Fame, as they say, is a fleeting thing.
“Thanks for the Memories” was comedian Bob Hope’s theme song from the time he introduced it in 1938 until his death at the age of 100 in 2003. It played as comforting, entertaining musical background music throughout my childhood, adolescence and, even, through a great deal of my adulthood. The bittersweet undertone of the music and lyrics kept it from being nostalgic because, just below the surface, it addressed loss—irreparable loss. What had begun as a love song, over the course of at least a half-dozen wars—declared or not—became a kind of requiem.
Simultaneously, it became a hymn of thanksgiving. The memories being, sometimes, the only thing we had to sustain us through loss. For sixty years Bob Hope, regardless of his politics—barely remembered now—reminded us to keep the memories fresh, to keep them alive.
In 2003, four years before his death, the Hollywood-Burbank Airport was re-named Bob Hope Airport. Bob Hope Airport is still the airport’s legal name but in 2016, less than 20 years after Hope’s death, the branding name of the airport (whatever that is) is once again the Hollywood-Burbank airport. This news saddened me. Hope was a hero in our household.
I saw Bob Hope only once—and not in performance. My sister, Deborah, and I were attending a Tony Bennett concert at the Universal Amphitheatre (which has since been torn down (RIP) and replaced by the Wizarding World of Harry Potter)—oh the memories, Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Mathis, Diana Ross, and so many more—as he and his wife Dolores, both frail, were being assisted to their seats. As people noticed Mr. Hope, there was a smattering of applause. It built as people pointed him out to audience members around them. A number of men stood. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I now suspect that the men who stood were veterans—of World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Lebanon Civil War, the Iran-Iraq War and the Persian Gulf War. Bob Hope entertained the troops in all of these wars. He spent many Christmases with them. The audience, I imagine wanted to acknowledge its respect, gratitude, and affection.
I wonder if any of my nieces, or nephews, remember Bob Hope; I’m sure their children don’t.
At one time Hope and Bing Crosby (they probably don’t remember him either) co-starred with the attractively saronged Dorothy Lamour (not her real name) in a highly successful series of “Road” pictures which, to this day, make me laugh, because they are both genuinely funny or irresistibly corny.
I once stood behind Dorothy Lamour in an unemployment line in North Hollywood, CA, as each of us waited to receive our bi-weekly checks. Her chauffeur waited outside. “Trust me, honey,” she said to me when she realized I recognized her, “I’ve earned every penny of this.”
Bob Hope and a U.S.O. troupe entertained troops in New Guinea where my father was stationed during WWII and, for that, Hope earned my father’s undying loyalty.
Our family rarely missed any of Bob Hope’s TV Christmas Specials, nearly always shot on location in a war zone. We watched them even if they were broadcast during the dinner hour and our family rarely watched television during the dinner hour.
The specials were like vaudeville shows: Hope’s jokes plus songs and sketches from regular guests like Phyllis Diller, Jerry Colonna Martha Raye, Frances Langford, Les Brown and his band of renown (Google them, just don’t forget them—at least not yet) and guest appearances from whoever was the latest Hollywood pin-up girl—Jayne Mansfield, Raquel Welch, and Ann-Margret, among others. The camera regularly cut to the faces of the appreciative, good-humored, young GI’s—so young—in the audience, transported for at least a few moments from the ugly realities of the wars they were fighting.
I never served in the military (it would have been Vietnam and so I am grateful I wasn’t called) and didn’t fully understand the importance of Hope’s visits to the morale of the troops until many years later during the worst, most hopeless, years of the AIDs epidemic.
For the last 28 years, Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica CA has offered a safe and welcoming counter-cultural home to avant-garde artists who some biased and poorly informed people don’t consider artists.
In the early to mid-1990’s (I’m not good with dates), Highways hosted an evening of gay stand-up comics. The place was packed. The bleacher seating was arranged in a semi-circle so it was as easy to observe the audience as it was to watch the comics. I attended the performance with two close friends, Randy Wicks and Frank Ker, both infected with the AIDS virus; neither one, I’m sad to say, survived into the 21st century.
I remember looking around the bleachers that night; they were filled with handsome, mostly young, men, some of them boys really, death staring many of them in the face—not all that different from the men Bob Hope entertained—ministered to—in their youth and fear and courage and vulnerability. We smiled, shouted, nudged each other and hooted our appreciation at the comedians. It was, somehow, a glorious celebration. We laughed until tears were streaming down our faces—you describe the source of these tears, I can’t.
I keep a worn and faded greeting card on my altar. On the front of the card is this image:
It is called Compassion Mandala, painted by Franciscan icon-maker, Robert Lentz.
On the back of the card is an excerpt from The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky:
“…have no fear of human sin. Love people, even in their sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all of God’s creation. The whole and every grain of sand of it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.”
Inside the card I have printed the names of all of the friends and acquaintances I’ve lost since the beginning of the AIDs epidemic until now. There are over 100 names on the card. Not all of the people remembered on the card died of AIDS, a few died of cancer, a few from heart disease, one or two, miraculously, from old age, but the vast majority of the names are people who died from AIDs or AIDs complications.
The card is one of the first things I see each morning when I wake. I cherish it and the hundreds of stories, good times, bad times, highs and lows, unforgettable adventures, and, most of all, the loves and lives of those that are contained within its covers.
Both Randy’s name and Frank’s name are printed prominently on the inside of the card. I met them both early in 1979. I made a number of life-long friends that year, including my dearest friend, Terry Thomsen, and his 102 year-old-mother, Alice Dearest, both of whom, happily are still with us. Last week, we celebrated Mother’s Day together as we have for many years.
All of us had participated in The Advocate Experience, a transformational coming-out workshop created by psychologist, Rob Eichberg and one of my great mentors, Advocate Magazine publisher, David Goodstein. Both of their names are also on printed on the card. Rob died of AIDs, David of cancer.
We were all gathered together with several other people for an organizational meeting. At the break, Randy, who I had not yet met, crossed the room, stood directly in front of me and said, “I have decided we are going to be friends.” As far as I could tell at the time it was an order; I didn’t have any say in the matter.
Randy was one of those people with whom it was easier to agree than to argue. I will be forever grateful that I didn’t argue.
I worked in show business; Randy ate, drank and breathed show business. He was a marketing executive at Columbia Pictures, a job that came with many perks which he happily shared with his friends—box seats and catered picnics at the Hollywood Bowl and the Greek Theatre in Griffith Park; house seats for Broadway shows that were impossible for mere mortals to obtain.
One afternoon, Randy called me and said, “I have a business trip in Manhattan in 10 days. I have a great hotel room—two queen sized-beds, tickets to five Broadway shows, VIP passes to an all- night dance party in Soho, and an expense account and room-service for meals. If you can manage a round-trip ticket to NYC, everything else is covered.
“Okay, Peter Pan,” I thought, “I’ll be there.” I remember three things vividly. First: We saw a much-touted revival of Sondheim’s musical, Merrily We Roll Along; Second: I remember Randy searching through the drawers of our hotel room the night of the all-night-party and screaming, “Someone has stolen my drugs! I’m calling the concierge!” “Randy,” I pleaded, “those drugs are illegal!” “My studio and I are very good, regular customers of this hotel,” he insisted. He called the concierge and explained his problem and threatened to take the studio’s business away from the hotel. As I waited to be arrested, the concierge showed up, less than ten minutes later, with all of Randy’s drugs, a complimentary bottle of champagne and hors oeuvres; Third: I was not then and never will be “in” with the “In Crowd.” I have, ever since, been perfectly satisfied to be adjacent to the “in-crowd.” Wonderland isn’t for everybody; you have to have both the stomach and nerves for it. If this offends or scandalizes you so be it. I once gave Randy a birthday card that said, “Cocaine is God’s way of telling you that you are making too much money.” Blessedly, his infatuation with cocaine was brief. Randy was not simply a party boy; he was a tireless fund-raiser, activist, advocate, and philanthropist—none of which ever interfered with his having a good time. In this way, he was my teacher. (I tried cocaine once; it dulled my taste buds and chocolate and Triscuits didn’t taste the way they should; I never tried it again.)
I miss Frank and Rob; I really miss David; Randy, on the other hand, lives with me every day. He is my spectral housemate. After his death, I was bequeathed, from his estate, several designer lamps, a gorgeous antique hutch, a stunning print announcing a David Hockney exhibition, an idiosyncratic, mysterious and a wondrous photograph of cowboy boots—without cowboys, and, in my bedroom, a gray flannel easy chair and hassock—indescribably (at least by me) comfortable. I fall asleep in the chair as easily as a fall asleep in my bed.
I have a couple of framed photos of Randy on the antique oak buffet in the living room—I found the buffet myself at a going-out-business sale—one of Randy, Terry and me, the other of Randy and Terry, comfortably ensconced in an oversized chair, laughing together as if the world is perfect (I suspect it is). I have a Hollywood glamour photo of Randy—he worked in PR and had access to the very best photographers—which resides in a place of honor in my office. I’ve never, until now, been satisfied with the lackluster, Aaron Brother’s picture frame.
When I visited Minneapolis two weeks ago (April, 2017), I had a few hours to browse the various shops in the grand concourse of the airport. I was immediately drawn to a shop called Frivolous. Really, who would not be? There I discovered the perfect frame for Randy’s glamour photo—imported from India and adorned with shiny bottle-caps—it screamed Randy. (Randy was a screamer—an unapologetic screamer.) I managed, with some difficulty, to force the frame into my carry-on and, upon arriving home, put Randy’s glamour photo into the new frame before I unpacked my luggage, even before I went to the bathroom.
Randy, I am certain, loves the frame (if he didn’t, it would likely shatter). He is, as Bob Dylan would sing, “Forever Young.” As Terry and I, and so many of our cohorts age (the survivors), Randy, in our memories, will always be eternally younger and so much more glamourous. I’m pretty sure that would have been okay with him. I miss him every day. There are so many people I miss every day.
These ghosts—except they are not ghosts – Randy paramount among them, are, perhaps, my “spirit guides.” They are with me every day and they whisper, sometimes insistently, “Live, Jim, live! You are living for hundreds, maybe thousands, who were not gifted with the 76 years of life (so far) that have been given to you, but not us. Celebrate our lives. Remember us!” Every day I thank them (and Bob Hope) for the memories.
The casualties of the AIDs epidemic, I refuse to call them victims, conscious of it or not, died for the joy they claimed as their birthright and for the freedom they believed in.
I have known so many extraordinary, outrageous, courageous, pioneering women and men, that it baffles me that I have been left behind to memorialize them. Really! Sometimes, I feel like Zelig or Forrest Gump.
I suppose I live, have been spared, to tell their stories, I hope so; I am a storyteller. My job, my sacred commission, is to pass on the stories of my tribes, and I am a member of so many.
From time to time, with your permission, I would like to memorialize the spirits who live with me, inform me, and, when absolutely necessary (they are models of patience) scream, “Jim! For God’s sake be wise!!!!”
Wisdom is an increasingly steep curve.