TEN QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS FOR
“WHAT TIME IS THE MIDNIGHT BUFFET?”
BY BRUCE J. STARIN
1. Your first memoir about cruising and Hollywood was titled “Does The Crew Sleep On Board?”. Why write a second?
While employed as a Social Director during an early cruise in my career, a passenger who just happened to be an extremely successful sitcom writer imparted the following pearls of writer’s wisdom to me. This occurred after I had successfully cornered the Hollywood scribe in the ships twenty-four hour pizza bar and cocktail lounge. Sampling a late night Sicilian pepperoni and onion as well as a few Martini’s, he was more than happy to open up. He warned a good writer must be willing to do two things. First and most importantly you should be willing to “murder your darlings”. Regardless of his well-earned fame and fortune, he bemoaned the fact he had to adhere to the “two jokes per page” format which was the industry standard for all studio submissions at the time, never trashing but saving all sorts of his best jokes and gags for another venture. When I inquired what the second thing a good writer should always remember, his eyes narrowed, brows furrowed and he whispered “Always carry a notebook.” He let that sink in for a moment and then began gazing around the nearly empty bar adding, “I need a fresh Martini.” I immediately ordered another round.
Taking his prophetic advice to heart I realized, after publishing my first memoir about cruising and Hollywood, and having to “murder all sorts of darlings” to accomplish that feat, I still had a notebook crammed full of experiences and adventures that were screaming for attention. Hence, I created this second memoir, “What Time Is The Midnight Buffet?”
- Why title your book “What Time Is the Midnight Buffet?”?
You would be amazed at the strange phenomenon that occurs once a person boards a ship and assumes the role of a passenger. All semblance of intelligence and relative sanity leaves as soon as they step foot off the gangway and into the womblike confines of a luxury liner. Doctors, lawyers, icons of business, professionals all – leave all sense of logic ashore once offered unlimited booze and fourteen opportunities for assorted presentations of food running the gamut from gourmet sit-down meals, fast food, fresh pastry service, high tea, pizza and assorted snacks served generously throughout the course of a day. I renamed the ship from its original name to the fictional “SS Luna Sea” and fielded the most bizarre questions on a daily basis. Among them: Do these stairs go down?”, “Where can I rent a gorilla suit?”, “Have those fish been to Marineland… where did they learn to jump like that?”, “Is there an elevator on the ship that goes from the front of the ship to the back?”, “Just what is the Captain doing about these rough seas?”, “I just lost twenty dollars in the Betty Boop slot machine. Do you refund my money or what?”, “Does the crew sleep on board?”. And, of course, my all time favorite, “What time is the midnight buffet?” Which on the Luna Sea was actually a logical question as the last food service began an 11:45 p.m. Regardless passengers were always seen surreptitiously preparing plates of goodies from the midnight buffet to take back to their rooms – even though the first formal meal service was served three hours after the buffet closed down as a continental breakfast on the pool deck greeting the sunrise at 5 a.m.
- “Was ‘dat ‘de butt Bob?”
During the last five years Bob Eubanks hosted “The New Newlywed Game” a rumor was circulated by Whoopie Goldberg that she heard a contestant answer a question posed on the show with, “’Dat be ‘de butt, Bob!” So adamant was she about hearing this comment, she had a sweatshirt made with the phrase emblazoned across front. Eventually the phrase became part of contemporary culture even though in my five consecutive years of producing the show I never heard it uttered by anyone. Bob, with his twenty-five years of “Newly” experience was adamant the phrase was never said as well. A few years after the show went off the air Game Show Network hired me to produce an anniversary show celebrating the long run of the popular show. We screened over a thousand shows looking for the phrase and I even offered a bounty of $500 to any editor finding the segment. No one found it. As far as we were concerned it didn’t exist.
A few years later GSN sold the show to another production entity and they too decided to create an anniversary show as part of their kickoff premiere. Having already screened a thousand episodes on our end, they had a head start and began screening additional shows looking as ever for the fateful phrase. Did they find it? You’ll have to read my book to find out!
- Of all the stars and celebrities you worked with, which one would you say most closely defined the word “Diva”?
At first glance that would have to be Barbra Streisand, but after careful consideration the snarky title doesn’t really fit. Prior to her two all time box office smash performances at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on Millennium New Year’s Eve and the evening directly following on January 1, her total receipts have not been equaled let alone surpassed. Rumor had it prior to checking in she needed to try out ten different toilet seats until she found one suitable for her delicate derriere. If that wasn’t “diva-esque” enough, the hotel sent out a memo warning when Ms Streisand was being transported through the basement passageways leading form her suites to the performance venue in her custom made airconditioned golf cart, all the employees she passed in the hallways had to avert their gaze. When I heard about that unbelievably absurd request I went out of my way to cruise the passageways - daring the golf cart to pass, so I could stare directly at this pompous diva. It never happened. A few days after her record-breaking performances word came down to me that Madam Barbra and her entourage had requested attending a performance of my popular show, “Wheel of Fortune, Live!”. I told her advance people flat out, there was no room to facilitate her golf cart, and I wouldn’t tolerate any of my staff being reprimanded or even fired for simply glancing her way. I was assured, she would be attending rather incognito as a “private citizen” albeit accompanied by a personal entourage of five as well as two armed undercover security officers. No problem I replied and prepared my staff for her eventual arrival.
She actually attended an early performance wearing jeans, large sunglasses and a Gucci scarf wrapped around her head like a babooshka. She didn’t want any of her people to participate even though contestants were chosen though a custom-made randomizer, based on the number on their ticket. We expunged the ticket numbers from her and her entourage from our randomizer. After the show she asked if she could meet the staff and crew to say thanks. I agreed, of course, humbled by how down to earth she seemed to be, referring to me as “tattala” a Yiddish slang expression for “sweetheart”. After the paying audience had left, I had the staff and crew line up to in a receiving line of sorts to meet with the legend. She met with each and every one, shaking hands, chatting pleasantly and giggling at some of their reactions and answers. One show girl tried to sneak a picture, and Barbara waved her off reacting jokingly, “No pictures wearing these “schmatas” (Yiddish again for rags) Please have a heart!” Everyone laughed, the show girl turning beet red and quickly hiding her camera in her ample bosom.
The next morning I received an envelope with an assortment of autographed photos from her record breaking New Year’s Eve performance addressed to each member of the cast and crew – accompanied by a personal note. For all I know she could have had an assistant do the autographs, but the fact that she made the effort quickly dissipated my prior opinion of a diva who demanded workers avert their gaze as she passed, as well as numerous toilet seat fittings. I decided to write that all off as simply part of her charm. Diva or doting Auntie – the choice is yours.
- In one of your earlier books you talk about the excitement generated by the sailors and crew when a cricket was heard and eventually captured and kept as a hallowed prize in small elaborate bamboo cages while on board. Does the crew still keep pets while on board?
Pets of any kind for the sailors and crew were definitely not allowed primarily for health reasons, though occasionally crickets were still captured and prized for the remainder of their short lives and even preserved as hallowed trophies afterward. The Officers, on the other hand, less dedicated to the sanctification of errant insects, were known to secretly dote upon a canary or a small tropical parrot but only if lucky enough to be billeted in a private cabin. Not so the Capitano, who reveled in owning and maintaining a huge aquarium in his expansive cabin, home to a carnivorous Amazonian red-bellied piranha. A gift from the Venezuelan Customs officials as thanks to our Capitano for the copious amounts of whiskey presented as gifts to them every time they visited the ship – which was every time we docked in Caraccas. The Capitano named his piranha “Atilla” and fed him live goldfish who lived in the same tank as Atilla, separated by a glass partition. Every few days the Capitano would raise the glass partition allowing a few of the goldfish to enter the carnivore’s digs, and in seconds Atilla would devour the goldfish from the tail to the gills. So swift was the attack, the head of the unfortunate goldfish, not fully comprehending his body had disappeared, would continue swimming around the aquarium for a moment or two, before realizing he was dead. Oddly enough, the hapless head would then bob to the bottom of the aquarium as if he were looking for something to eat. Retrieving the bobbing head, still blinking incredulously, with a very long handled net, the smiling Capitano was sure to never allow his fingertips dip below the calm surface of his serenely bubbling fish tank.
- With all your world travels, did you ever get involved with drugs in any way?
Drugs are always available to traveler’s the world over, but I always made an effort not to get involved, as I always felt the momentary high was not worth the risk of spending an extended stay in a European or Asian jail. Marijuana products, legal in Amsterdam and available from the bartender ordered off a small menu card was a different story. One evening a few cohorts and I wandering around the lurid districts of tolerant Amsterdam decided to try some of the marijuana products – rolled joints, grams of hashish and so on were way to expensive for our humble traveler’s budgets in a bar, so we tried to take our chances with a dealer on the street. We found a Rastafarian type who was actually a recent arrival from the Dutch Moluccan Maluku Islands, currently part of Indonesia. He assured us the small chip of hashish wrapped in tin foil was the best available in Amsterdam – and he was asking less than half the price the same product was selling for in the local bar. We grabbed it and quickly paid for his offering, running back to the bar to enjoy it. Trying as hard as we could, we just couldn’t seem to light the dark reddish-brown chunk of hash. The bartender wandered over and with a curious look on his face asked if we bought our hash from a big Moluccan guy out on the street with a shaggy headful of Rastafarian style dread locks. We told him that was our guy. He chuckled and said, “Congrats boys, you’re trying to light dog-shit.”
We told him we understood it wasn’t the best hashish available, and he waved us off, interrupting, “Guys, listen to me – you bought dog shit. He sells it to wise-guys like you all the time!” With that he threw the bar’s marijuana menu card on the bar and asked if were in the mood to try some decent recently arrived Lebanese hash. We agreed. He handed us a small disposable tin foil pipe, prepacked with a quarter gram of fine reddish-brown hashish. We proceeded to share the authentic tidbit between the three of us. I don’t really remember what happened after that.
- Along the way you have met many characters and celebrities. Who was the most memorable?
During my early years running around in Hollywood I was lucky enough to land a small but re-curing roll in the popular daytime soap opera “Days Of Our Lives”. One of the regular stars of the show was Robert Clary, an actor with a charming French accent who rose to fame as “LeBeau” one of the prisoners of war in the tv comedy “Hogans Heros”. One day during lunch in the NBC Commissary I noticed Robert was sitting alone at an empty table, so I asked if I could join him. He made a welcoming gesture with his hand and I noticed a fading number garishly tattooed on his forearm. He must have noticed I was staring. He smiled wryly and said, “A little souvenir while I was a guest of Mr. Hitler.”
“Which camp?” I responded perhaps rudely, but amazed I was about to share lunch with a survivor from one of the darkest periods of human history. He went on to tell me in a matter-of-fact manner that he and his nine member family were rounded up in Paris by the Nazis and sent to various camps, where all but three were murdered. Buchenwald wasn’t necessarily an extermination camp like Auschwitz, but it certainly wasn’t a holiday camp either. It seems he was able to survive being forced to sing popular ditties of the day for his Nazi captors a few evenings a week, accompanied by another prisoner who played the accordion.
He asked about my background and I told him I was recently arrived in town after studying for my Ph.d in classical drama in London, but afterwards spent a few years on an Israeli kibbutz in the Upper Galilee, at the base of the Golan Heights. He was very interested in this and asked me what I did while on living on the farm. I told him I was elected to drive the tank they had on property, as I knew how to drive a car, and therefore they concluded, driving a tank was a logical use of my talents. It seems the kibbutzniks had commandeered a Russian T-34 tank during one of the many conflicts in the area and converted it for agricultural use. They removed the turret, replaced the Russian engine with a Volvo truck engine and placed a cherry-picking device where the turret once was to aid in the trimming and pruning of the towering poplar trees they grew on the property. He was shocked and began laughing in disbelief and said, “You know, looking at you as a fellow actor, I would have never thought you were a one-time kibbutznik who knows how to drive a Russian tank!”
“Robere, mon amis,” I answered, “Looking at you I would have never thought you survived the horrors of Buchenwald, by singing popular ditties to Nazi pigs.” He laughed, shook his head and replied,
“Touche, Mr. Bruce. Touche!”
We shared lunch in the commissary on a regular basis after that. I shared my limited experience in show business and world travel, and he told me of his varied exploits in show business all over the world. Modest, soft spoken with a charming French accent I was reminded of a favored live from a Shakespearean sonnet, “We are not what we most do show.”
- Did you ever had to deal with any production catastrophes?
The worst experience I ever had to deal with was during the first season of the modern remake of Supermarket Sweep. We had set up and stocked an entire stage at the Sunset Gower Studios in Hollywood, the one-time home to the world-famous Columbia Studios. Not only did our “market” have shelves and shelves of the usual “dry” goods supermarkets are famous for, but we also created extensive aisles of refrigerated and fresh perishable foods running the gamut from assorted ice creams, and gallons of milk, to pounds of steaks, roasts, legs of lamb, large turkeys, geese, Spanish hams on the hoof, and even a twenty-gallon lobster tank filled with the clawed critters imported directly from Maine. At the end of our first rehearsal week and taping, a conscientious studio employee flicked off the electrical supply source and we all went back to our offices.
We returned a week later after the studio was basking in record breaking California temperatures averaging a sultry 104 or more, on a daily basis. The large floor to ceiling “barn doors” were swung open and we were all practically knocked over with a miasma and stench of over twenty-thousand dollars’ worth of frozen groceries and produce rotting and putrefying away in the California heat. We immediately called in a Haz-Mat team, who, clad in head-to-toe silvery space suits and breathing through gas masks attempted to clean up the mess. They even utilized huge deodorizing devices usually employed by the Los Angeles Police department to civilize the stench in buildings where months after an unfortunate demise bodies were found pleasantly putrefying.
Simultaneously, Joan Rivers was producing her talk show in offices adjacent to ours and early one Monday morning it seems an electronic news gathering truck from the television studio sharing the studio with us had parked directly in front of the entrance to her offices – blocking them off from anyone wishing to enter or exit. She flew into our offices accompanied by her doting entourage of aides and assistants asking if there was a back way into her offices area through ours. There wasn’t, but I suggested she follow me through our studio set as there was a back entrance to her offices in that building. She quickly agreed, and off we went, her entourage following behind like a gaggle of baby geese loaded own with armfuls of her production paraphernalia.
As soon as we entered our studio, Joan stopped dead in her tracks and cackled in that inimitable Joan Rivers style, “What the hell is that stink?”
I explained our disaster as gently as possible but assured her there was nothing toxic remaining in the air, or on the stage floor and all she had to do was follow me. While listening to my explanation she produced a lace hanky from her purse, covered her mouth and nose and still chortling, announced, “Lead on MacDuff!”
Joan and her entourage made it safely to the rear of our studio and into the hallway leading to her offices. A few days later a dozen long stem roses were delivered to our offices along with a case of industrial strength Airwick. The accompanying card read:
Bruce, you’re a doll! The florist was out of gas masks!
- Did you ever receive any other gifts of thanks from the celebrities you served?
Yes, quite a few. After a stay in India my hosts presented me with an beautiful “Jeweled Zardozi Carpet” from Kashmir, with thousands of precious and semi-precious stones woven into the design. My associates in Jakarta handed me a large framed intricately painted shadow puppet, complete with buffalo horn control rods hanging from the arms and legs. And the young producers for the television station in Saigon gave me four black lacquered panels inlaid with mother of pearl scenes from Vietnamese history and agrarian life.
Yet, I have to admit the best gift I ever received was from the world-famous Mick Jagger. It seems while I was employed as a pool deck “tummeler” or social director for a one of five hotels on Miami Beach owned by Morris Landsburgh, the same guy who took over management of the Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas along with Meyer Lansky, after the prior manager Ben (Bugsy) Segal was found in his Beverly Hills living room with a bullet in his eye. Morris served a bit of minimum-security time at an Air Force base in Tampa, blamed for the disappearance of a few million dollars from the till of the Flamingo. All was eventually forgotten and he ended up with ownership of five huge hotels on Miami Beach, probably as a reward for keeping his mouth shut while incarcerated He arranged for a New Year’s Eve celebration for all the pre-teens and teens staying with their parents at his five hotels, managing to promote a command performance of The Rolling Stones in the showroom and auditorium of one of his larger hotels. I was tasked with producing the event. In the midst of the festivities well before the Stones performance, we were informed the boys were upset with the catering in their Green Room and asked for some of the hamburgers and bratwurst being served the kids in the main room. Not a problem. I had the staff prepare a service cart with burgers, bratwurst and all the fixings and rolled it to the backstage Green Room. The Stones were inside lounging about in all their glory, like blasé lizards, a thin pall of nefarious smoke permeating the entire room. Mick took an empty pack of Marlboros crushed the package and hurled it across the room complaining about “grotty” American smokes. I asked if they would prefer Dunhill Reds, as I remembered the sundry shop in the hotel basement where I used to deliver bundles of a local tabloid with my father called “The Miami Beach Sun” was one of the only places in Miami Beach that sold the precious imported cigarettes. They happily agreed and I was off to find the basement drug store. The Dunhill’s sold for the exorbitant price of a dollar-fifty per pack, when a pack of Pall Malls or Marlboros were traded at the time for thirty-five cents. The clerk was shocked when I asked for the entire box of ten, as I slammed twenty bucks on the counter told him to keep the change and ran back to the Green Room.
Once back in the waiting room, I gave Mick the box of Dunhill’s and he began spinning the packets of English cigarettes to all his cohorts in the room. At the same time places were called and the boys, puffing away, thanked me profusely with winks and raised fists, and began filing out. Mick was last to leave and actually offered to shake my hand, which I did gladly.
The show went off without a hitch and the gathered teenagers went wild – as did their parents when they came to gather their kids up after the performance. The Rolling Stones were ushered into awaiting limos and sped off to the Fort Lauderdale International Airport for a quick flight to LaGuardia in Queens, New York, in preparation for a performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” that Sunday evening.
During the wee hours of Sunday morning after the festivities were winding down, I headed back to the Green Room to see if the Stones had forgotten anything, that I might have to forward to New York. While there an assistant approached and asked if I was the bloke who brought the hamburgers to the boys. I said yes, and he then handed me the red Dunhill box, and said it was a gift from Mick, and then busied himself packing up the odds and ends of things remaining in the room. Curiosity getting the best of me I quickly opened the box and found a long floor length mohair scarf stuffed inside with a piece of greasy hamburger wrapping paper which read:
“Thanks for the smokes!
I wore that scarf everyday while attending school in Boston, in various shapes and styles – though no one believed it was given to me by Mick Jagger. At the end of the season, I threw it into the washing machines in my dorm basement along with my other clothes. After the wash everything was crammed into a clanking industrial dryer for a few hours and I went about my business. Returning in the afternoon I retrieved my laundry from the dryer and the scarf had shrunk to the size of a dish rag. Oh well, I took that as a sign it was time to move on and tossed the remnant of shrunken scarf into the trash. Gone, but I never forgot the generous token of thanks from a Rock & Roll legend.
- Do you ever tire of the exotic people or adventures you encounter amidst all your travels and adventures?
In a word, “NEVER”. The world and all its cultures and foibles remain as a never-ending kaleidoscope of tastes, smells, and once-in-a-lifetime perceptions. One just has to be lucky enough to first, be granted an opportunity to dabble in as many varied people and destinations as possible, and secondly wrangle them all into a lifetime, while keeping track of everything all along the way stuffed into a hefty notebook. This is as the Germans say, my “Weltanshuang” or to define the phrase: my reason for living. If you find your responsibilities or needs far outweigh your personal desire for wanderlust, not a problem. Read my book. It’s an honor and sincere pleasure to share my adventures with you!