I’ve been doing a series of posts about my “stage door encounters,” describing some of the actors I’ve met after seeing them perform. There’s another kind of celebrity encounter that I haven’t touched on. Sometimes famous people have come to me. Well, really to the places where I’ve worked.
I spent two years working at Sea World in San Diego as a tour guide. It was a great job for a college student, because we got to be around the animals every day, plus we got lots of exercise and sunshine. Of course, the park was open in every kind of weather, so there were some miserable days, too. A regular question asked by park guests: What happens at Sea World when it rains? My standard reply: The marine mammals get wet. So do the employees. One of the perks of being a tour guide was the occasional “VIP tour,” when a famous visitor requested a private tour. I never got to give one of these, but one of my co-workers escorted Steven Spielberg, Richard Dreyfuss and both their families. I got to see Mikhail Baryshnikov from a distance when he came to swim with the pilot whales, but I had already seen him close up backstage earlier that week with the American Ballet Theatre (a story for another post). Some of the famous people who came to Sea World didn’t want special treatment. One day I was staffing the Tour Guide Desk, where we signed people up for our 90 minute tours. Only a small fraction of park guests were willing to pay extra for a behind-the-scenes educational tour, and it was our job to describe the tour in appealing terms and schedule the guests to allow them to see all the shows and still fit in the tour. A woman walked up to the desk to ask whether her young daughter would enjoy a tour. She wasn’t wearing any makeup, and she looked quite ordinary, but she had a slight accent and seemed familiar. It slowly dawned on me that she was Isabella Rossellini. I asked her if she was an actress, and she said yes, but then she continued asking about the tour, letting me know that she didn’t want to be fussed over. I signed her up on my next tour, and then I spent the 90 minutes trying not to stare or give away that she was a Somebody. Just as we got to the best area, the Animal Care Department, she whispered that she was going to drop off. Her daughter was a little too young and getting restless. I convinced her that Animal Care was the last and best part, so she stuck it out. At the end of the tour, everybody dashed off to see the Shamu show, but Ms. Rossellini was kind enough to autograph my tour tag.
I spent 10 years working in one-hour photos labs, getting out just before digital cameras and computers killed the industry. I was subbing at a lab on posh Union Street, here in San Francisco, when a pleasant woman came in to pick up her film. I gave her the pictures, rang her up, and then watched as she left in a big SUV. When I turned to my co-workers, they were looking at me funny. They asked me, what did you think? I didn’t know what they were talking about. They said, didn’t you notice the name on the order? We usually only wrote last names, so I was still lost. Anyway, I’d just helped Linda Blair. That was when I learned to look at the customers as closely as I looked at their photographs. We had a few other celebrity sightings on Union Street, including Kirstie Alley pushing a baby stroller.
My next job was working in various departments at a large San Francisco Virgin Megastore. We had a number of special events with musicians, including a memorable one with The Cure. A certain number of wristbands were given out, and these guaranteed that folks would get to meet the band. I was given the assignment of guarding the ground floor escalator from folks trying to slip past the line and get up to where the band was signing autographs. I’m not big or tough, so I make a pretty bad bouncer. A desperate young woman came up to me pleading, saying “I just have to get Robert Smith to bless my unborn baby!” I pointed to the long line of people with wristbands, explaining that there were others who needed their babies blessed, too. Later, the staff got to interact with the band members, but I couldn’t even name a song by The Cure. I did take some photos.
The nicest musicians I met at Virgin were members of the Scottish band Travis. They were just taking off in the States, and they were just so friendly and enthusiastic about everything. Completely adorable, too. You could tell they were having a great time, although Andy Dunlop was really quiet and might not have been feeling well that day. I also enjoyed meeting Darren Hayes of Savage Garden, who came in as a customer when he was living in San Francisco. I bumped into him outside the store and had a quick chat with him. He was perfectly nice, but he had that wariness famous people get, looking around, hoping that others won’t recognize them. It’s always best to act cool when this happens, like you’ve just met an old acquaintance. If you jump up and down and start screaming, you’re not going to score any points. I kept my cool, pretty much!
My next job was “interpretive naturalist” at a local aquarium. That’s just a fancy term for a tour guide, really. I staffed different areas of the aquarium, providing information and answering questions about the fish and sharks, helping guests to find the octopus. One day, I got to point out the octopus to Scott Thompson of Kids in The Hall, visiting San Francisco with their touring stage show. He was alone, so I didn’t get to meet the other guys. One of our aquarium technicians came up to Thompson while I was still pointing out interesting fish, asking him if he worked at the aquarium. The tech recognized him but didn’t know why. I was desperately trying to signal that he was making a big blunder, but the guy was clueless. Fortunately, Scott Thompson seemed more amused than offended.
It was at the aquarium that I had my most unpleasant celebrity encounter. I won’t name names, but this famous actress was married to a local writer for several years. She brought her young son to the aquarium, and I was staffing the elevator when they went down to the underwater tunnel area. I was concerned about how serious the boy looked, so I told him he’d really enjoy the upcoming tunnels. When I picked them up on the other side, I asked him if he was having fun yet. His mother said, “He’s NOT here to entertain.” Well, there’s nothing you can say to that! I just shut up and dropped them off at the tide pools. Soon after, I was chatting with one of my favorite actors from the 70s. I asked him, who was the worst person you ever worked with? He named this actress! (I’m keeping back his name, too, since we were having a private conversation, not an interview.)
Next up: a whole bunch of actors, authors and musicians at Borders Books.