By Lydia Hope Wilen / New York City
All Things Come to Those Who Wait…on Tables
Years ago, after making the rounds of advertising agency casting departments for over a year, I got a call one afternoon asking me, “Are you available Monday to work as a waitress on Search for Tomorrow?” Let me see. Between signing up for unemployment and my command performance for the Queen, “Yes, I’m available Monday.” I then asked, “Should I drop by to pick up my lines, or will you mail them to me?” I was told, “It’s not a big part. You’ll be able to memorize the lines the day of the taping.” My resume says I’m a quick study. I figured that’s why she called me.
Then I asked, “When do I report for a costume fitting?” I was told, “No costume fitting. CBS has a large wardrobe department. Don’t worry. They’ll take care of you when you get there Monday.” Oh, but I do worry. The casting agent made it clear that she’s giving me a big opportunity. She’ll watch my appearance on the soap opera, and if I do well, there will be more acting jobs in my future.
Now I Lay Me Down…to Worry
What if I can’t remember my lines? What if I have to carry a tray with cups and saucers and my hands shake and the cups rattle? What if they don’t have a waitress uniform my size? I stayed awake hour after hour, inventing what-ifs as the circles under my eyes grew bigger and darker. What if the makeup man doesn’t have enough cover-up to cover them up? At last, time to get dressed just as I was about to fall asleep.
Was I Really on the Game Show “What’s My Line?”
I arrived early and checked in with the woman at the desk. “Hello. I’m Lydia Wilen, the waitress.” She mumbled my name to herself as she went through the cast list. It only took her an eternity to find my name at the very bottom of the list. She made sure to inform me that my name was last. Did she think it would make me happy to know that? “Well, last but not least” I said without really knowing what I meant by that. She didn’t know either, “I see” she answered unseeingly. “Here’s your script, Linda-- “I’m Lydia.” “Uh, Lydia. Take a seat until the director is ready to rehearse the second scene.
I sat down and started thumbing through the script to find my part. I figured, the sooner I started memorizing my lines, the sooner I’d have them memorized. I thumbed through the entire script and then re-thumbed. Nowhere did I see anyone or any bit of dialogue resembling a waitress. Not one “Check, please” or “There’s a fly in my soup.” Is it possible I’m here on the wrong day?
I walked back to the woman at the desk and told her that I went through the script looking for my part but couldn’t find anyone resembling a waitress. She didn’t seem surprised, or even concerned. “The director will tell you what to say. Don’t worry.” Oh, but I do worry. And this was very worrisome.
Not at a Loss for Words
When the director appeared, he announced, “Second scene actors, please. Who’s the waitress?” “I am,” I said, stepping forward. “What’s your name?” “Lydia.” “Were you ever a waitress, Lydia?” “Funny you should ask. I was a waitress in Frank Perry’s film Last Summer.” “Okay. Good. The scene opens on you. You’ll have a Coke in your hand. I want you to yell to the short-order cook. You know, say what you said in the film, then turn to Ellen and say, ‘Here’s your Coke.’”
The director walked away before I could question him about saying what I said in the film. He was busy staging the rest of the scene with the other actors. Then I heard him say, “Let’s take it from the top.” The top. That was me. I stood in position, turned toward the short-order cook, making believe I had a Coke in my hand and making believe there was a short-order cook. The director pointed his finger at me and said, “Action.” “You boys got some identification? (Turning towards Ellen). Here’s your Coke.”
“Stop! Cut! Wait! What does that mean?” “You said I should say what I said in the film. That’s what I said.” “Look Linda, forget what you said in the film. Just give an order like a waitress would. You know, something waitress-y.” (How dumb of Linda to misspeak. I’m sure glad I’m Lydia.) What does a waitress say? It was at that moment my years of training paid off. I became a worn-out waitress slinging hash in some crummy dive. “One BLT down, easy on the mayo. Here’s your Coke, hon.”
The director was pleased with the first run-through. He said, “We’re a few seconds under, so don’t be afraid to stretch it out a little.” I got my cue and off I went, “One BLT down, easy on the mayo, two medium-well burgers. Here’s your Coke, hon.” Once again, the director was satisfied, and after giving notes to a couple of the actors, said “One more time from the top.” By then, I was relaxed and really into the part. “One BLT down, easy on the mayo, two burgers medium well, a side of fries. Here’s your Coke, hon.”
“Stop! Cut! Wait! Yoo-hoo waitress. What’s your name?” “Lydia.” “Lydia, this is turning into the Galloping Gourmet. Do you think you could limit yourself to one from Column A and none from Column B?” We rehearsed the scene one more time with me 86-ing (that’s restaurant kitchen code for canceling a dish) the side of fries. The scene went well (medium well?) and we were dismissed and sent to wardrobe and makeup. I will spare you the aggravation I went through to get a waitress uniform and to have makeup put on, simply because the part of the waitress was not in the script.
Dress Rehearsal Without a Dress
By the time the dress rehearsal was called, I still didn’t have a unform, so I showed up in my raincoat. Don’t ask! And no one did ask…or cared.
I thought, it’s all worth it, considering that this may be the start of my soap opera career.
By tape time, I showed up in a much-too-large uniform with beads of sweat streaking down the last-minute makeup job, really looking like a worn-out waitress slinging hash in a crummy dive.
After one final rehearsal, the show taped and we were asked to hang in for ten minutes until the tape was double-checked. Ten minutes later, we were thanked and dismissed.
TV or Not TV…That Is The Question
We taped on Monday and the episode was scheduled to air on Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. That gave us 40 hours to get in touch with everyone we ever knew. My mother took Queens, Far Rockaway, and Long Island. My sister’s territory was Brooklyn and lower Manhattan. I managed Midtown, the Bronx and Yonkers. (We didn’t know anyone on Staten Island.)
Two days later, we manned our station—CBS. My mother went to a TV and appliance store near her office. The store’s owner agreed to let her and her co-workers watch the soap opera there. My sister Joany was able to come home lunchtime and watch it with me.
There’s No Business Like No-Show Business
It was time for the oh-so-familiar Search for Tomorrow clouds dancing by to the music of the mighty Wurlitzer. During the first scene, I told Joany that my scene was next…”Don’t blink.” A couple of seconds before my scene was to start, I said “NOW!” But the next words we heard were, “We interrupt this program to bring you live coverage from Kennedy Airport where Terence Cardinal Cooke has just landed on his return from a visit with the Pope.” After a few words of welcome from Gabe Pressman, followed by the Cardinal’s words of appreciation for the reception, the announcer said, “We now resume the program already in progress.”
Our reaction was weird. We both got hysterical laughing. With all the calls asking for work, the excitement when I got the job, the anxiety before getting to the studio, the anxiety once I was at the studio. I could have worn my raincoat instead of that awful uniform. I could have said, “You boys got some identification?” It wouldn’t have mattered. No one saw the scene. The phone rang. It was my mother. “Lydia, are you okay?” “Ma, of course I’m okay. That should be the worst thing that ever happens to me,” I said, beating her to her own line. “That should be the worst thing that happens to any one of us,” she said, doing me one better. Then my mother and I had a quick cry before she had to hang up and go back to work.
Calls started coming in with all kinds of consolations and suggestions including reporting this incident to the Anti-Defamation League. My sister’s words were the sweetest and most optimistic when she said, “Being preempted by a man of the cloth has got to be an omen of great things to come, so take heart and don’t worry.” Oh, but I do worry…however, not about overexposure.
What are the Chances of that Happening? The Cardinal (who was quite sick at the time) visiting the Pope and on his way home, landing at JFK, being met by a CBS camera crew and on air live, for no more than seven minutes…the same seven minutes of the start and end of that day’s Search for Tomorrow second scene. The incredible disappointment may have ended my soap opera career but gave birth to a journalism career when my article about the incident was published in the magazine TV Dawn to Dusk. Little did my sister know that it was also a good omen for her. Joany and I later became a successful collaborating team as writers.
If you have a “What Are The Chances...? story you would like to share, I’d love to know about it. Email it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t be shy!
Lydia Hope Wilen had a successful collaboration with her late sister Joany as nonfiction bestselling authors (18 books), journalists, TV personalities, writers and talent coordinators on a Nickelodeon series hosted by Leonard Nimoy, Reading Rainbow episodes, skit writers for Dr. Ruth's TV show, Diet America Challenge on CBS, and writers of screenplays (optioned but not produced yet).
Lydia is writing on her own now and has just completed an extraordinary book for young people and their parents. It will have them laughing and learning...once she gets an agent and it gets published.