RIP, Kenneth Mars

Kenneth Mars, 1935-2011. This is how I remember him.

In one of my previous lives, I worked retail in Beverly Hills. I saw celebrities on a regular basis. Most just walked in and walked out. Some were nice, like Aaron Eckhart. Some were even nicer, like Jane Lynch and Ellen DeGeneres, both of whom laughed at my jokes. Some were deeply frightening – I’m looking at your creepily ill-defined mug, Priscilla Presley. 

To my great dismay, I missed a legendary visit from Lauren Bacall, who swept in while wearing a cape, picked up a blue tablecloth, announced, “This is precisely the color of Gary Cooper’s eyes!” Picked out several thousand dollars worth of merchandise and then swept out, stating, “You will send this to my hotel!” Not that my co-workers knew where the hell she was staying, or who would pay for it once it got there. But, believe you me, they figured it out. Just as I magically figured out where to send Priscilla Presley’s mountain cabin decor. Such is life serving celebrities.

So, our experiences with celebrities were frequently one-offs. Except for Dennis Franz, who’d show up everyday with a bag of candy, just wandering around, eating, not buying anything. Nothing against Dennis Franz, but I don’t really count him. He wasn’t a customer, he was just killing time, presumably between the end of his stint on NYPD Blue and the grave. 

But we did have one regular customer who was also a celebrity, and his name was Kenneth Mars. He was mine to take care off, which thrilled me to no end. I was raised on The Producers and Young Frankenstein, and I do mean, raised on them. My dad has always been a strange sleeper, and often the only thing that would lull him to sleep was a lay down on the couch, to the accompaniment of The Producers. If I’ve seen The Producers once, I’ve seen it 200 times. To this day I can recite the entire thing. So when Kenneth Mars walked in, I was floored. There are few people on this earth who would’ve made a bigger impression on me, and they are Gene Wilder and Mike Nelson. If you don’t know who Mike Nelson is, I am sorry for you.

So, Kenneth Mars was on a quest for new furniture, and he’d come in regularly to test dining room sets. A big guy, he never could find a table that would give his legs proper clearance. In fact, he called me Midget, and I called him Gigantor. He was loud and crazy and I ate it up with a spoon. He’d frequently berate me and the selection of tables. “What’s wrong with you? Can’t you get a decent table in here?” While I stood there on the inside going, “hee hee hee hee!!!!”  But on the outside I’d respond in kind, saying, “Maybe we don’t make tables for giant people, maybe you should go somewhere else.” Once my manager pulled me aside and said, “I’m uncomfortable with the way he’s treating you. I think I need someone else to step in.” I was appalled. “It’s Kenneth Mars! He’s being funny! I’m being funny! I’m being funny with Kenneth Mars! Try to take this away from me and I’ll cut you.”

One day, the day he finally decided to buy something, I wasn’t there. I don’t know who handled the transaction, but when he next came in, to pick it up, the vibe was off. He seemed agitated and unhappy, not his usual cheerful self. I got the impression somebody had tried to tame him in my absence. Maybe they’d said something like, “Please stop berating our selection of tables. They are all very fine, ridiculously over expensive tables, and we are proud of them.” But Kenneth Marses aren’t for taming. He was the author, we were the audience, and he outranked us.

Actors are not animals, they’re human beings! — They are? Have you ever eaten with one of them?

Mr. Millman

Mr. Millman on Scout

February 2006. Mr. Millman's first ride on Scout

In February of 2006, I got a call from a man who wanted to book a trail ride. He was old. I could tell from his voice. I was nervous. Even in a best case scenario, taking brand new riders up into the mountains on horses in good weight (i.e. not half-dead deadheads) is an anxiety-producing endeavor. A brand new rider who is also elderly is not a best case scenario.

Mr. Millman and his wife showed up later that week, confirming my worst fears. He was elderly, he was frail, he looked like he’d break into a million pieces if he fell. I prayed Scout and Lady would be on their best behavior, and they answered my prayers. That day he told me he’d ridden some a few decades ago, and since then it had been his dream to own a horse.

Many people believe that horses are like unicorns. They’re not. They are a catastrophe waiting to happen. If you wait long enough around a horse, you will witness a catastrophe. But horses produce more than catastrophes, they also inspire love, and hope, and joy. Mr. Millman wanted himself some of that.

After he had a couple of rough rides on Scout, and stayed resolute in his desire for a horse, I introduced him to Colonel, a Quarter Horse gelding I’d had my eye on for some time. The very day Mr. Millman tried out Colonel Mrs. Millman gave me some news – Mr. Millman had been diagnosed with cancer. It was serious. The thing was, Mr. Millman didn’t have time for cancer. He had a horse to buy, a skill to learn, a life to live.

I should have known it wasn’t destined to work out with Colonel when we discovered the horse had a swastika brand on his hip. What are the odds that a horse with a swastika brand would be purchased by a Jewish man in South Carolina who was of age in WWII? We rebranded Colonel to obscure the swastika and got to work. Unfortunately, Mr. Millman made the horse nervous. I loved Colonel, found him to be a wonderful horse, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t produce a catastrophe. He was a horse, after all, and along with love, hope, and joy, catastrophes were his stock in trade.

Mr. Millman on Colonel. Catastrophe imminent.

Mr. Millman’s sister had come visiting, and Mr. Millman being Mr. Millman, he wanted to show off his new horse. I looked into Colonel’s eye that day and saw bad things. He was anxious, and shied as Mr. Millman dismounted. Mr. Millman stumbled backward, tripped over the mounting block, fell to the arena sand, hit the back of his head and lost his memory. He didn’t know who Colonel was, he didn’t know what had happened, he didn’t know his address. It’s never a good day at the barn when your rider leaves in an ambulance.

I found Colonel a new home, and cried when he left. Years later, I would see him at a horse show, looking fat, healthy and happy, and cried again.

I felt certain Mr. Millman would abandon his quest to become a rider.

He didn’t even take a break.

Shortly after the catastrophe, he called me up to Chesnee, to come see a Missouri Fox Trotter for sale. I looked into the Trotter’s eye and saw something I didn’t like. A hardness. Mr. Millman passed on the horse. A few days later, he summoned me back to Chesnee. The Fox Trotter farm had a new horse in, a horse named Sam. I made the drive to see the new prospect. He was coppery red and awfully young. I looked into Sam’s eye, and saw goodness reflected back at me. I rode him. He had a fire to him that matched his blazing coat. Sam was alert, responsive, ready to do whatever you asked. He was sensitive. But the look in his eye told me it would be okay. Sam arrived at the equestrian center and once again, we got back to work. There were many obstacles. Sam was young and green, Mr. Millman was old and green, but they were both hard triers. Slowly but surely, their partnership grew.

At the same time, I found a new horse for Mrs. Millman. Johnny was sold as a Quarter Horse cross, but I didn’t see the Quarter Horse as much as I saw the draft. Johnny was nothing like Sam. His eye did not reflect back pure goodness, but rather a most healthy sense of self. No one had ever told Johnny he had a giant hammerhead, or that his back was as long as a drive through Texas. But even if they had, Johnny wouldn’t have listened. He knew the truth – he was one glorious hunk of horseflesh. As such, he was entitled to his opinions. Some people he didn’t like, others he loved. Thankfully, he loved Mrs. Millman, and toted her around with a smile on his face.

Mr. Millman’s cancer advanced through his body, even as he perfected his riding skills and his partnership with Sam. I left the equestrian center, and left Millman duty to my friend Melissa, who would take Mr. Millman and Sam on two hour trail rides over hill and dale. Sometimes, when he felt poorly, Mr. Millman would list in the saddle. Sam would find a way to get back underneath him. With sweet, young Sam, no catastrophe lay in wait. Only love, hope, and joy.

Mr. Millman had lived his dream. He owned a horse and had learned to ride. But Mr. Millman wasn’t done dreaming yet. He wanted to own his own farm. He’d expressed this desire early on, and I, stupidly, had dismissed it as too far fetched. By 2008, Mr. Millman had moved to Charlotte and built his two geldings a magnificent barn to call their home. He had done it all. Through the years we stayed in touch. I kept up with Mr. Millman’s equine adventures, and was saddened by the news that Mrs. Millman had left. I sent holiday cards and emails, and made sure Mr. Millman knew I was always there if he needed me.

In 2006, Mr. Millman and I had obliquely discussed it. I don’t know if it was ever named, and doubt that it was. I think it was more a matter of knowing looks and a nod of the head. But there was an agreement between us, and it was an agreement I knew would stick. And so, I waited for the call.

I got it on October 27th.

Mr. Millman was dying, and he needed to find a home for Sam and Johnny. He had one condition – Sam and Johnny must stay together. I wrote up an email and sent it out, knowing it would find the right person. The email was forwarded, forwarded again, and forwarded several times more. It came to a woman named Karyn, who had just built a brand new barn, who had acres of perfect pasture, who had a daughter with a pony, and who was looking to find a horse for herself and her husband. She’d grown up with gaited horses, and would fully appreciate a Missouri Fox Trotter like Sam. I spoke with Mr. Millman about Karyn. Our conversations were the same as always – namely, me trying to wrangle the indomitable force of nature that was Mr. Millman, with much respect on both sides.

Before Karyn’s visit we talked again, about his hopes, his fears, his expectations about this potential new owner of his beloved horses. I counseled him as best I knew how. He told me, several times, how much he appreciated my help. “Of course,” was all I said. Some duties you do not choose; they choose you.

Karyn came out the next day. The day after that I didn’t hear from either of them. I became nervous. Maybe it hadn’t gone well. I emailed Mr. Millman, who always emailed me back instantaneously. I heard nothing. I called Karyn. She said it went beautifully. She and Mr. Millman had clicked, she said, and she loved the horses. He’d shown her around his house and his property, he had introduced her to the horses. She watched as Mr. Millman said good-bye to Sam. “We’ve come a long way together,” he told Sam. “I will never forget you. I hope you don’t forget me.”

Karyn told Mr. Millman she could pick the horses up on the 12th or the 20th, and Mr. Millman chose the 20th. He couldn’t ride any longer, he said, but he enjoyed coming down to give them a treat. It kept him going. Love, hope, and joy.

As it turns out, what had really kept Mr. Millman going was the knowledge that he needed to find his boys a home before he died. After he met Karyn, he returned to his house, and passed away. The date was November 5th.

Mr. Millman and Sam and Johnny

Mr. Millman with Sam and Johnny. Photo taken by Karyn during her visit.

In Honor of the Shamrock

For most everyone, St. Patrick’s Day means wearing green and pinching those that don’t, it might mean corned beef and cabbage or perhaps green beer. And while St. Patrick’s Day means all of that to me and more, it is also the day I pause to remember Charron’s Shamrock, also known as Rocky, the greatest 14.2 hand Arab Quarter Horse cross that ever lived.

I’ve written about Rocky before, but in deference to my sister, Rocky’s human partner for 20 plus years, I have written about him from a neutral perspective. I’d like to put down some personal recollections of the horse with a million nicknames, including, but not limited to: Roo, Rooster, Roo-ger, Charron of Shamrock, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.

blue ribbon

The God given giant blue ribbon.

When I was three years old, I began competing with Rocky in lead line. Lead line is an event where someone leads the horse on the ground while a child rides the horse at a walk. They are judged on their equitation. Equitation meaning, how pretty you look in the saddle. I was a fierce competitor. Heels down, eyes up, elbows in, my little heart dreaming of nothing but blue ribbons. I felt Rocky was the prettiest horse in the ring, giving me a leg up on the other children, who, likely as not, didn’t realize that lead line was a matter of life and death. It was upon Rocky’s back that I made my first deal with God. I had noticed in the show office a giant blue ribbon, a blue ribbon almost as big as me. I had my suspicion that this ribbon was intended for the lead line class. As we awaited the judge’s decision the ribbons were brought out, and lo! There it was! “Dear God,” I prayed, “if you give me that giant blue ribbon I will never ask for anything ever again.” And then the angels sang! The blue ribbon was mine! Rocky and I had scored the victory! It would not be our last.

Rocky was a phenomenally intelligent horse. Sometimes, on the way home from school, I’d cut through the horse pasture. On one occasion I paused to tie my shoe, my belongings piled around me. Rocky sneaked up and grabbed a construction paper art project I had rolled up like a newspaper. He went galloping away, the paper in his mouth, his tail flagged up over his back, tossing his head left and right, each time catching my eye to taunt me, “I have your art project! I have your art project!” On a later date he recreated this episode, this time snagging my lunchbox. I, of course, found his antics delightful. Even when he bucked me off – and let me tell you, if I fell off Rocky once, I fell off Rocky 100 times – it was funny. Despite the fact he had a special knack for making my face slam into his neck as I bounced my way towards the ground, invariably causing a bloody nose. Somehow, with Rocky, this was just entertaining. 

Once I reached the 3rd grade I started showing Rocky in the regular classes. The day of my first show dawned and I was petrified. Ms. Thomas, my teacher, showed up to root me on. I entered my first walk, trot, and canter class and spent the entire time talking to Rocky at mile a minute. So many horses would have taken advantage of a small, freaked-out-of-their-gourd human on their back, but Rocky did the exact opposite. He took care of me every step of the way, and I won a sixth place ribbon. (I didn’t deserve it – the judge was giving Rocky a merit badge with that one.) Once I exited the arena Ms. Thomas came up to me, her face perplexed. “You know,” she said, “I’d thought to myself, here’s the one place Carrie can’t talk. But you never stopped.” I shrugged. It’s not like I didn’t have someone to talk to out there. I had Rocky.

That year at the King County Fair the monsoons came. Again, Rocky took care of me. In bareback equitation I almost fell off in the pouring rain. But this was no novelty – the entire class was coming apart at the seams. I looked to the stands and my sister and mom were waving me on. “Keep going! The judge didn’t see you!” they yelled. The best that could be said of that year was I survived, thanks entirely to Rocky. The next time the Fair came around it was a different story. Rocky and I were now a well-oiled machine. Nothing made me happy but championship ribbons. Not even Reserve Champion would suffice. Rocky had spoiled me.

In the sixth grade I got my own horse, a chestnut Quarter Horse. Charron’s Shamrock he was not, and the well of gaudy ribbons I had come to take for granted ran dry. I still competed Rocky occasionally, and together we won a bronze medal. It was something I had worked towards for ages, and it was a joyous occasion. It was the last thing Rocky and I won together.

While still in his prime, Rocky was aging and he had been shown a lot over the course of his life. Being a horse who knew his own mind, he decided he was done. His show career was over. It took us a little longer than Rocky to realize it, however. I took Rocky into a huntseat class and as soon as they asked for a trot Rocky bolted, bucking and rearing up a storm. He was letting me know where he stood, and while I respected that, I also couldn’t help but laugh hysterically. As I went flying past on my bronc I saw so many concerned faces. I wanted to announce, “So terribly sorry! Just having a bit of a tiff, here! We’ll be through in a minute!” But all I could do was hang on and laugh. We finally came to a stop in the center of the arena. The judge came running up, thinking I was crying. I got off Rocky and gave him a pat on the neck. It was our last class together. Somehow, it was perfectly apt.

Rocky

Rocky, during his retirement years in South Carolina.

Not long after that Rocky moved to Georgia with my sister. Then came back to Seattle. Then he went back, this time to South Carolina. I was living in L.A. and didn’t get to see Rocky much, but I reveled in each visit. He survived bladder stone surgery and subsequent sepsis, founder, and the onset of Cushings Disease. He was an old horse now, but still himself, still glorious.

It was Christmas time when Rocky reached the end stage of life. We tried to put Rocky down before Christmas. I remember driving up to the barn with my sister and feeling such a raw sense of horror and panic. I think I kept it well covered – I needed to be strong for my sister. I had lost pets before. But Rocky was more than that, Rocky was an institution. I was greatly relieved when they decided to put off euthanasia. He had seemed so vibrantly alive, even the vet couldn’t handle the idea of him dying on that day.

During this time Rocky was struggling with his feet and it was important they be kept picked out. We all took shifts with Rocky to tend to his needs. One cold, December night I went out to the barn. I asked Rocky for his hoof – the easy one first – and he gave it to me. And then I asked for his other front. It required Rocky to shift his weight on to his painful left front. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t give me his hoof. I just stood there petting him, telling him it was okay, he didn’t have to do anything at this point. After a few minutes of petting, Rocky walked over to his stall wall, leaned his left shoulder against it, and lifted his right front hoof.

The next time the vet came out there was no raw horror and panic, just the knowledge that it was time.

Over my life I have known some great horses. But above them all rises a little bay Arab cross gelding by the name of Charron’s Shamrock, who came into the world on St. Patrick’s Day.

Le Roi est mort

There are times when you regret naming your cat after a 14th Century Polish monarch. Like when she is dying of cancer and the receptionist won’t stop trying to say her name. “Jad Why Gee?” she asks. I correct her. By accident of immigration, she has grown up here, in the Deep South, surrounded by Scotch-Irish and English surnames. “Ged Vee Gee?” she tries again. I correct once more. She doesn’t know me, we have been referred here for tests. She doesn’t know how to see a J as a Y. She doesn’t know the cat is dying. But I do.

The name is Jadwiga. YAHD-VEE-GUH. Jadwiga’s namesake was crowned Rex of Poland in 1384. She was neither a king (being female), nor Polish (being Hungarian-Bosnian). But Jadwiga, the Girl King of Poland, grew into a most noble monarch; a saint, in fact. She was short-lived, but she did much in what time she had. Jadwiga the cat did not. But she was similar to her namesake in her temperance, in her patience and in her sweet acceptance of the world around her. If Jadwiga had been a poem she would have been a haiku. Spare, but all the more beautiful for it.

We watched her come into the world, the runt of her litter. She was born March 10, 1999. Mama Cat, the feral cat we had taken in off the streets, lured in by cans of tuna fish and eventually trapped and tamed, had six kittens. Evan chose Jadwiga and she became his first cat. As a little one she was loving and independent, the only kitten who preferred to leave the others in order to sleep next to you. When Mama Cat fell ill two weeks after having her kittens, Evan and I became surrogate mothers to the litter. They all survived. They all grew up to be extremely loving cats. As Evan said, “we domesticated the hell out of them.”

The litter came of age in time for graduation. We were adults now. We found the kitties homes, but Mama Cat, Jadwiga, and Little Bastard stayed with us. We moved innumerable times that first year. Westwood, Hollywood, Santa Monica, Big Bear, back to Santa Monica, Hollywood again. No matter where we went Jadwiga took it in stride. Another day, another home. As long as she had her Evan she was content. As a young, slender cat she liked to drape herself across his shoulders like a living mink stole. Life was good. We were a full house – a pair and three of a kind.

Over time we moved yet again, to South Carolina. We took in other cats and dogs. They came and went, but the original quintet never changed. Some cats, like Napoleon, Jadwiga hated. Other cats, like Max, she got on with splendidly. Being only human, it took me a long time to recognize the pattern. If Evan had a special affection for the cat, Jadwiga hated him or her. He had chosen her first. She was his, and he was hers.

With time and contentment came weight, and little Jadwiga, runt of the litter, became Big Wiggy. She enjoyed being brushed and rolling around on her back in the sun. She loved her shearling cat beds and her window seat. But most of all she loved her Evan. Her favorite time was when Evan would read in bed and she’d curl into his lap. Her devotion was constant.

Encouraging her sedentary nature was the arthritis in her shoulder. She began going into the vet about once a quarter for a shot to alleviate her condition. It helped a great deal. Always on a diet, Jadwiga came in for a shot and was found to have lost weight. I was happy. Finally, I was getting somewhere. I’d also noticed new behaviors – she wanted to lay on the heating vents or on my computer. At night she slept between us, under the covers, her little head alongside ours. This made sense, considering what a cold winter we’ve had.

Jadwiga

A kind, quiet cat/There is a certain, simple/Elegance in that.

Two days after the routine vet visit I took a hard look at Jadwiga. I was becoming suspicious. A handful of days later and we were back at the vet. By then I already knew. Even so, I was shocked to learn she’d lost a pound. There were tests and x-rays and ultrasounds and all of it confirmed what experience had led me to think – she was dying. There were two rounds of fluids and B12 shots and steroids that bought her two weeks of happy hours laying in the sun, rolling around on her back. But she was fading fast, losing a pound a week, and neurological problems set in. She was losing coordination. She was holding her head at an angle. Her right eye began to weep.

Happy hours dissolved into discomfort. It was time. Our vet came to our house, as he always does, and Jadwiga, Girl King of Poland, was eased out of her suffering, and the quintet was no more.