I can’t tell you I grew up in a musical family but music was always there, way back then when the dinosaurs roamed. Let’s just say my family had mighty eclectic… and diverse… musical tastes.

My grandfather had been a classical violinist from his early days in Denmark but spent most of his life in America working at Lyon & Healy in Chicago, where many of his friends were or became famous classical musicians and music creators.

My father’s taste never went beyond music that made him go “Yee-Haw” or Patti Page singing about doggies in her window, but my mother was all about jazz and blues and funny cigarettes—and since my career was primarily in musical theatre as a kid, where I thought all I needed to do to get hired was be cute and loud, she and I often sang along to original Broadway showtunes and Judy Garland albums when we were together. I guess that was a bit of a prophetic clue to the future.

Still, I never really got into classical music in my formative years, mainly because my life was constantly being hurled in that other direction. But when I was 11, a young concert pianist named Van Cliburn skyrocketed to fame after he traveled to Moscow at the height of the Cold War and won the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition. He even made the cover of TIME.

Now, Cliburn didn’t look anything like Copeland or Heifetz or even Oscar Levant or Victor Borge. He was 23, had a cool rebellious shock of blond curly hair, and I guess I developed a bit of a crush on him before I had a clue what that even meant. Suddenly I had a whole new appreciation for... classical music.

I wore out Cliburn’s debut LP playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1, with that striking cover featuring him hovering over his keyboard like a classical music comic book hero (another of my youthful passions) and so, when my grandfather mentioned one night at dinner my new hero was coming to town to make his first stateside appearance since his triumph in Moscow performing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, I almost choked on my frikadeller.

One of my grandfather’s best friends was a dour old guy named Fritz I must admit I usually avoided since he would run his palm over his Brylcreem-ed hair before insisting on shaking hands. But still I knew from many past ignored invitations that through Fritz I could get tickets for just about anything. Fritz, you see, was Fritz Reiner, the Symphony’s music director and the world-renowned conductor who would be leading the orchestra for Mr. Cliburn’s appearance. Asking a favor this one time would be worth greasy hands.

He was quite shocked I actually wanted to go to the Symphony but did indeed get me tickets. I was mesmerized by Mr. Cliburn the instant he walked onstage and even more lost in space when Rachmaninoff‘s Piano Concerto #2 began to saturate the massive and austere Symphony Hall—but when that was followed by Beethoven’s glorious Piano Concerto #5, his “Emperor” Concerto, my head exploded.

Of course, since I was 11, instantaneously my obsession with Cliburn transferred to an all-new hero: that ultimate droogie  Ludwig Van—a reference you’d probably have to be my age to get. I began catching up, playing Beethoven’s music nonstop, then one day my grandfather offhandedly mentioned, “And you know, don’t you, Beethoven was deaf?”

My heart about stopped.

Here’s the thing: I was not a skinny little kid, although my self-image in retrospect was quite grotesquely magnified, judging from old photos taken back then. Still, I did have a stage career early on that was, like my backside, fairly substantial. Yet ironically I could stand in front of 2,800 people staring at me from the darkness and I knew I had a certain inexplicable power over them, though I had no idea how it worked. I only knew that they were laughing with me, not at me.

After a show, however, I needed to again walk out onto the street and within seconds I would disappear into the pavement. I was painfully shy and felt totally incapable of exerting the same influence I had on others back in my preferred version of “Real Life.” The only place I ever felt totally comfortable in my skin was on a stage, which is why the concept of stagefright was an enigma to me. I couldn’t wait to get back under the lights.

But as I struggled to grasp how Beethoven could possibly create such magic without hearing the sounds around him that naturally inspire most composers, things started to make sense to me. I began to realize something urgent in my young life about the unearthly gift each of us is given as artists: the ability to make magic happen despite our personal limitations—or what we might perceive to be our own limitations. Suddenly being stuck with my substantial adolescent ass paled in comparison.

What I learned from Beethoven at age 11 brought about an amazing revelation in my life and in my art. I began to understand how art can heal and that what I “did” could be so much more than being cute and loud. I knew if this man could so brilliantly comment on the human condition—and if that commentary could survive the whiplash of time—I too could do just about anything if it came from that special place just right of the heart, that place so wildly unique to each and every one of us.

I did actually get to meet Van Cliburn a few years later while touring in Bye Bye Birdie. One night it spread through the cast that he was in the audience and, in the green room after the show, there he was. He was surrounded by a sea of people but I realized his gaze was continuously landing right… on… me. It was like that scene when Tony and Maria first see each other across the room at “The Dance at the Gym.”

I was thrilled… and apprehensive… especially when the eager cluster of greedy well-wishers left his side to crowd around another visiting celebrity entering the room and Van Cliburn motioned me to come to him. As I floated across the room, in my mind bathed in colored lights and accompanied by Bernstein’s tango, the closer I got, the more I could smell his English Leather—it was the early ‘60s, remember.

I expected he was about to ask me if I would consider touring the world as his constant companion or at least tell me how fantastic I was in the show. Instead, he leaned forward, extremely close to my surprised face, and whispered, “Where do I pee?”

From Ludwig van Beethoven I learned how a humble man can be a great man—and from Van Cliburn I learned how a great man still occasionally needs to take a leak.

 

Through five bouts with cancer, heart surgery, and Victor's ongoing deterioration, there still have only been a few times in my life when I woke up mornings feeling monumental debilitating sorrow and bone-crushing despair:

My mother's death when I was 18.

The death my first great love when I was 20.

The loss of our "forever" Lake Arrowhead home to fire.

Scott's accident.

9/11.

David's death at the unforgivable age of 54.

And every motherfucking day since this stupid, arrogant prick turned the job of being the leader of the free world into a bizarre reality show nightmare. 

"YOU FIRST" 

Here are a trio of true Hollywood stories I've always loved:

Late in her life, Shelley Winters was asked to audition for a project... and as if that wasn't disrespectful enough, she was told to be sure to bring along her headshot and resume.

Winters arrived toting a huge carpetbag and when asked if she'd brought her photo and resume for them, she opened her bag, took out her first Academy Award and, placing it in the table before them, said, "Here's my photo"... and doing the same with her second Oscar, said, "And here's my fucking resume." 

Asked to come in to meet with a young Jeffrey Katzenberg, four-time Academy Award-winning director Fred Zinnemann was asked by the fledgling exec, "So... can you tell me what you've done?"

Zinnemann leaned back and replied, "You first."

The lategreat actor David Dukes had bought the rights to the then-controversial novel Native Son and tried desperately to find someone in Hollywood with balls enough to make it into a movie. Finally, Paramount showed an interest and David was asked to come in to meet Paramount's colorful studio head Robert Evans to discuss the project.

As he sat silently listening, Evans started going through his volumes of notes on the story, saying he wanted to eliminate a major character, consolidate two others into one, and completely change the ending. Frustrated but trying to stay polite, David had finally had enough and interrupted the infamous egotist. "Mr. Evans," he asked with hesitation, "I don't mean to be disrespectful, but have you even read Native Son?" 

Without missing a beat, Evan replied, "Well, of course, not personally."  

Harvey Weinstein was hardly the first. My memories of inappropriate behavior and eventually even worse go back more than a half-century.

At the ripe old age of 12, a famous and vaguely-closeted coworker (more a comedian and then only on the verge of fame) came to me backstage, tore a hundred dollar bill down the middle, and gave me one of the halves. He told me if I wore the same underpants for two weeks and gave them to him, he would give me the other half. I had no idea what was going on but I did know it was wrong.

I took the half he gave me, ripped it into tiny little pieces, and threw them in his face--and a hundred buckaroos was worth a lot more than today, you know. He started yelling at me, calling me an "ungrateful little shit," etc., until the stage manager came into the dressing room to see what was going on and I told him, loudly and publicly, about this future Hollywood square's puzzling offer.

It was a big deal but... was he fired? Naw, he was a big draw for the show, after all. Instead the producers warned him to stay away from me and all the other many kids in the cast. He never spoke to me again and years later when he was a bigassed tv star, seeing me walk into a restaurant in Hollywood and later again running into me at one of the many all-boy parties at Raymond Burr's house, both times his early exit was faster than his little feeties could carry him. It made me feel very adult--and very powerful. I think that's where I developed the now-patented Travis Smirk.

The worst thing that has ever happened to me in my life happened the following year, however. At age 13, I was raped by a very charismatic, very famous man who kept telling me to relax because he knew what I wanted. He was showing me what I wanted, he whispered hoarsely to me over and over between thrusts. Right.

I have to admit I did have an idea what was happening when he started paying attention to me backstage and it was pretty dang thrilling--a handsome internationally renowned film star whose work I admired immensely was going to show me what everyone was always talking about. It quite honestly started out to be great fun, but I was 13 and a lot more naive than I let on, swimming around with the sharks in this adult fishtank at such an early age. I actually had no idea where the initial "fun" was going to lead. I mean, a very flamboyant chorusboy once teased me THAT was what THEY do but frankly, I didn't believe him.

So my teacher's mantra was for me to relax but I didn't--and I hid the continuous bleeding from my mother for several days until she found my discarded underwear I was hiding every morning at the bottom of the trash. I fell apart when it all unraveled and soon after I ended up facing a little stay in a hospital--and not a medical facility. I just couldn't go back into the show or, for that matter, even walk down the street and be able to look anyone in the eye. I was sure they could all see it: that thing he told me he could see that I wanted. I had in NO WAY wanted--or expected--such a thing but I couldn't get it out of my head that they all thought I did, they all thought they saw something in me I couldn't see myself. I was horrified. And ashamed. And humiliated. And terribly, terribly confused about the world I had thought I'd known.

The result? Yeah, I survived, mostly, except, as anyone who has ever been "with" me knows, nobody touches me THERE. Ever again. My old friend Barbara Bain told me once she believes that's why I have such a massive ass, something willed by me so no one will ever again find it attractive.

At age 14, I had the incredible honor of working with the greatest playwright of the 20th century, someone I looked up to maybe more than anyone else on the planet. Meeting him for the first time as part of a line of actors in the green room, I was bursting with excitement. As he came to me, his eyes lit up with that telltale look and, as he shook my hand (limply and a little too long), he crooned, "Weeeell, hellooooo, young man." My heart sank. Sadly at that young age, I immediately knew what was up.

During the run, he haunted me relentlessly--especially when I was putting on my makeup since I wore only a speedo thing at one point (if you can believe that, knowing today they wouldn't fit over one thigh) and he loved to show up when I was opening my jar of Texas Dirt.

Then one day, he came into the dressing room and said, "My beauty, you have inspired me." Uh-oh, I thought, but reluctantly asked what he meant. "I have gone to the drugstore of my hotel," he told me. "I have bought a child's set of watercolors and have painted a portrait of you... from my imagination." I was knocked out and said I was honored, but also remained suitably wary. Sure enough, he asked me to come to his hotel to see it. I suggested bringing it to the theatre but he said it was too big--and he really didn't want anyone else to see it.

Almost every day he mentioned the painting and how he wanted me to visit his hotel--I was 14, remember. Then one day, talking again about the painting, he said what was unique about it was he spilled coffee on it while he was working on it and then used it as a wash and it was the "perfect brown" to recreate our set behind me. I excitedly told him my mom was a watercolorist and often used coffee as a wash and I would love to have her see it. He laughed. "Honey," he said, "this isn't the kind of picture one would show your mother."

A few years ago, speaking about the incident at an annual literary festival honoring him in New Orleans, I told this story in a talkback. My future friend Erma Duricko came to me after and told me she thought she owned the painting of me. She took a photo of it and sent it to me and it was unmistakably me. It also proved his claim he had done the painting, as he told me proudly, from his imagination.

Boy, did that guy ever have a BIG imagination.

And the hits just kept comin'. I came to El Lay under contract to a major film studio in 1966 and the legendary head of casting who brought me here immediately turned me over to an infamous topdrawer agent and tucked me under the wing of a hugeassed casting director (with an award now named for him by the CSA), both of whom made plays for me that almost sent me running back to Chicago to become a plumber or something.

The casting director one day said a producer was interested in me for the lead in a little potentially important indie movie and suggested I come to his home to work on the script with him. It involved one Mrs. Robinson, it seemed--and I am purdy sure in retrospect the die (and the iconic role) had already been cast. I did go, however, not knowing that, but still fearing the worst.

After a short while and his third declined offer of wine, he told me I was too tense and wondered if I ever had a really good relaxing massage. He led me into an adjoining windowless room that smelled like a locker room. In it was a professional-looking massage table all set up with sheets all in place and a nearby stack of white towels. I declined to go in. After much attempted cajoling, he said, "You do know, don't you, your career is in my hands?" I told him to go fuck himself and WALKED back to where I was staying.

Six months later, my studio dropped me. They said it was because I was growing my hair for a stage role they didn't want me to do, something I told them was not an option they had mentioned in my contract--I had been SURE of that before I signed it. So, whichever the reason, thus ended my career as someone the trades once referred to as a "poor man's Troy Donahue"--and proved the dawning of my own personal Age of Aquarius.

Oh, and the guy who raped me at age 13? My mother did not stay quiet, but the powers-that-be did. Although he did keep working in European b-movies and later developed a career in daytime television, the word was out and he never EVER was hired to star in another Hollywood film. He died a few years ago at age 85.

Always wondered how often he thought of me. I hope often.

The Pacino-Shatner Hollywood School of Acting

Hooray for Hollywood.

While helping to build a set for an upcoming presentation at a local El Lay theatre company, my boyfriend Hugh talked to a fellow volunteer who told him her day job was as a telemarketer for a theatrical ticketing service, a job she loved because she could "spend all day talking to people who love theatre."

My guess? She'd been working there less than two weeks. But, she told him, she also teaches acting, so if he "really wanted to become an actor," he should take classes from her.

Aside from the fact that Hugh is a brilliant actor, he's also a published author, poet, and playwright, and has a boyfriend who earns much of his living teaching acting and coaching spoiled superstars. And, oh yeah: Hugh also has two college degrees--the second in Acting for Film from the New York Film Academy.

Still, humble kid raised on the Rez that he is, he kept his resume to himself but asked his proposed professora politely what technique she taught.

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"I mean, do you teach Stanislavsky or Meisner or Strasberg or Uta Hagen or Stella Adler or what?"

"No, I don't teach any of THAT," she answered. "I just teach people how to act." 

 OVERHEARD AT ASTRO:

"Let's face it. That guy isn't the sharpest tack in the deck."  

RUDOLPH, THE RED-FACED YES-MAN

A Holiday Reworking of Good Cheer by Travis Michael Holder

Rudolph, the Red-Faced Yes-Man
Had a very lyin’ nose...
And if you ever saw it
You would even say it grows!

All of the other Repulsivecants
Used to laugh and call him names
Only Dumb Dotard Donnie
Let him join in his Ukraine-y games!

Then one foggy Christmas Eve
Adam Schiff came to say:
“Rudy with your mouth so big
Won’t you blow Trumpty in the brig?”

Then how the country loved it
As our FakePrez shouted out with glee:
“Rudolph, the Red-Faced Yes-Man
You’ll go down in Leavenworth... on me!”

Burn, Baby, Burn or... Bye, Bye, MY American Pie 

               Photo by Peter Konerko  /  Fantasy by T.M. Holder

For BETTER LEMONS, 24 APR 17:

by Travis Michael Holder

As I contemplate my current Actors Equity Association dues statement, I have decided, after sixty-something years of acting and diligently paying my toll come hell or highwater over the years both lean and abundant, tomorrow I will be requesting a leave from the once-respected union, one of which I used to declare in program bios I was proud to be a member. Today, I’m about as proud of being a member of AEA as Rihanna is to say she used to be Chris Brown’s girlfriend.

Of course, part of the reason for this is that I’m teaching acting and directing for lotsa hours at New York Film Academy, as well as privately coaching prominent actors on two different TV series on different networks this season. Above anything else, however, caring for Victor, my partner for 48 years, desperately trying with everything in me to keep him comfortable and living at home as long as possible as he descends into the fog of Alzheimer’s, has kept me from traveling to work in theatre and eventually led to giving up my beloved apartment in New York last year. Staying in my fifth-floor walk-up with a view of a brick wall or traveling in shows has always done my nomadic Kerouac-inspired soul unimaginable good, as exploring new cities and enjoying the freedom of hotel living are things I have called home since my glory days as a working kiddie. Still, all that would not be good enough reason to stop handing AEA my meager little dues were it not for what the union has done to my world.

If you live in El Lay and have any interest in the performing arts, you would have to have been in a coma the last two years not to know how Equity has royally fucked the amazingly prolific and courageously innovative intimate theatre community in our city. By demanding small struggling theatres pay any union member who agrees to hone his art for free or with infinitesimal remuneration to have a creative outlet to offset the lack of caring from the mostly artless but omnipresent Hollywood film industry, AEA has decimated the ranks outrageously—but not without a fight. Still, when over two-thirds of LA members voted in a referendum demanding the union not put their new soul-sucking rules into effect, they ignored us all and implemented the ridiculously unworkable plan anyway.

It was difficult enough last year to send off my hard-earned cash to a union that's done nothing for me in years but give me grief—and has totally disregarded the wishes of two-thirds of its LA membership. This time out, I just plain can't seem to do it. As I said, I have been a loyal dues-paying member of AEA since sometime before Johnny B shot Honest Abe, but I can’t in all good faith support their unconscionable cause any longer.

In all honesty, there’s not much to lose for me. There aren’t many roles for geriatric juveniles with an ass the size of Texas around these days unless it’s a priest or a mentally-deficient adult—and playing stereotypical fading old duffers who invariably croak at the end isn’t much of a challenge either. Granted, this is also true in the film and television industry, but it’s especially prevalent onstage, where the only real challenges as an artist for a guy at my stage of life come from bravely off-centered 99-seat theatre companies working to create astounding new art and make a real difference. I have no interest playing Doc in West Side Story  or some other role I could call in from home for some dastardly LORT-Z pay rate at a civic light opera in Duarte or somewhere in San Bernardino County. As a 70-yr-old actor living in LA these days, teaching and private coaching are a far better way to pay the bills and pass on what one has learned from the masters before passing on—unless you’re an established name actor and even then, I suspect most of them are sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring.

So, after 63 years fiercely believing in AEA and everything for which the original concept unionizing stood in the first place, sadly, I’m outta here. I may not be able to control where my tax dollars go as handled—mishandled—by our insane and dangerous fully made-up manchild President Dummald J. Troutmouth and his equally character-challenged minions, but I can stop paying Equity as it screws me personally and systematically destroys the community I love so dearly. It’s a sad state of affairs but, truly, it’s also oddly freeing.

 

On Being an Actors' Equity Member in LA

For BITTER LEMONS; Spring, 2015:

by Travis Michael Holder

A candidate in New York for Actors Equity’s national council once asked on the 7,000-member strong Pro-99 Facebook page if anyone could explain, “for those members working exclusively in 99-seat theater,” what we see as the benefit of our Equity membership. “In other words,” he asks, “what’s the most important thing the union provides to you while working in 99-seat houses?"

First of all, I don’t think I know any AEA members whose goal is to work exclusively in 99-seat shows. To the contrary, nothing would be finer than to be paid full Equity wages for a project. But simply, there is very little AEA contract work in LA. Of the handful of union houses here, most are far enough out of "town" where some of us can’t or don’t want to travel for limited wage compensation--and the bigger houses mostly cast out of Los Angeles with actors not only hired in New York but rehearsed there.

Aside from all that well-worn yet sincere stuff about keeping our instruments in tune while waiting for film and TV auditions, and of having the honor of doing work that could make a difference in our screwed-up society despite the lack of financial reward, there’s always something else looming around the stage doors of 99-seat theatre productions in LA:  the wee-tiny chance that a successful 99-seat show will make the jump to an Equity contract. If it transfers to an Equity house, that alone would be worth the dues I’ve paid over the years to keep myself currently available for potential though rare union work. And of course, most of us deluded artists are also dreamers. Who knows? I’ve only been acting for 63 years or so—maybe one day I could still be the oldest new discovery since Fayvesh Finkel.

Personally, there are a lot of factors that keep me away from more union contracts, including taking care of my partner of 46 years, whom I’m desperately trying to keep living at home for as long as he can while the degenerative ravages of Alzheimer’s make him disappear ever-so slowly before my eyes. Then there is the fact that I have found great pleasure in teaching acting the last five years at New York Film Academy's LA campus, coming to realize it’s a fine way I can pass on (before I pass on) the knowledge I have gained over the past six decades to a “new stand of cotton,” as Tennessee would say. Then selfishly and with decidedly more mercenary thinking on my part, I have also discovered, working quite regularly these days as a personal coach for the film and television community, that one gig holding the hand of a spoiled, neurotic superstar pays more in an hour than I could make in a week on a Lort B contract in some suburban enclave with a wealth of fast food eateries and a Super 8 Motel along the main highway.

Keeping this in mind, I have turned down my share of AEA contract offers and auditions since Victor’s illness reared its unfortunate head and since the beginning of my latter-day teaching career. This has honestly left me very sad I am unable to spend my usual springs in New Orleans during the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival and am currently in the process of letting go of my own fiercely-held longtime apartment on 76th Street used while working in New York—a city where, by the way, I have seen nowhere near the cutting-edge and courageously bold work on small stages over the years than I see regularly in the poor, maligned reclaimed-desert wasteland known as Los Angeles. And over the past decade I have done 16 plays on the west coast, 14 as 99-seat productions and two on Equity contracts. Of the 14 intimate theatre experiences, 13 were incredible rich and rewarding and I wouldn’t have traded my time in them for anything—and the 14th was, shall we at least say, great fun, even if I did warn friends not to come. The two AEA contract jobs were a misery to live through and honestly, both were at least partially made miserable because of the rigidity, nastiness, and dysfunctional “assistance” and decision-making of the west coast office of my own fucking union.

A few years ago, I was offered a fairly nicely-sized role in a film shooting 10 to 12 weeks in Alaska at a very impressive rate, even if the role could have been played by any similarly odd-looking automaton. At the same time, I was offered a chance to play the dying Brian in The Shadow Box in a Culver City 33-seat space for $9 a show. I turned down the film and took the play, losing a longtime agent over the decision. You see, I was then a four-time survivor of cancer (and currently at this point in time, a five-timer) and I knew what I wanted more than anything was to say the words Michael Cristofer won a Pulitzer Prize for creating. I had previously played Mark at age 28 and Joe in my mid-30s, the latter which became another controversial decision for me, as during the final gasps of rehearsals, I received my third cancer diagnosis and was told I had about a 40% chance of survival, but only if I went immediately into surgery.

Again, I chose the play. We were scheduled to run four or five weeks, so I knew, although I was taking a chance with my life, I would get more personal healing and comfort from saying Joe’s words and submerging myself in Joe’s situation rather than focusing on my own crap. Instead of a few weeks, however, we played several months. We closed on a Sunday and I went into surgery at 6:30 the following morning. The tumor was still there to be excised but, despite my doctors’ dire warnings of gloom and destruction, had not grown or spread in any way.

Art heals. I believe with all my heart art healed me then and continues to do so today. For AEA to try to destroy that outlet for me is unacceptable. I am still unwilling to give up my passion to somehow change the world, drip by torturous drip, through whatever talent I have been given. That should be my decision, not some little miserable worm sitting in a little cubicle at the Equity office. Several theatres that gave me that unique chance to heal and grow and communicate the human condition to others have been or are in grave danger of being totally wiped out as Equity barrels through with its dastardly proposal implemented despite our loud and public protests, simply because it cannot control the unstoppably passionate intimate theatre scene in Los Angeles. If I need to one day soon chose to take on a life-altering theatrical experience in LA intimate theatre over what should be the sheltering wings of the union I have held dear for most of my life, there would be no contest whatsoever. Fi-Core R Us.

An addendum: By the way, I currently have two pair of students in two separate Scene Study classes at NYFA working on scenes from The Shadow Box. The beat goes on.

'Murkin Gothic 

A 73-year-old man is sitting alone on a park bench sobbing when a passerby walks by and asks him what's wrong. Through his tears the man answers, "I've been in an amazing relationship with a dropdead gorgeous 30-year-old cowboy poet for the last seven years."

"What's wrong with that?" asks the curious stranger.

Between his sobs and sniffles, the man answers, "You don't understand. Every morning, we make love. At lunchtime we make love again and in the afternoon, we have sex again, the best anyone could want. And then all night long, we do nothing but make sweet love until we see the morning light."

He breaks down, no longer able to speak. The passerby puts his arm around him. "I don't understand. It sounds like you have the perfect relationship. Why are you crying?"

The old man answers through his tears, "I forgot where I live."  

 
 

R.I.P. KURT (2014 - 2017)