Have you ever had three glasses of complimentary champagne on an empty stomach and been introduced to Garry Marshall? I have, and -- as long as you're not driving -- it's a surreal experience I think you'd enjoy. We meet in the lobby of the Falcon Theatre -- Marshall's LA neighborhood playhouse -- after a whacky and wonderful performance of A Midsummer Saturday Night's Fever Dream. With the same warm spirit you feel in his work, Marshall radiates affable humor, and grooves along to an endearing, Hollywood-via-The-Bronx, creative rhythm.
A week later, I'm interviewing Garry Marshall. To my knowledge, Mr. Marshall has never been diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, so -- try as I might -- I can't quite figure out how one singular personality has contributed so much -- from Lenny and Squiggy to Julia Roberts to the A-List galaxy of Valentine's Day -- to the entertainment world. (It takes me half the day just to get dressed.) I watch closely, observing how his mind works and how an iconic legend operates and vibes. Marshall has been a major force in Hollywood for decades, but still presents as your haimish, Bronx, next-door neighbor. It's part of his magic.
"I believe in signs, signs from above," Marshall says when I ask him why -- with his voluminous film and television success -- he remains passionately committed to live neighborhood theater? "I was going through a time where I was getting out of TV and not sure if I should go into movies. I was wondering what I should do with my life. I kept looking for signs from above. So, in 1981, I was in New York at the Hotel Elysee, and I was looking for my allergy pills. I thought they fell under the bed. When I crawled under the bed, I found a pill container, but it wasn't my pills. It was a sign from above. This is what I found."
Marshall hands me a pill vial. I read the prescription label. It's for a patient named Tennessee Williams.
"He was staying in the hotel!" Marshall booms. "I said, 'I have a sign. I should do theater!'"
Years later, Marshall built The Falcon Theatre, a cozy, not-a-bad-seat-in-the-house, neighborhood playhouse in the Toluca Lake (a special blend of classic old Hollywood /Bob Hope and wholesome young Hollywood/ High School Musical) area of Los Angeles. With the same feel-good fabric woven through Marshall's filmed projects, the Falcon Theatre delivers world-class, live entertainment in a friendly neighborhood setting.
"I think it's important that theater lovers have a place to go that's in the neighborhood," Marshall declares. "My mother was a dance teacher. She said, 'the best entertainment is live!' I think a certain magic truly happens in live theater that doesn't happen in other places. We do mostly comedy. People want to laugh. And the Falcon Theatre is one of the few theaters in LA that has free parking! Our mission statement is to combine art and free parking!"
Sitting with Marshall, I think about what signs in life I have been shown. I hark back to my arrival to LA in 1991. I rented a furnished room in a less than opulent section of the San Fernando Valley. I remember looking under my bed and finding a Dr. Seuss aluminum dinner tray displaying spermicidal lubricant, cocaine residue, and a dented can of shrimp gumbo. I wonder what somebody up there was trying to tell me?
Marshall's dedication to the Falcon Theatre has never taken his attention away from the movie business.
"Valentine's Day did great all over," Marshall shares. "New Year's Eve was big, big, big in Europe. My next holiday movie is Mother's Day, but I'm not going to direct it. I got a little tired of doing holiday movies, to be honest. My dream movie is about softball. I'm a softball addict, and I finally have a softball script. It's a father-son story. I do mostly women's pictures, but I thought one of my better works was a father-son story called Nothing In Common."
"Why does softball mean so much to you?" I ask.
"Softball is relaxing and it keeps me balanced," Marshall replies. "I wasn't good at drugs and drinking. I married a nurse because I'm a hypochondriac. Doing drugs is not good for a hypochondriac, so softball became my drug of choice. People say that if you work with me, you have to play softball, but that's not true. I'm looking for talent first, but if you play softball, it wouldn't hurt."
Finally, I ask Garry Marshall what's currently important to him.
"The most important thing to me, by far, is health," Marshall says. "I still get a kick out of discovering people and finding people, whether it be writers, actors or directors. I still have fun when the play or movie I direct has a magical moment. Health, magic, and finding people. My TV shows won 16 Emmys. I never won Oscars. I go to people's houses and see Oscars under the bed, in the garage, on the floor. It's very good for a moment, but I don't feel the need to win something. TV is becoming better business than movies, so I'm getting into TV again. I just like to know that I'm going to get up in the morning and not sneeze too much, and that I'll be healthy. I don't have the angst I used to have. And, tomorrow, I have a softball game!"
I return home to my laptop, and begin exchanging emails with Pauley Perrette, the actor who plays forensic lab rat Abby Sciuto on CBS's worldwide megahit NCIS. ( I interviewed Pauley for an entertainment magazine in 2010, and she remains one of the more fascinating personalities I've encountered.) I tell her I'm writing an article about Garry Marshall, and the gothic princess of NCIS shoots back:
"I have a Garry Marshall story. When I was in New York City and was a bartender on roller skates with a mohawk, I knew very little about celebrities. One time I was passing some big, celebrity event that was letting out. These days I am all too familiar with the gift bags that come along with these events, but at the time, had never heard of such a thing. Just then a man came walking out of the big event and just said, 'here, have this.' It was Garry Marshall. He just gave this kid his giant gift bag, and at the time my mind was blown! All this cool stuff, and he just handed it to some strange kid on the sidewalk. I've always wanted to thank him for that. I'm sure there's no way he even remembers that random act of kindness, but I do! It was quite a kick for a new kid straight out of the south. Love that guy!"
I complete a rough draft of my Garry Marshall article. Having read it multiple times, I need distance from it. I show it to a magazine editor friend. He tells me not to include the Pauley Perrette story. He thinks it's not congruent with the rest of the piece, and makes solid arguments. "It should be a straight-forward piece on Marshall, his theater, and his upcoming projects," he insists. "You're trying to do too much with it. It's not working. Drop Perrette, and drop the personal shit."
"It's a blog," I reply. "It's my own little spot in the world to do whatever I want. That's the point of a blog. It's not The New Yorker."
My friend throws his hands up in the air, and walks away. He realizes he won't change my mind, even with his keen journalistic sensibilities. My friend is smart as a whip and probably right, but he's crazy if he thinks I'm going to delete a story where a hugely popular star from the world's most watched television drama shares a complimentary tale about one of Hollywood's premiere directors. I don't really care if it works in the literary world or not, and the reason is a simple one. I was raised on filmed entertainment.
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