in the Andy Griffith episode, asking that viewers “Watch, too, for a blinding grin at the end by a blonde youngster named Kellie Flanagan, it’s worth the whole show” (The Bridgeport Telegram, March 18, 1968, p. 14). Was your routine and that of your family still “normal” or was there a momentum starting to build? Kellie: The gap in my television work between Star Trek in 1966 and other shows later on was filled in with commercial television appearances and print work. My dad Cornelius (Neal) kept a very good scrap book and he had a hand-written list of all the commercials I worked on in film and print. If I recall correctly, there were over 100, many of them classic American companies that are still in business today.
My routine was still fairly normal throughout that time, or what was considered normal for me. I had a lot of little jobs and many auditions. I went to St. Monica’s Catholic School, was a Brownie with my mom as Troop Leader, and took dance lessons in Malibu from a French woman named Marjorie Jeanne. Sometimes I took riding lessons and diving lessons, I loved The Flintstones and Captain Kangaroo.
At St. Monica’s we wore plaid pleated skirts with suspenders, white pressed shirts, white socks and black and white saddle shoes. That was my school uniform. I also had an “interview uniform”, that was similar, so I could just change in the car as my mom drove from Santa Monica to Beverly Hills or where ever the interview was for that afternoon. Usually we were able to schedule afternoons rather than mornings so I didn’t miss much school.
I had friends from school and a best friend, named Stacy who did not go to school or church with us. Regarding interviews and working in the business, I remember that I always had the choice, up to a point. For instance, if my mom and I agreed that I would go on a particular interview, I had to go and couldn’t change my mind at the last minute.
After an interview, Jerry would ask me a series of questions, including “how did it feel?”, and we would talk about what would happen if I got the job. If I agreed to do the job, I had to carry through and again, couldn’t change my mind. I do not remember one instance where I had to do a job I did not want to do. To my recollection, I always had a say in things and was encouraged to use my instincts when it came to reading people (that is, the people who were interviewing me, usually casting or ad people or directors).
To summarize, I think at this point things were pretty normal for me, or as normal as they would be. The details of the business didn’t get in my way of having fun or being a kid at that time.
Adam: How would you describe the GaMM cast members: Hope Lange, Edward Mulhare, Reta Shaw, Charles Nelson Reilly, Harlen Carraher, and wire-haired fox terrier Scruffy? Do you still see Harlen, or did you keep in touch at some point? Kellie: Hope Lange was beautiful and sophisticated, and always impeccably turned out. Her hair was perfectly coiffed, her skirts were pressed and her sweater sets matched with effortless grace. Well, of course! She was an actress and basically I only remember seeing her on set when we were working. At one time I believe she was getting a divorce. From that I recall a little whispering that we should behave and not bother her. I have never researched to see if that is true. [Adam’s note: This is, indeed, true. Hope and Alan Pakula separated in 1969, with the divorce finalized in 1971].
Edward Mulhare had to have his beard and mustache put on and removed every day, so he was in make-up a lot. In the first season, the character I played did not see the ghost. So we didn’t have scenes together, except when he was popping in and out, until the second year of the show. Reta Shaw was a lot like she was on the program, very hustle bustle and funny, lots of cracks and comments. Charles was wild and he and the other actors and the main producers, guest directors and guest stars, would have a great time at the every-Friday night wrap parties. Lots of food, cocktails, cigarettes and grownups talking, gossiping and laughing about the business and most of it was, quite literally, over our heads, as kids. It was a very happy set. Lots of fun, everyone was always very nice and accommodating to us, and there were no problems whatsoever that I recall.
Harlen and I did not keep in touch, that would have been something my mother would have done and so since she died in 1970 a lot of relationships fell by the wayside. I don’t know if Harlen continued in the business, though I have heard that as an adult, he’s an engineer for the City of Los Angeles. I’ve heard there’s a bar he likes to hang out at occasionally in Culver City or Hollywood or something, and always have heard he’s a “nice, regular guy”. It has never occurred to me to get in touch with him, and (as you now know) I am a terrible correspondent. In the last couple of years people have suggested that we get in touch so perhaps that will happen at some time.
Scruffy was named Scruffy in real life, and when I once asked my mom how much money I made she told me, “Scruffy makes more!” In my life at that time, we did not have a dog. I had a cat, a rat, miscellaneous reptiles, but no dog. At least once handlers put dog food on my cheek for Scruffy to lick off, a trick of training that I was not pleased with at all. Honestly, and I know people don’t want to hear it; I was not a big fan of Scruffy! Somehow I must have already known to avoid working with kids and animals.
Adam: Newspaper publicity pieces at the time had stories from the GaMM set at 20th Century-Fox on Pico Blvd., including you and Harlen being taught to ice-skate by Hope Lange and schooled in the Queen’s English by Edward Mulhare; as well as the two of you playing a particularly long game of tic-tac-toe when you weren’t teaching Scruffy to play ball. You’ve also written of being schooled on set with Harlen. Was it a happy set to be on? Kellie: I don’t remember anything about ice-skating, and it sounds as though that may have been a photo opp. If it was anything genuine I think I would have remembered it, but I can’t deny it either. We were schooled in learning how to say “blast!” and “shipshape and Bristol fashion”, and a few other phrases but that’s all I remember. The tic-tac-toe game you refer to was definitely from a publicity shoot, as I have the Polaroid and stills. As I remember it, tic-tac-toe was just something to do while we were photographed, and that was one of those times when the dog food was put on my face. This all sounds like publicity, I don’t really remember anything specific.
Being schooled on set was great, and only took three hours a day, which I think is plenty for school. We had a bus – I think it was a school bus – parked right outside the main doors to the soundstage and that’s where we went to school with our teacher, Mrs. Bone. That was a very fun name for a teacher to have, and played in perfectly with the whole haunted house theme of the show. She had a funny way of sneezing, where she’d do a big wind up – ah, ah, AH… – and then a little tiny “choo”.
When we had days where we weren’t needed a lot, we were released to go across Pico Blvd. to Ranch Park, where they even had a swimming pool. Often our schooling would involve studying in my individual dressing room, which was a little hot aluminum box next to the school bus. It may have been a small trailer, with a bed, makeup table and lights, restroom, and little dinette area.
No air conditioning, and it sweltered so badly that once a snake given to me by another kid who worked on the lot (Darby Hinton, he was in Daniel Boone) was forgotten over a long weekend. We should have taken the pet home to cool Santa Monica, but instead we left it in the dressing room at Fox and came back after the break to a dead snake.
Adam: Early in the run of GaMM, you were Burl Ives’ co-star in the Thanksgiving TV-special, All Things Bright and Beautiful. What are your memories of that? Kellie: Appearing in All Things Bright and Beautiful with Burl Ives and other stars including jazz great Lionel Hampton, was an absolute high point for me and my family. The show was directed by the same person who did Wild in the Streets – not sure which came first though I think it was Wild in the Streets before All Things Bright And Beautiful – both directed by Barry Shear.
Mr. Ives, as I called him, was a completely genuine person and when he spoke it was very special. The fact that he could play guitar and sing made him a huge hit with a kid like me. This show was shot on location, I don’t know where, but I think we were picked up in a car every day to get there, a sort of limo called a “stretch”.
The night the show was set to air, which I believe was on Thanksgiving in 1968, our family was gathered to watch it on TV together. The phone rang and it was Mr. Ives inviting us to come to the hotel where he was staying and watch it with him. He was in a suite at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. My mom, dad, me, my sister Wendy and her son Erik, we all traipsed over into Hollywood and got to the suite in time to watch the show. I have a Polaroid from that night with Erik, who was five, me and Mr. Ives all on our bellies posing with a snow white polar bear rug and the head of the polar bear like one of us in the photo.
I do not have a copy of this show, though I sure wish I did. What I do have is an audio recording and it’s just priceless to hear my little voice and the man we all know as the wayfaring stranger. I think that’s one of the things he was called! Just a great guy.
Adam: Your favorite GaMM episode, “Puppy Love”, comes from the second season. Candy falls for the dreamy Mark Helmore, played by Mark Lester. He was a hot commodity after Oliver! and Run Wild, Run Free. What was it like to play front and centre, and did you share Candy’s crush (not Candy Crush, mind you) on Mark? Kellie: The GaMM episode “Puppy Love” was indeed my favorite of all episodes, I am not too shy to say it. One of the reasons that show was so much fun is that so many kids were cast to play Candy’s gang of friends, plus Penelope and Mark.
The scenes in “Puppy Love” are pretty funny to watch, and they were really fun to shoot. I completely preferred that the entire episode focused on my character, because I was a ham and considered myself underutilized on a regular basis – so it was great to have lots of lines to memorize and to be in just about every scene of the episode.
It’s also funny to watch, because you can really see what was becoming or would become or perhaps already had become my actual personality. It’s all just very… Kellie. Since I was raised before video cameras were everywhere, my childhood was documented in a way that not many kids my age would have been familiar with. So when I watch scenes from “Puppy Love”, like the dancing and singing, and Candy mooning over Mark, and the fighting and hurt feelings and I-don’t-care-attitude in the end, that’s all very much like me and for that reason is special to watch. I also think I was a pretty good little actress from what I can tell.
Mark Lester was nothing compared to having my own friend from real life on the show that week. Johnny Garacochea lived across the street and up three houses from where we lived on 18th Street in Santa Monica. His dad owned a Basque bakery, and his mother was young and pretty, very classic homemaker-type. My mom talked his mom into letting Johnny do some acting, and then I guess my mom talked the producers into letting Johnny be on the show – he was a nice kid and great looking kid from a very nice family – so that was more fun for me even than having a star like Mark Lester. I was not interested in boys at that age, so it wasn’t a factor really, though Mark Lester was and from what I can see still is, as Candy would say, adorable.
Adam: One more quote from a newspaper article that discussed your love of wildlife (you had two pet alligators?!): “One moment, Kellie will be playing with the multitude of dolls who “accompany” her to the studio each morning. The next minute, she may be conducting a serious conversation with an adult three or four times her age on a current national event” (The Abilene Reporter-News, September 28, 1969, p. 12-E). This paints a picture of an articulate young lady. Do you relate to it? Do you think that that was something you brought to the set, or a byproduct of working so young? Kellie: The description you cite about me as a child having typical childhood pets and also perfectly adult conversations, is quite true and very much speaks to uniqueness in my upbringing. First, let’s address the alligators. My mom was an experienced mom with four kids before me, including two boys. We had all kinds of lizards, snakes, turtles and other animals including rats, mice, and cats. There was an instance of two alligators in the bathtub once, and I do recall seeing that, but I think it was a one-time thing and a self-limiting problem. In other words, my mom kyboshed it and out they went.
I did have a couple of Caimans, and we’d rig the Slip ‘N Slide over the backyard play slide and let the little critters off at the top until they slid into a bucket of water at the bottom. I don’t know if you could get them anymore and that’s probably exercising very poor judgment to drop a reptile down a waterslide, so I do not recommend or advocate that in any way 😉
Jerry and Neal’s youngest child (my brother Terry) was 14 when I was born. By the time I started acting really regularly, my brothers and sisters were out of the house. I was raised with adults and spoken to as an adult more or less from the time I was very little. My brothers and sisters made a great game of teaching me to say “bullshit” to anything a nun asked me. That caused confusion amongst the sisters at St. Monica’s, and was hilarious to my own brothers and sisters, to see a little kid thrown a crabby curse word out for any question asked.
My father had a tremendous sensibility for words, and was always working on word puzzles, jingles, poems and rhymes. He taught me big words from a little age, like “pusillanimous”. I tested well in school and on IQ charts, and I remember being pretty fearless. I believe that I brought a lot to the table in that regard when it came to acting. Also, I was petite and they like that in the business, because you are an older child who can play younger, which makes her easier to direct. She will have better memory and ability, and still look like a really little kid.
Then, once I began working that reinforced itself. As I was exposed to more of the creative adult world, that influenced me to the point where by the time I was 11 years old, I knew everything. At least I thought I did.
Adam: Child actors are surrounded by big names and, particularly in the case of GaMM, some veteran performers. Were you in awe of any particular person/people you got to work with, or has that come with time? Kellie: The most impressed I remember being (besides Dom DeLuise who was just a riot) was when Harry Nilsson the songwriter was on the show. My sister had his records, or maybe we got them later, but I knew he was a rising star and as I recall he was very young and kind of awkward but extremely kind and generous with the music he played for us that week. I still adore his music and can sort of work my way through one of his songs on guitar, the charming “Puppy Song”, I think it’s called.
Looking back, I am astonished and impressed by the caliber of the people with which I had the honor to share a sound stage, if only briefly. We spent a lot of time, as kids on the show, going to school and then going to bed, so except for a few episodes – and Jonathan’s interaction with the ghost – we weren’t in the show as much as kids on today’s shows (like Modern Family) or even other shows like The Courtship of Eddie’s Father or Family Affair, that really centered around the children.
Adam: American International Pictures went hippie (to paraphrase Salli Sachse, one of their long-term contractees from the Beach Party movies) with Wild in the Streets. You had a small but pivotal role as a bit of an antagonist to Christopher Jones. What do you remember of him? Kellie: I get a huge kick out of Wild in the Streets and always have. Some of the scenes were really fun to shoot, like the political rally. Others were dramatic, like the scene where Hal Holbrook rips the posters off the walls in a drunken rage.
I spent an afternoon with Richard Pryor while filming that movie – we were on location near my house (which makes me wonder if my mom told the director about Douglas Park) – and we had a scene together that involved crawdads. Richard and I played with the crawdads, as I recall, and when the day was over, got to dump the bucket of crayfish into the water in the pond at Douglas Park near 25th in Santa Monica.
Shelley Winters was a big force back then – we were not supposed to be on stage when she was on – because of her salty language choices, we were told, but also because I had no scene with her in the movie. I loved her in The Poseidon Adventure.
The music in the movie was really fun, too, as were the costumes. When the movie premiered in Hollywood it was a big deal, as I remember. Something tells me that Martin Luther King’s widow Coretta Scott King appeared at the premiere – but I don’t know why she would be, it was just months after her husband’s death. So that makes no sense but I have that memory of not seeing her but being told she was there.
That movie has gotten Rotten Apple Awards among others. It was listed in the comedy and drama section of video stores at one time. I have no memory of working with Christopher Jones, really, but I do remember the sets in that movie, including the end set. Also those were my boots I wore at the end, they were always taking my shoes for things and just spray-painting them whatever colors the wardrobe department needed.
Once, when I was a teenager, that movie was playing at the local dive theater near my place in Venice, and I got a bunch of my friends in to see it for free, but when the lights came on only dedicated few remained. I love counter culture and the photos of me in the storm trooper outfit with the peace sign are some of my favorites. I really got to act in that movie, the tears were real.
Adam: I conducted some research into PTSD a few years back. Something you wrote on your blog resonated with my thoughts:
“A new apocalypse is upon us: a generation of men and women are cut down or condemned to live without limbs, intestines, brain matter, sometimes even without souls. PTSD and TBI tear our young vets apart even after they’ve survived the roadside bombs. Soldiers return from tour these days as hometown heroes, and kill themselves with desperate resolve — overseas and stateside suicides are reported now in numbers unheard of in any war, ever before”.
You described Vietnam as “the war of my childhood”. I read that during GaMM you participated in events for the U.S. Marine Corps, including a ‘Toyathon’ (organized by Los Angeles children’s television personality Sally Baker, a.k.a. Hobo Kelly) and even collecting coffee cans for Marine wives and mothers to pack with homemade cookies. While many children of your age grew up with Vietnam, did you find yourself exposed to more of it as a result of working? Kellie: I have a vague recollection of cans and fundraisers but I think the real reason I remember the war is because my family was involved. My oldest brother Shaun went to Vietnam very early on in the sixties, “before anything was happening”, he says now, though he was a paratrooper and Green Beret so that’s a little hard to imagine. He was away from home one Christmas and we kept the tree up until he returned later that year. He is 20 years older than me and was married and out of the house by the time I remember much.
Santa Monica was a pretty small town in those days, and I recall that we’d listen to the nightly news on the radio, and they’d read names of the war dead town by town. We had to wait all the way until they got to the “s” for Santa Monica. I don’t know how often this happened, or what station, but I remember being with my parents in the kitchen listening to the radio, very tense until we heard the names and didn’t know any of the dead.
I grew up in an Irish-German household where talk of politics was not verboten and both of my sisters were very active politically on a local level over the years. My sister Jill lived in the south for a while when the Civil Rights marches were going on.
The reason the suicides resonate with me is because I was involved in production on a series called the Civil War Journal for A&E, over 60 episodes and many that I wrote myself. It was a doc style series in the ‘90s hosted by Danny Glover. That gave me a little taste of war and so I caught wind of the suicides early and was really frustrated to note that our government wasn’t counting a lot of them as suicides and I could see right away the numbers were extremely alarming.
Adam: Your mother, Geraldine, passed away in 1970. How did life change after that? Kellie: My life had already changed drastically when my mom Geraldine died in 1970, because she’d been sick for a long time before that, but when she did die just a few days before my 11th birthday, there was no going back to the way things had been.
When Jerry was diagnosed with cancer, there were exploratory surgeries and other surgeries to try and arrest the thing – she had a colostomy bag from the colon cancer and on the second year of GaMM she joked that she didn’t have to leave the soundstage to go to the bathroom. So I guess she had a pretty good attitude at least in front of me.
She got sicker and sicker, though, so I went to live with my sister Jill who was living with Davis Factor, Jr. at the time. He was the very kind and wealthy grandson of Max Factor of makeup fame. Davis was in the process of getting divorced when they met and moved in together. So it seemed at that time that Jill was in the most stable relationship but also Jill had always stayed close to me and taken care of me. I was very comfortable with her and with Davis, who had three children of his own.
At first, we lived in Marina del Rey, in an apartment with rented furniture, every piece of it, which was fun. Davis had two boats, a yacht and a speedboat. We’d take the speedboat to dinner at different restaurants in the Marina.
I learned to water-ski, eat clams and abalone, started going to a public school for 6th grade when we moved to the Peninsula where each street carries a nautical name: Anchorage, Buccaneer, Catamaran, Driftwood, Eastwind, Fleet, etc.
We lived on Fleet in a big black house with yellow trim and a turquoise door. We had a pet fox that we bought at a pet shop in Century City. When that fox ran away, we got another. My bedroom was downstairs in the two story house, and I was allowed to pick out everything for the remodel down there. It was two bedrooms with a master bath area in between, open style, with a fabulous claw-foot tub and loads of beautiful handmade Mexican tile, and an enclosed latrine. We had kittens, and lots of little trips and things were going about as well as you could expect.
The morning after my mom died, I knew she was gone because I told myself, I’d know. I didn’t want anyone to have to tell me, I thought that would be the saddest thing. I saw her one last time when some nuns smuggled me into the elevator and up to Intensive Care between their long habits. She was very sick and I remember a tear sliding slowly down her wrinkled cheek, it was heartbreaking.
So, what changed? Everything changed. My dad was an alcoholic so once Jerry died, Neal went off the rails. There had been no insurance, I think, and so finances were tapped, including any money to speak of, because in catastrophic situations – and this was an utter catastrophe to lose my mom – a child actor’s money can be used, and I had already been head of household financially for many years.
My dad sold our house in a very desirable area of Santa Monica, sold all our things I guess, except for a few pieces. He moved to Inglewood – not desirable. I still saw him – when we all lived at home he was a great daddy to me and I loved him tremendously – but as his disease progressed it became more clear that he was not fit to handle a child my age. He left me in the car once while he was in a bar and I got mad and started honking the horn and he got mad and then one of my brothers or sisters came to get me and they all got mad. Once he drove drunk with me in the car down a very windy road and it was terrifying. He flashed his gun at the grocery store for no good reason. So pretty soon, I didn’t see dad anymore. He died on the hospital when I was 15 from liver disease due to alcoholism. The last time I remember seeing him was at my 9th grade graduation.
Adam: After leaving show business, you attended high school and UCLA. You’ve written of that time that you still have your “private journals from Venice High School in the late-1970s, where Mrs. Schneider impressed the value of a strong essay, and Mr. Batcho tortured students with seemingly endless notes in crisp red pen”. I have fond memories of my teachers and how they shaped what I wanted to do. Can you tell me a little about how you got into writing? Kellie: By the time I was 15 I kept a journal – a very torrid, dramatic and crazed journal just as you’d expect a teenage girl to keep. So by my teenage years, writing was already an important part of what I identified as me. When I was in 11th grade I entered a random contest to write an essay about trees with a chance to win a one-week stay with a forest family in Fort Bragg, California. The essay contest was sponsored by Georgia-Pacific, a big logging and paper concern.
By this time, I was living with my sister Wendy, her son Erik (five years younger than me) and Wendy’s new husband, Bill. Wendy was the English Department Chair and teacher at Venice High, and her husband Bill was known as “Coach” because he coached football and other sports. Probably it was Wendy who found out about this essay and encouraged me to give it a shot.
I have no recollection whatsoever what I wrote, maybe something about my love of nature, but it did the trick, because I won the essay contest and pretty soon was on a flight up north to Fort Bragg, where I was set to move in with this logging family – the dad was one of the bosses in the forest – and stay for a week to learn more about trees and logging and basically a big publicity stunt for Georgia-Pacific.
It would have been great, except, a tragedy had occurred. The logging family’s older daughter’s fiancé had been killed in a logging accident just a week or so before. This I found out on the flight to Fort Bragg. To my shock, when I arrived, they put me in her room and put her with her little sister to sleep. I could not believe this, and thought she needed her own space, but they wouldn’t hear of it. I couldn’t even believe they were having me there, it was so fresh.
The trip itself and the overall experience were wonderful, and I saw many sides of the forest that week. But I learned something really powerful about myself that had nothing to do with trees. One night, the grieving girl came into her room where I was getting ready for bed. She was very young, not much older than me, but I was the one with the wisdom on this particular subject of utter despair. We began to talk. She cried and told me about her dead fiancé and we talked for a couple of hours, and in that time I began to see that some of the painful experiences I’d had – losing both parents – had given me a gift of compassion and understanding that would be a wellspring I’d draw on forever. I mean, it didn’t all come out so succinctly in my head like that, but I realized I had helped her through a tough night – one of many, I’m sure – and in doing so, had healed myself a little. So that was pretty big for a kid.
At the end of that trip, I got to basically hitchhike home via little airports. I had a school dance to get to – spring formal – and the regular connecting flights weren’t working right to get me back home on time. The people in Fort Bragg set me up with the pilot of a little plane who flew me as far south as he could, then radioed ahead to see who else was going further south that way. None of this could happen today! After a few flights I got home, in time for the dance.
Well, that’s a long way to go to talk about writing – but I guess it’s the storytelling and the understanding that goes along with it that I am drawn to. I dropped out of UCLA by the way. If there wasn’t a parking space I flipped my car around and went back home to the beach. I didn’t even have enough sense to properly drop the classes, just didn’t go. So I got my education doing TV documentaries – I have a specialty in Civil War and post-Civil War westward expansion and art of those same periods. During my television career, coming up through the ranks as a production secretary and production-assistant all the way to producer and director – I was always saying, “I can write that, do you want me to write that?” So I just whittled away at it and eventually got to do a lot of writing for television and then freelance writing and now I’m writing you!
I have always been a bad correspondent, though, and am notoriously forgetful with letters.
Adam: When you’re not writing yourself, who/what do you like to read? Kellie: I read a lot of memoirs because I have been dabbling in memoir for years. My favorite is The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. For fiction, one of my favorites is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. I also like Things Fall Apart, The Good Earth, and I have a lot of reference books I love, many for writing. We also read Outside Magazine and I pay attention to lots of sources online. I watch a lot of TV!
Adam: A few years ago you relocated with your family to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. You wrote of that time:
“Most of my identity went missing as we moved. Even after 18,000 pounds of belongings trucked its successful way from Culver City, lugged over the Grapevine and climbed into these foothills, I still struggled to find where I belonged”.
How did you find your place? Kellie: We left Los Angeles for the Sierra Nevada Foothills eight years ago. One of my favorite movies is Out of Africa with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. If you don’t laugh too hard, I’ll tell you that this move from the city to the mountains is a little like my Africa – or how Africa was for Meryl’s character the writer Karen von Blixen who went by the pen name Isak Dinesen. OK I know it’s not that dramatic but that’s what goes on in my head. We had always intended to leave the city; we thought when our daughter went into middle school. Instead, my best friend had a nearly-deadly stroke that left her in the ICU at UCLA all summer in 2006. She recovered pretty well, amazing recovery, Lazarus-like. It made us realize we wanted to get while the getting was good, so we migrated to almost five acres about half an hour outside the entrance to Yosemite National Park, in the beautiful and currently drought afflicted foothills. We stayed as close to Los Angeles as we could afford to and still be in the mountains.
To a certain degree I’ve found my place. I don’t know that I’ll live here forever. I feel really blessed to have found work that I love most days – something I can do that’s in my field and to be able to work from home, all that is a big joy and a big surprise. Our daughter is delightful and is super busy in her junior year of high school now. She wants to be a forensic scientist not an actor so that was worth the move! My husband Dave and I have been married for almost 19 years, he is a landscape architect and has a great job in the city. I have a dog I adore, and a flock of chickens, and beauty surrounds me. There’s also a hell of a lot of fires, lately, but that’s part of the adventure – and something I never dreamed I’d be writing about, in terms of being a reporter, certainly. So I love the turns my life has taken, and consider myself very fortunate to have made it this far.
Adam: What’s next? Kellie: I have been a stay-home Mom for almost 17 years and have had a bunch of part time jobs, mostly in the areas of entertainment, but not all. For a brief few weeks, I was a waitress in a tea shop my sister-in-law owned here in the mountains. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but only lasted three weeks. That’s twice I haven’t made it as a waitress, so that means I wouldn’t be a very good actress, right?
Inside my head I am constantly writing. For a long time before this, I was a writer who didn’t write. I have a half-finished memoir about the time from around 1966-1976 so it covers the television years and also, what I think are more interesting, transitional years of teen angst and coming of age.
A little more than two years ago, I started working for Sierra News Online, and it has been an amazing experience. I had no clue about journalism, had never tried it or studied it.
Since I began working for SNO I’ve probably written many hundreds if not a thousand little stories. Some are very tiny and others hold some weight. Mostly I enjoy writing the human interest pieces and people respond very well to those. So we are trying to structure things so I can do more of that. The website is a very interesting place to be, it has grown exponentially since I began and it’s fascinating in terms of the business end of things.
It’s my goal to publish at least one book, though I have a few in me, and I am working ever-modestly toward that goal. Send help!
The Ghost & Mrs. Muir can be purchased through Madman Entertainment’s website, as well as online and in-store at several DVD outlets. Kellie is on Facebook and I’m sure she would love it for you to drop past there. She also has her blog where she writes about life, past and present, as well as posting photos of her passions (such as repurposed furniture), and her menagerie of cats and dogs and chickens and things (I’ve been inspired in my phrasing of that from The Muppets Take Manhattan, I’m sure of it). Besides stories of her own life, Kellie writes on the blog and Facebook page of her experiences of telling the stories of others. As she mentioned in the interview, Kellie worked on the series Civil War Journal. It was there that she produced or scripted programs on Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, the unsung heroes of that battle, the Battle of Fredericksburg, the “boy generals” of the Civil War, the prison camps, and many other subjects. Her work in production, producing, writing and directing has also involved documentary treatments of Mata Hari and John Wilkes Booth, and even country music stars. Oh yes, she did tell his heart, his achy breaky… Perhaps what I like most about Kellie’s Internet presence is her insights on being a writer, sometimes sharing the insights of others. I love this quote of Mignon McLaughlin that Kellie posted: “There’s only one person who needs a glass of water oftener than a small child tucked in for the night, and that’s a writer sitting down to write”. Now where’s my Evian (who am I kidding, it’s tap). You can also find Kellie at Sierra News Online.
I don’t tend to take a computer with me when travelling for business. My most pressing task when I’m out of the office – unless working to a tight deadline for a project – is keeping on top of emails. This can usually be accomplished on an iPhone. However, the main reason I don’t travel with a computer or even an iPad (most of the time) is one to which a lot of people can probably relate. The idea of going through airport security with both a carry-on and a computer bag, and having to remove the computer to be x-rayed while fumbling around with getting things out of my pockets fills me with dread.
As a result of this concern, my bag from a recent trip to Melbourne is stuffed with complementary Sofitel writing pads. On these pages are notes and not fully-formed essays so it may take a while for the ideas to see the light of day here. In high school, I would always draft an assignment with paper and pen. The computer was essentially nothing more than a word processor. That’s if it was used at all. This was at a time during the transition from writing an essay with paper and pen to typing it (and probably writing the whole thing) on the computer. As with most things I do, there was a modicum of method to this madness. Often by the time I got to the third paragraph of an Ancient History essay, I had run out of things to say. With pen and paper, you could be creative with spacing and make it look a bit more robust than it actually was. These days my process for writing is different. While I can write notes or parts of paragraphs on paper, I really need a computer for the wonderful switching around and editing of paragraphs. It’s a bit sad, really; if I were to write someone a letter by hand for the personal touch, I’d probably have to type it before I wrote it out.
My travel worry is not all bad. Anxiety can be a motivator, and I think that I’m a very good passenger. My phone and wallet are out of my pockets before I even reach security and everything is neatly contained in a moderately-sized bag. When a group of friends and I travelled the U.S., shoes, belts and jackets were off with lightning speed. If you took us all out for a night on the town with the only thing on your mind to get us out of our clothes, we’d be a very cheap date. I’m reminded of how a sleep-deprived Jimmy Wayne, the country singer and all-round good guy, misunderstood a security-officer’s instructions once and ended up handcuffed in his boxer shorts. I’m sure that even my preference for an aisle seat began because I wanted to be close enough to the overhead baggage locker when the plane landed. That’s if I wanted to live on the edge and not use the much safer option of under the seat in front of me.
My friend Paul probably wouldn’t understand why I’d avoid taking an iPad on board stocked with the latest shows, particularly for long flights. But I’m usually content with a book and the in-flight entertainment. On a flight back from Singapore, I watched back-to-back episodes of the then-new Dallas. Putting fingers to keyboard today, I was originally going to write that I watched them on my way to Dallas, Texas. But I realized that I’m just fusing my memories of going through the airport in Dallas and seeing many men with the “ten-gallon” cowboy hats with watching the wonderful Larry Hagman on TV. I’d imagine he would tell me that “that’s an understandable cognitive error, darlin’.”
This update is also an attempt for me to make sure that I continue to post regularly. Conducting and writing up interviews is very much an ebb and flow business. Sometimes, I’ve got back-to-back interviews and am deep in research for more with little actual output to put here. My friend Mark would admonish me for not posting more regularly in the last couple of months. When I started the blog almost a year ago, he advised that to get people to come back, there’d have to be regular content. Admonish is probably too strong a word and I can’t imagine he’d admonish me. If I did suggest to him that he was being hard on me, he’d ask me over our regular Negroni (it’s Negronis this season), “Are you projecting?” I hate when he’s right. I’m being hard on myself. That being said, I’m happy to say in the next few days there will be an interview here with Kellie Flanagan, an actress on The Ghost & Mrs. Muir when she was a child and now a writer. But do be sure to stop by regularly here; in fact, you can subscribe so you never miss a post. Brendan O’Brien has a web page for his late father, Edmond, and I love a quote on that site: “Love is many visits”. I will be more direct: Y’all come back now, y’hear?
The title of this update post doesn’t really reflect what I’m writing about, but serves two purposes. The first is that the other day I was walking around the garden. To my astonishment, flowers were all of a sudden blooming, there were blossoms on the trees, and the grapevine was covered with green leaves. Mercifully there were not yet grapes to step on. After thinking winter would never end, it finally has. The second reason is when I look over the ‘Updates’ I’ve posted during the last year, there is a lot of weather talk. I’m just trying to be consistent. But you would prefer me making small talk about the weather, rather than that local sporting team. Right?
Athens has been on my mind. Recently I came into possession of a large number of Penguin Classics. Sometimes walking down the halls at a university you’ll find a table piled high with old books. A retiring academic is usually the culprit. Most of the time stopping to look isn’t worth your while. Old copies of textbooks that have long been revised sit alongside proceedings from obscure conferences. But every now and then you hit the mother lode.
My new books are mostly the works of ancient Greeks and Romans: Herodotus’ The Histories; the Old Comedy of Aristophanes; Plato’s Republic (the sole book that was not a Penguin Classic, but a Wordsworth) and two dialogues, Protagoras and Meno; and, for the more sage of you, Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic. As an aside, there were also Dickens’ Bleak House, D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. A reader of film novelizations this person was not.
With the exception of Herodotus, I hadn’t read many of these works. The Histories was the first classic text we studied in Year 12 (senior year) Ancient History. My friend Luke turned his copy into a flip book by drawing a little cartoon on the corner of each page. If memory serves, in his cartoon a football player marks the ball and then takes a run up to kick it for goal; but ends up falling over. Someone may have punched the football player. There was a lot going on. After all, The Histories is more than 600 pages.
When I started re-reading parts of The Histories (our teacher told us it wasn’t the kind of thing you read chronologically), some of it came back fairly immediately. It is a fantastic read. I remembered the Persian invasion of Greece led by Xerxes and, in particular, the Battle of Thermopylae. This is where Leonidas the Spartan, leading the forces of the city-states against the invasion, “fell, having fought most gallantly”. Herodotus claims to have learnt the names of 300 Spartans who perished with him. Our teacher did tell us that Herodotus could be prone to exaggeration. Other parts of The Histories that I came across were, frankly, Greek. It’s sad how much you forget from high school. That last year, in particular, is when you (or at least I) lived and breathed the studied works.
Plutarch, one of my favourite historians, wasn’t amongst the newly-acquired books. Plutarch originally presented his essays on notable Greeks and Romans in pairs: he’d pair a Greek and Roman life, write separate biographies for each, and then compare the two. These days the Greek and Roman lives are usually studied separately and in different volumes. Having a box of works written by Greek historians without Plutarch would be like the time all but one of the original Brady kids appeared in A Very Brady Christmas. In order to make sure I didn’t spend another family Christmas wondering where Cindy was – and why on earth Marcia ended up with Wally Logan – I decided to go buy The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives, a translation by Ian Scott-Kilvert that I used in high school. All these years later, the book is sold with the same cover.
Plutarch always held sway with me. This historian’s focus on what his subjects achieved or the ignominy of their time in power struck a chord when I was very interested in the ways that notable people made their mark on the world; for better and for worse. My preoccupation was probably the result of a combination of factors. The first was being in that transitional time at the end of high school when issues of who you want to become as an adult are particularly pertinent. Few things made me think about that as much as literature. Other seminal events of senior year, such as the moment when the Phys Ed teacher shows you how to put on a condom on a banana, didn’t have much of an impact on me. In any event, my English teacher was given that task. I’m just glad he had a banana and not a copy of, say, The Great Gatsby. The second was, through no coincidence of course, the works teachers chose for class texts that dealt with these very issues. In English we started the year with Death of a Salesman. I really liked…actually I’m going to level with you. I know it’s a classic. I know it’s amazing. But fuck, it’s depressing.
I was rummaging a couple of months back through some boxes and found an old story that I had written for a competition from final year high school. I came in second place; first was a poet. It’s interesting how many friends I have this in common with. We’re like the Buzz Aldrin of the spaced-out set. In the piece, I contrast people who seem destined “to ride the pageants or sit at the head of the triumphs through life”, “others [who] act to give meaning to their lives, whether statesman, politician, martyr, civil or religious rights activist” and, finally, “those who stay at the party too long, get too inebriated from it all, and stain a reputation – whether Plutrach’s ‘butchers’ or those whose volts open wide after generations, revealing filed and forgotten atrocities”.
Man, was I laying it on a bit thick. That might make me sound like a very serious young man, probably with a pair of sensible glasses. But truth be told, at that time I still had perfect vision and my expectations for living a moral or impactful life were much more modest. I wanted a Calvin Klein Jeans t-shirt and to find a café where I could make friends with the staff and a core group of regulars. I wanted the regulars to have names like Corrine. I did find such a place and started to get to know the staff. However, that coffee shop didn’t last the turn of the millennium. It’s now a Wok-in-a-Box.
A few days after buying The Rise of Fall of Athens I had the urge to start looking over past holiday photos. I made it to Athens a few years after high school. Greece was my first trip outside of Australia, and Athens the first city I ever visited (at least initially) on my own. I guess it’s my first love. I had been to Sydney, Melbourne, and the Gold Coast before Athens and, by that reasoning, one of those should take that spot. But that was only interstate travel. Not true love. Kind of like kissing a cousin, I’d imagine.
Was Athens so appealing because I had studied it those few years before? Perhaps, but without the Romans Plutarch wouldn’t have had his Parallel Lives. In school, we did a semester each of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. I loved them both. I have fond memories of reading Roman texts like Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars and Tacitus’ The Annals of Imperial Rome. Yes, it’s true; I’m admitting that I like Annals. I think that I’ve just regressed to the kind of things we’d say to each other in high school. Indeed, while Athens and Rome were my fist two stops on my European adventure, I hardly could have wanted for historical (and just generally great) cities during that entire trip: Venice, Naples (which kind of scared the shit out of us), Berlin, Hamburg, Amsterdam, Paris, and London.
Well, why Athens then? It’s not really hard to pinpoint it when I remember opening my hotel window and seeing clear to the Acropolis. Athens was exactly what I needed at the time. I had experienced some losses shortly before leaving for Greece. The sun did me good, I could talk with my friend Claire into the late hours (not that early, all the walking made me tired), and being in an ancient city gave me a different perspective. The whole time I had Gustave Flaubert in my head, “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world”.
My time in Athens was also much longer than those subsequent cities on the itinerary. I’m usually at my best traveling when I’ve got time to get used to a place. I like the feeling when you return to your hotel room in the afternoon and it feels a little like home. The whole reason I was in Europe in the first place was an international psychology conference in Athens. They even put me up in the Hilton Athens. I realized within the first couple of days that time at a conference is often incidental to the world travel of its delegates. My main memories of the conference sessions are when the person who chaired a session decided he’d be the best person to answer any questions from the audience, even if they were directed at the speakers. I also saw Charles D. Spielberger – the creator of perhaps the most-utilized anger scales in psychology – in an elevator at the Divani Caravel Hotel. I didn’t stop to introduce myself because I’d heard they were serving drinks on the rooftop bar; a wasted opportunity of my youth. Luckily, it was the best (and only) Chios Mastiha I’d ever tasted.
The schedule of the conference did leave me with time to explore the city with Claire, who is the daughter of two of my (now former) work colleagues and who tagged along with her parents. The days involved lots of walking in the hot July summer of Athens. The pace, however, was leisurely. One morning we visited the Athens War Museum, sat in the National Gardens of Athens and watched the goats and quails, and then ogled the guards outside the Greek Parliament. I should mention that these are all on the same avenue: Vasilissis Sofias.
An afternoon was spent walking the ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus. The Acropolis must have been a day all to itself. Usually when I see a relic, tall building, or even a Columbine lolly wrapper on the floor while traveling I just assume that it must be important. In Greece, that relic was Hadrian’s Arch, the tall building Athens Towers, and that Columbine wrapper because you’re an uncouth tourist with a hole in his pocket. Athens really is that city that has the right to say, “I’m kind of a big deal”.
Walks back to the hotel usually involved stopping for a soft drink at one of the many newspaper stands that lined the streets. Dinners were in the open-air restaurants of the Plaka or restaurants lining a public park where children played soccer and street hawkers placed religious icons on your table, leaving them there for a minute to see if you’d touch and, therefore, buy them.
Maybe my love of Athens also had something to do with the fact that sometimes, you don’t know what you don’t know. I was pretty naïve. I’d sit at a café almost every morning called Gush with my phone and wallet sitting in full view on the table while I read a paper and had a frappé and a sandwich with potato chips on the side. Nothing happened to me, so maybe my complete nonchalance deterred pickpockets and subway grinders. Or maybe I had a guardian angel in a gruff, smoking doorman named Baslikike. One night I asked him how I could get to the nightclubs in Piraeus that I’d heard about. He told me to go to a restaurant, get myself an ouzo, and then to go back to my room.
After my time in Athens, arriving in Rome was a bit of a rude awakening. No sooner had Carlo (my travel buddy for the rest of the trip) and I disembarked from a flight where I was sure we’d have to stick our jumpers out of the windows to help the plane land, a rather strapping Spanish man approached us. He told us the train to the city was not running and we’d have to take a taxi. Mr. Spanish Man sounded legit and, being a social psychologist, I subscribed to the heuristic, “what is beautiful is good”. Somewhere along the way to his big black van we realized that this wasn’t a good idea, and I wrestled my Samsonite (let’s just take some poetic licence here) from his bronzed hand. On our first day of sightseeing, Carlo and I lost each other in Termini Station. Looking around for my friend, I tripped over my feet and fell to floor exclaiming at the top of my lungs, “Faaaark!” Not that I didn’t love Rome. Rome just brings out the expressive Italian in me.
Now I am determined to reacquaint myself with Plutarch and (at least initially) his nine lives. I remember Themistocles, Pericles, and Lysander well. Other Athenians, like Nicias and Alchibiades, ring a bell. And then there are some like poor Cimon (pronounced Ki-Mon), whom I mostly remember because of a class exercise where we had to give a speech as an Athenian. A classmate named Simon got up in front of the class and said, “Hello, I’m Si-Mon”. We all laughed. I had better start with Cimon’s life to make up for being an uncouth Columbine-eating tourist who remembers humorous wordplay instead of important Athenian strategoi.
One day I would like to return to Athens. I was there in 2006. Since then the city has been hit hard by the debt crisis. I imagine Athens is quite different to what I remember even from only those few years ago. In Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (Richard Crawley translation) a speech Pericles gave to his countrymen in the first year of the War is recounted: “In short, I say that as a city we are the school of Hellas; while I doubt if the world can produce a man, who where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility, as the Athenian”. I hope for her return.
I’m also determined to get my Italian up to scratch. This was something else I studied in high school. I was a fluent speaker after final exams and would proudly call a great uncle in Calabria to have conversations. So good that words were dropped into the conversation that had nothing to do with what we were discussing, like “meraviglia” (wonder) and “barbocino” (poodle). My friend Andrew was much smarter about maintaining the momentum of his studies and would speak in Italian to almost everyone when we all went away for Schoolies Week (holidays following final exams for my non-Australian readers). He did this even if the other person had never uttered a word of it before. At least I think he was speaking Italian. We all did drink a lot. I have decided to remedy that and bought a copy of Schaum’s Italian Grammar, a book I used in high school. Right now I’m on the imperfect subjunctive tense. One of the examples is Cercavo una segretaria che parlasse Italiano. That means I was looking for a secretary who spoke Italian. After high school, I guess I could have easily related my needs to a recruitment agency in Rome.