perm_identity Celebrity time with Dad

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 163 ~ December, 2010

The celebrity culture has always been alien and incomprehensible to me. I have never been in awe of anyone, except perhaps Mickey Mantle when I was four, and I have never wished I was someone else. Not that I think I’m even close to perfect, or great; in fact, the opposite is probably more accurate, but I’m content with being me — good, bad, or indifferent. I should probably add that my father was a renowned psychiatrist, revered by his psychiatric fellows and colleagues, who placed him on a pedestal, which, from a child’s point of view, was difficult for anyone else to compete for that top spot, for the grand position of acknowledged arbitrator of the mind.

I was probably about twelve when my father decided our family should go to Washington for the annual Cherry Blossom Parade celebrating the blooming of the cherry trees around the Tidal Basin in the nation’s capitol. It was spring and baseball was on my mind, not parades, and certainly not Cherry Blossoms, regardless of what a wonderful spectacle most thought of the event. My father, however, approached the trip, or family outing, as he put it, with his usual gusto and relish for perfection and attention to detail, as if we were being viewed by a generic, hypothetical audience somewhere, and judged accordingly.

So, off we went to Washington, a five hour or so drive from our home in New Jersey, the four of us kids and my parents, in an ugly green station wagon which resembled the box car on a train. We stayed at a Holiday Inn, as I remember, in two interconnecting bedrooms. I’m the oldest, and my sister Wendy is a year younger, while Timmy and Penny were about five and four, respectively, at the time.

We did all the usual tourist site visits, such as going to the Lincoln Memorial and walking all the way up the steps to the top of the Washington Monument, but the truly memorable moment of the trip occurred in the coffee shop at the Holiday Inn our first morning. We were shown to our table by a hostess in a navy blue blazer and there sitting a few tables away was the Addams Family from the television series in costume — Morticia and Gomez, and even Uncle Fester.

I didn’t think much of it, in truth, didn’t really like the television show, or even its competitor, The Munsters, which ran for the same two seasons, but I was old enough to know Gomez was played by John Astin of I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster, and Uncle Fester was Jackie Coogan, whom I was more interested in because he had been a child actor. As for Carolyn Jones, who played Morticia, I remembered her more from playing George Peppard’s wife in the epic movie How The West Was Won.

My father’s reaction was the reverse of mine. He was genuinely excited. He was rushing toward the gift shop before any of us had a chance to sit down, and being a kid, I naturally followed him, as did Wendy. My father didn’t hesitate, immediately going over to the spinning rack of postcards and purchasing appropriate ones to commemorate a visit to Washington, postcards of the very same sites we were planning to visit.

My sister and I continued to follow my father, only he fooled us, and instead of returning to our table, where my mother sat patiently with Timmy and Penny, he made his way straight to the table where the Addams Family was sitting. There was no stopping my father, he was on a mission and wouldn’t be thwarted from his goal of getting the Addams Family to autograph patriotic postcards for us, his two kids. “Please, Dad, don’t,” would have no influence. He was never the least bit self-conscious once his mind was made up about achieving something, regardless of whether it was appropriate or not.

So, there we were, standing with our father at a table in the Holiday Inn coffee shop where Gomez, Morticia, and Uncle Fester were finishing up a regular breakfast of eggs and home fries, orange juice and coffee. There was an awkward moment of silence, at least for me. Actually, total mortification and embarrassment is perhaps a better way to put it, my take on the situation was completely at odds with my father, the celebrated psychiatrist.

My father, as was his way, cleared his throat before speaking. I can’t remember the exact words but it started with my father making a general statement about the time of year. “Aren’t the Cherry Blossoms beautiful?”

A perfect opening, what answer could the Addams Family give? “Yes,” of course, which led my psychiatrist father to the next question, “What brings you to Washington?”

John Austin, who played Gomez, shifted in his seat, a battle between politeness and resentment over what he clearly perceived as an annoyance.
But maybe my sister and I made a difference, two kids, possibly considered part of the Addams Family fan base, so Gomez humored my father.

The Addams Family was in Washington for the Cherry Blossom parade, naturally. Yes, it was a lovely affair. They so enjoyed meeting and giving back to the public. At which point, my sister, Wendy, asked about Pugsley and Wednesday, the two Addams Family kids.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, I suppose, but I was, the Pugsley and Wednesday characters on the Addams Family, the two children who played them on the show, didn’t come to Washington. In fact, Pugsley and Wednesday, though always on the show, never traveled anywhere with the grownup members of the cast.

“What do you mean?” my sister and I wanted to know. Was this another example of excluding kids from something special? No, no, apparently there were laws pertaining to child actors, for their own protection, or maybe there were legitimate financial reasons, but all was okay, Pugsley and Wednesday replacements, local kids, had been hired for the parade in Washington.

Gomez, or Morticia, or possibly Uncle Fester, elaborated, still in politeness mode, that yes, this happened all the time, and as a result, there were Pugsley and Wednesday replacements in cities throughout the country.

Now, I never had any desire to be an actor, and if I did, I would never want to play Pugsley, no offense intended, and fortunately, I didn’t weigh enough, but the idea of being a replacement Pugsley was incomprehensible as something anyone would actually be willing to do. Who in God’s name would want to be a second-rate Pugsley Addams in let’s say Chicago, or Boston, or St. Louis?

Could it really be considered a break by some overly ambitious parents plotting a potential acting career for their kids? And what of the kid? How does any kid go to school the day after an appearance with the Addams Family and brag, or boast, or even feel good, about being a replacement Pugsley for the day?

By this point, my sister and I were squirming, desperately wishing we were back at home, anywhere but where we were. Please, Dad, go for the close, let’s get out of here. And to our relief, but also embarrassment, that’s what he did, he placed the postcards on the table, two of each, six in total, for Gomez, Morticia, and Uncle Fester to sign for my sister and myself.

As I watched in obedient silence, John Austin, quickly scrawled his signature on the back of a postcard of the Washington Monument. I couldn’t help wondering if he thought my father was nuts, or simply a bit too exuberant in his approach to actors on television.

We knew our father didn’t know much about the Addams Family, as evidenced by the fact he didn’t even notice that Lurch, the gigantic butler, wasn’t at breakfast, nor did my father catch my joke about Thing, the hand that appeared as a character on the show, not being present. It didn’t seem to bother my father, though; he seemed quite satisfied, proud of his successful accomplishment, yet remaining clueless to how his children viewed the same happening.

The postcards with the autographs are long since gone, who knows where, tossed out when my parents sold the house we grew up in, or misplaced or left behind when Wendy and I left home and traveled our separate ways. But the memory of my father trying to take control of the situation remains, the intended consequences of truly wanting to do something for his kids, but at the same time, being hopelessly caught up in his own sense of self, the consummate director, successful or not, of his children, the Addams Family in costume at breakfast at the Holiday Inn, and ultimately, life, none of which he could control or turn out the way he wanted.