From Serving Drinks to Serving Jesus
By Jerry Herships
Westminster John Knox Press Copyright © 2015 Jerry Herships
All rights reserved.
BRIGHT LIGHTS, SMALL CITY
A thousand people a show, six shows a day, five days a week. Twelve shows on Saturdays. That's forty-two shows a week. Forty-two thousand people a week. For two summers. That was my first professional job as an entertainer. I performed in front of more than a million people beforeI moved to L.A.
And on top of that, I met the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. Twenty-eight years in, I still do.
Now thatwas a good job.
Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, is one of the oldest and most successful amusement parks in the country. It is famous for its roller coasters, and at the time also had a strong reputation for its live shows, of which there were more than half a dozen throughout the park — none of which used recorded music.
I performed there for two summers in the IMAX theater. I was actually part of the preshow before the IMAX theater show. We were in the covered but still outdoor theater attached to the indoor movie theater. There were doors at the end of every row, and the people in our theater would just stand up, walk down their row, go through their door, sit down inside, and watch their movie. The rumor was that the theater designers consulted with the military on how to move a large number of people. That always struck me as odd, unless there is some division of the armed forces that specializes in watching films. At any rate, ten minutes after the house was loaded I would do a fifteen-minute comedy show highlighting things to see in the park. At the end, the doors would open, the guests would file into the IMAX theater, and I would relax for about fifteen minutes till we opened the house and did it all again.
I got to do the forty-two shows a week for $210 a week. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I still don't know when I have had that much money and those few cares.
The show that I did every day, day in and day out, was unbelievable training for my future years. I learned how to handle almost every kind of situation, including performances where the rain was coming in sideways and I was still on stage, convinced I would be electrocuted. It was work, but I had a ball. I loved it so much in 1985 that I went back in 1987.
It was the one time in my life when I dated a number of people, especially when I first got there. (The unofficial slogan of Cedar Point's mainly college-aged employees was "When the park closes, the rides don't stop.") I was a little more reserved than that, but it was still a fun summer. When I went back to school that fall at Western Michigan University, I was ready to keep my dating life alive and well.
I could not find a girl to save my life. Nothing. Nada. Not a single date.
I learned something that stuck with me for a long time: At Cedar Point, people were not dating me; they were dating my job. Although it was as small a pond as you could have, I was still a big fish; working in the "entertainment department" and having a one-man show carried some cache, as silly as that sounds. It was my first exposure to the power of "celebrity," even in Sandusky, Ohio. It was a hard lesson to learn.
When I went back two summers later, it was different. I was months away from pursuing my dream. I couldn't be distracted. I was driven and laser focused. There was a singer/dancer in one of the other shows that every guy had their eye on. A tall, leggy redhead named Laura Bal- lard, she was not very interested in "dating around." I was getting ready to leave for L.A. at the end of the summer to take over The Tonight Show(at least that was the plan) and had no interest in being tied down with a girl. After hanging out as friends, we started hanging out, well, more. We thought it would be perfect; I could be her "date" to things so that other guys wouldn't bother her and I wouldn't have to worry about getting attached to a "girlfriend." Whew! Sure glad we had that all figured out.
Laura and I had an amazingly romantic summer, but I was determined to move to L.A. When I went to leave that morning in October, she was there to say good-bye. I drove away and didn't think about her again ...
... till about Lincoln, Nebraska. I remember calling her that first night away, just to "check in," no big deal. I remember saying, "Hey, it's Jerry." She responded with, "Jerry? Jerry? I know the name." Funny girl.
Five years later we were married.
Anyone who tells you that marriage is easy is either lying or single. Anything worth it, especially if it's long term, is hard. So? Those are the things in life that are worth it. I have still to this day never met anyone else I want to spend the rest of my life with.
And she has put up with the ultimate switcharoo. I told her I was going to be a comic, and then a game show host, and then a talk show host, and then the day would come when I would take over The Tonight Show.(I could prove it because I had it all written down on a piece of paper with one-, five-, ten-, and twenty-year goals — in pen! I was not kidding around.) Twenty years later, we were in Denver. I was graduating from seminary, working in a church, preaching, and starting to spend time with drug dealers, junkies, homeless folks, and hookers (okay, that last part was a lot like L.A., but the rest ...). I totally pulled a bait and switch. She thought she was marrying Johnny Carson. She ended up with Billy Graham. I didn't mean to. But at some point, I started listening to God's plan, not mine. God didn't even write it down!
LIVING WITHOUT FEAR
"Never, never, never give up." This is a famous Churchill quote. It was also my mantra for all those years in L.A. and beyond. I simply refused to quit. Maybe that's your mantra now too. We are a society that applauds stick-to-it-iveness. Tenacity is always revered. The problem is that this same desire to not give up can blind us to other opportunities that are opening up around us. Designer Paul Smith wanted to be a professional cyclist before an accident laid him up in bed. During his recovery, he picked up a sketch pad. Billy Crystal always wanted to play professional baseball for the Mets. He decided to do comedy instead after watching his other dream die. Jack White of the White Stripes was a drummer till he formed an early band with a friend who was also a drummer, so he picked up a guitar.
What kind of opportunities could you be missing right now because you are scared to quit the old dreams and move on to new ones? Maybe it is just a matter of redirection: making a slight tweak here or a small change there. It takes bravery to stick to your dreams regardless of outcome. It also takes courage to evaluate where you are and to adjust your sails when the winds change.
I have a tattoo that says sine metu, which is Latin for "without fear." I think fear is the opposite of love and that fear is what holds us back most of the time. What I didn't know until a bartender pointed it out to me is that sine metu is also on the family crest of Jameson Irish Whiskey. If I have to have something written on my arm that's also on a bottle of booze, it beats Goldschlager.
I think learning to live into who we are is one of those things that is easier said than done. One of the biggest victories of getting a tattoo in the first place was being able to squelch the voice in my head that said, "What will people think?" Those four words are poisonous. They have kept more people from singing karaoke and dancing like a fool than almost any other thing. We become so consumed with what people think that we stand paralyzed on the sidelines, never getting into the game of life. Sadly, I think this kind of fear affects most of us.
It isn't easy to let people see the crappy stuff in your life, the demons you've been fighting for years and just can't beat, or just the quirks you'd rather hide. For me, it's my obsession with my weight, my vanity, my ego, and my addiction to Diet Coke. It's ugly stuff.
There has not been a day in the last four decades when I didn't think about how many calories I was putting in my mouth. From third grade on, I knew I was "the fat kid." It has shaped and formed my self-understanding and self-image ever since. I was the kid who always ate two Burger King Whoppers (with cheese, minus pickles). My family would say, "Give it to Jerry, he'll eat it." And I did.
I have yo-yoed my whole life. In the last year alone, I weighed 190 at one point and am now up to 215. Three years ago I was at 230.
The irony is that I preach about loving yourself the way God loves you: without judgment, without qualification, without condition.
Physician, heal thyself.
I do think we are called to love ourselves. Jesus said to "love your neighbor as yourself." That assumes we love ourselves and shows that loving ourselves is a prerequisite for loving anybody else!
I think if I had one wish for the world, it would be self-love — not the one-handed kind, but real self love.A love where we forgive ourselves more quickly. A love where we know we are train wrecks but that's okay. A love where we accept ourselves when we have love handles or have a keg for a stomach instead of a six-pack.
We need better self-talk. We need to talk to ourselves and think about ourselves the way Jesus thinks of us — as if each of us is the most awesome person he knows. The thing is, it's a tie. Everyone is exactly that awesome. It's the best kind of tie.
We need to know that Jesus loves us unconditionally, imperfect as we are. And when we have the courage to show the world our imperfections, we find that others will show us theirs as well, and we can limp along the road together. It is always an easier journey with someone next to you. You can find a way back to yourself, to be fully who you were meant to be — complete with foibles, tattoos, and love handles.
This is the brilliance of AA or any of the 12-step programs. Before anything else, there is an admission: "I'm an alcoholic." That is a no-bullshit statement right there, claiming your stuff. I have had people say to me that keeping the secret is harder than the addiction itself. I believe it.
If I get another tattoo (we'll see), it will be the words "To be nobody but yourself," part of a quote by ee cummings: "To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle any human being can fight; and never stop fighting."
And make no mistake — it's a battle. It is a constant contest to see if the voice saying, "Do you know what people will think if ...?" will win. This voice keeps you from singing and dancing and writing and ordering dessert and getting a tattoo and. ... You have to shut that voice down — every single time.
By the way, sometimes you will still get the shit kicked out of you. So what? Get up, curse, cry if you have to, and try again.
This kind of living will make you an outsider. In the words of Thoreau, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Most of us are cowards and are comfortable living life in the theater seats rather than being on stage in the play. Getting out there and facing the fear, trying again and again, will get you labeled unique or different or just weird. And it's lonely — until your idea catches on. Then people will label you (as they did throughout history to those who did the same thing) "innovative," "brilliant," "creative," or "genius." The irony is that anyone can reach this point if they are willing to take the slings and arrows of being different in the early years. I have been unique and different and have marched to my own drummer my whole life. I am far from these labels, but at least I am beginning to get used to being different. I am getting more comfortable with the idea.
Whatever it is you're dreaming and planning and trying to be, be nobody but yourself.
BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY
People always say Hollywood's a tough town. It's hard to make it. You can get fired at a moment's notice and get replaced, and they use people up like Kleenex.
Well, that's true.
But there is a lot of good, too. Unfortunately, this is not one of those stories. This is about how I got and lost my first Hollywood gig within thirty days of living in L.A.
I moved to Los Angeles with someone I barely knew, and he has since become one of my oldest and dearest friends. Steve Davis and I drove cross-country from Detroit to L.A. to find our fortune. (We still have outstanding warrants for speeding tickets we both got in Lincoln, Nebraska. To this day, I always feel a bit like I'm on the lam whenever my travels take me through Lincoln.)
Steve's plan was to be the next Steven Spielberg, and I was going to be the next Johnny Carson. Steve is still out there and has made a living in entertainment since day one, except for one small stint as a soda jerk that he can share in his own book.
When we got to L.A., Steve had arranged for us to live with his cousin Leonard in Beverly Hills until we could get our feet on the ground. And if we never got our feet on the ground, at least we'd be living in Beverly Hills! (If I remember right, we only lasted about two weeks with Cousin Leonard. Steve says he still asks about me. I can only assume I owe him money.)
As soon as we arrived, the houseboy grabbed our luggage and took it to an undisclosed location (there were not a lot of houseboys in Detroit, at least that I knew of, so this was very cosmopolitan to me), and Leonard told us to get ready for a small dinner party he was throwing in our honor.
There were about fifteen people at the party, all Hollywood-type folk (Leonard was Richard Dawson's manager and, as a result, knew everyone.) One of the people at the party was a man named Arthur Annecharico, who ran a production company called, aptly enough, the Arthur Company. (They saved the creativity for the shows.) The company was just getting ready to begin working on a show called The Munsters Today, which was a remake of the hit series from the 1960s. This new series had the distinction of being the only show I know of that had Dr. Joyce Brothers, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Norman Fell as guest stars.
The woman seated to my left at the dinner was Arthur Annecharico's wife, who asked me, "So what do you do?" I told her I was a host and emcee and comedian. She turned to her husband Arthur and said, "Have you found a warm-up for The Munsters Today yet?" He said no, and she turned to me and said, "Call Kim Dorr and tell her I told you to do so." I had a job as the warm-up comic for The Munsters Today the very next week.
Apparently, it is who you know.
It is worth noting that at the dinner I had absolutely no idea what a warm-up comic was. I learned quickly that the warm-up comic was the guy who entertained the studio audience when the show wasn't taping. You could do this however you wanted, but generally, it had to include funny. You could do sing-alongs, tell jokes, do trivia, whatever — as long as it was funny. At this point I had about fifteen to twenty minutes of solid material. A taping for a 22-minute show generally took about three to four hours, depending on wardrobe, set changes, etc. If your math is as good as mine, you will have figured out that I was coming up about two hours and eighteen minutes short of material.
I learned quickly.
A couple of weeks into the job, I mispronounced the name of one of the lead actors during the taping. Barely. I got a call two days later from the show's casting director, Kim Dorr. "We have a problem," she said. "Let's fix it," I responded. "I don't think we can," she told me. "One of the stars didn't like that you mispronounced their name. They want you gone, and even though I think you're great, the star rules."
I got my first job in Hollywood within my first week. I got fired from my first job in Hollywood during my third week.
I called my brother with the words "You will never work in this town again" playing over and over in my head.
In Gene's classic way of setting things right, he said, "Wait. If the worst thing that ever happens to you in Hollywood is that you got fired from The Munsters Today, you are going to be just fine." He was right.
What that particular experience taught me was what a spoiled little bitch I was. Gene, in his wisdom, reminded me of three words: perspective, perspective, perspective. If I looked at the glass as half-full, I already landed my first job in Hollywood and had been fired! It was nowhere but up from here.
My brother Gene was the producer and head writer for the number-one morning radio show in Detroit, The Dick Purtan Show. Gene had hosted a number of television shows in Toronto and had been a writer and performer all his life.
I wanted to be like him.
It is a relatively safe bet to say I probably never would have gone into show business if it hadn't been for Gene. Like most younger brothers, I looked up to him and tried to copy him. To this day, he is the only guy I ever knew that liked clothes as much as I do. He wore bow ties to work every day except on casual Friday. Then he wore an ascot. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Last Call by Jerry Herships. Copyright © 2015 Jerry Herships. Excerpted by permission of Westminster John Knox Press.
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