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Gold, Frankincense, and Neckties: A Christmas Story
Dividing Colorful Kingdoms
We knew that 2003 would be the year of my dad’s last Christmas. When my wife Kate, and our children Geneva and Jukie, and I arrived at my dad and step-mom’s Las Vegas home, decked out with familiar holiday finery, dad offered to help me with the suitcases. I politely told him that we would carry our own bags. After he gave me a hug, dad complimented me on my new green wool sweater, one that I happened to wear while wrapping presents this afternoon.
As an actor and magician who focused on mentalism, my dad had amazing powers of concentration, memory, and willpower. Harry Houdini was a hero of his, though I never saw my dad escape anything more death-defying than an exuberant conversation with an inebriated fan on the streets of Washington D.C. Instead, my brand of dad’s magic depended upon audience participation, humor, and his powers of suggestion. With his ability to amaze (and perhaps deceive) an audience, my dad could have been a con man, but as a civic-minded artiste, he made sure that all his “marks” left his performances with much more than whatever they brought to his shows.
Soon after the initial diagnosis, a Halloween conversation in which doctors told my dad that he had only a few months to live, he learned that a cancerous tumor was applying pressure on his diaphragm, triggering a case of hiccups. As the hiccups kept him from catching his breath or from resting, the oncologists and nurses were concerned. One never knows what will exacerbate a fatal condition and end up hastening one’s end.
Reading the room and the sensing the implications of his hiccups, my dad knew that he had to do something, especially if he was going to see his sons and his young grandchildren later that month for Thanksgiving. He asked if the doctors and the nurses would give him a couple dozen minutes without interruptions. For one of his last magic tricks, and summoning his innate power as a wizard, my dad calmed his breathing, settled his stomach, and ended his hiccups.
When we visited him that Thanksgiving, dad was well enough to see his son Oliver get married to his longtime girlfriend Sarah, and to spend time with visiting family. As always, he was dressed formally and impeccably – sometimes we wish to make memorable first impressions, and sometimes memorable final ones. We were also impressed with all the “get well soon” cards dad was receiving from professional musicians, from friends at the TV station where he worked throughout my childhood, and the actors in the hundreds of theatrical productions that he directed over his lifetime.
One of the more histrionic cards (understandably, from an actor) asked the question how American theatre could continue without Davey Marlin-Jones. When asked how we should respond to such concerns expressed about the cancer diagnosis of a man who had inspired and guided so many actors, my dad responded with four memorable words: “Tell him, ‘All shows must close!’”
My son Truman was born a year and a half after my dad died, but in many ways, he has sustained my dad’s legacy. As my dad was, Truman is taller than me, he’s an actor, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of films, and he’s a writer. Truman also dresses formally – I don’t know that any of his high school friends have seen him in a T-shirt – though I haven’t yet taught him how to tie a tie.
Ties play an important part in my family traditions, and not only because my dad knew how to dress ceremoniously for every gala he ever attended. Thinking about whether Truman was expecting any neckties under the tree this holiday, I recalled something that my dad said to Oliver and me during the week of Christmas, 2003: “Sons, it’s time to play King Lear with the ties.”
Unlike King Lear, we did not come from a wealthy family. My dad had no kingdom of property that he wanted to divide among his children, as Lear did, nor did he want to divide the portions of his gifts to his children according to our professed affection for him, as Lear did, asking, “Which of you shall we say doth love us most? / That we our largest bounty may extend / Where nature doth with merit challenge.”
My dad was renown instead for his collection of ties, many of which he wore on television while reviewing movies in the 1970s and 1980s. His fraying ties from the 50s and 60s he once gave to seamstresses he knew and asked them to create two quilts, one for each of his sons. Though the quilts long since fell apart due to overuse, they comforted us, connecting us with dad when he was out of town directing plays or movies.
Perhaps the quilt commission was a rehearsal for that evening in late December when dad invited Oliver and me to pick out 30 each of our favorite of his ties, each of us alternating so that the colorful “kingdom” would be fairly distributed. Dad compounded the giving by telling us the story of each tie, such as who gave it to him, or on what occasion he wore it. Today I have in my closet the especially fine necktie that my dad wore to his interview at the Department of Theatre at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he would go on to win numerous teaching awards, despite the fact that he had a mere B.A. in Theater from Antioch College, having taken classes there with Coretta Scott (later, Coretta Scott King) while Harry Truman was still U.S. President.
Having reviewed films on TV for two decades, my dad spent more time being filmed than anyone else I know, but I wish we had filmed that interaction among a beloved dad and his two sons – he passed away three years before the first iPhone was released. I think of that night often. I still have all 30 of those ties dad gave me, and over the years, I have shown them to my three kids, but without my dad’s mesmerizing theatrical gusto. As I look at our tree in the living room, and prepare for our own holiday reunion, I think fondly on Truman’s Grand-Davey and what he shared with us that evening. The Christmas memories, like the colorful neckties, will stay with me for the rest of my days.
Thanks to all of you who have supported this Pub Quiz endeavor this year with your subscriptions via Patreon. I miss the days when we all used to gather together.
Here are three questions from last week’s quiz:
Internet Culture. Who or what is Elden Ring: An AI startup CEO, a book titled by Kim Stanley Robinson, a video game, or a wearable technology?
Tunnels. The first ever international vehicle tunnel starts with the letter D, sharing a name with what city?
Sports. Born in 1947, what athlete-turned-actor’s films have grossed over $4 billion worldwide?