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Steve Martin's "Born Standing Up" is an outstanding show business memoir

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Steve Martin's "Born Standing Up" is an outstanding show business memoir

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How many of you out there remember Steve Martin, stand-up comic ? That absurdist in the white three-piece suit who -- as he was leading audience singalongs -- would say:

This half of the room! Beautiful! Now this half! Good, good! All right, two fifths! Now, three-fifths! Good. Seven-ninths! Two-ninths! Okay, in Chinese now!

Or -- better yet -- how about those ditties (like his "Grandmother's Song") that Steve wanted us all to sing along with. Which featured lyrics like:

Be thoughtful and trustful and childlike,
Be witty and happy and wise,
Be honest and love all your neighbors,
Be obsequious, purple, and clairvoyant.

It's kind of hard now to explain what a seismic event it was when Steve Martin first came on the comedy scene in the 1970s. What he was doing back then was so new, so fearless (I still remember the sheer audacity of Martin's act. When -- as he began doing stand-up in 10,000 - 15,000 seat arenas -- Steve would turn to the audience and say: "Now, for those of you in the back of the house, my famous hidden dime trick. Which hand?") that it just took your breath away.

And then suddenly it was all over. Martin stopped doing stand-up and then began concentrating on making movies and writing.

Don't get me wrong, folks. I'm not complaining. I'm still a huge fan of Steve's film work. "Roxanne" (Which Martin wrote) is a sweet little gem of a movie. Likewise his valentine to living in Los Angeles, "LA Story." And who can forget "The Jerk," with all of its great little absurd bits (Mexican cat juggling, anyone?) as well as its brilliant extended set pieces ("I don't need anything. Just this ashtray and this paddle game and the remote control ...")?

I'm also extremely fond of the plays that Steve has written (like "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" and "The Underpants") as well as Martin's novels ("Shopgirl" and "Pleasure of My Company") and that collection of his short stories ("Pure Drivel").

But that said, I still miss Steve Martin, stand-up comic. More importantly, I'd always wondered why -- when this guy was white-hot, working at the very top of his game -- he just ... stopped.

Copyright 2007 Scribner

Well, I finally got an answer to that question when I read Martin's memoir, "Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life" (Scribner, November 2007). Which Steve describes as being " ... not an autobiography but a biography, because I am writing about someone I used to know."

But better than that, thanks to this beautifully written book, I now have a much better understanding where Steve Martin came from. More importantly, how he came to be such a unique talent.

Of course, to hear Steve tell the tale, he owes a lot of his success to the days he spent at Disneyland as a 10-year-old guidebook salesman. Once he's sold all of his books for that day, the young Martin would hurry on over to ...

... Pepsi Cola's Golden Horseshoe in Frontierland, where Wally Boag, the first comedian I ever saw in person, plied a hilarious trade of gags and offbeat skills such as gun twirling and balloon animals, and brought the house down when he turned his wig around backwards. He wowed the audience every time.

 Disney Legend Wally Boag.
Copyright 2007 Disney. All Rights Reserved

The admission price (to the Golden Horseshoe), always free to everyone, made me a regular. Here I had my first lessons in performing, though I had never been on the stage. I absorbed Wally Boag's timing, saying his next line in my head ("When they operated on Father, they opened Mother's male"), and took the audience's response as though it was mine. I studied where the big laughs were, learned how Wally got the small ones, and saw small nuances that kept the thing alive between lines. Wally shone in these performances, and in my first shows, I tried to imitate his amiable casualness. My fantasy was that one day Wally would be sick with the flu, and a desperate stage manager would come out and ask the audience if there was an adolescent boy who could possibly fill in.

FYI: Steve did actually get to fulfill that dream. Sort of. In that -- while he was still in his teens -- Martin once got to perform his fledgling magic act on the same bill as Wally.

Please note, though, that -- thanks to a typo in the program -- Steve's act was listed as "Mouth and Magic." Rather than "Youth and Magic."

Anyway ... As for the magic that Martin used to perform in that early version of his act, Steve learned a lot of those tricks while working behind the counter at Merlin's Magic Shop. You know, that shop that used to be located inside of Fantasyland just past Sleeping Beauty Castle?

And it was here that Martin met up with another one of his mentors: Jim Barlow, another funny, young performer who also worked Merlin's Magic Shop. As Steve recalls in "Born Standing Up"

Jim's greeting to browsers was, "Can I take your money -- I mean help you?" After a sale, he would say loudly, "This trick is guaranteed! ... to break before you get home."

A very young Steve Martin behind the counter
of Merlin's Shop at Disneyland.

It was Barlow & Boag -- plus all that stage time that Martin got while working at the Bird Cage Theatre over at Knott's Berry Farm -- that helped Steve hone his comic persona. That gave him a real sense of the sort of performer that he wanted to become someday.

"Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life" isn't your usual show biz bio. In that it doesn't feature any juicy gossip or lurid behind-the-scenes stories. But what it does have is some really beautiful writing. Take -- for example -- this section of the book. Which describes that day when Martin -- long after he made a name for himself in stand-up and the movies -- felt compelled to return to Knotts and make one last visit to the Bird Cage.

I tugged at the theater door; it was locked. I was about to give up when I remembered a back entrance in the employees-only area, a clunky, oversized wooden gate that rarely locked because it was so rickety. I sneaked behind the theater and opened the door, which, for the millionth time, had failed to latch. The darkened theater flooded with sunlight, and I stepped inside and quickly shut the door. Light filtered in from the canvas roof, giving the bird cage a dim, golden hue. There I was, standing in a memory frozen in amber, and I experienced an overwhelming rush of sadness.

I went backstage and had a muscle memory of how to raise and lower the curtain, tying it off with a looping knot shown to me on my first day of work. I fiddled with the sole lighting rheostat, as antique as Edison. I stood on the stage and looked out at the empty theater and was overcome by the feeling of today being pressed into yesterday. I didn't realize how much this place had meant to me.

"Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life" is full of beautifully crafted, evocative writing like that. Which is why -- even though I still do miss Steve Martin, stand-up comic -- I'm perfectly happy to trade that wild and crazy guy for this thoughtful and talented writer.

Anywho ... If you'd like some real insight on the career of Steve Martin (Not to mention taking an affectionate look back at the Disneyland of the 1950s), then I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of this new Scribner's book by clicking on this link.

Speaking of which ... Tis the season, folks. And if you'd like to show your appreciation for all the great stories that you regularly read here on this website, then why not start out your next Amazon shopping spree by clicking on the banner below? That way, JHM gets a tiny chunk of what you spend.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving !

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  • It was somewhere around 1998, or was it 99...someplace in there, that I had been working entertainment at Knott's Berry Farm and the dressing rooms were behind the Birdcage Theatre.  I came in from doing my set in the less than crowded streets and was met by one of my show partners.  "Go on into the theatre," he said, "There's someone there for you to meet."  I walked into the canvased room that housed the old stage and there was a gentleman looking about.  He offered his hand and in a gentle voice said, "Hi, I'm Steve..."

    Underneath a ballcap that sat upon tossled white hair was none other than Steve Martin.  And, this point in his memoir that Jim has taken and used (on the visit back to Knott's and the Birdcage) is, oddly enough, the same point in time when the three of us who were working the entertainment street unit that off season were there on that very same day.  

    We sat around and talked a bit with Steve, took the required pictures (I may still have a copy of it around here, someplace), watched him drop the curtain as he had done so many times before, and, then we quietly faded away while Steve remained to hold his memories on that stage of melodramas where he had trod so many years before.

    And that, good folks, is a Thanksgiving memory that is joyous to have.  Jim - thanks for printing this article up today...it gave a warm glow from the other side of the footlights.

  • I have been waiting for this book to come out.  Every review I have read has been favorable.  Don't forget about "Cruel Shoes" either...one of Mr. Martin's finest works.  

    Happy Thanksgiving Jim!

  • Likewise thanks, Jim --  And Happy Thanksgiving.

    Visited the Diamond Horseshoe last week in its new incarnation as a counter service restaurant... truly sad.  And empty.  And a waste.

  • Just wanted to say thanks, Jim, for this wonderfully warm review on Steve's book.  I saw this at my local bookstore yesterday and thought, "I should pick that up some day."  After reading the excerpt of Steve visiting the Bird Cage, I've now revised my sentiment to, "I'll be picking that up today, on my way home from work."

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