Slackjaw’s Celebrity Cavalcade!

Written by Jim Knipfel on . Posted in Opinion and Column, Posts.

I’ve told a few of
the stories already–harassing Jamie Lee Curtis at the Guggenheim; perplexing
Gene Hackman on 3rd Ave. by whispering the magical word “tri-zeta”
at him; pretending to be a potential Michael Dukakis assassin (and paying the
price for my tomfoolery).

Here are a few stories that
haven’t found their way into print yet.

While writing
for a weekly called the Welcomat in Philadelphia, I was “lucky”
enough to get an invite to the world premiere of a new Philip Glass opera. It
was called Hydrogen Jukebox and was based on the poetry of Allen Ginsberg.
It just sounds like a bad idea. And sure enough, the opera itself was a slapdash,
confusing and miserable affair, full of useless gesticulations and stilted warbling.
As a result, perhaps, little was ever heard about that opera again.

Now beforehand, in the theater
lobby–I forget exactly which theater this was at–maybe the Arden?–there
was a cocktail party for friends and patrons. I was, as I did in those days,
looking like a bum and guzzling far too much cheap white. The lobby was packed,
so movement was difficult. At one point, I took a big, drunken step backward
and dropped my left heel square and hard in the middle of someone’s foot.
I spun around to apologize, splashing most of what was left of my wine across
the front of my victim’s houndstooth jacket. I looked at the jacket, then
looked up, to find Philip Glass staring at me.

Instead of apologizing now,
I blurted out, “Why, you’re Philip Glass! And I just
stepped on your foot and spilled my wine all over you!”

He said nothing, and I backed
away a step before turning and running. I think we both should’ve taken
it as a sign of things to come–at least as far as Hydrogen Jukebox
was concerned.

Throw a
rock in the Guggenheim and chances are you’d hit a celebrity before you
hit any kind of artwork. Not only during the “gala celebrations” surrounding
each opening, but on quiet Wednesday afternoons and Sunday mornings as well.

In fact it was a quiet Sunday
morning, just at the height of the whole Soon-Yi controversy, that Woody Allen
came through with one of his other kids. Something like that happens, and word
spreads amongst the guards as if by telepathic means. While we were more than
happy, as a group, to take the piss out of almost any celebrity who seemed a
little too full of him- or herself, we all, instinctively, chose to let him
be. He had enough trouble at the time. What’s more, we also made it our
job to make sure everyone else let him be, too.

Allen bought his ticket
and went straight to the rotunda elevator, which brought him to the top of the
ramp. When the elevator got back down to the rotunda, an enormous tourist woman
in garish tourist garb stormed aboard, stammering, “Woody Allen! Woody
Allen! I gotta meet him! Take me to Woody Allen! Hurry!” That was all the
guard who was working the elevator (my friend Linda, as it turns out) needed
to hear. Suddenly, the elevator stopped at every level. And stayed there a while.
Before going on up to the next.

By the time she finally
hit the sixth ramp, Allen was long gone. And as this delusional woman stormed
from gallery to gallery (including mine), demanding to know where Woody Allen
was, the guards either shrugged their shoulders and feigned no knowledge of
the language, or gave her completely fraudulent directions to throw her off
the scent, at least for a little while.

I don’t know if she
ever caught him or not–it’s pretty damn hard to hide in a round and
open building. But at least he had some time alone with his kid that day.

My all-time favorite celebrity
visitor to the Guggenheim, however, remains the great Burt Young. You don’t
expect to find Burt Young taking the time to enjoy contemporary art. He came
by near closing on a dead Tuesday night during a not-very-interesting show,
stomping past my post on his way up the ramp before I even knew who it was.
But a minute later, the guard stationed on the ramp directly above me called
down all excited. He knew the stumpy bearlike man was a big star, but couldn’t
come up with his name.

“Burt Young,”
I told him.

“Yeah yeah–Burt
Young, Burt Young,” he said, before disappearing again.

Fifteen minutes later, I
saw Mr. Young stomping back down the ramp, eyes on the ground and moving fast.
I guess I was right, and he wasn’t enjoying contemporary art. As
he approached my post, I did something I’d never done before or since.
I stopped him.

“Burt Young!”
I said, a little too loudly, a little too fanatically, maybe–but this was
Burt Young. “I’ll see anything with the great Burt Young
in it!” I did have the wherewithal to stop myself before going on about
my favorite of all his performances–as the abusive father in the remarkable
1978 made-for-tv movie, Daddy, I Don’t Like It Like This.

“Yeah, well, tank you
very much,” he said, sounding just like Burt Young. Then he put his head
down and kept moving, and I felt strangely blessed.

It was during
one of my long stretches of unemployment. I’d spend my days wandering the
city, or staring at my kitchen floor. Every so often I’d find that I had
enough money to meet up with a friend for some afternoon beers.

One of those such days,
I was sitting by a window in the old Spring Lounge, long before anyone considered
turning it into the new Spring Lounge. I always liked it there on weekday afternoons.
It was quiet, except for the mob wives in the back corner taking bets on that
afternoon’s races.

They weren’t there
that day and I almost had the place to myself. I was working on my fourth Rolling
Rock, waiting for my friend Jim to show up. Right around the time I should’ve
expected him, the door opened, and in walked all the members of Sonic Youth.

This in itself was no big
deal–I don’t know if it’s still the case, but time was you couldn’t
go anywhere in that neighborhood without running into at least one member of
Sonic Youth.

I went up and got my next
beer as they sat down around the table directly in front of me. Accompanying
the band that afternoon were a reporter and photographer from some sort of German
magazine. As the photographer unpacked his camera and the reporter tested the
batteries and sound levels on his tape recorder, I stared out the window at
the passing traffic. Then I heard someone saying, “Hey.”

“Hey,” the voice
said. I looked up to find the one band member whose name I can never remember
turned around in his chair, looking at me. I figured they were going to ask
me to move so I wouldn’t be in the pictures. That was fine. Don’t
much relish the idea of having my picture taken, even if only tangentially.

“Yeah?” I asked.

“Umm…do you mind
if we borrow your bottles?”


“Your bottles. For
the pictures.”

“Oh. I…guess that
would be…okay…”

My friend Jim showed up
just as I was handing them the bottles. He came over to the table after getting
his own beer, and they asked to borrow that one, too. He shrugged and handed
it over, and we went and got two more as Sonic Youth arranged the bottles in
an artful/casual way around the table in front of them to make it look like
they were actually drinking.

I found that very odd, and
strangely disheartening.