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Crispin and I on the Fourth of July

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Posted 06.30.12

On June 1, 2011, I received an email from occasional actor and full-time eccentric, Crispin Glover. At the time it appeared completely random, at least until I scrolled down further and realized it was a reply. Honestly, I’d forgotten all about it. But who wouldn’t? My original email was written nearly six years earlier, on July 25, 2005. “I apologize for the long delay in my response,” Crispin wrote. Long delay? To put things in perspective, if I had been in middle school at the time of the original email, I would have been in college by the time of the response. The purpose of my initial inquiry was a request that he bring his traveling one-man show to Tulsa. Little did I know that this experience—more than half a decade in the making—would lead to two of the most interesting days of my life.

THE PLAN

Time was of the essence as Crispin and I began a feverish back and forth email volley that would have made Roger Federer proud. He wanted to do the event on the 4th of July. I cautioned against this move for fear that we would be competing with too many events. After much deliberation, a date and venue were selected; Tuesday, July 5 at the Nightingale Theater. Tickets would be $20 each, with proceeds divided between Mr. Glover and the non-profit Nightingale. A bargain if you ask me.

When word got out about the event, the media pounced. No ads needed, no press releases written. Within an hour or so of the initial Facebook announcement, phone calls were coming fast and furious. “How can I get tickets?” “Are you going to sell out?” “Why did you pick such a small venue?” For reasons of sheer logistics, and to even the playing field for those interested, we elected to sell tickets only at the door, on the day of the event. Cash only.

Located in an unassuming space in an industrial park not far from downtown Tulsa, the Nightingale Theater is nothing if not intimate. It might hold 100 people on a good day. It would have been easy to host the event in a larger, more mainstream space, but there was something to be said for creating a one-time-only experience that those lucky few would be talking about for years to come. And, as silly as it may sound, it wasn’t about taking their money. We just wanted to blow their minds.

DAY 1: INDEPENDENCE DAY

Part of Crispin’s lengthy rider—the list of personal preferences and event particulars that accompanies any artist’s appearance— stated that he would not under any circumstances travel and perform on the same day. So we booked two nights at a downtown hotel. It was already well over 90 degrees when I headed to the airport to perform my obligatory host duties. Apparently not the kind of person to look ahead for weather updates, Crispin arrived wearing an outfit that looked like a tribute to Johnny Cash. Black shoes, black socks, black pants, black undershirt, and a black dress shirt with the sleeves rolled down.

A slight problem arose before we’d even exited the terminal. His luggage, which looked nice and expensive (an appraisal confirmed moments later by Crispin himself), was incomplete. Something was missing, a strap to be exact. “I need to talk to someone about replacing this strap,” he said. I asked around and learned that we had to go to the Delta counter and file a claim of some sort. The process took nearly 20 minutes even though we were the only ones in line. Frustration was visible in his face and noticeable in his tone. I began to wonder if this would be the moment I’d see Crispin Glover go crazy. It wasn’t. He remained cordial and polite. No outbursts.

Before heading to the hotel, he wanted to make a stop. “Do you have a Whole Foods in Tulsa?” he asked. The drive to midtown was filled with fun facts and background from the Crispin file: He lives part-time in the Czech Republic. He would soon be appearing in a film based on an Elmore Leonard novel. One of the only things he knows about Tulsa is that his good friend Nicolas Cage (now there’s a pair) was in Rumble Fish back in the ’80s. I assumed (always a bad idea) that we would simply swing by the grocery store and pick up a few things that wouldn’t be available via room service. The raw-food diet that he religiously maintains keeps him looking much younger than a man in his late 40s.

As we walked into the store, already bustling with people planning the perfect dinner, Crispin walked right past the hand baskets and got behind the wheel of a full-sized shopping cart. “Why do we need that?” I thought. What followed still boggles the mind. Crispin Glover’s total time in Tulsa would be less than 48 hours, yet the amount of food he piled into that cart and eventually purchased would lead one to assume a stay of at least a week. Passion fruit seemed to be a particular favorite. Minus the presence of an unseen travel juicer, I had no idea what he was planning to do with what must have been more than two dozen of the fruit.

I was surprised that no one approached him. Sporting virtually the same waist size and haircut since the Reagan administration, it’s not as if he’s unrecognizable in that post-op Kenny Rogers sort of way. In fact, only a young man behind the butcher counter seemed to know who he was, asking me when Crispin was out of earshot, “Wasn’t he in that movie with Michael J. Fox?”

I’d been priming Crispin over the course of the preceding weeks about the possibility of watching the 4th of July fireworks. He seemed open to the idea and when I dropped him off at the hotel around 5 p.m., I reminded him of the opportunity. He agreed.

One of my good friends lives in a downtown hotel. She has a stunning view and it seemed like the perfect spot. “Would you mind if I brought Crispin Glover over to watch the fireworks from your balcony?” I asked. Of course she agreed, who wouldn’t? After hanging at her place for a while, we all eventually made our way to the hotel roof, where the vista was even better. With multiple fireworks venues, I wanted to focus Crispin on the best show. “Focus your attention in this direction,” I suggested, pointing toward the Arkansas River. He planted himself at a spot on the railing, crossed his arms and rested his chin in that general direction. For at least the next hour, as the sky changed color with patriotic pyrotechnics, he didn’t move an inch or say a word. “Did you enjoy that?” I asked, as the dark of night returned. “Yes, thank you,” he replied.

It had been a long day. The heat was stifling, he’d been traveling, and I’m certain he was quite tired. Crispin’s hotel wasn’t far away, but the mass exodus from downtown post-fireworks clogged every street and slowed cars to a snail’s pace. After a few minutes of stuttered progress, Crispin made a decision. “How far are we from the hotel?” he asked. “Not that far,” I said. “Maybe a quarter of a mile.” I wasn’t entirely sure. Without hesitation, he opened the door and began to exit the car. “See you tomorrow,” he said. In terms of sheer time, it was a smart move. Unexpected, but smart. As Crispin Glover walked swiftly down the street toward a comfortable bed and a stockpile of raw food, I watched from the stillness of gridlock with a permanent grin on my face.

DAY 2: HOT TIME IN THE CITY

Crispin’s rider dictates a technical run-through in the early afternoon on performance day to make sure that everything is in smooth, working order. Almost immediately we hit hurdles. He prefers to show his films from the 35mm prints he travels with. At the Nightingale Theater, we didn’t have the capabilities to show actual film. He did have a backup DVD option, a nuclear option of sorts. Due to restraints of finance and technology, that is the route we chose to pursue.

Word had been spreading for nearly a month about Crispin’s visit to Tulsa. With tickets only on sale at the door on the day of the event, we assumed that people would come early. We didn’t expect them to arrive ten hours early, lining up on the baking concrete. There is no shade to be found around this venue. The temperature was slated to top out in the low 100s, with a heat index bordering on ridiculous. We arrived for the run-through around 2 p.m. As we entered the venue, it was apparent that the air conditioning, not the best to begin with, had been off for at least a few days. In that moment, the sweat began and would continue well into the morning.

The run-through took forever. There’s just no other way to put it. Move the projector forward. Push it back. The slideshow looks good. No it doesn’t. Let’s start all over. I remember that there was one spot in the room where the air conditioning hit directly. We all spent time rotating through this spot, rationing it out like survivors of some tragedy, waiting for help to arrive. But the ones who really needed help, perhaps even rescue, were the poor souls waiting beyond the door, suffering in the July heat. Someone made arrangements for an ice cream truck to make occasional stops. We provided bottled water. We did what we could. And amazingly, no one complained. In their minds, it was worth it.

By 5 o’clock, there was a line down the street. The building had only cooled into the mid-80s when we began taking tickets and letting people in. They had no idea what was in store.

SHOWTIME

Music provided by Crispin—a mix of mostly classical tunes and pop songs that would fit well into any David Lynch film—played overhead as guests entered and waited. In fact, the entire evening, wild as it was, was tightly scripted and directed.

From the rider:

“One minute before the show begins, the walk-in music fades down and an audio announcement is made by someone from the theater: ‘Good evening, welcome to the _______ Theater! We would like to remind you that no cameras, mobile phones, or recording devices of any kind are to be used during the entire show. If mobile texting or calling is necessary at any time, please step out of the auditorium as use of electronic devices can interrupt the show. There will be an opportunity for photographs during the book signing. Thank you!’ ”

An hour or so before show time, Crispin informed me that he wasn’t feeling well, stomach trouble of some sort. I began to worry. “Please don’t cancel,” I thought. After making people wait in the heat all day, I was likely to be murdered if we had to cancel. For the love of God, don’t do this to me. In the end, he bucked up.

We arrived and entered through the back door. There is a bed, most likely a prop from a previous show, just off to the side of the stage. It’s dark and hidden from audience view. Crispin, still not feeling 100 percent, decided to rest on the bed before the show. The crowd was restless, but not too wild. The heat, an ever-present weight on everyone, seemed to be adding some strange element to the mix. The beers were selling well in the back of the house. There were moments, as the thirsty masses tried to cool themselves, when the sound of landing bottle caps began to take on a sort of rhythm.

The show was set to start. As I walked the crowd, making sure everything was set and everyone was enjoying themselves, my phone rang. It’s Crispin. He’s literally no more than 25 feet away, tucked behind the curtain. “Did I hear someone talking about selling something?” he asked. He has a strict rule that the only items for sale will be his own books, which he provided via UPS a few days prior. “No, no one is selling anything out here except the books,” I said. “OK, thanks,” said Crispin. It was going to be a long night.

The schedule for the evening was as follows:

8 p.m.—Hour-long dramatic presentation of “Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show”

9 p.m.—Screening of Crispin’s film, It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.

10:15 p.m.—Q&A Following the Q&A, Crispin signs books and takes photos with guests.

* * *

The slideshow went smoothly, with Crispin showing no signs of feeling under the weather. He looked great, actually, and in his element. The show is made up of images from his eight books. With titles like “Rat Catching” and “Oak-Mot,” they are basically reworked and redacted pieces from the 19th century, twisted and edited into … well, something else. Anyway, they are hard to describe. As far as his films go, I honestly didn’t know much. He’d directed the film we were screening, which was written by and stars the late Steven C. Stewart. Stewart passed away from complications related to cerebral palsy just a month after shooting wrapped. That was basically all I knew. I could have done more research. I could have inquired further, but I honestly didn’t really think about it.

From a purely aesthetic standpoint, the film is quite impressive. My praise ends there. It’s certainly not Steven Stewart’s fault that his strained speech is nearly impossible to understand. A subtitle or two could have helped. I expected a mass exodus. But after a handful of people left during the slideshow, not a single person left during the film. This is all the more impressive when you take into consideration the denouement—a string of sexual fantasy scenes with Stewart himself performing real (and assisted) sex acts. I’m no prude, but all I could think about was the time The Tin Drum was banned in Oklahoma City in 1997. And that was for just one questionable scene. The Tin Drum is like The Lawrence Welk Show compared to this. When the credits rolled and the lights finally returned, I think it’s safe to say that everyone in the room had just emerged from an unforgettable experience.

But the Q&A that followed was perhaps the best part of the night, certainly the most illuminating. Responding to questions about his 1990 lawsuit against Universal Studios (look it up), Crispin gave one of the most interesting and complex answers I have ever heard. It included history, narrative, personal insight, and a few moments I couldn’t even comprehend. The answer to that single question lasted more than 15 minutes. It was well past 1 a.m. when we finally began signing books. The temperature outside had climbed down into the mid-80s—a cool front by comparison.

More than 25 years after he played George McFly, Crispin Glover still has a devoted fan–base, perhaps larger than ever. Through merely being Crispin Glover, he has created something that goes far beyond a single role or film. Some of the people in the audience that night drove from hours away and waited in miserable conditions for this event. Some, unable to afford a hotel room that night, got right back in the car and took the long drive back. The smiles on their faces, as they posed with him for a photo, were something refreshingly pure and without a single shred of irony. I’m not sure I’ve ever been as happy as these people seemed that night.

I was wrecked when I dropped Crispin off at the hotel. He was due out on an early flight and the hotel shuttle would be taking him to the airport. It was past 3 a.m. and I was due at work in just a few hours. He looked the same as always. Not a yawn. Not a sigh. “I hope we can do this again sometime,” he said. And with that, he was gone. It took less than ten seconds before I realized I’d do it all again. And people say he’s nuts.

On my lunch break that day I stopped by the hotel again to thank them for donating the room. “Do you happen to know if there was a lot of food left in the room?” I asked the clerk. “No, not that I know of,” he said. Crispin simply couldn’t have eaten the entire Whole Foods purchase in such a short time. And the idea of him packing it up and taking it with him is even more absurd. But who knows, perhaps sometime in the year 2016 I’ll get a petrified Clif Bar in the mail along with a much-delayed thank-you note. I wouldn’t be surprised.