Article by Gary Shusett
BEFORE THE FAME / NO Mc DONALDS JOB FOR SCHOOL DIRECTOR
Over the years I tried to attend any kind of award show that I thought I might meet at least a few known professionals. During the eighties I found myself going to a rather pleasant show called The American Comedy Awards.
At one show, a young woman rushed briskly by me. To this day, I am not quite sure why she grabbed my attention. She told me that she primarily did standup comedy but hadn’t done
much acting. My feeling was if she could try acting that it could change her life because she had a real gift.
But she really didn’t put much stock in my appraisal of her. I did feel kind of bad, because it was obvious that I had offended the woman who was called Ellen, the one we all now know as Ellen DeGeneres.
Several years later, Sherwood Oaks came upon an opportunity. Both Dustin Hoffman and Alec Baldwin agreed to do a class for us. We scheduled it for the day before my birthday on Saturday, July 18, my birthday being Sunday July 19. Paramount Studios gave us their new 500-seat theater to use. Dustin would speak for 4 hours then Alec would have the remaining two hours.
Before we knew it, 300 enrolled in the Saturday extravaganza. We were all anxiously looked forward to a very special day that would be taking place.
I guess that I was feeling pretty confident in the days that followed, anything seemed possible.
The very next time I saw Ellen, I told her that we would be thrilled if she would come and speak. Of course, I told her who was attending on Saturday. I think my joy of the coming program somehow moved her and she agreed to participate. I explained to her that 500 filmmakers and writers would be in attendance. We had two speakers on Saturday so she committed to attend on Sunday, July 19th. I could not help but wonder if a birthday present gets any better that this.
Then, eight days prior to the event Dustin’s secretary called with the startling news that Dustin could not make it as he was taking his kids on a trip across the United States, and unfortunately soon after Alec also bowed out.
Ellen’s class was to be held at Raleigh Studios, a smaller space because I surmised since our two big names dropped out, the number of students attending Ellen’s appearance that would be significantly smaller.
I tried to mention the change to Ellen’s manager but I was not sure if she ever got the message. I now began to become very nervous about Ellen’s class Sunday, July 19, my birthday. It didn’t help when my 75 year-old mother phoned with the frightening news that she was going to be in attendance to see her “glamorous son’s” appearance with the TV celebrity. At that point I would have happily traded my stressful job with anyone working behind the counter at any McDonald’s.
As I crept into the theater, Ellen was just arriving with her manager and her then girlfriend Anne Heche. As they glanced into the theater and noticed the skimpy crowd, she twisted her face like she was sucking on a lemon.
I tried my best to be cordial and appeasing. Her manager was irate as he explained Ellen and Anne were most disappointed and feeling they had been deceived and as a result, would probably leave shortly. My birthday was turning out to be anything but fun.
Suddenly, her manager and Anne explained Ellen would speak briefly so as not to disappoint
the meager crowd. I felt as though the governor had just spared me from the chair at midnight
and I was more grateful that the three of them then they would ever come to realize. As everyone settled into their seat, Ellen and Anne sat down. Ellen chose to sit on the other side of Anne to avoid being too close to me. I felt guilty but tried my best not to show it.
My uncomfortable feelings suddenly greatly expanded when I could hardly ignore the fact that my own mother had now plunked herself down into a front row seat smack in front of Ellen. It seemed like a formula for real trouble.
As the crowd began to quiet down, my mother raised her hand. What was I to do? I sensed that I was heading down the road of no return. I had to call on her, she was my mother. She rose very slowly and I couldn’t tell if it was because of her age or if she was aiming for a dramatic effect.
She then turned to face the puzzled crowd and with great pride, announced she was the mother of Gary Shusett. I sunk very low in my chair, and everything began to blur. Meanwhile the audience was definitely intrigued, I was mortified. It would continue to get worse.
Going forward, she then explained it was her son, Gary’s birthday and everyone needed to join her in a rousing stanza of the happy birthday song. I looked over to Ellen, she swiftly shot back a dirty look. This is what was going on and the class was only three minutes old, and it was not going that well to say the least. I wasn’t entirely sure that I could endure the entire day. Now I have to admit to being the target of a number of humiliating experiences in my life as well also on many of my birthdays. But never have hadI experienced such a humiliating birthday. All I could think about was fantasizing about golden arches and wearing a McDonalds apron. I just wanted to be anywhere but in that theater at that moment.
I tried to settle down as the seminar proceeded. But I do admit that I was still somewhat flustered from my mother’s leading the group to sing happy birthday to me. About fifteen minutes passed, and as I looked over to the side, Ellen’s manager was frantically giving me the wrap up sign. So I leaned over and said “Anne, I guess you and Ellen may have to leave soon.” She shot back, “not really.” Okay, Ellen continued talkingas I shook my shoulders in pantomime toward her manager’s seat.
He looked anything but happy. We continued on. It almost seemed Ellen was beginning to find the experience almost worthwhile, if I might go so far to say enjoyable. I do know that she seemed to have the the audience of mostly gay woman mesmerized and hanging on her every word.
Another half hour passed. I was handed a note from the manager. It read, “Haven’t you done enough damage, this is getting completely ridiculous, you must stop immediately. I beg you to put an end to this travesty by ending the session now!!”
I tried to be co-operative. I turned to Anne. “Well, it’s really been great having you. I know you’re really pressed for time.” Anne looked and said, “it’s not a problem.” Ellen continued. I couldn’t help but sneak a look at the manager. He was becoming furious and almost a shade of red. I wouldn’t have been that that surprised to see him charging the stage and begin strangling me, thank godness he didn’t. Soon after, I eased into ending the session and shook hands with both guests, but not the manager. There was a good hearted and warm wave of applause by the extremely appreciative audience.
As my mother slowly left, she nodded an appreciative, well done, son glance. This time she seemed quite sincere, and she made no attempt for even a minor dramatic effect. I guess I wouldn’t have to wear that McDonald’s cap after all. Although it did seem quite an attractive arrangement if I could have gotten those burgers at a discount.
A couple of days later. Ellen’s manager called. “So what’s going on over there?” as he opened our conversation in an accusative manner. Desperately trying to present a positive face, I said “just offering our worthwhile events for film professionals.” “Like whom” he shot back in a hostile tone. “Just whom have you had in the past?” Without pausing for even a second I casually
replied, Clint Eastwood, Robert DeNiro, Matin Scorsese, Paul Newman, Steven Spielberg.
“Yeah, he battered on, but who recently” “Well, Warren Beatty recently spoke and
also James Cameron and Quentin Tarantino.”
Rudely interrupting, he whispered in an intimidating tone, ‘come on, just level with me. Everything you have said is a falsehood. And in fact, isn’t Ellen the most famous person you have ever met?” “Well that’s one perspective.”
The next day I sent him copies of photos of more than 100 of Hollywood’s most famous
celebrities often with me in the photo and sometimes with the Sherwood Oaks logo behind us.
I never heard from him again. At that time, I was just beginning to write a book about my experiences at Sherwood Oaks. What a great line he gave me for the last sentence of my book.
To this day I occasionally see Ellen at award shows. In spite of the awkward experience,
when I see her, she always acknowledges me in a positive fashion. And I maybe perhaps just
imagine this, but by the slightest twinkle in her eye, I get the idea that she knew that I was one of the first to recognize her outstanding gifts that she had to offer that allowed to connect to so many people.
In addition, her key role in playing such a significant dent in the wall of prejudice that still exists.
You know… I guess that it really wasn’t that bad of a birthday after all.