“Let me take you down, ’cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields, nothing is real. And nothing to get hung about…” – Beatles, 1967. Composers: Lennon/McCartney
As he rose above the bubble he found himself in, clarity rebooted his mind. He shouted, with enormous struggle, compacted by a broken heart, “You just stay away, Molly! Just stay away! (singing the next line) For I could never say goodbye to you again.” This ended his soliloquy. Yet, some things aren’t always what they seem.
Allow me to revel in the cover photo at the top of this post, just for a moment. It represents mounds of wonderful memories and life-long friendships I hold dear to this very day. It was February of 1978. Certainly a launching pad for the beginning of many things for me, including my very first leading man role that ushered in decades of various roles acting, directing, producing and lots of make-up jobs on the face. It was a highly celebrated performance of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” I was honored to be awarded the role of Johnny Brown, Molly’s hubby. (The actress who played Molly, on the left, hasn’t aged a bit in 40 years. I, on the other hand…well… I’ll move on.) If you’ve ever seen the show, or movie, then you already know he goes through a living hell in trying to be the husband she wanted, but failing to “live-up” to her bar of approval. They had separate visions of what marriage would be like, while in the throws of passion, goals, new life and new money. All of the latter perspectives were very different for each person. In the end, a divorce occurs. Here, in this promo shot, Molly and Johnny are meeting Mrs. Gladys McGraw, a socialite who lived next door to the Brown mansion. Mrs. McGraw, being the stuck-up, highbrow, blue-blood that she was, couldn’t be more displeased to have these, now wealthy, country bumpkins residing in her royal flush neighborhood. Her priest had urged her to do the Christian thing and welcome them into her home to break the self-applied ice. Johnny Brown is doing his best to greet her in the newly polished way he assumed would meet expectations, although alien to him. As you can see, Mrs. McGraw barely tolerates the meet-n-greet. Her face and body language say it all. She can hardly stand his touch, even through two formal tux and gown gloves. A bit of irony here. As well as the scene was played, and as talented as the actress who took the role of Mrs. McGraw was and is, we were actually a dating couple at the time, spending lots of time with each other. Some things aren’t always what they seem.
A few years before the Molly Brown production, my grandparents had a unique theater experience themselves. Martin and Opal Atherton were western fans. Most of the television shows and movies they watched were “saddle-up and drive-’em out” westerns. From John Wayne to Clint Eastwood, their minds (mostly my granddad) lived in the 1800s, set in the western United States, which had yet to be tamed and settled. One of their must-see TV shows was the long running “Bonanza” series with Lorne Greene, seen with my grandmother above. (She looks like a movie star there, as well.) One year the Athertons planned a vacation road trip that would take them to the Ponderosa ranch house from the TV show. It was built with huge timbers in a scenic mountainous region. It’s a sight to behold.
In those days, as is true today no doubt, they gave tours of the exterior and interior of the famous ranch house. My grandparents were in hog-heaven. When they walked through the interior with its wide wooden floorboards and enormous fireplace, they asked to see the second floor where the bedrooms were. They were told that the door at the top of the staircase was fake, as well as the second floor. All the second floor scenes were shot on ground level sets. They were beside themselves. So much for theater-of-the-mind. I can still hear my granddad’s soft voice saying in astonishment, “Gooood-night.”
Some things aren’t always what they seem.
While watching the original “Star Trek” TV series from the late 1960s, often when a character leans on a boulder, or a wall of a cave in a scene, you can see a slight give in the sponge-like foam that’s been painted to look like stone. William Shatner could tell you all about it. It’s fun to catch these gaffs in scenes, but it also displaces you from the theater-of-the-mind the writer intended for the viewer.
“Alan,” you might be saying, “There’s a point to this tour of mothballs, right? Where are you going with this?”
I think I’ll let the first line of the second verse of Strawberry Fields help to answer the question.
“Living is easy with your eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see…”
It’s been 40 years since I played Johnny Brown. Lots of water has gone under the bridge, much of it troubled. How often, in retrospect, do we say to ourselves, “I can’t believe I fell for that.” Or, “Why did I believe him/her?” Or, “How could I not see the truth behind the wizard’s curtain?” Or, “I will never trust again, now.” Ouch! Face it, in a world where fake news is not only the norm, but well accepted, along with general misdirection and sleight-of-hand, it’s no wonder trust is dashed all the time. Trust matters. Often we rest in what someone tells us, wanting to believe them, only to be dropped by the sledge hammer of truth after the fact. It’s so difficult to get back up. Frankly, the ugliness of it all leads to soaring divorce rates, surging court cases and the handshake no longer being the norm for deal-making. Some things aren’t always what they seem.
From Hollywood to the stage, frontage framed walls without interiors are created to be misleading. False breakaway tables, chairs and banisters help the writer seduce us into a scene to make us feel like we’re there. CGI animals and extras, fake doorways, fake windows, fake food and painted backdrops are visual vacuums assisting to suck us into a world of pretend. We say it often, but rarely do we see it spelled out with an emphasis on the word “MAKE-believe”. You don’t have to search long to find someone who understands these props, to manipulate the viewer, when the name of one of Hollywood’s favorite sons, Harvey Weinstein pops up. Better yet, Washington D.C.
When a victim of illusion, where does one start to snap out of it?
Rise above the Ponderosa of your personal existence. Lift off the shifting sand with the drone of your eternal goggles firmly strapped on, and orbit with a satellite. When you fly over the minefield, you will see it is only a tiny bubble you are living in, with an entire unexplored universe all around. Ultimately, this is the view the Creator of your next breath desires for you: see past the façade. Our responsibility is remembering to do it, day in and day out.
Wait a minute! Hold on! I think I smell freshly cut hay. Are those cows I’m hearing in my backyard — dun, duddle-un, duddle-un duddle-un duddle-un dun — in your best Bonanza theme!! Nah. Some things aren’t always what they seem.
In the scope of eternity, there’s nothing to get hung about when hooked to fuel for the race.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.” – Jesus – John 14:1 (NIV)