Thursday, December 5, 2013

Chapter 42: Brushes With Fame

I could not care less about celebrities.  I live a different world.  We seem to live in a culture obsessed with fame.  Not me, nope, no sir.  I’m not particularly impressed by someone just because they are famous.  

I spent the week before the weekend before Thanksgiving at Elmira.  I got to watch a game and a couple of practices before heading up to Rochester to pick up my daughter. She was flying in on the red-eye from San Diego via a 4 hour layover at JFK.  She didn’t sleep a wink.  We watched Elmira come from behind that night to beat Nazareth College by a score of 6-3 on 5 late second period goals.  The next morning I went back to pick up my wife at the Rochester airport after she made the same exact red-eye flight as my daughter.  She slept, thank god!

We drove down to Elmira, met up with my son and took him out for a pre-game lunch.  Later Elmira faced Nazareth again, this time beating them 3-2 on a last second goal in regulation time.  They’d scored a go ahead goal 8 minutes earlier but it was disallowed. You decide.  I think it was the right call.   
After spending the night in Horsehead, NY, we got up and had breakfast with Max before heading down to New York City to spend Thanksgiving week.  The plan was to hang out, shop, enjoy ourselves and have a family Thanksgiving at my brother’s apartment on the upper west side.  My dad has not been well and ended up going into the hospital on Monday.  Things quickly turned for the worst and we nearly lost him.  Needless to say my folks didn’t make it down for our family gathering.

Back to the celebrity thing.  My wife is a big fan of the Today Show.  She and my daughter decided we would get up early on Tuesday Morning and head down to 30 Rock and try to get on the show. We arrived at 7 am, but apparently if you want a good spot you have to get there by around 6 am.  My wife made a sign and some little fake beards and mustaches to represent No-Shave November, or Movember.  We actually got on TV for a few brief moments.  The cast, Matt Lauer, Al Roker, Savannah Guthrie, et al come outside twice during the program….at 8am and at 8:30am.  Crew members come out ahead of time and try to jack the audience up to be excited when the stars arrive.  It was actually quite fun.  

The cast of The Today Show..Kyle and I are to
the left with Bret holding the San Diego sign behind
After the 8:30 segment was over, the crowd dissipated pretty quickly.  We walked around for a bit and then found ourselves walking through a crowd of paparazzi just as Richard Dreyfus exited the building. He had been a guest on the show and was heading to his “car”.  I nearly bumped into him.  I had time to say something but I didn’t. 

Gretzky Posing with the SD Gulls Bantams
I’ve had quite a few celebrity experiences in my life.  I have some show business background in my family so I can often bring up one of those relationships and strike up a conversation with said famous person.  For example, Richard Dreyfus starred in Close Encounters of the Third Kind with my cousin, Bob Balaban.  I could have easily said, "Hi Richard, I’m Steve Balaban, you worked with my cousin Bob".  I’ve done this on numerous occasions if it seemed appropriate.  I did this once when I bumped into Jerry Lewis in the Gaslamp area of San Diego years ago.  I introduced myself and told him my who my grandfather was. My grandfather, Barney Balaban, was a movie executive.  So he was Jerry Lewis’s boss during much of his career.  He was very friendly and told me what a great man my grandfather was and how he was one of the few men in show business with integrity during those days. That was the time of blacklisting and my grandfather was in the middle of having to deal with Joe McCarthy.
Kyle and I with Michael Richards on the set of Seinfeld

So, as you see, I’ve had my share of brushes with fame.  It’s not an everyday thing, but it’s happened.  I’m not shy about striking up a conversation if it seems convenient and appropriate.  I’ve never had a negative experience. I don’t want to be a jerk and impose on their privacy.  At the same time, we talk to everyone so why not say hi to someone just because they are famous.  

My Uncle Jay Kantor, out with some
As a kid, growing up in the Florida panhandle, this kind of thing never happened.  As an adult though, I’ve had more than my share of encounters.  I spent a week interning on the set of All In the Family in the late 70s.  I met a guy through my business in the early 90's who happened to be the brother of Larry David, and we went to a couple of tapings of Seinfeld.  I got to meet and hang out with the entire cast before and after the taping.  Being related to my cousin Bob came in handy because he’d been a guest star on a few episodes of the show.  On those episodes he was the head of NBC who fell in love with Elaine and then went off and joined Greenpeace.  Of course, I’ve met many NHL’ers including bumping into Wayne Gretzky at a youth travel game at the rink in Simi Valley.  I asked him if he wouldn’t mind taking a picture with the team.  Through my old Uconn team mate, Glenn Adamo, I met broadcaster Gary Thorne, sat in the Pittsburgh Penguins box with the owners during a game at Madison Square Garden

My Aunt Judy(far right) in Princess Grace's Wedding

Mike Bolt-Keeper of the Stanley Cup
and I met Mike Bolt the Stanley Cup protector.

At weddings and Bat Mitzvahs of cousins from my entertainment biz side of the family I had the chance to meet Marlon Brando, Timothy Leary, Gene Kelly and Jody Foster.  I was at my cousin's wedding in Beverly Hills back in the early 80's.  My girlfriend and I were at a table with the some of these folks.  Gene Kelly accidentally bumped into my girlfriend and spilled his drink on her.  He apologized profusely and was extremely embarrassed.  He asked if there was anything he could do.  My girlfriend said, “Sure, you can dance with me”. And he

Basically, I’m nobody, but I know a few people who are somebody and they have been an avenue to meet some pretty cool peeps.

That leads me to Wednesday evening, the night before Thanksgiving.  My sister and her family were arriving into the City and we arranged to meet them for dinner downtown near Union Square at an Italian Restaurant named Morandi’s.  We had 8:30 reservations.  There were nine of us.  Dinner was great.  At one point, my daughter’s friend, Lucia, nudges her and says “Look, that’s Cameron Diaz”.  And so it was.  She was standing about fifteen feet away, talking to someone then gave him a big hug and sat down with her table of friends. 

The best I could do getting Cameron Diaz's
My daughter, who would never do such a thing was plotting her approach to go over to her table.  My wife has been told for years that she looks a lot like Cameron Diaz.  My daughter wanted, very badly, to get a picture of the two of them together.  I stole a quick picture with my iPhone when she hugged the aforementioned man.   We discussed whether or not, and how to approach her.  My brother , a New Yorker, said to leave her alone.  It’s proper etiquette in NYC to not bother celebrities.  We should just leave her alone.

And leave her alone we did.  There was no graceful way to make our way to her table and interrupt her with her friends.  So we dropped it.  Soon, we finished up and were all getting ready to leave.  At that point we noticed the restaurant manager actually standing guard to protect her table from us or any other of the unwashed masses who may try to disturb their dining experience.

I headed for the restroom, so I missed what happened next, but apparently as everyone was heading toward the front of the restaurant, my daughter stood up and was putting her coat on.  She looks up and suddenly Cameron Diaz was heading straight for her.  She was actually probably heading for the restroom herself, we don’t know, but she walk right up to Bret.  Bret then says “Excuse me, I never do this, but my entire life people have told my mother she looks like you.  Would it be possible for you to say hi and we could take a picture.”  Her response was “Well, I have a policy of not taking pictures, but I would be more than happy to meet her”.

I walked out of the restroom to witness my entire family standing near the entrance to the restaurant all gathered around Cameron Diaz who was holding court with them.  I joined the group, standing right next to her.  She was as sweet, genuine and authentic as though she were our best friend.  She is, after all an actor, so it was quite convincing, but she made us all feel like we knew here.  She thanked us, wished us a happy Thanksgiving, rubbed my shoulder and said goodbye.  Yep, Cameron Diaz touched me. 

So, that was kind of cool and gave us something to talk about for a few days.  

The next night was Thanksgiving.  We all met up at my brother’s apartment on West 70th St. for our Thanksgiving dinner.  There were supposed to be about thirteen or so of us, but since my dad was still in the hospital and some of their friends would not be coming there were just nine of us; my wife and daughter and I….my sister, her husband and two of their three daughters and my brother.  That made eight.  The ninth was Lois.  Lois was a childhood friend of my dad’s.  She is 86.  Just about the coolest 86 year old you'll ever meet. 

My Grandfather, Barney Balaban, with Audrey Hepburn
We started talking about the celebrities we'd each run into over the years. My sister was once in an elevator with an older woman. They had a brief exchange. As the woman got off the elevator my sister told her she looked just like Audrey Hepburn.  The woman looked back and winked, just as the doors closed, smiled, winked and said "I am". 

Lois was the maid of honor in my Aunt Judy's wedding to Jay Kantor. Jay's best man was Marlon Brando. I never met her, but my Aunt Judy was a bridesmaid for Grace Kelly on her marriage to the Prince of Monaco.  Judy later went on to marry a movie star of the 60s, Tony Franciosa.

Next Lois told us she was recently dining at a restaurant near her West Side apartment.  Two men in suits were standing near the cashier. They kept looking right at her.  She was feeling uneasy about this.  She asked her waiter if he could move her because those men were making her uncomfortable. He said, "Ma'am, they aren't looking at you. They are looking at the next mayor of New York City."  It turns out the men she thought were staring at her were bodyguards for Bill DeBlasio who was sitting at the table directly behind her. 

There were more of these fun little stories we all shared. The evening ended and we disbursed. 

The next night, Friday after Thanksgiving we, my wife daughter and I, were heading to Grand Central station to catch the train to Connecticut. We were going to visit my dad in the hospital. Just before we bought our tickets my mom called and said he wasn't doing well and suggested we not come. 

So Instead, I called my buddy and college linemate, Paul McCormick. Paul lives in Brooklyn with his wife.  They
Left to Right: Henri Langevin, Me and Paul "Corny"
have two kids, Terry and Charlie. Charlie plays D1 lacrosse at Georgetown.  We took the subway to Brooklyn and got to their loft apartment.  Charlie had gone out so it was just Paul, Dorothee and Terry. We hung out, had some wine and talked about old times.  My daughter asked Paul to talk about  what he remembered most about me from our days at Uconn. In his own funny way Paul recounted how I would pull him aside and tell him there was just one thing we needed to work on....arm strength!  I was totally into strengthening my forearms by curling weights on a rope with a cutoff hockey stick.  

Having grown up near New Haven, Ct I consider myself a bit of a pizza aficionado.  A few years ago, Paul took me to Lombardi’s in Manhattan.  Lombardi’s is apparently the oldest pizza restaurant in the U.S.  At least that’s their claim.  I found it to be a tourist trap. The pizza wasn’t that special.  I felt like I’d been there before because the restaurant chain, Bucca Di Peppo must have been modeled after this place, where you walk though the kitchen on your way to your table.   

This time, Paul suggested since I’d already been to Lombardi’s he would now take us to get the best pizza in NY, or at least in Brooklyn.  We called and made 8:30 reservations to go to Lucali’s.  Lucali’s is an interesting business.  They are open 6 days a week from 6-10pm only.  They only serve one size pizza with a limited selection of toppings.  The only other item on the menu is a calzone.  You bring your own wine or beer. They sell no alcohol.  The owner makes every pie.  He and his dad are the only ones who know the recipe.
A poor pic of Jay Z. Beyonce was across
the from him

Even with our reservations it took almost another hour before we got a table.  Once seated, we ordered and enjoyed some scrumptious NY pizza.  It lived up to its billing.  Truly delicious.  

As I said, the place closes at 10pm.  It was going on 10:30 and the waitress was starting to hint that she would like us to leave.  She said she needed the table, which made no sense since they were closed.  We looked around and there were two other parties still eating.  I’m not sure who noticed it first, but all of a sudden my daughter was nearly hyperventilating.  I didn’t catch on at first, but then I realized everyone at my table was aware that sitting about three feet away from us were Jay Z and Beyonce.  They were just sitting there enjoying a late night pizza in peace.  We badly wanted to say hello, but we left them alone.  My daughter said she made eye contact with Beyonce and got the clear message…yeah, you know who I am…don’t say a word. 

That was that.  The end of our celebrity tour.  The next morning we drove up to Saratoga Springs to watch my son have a career high in penalties in a 3-0 loss to Buff State.  The next afternoon we watched the game sitting in the stands with him.  That was their last game before winter break.   It was a bit of a sour note to end the first half of the season on, but I’ll take it.

A few other pics I found in my files.
Brian Leetch

Randy Carlyle

Max with Pro Baseball player Xavier Nady
in our living room
Martin Brodeur-NHL Awards in Vegas

Sidney Crosby-NHL Awards in Vegas

Martin St. Louis-NHL Awards in Vegas

Jonathan Toews-NHL Awards in Vegas

Our Friend and Neighbor from San Diego-Chad
Ruhwedel making his NHL debut

Willie Geist and Savannah Guthrie
Willie Geist and me

America's Cup Captain-Dennis Connor

CNBC(now Fox) host Maria Bartiromo