Ode to Joy
Hunger Mountain, Spring 2008
Joyce Lyons always loved a comeback and wasn't about to quit now, no matter that all she got for the Central Park revival of Guys and Dolls was the bit part of the Salvation Army General. The inside joke for anyone old enough to remember was that she'd started out on Broadway nearly fifty years ago as Vivian Blaine's understudy, playing Adelaide, but never mind. She'd just returned from Ft. Myers, Florida—the actual place where the grass was always greener—where she was in a spring training production of Damn Yankees designed for senior citizen baseball fans and cast entirely with has-beens. Having only last week played the sultry Lola to rave reviews, nobody could doubt that she still had legs.
She'd made her reputation by being a better dancer than most singers and a better singer than most dancers, and Joyce could always be counted on to practice harder than she had to. For her upcoming role she argued that a general officer's chest was designed to be intimidating so her red uniform should be snug, as well as outfitted with brass buttons to suggest two columns of nipples. As if she were a real general she would expect the younger cast members to salute, but since they weren't actual soldiers they'd be free to talk to the press. She would get them to say Joyce Lyons is a tyrant only when it comes to giving the audience their money's worth.
Seated now in her bedroom at her mirrored vanity table, Joyce glanced over her own shoulder at the reflection of her granddaughter, Zoe, who lay draped like a throw across the foot of the bed. Zoe was an under-performing student at Performing Arts, and evidently looks weren't everything to her at the moment, since she'd cut her hair so short she looked Joyce said, like a Chihuahua. "Nobody but you got to inherit my best feature, you know," she lectured Zoe, "the way your mother altogether managed not to." One of Joyce's improvised theories of evolution was that talent also tends to skip a generation, which would explain how her own devoted parents could have been so totally ordinary, and why Zoe was born with a singing voice. '"I'm the living proof that beauty is made, not born," she boasted, dramatizing her plump, puckered mouth.
Zoe yawned gigantically, as if to deliberately misconstrue her own pretty features. "I'll try to keep that in mind, Joy, but aren't you almost ready? I'm starving." The resumption of their weekend brunch date now that her grandmother was back from her month in Ft. Myers was undercutting the sleep therapy that was the only effective antidote to Zoe's experimental self-medication by vodka. Or was she still loaded from the night before? It kind of felt that way to watch her grandmother dust her nose and forehead with pressed powder and then decide, for no apparent reason, that she was made up.
Zoe ordered waffles, but the only extra calories Joyce allowed herself these days were in the Bloody Mary she used as a supplement to her arthritis medicine. "You should come see me in my new dance class," she told Zoe, "where everyone's your age. They were impressed when I told them that at one time my dance shoes were in the 'Celebrity Capezios' display at their flagship store on Broadway, the ones from my Guys and Dolls 'Miss Adelaide and Her Debutantes' number." Joyce smiled with satisfaction as she added, "But at least they never heard of Vivian Blaine either."
"I've got homework later," was Zoe's excuse, not that she ever really kept up with it, "but why not ask Mom, who could always use a bit of vicarious exercise.
"As if she'd ever in her life considered me as a valid role model," Joyce said and twirled her celery stick before taking a dainty bite. "I mean, you tell me how or why the child of a Broadway Star and a Real Estate Mogul could possibly end up as a Public Defender, unless she has no self-confidence whatsoever." But Joyce would never permit her face to fall into a frown for too long, for fear that someone who might recognize her would be watching. "So what's new with you?"
"Well, graduation, in a month or something." Zoe was tending to her dehydration by guzzling her glass of water. She couldn't be bothered to remember dates, or even the time, because she never felt ready.
"Well, I sure hope it doesn't rain," Joyce said reflexively.
"It won't matter to me."
"Don't you know what bad luck it is not to care about the weather?"
"I'm not superstitious."
"I'm not either, dear, but when your fate's in the hands of the elements you can't completely disregard appealing to a Higher Power." Joyce touched the corners of her mouth with her napkin and tidied her place at the table by realigning her silverware.
"Like who, the weatherman?"
"Don't be disrespectful." Joyce raised a red-polished finger, as if to test wind direction. "Wait. I'm getting something that feels like an idea."
Zoe shifted her gaze away, but all that was left on her plate was the rind of an orange slice and the two green strawberry caps that had accessorized her waffles.
"Yes, a splash more coffee," Joyce answered the waiter who seemed to think she'd sent him that signal, "and you could bring the dessert tray too, please, although not for me." He'd have to recalculate the check, but it would serve him right for having brought it prematurely.
"Me neither for dessert," Zoe said, "but I'll take some tea." She knew she could please Joyce by requesting Red Zinger.
"Brilliant!" Joyce waited for the waiter to recede before divulging, "So tomorrow morning I'll be dropping by the station to see what's-his-name. You know the one I mean, who talks about the weather like a sports announcer.
Zoe shrugged. Only someone her grandmother's age would think kids ever checked the forecast, on television or anywhere else.
"He's the cute guy on the early news who always looks like he just got out of the shower." Joyce had a girlish smile, except for the fact that, as she never minded bragging, all her teeth were genuine antiques.
"But what's he got to do with anything?"
"It's an entirely new concept," Joyce answered. And since she was already distracted by wondering about copyright issues to prevent the theft of her valuable intellectual property, it could prove useful after all to have a lawyer in the family. "My invention is to transform the drab old weather segment into a gripping Human Interest story!"
It was too early in the day for her, but Joyce figured she ought to get there before the security guards got sick of people trying to talk their way past them. She'd taken the trouble to compose a handwritten letter on her finest stationery, and she'd brought along some extra glossies. Luckily, she had that semi-familiar look—as in "Aren't you, or weren't you, somebody?"—so there was always that to fall back on if batting her nylon eyelashes didn't work. But it did! "You're a darling," she told the guard she'd chosen to approach because he looked the most uneasy in his security get-up, "and I promise to return the favor by sneaking you in to the Sheep Meadow on opening night."
"No problem," he replied, which she knew from Zoe meant either "Thank you" or "You're welcome," and possibly both.
Once up in the reception area Joyce tried to make herself useful by calculating the weatherman's age, but all she could realistically hope for was that his mother had been the sort of girl to buy those old-fashioned movie magazines that glossed over every failure or tragedy, as opposed to the tabloids, where it was unavoidable news that Joyce Lyons had cheated on her husband with someone else's, a man who had unfortunately belonged to the kind of wronged woman with enough determination to take the proof to the gossip columnists. Only good old Leonard Lyons (no relation, unfortunately) had even bothered to go after her side of the story, but it was too-little-too late to prevent the only husband she'd ever really loved from leaving her forever.
Oh no! Now she was aware that her face was beginning to collapse into the kind of despairing expression that would never get her in the door, not to mention onto the weather segment, so she had to rush to balance that bad memory with the good news of how lucky her Mama and Pop had always felt about having her. Because they'd come to the reluctant conclusion with the Great Depression that they couldn't afford to have other children, she'd responded to their yearning self-deprivation by playing as many parts as possible, the next best thing to the numerous children they might have continued to wish for if she hadn't been so perfect. No wonder she'd developed a preference for unconditional love. Why would any child with these advantages ever find it preferable to grow up?
The receptionist told her to take a seat, and an intern eventually appeared to lead her down the corridor and into a cubicle that resembled a cockpit. Sure enough, the weatherman turned out to be even cuter than on television; Dressed in running clothes and wearing a gym towel draped around his neck like a Burberry scarf, he offered Joyce a slender water bottle like his own but remained in the doorway so she'd know her time was limited. Obviously too young to have recognized her name, he appeared to believe that Joyce Lyons really was only an average citizen with an uncommonly good idea.
She knew she had to use her audition for fleshing out the concept assuming that was the correct lingo so she dove right in by presenting herself as a lowest-possible-common-denominator kind of person about the technology of forecasting, but with a fascination—"We'll make it simple yet melodramatic!"—to learn how a disturbance on the other side of the world will eventually make its way around to have an impact on Guys and Dolls. She worked to persuade him with "I believe your network should capitalize on the popularity of the Reality Shows by expanding your segment to include, as a regular feature, my own ever-increasing anxiety about the weather. Since the viewers will totally identify with me as we get closer and closer to opening night, it will serve as a good way to create suspense while also solidifying your already devoted viewership. Plus, your expanded segment will need extra time, so I could be very good for your career, in addition to being a public service!"
Since it already happened to be drizzling that morning Joyce decided to propose a test shot of her standing in the Sheep Meadow under her red umbrella and fretting about the forecast while, in the background, the scaffolding goes up: "This could be the pilot you'd use to persuade the network bosses to 'green-light' the concept—that's how they talk, I'm guessing—and, just so you know, I wouldn't mind at all if you wanted to claim this as your own idea. Or if they do."
She was only looking for some publicity before opening night, but even the way she said this was so winning as to make her more irresistible. He took a long sip of his water while calculating her pitch as objectively as he could, but then he visibly relented when she said, "Basically, the purpose of the 'plot'—is to show how much influence the weather has in our everyday lives. As always, the real drama will be provided courtesy of Global Warming, sure, but like Life Itself, this is mainly a Human Interest story!"
And she got away with it! On the air Joyce hinted that both The Joy of Cooking and The Joy of Sex had been named after her, and when she added that she'd love to claim "Joy to the World" and "Ode to Joy"as well, she charmingly allowed, "But, as you can see, I'm not quite that old!"
By the end of the second week, British-type umbrellas in "Joyce's Red" were practically on the verge of outselling Basic Black, and she was beginning to be recognized on the street again, with or without her prop. On overcast days even joggers and bicyclists actually slowed down as they passed the Sheep Meadow, on the chance of spotting her. No production of Guys and Dolls could ever measure up to the crazy and fabulous installation of all those orange Gates, but Central Park was becoming almost what you could call user friendly, no doubt about it, and Joyce was not one to refuse any form of credit.
As if in her honor, there was a Broadway hit revival of The Pajama Game, another early musical in which she'd made her mark. She couldn't help but wonder about getting cast again as Babe Williams, the adorable labor organizer she'd played as convincingly as was humanly possible, given that she'd had to sing "I'm not at all in love!" and pretend that the overwhelmingly romantic John Raitt was the man Babe was supposedly able to resist. If not for the grievous misfortune of Raitt's death she'd definitely be asking to play opposite him again—what with Elder Romance a commercially resonant theme, thanks to Viagra!—although the show could be an equally timely way to capitalize on the millions of lost manufacturing jobs under the present administration. She knew better than to be politically affiliated, but sometimes reality intruded. If a mature casting of Damn Yankees could engage an audience today—and okay, so the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre happened to be in a famously major league spring training town—then she was confident that, with today's workers once again at the mercy of their corruptly overpaid CEOs, she might live to play Miss Babe Williams again. "And the sooner, the better," she could legitimately argue.
For this opening night performance Joyce invited her doorman to change out of his own pseudo-military uniform—which the condo board voted to make him wear in response to the terrorist threat—and step across Central Park West to sit with the network security guard and the celebrity weatherman, whose report on the early broadcast had ended with the exclamation, "Not even Vincent Van Gogh could do justice to this starry, starry night!"
It was show time, at last, so Zoe turned off her iPod and draped the earphones around her neck like a stethoscope, pressing her elbow against her mother's as an expression of her total confidence in the one and only Joyce Lyons. Valerie was feeling a more complex blend of pride and apprehension, since nobody understood better than she did her mother's talent for upstaging the supposed headliner. The guy Joyce affectionately referred to as "my weather boy" was an easy target, and all her upbeat publicity had resulted in Joyce's adoption as a mascot by the Boomer generation, who were becoming increasingly embarrassing for their clear refusal to grow old gracefully. They'd claimed the color red with such a vengeance that Valerie was having trouble identifying with her peers, since she'd always aimed to match the invisibility of her impoverished clients. Never very effective in compensating for her mother's influence over Zoe's mutating self-image—tonight Zoe wore one of Joyce's dyed-to-match wigs, a claret-colored Fifties chignon—at the moment Valerie was afraid Zoe might relinquish next year's slot at Hunter College in order to chase the dream that with Joyce's fierce encouragement had led her to audition for Performing Arts in the first place, instead of staying on at Ethical Culture.
But Valerie nevertheless turned her complete attention to the production at hand, where she could see for herself that Nathan Detroit was being played by a weak actor who seemed too naive to appreciate that, in the Guys and Dolls movie version at least, he was following in the giant footsteps of Frank Sinatra. Would he be strong enough to stand up to Joyce in the scene where the Salvation Army General tries to shame him out of gambling? Valerie doubted it, since Joyce's first on-stage appearance tonight had been so show-stopping that only a real pro like her would know how to make such a major interruption work to everyone's advantage. Predictably, this production's Adelaide had stolen everything from Vivian Blaine. But then, so had Joyce.
The show was followed by a cast party at a trellised restaurant behind the Museum of Natural History, and Joyce made a modest little speech as she received her lavish bouquet of red roses. She said she wished only that her best husband Ted Bell—"I called him Mr. Tugboat!" could be there by her side, and of course her Pop and Mama too, like back in the good old days when she was her granddaughter's age and already wildly successful. "Isn't she a beauty?" was how Joyce introduced Zoe, knowing that in her borrowed red wig Zoe evoked the dated but timeless look of her own old photographs. "And here's Valerie Bell, Public Defender, the real star of NYPD—not just some show, but the genuine article-and my greatest achievement." When Joyce added, "bar none," it was unclear if this was a pun on the law or perhaps a reference to her General's unsuccessful campaign against alcohol.
Saluting the producer who had made this latest comeback possible, Joyce suggested to him, "And now that you can easily afford to plan ahead, here's another great idea for you: I'll ready to bring you my Lola role in an October production of Damn Yankees, and we could make it a tie-in to the World Series with a cameo appearance by that handsome devil George Steinbrenner." She said she'd already sent Steinbrenner an autographed glossy from her Ft. Myers production, to showcase those fishnet-stocking legs of hers while proving that, in Lola's red satin corset, she also still had a waist.
At the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre Joyce was booked into the foreseeable future—"Not that there is such a thing at my age!"—but her entire autumn was up for grabs. Working was always preferable, naturally—except for that one season when her opening in Take Me Along was totally eclipsed by Ether Merman's Gypsy and Mary Martin's The Sound of Music yet she always managed to feel reasonably confident that something would come along. Once upon a time, way back in the days before air conditioning, when Broadway used to shutdown for the summer months, she'd accepted an invitation to travel from Grand Central Station to Newport in her host's private walnut-paneled rail car, to offer a medley of Frank Loesser show tunes at an opulent Ochre Point birthday party. Her "Take Back Your Mink" was everybody's favorite joke on themselves, but "More I Cannot Wish You" had the added advantage of being the truth.
After the party the three of them walked up Central Park West, and Zoe used the wide sidewalk to imitate the dramatic entrances and exits that Joyce had brought to her minor role. "Always look up," was her other lesson, so they did. In the sky over this most illuminated day on earth, the major constellations were invisible. But not the lesser stars. ▣