At age 11,
I feared how age 13 loomed. I knew it would be all downhill from there.
How the hell was I supposed to be a big Hollywood success when I was stuck
going to middle school and living with my parents in Needham, Massachusetts?
God's hands to mine, that's when I found an ad in the Boston Herald
-- "Cameo Kids! The Workshop for Television and Modeling. A six-week
course. Learn how to act on camera and work in television!"
I just knew this was my ticket out of the suburbs. I'd finally be free
of public school to begin my life of being tutored on the set. I showed
the ad to my mom. She was cautious. "Jennifer, don't you think that
you should wait until you get your braces off and your perm grows out
before you go in front of any cameras?" I fumed. Why was my mother
so irrational?! You don't just wait around for a lightning bolt like Cameo
Kids to strike twice. I begged her to pay the five hundred dollar enrollment
fee. The way I looked at it, I was doing her a favor by allowing her this
opportunity to invest in me. The whole family would be paid back in spades
when I got famous.
The following Saturday, my mom and I rode the train from Needham to Boston
on our way to Cameo Kids at 6000 Boylston Street. I wonder if my mother's
reluctance in paying for this course was not because of the money, but
the fact that an acting school was named "Cameo" Kids. Cameo
being a million-dollar word for "bit part". It does seem to
imply, "Look, we have low expectations for your son or daughter.
Maybe they want to try our sister school, 'Extras'."
Street turned out to be Brigham's Coffee Shop. Cameo Kids was located
on the second floor. The windows above Brigham's were boarded up with
pieces of wood crossed like X's. The elevator was the size of a single
bed standing up and had no door, only a gate. It stopped on the second
floor in front of a white door that had a piece of notebook paper taped
to it. "Cameo Kids! Come in!" I knew in my heart that Cameo
Kids wasn't under construction but simply, this was the best that they
could do. I felt my first pang of guilt at the money my mom had just spent.
I could see
that my mom's faith was temporarily restored when we spotted, hanging
on the waiting room wall, a framed headshot of Michelle Pfeiffer autographed:
"Thanks, Cameo Kids!" The owner, who introduced herself as Estelle,
did not get up from behind her desk. "Hi! Have a seat, girls."
Estelle smelled like cigarettes. She spoke in a raspy voice and wore a
white beehive hairdo. When she blinked her false eyelashes threatened
to jump off of her eyelids. Because her nails were so long, Estelle had
to carefully maneuver her cigarette to avoid gashing her own face. I hadn't
experienced much in my short life so I had no idea that Estelle was a
cliché. To me she seemed like a very powerful older woman who never
had the need for a husband or kids, and was immune to lung cancer. I bet
she lived in a penthouse at the Four Seasons and watched the world go
by with a carton of cigarettes and her little dog. She had many folders,
each empty with students' names on them. "These are empty now but
they'll be filled over the course of the six weeks with your evaluations,"
By week two my mom had believed that Cameo Kids was a legitimate way to
break into show business. When we greeted Estelle on our way in, this
time my mom poked me and whispered, "Smile! Smile at Estelle!"
I chose not to smile but to appear brooding. I had just read that James
Dean used to scowl his way through Hollywood meetings and I'd seen him
mumble his way through the movies. He was mysterious. I was not going
to compromise my air of mystery by acting like some audience member from
Let's Make A Deal.
I spent the better part of class looking at my Cameo Kids comrades. Is
that what it looks like to be a dreamer? The boys and girls were some
of the roughest most awkward looking kids I'd ever seen, except for Jeff
Friedman. Jeff had piercing blue eyes, jet black hair and wore a Polo
sweater with black patent leather shoes. This kid was all class. Jeff
and I were going to be King and Queen of the acting class. Hopefully Jeff
and I would be paired up together and we could do a scene from Love
Story or maybe Shampoo. Unfortunately, I was paired up with
the teacher to do a Vanessa and Mom scene from The Cosby Show.
I had read in my sister's Cosmopolitan magazine that women can
silently communicate with men using body language. As I read in front
of the class, I made sure to cross my leg in the direction of Jeff Friedman
and dangle my left hand off the side of the chair so that he could see
that I was not wearing an engagement ring.
Getting ready to go to Cameo Kids every Saturday morning was taking on
dramatic proportions. I wanted to impress Jeff. He was so different than
the sweaty, pimply boys at my middle school. Jeff was tidy and pristine.
And I wanted my make-up to be perfect so that he could see, I was a woman.
During The Business of Headshots week, a professional photographer lectured.
Our parents were taken into a separate room to discuss the art of paying
for headshots. I wasn't listening. I figured that when I got famous my
manager could worry about these details. I was too busy sitting next to
Jeff and sending him telepathic messages, "I'm your Leading Lady!"
Jeff however was a consummate professional. He took notes, not in a notebook,
but on a legal pad. I leaned over to say, "Cool paper!" Jeff
looked back at me, putting his finger to his lips in a "Shhh"
motion, and then pointed to the teacher silently directing me to pay attention.
On the train
ride home my mom leaned in and whispered to me, "Jeff Friedman's
out of your league. His mother told me that she wants Jeff to meet a nice
Jewish girl." How did that come up in a twenty minute discussion
about headshots? Did Mrs. Friedman lean in to my mom and threaten, "Hey.
I see your daughter looking at my son. Tell her to keep her Shiksa eyes
I put my hair to the test with my curling iron ritual the next week, my
mom advised, "You know if you spent less time on your hair and more
time smiling at Estelle and making friends in class, I think you'd have
a good chance at getting something out of this." I picked up on my
mom's subtext, "Don't forget why you made me spend all of this money.
You want to be an actress." I decided that I was going to actually
pay attention that week, forget Jeff and start fresh.
to find the classroom stripped bare and a local improvisational comedian
bouncing around the room. "Okay guys! Let's start playing! Because
that's what acting is, play!" He picked me to improvise entering
a haunted house. I took to the makeshift stage and mimed pushing open
a heavy door, swiftly moving cobwebs out of my way. Improv Guy shouted,
"Okay Jen I'm going to throw you a curveball in this scene. I'm going
to send a ghost into the abandoned house with you. But keep going."
He tapped Jeff Friedman. Jeff stood quietly next to me on stage, pretending
to be a shadowy figure. I jumped into Jeff's arms and buried my face in
his neck. "Oh thank God you're here! Hold me." The Improv Guy
jumped up. "Stop! Why would you run into the ghost's arms? You didn't
even let Jeff establish the scene or his presence as a ghost. You're railroading
Jeff." I turned red. Jeff turned away.
After class my mom and I rode the rickety elevator downstairs to Brigham's
for an ice cream sundae. I spotted Jeff and Megan Ames in a booth together.
Talk about Shiksas. Megan was a pale, blonde, freckled little priss. I
knew that I hated her the minute I walked into class that first day. She
wore the Kangaroo sneakers that I coveted but couldn't have because my
mom had already spent too much money on Cameo Kids. Jeff's mom sat at
a counter reading a book, out of their earshot. I was witnessing the leading
man/leading actress romance that I was so sure would be mine. I skipped
my ice cream sundae and dragged my mom out of there. I rode the train
home silently fuming, each click of the wheel against the track reminding
me of that horrible term "railroading."
On the last
day class, all of us, Cameo Kids were going to read commercials on videotape.
There was no guarantee that any of us would land a real commercial after
our test shoot, but I kept thinking about that headshot hanging in the
lobby. Surely, Michelle Pfeiffer had nailed her commercial test, which
skyrocketed her to fame. I had a hunch that I'd follow that same path.
Local celebrity Rex Trailer was our guest teacher for the day. My classmates
were humbled by Rex's presence. I was devastated. I thought a celebrity
was going to teach the class. Someone who could possibly swoop me up and
take me back to Hollywood with them. Rex was the star of local, low-budget
ads for The Crimson Travel Company. In his commercials, Rex appeared in
a cowboy outfit, and fake tumbleweeds blew by as he announced great deals
for senior citizens traveling from Boston to Fort Lauderdale. Rex was
so un-famous that he even accompanied the seniors on the bus trip.
Since Rex didn't know us, he couldn't assign us ads based on our personalities.
So we picked commercial copy out of a hat. A cowboy hat. I picked a dreadfully
boring cereal ad where I had to go on and on about vitamins and iron.
I envied the girls who picked Toys R Us and Hershey's Syrup ads.
I was happy to see that Megan Ames kept tripping over the words on her
Arnold Brick Oven White Bread commercial copy. But she just kept giggling
and tossing her pigtails back. Rex was laughing too and saying, "It's
okay honey. You're doing great!"
Class ended when the last kid was videotaped. There was no fanfare or
party and no sign of Estelle. Was I going to get famous there or was there
going to be some kind of follow-up call? Or was this all there was?
Weeks later my evaluation arrived in the mail, along with a tape of my
practice Corn Flakes commercial.
As I watched it, all I could see was a girl with dashed dreams caught
on tape. I wasn't smiling, even though in memory I'd felt like I'd really
hammed it up. The answer to "When will I be famous?" was addressed
in my evaluation. Well, there was no formal evaluation, just a coupon
for Cameo Kids II. Instantly rejuvenated I held the coupon up to my mom.
Moments later, my mom and I were having "the talk." You know,
the talk where moms tell their 13-year-old daughters that they're not
that talented and some bad people just want their money. A separate note
fell out of the envelope. It was a handwritten card. "Dear Jennifer,
Performing and making commercials is fun. It's supposed to look like you
enjoy it. Sincerely, Rex."
I still think of the note to this day whenever I catch myself trying to
deliver my stand-up act with any kind of intensity. I am closer to realizing
my Hollywood dreams than I was at age 11, but only on the technicality
that I literally live in Hollywood. Something still tells me not to worry
and it's not just my ego. It's because I have a Plan B. Right now the
future Jeff Friedmans and Jen Kirkmans are being born. And I can always
take up smoking again, get a little dog and teach.
I looked up Jeff Friedman on IMDB. There are so many Jeff Friedmans in
Hollywood, I've given up trying to figure out which one he is.
Rex Trailer later went on to play a gynecologist in the Cher movie, Mermaids.
Megan Ames landed an actual Arnold Brick Oven Bread commercial. As far
as I know that may be the only thing she's ever done. I think it only
ran locally in Boston and I have a feeling that it may have been yanked
pretty quickly. The ad had the most subversive copy ever spoken. Megan,
in her pale pallor, tapped her loaf of bread and said, "Arnold White
Bread. My kind of people, my kind of bread."
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