Thursday, August 4, 2022

Shrugging at fame

Rush Pearson performing the Mud Show, 2013.

      Other than Google insisting for years on crediting me with producing the early Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen movies — a different Neil Steinberg —my involvement with moviemaking has been scant, limited to documentaries. I talk about the joys of philately in 2017's "Freaks & Errors: A Rare Collection." And comment on happiness in Jennifer Burns's 2008 "Vincent: A Life in Color," a gorgeous reflection on the life of Vincent P. Falk, who used to conduct fashion shows for passing boats off the Orleans Street bridge, when he wasn't running the computers at the Cook County Treasurer's office. 
     That's about it. Though I almost produced a movie of my own, or tried to. Burns was a waitress at Smith & Wollensky and financed "Vincent" by putting $35,000 on her Mastercard. It won some international awards, was shown at the Siskel Center, reviewed favorably by Roger Ebert. But "Vincent" never made any money, and she ended up back at the steakhouse, waiting tables. Which I felt was tragic.
     Particularly since I had the perfect subject for her next film: Rush Pearson. I'd been fascinated with Rush ever since college, when he was the star of the Practical Theatre, a troop of Northwestern students, mostly, including future Seinfeld cast member Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She was really funny, but Rush was the stand-out talent. He kept his dramatic chops sharp by performing at renaissance faires, a set-piece of vaudeville jokes and pratfalls that culminated in a faceful of mud, and was off in Texas at a ren faire there when Saturday Night Live sent a producer to pluck four, count 'em four, Practicals to appear on NBC. Rush, the most brilliant of them all, missed out. Eating mud. Down in Texas.
     I used the episode in the Bad Timing chapter of my book, "Complete & Utter Failure." He was gracious, philosophical.
    Rush kept eating mud with fellow Sturdy Beggars John Goodrich and Herb Metzler for the rest of his career. Forty years went by. Rush's oeuvre was making people laugh, 50 at a time, on summer days in small towns, collecting crumpled dollar bills, then doing it all again an hour later. He was my age, the tail end of his 50s. He couldn't do the show forever. Before his body failed, before he hung up his jester's rags, I decided, Jennifer Burns would capture him, make him immortal, do her next movie on the Mud Show. I would raise the money — I had gathered $34,000 to pay the legal permissions for my literary recovery book, "Out of the Wreck I Rise." I could do this too.
     I dragged Jennier to Bristol, Wisconsin to see the Mud Show at the Renaissance Faire. Of course she loved it. Everybody loved the Mud Show. She went to see Rush do his one-man show of Gogol's "Diary of a Madman" and thought it was brilliant. Because it was brilliant. Rush was a powerful, visceral actor who nevertheless spent most of his career eating mud. There was an irony, a larger truth here. There had to be. Jennifer was completely on board. 
     I was excited to tell Rush — he was gonna be a movie! — and took him out to lunch to give the news a bit of drama. Jennifer Burns and I would be making a movie about the Mud Show. I'd be producing it. His creation, his show would not be allowed to pass into memory undocumented. He and his friends would be remembered, their work preserved against time and death. 
     That's nice, Rush said, or words to that effect. But he didn't want to be immortalized. He wanted, he said, to pass through life without leaving a ripple. Doing no violence to the world, carving no trench. No legacy. Like a man passing along a trail through the woods. Leave nothing behind. 
    To be honest, that attitude made me want to do the movie more. The unwilling subject. A rare purity, and there was absolutely something pure, childlike about Rush. But I had never tried making a movie, and to make one about a guy who didn't want it, well, it didn't seem fair to him, or to Jennifer. I let the matter drop.
     Still, I was dumbfounded. Me, I'm leaving claw marks on the world. Every shred of significance is hoarded like a glass jar of smooth stones, shells and colorful bits of beach glass, to be shown off to others. I was happy this week when Northwestern Perspectives ran a brief item on Rubber Teeth, the humor magazine I helped Robert Leighton found in 1979. It wasn't a very long article, and frankly my role is limited to a quote and perhaps the best photo ever taken of me in my entire life, leading a meeting with Cate Plys. We are identified as "contributors" not "editors," which made me wince, but that is exactly the kind of take-down that notoriety hands those who put too much stock in her. 
     I was pleased to see the article. Pleased to be remembered, pleased that therefore an endeavor I had taken part in meant something, enough that somebody who wasn't even born, whose parents were probably in grade school at the time, would nevertheless pay attention to it now.  That's success, right? A single whiff of it anyway. To do something that people recall, years later. That's meaningful.
    And then I thought of Rush, a man of such immense life force, paddling his canoe of talent through the lake of life, untroubled with such concerns — at least from a distance, I don't know him very well, so might be missing significant aspects. The entire reality must be complicated. But from afar, he seems oblivious to such trivialities, content to leave only ripples, not caring at all as they vanish behind him. Doing his act — he's contracted to do the Ren Faire this year and next — while shrugging at the fame that hurried past him to embrace other, lesser talents. Without bitterness, without remorse. Generating his own sense of worth and satisfaction. That seems success of a much higher order.




19 comments:

  1. I think anyone who followed the early days of the Practical Theater Company would agree with you that Rush gave the cast its, well, rush of adrenaline. And while they were all wonderful people off-stage too, Rush had a well-centered, genuinely sweet innocence about him. And yet, fame is so fickle. Who’s to say how he would have handled it if a ton of fame came down on his head? I saw Julia L-D at a party shortly after Seinfeld began and she was having fun but had no thought that it would remake television. Or that she would become the most nominated woman in TV history, I believe. Maybe Rush is partly influenced by that proximity to a comet. I wish him the best; I always admired his sense of self.

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    1. That's basically what Rush said when I interviewed him for "Failure." Who knows, he could have coked out and crashed. Getting tapped didn't seem to help Gary Kroeger, so who knows?

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    2. Aww. I’ve had the life I wanted. I wasn’t looking for help, just fulfillment. I’ve had plenty

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  3. I didn’t notice they called us “contributors” in that picture because I was just wishing I’d brushed my hair, or something, before that meeting. But that’s how it usually goes for me: If I leave a ripple, my hair will be frizzy at that exact moment. The important thing is that our kids care about what we once did! Oh wait…

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    1. Both Robert Leighton AND Cate Plys commenting on my blog? I really HAVE hit the big time! I never noticed your hair in that picture, just us sharing a laugh. Our kids care about what we once did? Hell Cate, my boys hardly care what I'm doing NOW. But as Bruce Springsteen said, "You're supposed to be their audience. They're not supposed to be your audience." I repeat that like a mantra.

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  4. Perhaps I am the only one who's wondering, but... has Rush died? I was reading this with eyes half-squinted, thinking "Oh, God, this is going to be an obituary," and fearing that the next paragraph would begin with "Sadly,..." or something like that, but none did, so after reading the whole thing twice, I am still no wiser.

    Is it too late for folks to plan a trip to see the Mud Show up north?

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    1. Sorry about that Andy, but, heck, give me credit. If he died, you think I'd have mentioned it? Northwestern Perspectives ran a piece about Rubber Teeth. I was primed to pull out the violin and do "Glory Days." But my heart wasn't in it. And I thought of Rush...

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    2. Okay, yes, fair point, but you talk about him in the past tense throughout, until we're all the way down to the final paragraph, by which time I was resigned to learning that he'd passed away from mud poisoning or some such thing.

      When you didn't reveal a sad ending after all, I went back to the top and read it again with more appreciation. I can count on one hand the number of people I've met in my own life who could merit a tribute like that.

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  5. Imminent retirement? That seemed implied...at least to me.

    john

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  6. I knew Robert and Cate were founders but as an erstwhile RT editor of late 80s vintage, and someone who knows and likes and admires you, I am sheepish to admit I did not know you were one of the original brain trust. Who procured the stuffed squirrel? Always wondered about that.

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  7. I think Jennifer's "Vincent" is brilliant! I enjoyed sharing the stage with Rob and his dummy at NU for a "Make Me Laugh" benefit. And I think Neil is way way too kind to me. Oh, and I ate mud in Texas in 2020 during Covid. I performed the odd, and hoped never to be repeated, a one man show of the 3-man Mud Show. I ate mud last year at Bristol, as well as this summer. I shall be dining on mud with my great pals Herb and John the last 2 weekends of Bristol. (fun factoid: combined age of the Mud Show participants those last 2 weekends... 190)

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    1. Oh, I'm sorry. Why did I think you retired?

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    2. Cause that just makes sense?

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    3. Rush, it’s wonderful to think you still remember that benefit. Lord knows I have so many fond memories of you. If “John” is “Goodrich” please send him my best.

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    4. That benefit was a blast. The percentage of folks that were able to not smile was much larger than the TV show. A year or so later I was at a comedy club in L.A. to see the director of my first Mee-Ow Show, the amazing Kyle Hefner. That night I also ran into a comic who was performing who was a classmate of mine in Jr. High and High School, Mike Binder. He had been a comic on the TV show "Make Me Laugh". He told me that before the tapings they would have a comic go out to warm up the crowd, and all the comics could watch the audience members and help "decide" who would be chosen to play. That is saddest part about going into this business we call show, you end up seeing all unseen prep that creates the magic. I will tell Johnny "hello" for you, "anonymous".

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    5. Whoops—if you see this, Rush, I hadn’t realized I left that last note anonymously! It’s me—Leighton.

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  8. Well, I guess I am a vainglorious bastard, for if it be a sin to covet fame, as someone once said, I am the most offending soul alive. I want the fame, the fast cars, strippers, and great jolly shitloads of money, so I can leave my sons an inheritance considerably better than some scrapbooks and clippings! Figure I made a mess of things compensating for the lack of fame that it might have been a blessing to have it all! Seriously, though, the unexpected accolades after 40 years and more of the Mud Show are currency very dear to us. Thank you!

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  9. I loved the Mud Show. Who could resist going back several times. I once took an improv class with Rush. His enthusiasm and encouragement was endless.

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