Author Note: I dreamed of being an actress since I was five. My grandmother took me to a production of Annie Get Your Gun at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. At some point in the play, the actors came barreling out on motorcycles, and I realized I wanted to do whatever that was. My quest for stardom took many twists and turns, some utterly ridiculous. “No Business Like Show Business” is one of those twists.
No Business Like Show Business
SOMEWHERE IN THE DEEP RECESSES OF MY MIND, something that sounds like a buzzer is going off. What is that annoying sound? Oh, my alarm clock. I must have dozed off. I’m always anxious when I have one of these ungodly early calls. I’m so afraid I’ll oversleep that I can’t sleep at all and instead spend the night tossing and turning. It doesn’t matter what I do. I took melatonin and valerian root, did deep breathing exercises, tried to meditate, and counted sheep; nothing worked.
As I come into consciousness, the words of my disheveled, irate college English Lit professor, who showed up thirty minutes late to our 9:00 a.m. final exam, float to the surface of my mind. Incensed, he glared at the class through his bloodshot eyes and snarled, “Only ditch diggers and garbage collectors are up at this time of the morning.” I roll over and, through my blurred vision, the massive, illuminated red numbers of my alarm clock flash: “2:45 a.m.! Rise and shine!” Ugh. Is this happening?
Barely conscious, I stumble out of bed because if I don’t, the second alarm clock sitting on my dresser across the room will begin buzzing as well. I always set two alarm clocks because I can’t be late. Lateness isn’t tolerated. If I’m late, not only will I lose the job, but casting will be called, and that will be the end of that relationship. Show business doesn’t comprehend forgiveness because time is money, and money is God.
Staring at my bleary eyes in the mirror, I remember growing up as a Southern girl in the ’50s. From my vantage point, the only outlets available to me for my tremendous energy and passions appeared to be a teacher (boring), nurse (I detest the sight of blood), wife and mother (no thank you), or actress. If these were my options, my choice was clear. At about the age of ten or eleven, I began dreaming of being an actress. I’d sing my heart out and dance around our living room to my parents’ records of West Side Story, Carousel, and Subways Are for Sleeping. It all seemed so glamorous. Over the years, watching movies like Stage Door, All About Eve, and A Star is Born fueled my dream. I discovered Marilyn Monroe, Bette Davis, and Katharine Hepburn and wondered, Who are these fascinating creatures that live such exciting celluloid lives, and how do I become one? I imagined Broadway openings, with curtain calls and standing ovations. Opening night parties with everyone dressed to the nines in evening gowns and tuxedos, drinking champagne, waiting for the early-morning reviews. I dreamed of the accolades of being in a hit show. Acting was my way out of the provincial South and my alcoholic family system. But when I was dreaming of being an actress on Broadway, this wasn’t what I had in mind. Fighting through the disappointment and exhaustion, I remind myself, Today’s a new day. Anything can happen. You could be upgraded. An upgrade means you’re somehow magically selected by the director and go from being in the background to being a principal actor, sort of like winning the lotto.
Back in my bedroom, the clothes I’m wearing to set hang neatly on my closet door. I always lay out all my clothes and pack my bag the night before, so I don’t have to think. Pulling on my jeans and T-shirt, I wonder, How did I even book this job? Oh, right, yesterday afternoon, I received a call from a commercial casting office.
“Hi, Jill,” the cheery voice trilled. “We realize you auditioned for the principal part of the receptionist in this commercial, but we’re wondering if you’d be interested in doing background for us tomorrow?”
I’m not thrilled by the prospect, but SAG extra work on commercials pays exceptionally well, and I need to earn as much money as possible to make sure I qualify for my pension credit and health insurance. Plus, I’ve got bills to pay, so I graciously accepted the job. Lots of actors disapprove of background work, but I never think of myself as an extra. I’m a trained actor, and I go to set as a professional ready to do my job. I show up on time, with the right attitude, and whatever wardrobe I’ve been asked to bring. For this particular day, I was told to bring the bathing suit I auditioned in. One never knows what conditions will be like on set, so I pack two robes: one full-length ivory chenille in case holding is chilly and a short cotton kimono with a colorful, pastel Hawaiian flower print in case it’s warm.
“Be prepared,” the Girl Scout motto, rings in my head as I grab my bag and head out into the dark morning to procure a cab. This is a luxury for me. After years of lugging my wardrobe, traipsing through the pitch black to the subway hoping I’ll make it to set on time, I made a rule. At 6:00 a.m. or earlier, I treat myself to a taxi because public transportation, like most of New York City, is still asleep, and I prefer not to start my day by worrying about getting raped, murdered, or mugged in some deserted subway station. Money is tight, but I remind myself that traffic will be non-existent at 3:45 a.m.
I hail a cab and make it downtown for my 4:00 a.m. report with two minutes to spare, check in with the PA, climb into the back of the van, put on my sunglasses, and close my eyes, trying to block out any extraneous conversations or light, which is impossible. Once everyone is accounted for, the van departs. I’m a little nauseous, so I don’t ask or care where we’re going. Twenty-five minutes later, we arrive at what appears to be a deserted office building somewhere in the hinterlands of New Jersey.
After we drop our bags off in holding, we’re broken for breakfast, if you can call it that. Who can eat scrambled eggs, bacon, and oatmeal at 4:30 in the morning? After breakfast, the women are taken to wardrobe. I bring my bathing suit and chenille robe. I loan my cotton robe to another actress because a Girl Scout helps when needed. The ten or so of us head down the long beige hallway to wardrobe, where we’re handed a hanger. Attached to the hanger by a safety pin is a baggie. Inside the baggie are a nude G-string and a pair of pasties. I figure this goes on under our bathing suits for hygiene. Seems a little odd if we’re wearing our own suits, but at this hour, my mind is still in a bit of a fog, so I smile and take my hanger.
The costumer points to the baggie like a flight attendant holding an oxygen mask and explains, “This is what you’ll be wearing in the commercial.” A hush falls over the room, but she’s not saying anything else. Is that the end of the sentence? Perhaps I’m confused? Did she say this is what we’re wearing in the commercial? I glance around for confirmation, then, as if action were called, all the women start yelling and screaming.
“Are you insane? What are you talking about? We weren’t told we’d be naked!” Now everything comes into sharp focus. I rationalize, This is a mistake. A simple misunderstanding. She didn’t say or mean that. My mind’s racing, but I stand still and silent. This is my MO when trying to figure out the best escape route. The women continue their tirade.
“We were not told we’d be in G-strings and pasties! This is outrageous!”
Perhaps I’m still dreaming, and I’ll wake up at any moment. The women refuse to comply with the wardrobe instructions and storm back to holding, chattering among themselves.
Once back in our seats, the men, sensing our distress, tentatively ask, “What’s going on?”
One of the disgruntled actresses blurts out, “You’ll find out.”
The men are escorted down the hall to wardrobe like the unsuspecting, clueless dupes they are. I can’t wait to see how they react. Upon their return, they sit and bow their heads as if in prayer. Not one word. Not so much as a peep. They appear shell-shocked. After a long silence, one of the ladies asks, “Well?” Turns out they’ll be wearing nude G-strings in the commercial, too.
On the outside, I appear calm and serene, but inside, I’m railing. Are you kidding me? Is this for the porno channel? I mean, what the hell is going on here? G-string and pasties? I don’t think so. I’m not a stripper. Jesus, no wonder they kidnapped us at 4:00 a.m. and transported us to bumfuck New Jersey in an unmarked van before the birds were up!
The panicked first AD (assistant director), trying to placate the disgruntled background players, informs us, “Since there appears to be some sort of mix-up, the director will be coming in to speak with you.”
Silent as a stone, I stew and wait. The director rushes in like he’s late for an appointment, all smiles, and gushing hellos.
“Good morning! Gosh, so sorry about the misunderstanding. Let me explain,” he continues. “The name of the commercial is ‘Naked,’ and it takes place in a brokerage firm. The clients, walking into the office, discover everyone is naked,” he says with a nervous laugh. “Not to worry,” he reassures us. “I’m looking for ‘real’ people, not models.”
No shit, Einstein. Models? You’d have to pay models a shitload of money to prance around in the altogether.
He reassures us, “Nothing will be shown. I’m going to pixelate, pixelate, pixelate,” he says, chirping the word “pixelate” as he moves his fingers over his chest and genital area. “Pixelate, pixelate, pixelate all your private parts.”
No reaction from the hushed background actors, so he changes his strategy.
“I give you my word,” he solemnly continues, “the set will be 100% private.”
Oh, please, that means no one except the entire cast and crew, production, ad agency execs, assistants and interns, and any other miscellaneous folks who happen to be in the vicinity will be allowed on set.
He glances down at the floor before saying, “If this is about money, we’ll gladly pay everyone an extra $100.” Still no response from the background. Like a narcissist pretending to care, he continues, “I understand if you’re not comfortable being naked. I’m so sorry, but I just can’t believe you weren’t told what you were supposed to be doing.”
“Casting told us nothing,” a woman calls out.
“We were told to bring our bathing suits,” I loudly clarify. The director, desperate to convince us, nods and tries another tactic.
“I may upgrade people.”
Aha! When all else fails, dangle the proverbial upgrade carrot. This is the oldest trick in the book, and actors fall for it every time.
“Tell you what,” he says. “Why don’t you step forward one at a time and privately tell me if you’re willing to be naked?”
I’m not sure if it was the pixelate, pixelate, pixelate, the extra hundred bucks, or the “possibility of an upgrade” that persuaded the actors to be naked, but many agree to stay. I and seven other actors flatly refuse.
Those of us who decline to do the nudist thing are escorted back to wardrobe, and the women are given a nude-colored bandeau top and relegated to the back desks to sit or hide behind computers with our robes on. Once action is called, we drop our robes while everyone else is walking around in their G-strings. One actor passes out folders, another delivers mail, some make small talk, one pretends to repair the Xerox machine, while a much older woman washes the windows. I try to keep my eyes focused on my computer screen, but one of the principal actors, who looks about twelve but I’m sure is more like twenty-three, is standing right in front of my desk with his mail cart, and he’s so nervous he’s trembling. Maybe he’s just cold, but I empathize with him.
After lunch, which is at 10:30 a.m., the eight of us who rejected the “naked thing” are told by the first AD, “Thank you so much, but your services are no longer needed.” After changing back into my street clothes, I try to return my nude bandeau top, but the wardrobe mistress says, “Please keep it. You’re the only woman who didn’t scream at me.”
In the van back to the city, the actors are all abuzz with the morning’s events. Somehow, someone found out that another group of actors had been brought out here the day before, and as soon as they discovered they were supposed to be naked, they mutinied and refused to shoot anything. The entire group had to be paid for the day and driven back to the city. This forced production to shut down, regroup, and try again. Now I understand why we were abducted and driven to some undisclosed location before the sun was up, leaving us stranded with no way back to the city and no one to call because the SAG offices weren’t open yet.
I guess I ought to point out this was a union commercial with all union actors. Honestly, if you want to walk around nude for an extra $100, I don’t care, but trust me, this is bullshit and there’s no telling where this footage will end up.
The actors in the van continue their rants all the way back to the city, vowing, “I’m calling my agent.”
“I’m going to give casting a piece of my mind. How dare they!”
I breathe a sigh of relief, knowing even though I didn’t earn any overtime and wasn’t upgraded, next month’s rent is paid. I’m almost positive this job has qualified me for my SAG pension and health credit, and that’s all I care about at this point, except going home and crawling back into bed.
Showbiz, ah, the glamour. I smile as I remember that hopeful, starry-eyed girl singing her “There’s No Business Like Show Business” heart out in the living room.
Jill B. Dalton is an award-winning playwright whose plays Whistle-blower and Collateral Damage were both semifinalists at the National Playwrights Conference (Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center). Her book, My Life in the Trenches of Show Business: Escape to New York – Act 1, is available on Amazon. Dalton is also an accomplished actress with performances in Saturday Night Live, Law & Order, and Wall Street. She lives in New York City. Websites: www.jilldaltonwriter.com and www.jilldalton.nyc
Delmarva Review publishes compelling new fiction, nonfiction, and poetry selected from thousands of submissions during the year. Designed to encourage outstanding writing from the region, the nation, and beyond, the literary journal is nonprofit and independent. Support comes from tax-deductible contributions and a grant from Talbot Arts with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Website: www.delmarvareview.org
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