Happy Birthday, Dana.
Wednesday, April 6, 2011
Dana's Thirtysomethingish Birthday
For most of us, our birthday is an excuse to get together with family and friends, have a good meal, open a few gifts and blow out some candles on a cake. After turning 21, I became indifferent to birthdays, all I had left to look forward to was may auto insurance dropping at age 25 and I just didn't see any point to celebrating getting older. Sometimes I've woken up and actually forgotten it's my day of birth until I get a call from my mother wishing me a "Happy Birthday."
Dana is my diametrical birthday opposite; my sister will often begin planning her birthday party weeks in advance, sending out evites to hundreds of potential attendees. Her birthday is not commemorated by a single party, but a week long event of exquisite dinners starting usually around the 4th of April which culminates on her "official" birthday in either a swank Hollywood hotel or trendy club on April 10th.
Last year Easter fell on the 4th.
Dana upstaged Jesus.
This year I get an email from Tracina, Dana's co-producer, that they are holding a birthday party for my sister at the Hudson, one of those versatile bars that simultaneously appeals to both men and women. The Hudson may look like a converted train box car on the outside, but on the inside it's a meeting place for the society of good looking white people with great cheek bones; a pit stop for hipsters before they head out to the even trendier and swankier clubs in West Hollywood.
In addition to celebrating Dana's birthday, they'll also be watching a live broadcast of her latest TV show, Marcel's Quantum Kitchen, with both the cast and crew in attendance. Given the last minute invitation, Dana isn't expecting a big crowd, but then this is just the opening birthday event.
Phil's got an invitation, he lives nearby so I stop by his place and we walk over. Like most trendy Hollywood bars, at the Hudson you've got to pay for valet or spend 15 minutes in a vain attempt looking for free parking before finally giving up and paying the $6 for the valet. The Midwesterner in me would rather walk, so we decide to hike the distance, it would be a pleasant stroll except for the deluge of white people walking their dogs.
We pass by a pair of dog owners making small talk about their breeds, and Phil unsuccessfully tries to hide his disgust. "I swear to God the worst part about owning a dog is all the banal questions you have to suffer through. How old is your dog? What breed is your pup? Where do you have him groomed? It's the worst."
I nod in sympathy. Freaking white people and their small talk.
Phil and I have got better things to discuss, like the press release for his new novel, Ass Eyes in a Sea of Spec. http://bit.ly/iamxum As we debate the content of the press release we pass a dog owner walking his poodle; he fires off a withering glare. We're not Weho material walking pampered dogs that spend their days in doggie day care, we're writers.
There goes the neighborhood.
We get to the Hudson early to enjoy the last vestiges of happy hour. Fifteen minutes and two drinks later, both of us are in a better mood. I ask Phil if he were a drink, what kind of drink would he be?
"Probably a beer. Hoppy. Takes some getting used to, but after a while you'll love it."
"Rum and coke." I reply. "Sweet, easy going, piratey."
Marcel and the cast from his show arrive but Dana's nowhere in site. It's after seven but Dana will never be on time for her own party - in LA that's simply not done. I walk over and say hello to the cast, it's the third time I've met Marcel, the first being my 39th birthday where I made a request to my sister to have him cook me a dinner at Bazaar. (http://leiken.blogspot.com/2009/09/birthday-bazaar.html)
Calling Marcel a "cook" is like naming Einstein a "mathematician"; Marcel is a gastronomic force of nature, his kitchen a culinary laboratory. Marcel's Quantum Kitchen (MQK) is a reality TV show ostensibly about a Hollywood catering business, but the heart of the program is observing Marcel in his kitchen concoct dishes that defy the laws of culinary physics; noodles created out of blended wine, foie gras wrapped around cotton candy, desserts cooked with liquid nitrogen that cause smoke to billow forth from the mouth and nose - it's not cooking but science, or what Marcel refers to as "molecular gastronomy".
Originally a contestant on Top Chef, Marcel had developed a reputation for having an "attitude"; for being a vicious perfectionist with no empathy or pity for "lesser" cooks.
But I've tasted his cooking; its like eating a Picasso. I shake his hand, Marcel beams.
Chef, buddy, and fellow cast member Jarrid is sitting next to him. Covered in tattoos and wearing a leather jacket, Jarrid looks like he belongs in the Hell's Angels. He exudes almost manic energy, I bet he was pegged with ADHD as a kid.
I sidle up next to him. "I heard that while you were working as a bus boy at Bazaar you stole a prep chef uniform and showed up the next day pretending to be one of the cooks, is that true?"
Jarrid laughs. "Yeah, I wanted to learn how to cook, and it wasn't happening fast enough, so I just took one of the uniforms that had gotten back from the cleaners and showed up early the next day. I started prepping and it was like a month before anyone figured out that I wasn't a cook, I just wanted to learn. Marcel knew, but he didn't care. After the boss found out Marcel just took me in and now I work for him."
Jarrid shrugs. "Anytime I've wanted to do something, I just went out and did it. That's how I learned how to be a circus performer, fire eater, and trapeze artist."
I try not to gape. He was a circus performer? "Isn't that scary?"
"Anytime you do something new it's scary, everything's scary. But you just go out and do it."
My sister arrives, she's just had her hair and make up done and she looks like a movie star. "Would you believe that the guy who was doing my make-up was a former contestant on NEXT?" she exclaims. "I remember producing him and he was quite the prize, I mean they all wanted him. I was just afraid he was going to make me look like a drag queen."
"You look great, Dana," I reply. I'm a little surprised she isn't wearing a tiara, but then it is early. "Where's Christos?"
"He's up in San Francisco, but he had me bring wine." Dana withdraws a couple of bottles from a small winery located in Napa valley. We uncork it and it's delicious.
"If you were a drink, what kind of drink would you be?" I ask.
"Champagne," my sister answers.
I nod, my sister probably would be a bottle of champagne, sophisticated and sparkly. We order food and I devour a burger and sweet potato fries. It's one of the best burgers I've ever had, but then I'm really hungry and I am a burger whore.
A willowy woman with great cheek bones arrives, she looks like a model. Phil asks who it is, I'm not sure but I think its Marcel's super hot model girlfriend. I ask Dana.
"Oh, that's Shannon. She's Marcel's girlfriend, they met while she was modeling for the show."
I love it when I'm right. To get a woman like Shannon you'd have to be some kind of culinary genius with his own TV show. My sister didn't settle for anything less than 007; I'd date Christos and I'm not even gay.
"I was expecting a blog about the last party, but instead you wrote about your car!" Dana exclaims. "I still think you should name it "Teacher's Pet!"
"I'll write about this party next, I just need a couple of photos as proof I was here."
You need proof?" Marcel calls out, waving me over. "C'mon then, let's take a photo." We pose and I give my patented "thumbs up and wink" - Arrggh! Marcel picks up on it immediately and mimics it.
Dana begins opening gifts. I haven't gotten her anything yet because I've learned its better just to ask what she wants. Phil has brought her a Buddha board, a stylus that you paint with water that creates images, then over time disappear allowing you to use it over and over again. Dana claps her hands in excitement. "Where's your gift, brother unit?"
"I decided to wait."
"Phil got it right. Good job Phil."
I try not to glare. "Yeah, good job Phil."
More people arrive, many of them people Dana has worked with on other shows. My sister has a vast network of reality TV show contacts, its one of the reasons she is so successful at both finding work and getting shows produced. The Tonight Show, Howie Mandel, Beyond Chance, The Best Damn Sports Show, Christopher Lowell, NEXT, Ace of Cakes - there's more but I can't remember them all. Dana's birthday's are more than just a celebration, they provide her an opportunity to network, it's one of the reasons why it takes a week for her to get through her birthday.
Other than Facebook how else is she supposed to keep up with all these people?
The staff changes the channel on a big screen TV over to MQK but there's a Laker game on and the bar is packed, I can't hear a thing. As soon as the show starts the cast and crew cheers; I try listening for half a minute before giving up.
Dana arches an eyebrow in my direction, annoyed I'm not watching the show, but then hardly anyone is. The Lakers are playing the Utah Jazz and are on the verge of making a come back; the bar is filled with jubilant cries of exultation that drowns out any conversation more than two feet away.
At least until Kobe drops the ball with two seconds left and loses the game (I love it when the Lakers lose) but by this time MQK is almost over. I find my attention diverted between watching Marcel on screen, then switching back to glance at him in the bar; which one do I watch? TV Marcel, or flesh and blood Marcel? The same goes for the rest of the cast: Jarrid, Robyn, and Kevin; watching someone on TV while being able to simultaneously talk to them creates dissonance in the brain, how do I know which one is real?
We sing Dana happy birthday, there are cupcakes and she blows out a pair of candles. She's completely in her element, laughing, working the room as her friends and co-workers pay homage to the young woman who has become a celebrity in the nebulous world of production. The only thing better than being a star is being a star maker; and my sister has the contacts, experience, and creativity to make it happen.
If most people in Hollywood are talk, Dana is one of those rare few who can actually make it happen. Breast cancer didn't stop her, it wasn't even a yield sign, just a speed bump that barely slowed her down, she managed to produce MQK while going through chemotherapy. Like a gambler rolling straight 7's at the craps table, people surround my sister in the hopes that some of her luck will rub off on them.
Beautiful, fearless, exuberant, Dana is a phenomenon, a Hollywood singularity that continues to beat the odds because successful people like my sister generate their own luck.
If I had a motto it would be something like, "It's kind of crappy, but it's free," or "Send those squabs to Davy Jones' locker!"
But my sister only has one motto: Make it happen!
Before I head out I kiss her on the cheek. "I better still get a call on my birthday," Dana warns.
I nod. Woe unto those who forget my sister's birthday. D-day is not June 6th.
D-day is April 10th.
Happy Birthday, Dana.
Make it happen!