Saturday, December 15, 2007
Take a tour of comedian Steve Martin's Orange County
The comedian and writer grew up in Garden Grove, worked at Disneyland as a kid and cut his teeth as a performer at Knott's.
By PETER LARSEN
The Orange County Register
If we are shaped by the places we go and people we know in our childhoods, then Steve Martin is an absolute product of Orange County in the '50s and '60s.
From the well-known outlines of the actor-comedian-writer's life we already knew that Martin grew up in Garden Grove, worked at Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm as a teen, and launched his career as a comic in the long-gone folk clubs here some 40 years ago.
But with the recent arrival of "Born Standing Up" (Scribner, $25), Martin's memoir of the first half of his life, the details of his years here – the significant places on the map of his life – are revealed in the star's own words and memories.
So with a stack of Post-its and a close eye for local color, we embarked on a journey through Martin's back pages, looking to piece together this travel guide to the star's life in the O.C.
GARDEN GROVE BOUND
Born in Waco, Texas, Martin moved to Los Angeles when he was 5, partly because his father, Glenn, wanted to get into show business. When that plan quickly fizzled, Glenn Martin moved into real estate, and when Martin was 10, the family bought a brand-new house for $16,000 in Garden Grove.
"This area of Orange County gleamed with newness, and the move enabled me to place my small hand on Opportunity's doorknob."
Not long after Martin moved to Garden Grove, Disneyland opened its doors. A friend told him they were hiring kids to sell guidebooks, and Martin sped to the theme park on his bicycle and got the job.
"Disneyland, and the idea of it, seemed so glorious that I believed it should be in some faraway, impossible-to-visit Shangri-la, not two miles from the house where I was about to grow up."
THE GOLDEN HORSESHOE REVUE
After selling his guidebooks, Martin would roam Disneyland, hanging out in the magic shop, with the trick roper and especially at the Golden Horseshoe in Frontierland– which remains today. He memorized all of comic Wally Boag's routines, and at least subconsciously noticed his knack for making balloon animals while telling jokes.
"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."
MERLIN'S MAGIC SHOP
At Merlin's Magic Shop in Fantasyland– now the Castle Heraldry Shoppe – Martin likewise studied magician Jim Barlow's routine, and when he was 15 was hired to work there with Barlow. The shop sold gags like the arrow-through-head and nose glasses – both of which Martin incorporated years later in his stand-up act. Standing behind the counter, Martin did tricks and learned to work a crowd.
"I tried my first jokes – all lifted from Jim's patter – and had my first audience that wasn't friends or family."
HIGH SCHOOL DAYS
Martin attended Rancho Alamitos High School until 1962, when changes in school district boundaries transferred him to Garden Grove High School, a change he decided to use to make over his image – at least his image of himself.
"I was happy to discard my old personality and adopt a new one defined by the word of the day, 'nonconformist.' Of course, the difference between my old personality and my new personality was probably imperceptible, so I was lucky to have all-new classmates who would not remember my old conformist ways."
ON TO COLLEGE
After graduating from Garden Grove High School, Martin enrolled at Santa Ana Junior College, taking classes in theater and English poetry. Soon after he heard that Knott's Berry Farm was looking for entertainers and decided to take a shot.
"One afternoon I successfully auditioned with my thin magic act at a small theater on the grounds, making this the second happiest day of my life so far."
THE BIRD CAGE THEATRE
The Bird Cage Theatre, in the Ghost Town at Knott's Berry Farm, presented old-fashioned melodramas (it's still in use, too, though only on Christmas and Halloween). And it was there that Martin performed between the ages of 18 and 22. But mostly he was starting to learn his craft – even if he wasn't getting rich doing so.
"I was being paid two dollars a show, twenty-five shows a week. Even in 1963, the rate was considered low."
THE GOLDEN BEAR
With Kathy Westmoreland, a high school friend and fellow Bird Cage performer, Martin developed a hillbilly comedy routine, which they worked on at Knott's before taking it down to the Golden Bear folk club in Huntington Beach, where once and future stars such as Jackson Browne (another O.C. boy) and John Mayall would play. It was, Martin writes, a much tougher audience.
"My belief in the inevitability of our success charged me up before, during, and after the show, and it was not until days later when I acknowledged to myself that our debut in the tougher world of real show business had been met with only a polite response."
MAKING THE ROUNDS
After transferring to Long Beach State College– now Cal State Long Beach – and while still working at the Bird Cage, Martin slowly morphed his magic act into a comedy routine he took out to perform in the folk clubs of Orange County. His regular stops included the Prison of Socrates on Balboa Island (now a B.J.'s pizzeria), the Mecca in Buena Park (now Aloha Family Billiards), the Paradox in Tustin (part of the Jamestown Village shopping center), and Rouge et Noir in Seal Beach,
"I now had my first job outside Knott's Berry Farm (after being hired at the Prison of Socrates), which presented a particular difficulty. It was one thing to do five minutes at the Bird Cage … but it was another thing to do twenty minutes for paying customers."
GARDEN GROVE IN L.A.
As his comedy career slowly developed throughout the '60s, Martin eventually landed a job writing for "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" and moved to Laurel Canyon in Hollywood. Even there, though, he benefited from old ties to Garden Grove, reconnecting with Bill McEuen– the older brother of high school friend and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band member John McEuen– who became Martin's manager for most of his stand-up career.
"He had banged his way out nowhere, too, living just a few miles from me in Garden Grove and growing up under the thumb of a critical father. He had long hair before it was fashionable and kept it not only after it was unfashionable but forever."
FAME BACK AT HOME
Martin worked the comedy circuit in small clubs around the nation and eventually on TV talk shows, finally working his way up to "The Tonight Show" and Johnny Carson in the early '70s. By the mid-'70s, his career was ready to explode, thanks to exposure on the then-new "Saturday Night Live" and hit comedy albums "Let's Get Small" and "A Wild and Crazy Guy." Back in Orange County – where his parents lived in Laguna Beach for the last three decades of their lives – Glenn and Mary Martin reacted differently to their son's new fame: his mother delighted by; his father, with whom the book details his difficult relationship, less.
"After my first appearance on 'Saturday Night Live,' (my father) wrote a bad review of me in his newsletter for the Newport Beach Association of Realtors, of which he was president: 'His performance did nothing to further his career.' Later, shamefaced, my father told me that his best friend had come into his office holding the newsletter, placed it on his desk, and shaken his head sternly, indicating a wordless 'This is wrong.'"
Martin quit his stand-up career for the movies in the early '80s – partly from the isolation of the huge fame he'd found, partly because he felt he'd reached the end of what he could do in comedy. And while his father didn't care much for his debut movie, "The Jerk" – "He's no Charlie Chaplin," was all Glenn said after seeing it – they did eventually reconcile and finally express their love for each other by his death in 1997.
By 2002, Mary Martin was in failing health at her home in Laguna Beach, and after saying goodbye to his dying mother, he left the house, driving home to Los Angeles but then finding himself drawn back to Knott's and the Bird Cage. Slipping into the park through a back gate, he made his way to the now-little-used theater, remembering the secret way to enter without a key. And standing there on the darkened stage, Martin says, he thought back over the previous four decades, reflecting on a life shaped mostly by his earlier experiences in Orange County.
"Driving home along the Santa Ana Freeway … I asked myself what it was that had made this place capable of inducing in me such a powerful nostalgic shock. The answer floated clearly into my consciousness as though I had asked the question of a Magic 8-Ball: I wanted to be there again, if only for a day, indulging in high spirits and high jinks, before I turned professional, before comedy became serious."
Contact the writer: 714-796-7787 or firstname.lastname@example.org