Saturday, January 2, 2010
It's Only Show Biz
By Pat Browning
Comedian Sid Caesar raised one of those expressive eyebrows and explained the magic of working before a live audience. The place was Caesar’s dressing room in a San Francisco theater, where his latest show, “Little Me,” a smash hit on Broadway, was playing. I was a new stringer for the Fresno Bee and somehow wangled an assignment from the Bee and an interview with Caesar.
Green I was, and so star struck I didn’t take a single note. I walked into his dressing room, looked into his brilliant blue eyes and blurted, “You’re a lot funnier in person than you are on television.”
This got me the raised eyebrow and the explanation. That was 40 years ago and it’s been my backup ever since.
Caesar said because I bought a ticket, dressed for the occasion and made an effort to get myself into a seat before the curtain went up, I was primed to think he was funny. In a nutshell, performer and audience worked together. We expected to be entertained and we helped to make it happen.
It’s so simple I wonder why any writer is ever nervous about presenting a program at a library or a book club or a conference. The same kind of performer-audience interaction takes place when you’re selling books at personal appearances. You are the star of the show, and the audience wants you to succeed. Marketing gurus have been saying it for years: It’s not about the book; it’s about you.
The creative process seems to be the same, whether you’re writing a book or dancing in a Broadway musical. I recently watched the 1933 movie “42nd Street” starring Warner Baxter, Ruby Keeler, Bebe Daniels and Dick Powell.
Baxter plays an ailing, hard-driving Broadway producer who wants one more hit show. Powell plays a romantic lead who sneaks Keeler into the chorus line of Baxter’s play. Daniels plays a Broadway star torn between her career and her love for a less-successful actor. When Daniels breaks her ankle just before opening night, a desperate Baxter pulls Keeler out of the chorus to take the lead.
Keeler is terrified. Daniels pays her a visit on opening night and says:
“You’re nervous, aren’t you? Well, don’t be. The customers out there want to like you. Always remember that, kid. I’ve learned it from experience. And you’ve got so much to give them.”
The YouTube clip, showing Baxter browbeating Keeler into shape for the role, and Daniels coming in with her good advice, is worth watching. Forget Keeler’s clunky tap dancing and watch the agony she goes through to get ready for her shot at stardom. It’s not that different from a writer who writes and rewrites and lurches from despair to success.
This line is the point of the whole struggle -- “...you’ve got so much to give them.”
Who, me? you think. Yes, you. If you have the intelligence, imagination, wit and discipline to write a book, you have a lot to share with your reading audience, your customers. Try not to forget it.
Wait for your cue. Take the stage and claim your spotlight. Shake off the trembles and come back a star.