Our Jaded Teenagers

Back in November 1999, I was in New York when Chris Allen and I were producing a staged reading of a new version of the musical Paint Your Wagon. In spite of the terrible film adaptation, it is a very good traditional Lerner and Lowe musical. The script is flawed, but the original 1951 score is great, complete with many large men’s chorus numbers and a handful of beautiful ballads.

While I was there, Nancy brought our kids out for their first trip to NYC.  They were young teenagers at the time, between 10 and 15 years old, and had been to see nearly all of my shows as they were growing up. So the first night they were in town we took them to Times Square which they thought was kind of OK.

Then we went to the stage door of the Minskoff Theatre, where the musical of Saturday Night Fever had recently opened. We were met there by my dear friend Gerry Griffin, who was on the crew for the show. Gerry also happens to be my daughter Emily’s godfather.

Since it was only 7:00pm, Gerry took us right onto the stage.  It was the light-up disco dance floor from the movie. While we were standing on it, Gerry had it flashing its cool lights and explained to the kids how it cost over a million dollars to build and how it needed several hundred electric cables to run it.

As we were standing on the stage looking out at the empty seats in the theater, Gerry said to the kids “you guys are on the stage of a Broadway theater! How cool is that?” The kids just looked around then nonchalantly said “weren’t we going out for pizza tonight?”

Sigh! It’s just another backstage, Dad! We’ve seen a million of them!

The Quiet Hero

I come from a big family – I was number four out of eight kids. My brother Jeff was just one year younger than me. He and our younger brother, Kyle, who was three years younger than me, were always a pretty close-knit “team.”  Jeff grew to be a big guy, but he was also a thoughtful, sensitive and quiet man with a huge heart. If you ever needed someone to talk to or needed a hand with a project, Jeff was always the first one there. And not just for me and our family, but for his circle of friends, his church and his business associates. Needless to say, he was also an amazing husband and father for his family.

Even though he was younger than me, for all of these reasons he truly became the person I looked up to the most.

Tragically, Jeff’s life was cut way too short when he died five years ago at just 56 years old. He died of complications from the Lymphoma he had been quietly fighting for most of his adult life. By “quietly” I really mean that. He never complained and rarely spoke about his condition, even when we pressed him to.

They say you can tell the true measure of a man by what he leaves behind. You couldn’t find better proof of that than Jeff’s amazing wife Patty and their four awesome children – Gabrielle, Ben, Nate and Zach. Right from the start, Patty was the perfect fit with Jeff. Even though she was by nature a quiet person, she was never intimidated by our large, raucous family that surrounded Jeff. And the strength she has demonstrated over the past five years is an example for us all. It is so great to see what terrific adults Jeff’s kids have all grown up to become. I am so proud of all of them and enjoy their company immensely every time I see them.

Every day I strive to be as good of a man as Jeff was.

What Are You Up To?

“Didn’t I hear you had Leukemia? So how are you doing and what are you up to?”

Or, “Didn’t you have some kind of cancer? So how are you doing now?”

Or, “After I heard about your cancer, I thought you had died!”

Now I kind of smile as I recall the many times I’ve heard these well-intentioned queries. That’s because I have gone through the cancer meat grinder (twice!) and come out the other side. I know and appreciate what a gift I have been given to be doing as well as I am.

And yes, I know, I know, I am not cured and that either of the cancers – Multiple Myeloma or Leukemia – have a very high chance of one or both of them coming back to bite me in the ass. But you know what, I am doing incredibly well right now and I am not wasting a moment of it.

I hear stories of the selfless things people are doing to help others and it makes me very proud to be part of a society filled with so many amazing people. Even young kids are out there doing things to make the world a better place.

In my own small way I am striving to do the same thing.  I try to always be the best husband, father and grandfather I can be. And I try to be a contributor to the good of our community by being a supportive friend to those in need and by extending random acts of kindness to others. I also hope some of my blog posts have given encouragement to others in my situation.

And for the past six months I have been incredibly fortunate to be working as the fundraiser for Mercy Medical Angels. This non-profit organization is the nation’s largest provider of free transportation to those in financial need to reach their medical treatments. We are helping people in all 50 states. After spending my career in show business, which I loved, I know in my heart this is where I am supposed to be right now. This is what I should be doing at this point in my life and I am very lucky to have been given the opportunity to do it. And I plan on doing it and helping as many people as possible for as long as I am able.

And that is a pretty great thing to be up to.

Emmy’s Turn

I have written a few posts about how my life in show business has spilled over into our kid’s younger years, especially with our middle son, Neal. But our daughter, Emily, also had her fair share.

Like the time when she was in third grade at St. Norbert, the Catholic elementary school.  Of course she was in Girl Scouts and she told us that the next day at their meeting in the school Cafetorium, they were going to take turns going up onto the stage and sing along to their favorite recorded song.

During dinner when we asked her what was her favorite song that she wanted to sing along with she promptly told us “Dance Ten, Looks Three” from A Chorus Line. (This song is also known by its more popular name “Tits and Ass.”) After Nancy and I got over choking on our glass of wine we told her “no way, she couldn’t sing that song at St. Norbert’s” and she had to pick another song.

After giving it some thought she decided she wanted to sing “Frank Mills” from the musical Hair.  Of course Hair was equally inappropriate for St. Norbert’s, but the song “Frank Mills” was a sweet enough ballad – except for the one line about the Hell’s Angels. You can judge for yourself:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jlN6GwZtTkI&list=PLmE-nbZ89BYZVdAmSxDyfh8yC8Eu2co4k&index=18

Not wanting to totally shut down Emily’s creative impulses, we decided it would be ok for her to sing that song.  However, we made her swear on a stack of bibles that she and her Girl Scout leader would ONLY play track #18 from the Hair cast album. God help us if they would have played any of the other songs from that show for the Scout troop. I’m sure our kids would have quickly been kicked out of St. Norbert.

Fortunately, Emily made sure #18 was the only song played that afternoon and all went well. I think she even earned a badge for it, but I don’t remember what the logo was on the badge. I can only imagine!

A Gift

I am about to reach the two year anniversary from my stem cell transplant for my Acute Myeloid Leukemia treatment.  This was my transplant at Duke that used my brother Kyle’s donated stem cells.  That was a tough, tough three months’ worth of treatments.  And my recovery took until just a few months ago for me to be about 95% back.

I realize how lucky I am.  The odds for someone my age with this Leukemia are only a 25% chance of surviving for five years or more.  That’s not very encouraging!  However, my doctors have told me that the majority of patients whose Leukemia relapses usually happens in the first two years after the transplant.  After that, the chances of the Leukemia coming back drop off dramatically.  So I am not in the clear yet, but each month that goes by without a sign of relapse puts it further and further in the rear view mirror.

It is so crazy to think about what I have been through and survived.  When I had my first stem cell transplant at Duke seventeen years ago using my own “cleaned up” stem cells for my Multiple Myeloma (bone marrow cancer) treatment, I was humbled by my experiences.  I was very grateful for my recovery from those treatments and subsequent relatively good health. At the time I was told that I would be lucky to live for three years and yet I have beaten that prognosis by a mile.  I think my doctors don’t quite know what to make of me.

But as the years went by and I continued to show no real signs of a relapse of that cancer, I grew complacent.  I did not retain my realization of how lucky I was to still be alive and I lost a lot of my gratitude for what I had been given.  Maybe that was just the result of living my life again.  While I did appreciate the big moments with my family – my two son’s weddings and the birth of my first two grandchildren – I let myself get caught up with the grind of daily life.  I let work issues start to run my life (again) and I eventually became a very stressed out, impatient and unhappy person.  And as a result, I was not nearly as good of a person as I should have been.

Then I got hit by the Leukemia train.  After several brushes with not surviving, I am now on the other side of that meat grinder!  During the past two years of treatments and recovery I have regained my deep appreciation for the third chance I have been given.  I fully realize that I am not out of the woods yet, including the high probability that my Multiple Myeloma will likely return at some point.  But I am not wasting a moment of the gift I have been given.

I am now a much more patient and forgiving person.  Someone is driving too slow ahead of me – who cares?  Someone says something that I don’t agree with – so what?  And the job I have now is the perfect place for me to be at this point in my life.  I am helping raise donations to provide free transportation for people in need to reach their critical medical treatments.  How totally great is that?

I can’t believe that it has taken two cancers for me to finally get my head screwed on straight.  But what matters most is that I am here now and I will continue to appreciate every day of this gift of life I have been given and do as much as I can to help others for as long as I am here.

Kyle

My brother, Kyle, is three years younger than me.  I call him my “younger brother” instead of my “little brother” because there is nothing little about him.  He is a tall, big man.  The kind of big that when I hug him, my arms can’t reach all the way around him.  And his heart is as big as he is, as is his sense of humor.

When we were younger and driving down the street, we passed a church with a sign that said “…Church of Christ” except the “f” had fallen off the sign.  Without missing a beat Kyle quipped “I wonder if they are chock full o’ Christ?”

He went to the same all-boys Catholic high school as me and my other brothers, but he was always getting in trouble for goofing off.  He tells the story of the day in class the teacher came down on him for something, so Kyle pulls an oversized rubber knife from his backpack and starts yelling “I can’t take it anymore” and commences to stab himself.  Remember, this was back in the late seventies.  Anyway, the teacher did not think it was very funny and neither did the Dean of Discipline, the aptly named Mr. Rock.

Then there was the time in his college writing class, when the professor had them sit in a circle and each tell a story of something really scary that happened to them when they were children.  The young lady before Kyle told the story of her and her family’s escape from Viet Nam when she was a child.  She recounted the late night trip in a leaky boat with soldiers shooting at them and how they had to stay crouched down in the boat to avoid the bullets.

After this somber story it was Kyle’s turn.  Having grown up in suburbia Orange County, all he could come up with was the story about the time he got lost at Disneyland.  “Oh, and did I say it was really scary until my parents came and got me?”

Kyle is also my bother that donated his stem cells to me when I needed a transplant to fight off my Leukemia and stay alive.  I love that guy!  Like I said, he has a heart as big as he is.  It is crazy to think my blood and immune system is now an identical match to Kyle’s.  Thank goodness he didn’t have any allergies to be passed on to me, but I do wish I had gotten a little piece of his great sense of humor.

It Isn’t Easy

Sorry I haven’t posted anything in a while, but I have been a little sidetracked by the holidays, good family stuff and a new job. Yeaa!

For some reason today I started remembering my time early in my show business career when I had the great privilege to work as the stage manager for Juliet Prowse and her show.  The last year or so of her time doing shows in Las Vegas she did a show centered around “dance.”  It was a natural and perfect topic for her, considering what an amazing dancer she was. 

In the show she and the company would perform new dances to several classic songs, everything from “Shall We Dance” to “Mr. Bojangles” to “All That Jazz.”  But the highlight of the show for me was at the very end after all these awesome song and dance numbers she would walk onto stage all by herself, dressed in her simple dressing robe, stand still at center stage and sing a song written by Billy Barnes – “It Isn’t Easy.”  The lyrics went:

Dancing looks easy, doesn’t it?

You sweat a little, get out of breath a little

But by and large, it looks like a simple thing

So what’s the great big deal?

If given half the chance

You climb upon a stage – hell, anyone can dance.

Right?????

It may look easy – it isn’t easy

It may look simple – it isn’t simple at all

When you consider all the hours and hours of rehearsing

The millions of steps and combinations

The lifetime of classes, lessons and learning

The training the body, the stretching and turning

It may look painless – it’s very painful

It looks like nothing to it – it isn’t nothing at all

To spend a lifetime dancing in some depressing little hall

It isn’t easy at all

But ask a dancer what she’d do if she had a second chance

This dancer would tell you – I’d dance.

Then she would say good night, take a deep bow and we would bring the curtain down to end the show.  I LOVED that number and the way Juliet performed it.   I still remember every word of it today.  And through the genius of Billy Barnes, it perfectly summed up Juliet’s life.

My Show Business Kids

In one of my earlier posts I told the story about the time our middle son, Neal, was in first grade at St. Norbert and Sister Rose Mary came to me very worried because Neal had said he wanted to have a rum-bull on the school playground.  The poor little Irish nun had never seen West Side Story, so she didn’t know what Neal was talking about.  I assured her that everything would be okay and I would make sure Neal did not start a gang fight with the other first graders.  This is what happens when your kids see too many of the shows that you are producing.

Around that same time we were walking through Nordstrom with Neal and in the distance we heard to store piano player.  Neal froze and said “they’re playing Shapoopi!”  And they really were!  Why, I don’t know but also why our five year old knew the music to the big dance number from The Music Man is a whole other story.  So of course we had to find the piano player and Neal asked him to play it again.

By then the piano player had moved on to another song and he didn’t want to dig out his sheet music for Shapoopi, so he asked Neal if there was another song he wanted him to play.  Maybe something from Sesame Street?

Neal thought for a minute then said “yeah, do you know anything from Gypsy?” 

We literally fell over laughing.  For those who are not familiar with the show, Gypsy is the ultimate show biz musical about the loud stage mother pushing her daughter to eventually become Gypsy Rose Lee. Leave it to our five year old Neal to come back with that line.

And no, Neal did not go into show business, thank goodness.  But to this day we will catch him singing a little bit of a show tune or knowing all the Broadway musical answers on Jeopardy.

Motivation

When I was originally diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma (bone marrow cancer) I was told I would be lucky to live for three more years.  Well that was sixteen years ago, so the joke is on them!  I think my doctors don’t quite know what to do with me. 

And when I was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia I was given a fifty-fifty chance of surviving the next six months.  Then I was told that only twenty-five percent of patients my age live for five years or more.  That was two years ago and here I am still going strong!

During all of these “bonus years” I have seen my two sons and one daughter graduate from college, watch my two sons get married to wonderful women and now been here for the births of three awesome grandchildren.

We have had more than our share of tough times, but by sticking together we have managed to have many more fun times.  You will notice the family similarities.

 

 

For those of us who are fighting through the tough times, our motivation is not to make more money or to become famous.  It is to gain as many precious moments with our loved ones that we can squeeze out of the time given to us.

 

(from left:  Anne, Nancy, Wyatt, me and Porter)

Talk about motivation! As I have said before, life doesn’t get much better than this.

This is What I Choose

It was just two years ago I got the dreaded phone call from my oncologist.  I had been fighting Multiple Myeloma (bone marrow cancer) for the previous fifteen years and I had suddenly started seeing bruises all over my chest and arms.  After a couple weeks of blood tests and a bone marrow biopsy – where they “drill” into your hip and pull out a sample of your bone marrow for the lab to run tests on – my oncologist called to tell me I had Acute Myeloid Leukemia. 

My brain had a hard time registering this info.  I knew Leukemia was pretty serious stuff, but why would I have it?  It turned out the drug I had been taking over the past several years to fight off my Multiple Myeloma and very much keep me alive had likely caused my Leukemia.  My oncologist informed me I needed to go into the hospital the next day, where I would be for a month starting some heavy duty chemo treatments.  I said “come on, really?”  I needed to go into the hospital for the entire month of December?  Then he informed me that if I didn’t I would be dead in two weeks.  Well, guess who went into the hospital the next day? This guy!

That was the start of a long treatment process that included more stays in hospitals, more heavy chemo and eventually a stem cell transplant at Duke using one of my brother’s donated stem cells.  Love that Kyle!!  At the time I was told I had a fifty-fifty chance of surviving the next six months of treatments.  Hell, that’s a flip-of-the-coin.  But I told myself I could do it and I chose to be in the positive side of the fifty percent.  I was also very lucky to have such a great oncologist in Norfolk (Dr. Dean McGaughey really is the best!), all of the terrific doctors and nurses at Duke and most importantly the bottomless love and support from my wife, Nancy, my entire family and all my friends.

It was a tough fight, but I made it.  Several months ago I heard about someone dying from Leukemia and I got thinking that you never hear of someone living after Leukemia.  So I GTS (Googled that shit) and found out only twenty-five percent of people my age and up who have Acute Myeloid Leukemia survive for five years or more.  When I saw my doctors at Duke I asked them if this was true.  They told me sheepishly “yes, this is mostly true but we don’t talk about it much.” Well I would think not! 

But they told me I was on the younger end of the spectrum of people with this kind of Leukemia, so that was in my favor.  They also told me the majority of people who relapse usually do so within two years of their treatments.  Again, I chose to believe I would be in the twenty-five percent and here I am now three months shy of my two year anniversary of my stem cell transplant and doing great!!  Also, with the exciting new treatments being tested, especially the promising new CAR-T Cell therapy treatments there is starting to be a real chance for a cure.

As you can tell I am a firm believer in the “you make your own luck” theory, which is what I mean by “I choose” how things are going to turn out.  While I also know there is a lot more than that going on, like great doctors and a loving, supportive family, it all starts with you and your attitude.  Even if things don’t work out, at least you know you went down swinging.  As my Dad once told me “never give them a standing target!”  Thanks, Dad!