“I’ve never considered myself the equal of George du Maurier’s Svengali, able instantly to capture the heart and soul of any woman, nor are my good looks on the same terrace as Cary Grant’s (that’s to say they’re beyond throwing distance), yet it seems that each time I’ve been in close proximity to a celebrity actress during my touring days with Liza, the woman has been, by my estimation, stricken dumb with love.’”—Ross Konikoff
West Side Stories
By Ross Konikoff
“You’re the top! You’re the Colosseum,/You’re the top! You’re the Louvre Museum,/You’re a melody from a symphony by Strauss,/You’re a Bendel bonnet, a Shakespeare sonnet,/You’re Mickey Mouse./You’re the Nile, You’re the Tow’r of Pisa,/You’re the smile on the Mona Lisa./I’m a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop,/But if, Baby, I’m the bottom,/You’re the top!”—from “You’re The Top,” by Cole Porter
MANHATTAN New York—(Weekly Hubris)—1 September 2022—I’ve never considered myself the equal of George du Maurier’s Svengali, able instantly to capture the heart and soul of any woman, nor are my good looks on the same terrace as Cary Grant’s (that’s not to say they’re beyond throwing distance), yet it seems that each time I’ve been in close proximity to a celebrity actress during my touring days with Liza, the woman has been, by my estimation, stricken dumb with love.
There occurs, each time, a temporary cessation of verbal capability, and a trance-like state that, as far as I’m concerned, dispels all doubt regarding these women’s instant infatuation. Simply put, my presence sets their hearts aflutter and their social skills spiraling downward, leaving them as wordless as their doppelgangers lifelessly displayed at Madame Tussaud’s Hollywood Celebrity Wax Museum. I am so convinced of my special endowment that, should I someday find myself unattached again, I’m absolutely confident that I could woo and win any woman in Hollywood. You be the judge.
In the year 1981, our Liza Minnelli Concert Tour arrived in Dallas on the day before opening at the Fairmont Hotel, where the adorable Bernadette Peters happened to be closing that evening. We were all invited to attend Peters’ final show, and then join her afterwards in her suite for drinks and conversation.
The elegant après show robe de chambre Bernadette chose to wear was drop-dead sexy, revealing her bountiful, alabaster bosom so prominently that each boy in the receiving line, upon facing her at close range, found it difficult to speak coherently, their salivary glands kicking into overdrive, while those tiny muscles that raise and lower the eyes struggled mightily to maintain sea level.
I, on the other hand, affecting the same confident tone Laurence Olivier projected at the Old Vic, delivering the line, “Frailty, they name is woman!” stepped forward, took an unabashed gander at Le Balcon, and then said, “It’s wonderful to meet you, Bernadette. You performed exquisitely and you look absolutely stunning.”
She simply stared back at me, a feline apparently having gained control of her lingual frenulum. Had I projected too much confidence? Had I frightened her, or had my impersonation been so spot-on that she had mistakenly assumed, for just a moment, that she actually was in the presence of Laurence? She couldn’t seem to take her eyes off me for the longest time. Even if it were one of those gossamer-winged trips to the moon, what could I have done? The guys behind me shuffled their feet impatiently, drooling onto the carpet while awaiting their turn. I looked to Liza for a lifeline, but she merely tilted her head slightly, indicating that I get a move on. Confused and embarrassed beyond words, I quickly shrank down to a height of eight inches and scurried into a corner, hiding behind a potted palm until some minor distraction enabled me to sneak out of the room, climbing through the mail slot in the door.
A few years passed before my next encounter, which ensued when our musical troops marched into Munich 24 hours prior to show day. It was on this day that an alignment of the stars occurred, and I’m not referring to the Age of Aquarius. I mean real stars, big stars, all in the same hotel on the same day.
Sammy Davis Jr. had closed the previous night and had nested for an additional day in order to see Liza’s show. My old employer and friend, Buddy Rich, with whom I spent a couple hours, had just checked in, and finally, there was a movie shooting in town, entitled “Murder in Munich,” (later renamed “Bloodline”) starring Ben Gazarra and Audrey Hepburn, each of them lodging there as well. After checking in, I joined our trombone player Harry Devito for a walk around the neighborhood when I suddenly spotted Hepburn standing on a corner near our hotel. She was posture-perfect, her statuesque frame draped, neck to toe, in a luxurious, high-collared white coat, a turquoise scarf tied over her head, and large, dark sunglasses, preventing those dangerous eyes from inadvertently breaking countless German hearts as she stalked the streets. Just as I was about point her out, Harry yelled, “Ben . . . Hey, Ben!”
I looked again, this time noting that the man walking with Audrey was Ben Gazzara. As it happened, Harry and Ben had been neighborhood buddies growing up together on New York’s lower East side. We walked over, and after a brief exchange with Harry, Ben introduced himself, and then said,
”Ross, this is Audrey.”
“Hello,” I said, in a cool, detached manner, instinctively replicating the identical, underplayed tone with which Albert Finney had greeted her in the painfully romantic classic, “Two for the Road.” She smiled, extended her hand, and then said . . . nothing. I reached out and gently held her warm fingers. Because of her dark lenses, I couldn’t see where she was looking, but I suspected it was deeply into my soul. After considering all other explanations, there was only one conclusion remaining: my Albert Finney impression, like my uncanny Olivier simulation, had worked entirely too well, sending her into a romantic tailspin. I suspected that her reluctance to speak was due to her fear of blemishing the moment with a careless word. After all, when love overwhelms, what is there to say? But then suddenly, logic stepped in, parading before her a blizzard of impossible consequences that soon must follow should she act upon this mad crush. What would become of her if she’d refused to return to the hotel with Ben; then called her agent, her director, and her family, confessing her intention to run away with Liza’s second trumpet player, sacrificing all in a moment of blinding passion on a Munich street corner?
My own common sense kicked in as well, reminding me that my situation would prove equally untenable. My friendship with Ben would end as quickly as it had begun, and Liza would feel so deeply wounded by my sudden departure that I would never be forgiven. Besides, should Audrey and I run off together, back to her home in Switzerland, there was one dark, looming secret that would eventually reveal itself, dooming us soon enough. Taking up residence in a country lionized for its fine cheeses and chocolate, I knew that the moment I divulged my lactose intolerance, our relationship would likely crash onto rocky shoals. (Not Rocky Shoals, the Country Western singing star.) I meant that it would break up over craggy rocks. (Not Craggy Rocks, the Country Western singing star . . . oh, never mind.) Two lives ruined, and for what: a short-lived, fairy-tale romance, certain to spawn a major motion picture, a Netflix miniseries, and a line of action figures?
Within seconds of coming to grips with the futility of abandoning all, Audrey, ever the brave one, firmly grasped Ben’s arm, turned, and walked away from me, unable to look back, fearing her heart would win out, that she might suddenly tear away from Gazzara and run back into my arms, her face streaked with tears of surrender. The soul-wrenching sounds of her breaking heart thundered in my ears as she walked off.
I was now two for two.
More years passed before my third and most recent encounter, which transpired at Kaufman Astoria Studios, in New York City. I was there as an “extra” portraying a pianist-bandleader, accompanying Ann Hampton Callaway as she sang “Come Rain or Come Shine” in a scene from “The Good Shepherd,” a 2006 spy film produced and directed by Robert De Niro.
As fate would have it, during the third of three long nights of filming, I found myself standing next to Angelina Jolie for several hours, as a scene involving a protracted Matt Damon monologue went wrong, time after time. I’d hoped that at some point in the evening, simple proximity might afford me even a minor exchange with her, a simple “Hello,” or “Long night, huh?” or even “Wow, that Matt Damon . . . what a lamebrain, eh?”
As the evening wore on, however, my hope diminished. Angelina proved an absolute study in professionalism. Impeccably dressed and calm as a Quaalude, she flashed a lazy smile in my direction every so often, but remained mute throughout the shoot, which finally wrapped at 2:00 a.m. I was exhausted from pretending to play the piano and lead a band for ten hours, but despite my fatigue and disappointment, I couldn’t ignore my perception that all evening she had been struggling to tame her growing attraction to me. Should news regarding the two of us leak out, she would be excoriated by the tabloids for abandoning her husband and adopted children in order to run off with a fake pianist.
To her credit, she never once let on regarding her feelings (at least not so that others might guess). At the end of the night, that she was able to refrain from nuzzling in the warmth of my embrace, sharing with me her dreams and fears, was proof beyond doubt of her selfless nature. We smiled our goodbyes and walked wistfully back to our respective dressing rooms; hers in a luxurious suite just off the set; mine, down the hall in the public men’s room.
She did, however, manage to leave me a sweet memento, a reminder of the romantic bloom that would assuredly have flowered had circumstances been otherwise. In my jacket’s side pocket was an official looking laminate on a chain. She must have, at some point in the evening, secreted her Equity Catering tag into my outside pocket. With it, I was eligible to eat from the Equity steam table, which featured baby lamb chops, creamed spinach, and baked potatoes. Since the Musicians Union catering consisted of five loaves of Wonder Bread, an economy-sized jar of Skippy, and a bowl of mini-Snickers, this was a kindness that nourished not only my heart, but my other internals as well.
Growling threateningly at anyone coming too near, I huddled in a corner, stripping to a shiny whiteness with my razor-sharp incisors, bone after bone snatched from a large pile I’d heaped onto my tray. As I gorged, I pictured Angelina winging her way back to Los Angeles in her Gulfstream 650 ER later that morning, a gentle smile overtaking her luscious lips while sipping on a chilled Montrachet, picturing me tearing into that baby lamb as I shamelessly fantasized about tearing into baby Angelina’s chops instead.
There you have it, the stories of three celebs with whom I shared a silent, yet intensely intimate moment. While unable to express their feelings in so many words, each of them afforded me a fleeting glimpse at love, Hollywood-style.
Whenever I hear Jimmy Durante on the radio, croaking out the sentiment, “Fame, if you win it, comes and goes in a minute,” I know that, in the rarefied air of stardom, love can come and go in even less time than that, but, while it lasts, it’s sublime.
Hooray for Hollywood!