Monday, February 20, 2017

Rubbing Elbows with Susan Sarandon
(image used without permission)

I have done a lot of different jobs as “work” but one of the most formative and self-enlightening was working for a VIP Department at Walt Disney World.  As a function of this role, we were assigned to day guests, executives, Broadcast Synergy and Corporate Alliance partners (with Coca-Cola, FedEx, American Express, GM, ABC, and others,) dignitaries, sports figures, world leaders, and yes, even the common celebrities.  The official title during these functions was “VIP Guide” but we were called “velcro-buddies,” “assists,” and simply “Plaid” for the plaid vests worn as part of the costume for this department.  Admired by some, hated by others, but envied by most in both camps, this job had its benefits and its drawbacks. But most who viewed it as a privileged position saw only the glamour of hanging out with notable persons, eating in fantastic Disney restaurants and enjoying immediate access to attractions, and just basking in the glow of celebrity.  Although we may spend hours to days and even weeks alongside these special guests, it was mostly understood that we were to be very discreet with the “goings on” and with what we witnessed.  We may have shared stories amongst ourselves, stories both funny and shocking, but it was rare that we would share these stories outside of the circle.  To borrow the Las Vegas catch-phrase; “what happens in plaid, stays in plaid.”  To be completely honest, I was not always the best employee (or Cast Member) and I will live with some regret, but at the time I would rarely gossip about those with whom I worked.  And I do say worked “with” rather than “for” because for myself, more often than not, I was either assisting them as a function of a special event or production at which they had been invited or hired to perform, or I was working with them to simply have a great vacation or stay at the “Most Magical Place on Earth.” 
I was by no means the VIP Guide with the most illustrious stable of guests with whom I’d worked, but I will admit to having “vacationed” alongside a pretty impressive group of artists, professionals, and famous folk.  One of them seems to get a lot more reaction than others.  Susan Sarandon.  It was early 1999 and I had been told that somehow, Susan’s office had personally requested that I be the VIP Guide assigned for her visit.  How my name had come to their attention I still don't know.  She would be coming to put her handprints in cement in front of the “Great Movie Ride” which was housed in a replica of the famous Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.  It was to help promote the release of the film “Stepmom” to video, and she would be traveling with one of her children as well as one of her young co-stars from the film, Liam Aiken.  Liam was probably 9 or 10 years old at the time.
As our roles normally required, i was to meet her and the group at Orlando International Airport and escort them back to the resort.  (All of Walt Disney World property was commonly referred to as the “resort” although she would be staying at the sleek Contemporary Resort) Some of the people who worked at the airport got accustomed to seeing the Disney VIP Guides (again, the plaid vests) and would keep an eye out for who we may be meeting.  This was especially true during press events or big anniversary events where there would be leagues of VIP Guides and even an outpost in the airport for logistics reasons.  On this day, I got a few looks and questions, but I was mum on who I was there to meet.  
When Susan disembarked from the plane, I of course knew her at once, after all I was there to pick her up.  But she could have gone unrecognized.  She was petite, dressed casually, had no entourage, and although wearing large dark sunglasses, (and who wasn't, we are talking Florida and the end of a cramped flight,) she was “normal” looking.  Until she spoke.  That voice.  You do not mistake that voice.  And of course, the passengers who were on the plane with her had figured it out during the course of the flight, and many began to buzz and flutter around her, taking pictures and you began to hear “Susan Sarandon!” practically becoming a chant.  And once you knew it was her, you KNEW it was her.  She could not long hide that aura of “star” and she was supremely SEXY.  Not just looks, but the way she carried herself.  She deserved to be called SEXY.  And gay though I am, I was a fan, and was instantly smitten.  But I had a job to do.
Our introduction was short and perfunctory enough.  I was just one of a long list of such assists who met her all over the world and was only there to help her navigate the next few days.  But she was warm and personable.  Again, she was accompanied by Liam who had just had a birthday it turns out, Liam’s mother Moya, and Miles Robbins, one of Susan’s sons with her long time parter, Tim Robbins. Miles was just 7 or 8 at the time.  We got the luggage quickly (first class passengers) and departed for the property. (Another way we referred to WDW.)  It is about a 30 minute drive, and along a then very un-scenic greenway, so plenty of time to get acquainted.  We discussed schedule and plans, and also what the young boys wanted to do during the stay.
I wont go into much detail about the stay, it was normal.  Well, normal for me in that capacity as a VIP Guide and normal for Susan in that it was a function to which she agreed as a promotional stunt.  The things that stick out to me are a few though.  We were having lunch at the Brown Derby (restaurant in the Disney MGM Studios Theme Park - now simply the Disney Studios Theme Park) and it came up in conversation with Moya, Liam’s mother, that I had seen “Rocky Horror Picture Show” over one hundred times, in the days before it had been released to VHS, much less DVD or digital.  Susan was intrigued and asked if I had ever “portrayed” the characters in front of the screen, which I had done only once.  But I remarked on how many movies in which she had sung, and we had a great few moments connecting over counting them.  And it was contemplated that with the number of roles she had filmed, AND the cult viewing status of “the Rocky Horror Picture Show” that surely she must be the MOST viewed actress of all time.  (Side note, during one conversation, she mentioned how great it would be remake “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” but HOW could you remake that movie, the idea of a remake was almost a sacrilege to contemplate, and yet, now she and Jessica Lange will star in “FUED” about the actual filming of the movie and the professional rivalry that existed between the stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.  THANK YOU Ryan Murphy!!!!) 
Also, Miles, Susan’s son, came down with a fever for a day or so, and she instantly became JUST his mother and we took him to a doctor and then she stayed with him in the hotel for the day.  I took Liam and his mother out to enjoy the parks.  We were walking through the Magic Kingdom when one of the pesky sea gulls that patrolled for food flew low overhead and “let go” onto poor Liam.  It hit him square on the head and a bit dripped down to his shirt.  Realizing what had happened, the young lad began to almost retch.  I hurried him to the bathroom to wash, grabbing a bottle of water along the way for him to drink, and then I ran to get him a new T-shirt.  I informed him that actually, in some cultures, it was considered a great omen of fortune to have a bird dropping on ones head.  Turns out, he had been up for a part in “I Dreamed of Africa” and he got it. I hoped later that the experience become a fond memory for him.  Also, after Miles’ recovery, the boys spent an afternoon at (now closed) DisneyQuest creating virtual roller coasters on Cyber-Space Mountain.  In fact, the Cast Members at the attraction let them know (wink wink) they could go a little bolder and design a more compelling ride than was normally allowed for guests at the flight simulator attraction.  So, while one of the boys was designing a coaster with more and more loops and barrel rolls, I would be “riding” it with the other.  I rode Cyber-Space Mountain over 25 times that day.  Probably not an official world record, but I still claim it as such.
Now the reason Im writing about my time spent with Susan Sarandon is because of how she has found herself in the news lately.  As a vocal critic of Secretary Hillary Clinton as a candidate for the Presidency, and further remarks since the (excuse me while I choke back some bile) the resulting “election” of Donald Trump.  As someone who was routinely admired by liberals or by the “left” but now, suffers slings and arrows from both sides of a political divide, she steadfastly maintains an air of peace and dignity, just sharing her opinion when asked.  (You can research for yourselves her interviews prior to and post election.) Having no contact with her since our Disney adventure, but always having been a fan, I found it difficult myself to reconcile my admiration of her with what she said before the election.  I personally wanted Hillary to be the candidate, and that came after much inner conflict as I REALLY wanted Bernie Sanders.  It had been said "Hillary was the best candidate for the job, but Bernie was the candidate we really needed.”  So I wanted Hillary.  The fear was that too many of those who supported Bernie would disappear in the choice between Hillary and Donald.  I guess in a sense, that is what happened.  So now, with some still asking her, she maintains a quiet, dignified, yet still mysterious position that the election of (excuse me again) Donald Trump could speed the “revolution.”
While I personally think we would have been not only MUCH better off with Madame President and Bernie in a role that would still be creating policy, and Obama as the next Supreme Court Justice, Susan’s logic caused concern for me.  But I had to contemplate it for my own reckoning.  
I thought back to one of the conversations I had overhead her have with her mother (a renowned journalist) in the car. Susan was planning to attend a protest against the excessive force used by police in the arrest of Amadou Diallo, and unarmed African immigrant in New York City.  This was years before current day outrage.  Susan’s mother had questioned what could happen, potentially Susan’s arrest and how might her family be affected.  Susan had replied, something to the effect of “that being the whole point.”  Her position, really her station, asked of her to stand by her principles, and being well known was both a magnifier and a higher need for this cause.  In fact, Susan was arrested, peaceably, and it did make headlines.  I was not as familiar with the particulars of the cause, but I recall thinking “she commits to her beliefs, that is truly admirable” which by most accounts, are beliefs in equality, peace, sustainability, and integrity for all. 
So now, with her recent beliefs being called into question, I have to ask myself to investigate my own beliefs all over again. Revolution may be needed certainly. SOMETHING has to change.  How might our country have continued to swing towards a more perfect ideal with either a Bernie or a Hillary White House we may never know.  Susan, like other artists, seem to know something still lost on politicians.  That humanity needs such voices to gently or harshly call attention to ourselves.  Artists say what must be said.  Artists say the things and ask the things required for true democracy.  How Hillary Clinton may have too long been central to the game she was trying to change. How Bernie Sanders was really the candidate with the ideals and beliefs we need but cannot yet bear to admit.  Susan Sarandon, through her quiet, thoughtful, husky and sexy voice points to the choice we can still yet make.  Not so much to “revolt” as to “resist.”  And change.  Do what is necessary.  Start with yourself.  Ask not the emotional questions, not even the political ones.  Ask the ones which beg more difficult answers.
If I could spend another afternoon with Susan Sarandon, there is much I'd still like to discuss. I'd love her opinion about MY work, my writing and to be honest would she consider an endorsement? I'd still ask about working on so many fantastic films over the years.  Id ask her about Miles, and how interesting of a young man he has become, and does he remember Cyber-Space Mountain?  I'd ask about life as an actor “of a certain age” no matter how successful a career they’ve had.  And yes, I'd again ask her WHY?  I'd almost want to ask HOW she actually voted.  But more importantly, what someone with her outlook and experience really SEES for our future.  The NEA faces threats to funding, PBS, ACA, National Parks,  and how many other functions of a Government of the People and for the People are in jeopardy now.  Can she, by her grace and her insight, still offer us a glimpse of ourselves? Can she weather the disdain of some and disappointment of others and still be an artistic voice calling us to suspend belief?  Not just for a made-for-TV legendary Hollywood feud, but the feud between who we area and our better selves? 
Seeing her recently on TV discussing her personal beliefs seems like a risk that many celebrities of her stature would not dare make.  And yet she makes it.  I am still a fan.  And I find that I am still being influenced by her.