Archive | Uncategorized RSS feed for this section

The Christmas Tree Conveyance (5 min read)

18 Dec

My first holidays after moving to the west coast, I caught the yellow line from Rockridge Bart into the city. It was a cold, mid-December night as I got off at the Embarcadero. In my desire to make new friends, I’d signed up to volunteer for a Christmas-themed charity event. It was at the historic Top of the Mark and I was excited to see all the Christmas lights and decorations. The views of the Bay were gorgeous, and my heart swelled with good will as I took the California Avenue cable car up to my destination. It promised to be a night I would never forget in my newly adopted city.

The halls of the famous Mark Hopkins Hotel were decked full of holiday cheer as I made my way over to the elevators to get up to the event. Moments later, I exited the elevators and was immediately met with the bedraggled face of Susan, the volunteer coordinator. It appears several volunteers had been no-shows and had increased her anxiety exponentially. Susan scanned her clipboard before looking at me with a feigned smile.

“Oh, yes.” She said, “You’re in the silent auction room with Frank. Here’s a box of pencils. Just make sure people are signing-up for the Christmas Trees!”

Christmas Trees? I walked into the large conference room and low and behold there were seven, fully flocked Christmas Trees being auctioned off. I’d never seen such beautiful and exotically themed trees, all designed by famous local artists to benefit the charity. I walked past each tree, one more elaborate and finely detailed than the last, as I headed over to a young man standing in the corner. Frank wore a Nirvana tee-shirt and aviator sunglasses. His long stringy hair cascaded out of his Santa’s cap as he stood motionless behind a small table decorated with holly and gold satin bows.

“Are you Frank?” I said and smiled cautiously. “Susan said I would be—”“So, you’re Santa’s Little Helper?” Frank said with contempt, seizing me up behind his mirror shades. Then he handed me a bright, forest green felt elf hat. “I guess you’ll do.”

“What’s my job?” I asked him, innocently and came around the table to stand next to him.

Frank turned to me, Christmas lights reflected in his sunglasses.

“Oh,” he said with a smirk. “You’ll find out soon.”

After dinner, the executive director of the charity closed the silent auction and announced the winners of the seven fully flocked, designer Christmas trees. I stood with Frank, wearing my felt green elf hat and felt a sense of relief. Susan walked toward us. I’d hoped she was going to let me off early for good behavior. Maybe help the older Ladies down to their cars with the table centerpieces they had been given as parting gifts. I mean, I hadn’t exactly done much of anything and the event looked like it was wrapping up. It was the least I could do, before being set free.

“We’re printing the receipts now,” Susan said. “You guys can start loading the Christmas trees once the guests have left the ballroom.

“Did you say, loading Christmas trees?” I said, “Into what?”

The corners of Frank’s mouth turned upward in a devilish grin.

“Into my truck,” he said. “It’s go-time, little buddy.”

I stood staring back at Frank with what must have been an astonished expression. Because Susan reached out her left hand from her clipboard and placed it on my forearm. I’m sure the gesture was meant to steady me, but instead it made me jump in my skin.

“We really do appreciate you helping Frank deliver them all tonight,” she said. “It will mean so much to the families who so generously donated their support, to have these wonderful Christmas trees to celebrate the holidays.”

“Tonight?” I said, “But I didn’t know I would be–”

“Let’s ride,” Frank said, and plopped an unwelcome arm over my shoulder. “I promise to get you home by midnight, so you don’t turn into a pumpkin!”

Did I mention the elevators at the Mark Hopkins are small? So tiny, in fact, that Frank and I had to take turns grabbing a Christmas Tree and, one at a time, escorting them down to the garage where his panel truck was parked. By the time we got all seven trees wedged into the back of his vehicle, it was going on 9:00. I motioned to get into the passenger side of his truck cab, when he glanced over from the driver’s seat and gave me some serious side-eye.

“What,” he said. “Do you think you’re doing?”

“Going with you to deliver Christmas trees?

“Yeah,” he said and rolled his eyes. “But Santa’s Helper goes in the back of the truck.”


“You don’t see Santa driving his sleigh with an elf next to him, do you?”

“Actually,” I said. “In Rudolf The Red-Nosed Reindeer there was an elf handing an umbrella to all the misfit toys–.”

Frank looked at me as if I’d gone insane. Then without another word, he pointed to the back.

“Fine,” I said, and slammed the passenger side door. “What could go wrong?”

It didn’t take long for me to answer my own question. For as soon as Frank lowered the door to the back of the truck, locking me in the dark, I realized my mistake. I was in an enclosed space with seven Douglas Pines covered in sharp needles and decked out with glass ornaments and lights. I braced myself, spreading my arms and legs along the panel truck walls as Frank turned over the engine. A rush of adrenaline came over me as I whispered to the tiny forest I found myself trapped within: “Please drive slow, Santa.”

The very next second, Santa put his truck in gear and floored it. My head hit the top of the panel truck ceiling as Frank commenced to fly out of the Mark Hopkins parking complex, catching air as he launched onto the streets of San Francisco. He flew across California Street, then down Taylor Street like the Flying Dutchman, sailing down one of the steepest streets in the world. Meanwhile, directly behind him, me and the trees flew around each other in a semi-circle, back and forth as if spinning in a broken washer. Frank rocketed toward Market Street in careless abandon, while each fully flocked Christmas tree turned me into a glittering, pine-tarred montage of Yuletide mayhem.

By the time Frank stopped at our first delivery point, I was completely covered in broken ornaments, broken bulbs, garland, and prickly pine needles. I heard him get out of the cab and walk around to the back of the truck. He lifted the door and stared up at me in utter disbelief. It was as though the man had no conception of what drag-racing through the streets of San Francisco would do to the contents of the metal box he hauled behind him. I stared down at him and, as calm as could be, declared:

“I’m driving from now on.”

And drive, I did. Over the next two hours, we delivered all seven Christmas Trees, from Pacific Heights down to the Marina and back to Union Square. I let Frank explain, minus his trademark aviator sunglasses, as each front door opened what happened to the family’s now deconstructed Christmas tree. Amazingly, they took one look at me holding their tree, and took it without complaint.

After the last smashed Christmas tree was delivered, I pulled up at Powell Street Bart Station to catch the last train home. Frank and I parted ways with a muted “Merry Christmas” then I descended the stairs to the train platform. I’ll never forget that Bart ride home, surrounded by holiday revelers, all staring at the human Christmas Tree I had transformed into. It might not have been what I’d signed up for six months before but it was a night I’ll never forget for as long as I live.

On the Front Lines of the Pandemic with My Nephew

12 Apr
Chris Miller_Blog Shot 2020

As of this writing, New Jersey has approximately 56,000 confirmed cases of Coronavirus and rising. It’s currently one of the nation’s biggest hot spots, second only to New York City and New York State. And on the front lines fighting this global pandemic is my favorite first responder – my nephew Chris.

Chris Image 1 Final

Chris as Captain, Age 22.                                               
Chris Portrait
Chris as Deputy Chief, Age 32.

Chris has been a rescue squad member in New Jersey for literally half his life. He joined when he was sixteen and has never looked back since. He is now Deputy Chief of his squad with two lieutenants and a captain who report to him. But what I find equally amazing to these achievements is the fact that Chris is a volunteer. He, along with his colleagues, risk their lives to save perfect strangers – for free.

Frank and Chris

Chief Frank and Deputy Chief Chris in happier times.

Awards Ceremony 2018

Chris and his fellow squad members recognized for actions in the line of duty, May 2018.

I sat down the other night and checked in with Chris, who was on duty and had just come back from a call. I asked him what it was like being on the front lines of the greatest health crisis most of us will likely ever see, and hopefully live through. I wanted to share what he had to say.

Chris Image 2 Final

How fast is the Coronavirus spreading in your neck of the woods?

Well, a week ago we had just one case of the virus in our little town of 3,400 people, and now we’re up to 10. In the county we’re in the hundreds. My squad covers approximately a 60-square mile area, and we currently have about 60 cases in that area.

Chris in Seed Bin

Chris during Technical Rescue Training – Summer 2019.

To your knowledge, have you ever been infected with the virus?

It was about three weeks ago tonight, I had to be quarantined because of a suspected exposure. They didn’t have tests available then, so about twelve of us including four state troopers and two paramedics, had to self-quarantine. This virus has such a high-incubation rate, about two weeks, that I wouldn’t have tested positive anyway. So, I sat on the sidelines until we got the all-clear. Now, if we’re exposed but asymptomatic, they’ll let us go back to medical work but we have to wear a mask the entire time. It’s because there just aren’t enough medical workers to go around. We were just informed that our third New Jersey EMT, a 24-year-old, died of Covid-19. Needless to say, we’re taking it very, very seriously.

Chris in Fire Rescue Gear

Chris (center) assisting on a car fire with fellow firefighters.

Can you tell me what your normal day is now with the outbreak?

It’s far from normal. For starters, what took us a half-hour a couple weeks ago, now takes us an hour and a half to do. It’s all the prep to stay safe going out on a Covid-19 call. The start of every shift, we clean and sanitize everything – the rig, our boots, and get the prep kits ready. Then we just wait for the calls to come in. We have to be in a surgical mask whenever we’re in the building, whenever we’re out in public – all the time essentially.

Chris behind Rig

Chris, decontaminating the ambulance.  

We’ve been hearing about shortages. Do you and your crew have enough PPEs?

We’re definitely in short supply of masks, so we have to reuse them like everyone else (with exclusions). I have an N95 mask, and if I wear another (surgical) mask over it – that mask will keep particles off the N95, which means we can get a couple uses of our N95s in the field before we dispose of them. I can’t speak to how well we’re stocked (on masks) right now because the call volume is ever-changing. For instance, today we’ve been on 7 Covid-19 calls alone, so you can imagine how much PPE we go through even for a two-person crew. I’ve bought some of my own supply on the open market, for a healthy mark-up.

Chris Beside Rig

Chris, donning his Personal Protection Equipment for a possible Covid-19 emergency.  

What is it like to respond to a suspected Covid-19 rescue squad call?

Right now, we’re starting to see a real up-tick in our call volume. What’s strange is how we have to handle more serious calls. Where we would normally have an additional ambulance crew, or some police, they may come but we’re keeping them out of the scene right now, telling them to stay in their vehicles until we can ascertain whether we are going to need their help. We just responded to a cardiac arrest call right before you called, and where there would normally be three or more of us, at least two EMTs and a first responder, now there’s just the one EMT and first responder in some cases. It’s what we’re having to do to try and minimize exposure. Nobody can afford for us to have to go back into quarantine again.

Ultraviolet Rig

An UltraViolet Lantern used to sterilize the ambulance.

You and your crew rescue people for free. Are there a lot of voluntary rescue squads across the nation?

There are more in areas that do not have larger towns, and as you hit the mid-west, but there’s also other states that are starting to regionalize their EMS systems. They may have one paid station, with other stations elsewhere. A lot of the mid-west and upper mid-west is where you’re seeing voluntary agencies in addition to the northeast. Other states like California are nearly 100 percent paid crews. The same is with New York City, which is covered by FDNY. But if you head Upstate New York, there are more volunteer squads.

Chris in Command

Chris, command at training drill, Winter 2017.  

Ice Rescue

Chris instructing his crew during an ice-rescue training exercise – January 2019.

Being on the front lines, I’m sure you’re keeping an eye on the Coronavirus surge models. What are they telling you?

Right now, approximately 50 percent of our calls are Covid-19 related. Obviously, we expect that percentage to keep going up. All those calls aren’t always Covid-19 positive, but Covid-19 suspicious. But we have to treat each call the same. We’re anticipating we’re going to see the number of cases peak in the state over the next week. Meanwhile, our county is anticipating peak in the next couple of weeks. So, we’re just starting to get into the heavy part of this now. As far as the state, we could see hotspots in places like Princeton, which is more densely populated. Jersey City and Hoboken are seeing a lot more cases now. And Bergen and Essex County that border Manhattan are also hotspots.

Chris Image 3 Final

Chris, during an after-action meeting, following a multi-agency incident.

To your knowledge, are people adhering to the Stay-at-Home order in your state?

With mixed results, really. There’s been a lot of chatter on the police channels we scan for our work. It’s mostly people congregating, people out playing sports, people out taking walks – people just trying to release stress and escape the cabin fever. They really don’t understand that it’s best for them, their friends and family to stay inside and social distance. The other numbers this will negatively affect are psychological, domestic violence, and suicide.

Chris Image 4 Final

Chris, age 21, and Frank, during a much-needed break from running squad calls.

I keep coming back to the fact you do this for free. How do you make rescue squad and having a day job work?

Well, I just got furloughed from my day job starting Monday. I didn’t expect it to happen this soon but it did and without warning. So, I’ll be applying for unemployment and hoping the stimulus package checks come soon. Otherwise, it could start to be a pretty sticky situation for me, financially. I guess the upside is that I can now go on more rescue squad calls.

Chris Image 5 Final

Chris with Doreen, his Mother, who is a former rescue squad member and past Chief.

I’m sure that doesn’t sound like an upside to your parents?

My Mom used to do rescue squad with me. It’s how I first got into it. She worries but she also knows she can’t tell me to quit. It’s in my blood. The passion to help people is why I do it. I think it would be different if I got paid. Ironically, I think I’d have burned out a long time ago if it was my job-job. It’s hard to explain to most people but I’m just thankful that I’m still healthy.

Chris having Fun

Chris making repairs in a heavy rescue vehicle.

I’m thankful you’re healthy too. Good luck and try to stay that way.

Sure thing, Uncle Jon. Thanks for checking in!

Chris Image 6 Final

Chris, working a parish festival in New Jersey in more normal times.

Being Huemann: Judy’s Story

7 Mar

Judy Huemann AOn a spring day in April 1977, hundreds of disabled American demonstrators in Washington D.C., New York, Denver and San Francisco, demand new President Jimmy Carter’s administration implement Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, protecting the rights of all people with disabilities. Joseph Califano, the HEW (Health, Education, and Welfare) Secretary, promises to sign the regulations after further review, though his task force has no one representing the disabled on it. In response, San Francisco-based disability rights activist Judy Heumann (30) with help from San Francisco campaign organizer Kitty Cone, stages a spontaneous Sit-In with over 150 other disabled demonstrators on the fourth floor of the old Federal building. Judy demands Secretary Califano sign the regulations now and demonstrators across the nation take Judy’s cue and also stage Sit-Ins. The media begins 24 hour live coverage outside federal buildings in each city where “the occupation army of cripples has taken over.”

Judy Huemann 1
Judy, who has used a wheelchair for most of her life due to polio, is a beautiful, ballsy and vivacious, smart and sassy civil rights activist. She knows the 42 words of Section 504 are worth fighting for. Passed by Congress in the Civil Rights Act of 1974, the Ford Administration failed to ever implement the act. Judy knows before the law can become effective, regulations must be issued defining who is a disabled person, and what constitutes discrimination and nondiscrimination in the context of disability. The regulations would finally provide a consistent, coherent interpretation of 504’s legal intent rather than leaving it up to individual judges to interpret. Left intact, those 42 words would end centuries of pain and suffering of the disabled at the hands of those who would judge persons with disabilities less-than human beings.

Judy Huemann 9
After the second night of the San Francisco sit-in, HEW officials begin cracking down. Any demonstrators who leave the federal building are not allowed back in and all the phones are shut-down except for one emergency line. On the third day, the hot water is turned off. By the fifth day, federal authorities successfully force out all the demonstrators in D.C., Los Angeles, New York and Denver. But Judy and her group hold tight in San Francisco, even as greater pressure is applied to their living situation. But even under the tough conditions, the 150 demonstrators continue their swinging 70’s lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock and roll. They’re showing they’re no different than anybody else – and that’s the entire point. They want equal rights under the law, and they are willing to suffer to get what they deserve.

Judy Huemann 7
Judy becomes a lightning-rod for the cause, even getting the attention and support of San Francisco Mayor, George Moscone. But try as he might to get the demonstrators concessions of food, medicine and amenities, the Mayor soon finds out the limits of his own authority when up against the feds. Meanwhile, Brad Lomax, a black protestor with MS and confined to a wheelchair, takes action. He and his care giver, Chuck Jackson, are members of the Black Panther Party. The Panthers come to the aide of the 504 Protestors and begin bringing much needed supplies and one hot meal a day to everyone inside the building. Meanwhile, the Butterfly Brigade, a group of gay men activists, and the Mission Rebels, a Chicano group, help sneak walkie-talkies into Judy so she and her organizers can communicate with the outside world. The Feds begin to realize the 504 protestors are a force to be reckoned with and won’t easily be placated.

Judy Huemann 2
After two weeks and escalating tensions between the U.S. Government and Judy, her fellow demonstrators, and thousands of supporters across the nation – a special congressional hearing convenes inside the federal building in San Francisco. At first, the feds are not going to allow cameras in. But Judy and her coalition refuse to participate if the media is shut out, and they get there way. The testimony of activists Ed Roberts, Debby Kaplan, Phil Newmark and others galvanize moral support. After Judy makes an impassioned speech before the committee and news cameras, the HEW representative sent by Secretary Califano from Washington gets up and locks himself in an office. Congressman Phil Burton leaps up and runs after him, kicks the door in and insists he come back out. Seizing on the opportunity, Judy announces the coalition’s next plan of action: she and 14 other disabled demonstrators including Black Panthers Brad Lomax and Chuck Jackson will travel to Washington and demand to meet with HEW Secretary Califano in person, if not President Carter himself.

Judy Huemann 10
Judy and her contingent touch down at Dulles airport on a sweltering-hot, late-April day. They arrive in Washington, D.C. to much fanfare. They demonstrate outside HEW Headquarters as Secretary Califano watches from inside. The stand-off continues for days as Judy and her cohorts borrow a van and go to Califano’s neighborhood. She speaks to the neighborhood kids, telling them, “Mr. Califano doesn’t want disabled kids going to school with you.” She even stakes out President Carter’s church in the hopes of meeting him. But it is only after thousands of Americans, both disabled and able-bodied, march on Capitol Hill that the President finally acts. He orders Secretary Califano to sign the regulations – all 42 words – into law on April 28, 1977.

Judy Huemann 3
Judy continues to be a leader in the disability rights movement after the success of the 504 Sit-In. She is there to ensure the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is signed into legislation. She goes on to become the Assistant Secretary of Education for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services under President Bill Clinton, and is currently the Special Advisor for International Disability Rights under President Barack Obama. Judy lives in Washington D.C. with her husband, Jorge Pineda.
Judy Huemann 4

Available at Amazon

2020 Oscar Gold: A Tale of Two Jokers

9 Feb

I am a huge fan of Heath Ledger and thought his posthumous 2008 Oscar-winning The Joker in The Dark Knight was one of the few times The Academy got it right. His performance was transcendant, in that it rose above the film’s comic book genre and became something more. It was also noteworthy because playing the role had had a profound effect on the actor himself – even to where many speculated that it contributed to his untimely death. I never put any stock in that theory even though I’m sure playing a homocidal psychopath is probably not the most pleasant day job for an actor.

Fast-forward to 2020 and Joachim Phoenix’s Oscar-nominated reincarnation of The Joker in Todd Phillip’s movie of the same name. This one is no less profound a performance of the titular villain of The Batman mythology. What is even more remarkable is that this is a Best Actor Oscar nomination, whereas Heath Ledger’s was a Best Supporting Actor win. Batman doesn’t even make an appearance (well, not really) in “The Joker” movie, and for all intents and purposes – it’s not really a comic book movie but a gritty, New York City circa 1980s crime story. Phoenix’s “Joker” is the main character and carries the film from start to finish. And that’s where I think things falled apart for me this time around.

I’m a fan of comic books and by extension – comic book movies. I think what moviemakers have been able to do is incredible in bringing beloved superheroes to life, spandex or not. I even understand and appreciate where a movie can have an anti-hero (anti-superhero?) as the main character, such as in “The Joker” movie. But where things took a left turn for me in Phoenix’s characterization of the flashy villain – was that the backstory of his character that fueled an essentially “origin story” movie premise was significantly less-interesting than the character itself. And I can prove it.

Take Heath Ledger’s The Joker: In The Dark Knight, every time Joker engages with someone he is trying to intimidate, he tells them the story of how he got his scars. What is fascinating is that every time he tells his “origin story” it changes. He tailors the tale to the person he is talking to. Now, taking it a step further, director Christopher Nolan has Alfred (Michael Caine) give his own loose version of The Joker’s origin when he tells The Batman (Christian Bale) about his time chasing a bandit in Bhurma who was stealing precious gems,then casting them aside. When Batman asks why he was doing that, Alfred replies: “Because some men don’t want money or power – they just want to see the world burn.” By keeping The Joker’s origin story a mystery – it embued the character with even more depth and depravity. It made Heath Ledger’s character as sympathetic as he was menacing. It was an Oscar-worthy performance in literally half the screen-time of Phoenix’s The Joker. Another classic case of less is more.

I’ll be rooting for Joachim Phoenix at the 2020 Oscars to win. I may not think his performance, or the filmmaking surrounding it rises to the level of Heath Ledger’s now legendary performance – but I still enjoyed the movie and think he deserves to win. And I’m hoping, really hoping this is the last The Joker performance we’ll be seeing on the red carpet for awhile!

JOKER poster

Shadow On The Wall (1950)

22 Jun


Shadow on the Wall is an early psychological thriller noir starring Ann Sothern as a femme fatale and Nancy Reagan as a child psychologist out to expose her by psycho-analyzing a young child. Think 1950s melodrama with scary moments.


Ann is coming off a star turn in A Letter to Three Wives  (1949) which tells the story of a woman who mails a letter to three women, telling them she has left town with the husband of one of them. She co-starred with Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, Kirk Douglas, and an uncredited Celeste Holm, who provided the voice of Addie Ross, the unseen woman who wrote the letter. ‘Letter’ was well-received but Ann’s film career was already on the wane – hence trying to re-invent herself as a noir villain seemed worth a shot.


What I like most about Shadow On The Wall is Nancy Reagan’s first major film role as the child-psychologist. She is virtually unrecognizable from the FLOTUS she would become decades later when Ronald Reagan became POTUS. I must admit Nancy had acting chops and was better in her role than Ann – who was cast-against-type and has trouble tapping into her inner-evilness.


It’s funny how the noir genre was so popular in the late 1940s/early 1950s that mainstream actresses such as Ann Sothern would take on such a risky role far beyond her comfort zone in order to rekindle her film career. I compare it to today’s A-List actors doing horror when their stars begin to fade. Sometimes it works, as in the case of Sandra Bullock with Bird Box, Emily Blunt in A Quiet Place, or Vera Farmiga in the hugely-successful franchise based on the first The Conjuring movie.


But alas, Ann Sothern’s star turn in Shadow On The Wall did nothing for her career. The movie flopped by 1950 standards and lost $300,000 at the box-office. Anne would go on to have a second-successful career in television, and be a recognizable face to millions of people on TV (especially when she appeared opposite Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy). Still, this noir-lite is an interesting distraction and well worth the effort. Ann even contemplates killing a child in this melodrama – how often do you see that?!


Child actor Gigi Perreau plays Susan Starrling, the little girl who witnesses a murder and can only remember the killer’s shadow. She’s the best of the lot in this slow pot-boiler, and the scenes with her and Nancy in play therapy trying to coax her memory of the murderer are more convincing than the rest of the movie. Get a bucket of popcorn and enjoy this black and white noir-lite tonight.

Queen Christina: Garbo’s Triumph!

28 Apr

Queen_8 Astor

In 1933, prior to the release of Queen Christina, nobody outside of the MGM Studios executive offices knew whether Garbo, the Queen of the Silver Screen was ever going to return to film.


The year before, Garbo and Louis B. Mayer had slugged it out in contract negotiations that changed forever the power structure of the Hollywood studio system. Afterward, Garbo left for Sweden on an extended vacation, while L.B. Mayer licked his wounds. The public knew nothing of the outcome, and MGM decided to keep it that way capitalizing on the public interest of their favorite movie star and the future of her career.


Garbo left America in 1932 knowing she’d be back. She had scored a lucrative, 2-picture deal with her studio, and more important to her had creative control than ever before. Garbo could pick her next 2 projects, including the director and her co-stars. It was more power than any other star, male or female had ever had. It was either that, Garbo threatened Mayer, or her leaving Hollywood forever. The old Mogul blinked.


Garbo was at the peak of her career. She had arranged for Mayer to create her own production company within the MGM studio system. It was a stroke of genius having her own team, who would do nothing but Garbo projects. And their very first production would be the ambitious historical biopic – Queen Christina of Sweden.


Loose on historical fact, the lavish production was nonetheless a starring vehicle like none other. Garbo’s public persona was at the center of the saga about the solo Queen who abdicated her throne in order to live as a normal, average woman. Garbo embodied the role as a declaration of her own independence from the studio system. She even got to wear pants in the role, which was unheard of in 1933!


Garbo insisted that her old, silent movie co-star John Gilbert play opposite her as the Spanish Envoy and love interest to Queen Christina. L.B. Mayer all but had a heart attack. He hated John Gilbert and had tried to destroy the actors career when he stumbled into sound film several years before: Mayer had Gilbert’s voice electronically raising 2 octaves – making him sound ludicrous. But Mayer knew there would be no getting around Garbo now. His female star had all the control, and with Garbo’s star ascending around the world – he had no choice but to sign Gilbert.



Garbo got her way, and Mayer was able to capitalize on her return to the silver screen. The film was marketed as “Garbo’s Triumphant Return” to the movies. The film made back it’s money and more, grossing over $600,000 in it’s initial 1933 run. Although MGM would declare a loss by cooking their books, it would be discovered decades after Mayer’s death that the film was actually a financial success for the studio.


Regarded as one of Garbo’s greatest roles, Queen Christina was a romantic vision of the Queen who valued life, art, music and creativity over war and domination. It would propel her dominance over the world cinema for the rest of the decade – and continue Garbo’s reign in Hollywood. Mayer and MGM would go on to make millions off its mercurial star, and allowed them to dominate film in Europe as well as America as can be seen by the foreign language one sheets and movie posters advertising the film:

Later regarded as Garbo’s signature role, Queen Christina was ahead of it’s time especially for the portrayal of women in film. Garbo had a female love interest at the beginning of the film (alluding to her rumored lesbianism). Her royal court wished her to marry in order to produce an heir, though she demurred (as did the real Queen Christina). Best of all, Garbo showed her contempt for men and their penchant for making war. This would become a re-occurring theme in her career and is at the center of my upcoming debut novel, Looking For Garboavailable now for pre-order and to be released on May 7, 2019.

Garbo Sighting: A NYC Rite of Passage

15 Apr

Garbo sighting_3

In my upcoming novel, LOOKING FOR GARBO (Amphorae Publishing, May 7) I write about the uniquely New York City phenomenon known as a “Garbo sighting.” Virtually since the time she retired from Hollywood in 1941 and moved to NYC, people have been talking about sighting the infamously reclusive movie star in her ritual walks throughout the city. But how many of these stories were real, I wonder? How many were actually Garbo?

Garbo sighting

Garbo had numerous tricks to avoid the average passerby: Never make eye contact. Walk in a brisk manner. Keep a perpetual scowl, if not your hand over your mouth at all times.

Garbo sighting_5

The fact that an aging movie star from Hollywood’s golden age could keep the average New Yorker, equally famous for not giving a sh*t about anyone, on the lookout for her lanky, tall-drink-of-water stature, Jackie-O sunglasses and ubiquitous pout – is still something of a mystery to me.

Garbo sighting_2

Maybe it was the very fact that Garbo didn’t want to be recognized that made this particular cat and mouse game so amusing for so many, over so many decades. Garbo acted very much like a caged animal when she was spotted in the wilds of downtown New York, often fleeing as fast as she could when identified with a rude finger-point or, God forbid, a request for an autograph.

Garbo sighting_4

Garbo, all said and done, left her legacy to the films she made in her youth. She didn’t want to be photographed as she got older. She didn’t care what people thought of her, personally. And she never, ever sought out attention from the paparazzi who stalked her relentlessly until her death on Easter Sunday, April 15, 1990.

Garbo sighting_6

Garbo lived on her own terms the latter half of her long life, simply because she couldn’t in the first half. She only attained control over her career after she became wildly famous. Then, she called the shots from how much she made a week to how many hours she worked during the workday. Garbo would have none of it and L.B. Mayer knew that if he pushed her too much – she would simply turn around and walk away forever.

Garbo Inspiration

So, this is how Miss Garbo wanted to be remembered. The young, confident, gorgeous goddess of the silver screen inspiring art and love in the silent but deadly Inspiration (1931). And I’m totally okay with that because that’s when I fell in love with her, as well. Not that I wouldn’t have wanted the chance to have seen Garbo on a street corner in New York City back in the day. And if I had, I would have had the good sense and manners to turn and look away before I caught her eye.

The Black Dahlia’s Final Resting Place

27 Jan

the black dahlia3

On January 15, 1947, in the early morning hours of a chilly Wednesday in Los Angeles Betty Bersinger took a stroll with her daughter and spotted what they thought was a mannequin tossed onto the ground. Dumped in an abandoned lot in Leimert Park, the mannequin turned out to be the body of a murdered young woman: 22-year old Elizabeth Short aka The Black Dahlia.

the black dahlia 2

The LA press chose the name Black Dahlia after a film noir released shortly before the murder starring Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd called The Blue Dahlia. I was shocked to find that Elizabeth Short is one of the most famous people buried in Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery, near to where I live. But how did the Black Dahlia’s final resting place end up being a sprawling, Oakland cemetery instead of Los Angeles where she was killed?

Short’s mother, Phoebe M. Short, arrived at San Francisco Airport on Jan. 18, 1947 – three days after her daughter’s body was found in the Los Angeles lot. Phoebe had flown from her home in Medford, Massachusetts  to see two of her five daughters. Virginia West, who lived in Berkeley, greeted her at the airport. But Elizabeth had never shown for the family reunion and nobody in her family knew why.

Elizabeth Short, with blue-green eyes and raven hair – wanted to be a movie star. And like hundreds of thousands of young women before and after her, she came to Los Angeles with stars in her eyes and very little else. No family or friends, the Medford woman would often date men to get a meal – not an uncommon occurrence for a struggling actress who had more ambition than connections in the City of Angels.


The gruesome murder generated several weeks of newspaper headlines in LA’s four major dailies. Reporters started referring to Short as the Black Dahlia, and would do anything to get a scoop on the crime of the century. An ambitious young rewrite man from the LA Examiner named Wain Sutton tracked down Phoebe Short while in San Francisco Bay Area. Sutton told Mrs. Short that Elizabeth had won a contest and wanted background information on her for the public prize announcement. But after squeezing as much information out of the mom about her dead daughter, the city editor told the brash reporter to inform Phoebe of her daughter’s ghastly demise.

The LA Examiner flew Phoebe Short down to Los Angeles in exchange for an exclusive. But the distraught Mother refused to identify her daughter’s remains for two days, preferring to remember Elizabeth as she had been. Phoebe appeared at the Los Angeles District Attorney Inquest on Jan. 22, 1947. The Black Dahlia’s body arrived in Oakland a day later. The LAPD conducted house-to-house searches for the next month to find her murderer but never did. The case is still unsolved.

the black dahlia

Elizabeth Short was laid to rest in Mountain View Cemetery on January 25, 1947, ten days after her mutilated body had been found by a mother and her young daughter. In attendance were her mother, sister, brother-in-law, and a pair of reporters. Over 70 years after her death, a Black Dahlia cocktail is served at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, where Short was last seen alive, and a new TNT miniseries called I Am The Night sheds light on her murder case.

Whoever Elizabeth Short’s killer was, they were someone looking for publicity. Over the ensuing months after her murder – the killer sent letters to the press signed mockingly as the “Black Dahlia Avenger,” and distributed packages containing her clothes to media outlets. This lasted throughout the investigations and made Elizabeth Short more famous than any Hollywood starlet for the rest of 1947.

elizabeth short gravemarker

Today, Elizabeth is best remembered for the horrific details of her death. But her modest gravemarker in the Oakland Hills gives no indication of her infamous murder case, or her ambition to be famous one day. It simply reads, “Elizabeth Short, Daughter July 29, 1924 – January 15, 1947.” But her fans know better and have been coming to Oakland to give their respects more and more over the years. They pass by the Ghirardelli Chocolate family crypt, turn a sharp left and climb the tall stack of steep cement stairs to get to Elizabeth’s final resting place. For them, she’s the reason they came to East Bay, to reflect on her abbreviated, short life and  place their Black Dahlias.

Dropping In: An Actor’s Truth as Poetry

29 Dec


Dropping-in is a technique Tina and Kristin Linklater developed together in the early 1970s to create a spontaneous, emotional connection to words for Shakespearean actors. In fact, “dropping in” is integral to actor training at Shakespeare & Co. (the company the Linklater’s founded) a way to start living the word and using it to create the experience of the thing the word represents.

The process of dropping-in involves a teacher and student, the former asking questions and the latter repeating the word in the text (in bold below). The process gives each operative word depth and dimension and allows it to come into the body. Apparently, it can also release strong emotions. Once an emotional connection is made with individual words, then phrases or sentences can be strung together and “dropped-in.” Here’s an example from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the sentence:

“May All To Athens Back Again Repair”


Do you like the month of May? May.

Do you hate the month of May? May.

Do you say “May I?” May.

Say “all the days of May?” (three times fast)

“All the days of May. All the days of May. All the days of May.”

All to Athens

Is Athens a mythical place? Athens.

Is Theseus the ruler of Athens? Athens.

Is Athens in Greece? Athens.

Is Athens a state of mind? Athens.

Back Again Repair

Have you ever repaired an injury? Repair.

Have you ever repaired another repair? Repair.

Will the lovers’ be able to repair their relationship? Repair.

Shall we repair together? Repair.

Will we be able to repair the repair? Repair.

Personally, I have no idea if this actor process works. All I know is that Shakespeare is the most demanding when it comes to recitation and an actor’s breathing is essential to getting through a scene. The first time I witnessed dropping-in, I was struck by what appeared an incidental form of spoken word. It was from my favorite movie of 2017. You can see the scene I’m talking about here. Special kudos to Ryan Gosling, who borrowed the lines spoken from Nabokov’s novel and epic poem, Pale Fire.


Sometime, I’ll have to try this technique with my writing. Maybe when I write my first play. For now, I like these dropping in exercises for their poetic appeal. With two talented actors, I can imagine being riveted as they help each other “drop-in” words.

Joi_Pale Fire

Pale Fire is also a fascinating book if you’ve never read it!


Garbo – The Art of Visual Contact

4 Nov


When I searched for Garbo photos the other night, I was once again sucked into a vortex of trying to find the one photo that defined this divinely beautiful woman. And once again, I was reminded after two hours of stunning image after stunning image – that the camera loved this woman like no other before or since.

Garbo was photogenic like no other human had ever been before her. Partly this was because the still photography of her day was becoming more and more advanced, able to capture images with such clarity and detail than ever before in human history. But even candid images of Garbo from early in her career would indicate a bigger explanation: The woman was naturally photogenic, even in the worst light, captured by the cheapest photographic equipment. Because when your model is a goddess, you can be the worst photographer in the world and it won’t matter.

I chose the image of Garbo above to accompany this meandering stream of consciousness on her beauty because she is in her silent movie phase here – where literally every emotion must be conveyed visually. Silent movies were the world’s introduction to Garbo. She was an international phenomenon since her earliest silent movies for MGM. They also happen to have produced the greatest still images of the star – when black and white visual contact was first made with the larger world – then she completely dominated for the next decade.

Garbo’s sound movies arguably are the reason we remember her today. She conquered sound the way she had light: her low-contralto matched perfectly with her visual effects. I daresay the true test of Garbo’s beauty is time itself. Whether silent or early sound, her movies are but time capsules through which Garbo’s eternal beauty still shines as bright as the day it was captured in silver. The men and women behind the camera in those early days obviously knew what they were doing recording this beautiful creature. But I doubt they realized how long after they were dead and gone – someone in the early years of the 21st century would see these images and marvel at how the woman they worked hard to immortalize on film – would be as popular today as in those early years of the 20th century in which they lived.

Greta Garbo became famous without uttering a word. Then, she became more famous when we heard her voice for the first time. But it is my believe that she was the most beautiful when she simply stared directly in the camera at us. That’s when Garbo is the most entrancing and intoxicating, as she beckons us to join her at her table and have a martini – for old time’s sake.