The Lost Art of the Crank Call

In these times of strife and tumult, I lament the fact that my own children are growing up in a world where caller ID has effectively destroyed the art of the prank phone call.

We called them “crank calls,” although “prank” is a more accurate but less alliterative description. I began with the old standards: “Is your refrigerator running?” and “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?” (It was years later when I finally learned that Prince Albert is a chewing tobacco. This call was usually less than successful, but crank call etiquette demanded that you at least make the attempt.)

I was satisfied with my Prince Albert-level crank skills until about the 6th grade, when I met An Esteemed Colleague who showed me the true potential for the havoc you could wreak with a simple phone call. Under his expert tutelage, I helped my My Esteemed Colleague hound an innocent man into utter madness, ultimately destroying him – or, at least, forcing him to change his phone number.

His crime? He answered the phone with a cheerful “Howwwwdy!” It was funny.

We called him Joe Howdy. We never spoke when we called, although My Esteemed Colleague once taped Joe Howdy and played his own words back to him, so that he could say “Howwwdy!” to himself. High comedy. When Joe finally changed his number after we had called him umpteen times and hung up, we combed the phone book trying to find out what the new number was. The problem was that he wasn’t listed as Joe Howdy, so we had to find his number, match it with his real name, and then call information to find out what it was. We even tried calling information to backwards engineer the process, yet no operator was willing to tell us the name of a person if we could only provide a phone number. We’re lucky we weren’t slapped with a restraining order.

Our other methods were less harassing. My Esteemed Colleague would call people and tell them there was a problem with their phone system and demand that they scream their phone numbers into the receiver to calibrate the sound. Other times, he would call and ask if the household received their gift subscription to Reader’s Digest. If they hadn’t, My Esteemed Colleague would profusely apologize. Then, to make sure they didn’t miss out on the latest issue, he would read it to them over the phone until they got bored and hung up.

As phone technology improved, so did the crank calling methods. Conference calling allowed us to call two random people simultaneously and listen in as they argued between themselves, sometimes fiercely, as to who called whom. This didn’t work very often, because it required both parties to answer the phone at almost exactly the same time. But when it did work, boy howdy! (Not to be confused with “Joe Howdy.”)

You would think that puberty would have taken care of the crank call fetish, but it only expanded our ambitions – and My Esteemed Colleague was always several steps ahead of me. He once called right-wing loon Wally George’s talk show to expound upon the “wheat substitute” called “hosla” being developed by UCLA scientists. George hung up on him quickly, but only after berating him mightily and triggering a loud explosion sound over the radio.

He later called a radio program called Loveline to complain about his girlfriend, who was too “stiff” and “unyielding.” He kept the pseudo-psychologists on the phone for a solid two or three minutes before confessing that his girlfriend was, in fact, a cardboard box. He then yelled the word “Scrotum!!!” into the phone, but the tape delay dumped it before it got on the air.

When I went to USC and he went to Dartmouth, we had limited resources to speak to each other, because long distance calls were expensive, and the Internet was only a crazy dream. So, as a cheap means of communication and/or entertainment, he would call me collect every so often, but never with his own name. Back then, collect calls weren’t automated, so I would receive a call from an operator saying something like “Collect call from “Rat In A Box Nuggets,” will you accept?” As we had arranged in advance, I would always decline, but I’d do so with a chuckle. My favorite was the collect call I received from “Frog Hopkins Joe Joe Joe Joe.” Ahhh, good times. Those are joys my own children will never know.

I shouldn’t complain. The Internet allows a new outlet for anonymous stupidity, and it’s one I have used to great effect. Still, even the Internet has gotten more sophisticated. Once upon a time, my sister used to go into lesbian chat rooms on AOL and write stuff like “I think women should stay home and take orders from men,” and then sit back and watch the flames commence. Now such boorishness gets ignored or filtered out. Yet, incredibly, there are still ways to annoy, to bother, and to waste time. As one door closes, another door opens.

It’s just tragic that, on the telephone, Prince Albert has finally been let out of his can.

Andrew Fogelson’s Magic Kiss

So I’m watching the extras on the “Superman: The Movie” DVD, and up pops Andrew Fogelson, billed as head of marketing for Warner Brothers from 1978-1980. Suddenly, in my mind, I’m back at Calabasas High School; the year is 1985, and Andrew Fogelson is not happy with me.

Calabasas High School is nestled in a corner of the San Fernando Valley, and it boasts such illustrious alumni as Ricky Schroeder and Erik Menendez. (I knew Ricky Schroeder, but not well. I don’t think I ever met Erik Menendez, though, but that’s OK, because Erik Menendez kills people.) Other alumni include Stallion Cornell and Andrew Fogelson’s two sons. One of those sons shared the stage with me in the Calabasas High School production of “The Music Man,” a show in which I was cast in the lead as Professor Harold Hill.

Some background: “The Music Man” is the story of a traveling salesman – that Harold Hill guy – who goes from town to town and sells the locals all the instruments and uniforms necessary to create a first-rate boys band. He does so by promising, in turn, to stick around and teach the band how to play. The problem is that he “don’t know one note from another,” and he skips town with his money before he has to lead the band. However, in the course of the play, Harold Hill falls in love with Marian, the local librarian, and refuses to leave, even when he’s about to be exposed as a fraud. The best line in the show is when Hill tells Winthrop, the librarian’s young brother, why he’s sticking around.

“For the first time in my life,” he says,” I got my foot caught in the door.”

He’s then handcuffed and dragged before the town council, where he discovers that the angry residents are preparing tar and feathers. When all is lost, the boys band unexpectedly shows up, all decked out in their uniforms, and they stumble their way through the Minuet in G, which, as unpolished and discordant as it is, still impresses the children’s parents, who forgive Hill everything, and everyone lives happily ever after.

The Music Man is one of the musical theatre classics – a hokey old masterpiece that still gets pulled out of mothballs every year by high schools all across the country.

Our version was originally supposed to be directed by some artsy woman who’s name I don’t recall, but she was summarily replaced when Andrew Fogelson, the big time Hollywood producer of such cinematic tours de force as “The New Kids” and “Just One of the Guys”, deigned to step down from his lofty studio pedestal to grace us lowly high school weenies with his presence. He had never directed anything, as far as I knew, but he was a Hollywood bigwig, and that was enough to recommend him as the new director of “The Music Man.”

From the outset, it was a disaster.

Fogelson arrived at the first read-through with his very own entourage, which consisted of several leathery-faced woman who paced up and down the room smoking cigarettes. Put simply, they were script doctors. It was their job to “update” “The Music Man” to give it a hip, Eighties sensibility. They did this by adding a couple of hemorrhoid jokes and butchering the ending, thereby destroying the entire integrity of the piece.

It was decreed that the new, hip, 1985 ending would replace the “foot caught in the door” line with an all-new, ridiculously craptastic speech that began as follows:

“Tell me, Winthrop – have you ever heard about the Magic Kiss?”

I was then supposed to tell this cock-and-bull story about the Legend of the Magic Kiss, which I don’t remember – it probably involved elves or vampires or something. Anyway, the gist of the thing was that sometimes people got magic kisses that made all their dreams come true and set the whole world right and made lollipops and rainbows fall out of the sky. This provided the set-up for the actual Magic Kiss, which Marian the Librarian plants on me just as I try to lead the boys band at the end of the show. After the kiss, the band inexplicably plays with perfect virtuosity; I become the triumphant hero, and everyone with an ounce of common sense works very hard to keep their brains from exploding.

It was flat-out awful.

The Magic Kiss demonstrated that this Fogelson guy had absolutely no respect for the material he was directing and even less understanding of the principles that made “The Music Man” such a success in the first place. The original ending was consistent with the show’s basic themes – it was a gentle valentine to the small Iowa town where the author, Meredith Willson, had spent his own childhood. This Magic Kiss drivel was a bizarre, insulting non sequitur – the equivalent of having Harold Hill team up with Batman at the end of the show to go cruise for chicks. Which is a pretty good idea, now that I think of it.

Anyway, I made it clear, in my surly, I’m-16-years-old-so-I-know-everything manner, that I was not pleased. When my direct pleas to forego the changes fell on deaf ears, I tried to stir up an insurrection among fellow cast members. When that proved ineffective, I was reduced to making as many snide little comments during rehearsal as possible. My favorite was when the choreographer said something like “There’s no reason this show shouldn’t reek of professionalism!” and I shot back with “Oh, there’s no question it’ll reek.”

Yes, I was a jerk. But I still think I was right.

I should have been fired and replaced, but, to his everlasting credit, Fogelson put up with my whining, and we forged an uneasy truce as we slogged ahead. The one thing he didn’t do was actually rehearse the magic kiss scenes until about two days before the show opened. He didn’t want to give me a chance for more subterfuge until the last possible moment.

I remember that fateful night as if it were yesterday. Fogelson was about ten feet in front of the stage, pacing nervously. He was carrying a portable microphone in one hand and a mini-speaker attached to said microphone in the other. He barked orders through this tiny box with relentless impatience and a barely contained fury.

As I recall, I was going out of my way to make sure life wasn’t easy for him.

The entire cast was onstage for the final scene of the show. Everyone watched as, at the appointed time, I strolled over to Marian the Librarian so she could, for the first time, pucker up and magically smooch me. This would have been an awkward moment even if the script hadn’t sucked, since I was 6’4” tall, and I had to lean down and kiss my 5’ 2” leading lady. I was in handcuffs and I couldn’t grab her in a Gone-with-the-Wind style clinch, so I had to stoop downward like some lobotomy patient for no reason other than to reach her enchanted lips. I was like a handcuffed giraffe making out with a penguin. If only the magic kiss had provided her with 12-inch lifts!

Anyway, I went through the motions with the least amount of enthusiasm possible, and everyone knew it. I rolled my eyes, mumbled my lines, and smirked my way through the whole thing, and I think we did it a couple of times that way before Fogelson lost it.

“No! NO! NO!!!” he shrieked, his voice amplified by his tinny little sound system. “I have HAD IT! I have ABSOLUTELY HAD IT!” He was seething now, and the little drops of sweat were beading up on the top of his bald-yet-very-tan scalp.

He allowed himself a moment to dramatically gather himself before walking up to the stage and motioning me in to speak with him face to face.

“Now you listen to me,” he snarled. He spoke in a low, unamplified voice, but it was still loud enough for the rest of the room to hear, and every word was punctuated with a steely, controlled rage.

“You’re going to do it again,” he said, matter-of-factly. Oh, how he would have liked to rip my head right off of its neck! “You’re going to kiss her,” he insisted, “and you’re going to love it. You’re going to pretend it’s the greatest kiss you or anyone else has ever gotten. You’re going to do it right. And you’re going to stop putting me and everyone else through this crap. Do you understand me?”

I nodded sheepishly, and I went back and took my mark. All the breathing in the room seemed to stop. Dozens of onlookers waited anxiously to see what I was going to do next.

The scene began. I dutifully loped over to Marian, bent over, and kissed her on the mouth.

I paused.

Then I threw my hair back, raised my arms, and shrieked “HOT DAMN!!!” at the top of my lungs.

Andrew Fogelson threw down his microphone and box on to the hard linoleum floor, which made a loud “SCRONCH” sound as he stormed out of the room.

I don’t remember much after that. I know he must have come back in and the rehearsal went on, because I ended up performing that stupid scene during the two-week run of the show, and in retrospect, the 1985 Calabasas High School production of The Music Man was actually not that bad. The hemorrhoid joke worked, too.

But I made damn sure that Hollywood producer Andrew Fogelson would never hire me for a role in “Just One of the Guys II.”

Wist

My parents picked up my ten-year-old daughter this morning on the way to the Utah Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City, Utah. My family has been going to the festival for as long as I can remember, although my wife and I haven’t been there in about three years or so. But last year, my parents decided to take my oldest daughter with them, and the experience proved to be the highlight of her year. She’s now old enough to understand and appreciate something I’ve loved ever since my own childhood. Such events make me wistful, or, as my wife puts it, “filled with wist.” She’s far less nostalgic and far more practical than I am. In short, she’s not a big “wist” fan. She’d rather I spent lest time wisting and more time doing the dishes.

Still, wist has been ever present with me since my 39th birthday last week. (No, I really am 39. You can get on my case next year when I’m 39 for a second time.) My practical wife is much, much, MUCH older than me – she turns 40 in October. We have five children in total, and much of our time is devoted to keeping the bills paid and the household running. My advancing years bring with them added portions of wist, and I start wondering what kind of legacy I’m going to end up leaving behind. I’m reminded of the immortal words of Bonnie Raitt, who sang that “life gets mighty precious when there’s less of it to waste.”

I sometimes imagine meeting my 16-year-old self and listening to him berate me for how boring I’ve become. Back then, I was going to be a rock-star/movie-star/mad-tortured-genius guy. Old boring dudes like me were the bane of my adolescent existence. 16-year-old me would have hated 39-year-old me. My only solace is that when I was 16, I was an idiot.

Still, it’s not like I didn’t give my 16-year-old dreams a shot. I spent 10 years in the world of the theatre as a manager, a director, and a performer. I thought that was what I always wanted, but I was never quite suited for it. And actors really started to bug me. The offstage drama became increasingly tedious, and I eventually lost patience with an actor’s need for constant reassurance and approval, especially when I saw that need in myself. I discovered that anyone who has to depend on the applause of the crowd to validate their very existence ends up lonely and desperate, and that’s not the person I wanted to be. And, ultimately, with my five kids and my grown-up life, that’s not the person I am. I’m very grateful for that.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with Charles Macaualay, one of my professors at USC.  He was a wise old sage of the theatre who was a little perturbed when I recognized him as a the guy who played Landru in the original Star Trek episode “Return of the Archons.”

“I’ve appeared in every play in the Shakespeare canon,” he once said ruefully, “but they’re still going to write ‘Landru’ on my tombstone.” (That made me laugh then, but it’s bittersweet to recall now, since he passed away just a few years ago.)

Anyway, he told me I could have a career in the arts if that’s what I really wanted, but I had to make it my top priority. I had to sacrifice everything else in my life on the altar of the theatre, and if I didn’t, I would never succeed. I spent over a decade trying to prove Landru wrong. And, ultimately, I came to the conclusion that he was absolutely right. It’s just that I wanted a family and a home more than I wanted to be a mad tortured genius. I’m pretty sure I got the better end of the deal.

Yet here I am, sending my daughter to Cedar City, and she is growing to love Shakespeare as much as I do. My daughter also loves the Beatles like I do, and she can now tell which Beatle is singing lead on any given song without me telling her. She even recognized Ringo Starr singing “It Don’t Come Easy” over the radio at a crowded restaurant. How fun is that?

My other children are also starting to love the things I love, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that they’re the legacy I’m going to be leaving behind, or at least the only legacy that really matters.

Still, with my daughter on the road to Cedar City, I get that old familiar itch that says, “Why aren’t you the one on that stage? You could have been, you know. Who knows? Maybe someday, you can be again.”

And maybe I can. Maybe if I wanted it more, I’d be there now. But in the meantime, I’m here, watching my daughter walk out the door, leaving me alone with my wist.

I should probably go do the dishes.

A Religious Treatise

A Sunday blog entry requires some deep religious treatise, which calls to mind my Mormon missionary days in the land of Scotland lo these many years ago. I was training a new missionary in the paradise known as Drumchapel, a Glasgow slum where a guy sold drugs out of his sweetie van and the nighttime sky was aglow with flames from burning cars in the middle of the street. Needless to say, it was a pretty rough area, and the church building was right in the worst part of town. Missionaries dreaded being assigned to “The Drum,” and the office had even changed the name of the area to “Milngavie” to soften the blow of being condemned to the gulag of the Scotland Edinburgh Mission. It turned out to be no worse than any other place in Scotland. Now matter where I was, the omnipresent rain always soaked me to the bone as I knocked on doors for ten to twelve hours a day. It wasn’t really that cold, but I was always wet, so there was no way to truly keep warm.

One day, my companion and I were invited in to the home of a church member after a long day of slogging through the streets, and he let us sit next to his freshly-lit coal fire in the living room. It was fairly late in the day, and the stifling warmth of the room was intoxicating. It also made it next to impossible for me to keep my eyes open.

We sat and listened patiently as he rambled on and on about something or other, and my mind started to wander. He wasn’t expecting either of us to speak, which was a welcome relief, but I also started to panic as my eyelids started to droop, and once the drooping begins, there’s no way to snap back into full consciousness. There are some techniques that produce some positive results, like tightening your sphincter as hard as you can, but their effects are only temporary. I struggled valiantly to stay alert, but I knew it was a lost cause. I’m not sure if I nodded off completely, but at some point in the middle of the conversation, I felt it necessary to make the following announcement:

“I have a cousin with Down Syndrome.”

I said this apropos of nothing, interrupting the church member in mid-ramble. Everyone in the room stopped and looked at me, which startled me back into the real world. My companion was aghast. I was aghast. It was an entirely inappropriate thing to say, and I wasn’t, at the time, even sure if it was true.

But, on the plus side, at least I was wide awake.

Why? Because I’m a (D-word)!

So I told a friend of mine that I have a new blog up and running, and his first question was “why?”

And I didn’t have an answer, yet I continue to blog.

I still haven’t been able to explain the Moist Board to anyone, including myself, so it’s hard to say why I find writing this stuff interesting, let alone the arrogance to assume that anyone else would.

Part of it is that I make my living writing crap.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s GOOD crap; I write ad and web copy and whatever else anyone will pay me to do, and I’m proud of most of it. But none of it is stuff I want to write. I dabble in trying to finish long neglected novellas and plays begun in the days before poopy diapers, but most of that requires an intense focus that I can’t sustain. (I hear lots of men have that problem.) So my dabblings on the web are a release – a way to write what I want to write, when I want to write it.

That’s not to say that none of my writing gigs are any fun. The first time I was actually paid to write stuff, I was working for a newsletter called the “Entertainment Research Report,” which reviewed movies on behalf of prudish families who wanted to know the content of these films before taking their kids to see them, especially the R-rated films that they shouldn’t even be considering in the first place. So I got twenty dollars a flick to go in and count the swear words, chronicle the acts of sex and violence, and write it all up in a clinical report suitable for filing. Witness my “review” of “Indecent Proposal,” the utterly forgettable Robert Redford/Demi Moore/Woody Harrelson sleazefest:

What I failed to mention when I turned this thing in was that I got there about five minutes late and missed the big makeout scene at the beginning. So there may have been more groping, fondling, and ogling that went unreported.

In many ways, I find this review more titillating than the actual movie. Reading about “passionate kissing, petting, and graphic sexual motions” is more arousing than having to suffer through Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson going through said graphic sexual motions.

This movie was pretty mild compared to some of the refuse I had to endure. The record for F-words was 273 in Reservoir Dogs. That’s right – 273. In an hour and a half. That’s just over three F-words per minute. Quentin Tarantino only knows about six words, so he has to reuse them with offensive frequency. (Everyone thinks “Goodfellas” has more F-bombs than any other flick, but that only had 254. “Dogs” is the true F-bomb champ.)

So here’s a trick of the trade.

In order to track the number of F, A, and silent Q words in a movie, you have to write them all down at the moment they’re spoken. You can’t just write the word once and put a tally mark next to it every time an F-bomb explodes. I was carrying a Franklin Day Planner at the time, and I was using extra paper in the back to keep track of my reviews. At the time I had this job, I was dating the lovely woman who is now my wife, and one fine day she started thumbing through my planner just to be nosy, and her eyes bugged out when she got to the pages filled with profanities. It took her awhile to believe that Tourette’s Syndrome was strictly a verbal condition.

To sum up: Languatron is an A-word.

On Being Stallion Cornell

The name “Stallion Cornell” requires some explanation as I launch my own eponymous blog.

It’s not my real name. It’s also not my “porn star” name, a la George Costanza’s “Buck Naked.” It’s just a name that I thought sounded funny, but it’s taken on a life of its own.

It all began in the mid-eighties, when I was in a weird little show in LA the summer before my senior year in high school. I was the narrator for said show, and my written script was fairly fluid. I therefore introduced myself with a different stage name every evening, and “Stallion Cornell” was the one that got the biggest laugh.

After graduating from high school, I took a creative writing class during my freshman year at the University of Southern California. The conceit of the class was that each of us would fulfill a weekly assignment, and the teacher would “publish” the best entries in a packet she would distribute to all the students for discussion. One week, I wrote an assigned poem under my own name and then, on a whim, wrote a second poem and attributed it to “Stallion Cornell.” It was a love poem to a sheep. It got a much better response than my other poem did. Since then, Stallion has been my alter ego of choice.

I was a theatre major at USC, and, as such, it was my duty to dig up a string of monologues for class assignments, and, invariably, the same monologues kept being recycled, and I can only take so much Christopher Durang. So I started writing my own and, to be sure that I was being judged on my acting and not my writing, I attributed them to a fictional author, the good Mr. Cornell. (I sometimes changed the first name to “Sam,” just to be safe. But Stallion would not be denied. Sam’s day is done, and I mourn him not. )

These monologues got goofier and goofier, and they usually involved bizarre situations with really loud people. The first of these, which included all manner of shrieking punctuated by the phrase “I’d offer you a biscuit first, but I don’t like you very much,” still remains my favorite, although the one where a guy rips out his own heart and smothers it in mustard remains a close second.

Perhaps the highlight of my university education came when a classmate and I wrote and assembled several of these monologues for a one-night-only performance of “An Evening with Stallion Cornell” at USC’s Bing Theatre. Great actors performing truly stupid monologues is a joy forever. And this guy’s performance, which involved ripping out a heart/KFC chicken sandwich from his chest and proceeded to pour ketchup all over it and eat it, still makes me laugh every time I think about it. (He was supposed to use mustard, but I freely forgave the departure from the script.)

Stallion followed me through my checkered theatrical career, as I went on to manage a small theatre in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I always got Stallion’s name somewhere in to the program – once he was billed as “psychic nutritionist,” a title I stole from “Superman III.” But Stallion got his big break at the Tuacahn Amphitheatre in Southern Utah, where I was commissioned to rewrite the musical extravaganza “Utah!” to make sure that it didn’t offend anybody. The end result proved to be less than spectacular, but I thoroughly enjoyed seeing thousands of playbills printed with the credit “Revised book by Stallion Cornell” printed on the cover.

Stallion is also my online presence at several Battlestar Galactica discussion boards, including my own, Stallion Cornell’s Moist Board, hosted at this very site. Again, many have asked what “Moist” means, and some have inferred a prurient sensibility thereto, but it’s just a word I think is funny. (And, deep in your heart of hearts, you think it’s funny, too.) Online Stallion also has an arch-enemy – Languatron, a lunatic who thinks all who disagree with him are being bought off by Universal Studios executives. It seems that the Internet is a silly place, indeed, but you already know that, seeing as how you’re still reading this dreck.

Stallion lives on. I’ve written an unproduced screenplay titled “Stallion Cornell,” an Oxford-was-Shakespeare historical play, and many other stories plays and ditties attributed to Mr. Cornell, including “The Ballad of Stallion Cornell,” which I seldom perform unaltered in public since it callously mocks fat people and has the word “slut” in it. I’ve written many songs since, but that was the first song I ever wrote on the guitar.

(I can soften the fat references and replace “slut” with “nut,” but it’s just not the same.)