Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Lessons from Lily

Who is this woman? One moment she is an obnoxiously insistent telephone operator. With just the merest change of facial expression, she is a precocious 6-year-old. Turn around and she is an acerbic housewife.

To you she is Lily Tomlin. To me she is one of my favorite journalism professors.

I was gilded by the Lily 36 years ago when I was a sweaty-palmed student and cub reporter. Sunday, as a confident-if-graying journalism professor, I finally got to say my thanks to a gracious, unassuming and deservedly famous lady.

In November 1971, I was a staff member on the Pepperdine Graphic. I was a mismatch for the conservative college’s politics and religion, but I love the gritty journalism we did in South Central Los Ang eles before the Waves fled to Malibu.

One of the advantages to going to school in Los Angeles is that you are surrounded by glittering personalities. But Pepperdine’s diminutive size and sedate reputation didn’t exactly draw herds of press agents and promoters to our newsroom. You can imagine how delighted I was when we received a call from an agent saying that the star of Laugh-In wanted to meet students, so would spend an hour with us if we liked.

OK, youngsters, consider what that meant. In 1971, Laugh-In was the Daily Show, the Colbert Report and Mad TV rolled together. On steroids. The show mercilessly poked fun at everyone -- often by inviting the targets as guests. Hubert Humphrey once said declining Laugh-In’s invitation may have cost him the 1972 election. Richard Nixon, after all, made a “Sock it to me” cameo.

So when section editor Arlene Ubrey, my girlfriend-now-wife Cecile and I arrived at a nondescript office building to meet the famous comic, my palms were sweating. I was officially the photographer in the group, but we all asked the questions.

I’m a small-town, blue-collar guy who grew up thinking celebrities were super beings who granted occasional audiences with we the lesser but existed mostly for our adoration. Boy, did Ernestine/Judith Anne/Mrs. Beasley set me straight.

Lily Tomlin was far more affable and open than most of my professors. Within a few minutes our “interview” was like a bull session among old friends.

I don’t remember the details of the story we wrote, but I found a yellowing clip of the photo I snapped and a poorly-exposed contact sheet of the other shots. We picked the photo of Lily leaning on her elbow while we chatted at the conference table. The other shots show her gesturing with her trademark animation and laughing as much as we were.

The story and photo were nice additions to my portfolio, but the lesson from that evening was priceless. Lilly Tomlin was my first of many celebrities. And thanks to her, I was never again so awestruck that I could not see them as the humans they were. They all had impressive-sounding jobs but they were still just people.

When I heard Lily was to perform in Columbia, I tracked down her personal assistant (journalists are good at that), sent an e-mail recounting the story and asked if I could say hello. Vivian Schneider was as much a jewel as her boss and set me up with a handful of tickets and a backstage pass.

Sunday, Cecile, my son Garrett and Vox magazine editor J.D. Rinne laughed along with the full-house crowd in Jesse Hall as Lily regaled us with pointedly liberal humor. But the svelte, hyperactive and endearing young woman I met 36 years ago with gone. In her place was a svelte, hyperactive and endearing 67-year old wonder.

So even before our reunion, Lily Tomlin gave Clyde Bentley another lesson in life. She bounced, beamed and belted it out like a kid. I was getting embarrassingly winded just laughing. I couldn’t keep up with her one-liners (check how many “Lily Tomlin quotes” sites are on the Web), but I certainly got the message that if you want to stay young, be young. And as unafraid to question the world as is a 6-year-old.

Backstage, we met, we shared memories and we signed photos. Her signing a souvenir photo for me, I expected. But asking me to sign an old snap of longhaired Young Clyde, at first took me aback.

But why should it? As Lily taught me long ago, celebrities are just people.