One of my favorite gifts is a rather weighty and sizable prop plane ornament, given to me ten years ago by Joey M., a then nine-year-old fellow actor in New York’s Radio City Christmas Spectacular. He bestowed me with this memento as a final gift during our annual Secret Santa gift exchange. He gave it to me as a reminder of a specific moment in the show, but it has come to symbolize a greater gift I was given by him and so many others. One I try to share as often as possible.
October 2007, My Debut Season in New York. After the first few days of rehearsals, it became apparent that the 75th Anniversary Radio City Christmas Spectacular was going to be a cush gig for my elf-mates and me. Our segment in the truncated, all teddy bear homage to Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” was all of maybe ten counts of eight. The big Santa’s workshop section lasted a couple minutes. When all was said and done, we spent spent more time getting in and out costumes than we did on stage. 2007 was also the first year in the history of the Christmas Spectacular that the cast got to take a bow at the end of the show.
During our first vocal rehearsal, the music director Mark auditioned us elves for spoken lines, as if we didn’t know he and the show’s director-choreographer Linda had already discussed and settled the matter. Mark assigned the lines to one male and one female elf. That left me and the other male elf, well, mute. Talk about a buzzkill.
After the rehearsal, a reliable source pulled me aside for a quick chat.
“So how’s your New York experience going?” the source asked.
“Great! I’m loving it!” I chimed.
“Good. You know there’s a plane in the show, right?”
“An airplane? No.”
Rumor had it that Santa and two boys were to fly in the show. The idea sounded outrageous, but if it could be pulled off, the technical crew at the Music Hall could do it.
“A toy plane will fly across the stage at the end of ‘Magic Is There,’ inside Santa’s workshop,” the reliable source confided.
I was hanging on every word.
“Linda said she was thinking of giving that to you and asked me if I thought you’d enjoy doing it.”
“Are you kidding? What’d you say? What’d you say?”
“I said ‘that’s a great idea! He’ll love it!’”
“Oh my gosh! Thank you!”
“But you can’t say a word to anyone yet!”
“About what?” I said and laughed to myself as the unnamed source and I parted ways.
I was ecstatic, of course. Who needed a speaking line when you had a plane? I had no idea what the plane looked like or how it might work, but it sounded damn cool. I couldn’t believe Linda handpicked me for such a memorable bit in the show. Maybe she really did like my work.
At the Buffalo-Boston opening night soirée, Linda and I had an opportunity to exchange a few sentences and she lavished praise on me for my performance. Even then, if Linda never complimented me on my performances again, the accolades I received that night were enough to last for years to come … as long as she kept rehiring me.
Three years later, she was giving me a plum spot in the show. She liked me! I knew it! She knew it! I knew she knew it! And she knew I knew she knew it! And chances were, just about every other elf knew it, too. But I couldn’t breathe a word of it to anyone — yet.
The next day, Linda walked us through the North Pole exterior scene which involved a parade of sorts with the Ensemble. For the Santa’s workshop interior scene she blocked the two elves with speaking lines and then casually said to the third elf, “You’ll head off stage right to get into a convertible that you’ll drive across the stage.”
I knew what was coming next, but played along.
Linda turned to me and said, “And at this point, Clay, you’ll be flying a plane across the stage.”
“Okay?” I said in mild disbelief, inside I was flipping cartwheels.
“No, really. You’ll be in a plane that flies across the stage,” she said, and continued blocking the rest of the scene.
Doing so would have been Radio City suicide.
I wanted to run over and hug her for giving me such a cool thing to do, but that wasn’t going to happen. People just did not rush up to Linda and hug her, least of all someone in her cast. Doing so would have been Radio City suicide. I’d have to come up with a less demonstrative way to show my appreciation. Only Linda and the production team fully understood what “a plane that flies across the stage” meant at that point.
From then on, whenever we reached that point in rehearsals I walked across the stage — sans a plane — like a dork. Until we started technical rehearsals onstage at the Music Hall.
The technical rehearsals went smoothly. The plane’s rigging worked perfectly every time; except one time during dress rehearsal. The plane only glided out a few feet past the proscenium onto the stage, then it stopped. The stagehand manning the computer console that controlled the plane lowered the plane with its precious cargo (me) to the stage. Two stagehands sprinted like ninjas out onto the stage where I stood with the plane around my shins, instead of around my midsection. They gingerly lifted it a few inches off the stage, then carefully walked it and me into the wings as I waved good-bye to the cast and production crew seated in the theater’s auditorium.
The moment was sheer comedy . . . unlike the following season’s fateful Saturday night performance.
Thanksgiving weekend 2008, New York. If you’ve ever been in Midtown Manhattan on Thanksgiving weekend, you know what it’s like — mass pandemonium. The city is packed with tourists from all over the world for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, Black Friday deals, sightseeing, and more shopping. The area around the Music Hall, with Fifth Avenue, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and Rockefeller Center all tangent, is very much like being in a theme park that’s been plopped down in the middle of New York.
Inside the Music Hall, my cast was in the middle of a nine-thirty show, our last show of the day. I was in the wings chatting away with the crew as they prepped me for the bit with the plane.
“Are you going to be working tomorrow?” I asked Evan.
“Oh, yeah. I’ll be here.” He clipped the cable to his side of the plane, and then handed me my bubble gun.
“Pilot ready?” Alan called from the computer console that controlled the plane’s movement.
“Have a good rest-of-the-show,” I said as the plane and I were lifted to the designated height, some twenty feet above the stage.
“You, too,” Eddie called.
“Don’t forget to turn on the propeller!” Evan yelled over the music. I felt around inside the plane and switched on the plane’s propeller.
Suspended in the air with the red, white, and blue fuselage floating around me, I looked out on the whole of the Great Stage of Radio City Music Hall which had been transformed into the interior of Santa’s toy workshop. The Ensemble danced their peppermint Charleston choreography for all they were worth.
The boys playing the brothers Patrick and Ben stood on their marks and looked amazed at what was going on around them. My elfmates, Jordanna and Brad, bustled about tending to their elven duties. On the other side of the stage, my roommate Steve sat in his toy convertible ready to be dispatched for his ride to stage left.
By that point, the Rockettes completed their ride up from the sub-basement on their three-tiered bookcase, which now sat level with the stage. Looking down over to my right I saw the top-shelf girls on the bookcase’s third and highest tier.
I was living in my favorite city on the planet, albeit only for three months, and performing in the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular with people I genuinely liked and who seemed to enjoy working with me. It was a dream seventeen years in the making that finally came true. Life could not get any better.
I soon discovered that even at those heights of personal and professional fulfillment, the ground can rush up to meet you in the blink of an eye and change your world forever.
One of the stage managers gave the cue and the plane took off on its twenty-second journey across the stage, but instead of the normal smooth glide, I felt a noticeable lurch forward. Something was wrong, but there was no way for me to tell anyone or to do anything about it. The grinding stopped and the plane continued forward at its normal brisk clip. The audience heard the sound of a chopper as I made my grand solo across, or rather, above, the stage.
The sight of an elf in a toy plane flying across the stage completely took the audience by surprise. Kids smiled and waved. Adults went slack-jawed. At the same time I was crossing the stage through the air, Steve was far below me, driving across the stage in his convertible. The plane gradually rose to its maximum height at the center stage.
I was the king of the world at the highest point on the stage, high above most of the audience and some of the most talented dancers, musicians, and technical staff the world had to offer. And then —
Everyone in the house — the ushers, the audience, spotlight guys, audio techs — gasped in horror. The mechanism that propelled the plane forward came to a dead stop, high above center stage. Because I had a fair amount of momentum going, the sudden stop caused the plane — with me in it — to oscillate back and forth like a playground swing, with a much wider arc and much too high above the ground for my liking.
My heart raced, but I had the presence of mind to know freaking out wouldn’t do anyone any good, namely me. I remained in character, waving and smiling to the audience to convey a sense of being unfazed. The orchestra played on, oblivious to what was going on overhead and behind them. The fabled string quartet that played during the Titanic’s sinking quickly came to mind.
Surely, the curtain would come down at any second, they’d get me the hell out of the plane, and I would have a few words with somebody.
But the curtain didn’t come down.
In the wings, the dressers and crew had sheer terror written on their faces. The Rockettes in their rag doll costumes, who normally would have been well into their toy block routine beneath where I was swinging, were all huddled as far upstage as possible — like everyone else, so as not to be hit by any falling elves in planes.
My mind screamed, hurry hell up and get me down from here.
Just when it seemed that my situation couldn’t get any more dire, the plane and I went into freefall, dropping like a stone. The cables snapped taut and at that moment, with my arm draped over the front of the plane and my head bowed, I asked God in abject terror —
“How did I wind up here? This is so NOT what I signed up for.”
As the orchestra continued to play, I swung from a series of cables and began to think about the rest of my life. Would it come to an end before the curtain came down? What would it be like the next day, if there was even going to be a next day for me? If the plane smashed into the steel stage with me in it, my injuries would be severe, if not fatal. My legs would more than likely shatter from the fall. And if they didn’t, my pelvis certainly would. My internal organs would be mush. And if all those things happened, then without a doubt my clavicles would break. I would be completely disfigured for however long I remained alive. I probably wouldn’t live to make it to the nearest hospital.
Who would save me? Could I be saved?
And then something dawned on me. My performing on the Great Stage at Radio City Music Hall had been a dream of mine, a dream that had been a long time coming. God had orchestrated all of it. I never claimed to know the mind of God, but I refused to believe that He would fulfill a dream of mine by bringing me to New York only to die in that contraption. I didn’t believe that was the case. I had no idea how the night would end. I had no idea how the next few minutes would end, but I knew that no harm would come to me.
As I swung back and forth, I simply relaxed.
I lifted my head, looked over into the stage right wings, and saw a team of stagehands running towards me. It wasn’t until several of them were on the stage that the orchestra’s strains gave way to silence. I heard shouts of “Lower him down, lower him down!” I couldn’t believe it. There were at least a dozen stagehands and a couple of stage managers standing underneath the plane, well before the curtain came down.
An announcement over the Music Hall’s sound system stated something about technical difficulties and that the show would resume momentarily. Finally, the Music Hall’s gold Austrian curtain came down. By that time, the plane’s swinging arc had lessened considerably and I was lowered slowly while the stagehands all clamored to set me safely on stage. As they separated me from the plane and raised it above my head, I joyously thanked then.
“Clay, are you okay?” the head stage manager asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine as far as I can tell, but we definitely need to talk after the show,” I said.
I beelined it off the stage to cheers and applause from everyone in sight. The question of the moment was “are you all right?” Of course, I said, “Yes.” The good Lord saw fit to let me live another day, and I had enough adrenalin to light up all of Times Square. I was just relieved that I could walk of my own volition. There were comments left and right about my being a professional — cool, calm, and collected the whole time.
If only they knew.
Stagehands reset the show’s set pieces, the orchestra resumed playing where they left off, and in true show biz style … the show most certainly did go on.
I gave brief answers to the Rockettes, Ensemble, and Crew about what happened as I hurried to the elevator. I needed to get to the sanctuary of our dressing room for a few brief minutes alone to mentally process the gravity of what I’d experienced.
The ability to form words and speak with the elevator operator on the ride up to the second floor left me. Once we arrived, I ran down the hall to the dressing room, punched in the passcode, walked inside, and shut the door behind me. I stared at myself in the mirror and exhaled an epic sigh as my adrenaline rush waned.
What in the world just happened?
A flood of emotion began making its way into my consciousness. As I inhaled in preparation for what would have been a gut-wrenching wail, I saw someone’s reflection in the mirror. It was one of my elfmates, my roommate and friend, Steve. His eyes were red and his cheeks were streaked with tears. Had he been there the whole time? Did he slip in a few seconds after me? I didn’t know.
In that moment, I knew our arguments earlier that day about slamming doors brought on from living and working together twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week were inconsequential. We came from different worlds and were of different generations, but six years prior we looked beyond our differences and accepted each other based on the content of one another’s character, warts and all. We built a friendship that transcended those differences.
“I’m sorry about the argument we had earlier,” Steve said.
Dang it! He beat me to the punch — again.
“Me, too. I’m sorry for the stuff I said earlier. None of it matters at all.”
“Yeah, I know.”
We met in the middle of the room and exchanged the type of embrace known only to good friends, when the dressing room door sprang open. My other elfmates, Brad, Jordanna, and Kim burst into the room. Steve and I cut short our moment of reconciliation and separated like opposing magnets.
“Oh, my God, Clay. Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m okay.”
“We thought you were done, brotha.”
“I thought I was done, too.”
Over the next few minutes, my elfmates filled me in on how several of the stagehands rushed to the stage in full view of the audience to keep me from hitting the deck. Steve went on to tell me how after I had been safely lowered to the stage and freed of the plane on the guy’s burst into tears backstage. His story moved me.
“We Three Kings” blared through the monitor as the rest of the cast, dressed as Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, their attendants, and the camels, a donkey, and several sheep, made their nightly trek across the stage to pay homage at the living nativity.
“We gotta get to the other side of the stage,” Brad said and ushered Jordanna and Kim out of the room.
Steve hung around until the last possible moment and then left for the stage. I made my way back to the deck where the questions and well-wishes continued through the final song of the Nativity, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and into the intro for the curtain call.
As I ran to take my bow, all I could think about was how wonderful it was to be able to walk. I could still bask in the audience’s applause with my fellow cast mates. I was still very much alive. My future held no paralysis or the need to suffer through long-drawn-out rounds of physical rehabilitation.
And the audience gave more than their usual round of applause for the elves that night. The applause surged as we took our bow.
To see tears in people’s eyes backstage, men as well as women, because they thought they were going to lose me spoke volumes that can only be summed up in one word — love. Liking someone doesn’t move you to tears. Indifference toward a person definitely doesn’t move you to tears. Only love does. I say that not because I think that I’m so deserving of such an outpouring. Fact is, I don’t think so at all. What I am saying is that I am appreciative of it. For a great many years I’ve wanted to be understood, known, and loved. Maybe I’m one of those people who doesn’t get to settle down with one someone for the rest of their life and experience that one-to-one type of love. But maybe I am one of those few people who gets to experience a very unique kind of love from a wide variety of people. Maybe, just maybe, I’ve been blessed to be loved deeply by a great number of people.
God alone brought me through that experience unscathed, but it was reassuring to see some of the agents of his grace and mercy in the wings and on the deck dressed in all black, some in sparkly Swarovski crystals, some in elf costumes, and some in usher uniforms.
The cast had been choreographed to stand on our marks and sing the final verses of the show’s final song, but I couldn’t really do that. There was a part of me that wanted the world to know that I was happier and more alive than I had ever been in my forty-seven years on planet Earth. Every fiber of my being wanted to run from one end of the Great Stage at Radio City Music Hall flailing my arms in wild abandon to celebrate being able to draw another breath of my own accord, but I knew our director probably wouldn’t take too kindly to that, even under my extenuating circumstances.
However, I did manage to squeak in a muffled, “Fuck yeah, bitches! Damn it! I’m alive!” just a couple feet from center stage where I almost met my Maker in the most expensive elf costume ever made.
After the show I made my way to the dressing room, where my fellow elves hailed me as one lucky son of a gun. They made it known in no uncertain terms that they were glad to see me alive and well and in one piece. I assured them I was happy to be seen as such. One by one my cast mates left for the evening.
After the dressing room cleared, I changed out of my elf wear and got into my street clothes. I surveyed what little I could of New York along the familiar stretch of Fifty-first Street from my second floor vantage point.
Saturday night, two days after Thanksgiving, and there was no one on the sidewalks or a cab in the street. It felt like everyone evacuated the city.
As I loaded my backpack and turned off the lights for the night, the reality of what almost happened began to weigh heavily on me. I needed to get out of the building as fast as I could. I was keeping it together by the skin of my teeth. The remedy: a quiet subway ride back to Astoria would give me plenty of time to unwind, followed by a hot shower, and a good night’s sleep.
I plodded my way down to the stage door and stepped out into the crisp night air. And there, to the right of the stage door, a welcoming party stood watch: Steve and Jordanna. Their faces lit up.
“How long have you guys been waiting out here?” I asked, overjoyed to see them.
Steve checked his watch. “Thirty-seven minutes.”
“We wanted to make sure you were alright,” Jordanna said.
“Thanks, you guys.”
“What are you going to do now?”
“I’m going home.” I stepped off the curb to hail an approaching cab.
“No way!” Steve said. “What you need is a drink. A stiff drink. Or a couple of stiff drinks. Or as many drinks as you want.”
“You’re not going to be alone. Not now.” My friends rushed to my side.
The bright yellow cab rolled to a stop a couple of feet away from me, its on-duty light dimmed. I opened the passenger door and ushered Steve and Jordanna inside.
“With friends like you guys, I’ll never be alone.”
I joined them in the cab and we sped off into the night in search of our next adventure.
Thanks Joey and Christina.