I was driving down Beverly Boulevard in a gold 1971 Volvo that looked like a spaceship. My dad had purchased the car for me a year before from a disillusioned actress in the San Fernando Valley. When we arrived at her home to pick up the car, the actress let us in and began sobbing. She said she was moving to Mexico, away from all “this,” waving dramatically out the window to the valley below. My dad took that vulnerable opportunity to haggle her down to an unreasonable price, and now I was benefiting from the woman’s shattered dreams, on my way to Virgil Frye’s home in the Hollywood Hills to take an acting class.
Virgil was an actor, former boxing champion, and father of Soleil Moon Frye. He had an entire room in his home stuffed from floor to ceiling with plastic dolls of Soleil’s character Punky Brewster from her hit ‘80s TV show. Virgil was in his 60s and longtime friends with Dennis Hopper. He told me I had the secret of acting, which was “just enough craziness.”
I was pondering my craziness on the way to class when suddenly, in my peripheral vision, I saw an old man on the side of the road with his thumb out.
I pulled over and asked where he was heading.
“I’ve got a date with a foxy broad at this home for assisted living. It’s a few miles down the road, on Rossmore,” he said.
“Hop in,” I replied. I felt a sense of purity, of feeling protected, and at the same time hoping I wouldn’t get murdered.
We proceeded down Beverly Boulevard, down a long stretch of asphalt hugged by tall trees and golf courses on either side without a stop light for at least a mile. For a few minutes, that section of the boulevard provided a false sense of abandon and freedom in an otherwise congested concrete jungle.
“Bet you don’t think an 80-year-old man can stimulate you, do you?” my passenger asked suddenly. I was hoping he meant mentally. He started humming a tune from The Wizard of Oz – from the scene where the Wicked Witch flies through the sky. He hummed with a high-pitched frequency that was disorienting. “I composed that song,” he said.
It was a strange coincidence. A few days prior, I’d finally met my next-door neighbor after living in my West Hollywood duplex for two years. She was a quiet, middle-aged, morbidly obese woman whose curtains were always drawn. As far as I knew, none of the neighbors had ever spoken to her, and no one had seen her leave the house. I was intrigued by the mystery of her hermitic existence, so I decided to knock on her door and say hi. She invited me in, and after about five minutes of polite conversation, became animated in a strange way and then led me to a dingy closet in her bedroom where she kept her prized possessions. She pulled out an old shoebox and told me to open it. Inside was a black pointy witch’s hat, crusty and stiff. She said, “This is the witch’s hat from The Wizard of Oz. The real one.”
“Like, the one the green lady is wearing when she’s flying around?” I asked.
I couldn’t believe this woman who never left her house was harboring such a national treasure. And I didn’t question her; I just knew it was true. But there was a putrid smell emanating from the bedroom, like a dying rodent was decomposing between the walls. So I thanked her for letting me see this special hat and then I hightailed it out of there.
And here I was, two days later, sitting in the car next to this 80-year-old swinger who’d composed the Wicked Witch Theme. I felt like I was giving a ride to the King of Hollywood. The real king. The one who dreamed this whole thing up.
When we arrived at his destination—a sad, forgotten, dilapidated building with peeling paint—he thanked me for the ride.
As he was getting out of the car, I shouted, “Wait! If you could leave this world with just one piece of wisdom to impart, what would it be?”
He looked at me long and hard, his eyes piercing the back of my skull and whispered, “Always, always be honest.” Then he winked and was gone.
After acting class, I rushed home. My roommate Rob was in the kitchen making a sandwich. Rob and I had lived together for about three months, but I didn’t feel I really knew him – though I could feel he was sad. Rob had buck teeth and was tall and thin. He talked about his girlfriend back home in Kentucky and said he was smitten.
In the kitchen, while he ate his sandwich, I told him the story of the man I’d just met. Rob was flabbergasted. “That’s what he said? You just met the man who wrote the music to The Wizard of Oz and he told you to always be honest?”
I said, “Yep.”
Rob looked at me. “Tracey! I’m gay! God, it feels so good to say! I am gay!!!” There was so much truth swirling around, I felt high. Rob and I both just stood there intoxicated.
When I was 21 years old, my dad and I had a horrible argument. He was upset because we’d been in a social situation with a group of people he knew, and I acted bored by all of them. When we got home, he screamed at me that I was rude. I said I couldn’t help it, that’s how I was feeling. He shouted, “FAKE IT! FAKE IT LIKE EVERYONE ELSE DOES!” I remember feeling sorry for him that he felt he had to do that in life, but he probably felt sorry for me that I was naïve and might not survive long that way.
10 years later my dad got stage 4 colon cancer. One day in the hospital, my dad looked up at me, trying to talk. I leaned over. He looked around, a little confused, then began to speak in a labored, raspy voice, “My dying wish…is that…you leave Dana.”
Dana and I met in Hollywood. I’d gone to Raleigh Studios to see a Japanese movie about wolves, but the movie was sold out, so I crashed a wedding next door. Shortly after I crashed the party, a hand clasped my wrist and proceeded to escort me out. It was the bride. But before I was out of there, I noticed a handsome man catching the garter belt. That handsome man followed me and jumped in the backseat of my car. That man was Dana Anderson, and he was now my boyfriend.
Dana had been working as a freelance jib operator in the film business and jobs were far and few between. My parents were not confident in his ability to earn a living – nor mine, as I did not have a practical bone in my body. I was furious my dad would use that moment in such a way, and I spat, “NO.” I added, “Anyway, you aren’t dying.” I was right; he gradually recovered.
Some years later, my dad and I were having lunch at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, and he offered to buy me a house and pay for whatever further education I decided to pursue, but only if I left Dana. I firmly said, “No,” and left our lunch, shaky.
Twelve years later, my dad was dying of cancer, this time for real. After a few weeks of going to chemo sessions with him, I had a dream one night that he was trying to give me money and I should refuse. The next day, after we came back from his treatments, my dad tried to give me money – and I refused. He burst into tears. I think it touched something very deep. By not accepting money, it demonstrated that I loved him – it wasn’t about the money. Shortly before he died, he told me he was beginning to understand the importance and difficulty of being authentic and that he realized how unique and special I was. Also Dana provided the best weed in the galaxy, which my dad needed for chemo. One night my dad lay on the floor, doubled over, laughing, and just kept screaming, “I love Dana!!!”'
After my dad died, I had another dream that the snow on an enormous oak tree was finally beginning to melt. Soon after, in an unexpected reversal of fortune, with the help of a secret benefactor, my boyfriend and I were gifted a magical ranch house in the desert, on six acres – a home I never could’ve imagined years before, when my parents insisted I break up with my boyfriend because he could never provide. Back then, I knew only that I loved him. Since then, my mom and my boyfriend developed a relationship they both cherish. She gave him my dad’s Mercedes and his triple chamber glass amber bong.
Recently, I typed into Google, “Who is the composer of the witch’s theme song from The Wizard of Oz.” A man named George Bassman appeared, the age he would have been when I met him, and it placed him square in Los Angeles. A younger picture looked like the guy, but it was hard to tell.
According to Google, George Bassman orchestrated the background music for the Wicked Witch’s scenes, the poppy field scenes, and many of the Emerald City sequences from The Wizard of Oz, along with so many other gems for film, theater and television. His career was interrupted in the 50s during the Red Scare when he admitted in testimony that he’d been a member of the Communist Party. He didn’t lie. He stayed true. He left Hollywood for New York where theater still welcomed him.
When he went back to MGM a decade later, his luck ran out. He clashed with Sam Peckinpah on Ride High the Country, and he had many scores, including one for Bonnie and Clyde, rejected. Wikipedia states, “Bassman’s later life was marred by tragedy; his personal life involved three marriages, and the last had a duration of scarcely a year. He died, forgotten by his profession, and alone in Los Angeles in 1997” – four years after he and I met.
Although I didn’t see it at the time, my acting teacher Virgil Frye had been right, I was a little crazy. Would I pick up a hitchhiker now, even if he was 80 and could barely walk? Hell no. Would I crash a wedding? Definitely not. But I almost wish I was still that crazy, that trusting. Life is completely illogical. Stripping away the layers of pretense is the only game worth playing. A constant unraveling to get to the true self.
Like the owl from the old Tootsie Pop commercial says, “How many licks does it take to get to the center?” Mr. Owl says it takes three and then you bite. In many ancient alchemical texts, three is the number of stages for spiritual transformation. Three. The same number of times it took Dorothy to click her heels and get back home, having taken a journey and a metamorphosis to see the truth that exists inside.