Alda Autograph

Did anyone famous live in your hometown?

I grew up in a small, but lovely community a stone’s throw from New York City, so needless to say we had our fair share of residents who were fairly well-known. Some of the famous folks who called Leonia home before my time were Buddy Hackett, Pat Boone, and even Sammy Davis Jr. – although I never realized that until I Googled it just now.

While I was growing up we were proud to have two famous authors living in our midst; Robert Ludlum and Robin Cook. We also had James Noble, who played the Governor on Benson, and Paris Themen, who played Mike TeeVee in the original Willy Wonka movie. I remember playing in someone’s backyard and being totally bowled over when he showed up – perhaps to pick up a younger sibling. I can’t recall. I just know I gushed.

Gene Shalitt, the NBC film critic with his trademark black curly hair and bushy mustache, also lived in Leonia – I was good friends with his son Andrew. And let me not forget to mention Anthony Bourdain. He wasn’t famous while we were growing up, but he went to high school with my brother at Dwight Englewood – a private school that also had another famous graduate, Brooke Shields.

But there was one celebrity that rose above all of these during my childhood. Alan Alda.

Yep, good old Hawkeye lived just 5 blocks away from me during his 10+ year stint on M*A*S*H. He was the “it” celeb when I was growing up – it was a real coo if you ran into him at the grocery store or the pharmacy, especially once M*A*S*H became such a hit.

My husband recounts tales of playing hockey on the tennis courts in the Alda’s backyard, and getting angrily chased away each and every time. Gee, I wonder why? Hubby also says he delivered the Bergen Record to his house and claims he wasn’t a great tipper. I trick or treated at the house once, but nobody answered the door.

Alan Alda had daughters, and at least one of his daughters also went to high school with my brother at Dwight Englewood. My brother enjoyed acting, and was usually in the school play. I can’t remember what play we were seeing when my Alan Alda incident occurred – maybe “Guys & Doll” or “Oliver!” I know my brother was in both of those plays, as was one of the Alda daughters.

I’m guessing I was around 9 years old, clad in a bright yellow dress that my mom had made for me with a shiny pair of patent leather Mary Janes on my feet. Right before the show started my mother nudged me and whispered in my ear that Alan Alda had just come in and was seated on the aisle just a few rows behind me.

I turned to look, and sure enough there he was! I asked my mom if I could ask him for his autograph, but she told me to wait until the intermission because the play was about to start. All through the first act I squirmed in my seat thinking about how to approach him while in my head I crafted various clever and endearing opening lines.

When the intermission began my mother needed to bolster my nerve – I was scared to actually approach him, but she assured me that once it was over and done with, I would be happy I did it, and miserable the entire night if I didn’t. So, with a program and pen in my shanking little hands, I walked up to his seat and said,

“Excuse me, Mr. Alda. May I please have your autograph?” Remember… 9 years old, bright yellow dress, patent leather Mary Janes.

He turned to me and said, “No. I’m sorry, but I’m just trying to enjoy the show.”

Denied.

I most likely mumbled something like “Oh, that’s ok.” and skulked back to my seat. I was crushed. And embarrassed. I hung my head in shame and silently cried waiting for Act II to start. My mother was furious – not so much because he had sent me packing, but because she had urged me to do it and it had turned out badly.

I never liked him much after that. I’d watch M*A*S*H and see this happy-go-lucky character on the screen, and remember that feeling of pain and shame that was associated with my encounter. Pavlov knew what he was talking about.

About a year ago I recounted this story on a Facbook page that is associated with my hometown – the thread being about all the famous folks that lived in town. Boy oh boy, the backlash was immediate and immense. Seems Alan Alda did lots of wonderful things for many of my fellow townsfolk, and my story didn’t sit well with them.

I refused to apologize, though. I simply said that they are fortunate to have had such a positive experience with him. Mine? Not so much.

Now that I’m older and wiser, I can totally see his point. He was just trying to inconspicuously watch his daughter in the school play – trying to be like every other parent in the auditorium. And along I came to remind everyone that he’s famous.

But on the other hand, I wasn’t loud or obnoxious. I didn’t draw attention, except maybe for the fact that I was in a bright yellow dress. I was little. And polite. In patent leather Mary Janes. You’d think he could’ve thrown me a bone.

Everybody has a bad day – maybe he was having one that night. As horrifiying as it was when the incident happened, now it’s a funny little story in the timeline of my life. If he had granted me the autograph, I might only remember that Alan Alda signed my crumpled play program. Boring.

My story? It has pizzazz, and drama, and heartache. Thanks, Hawkeye – for making Tracy just a little less typical.

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