I grew up in star-studded Las Vegas. My father was a high-roller gambler and we spent a lot of time in casino showrooms. As an adult, I was a news reporter, covering organized crime and the resort-entertainment industry, bumping shoulders with countless celebrities. Later, I worked at a high level of the executive branch of the US government, meeting presidents and a few kings.
You’d think I would have acquired a degree of sophistication along the way. But think again. Embarrassingly, I’m still a bumbling star-gazing social-lite!
Piercing Mr. Peerce
My social clod-like ways began in childhood.
Unless you’re an opera fan, you’re probably not familiar with the name Jan Peerce, but Mr. Peerce was an acclaimed operatic tenor. My parents worshipped him and played his records on our living room record player ALL THE TIME. I loved him too. My uncle, a hotshot Las Vegas casino executive, was friends with Jan Peerce.
When I was seven, we all got to meet the great tenor. As I shook hands with him, I looked up at my family’s idol in horror, and said, “Oh, no. You cannot be Jan Peerce. You’re old. And you’re ugly too.” And with that, I ran from the room crying.
My parents were mortified. My uncle, a tough guy, looked like he was ready to have a contract taken out on my young life.
Only Jan Peerce laughed. “Don’t be mad at the child. She speaks the truth,” he said in Yiddish. “The photo album covers are all old photos. Decades outdated. All retouched. I am old. I am ugly. Don’t punish a child who tells the truth.”
Pardon the non-kosher observation, but the Orthodox Jan Peerce definitely saved my bacon that day.
Presidential Fumbles, Mine
As a reporter, I interviewed former President Gerald Ford on a Las Vegas golf course one day. President Ford, as you probably recall, was the subject of comedian Chevy Chase Saturday Night Live parodies for his frequent habit of taking pratfalls. Sure enough, as he stepped over to speak to me, President Ford stumbled. I couldn’t believe it. There on videotape, I caught the President almost take a header. I looked shocked, embarrassed. Noting the expression on my face, he ruefully – and gracefully – acknowledged that he did indeed stumble quite often, and then proceeded to answer my questions as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
Once while dining with a notorious, alleged organized crime figure and his bombshell showgirl girlfriend, the subject turned to said alleged crime figure’s daughter, who was baulking at the idea of going to college.
“You went to college, right?” he demanded of me.
I nodded yes, uncertain of where this conversation was heading. Was I going to be asked to mentor a mobster’s daughter? Attend her high school graduation? Was he going to ask me to ghostwrite her college essays? My dad’s in the Mob, but honest, he won’t kill you if I don’t get into Harvard, Yale, etc.
Mind racing. Pulse elevated. Brain not working well. I blurted out the following:
“She has to go to college or she’ll be a bum.”
Silence at the table.
The undercover cop at the next table tensed. It might have been my imagination, but I thought his hand reached for his gun.
“You mean a bum like her father?” my mobster dinner companion said slowly.
“If I was referring to you, I would have said ‘an alleged‘ bum,'” I quickly replied.
The showgirl girlfriend laughed.
The undercover cop relaxed his hand.
Middle-Aged and Still a Social-lite
Like most people, I am fascinated by celebrities. I read about them (Long live People magazine!) and I thrill on the occasions when bumping shoulders with them.
I love celebrity sightings so much, I’ve made a party game of it! Just ask people who the most famous person they ever met is and off they go. It’s a great conversation starter. Try it. People love talking about who they’ve met or seen.
As for me, now in my 60s, you’d think I could handle myself better in social situations. But even though I’m middle aged, I’m still a social-lite. With age has not come wisdom. With age has not come social skills or grace.
My Latest Social Faux Pas
As many of you know, I’m a theater geek and have the tremendous good fortune to serve on the board of trustees of the acclaimed Tony-award winning Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Two weeks ago, the organization held its send-off gala celebrating Artistic Director Tony Taccone’s 33-year tenure with Berkeley Rep. “Gala” is really too small a word to describe this blow-out event.
Bumbling and Bumping Shoulders with Celebrities
Among the people there to honor Tony was his pal, Pulitzer Prize-winning Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America. Generally, I admire from afar the amazing artists who come through the doors of Berkeley Rep. But to be in a room, albeit a big banquet hall, for hours with Tony Kushner and not meet him was too much.
Emboldened by a really powerful cocktail, usually non-drinking me, now more than slightly tipsy me, went over to Tony Kushner and gushed, “Hi, I have nothing to say to you, but I really wanted to meet you. So, hi!” And then, embarrassed, I rushed away.
Meeting Sir Ian McKellen, I tried to impress and used a fancy word incorrectly!
He kindly pretended not to notice.
Celebrating Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s 50th anniversary with friends and the cast of Ain’t Too Proud – Now on Broadway.
Seconds later, I stepped on the toes of one of the singer/dancers!
Yes, with age comes wisdom and kindness, but, in my case at least, social skills might take another decade or so to develop! Till then, I guess you can take me anywhere, but out!