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the night i met groucho marx:
auld lang syne
by candy green gustavson
1.6.10
pop culture

It was still early in the 70s. My husband--one of the many visible Tom Green's--had worked as the Stage Manager/Light Man at the Troubador on Santa Monica Boulevard, one street down from Sunset, starting New Year's Eve, 1970.

Although Tom had designed lighting for plays he directed or wrote and produced at Occidental College, in Los Angeles--the place where President Obama spent his first two years of college life--he had never actually installed lights. You know, gotten up on the tall ladder and hung them. Theater is more teamwork than nightclubs--but, Tom wanted this job and convinced Gat Gunning, the club's manager, that he could it.

Tom knew he wouldn't last long at the Troubador if he didn't bring it off. But, he did. He kept the job until he quit when we sold everything we had, said our goodbyes to family and friends and left California for good in July, 1971. Now, when I read the history of the Troubador I see that the time Tom was there is considered the height of the Folk Rock movement.

In the fall of 1969, Tom had given up a full ride at Carnegie Mellon--the first time we were to live in Pittsburgh--to return to California, the land of our birth. And the place where we had drug connections.

During our drive back across the country, somewhere in Texas, we listened to the car radio as his draft number drawn in a lottery. The specter of Viet Nam hung over our heads. We were 21 and 23 and had been married 5 months--something most of our friends wouldn't do for years. We had gotten married mainly to please our families. Tom's family was Jewish and mine nominally Christian, but both families were traditonal and didn't like it that we were "shacking up," as my dad called it. Tom's mom and dad were more tolerant.

The lightbooth, where Tom ran the lights and modulated the sound, was part of a balcony overhanging the club and above the kitchen and the bathrooms. The dressing rooms were up there, too, right across from the lightbooth, and one of Tom's duties was to tell the performers when it was time to go onstage.

The lightbooth was a safe place for me. I used to go to work with Tom on a Friday or Saturday night, especially when someone interesting was performing. A performer could come in the back of the club through a door to an alley, up the stairs, turn down a short hall to the dressings rooms and no one would see them. But, many in the music scene wanted to be seen, and they could be, in the bar at the front of the club.

Tom, who parked on the street in back of the club, always used the back entrance. Occasionally, now, I read stories that the likes of John Lennon and Eric Clapton were out front in the bar during the time we were there, but I didn't have a clue. I was happy to be in the cramped lightbooth. With its little wooden bench to sit on and its glassless window looking down on the stage, it was the perfect place to view the artists and to view the back of my new husband while he worked.

In the intimate setting of the Troubador, it was exciting to see people like Linda Rondstadt, Van Morrison, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, Laura Nyro, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Kris Kristofferson and Steve Martin up so close. Tom did the lights and sound for James Taylor and Carole King the week they were at the Troubador--now they are doing a world tour after all these years in memory of that very Troubador gig.

My favorite performer was Buffy St. Marie. She was magic, seeming to grow right there on stage, right before my eyes--now larger, now smaller as Tom's hands moved skillfully--now that he had mastered it--over the lighting board. Elton John, we heard, would have his first performance in America at the Troubador. Tom skipped that week--the hype was so intense--and let a friend earn some money. While at work, the friend was slipped some amyl nitrate and raped.

The reason these up and coming or popular performers came to the Troubador was because of the owner, Doug Weston. He was able to recognize talent. He signed--and bound--a performer, when they were an unknown, to perform three times at the club. So, if they made it big, obviously, it was good for the business.

Very tall and thin, long stringy hair, often using capes, Doug Weston was one of the scariest looking people I have ever seen. Goth before Goth was a fashion statement. I avoided contact with him when the word flew he was in the building. In fact, the only time I ever really did see him was the day I went to pick up Tom's last paycheck. I had to walk to the side of the building, opposite the lightbooth to get it. As I walked out on the main floor, I became aware of a presence staring at me from the balcony. I looked up and saw a tall, dark figure brooding over me, like a vulture it seemed.

Other intimidations were the waitresses, the "Troubedoos," as Tom called them. They were young women who liked Hollywood, the music scenes and had a perpetual hope that they could find a man. As proof that it could be done, and talked about often by the waitresses, was the wife of Arlo Guthrie who had worked at the club when she and Arlo met.

But, the whole nightclub scene seemed odd to me. Maybe because I prefer working and playing in the daylight and sleeping through the night until a new day comes. I used to joke that Tom descended into hell every day around 4PM when he would leave our little hillside house--up and down 79 steps--on Mt. Washington and take the Freeway into Hollywood. During the daylight hours Hollywood and its businesses look tired and faded, haggered. But, like an aging woman who knows how to apply make-up, put on the wig and sew on the sequins, at night Hollywood lights up and has its own allure.

One night I walked into the lightbooth and a tall young woman with long hair said, "Hi, I'm Joan" and stuck out her hand. She seemed like she could be a friend. After she left the booth, Tom said, "That was Joni Mitchell."

One day Tom told me The Righteous Brothers were going to be at The Troubador. They wanted someone to run a spotlight. Would I do it? For a whole week--two shows a night and three on Fridays and Saturdays--I stood outside the lightbooth, on the balcony, and wrestled with metal, focussing that single light on Bill Medley's face as he sang "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," "Unchained Melody," and so many other hits.

The spotlight was hot and heavy, but I loved running it. It fit my personality well: I could be part of a creative process, I could be in the background, I could make someone look good. During a show, Tom usually had a lot of light changes going on, having placed colored gels in the lights over the heads of the audience, experimenting by coordinating them with the music. In the midst of all this, I kept the spotlight on Bill Medley's face, expanding and contracting its scope as he moved around the stage. At the end of the week, Bill gave me $20 saying, "Thanks." Who doesn't like being in the spotlight?

One night on my way to the lightbooth, an old man with a young woman passed me in the hallway. The old man struck me as looking a lot like Tom's Grandpa Charles. This guy had on an overcoat and a beret on his head. Tom stuck his head out the lightbooth door and called to me, a big smile on his face.

"Candy...Candy...do you know who that was? Groucho Marx."

I stopped, stunned. Sure, we had seen and met all these up and coming stars of music, but had I just walked by Groucho Marx?

I had been reading about him in the paper. He was in his 80s now. No wife. A young female caretaker. His son, the news said, was worried that this woman was after his money. Like my own father, Groucho was distressed his daughter was shacking up.

"Go meet him," Tom called to me. I turned around and caught up to the couple just before they headed down the back stairs.

"Groucho Marx, Groucho Marx," I called.

Slowly he turned, cigar in hand. Unlit cigar, it was. Putting it to his mouth just like...well, just like Groucho Marx, he said,

"Yeeaaassss." And paused.

"Groucho Marx, Groucho Marx," I said, stammering, trying to think of something funny to say. A mistake, of course. "I just...I just...I just...I just wanted to say Hello."

"Well," Groucho Marx said, taking the cigar away from his mouth, "Say Hello."

I couldn't say a word, so Groucho took an up and down look at me. He saw a young woman with long, curly hair dressed in a long, patchwork skirt and poncho.

"What are you," he said, "one of these camp followers?"

I knew he meant groupie. I still tried to be clever.

"I'm justa...I'm justa...I'm justa," I sputtered, "I'm just married to the light man."

I wasn't going to make Groucho Marx laugh.

"Married, huh?" Groucho said with a weariness. "I didn't know people got married today." And he turned to continue down the stairs.

As I watched them descend, I heard the young woman speak,

"See, Groucho," she said, "See, people do still get married today."


ABOUT CANDY GREEN GUSTAVSON

late bloomer, fontanelle of the baby boomers...full of hope, believing in life-long learning, mentoring, doors opening...mother of four, grandma of one: I cultivate gardens in both hemispheres of earth and brain...

more about candy green gustavson

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