I no longer remember the exact date; I can only recall the stark terror of the event. Sometime during the fall of 1979, my employer summoned me to the studio for an emergency rehearsal. I was working as a puppeteer for a little, old-fashioned Manhattan-based marionette theater that performed sweet, beautiful, but somewhat shabby Victorian versions of popular fairy tales in grade schools around the country. My original intention on graduating from college was to move to New York and support myself as an actor at any cost, but this had been the closest I could get. The director was a charming yet hot-tempered Italian with a taste for opera. Long years in the business had left him with no patience with young aspiring actors who didn’t know a shoulder string from a leg bar and whose dreams of starring on Broadway made them reluctant to get up at six o’clock every morning to drive to Long Island for the upteenth performance of Puss ’n Boots . Periodically, when another title from the repertory was called for, we would haul out decades-old puppets, sets, and sound equipment to be subjected to two or three days of manic rehearsal before being dumped into a beat-up old van to start what would inevitably turn out to be a disaster-prone school tour. The vans broke down. The sound systems short-circuited. Prince Charming’s head always fell off as he bent over to kiss the Princess. One day, a puppet moose burst into flames during a performance when he was backed into a hot lighting fixture. We rushed offstage, dunked him in a nearby toilet (the only water available), and went on with the show. That charred old moose continued to reappear in puppet plays for years. For all I know, he’s still working.
So it was with this background that my boss wanted me to help him prepare a little show for a birthday party to be held at Tavern on the Green in two days’ time. We both hated working parties, and neither one of us wanted to go to any special trouble, so we grabbed whatever familiar puppets we saw on the shelf, spliced together a tape of some musical numbers we knew, and created a very ad hoc marionette revue. After all, it was only a birthday party. We could wing it, just like we always did.
On the appointed day, I drove our old Dodge up to the doors of the famed eatery and we started to unload into a large and sunny private dining room. There were a number of other high-class party entertainers present, as well as a sumptuous buffet that bespoke a very fancy do. My boss was in an especially irritable mood and we had a lot of equipment to set up, so I didn’t pay too much attention to our booking agent as she schmoozed with the roomful of performers and staff.
“You know who this party’s for, don’t you?” she asked importantly. I was busy being yelled at as I tried to screw two pieces of the stage together, so I answered her somewhat shortly.
“Well!” she chirped, gearing up to put me in my place, “It’s for John Lennon and his son, Scan. They’re both celebrating their birthdays today, so Yoko Ono is giving them a party. Oh, everybody will be here, Yoko’s mother and…” and on and on, one famous musical star after another, but I had ceased to hear. The entire substance of my universe had riveted on that one name—John Lennon. The Beatles. The very demigods of my formative years, and soon here would be their most legendary member, the guru of my generation. I literally felt dizzy as I staggered up to my boss and tried to get his attention.
“Wait! Listen!” I choked, clutching that screwdriver so tight my knuckles were white. “Do you know who we’re performing for? It’s John Lennon and Yoko Ono!”
“Yeah, yeah, so what? Plug in those lights! Get that stage up!”
“But, but, it’s John Lennon! It’s the Beatles!”
“Who cares? I just want to get this over with!” He was from an earlier generation. He liked opera. Maybe if it had been Ezio Pinza…
“But you don’t understand! We’re performing for John Lennon! The Beatles! And … and … our show is crap !” Actually, I think I used a stronger word.
The guests started to arrive. Here was Yoko Ono, saying hello and giving us our performance schedule. Yoko Ono! The very one who conducted news conferences while sitting naked with John in a London hotel-suite bed, talking to me! She seemed different, somehow, dressed in a designer suit. Scan Lennon arrived, an adorable four-year-old with a mop of auburn hair, shaped in that famous Beatle’s cut. And there he was—John Lennon, in his trademark little wire glasses, acting something like a big kid, leaping around, taking photographs, thoroughly enjoying himself.
There was food. There were presents. Yoko gave both John and Scan life-sized doll versions of themselves. I wondered where they would put them until I remembered that the Lennon family lived in a zillion-room apartment in the Dakota. Then the guests assembled themselves in polite audience fashion as a signal for the entertainment to begin, and my heart stood still.
First there was a clown in full regalia. He made balloon animals. He told jokes. However, unlike other party clowns, he was good. Very good. The audience showed its appreciation with delighted surprise.
Then there was a magician. His performance was smooth, his tricks unusual. The children and adults in the room were a model of hushed concentration. I had rarely seen so polite a party crowd.
The other acts went through their paces, and all were in top form. The audience oohed, aahed, and was wonderful throughout. This seemed a good sign, because last of all it was our turn to perform.
From the beginning I knew we were in trouble. Our music tape revealed the haste with which it had been assembled, some numbers far too loud, others barely audible. The set fell down. Every string on every puppet got tangled as we forgot our unrehearsed routines. We desperately hissed instructions at each other, trying to coordinate our actions in some semblance of professionalism, while that prince puppet’s head tumbled onto the floor.
Not that any of this mattered, as no one was paying attention anyhow. Almost as soon as we began, the adults started talking and the children leapt to their feet and began to run around. Reveling in our discomfort, they grabbed at the puppets and taunted us with catcalls as we gamely tried to get to the end of our program. Yoko gossiped with friends. John took a few pictures and then concentrated on a bowl of ice cream. Only Scan sat in the middle of the maelstrom, solemnly watching our self-destruction.
At long last it was over. We were frantically tearing down the set, anxious to get far away from that place fast, when the maitre d’ came over and told me that John and Yoko would like us to stay for lunch. I paused in my flight and looked longingly across the room. There were the other entertainers sitting down to a glorious spread, and in the midst of them was John Lennon.
“Hey! They’ve asked us to stay to lunch!” I said to my boss, by now in the foulest of foul moods.
“We’re not staying for lunch! I just want to get out of here! Pack those puppets! Where are those boxes?”
“But, but it’s John Lennon! The Beatles!” I pleaded, “The Beatles have asked us to lunch!”
“Who cares? I want to go home! Help me load that truck!”
I had to do as he said because not only was he my boss, he didn’t know how to drive. I was nearly in tears.
It was a little more than a year later when I woke up to that awful news on the radio. For days I watched television images of famous people I had bored into stupefaction at what turned out to be John Lennon’s next-to-last birthday party, and I mourned along with the rest of my generation. Fourteen years later, I’m still a puppeteer, only now I work on television or in film, sometimes with very big stars. But there is one performance that has always stuck in my memory (or should I say, my throat?) and I’ve always wondered if somewhere, in one of the Lennon family photo albums, there isn’t a snapshot or two of a mortified young man holding the body of a puppet prince whose head rolls helplessly on the floor.