From Show Biz to Sunday School
By Sharon Leann Wyatt
“Born to Entertain” part 3 and “Try Later” part 1
You read some ridiculous out-of–context dialogue often with someone pursing the same career, perhaps one of the prima donnas doing their best to upstage you, and worse the one behind the desk allowing the overacting. One in particular was Bob Balau, an over effected pretty boy. One wonders where he is today, for you do not see his name in lights? Then there was always the, “Take your coat off, and turn around I want to see how you move,” or worse, “lift you dress just a bit, dolly, I need to see your legs.”
Despite such disappointment, and often drudgery, when your agent calls with some urgency, “Get down at once to Desilu-Gower and read for a part on ‘My Three Sons.'” Having Italian blood the part called for a young “Gina Lollabrigida.” I would be immediately cast, well move over Gina! You say you haven’t seen my name up in lights either? It is not that I didn’t do a credible job, no one was displeased, but to be honest, like fashion coordinating, all the running around, the efforts here with interviews, and readings had become quite tedious, and then too often the work was infrequent, if at all. Add to that the reality that some of the people you had to work with gave you undertones, and overtures that implied a different pathway to fame and fortune. This was not how I wanted to make a living.
However, my life would change drastically at eighteen, when my father, whom I was devoted to, devastated me by leaving my mother. This event forced upon us, would required me to find work beyond the occasional studio offerings. My initial effort to supplement my meager acting career was as a fashion coordinator for some boutique shops in the area, giving fashions shows that would fill a local restaurant with a standing room only lunch crowd. Men gawking at my lovely models, and myself as well, and the women, hopefully, enjoying the ensembles I had arranged. The El Torito was doing very well now for we pulled it out of the red, but I only did well if the outfits were purchased. But those circumstances beyond my control had made it now imperative that I find a more ready form of work. The fashion work, for all my labor and the hours involved was far more work than reward. There had been some acting roles “here” and “there.” But the “here” and “there” was just not bringing in the rich rewards I had hoped for. There was just too few SAG offerings and the reality of living with my mother, who was now recovering from a divorce, assisting her financially as best I could, and to still have a little left over for the bare necessities, and a frill once in a while, all meant that I had to find something more lucrative, or at least more steady. So I began to consider being an “Extra.”
I hoped this possible move to extra work might bring interesting, challenging and suitable work for my talents as well as my pocketbook. Since I had not taken an oath of poverty for my lot in life. Obviously such work was not unknown to me as several members of my family sought this work for gainful employment. Yet deep down inside I had no desire to become an extra. This was a painful decision, for I knew it would not do my grand hope of being a multitalented actress any good. Hopes perhaps now dashed forever, for you see in Hollywood there is an old saying, “once an extra, always an extra.” There seems to be a stigma that goes along with what is considered discrediting work to the aspiring actor. Where and how this wicked idiom got started is beyond me, for history has the likes of Sophia Loren, who started out as “atmosphere.” And yes, that is yet another moniker given the work of an extra. All that the unnamed plebeians are asked to do, everything from the waltz to playing dead among a body-strewn battlefield, all who give of themselves so completely for the “common cause.” Still another moniker for “Extra work.” They do deserve a better appreciation for their efforts.
My aunt Gisela and cousin Joey were attempting to make this prospect of becoming an extra somewhat more attractive. So as I gazed out the picture window on that crisp fall day and listened to members of my family I was filled with apprehension at the idea of seeking such work. This still remains a vivid image. I was not yet convinced to take the leap into the world of hurry up and wait, and even my uncle Jack now entered in the conversation. Yet, as the conversations progressed, the pros far outweigh the cons, and it would result before the day was over that I would be going through all the preliminaries of becoming one of those nameless faces in the celluloid crowd. And I would begin working for the common cause or as an extra in 1964. There to join the throngs of aspiring actors and actresses that pass in and out of the vast array of productions designed to entertain, perplex, abuse, or bring passion by providing the background. Yes, watch the background, for you may miss some very amusing action. Oh yes, extras are also referred to as “background.”
“Don’t use your real last name Shari, or you’ll be typecast as an Italian and that will be the only work you get,” Joey advised.
(Continued next month)