I can honestly say (and this is not a boast, but a sad truth) that I have no clue who anyone is on the cover or People magazine or the National Enquirer. There was a time when I used to know every celebrity’s face and story. I knew who was divorcing whom, who was in rehab, who had gained a ton of weight, and who had had a face lift.
Why I knew this stuff had no logic except that I was at that callow age when tabloid gossip seemed crucial to keep up with. If there had been a celebrity SAT test I would have scored in the top one percentile.
As I grew up and married Michael, I still thought it was cool to spot a celebrity, and so did he. I am talking old school, A-list, bigger-than-life stars like Liz Taylor, Kirk Douglas, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Ann Margaret, and John Wayne. On occasion, we would see them crossing Fifth Avenue in New York or dining in some fancy restaurant like The Four Seasons or 21. Sometimes, if we were making an appearance on TV, we would sit next to them in the Green Room watching them getting ready.
We always had a camera with us and usually did not hesitate to sneak a photo. We could have asked if they minded our taking a photo, but we were too shy and preferred the paparazzi ambush approach.
The problem with our paparazzi behavior surfaced when we had friends over for dinner. After the meal we subjected them to unasked for “slide shows” with our Kodak carousel projector and a portable screen. It is a miracle that we had any friends left after we made them sit through hours of blurry pictures of a hub cap that had fallen off Dick Cavett’s car or one of the Smothers Brothers feet en route to the toilet on an airplane.
Forget scenic vistas, important buildings or classic statuary. Our slide shows consisted of blurry shots of David Susskind having breakfast fifty feet away at a hotel dining room, comedian Jonathon Winters’ denim over-all straps, Danielle Steele’s lavender skirt hem and matching high heels, Rodeo Cowboy Ty Murray with his mouth open snoring on a plane, and the money shot of Joan Collins yelling at her twenty year old boyfriend in the British Airway lounge at JFK.
Our best celebrity spottings were in TV green rooms where we hung out waiting to present a Roadfood segment on Good Morning America or The Today Show.
It was in these green rooms that we observed Jeopardy’s Alex Trebek, who seemed to be really stupid. We saw New York City’s dapper Mayor David Dinkins, who would not sit down lest he wrinkle his immaculately creased suit pants. Tom Selleck was gorgeous but had a surprisingly large ass. Soap opera stars pretended to know us when they didn’t; Russell Brand had hideous B.O.; Tom Cruise is the size of a puppet. All the stand-up comedians we met looked like they had just been released from a straight jacket and were as ready to kill someone. I remember seeing writer and neurologist Oliver Sachs wearing a piece of twine for a belt and needing help finding his way to the stage door.
In time, we lowered the bar on who qualified as a celebrity. Our new requisites included anyone with a crown or sash. We never got close to Miss America or even Miss Teen America; but we did meet The Luling, Texas, Watermelon Queen, The Hatch New Mexico Chili Queen, The South Carolina Chitlin Strut Queen, and a quite a few Drag Queens at Mardi Gras.
To our ever plummeting roster we added former stars whom nobody remembered. These included the woman who played the Indian Princess on The Howdy Doody Show, the old lady who barked “where’s the beef” on the TV hamburger commercial, and the desiccated Marlboro Man. wheezing from emphysema. We even took the once-great Broadway Star Cyril Richard to lunch at Sardi’s. He was deep into senility; and although we sat under his caricature, he kept pointing to it and asking “who’s that?”
After a while, the celebrity spotting and subsequent slide shows became surreal. We dispensed with actual people and took photos of Lyle Lovett’s dry cleaning, some leaves on the ground in front of Graceland, and the street sign near where Liberace had lived.
Looking back, this might have all been reframed as the apex of cutting-edge art and warranted a show at The Guggenheim. But we did not have the foresight or ambition to push the envelope. We preferred to click the button on the slide projector carousel and give lengthy explanations to our guests of what they were seeing.
A few years back the Smithsonian Institution acquired the Jane and Michael Stern collection of forty years’ worth of our life on the road. That is now where the slide shows reside. I can imagine fifty years from now, some white-gloved curator going through the Kodak carousels, and looking at slides of empty ashtrays, hub caps, and celebrities’ feet and muttering out of ear shot of the rest of the staff, “WTF!”