A true story of double-dog daring yourself toward change.
The sun was bright. The sky was deep blue. The air was a perfect 85 degrees. Ocean waves lazily crashed along beautiful, white, sandy Pacific shores. And the “stars” were out.
It was August of 1975. I was vacationing in Los Angeles with my grandmother Liz (Gram), my Aunt Ruby, and my two younger cousins, Skeet and Cory. All of Southern California’s sights—from the palm trees to the Pacific coast to the blonde, sun-kissed boys to the Bentleys—were in stark contrast to my pickup laden, humid, land-locked, one-hundred-and-five-degrees-in-August home town of Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was 15 years old, diggin’ the contrast, and feeling darned groovy indeed. I don’t know what made me do so but I silently vowed to myself that, on this trip, I would embrace California’s free-style lifestyle and try something different, something far out of character for myself, and just go for it.
Vacationing with my grandmother was no snooze-fest. In fact, if you took time to snooze, you definitely lost out. At five-feet, one-inch tall and 120 pounds, my grandmother was the youngest of an Italian immigrated family. The matriarch of our family, she held herself as a well-bred lady. She was beautiful, professional, bi-lingual, an excellent cook, and would talk to absolutely anyone. She would also out walk, out talk, out travel, out sightsee, and out haggle nearly anyone I knew. One thing my grandmother loved to tell people she newly met was that Leo was her zodiac sign. To put a fine point on this, she frequently wore a large, thickly chained, yellow gold plated and enameled, roaring lion’s head Razza necklace.
My grandmother all-too frequently and outwardly displayed many of her other traits, odd juxtapositions to the refined person she presented herself to be. Boisterously loud—the woman did not have an inside voice, opinionated, cantankerous, obstinate, and a full-blown cleptomaniac. She frequently embarrassed my cousins and I to no end. For instance, from the time I was 15 until I married, every single time I left her home, I would nearly be to my car when, from her front door, she would yell out after me, “Keep your legs crossed!”
My grandmother and I both loved to travel and travel we did. At that time, my dad worked for American Airlines in Tulsa and, though he loves airplanes, was not much fond of travel. I, however, caught the travel bug at a young 11 years old thanks in large part to my grandmother’s insatiable appetite for it. By this California trip, I had already logged visits to Hawaii, Manhattan, plus seven western European countries. Since Dad was unmarried, my grandmother was next in line for the airline’s family companion pass making travel cheap and easy. Empty seats and trivial processing fees were the only things that stood between us and adventure.
The five of us were having a blast in southern California. We kept reminding each other to keep a look out for TV and movie stars. We had been to Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, the Queen Mary, the San Diego Zoo, been on two separate Hollywood bus tours, sun-bathed at Venice Beach, visited with extended family, visited my grandmother’s California based co-workers, had shopped ’til we dropped, all in only five days. Yet not one of us had even one “star” celebrity sighting. We knew they lived there … the Hollywood tour guides had told us so as they drove us past Barbara Streisand’s home, Paul Newman’s front gates, and the like.
Day six, was finally here. We had saved today’s tourist events for our last day in California. We knew this day would be big. Bigger than big!
Gram had a plan for our first venture on Day Six. Her sure-fire way for us to see the stars was to lunch at The Brown Derby. She tactically pointed out that Lucille Ball had seen William Holden when she and Ethel and Fred had dined there. I reminded her, “That was a TV show. Duh.” Yet she remained, lunch at The Brown Derby was the place we would finally see stars. It was not the place.
Next up on our Day Six schedule was a bus tour of Universal Studios. The tour company’s brochure guaranteed celebrity sightings. No more swing-and-miss for us. We would finally see the stars in those places where they worked every day! We would see them in their natural habitats, in the studios, on the stages, hear their voices live, watch them breathe … like they were zoo animals or something.
There were about a hundred of us on this bus tour and we saw nothing but empty streets, empty back lots, empty stages, unmanned camera equipment. The place was like a ghost town. All stages were dark. Again, no celebrity sightings for us. Some tourists began to grumble loudly. Our guide apologized for the lack of what we had paid to see.
He stopped the tour and we took a break while he called his office for advice. When he returned, the group’s tension was palpably angry. He promised that we would see celebrities at a different studio lot and convinced us to reboard the bus.
After a twenty minute drive, we arrived at the next lot. There they were taping the pilot for a new game show called Liar’s Club. The director had decided that we would be their test audience. As we settled into our seats, the tour guide went down to the stage and spoke with the director. He returned and explained that this would not be a normal taping. The set was still being developed, they were working through a myriad of problems, and he cautioned us to keep quiet. No laughter, no talking, no flash photography, no gum wrappers, no leaving the studio, or we could be kicked out. He then told us the game show’s celebrity cast: Harvey Korman (I was hoping he would next say, “and Tim Conway”), Betty White (before she became “the Betty White”), and Burt Reynolds.
When the tour guide closed the cast list with “Burt Reynolds,” my grandmother did not contain herself. With her full outside voice, she blurted, “EEEEWWW! BURT REYNOLDS!” Everyone down on the set turned and glared up at us. The tour guide looked astonished and turned white. I sunk far down in to my seat thinking, “Yeah, Mr. Tour Guide. Welcome to my world.”
The premise of the game show was that one of the celebrities would tell a story and the other two would guess if it were a lie or the truth. Who ever guessed correctly won points.
They brought out the three celebrities and began filming. Much of the filming was off-mic and the whole process was painfully slow. The director would yell “Action!” then quickly “Cut!” so as to adjust a light or to fix Betty’s hair. The whole process would then start over. For us in the audience, it was difficult to remain engaged. Of the hour we were there, we saw roughly three minutes of good, solid reel filmed. In those three minutes, the show had good flow and the dynamic between the celebrities was light and fun.
The director decided to “Take 5.” It turned out to be 20. When taping resumed, there were five fewer people in the audience. Our celebrity sighting goal accomplished, and with only a few hours of vacation time left, we had left to find something else fun to do before heading back to the hotel and packing for our trip home.
We wandered through a side-stage area, gingerly stepping through and around a maze of wooden crates and cables and staging equipment, and were making our way toward the huge studio exit door. No one was out there but the five of us. I was being my usually smug, obnoxious, teen-age self by walking about 40-feet ahead of everyone else. Too cool to walk with the family, I had to be alone. Secretly, I was dreaming that someone would mistake me for a model or a movie star. In my mind’s eye, I practiced a casually humble response of, “Why yes, I am … or, I hope to be, some day.” Through that brief interaction, I would be discovered. I naively thought things worked this way.
I was also day-dreaming about the possibility of seeing my mother. She had “split” for Hollywood when I was an infant, leaving Dad and I in her wake. This entire trip, I had secretly been hoping to be intuitively led to some random stage area and there she would magically be. Though I had met her only once and had little recollection of what she looked like, I imagined that there would be this knowing, this connection—one of those Hollywood moments, that would intuitively tell me this was her. My ace in the hole for this dream was that, certainly, my grandmother remembered what my mother looked like.
Through my day-dreaming, I saw a man walk out from behind the maze of equipment 75-feet or so ahead of me. This man clearly had body guards. Two men flanked his right and left sides and walked in formation with him.
Without thinking, and in a familiar, you-know-me sort of tone, I yelled out, “Hey, Burt.” He hesitated an almost imperceptible second but kept walking. So, I gave it another go … Borrowing a bit of my grandmother’s outside voice this time, I yelled louder using an even more familiar and very pointed tone,“Hey, BURT!”
He stopped. My heart stopped. He turned around. I turned to run away. My feet would not move. At that moment, I felt like a kid throwing snowballs at a car, only to have that car slam on its brakes and floor it in reverse.
Burt Reynolds and his two body guards had a very purposeful walk. Walking straight for me and quickly closing the gap between us, Burt Reynolds maintained a stern look on his face. He did not look happy.
Terrified, my mind flooded with every horrid thought: “Oh, no! I am in trouble!”
“What have I done?!”
“I never speak up … Why would I speak up now?!”
“What are they going to do to me?!”
“The tour guide told me to keep quiet. Why didn’t I keep quiet?”
“They’re going to kick me out. Maybe, uhm … I will just explain that I’m … that we’re … we’re all leaving … right now!”
“I am going to jail.”
Burt Reynolds walked up and stood about a foot in front of me. Looking me straight in the eye, he cocked his head to the left and said, “You know my name. Now what’s yours?” Then he smiled.
I had no clue what my name was.
Twice, I tried to speak. Finally, my third try, I got my name out. I then had to repeat it because no one understands my name the first time. By now my entourage had caught up to me and were flanking both my right and left sides. Skeet and Cory were to my right. I turned and introduced them. They were both all googly eyed and grinning ear to ear. I turned left to first introduce Aunt Ruby. She had ducked down and was hiding behind my grandmother. I gave up on Aunt Ruby and, instead, introduced my grandmother. I watched her try to speak. Nothing came out. Not a whisper. For the first time in her life, my grandmother was speechless.
Burt Reynolds and I exchanged pleasantries, talked a bit about the Liar’s Club taping, our vacation, about Oklahoma. He couldn’t have been nicer or more charming. Gram later said with an obvious swoon in her tone, “He is more handsome in person than on screen.”
As he was saying his good-byes, shaking hands with each of us, shaking hands last with me, I was thrilled. Especially since I now knew I was not going to jail. Burt and his two body guards turned and began walking away. Suddenly, my grandmother found her outside voice and screeched, “Well, she wants a kiss!”
Burt and body guards stopped and, in formation, turned back toward us.
My grandmother would not let me hide behind her.
With Gram’s hand firmly on my left shoulder, pushing me toward Burt Reynolds, I stammered, “Really. It’s okay. You don’t have to. But she would like one …” hitching my thumb over my left shoulder toward my grandmother. He stopped a foot in front of me, lowered his eyes and his voice and said, “Well, I do too.”
I stood there, frozen. As he began to lean toward me, I squeezed my eyes tightly shut. That’s what you do with your first kiss, right? Squeeze your eyes tightly shut? I kept peeking out from underneath my eyelids to see where he was, to check whether I were dreaming. He must have realized he would to have to lean all the way in because I was not moving. Lean in he did and he made contact.
It was not a dramatic Hollywood kiss, nor did he linger. Yet, clearly he was more practiced at the art of kissing than I because he found my mouth.
Snapping back to reality, I unfroze and opened my eyes just as he was shifting backwards away from me. I thought to myself, “Oh. Duh. That was it! I was supposed to kiss him back!” So, I again squeezed my eyes tightly shut, puckered up, and lurched—really I sort of threw myself forward toward him. My contact was a hard smack in to the lower right portion of his moustache. Ow!
My first kiss. Burt Reynolds.
If there is a moral to this story, it would have to do with speaking up. Even when you are terrified. Even when it is out of character for you. Even when you think you may go to jail (and I was never in danger of going to jail). As a child, I well-learned to play by the rules. Being on vacation in California offered me an unfamiliar and untapped freedom which I took a double-shot chance to test out. Doing so got me my first kiss with, as I now call him, Burt.
Oh, and I learned to appreciate Gram’s outside voice. Sometimes.
Editor: Joshua Ziemski
Editor: Alex Lawes
Copyright Dodie S. Preston of Shae Creative. First published on the Shae Creative web site blog at shae-creative.com. The images and the complete story are the property of the copyright holder. Use of copy or images is not permitted, in whole or in part, without the express written permission from the Copyright holder.
Burt Reynolds Photo: Blue-Ray.com