The title this week is from a play I wrote in 1983. (Would you believe I wrote it while in the crib?) Actually, I composed it on a typewriter. For my younger readers google “typewriter. ” You might be even able to find one in a museum somewhere.
The play was about cantankerous, cigar-smoking Irving Zupperman, a Polish immigrant in his 80’s. Irv was perfectly sane except that he believed he was a super hero. In fact, he proclaimed that the original Superman comic books stole his life story and even filed a lawsuit.
Because of his ramblings that he was a superhero, Irving was diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s. A Miami resident, he was put into a Dade County welfare facility from which he frequently tried to escape. (Given the dynamics, you could say the story was a cross between “Miracle on 34th Street” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”)
The funny thing was Irving did inexplicable “superhero” feats. Claiming he had x-ray vision, he often “saw” people before they entered his room and appeared to read a driver’s license that was in a reporter’s wallet. (The reporter was there reluctantly doing a story about Irv’s lawsuit.) The only person who believed Irv was the reporter’s 8-year-old undersized son to whom Irv said comfortingly, “There’s a little superhero in all of us.”
With my cousin Harry’s backing ($1,200) I put the play on for six-weekends at the Church In Ocean Park. Even the L.A. Times reviewed it though not exactly very favorably. “Somewhere behind the foggy notions of good intentions there’s a play there, just not this one.” Ouch!
Suffice it to say, “Irving” was not a smash hit. But it’s said we learn more from our failures than our successes. And I didn’t give up. I turned “Irving” into a screenplay, “The Amazing. Mr. Z,” which famed actor Ed Asner optioned for a movie. As luck would have it (or lack thereof) Asner couldn’t get financing even though years later the animated movie “Up,” about a cranky old man and a young boy who believed in him and which starred Asner, earned $500 million. Go figure.
In the meantime, I got a call from a community theater in Northridge “The Little Oscar Theater” asking to do their version of my play. That was fine but truthfully, I hadn’t yet recovered from my own semi-flop. So, when the theater director wanted me to come out for auditions I avoided it. But my wife encouraged me to go because they were so earnest.
As I pulled up to the theater its location was a bad sign. It was in between a Winchell’s Donut and a Carpenteria carpet store. I had longed for Irving to be staged off Broadway and here I was getting off Reseda Blvd.
No offense but the talent level at the auditions made my production in Ocean Park look like Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater. It was so depressing that during a break I sneaked out to my car. In fact, I had the key in the door when the flamboyant theater director, Ron (pronounced Ra-un) said with a pained voice, “Jack, are you leaving?” I responded, “Uh, no, I just got a migraine.”
Ron plied me with aspirin I didn’t need. Minutes later, two of the young women auditioning for the ingénue role of Irving’s social worker said of me within earshot, “Which movie star does he remind you of?” As I was feigning modesty, finally one said to the other, “I got it, Ned Beatty!” I couldn’t wait to go home to slit my wrists.
Each Friday afternoon, Ron would leave a message on the answering machine pleading with me to attend the play and for closing night, my wife insisted we go. With an almost entirely elderly audience, the theater was sold out and, frankly, the performance wasn’t that bad. Before we could leave, however, Ron announced to the audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have the honor of the presence of the playwright in the house so let’s form a receiving line.” I took a deep sigh and prepared to meet my “fans.”
While everyone was very well meaning, one elderly man’s comments still sticks out to this day. As he kept vigorously pumping my hand he said, with a heavy Jewish accent, “You know the movie ‘Cocoon?’ I fell asleep, first ten minutes. Your play, I stayed awake for whole thing!” (I couldn’t make this stuff up, folks.)
My wife couldn’t understand why I wasn’t that pleased with the compliment. “Dear, imagine the poster for the play with the reviewer’s “lavish” quote, “I stayed awake for the whole thing!”
So, if it’s indeed true that we learn more from failure than success, all I can say is, I’m like a really smart guy.
Jack is at facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth and firstname.lastname@example.org