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Breakfasts With Rip Taylor
By Nicholas Kolya
In this excerpt from his book You Never Ate Lunch in This Town To Begin With... An Outsider's Inside Look at the Inside of Hollywood, Author Nicholas Kolya describes his true-life experiences having breakfast with the legendary comedian Rip Taylor at the equally legendary Hollywood breakfast spot Norms Restaurant. Prior to this point in the story, the author had just been verbally assaulted by comedic actor Ben Stiller while seeking career advice. The following true account is reprinted with the author's permission:
I'd like to take a moment to talk about Norm's on La Cienega, where I ate every single weekday. Even though they've recently raised their prices, it's probably still the best overall deal in LA, after factoring in the intangibles. The food is hearty fare, the wait staff never changes, and the clientele runs the gamut from gloomy Hollywood scenesters to old Ukrainians to steroid-sculpted body builders. Porn actresses from the questionable "modeling" agency across the street order the meatloaf and dudes who speak to themselves and have that shaking disease eat the "Bigger Better Breakfast". If you truly love observing humanity in all its wretchedness and splendor, this is the place to be. And I was there every day at 12:00, ordering my soup, salad, and 1/2 a sandwich.
I can't emphasize how truly wonderful Norm's is. When eating there with some friends visiting from New Zealand, one of them told me - looking around in awe at the long counter tops and the steaming bowls of lentil soup and the savory pieces of bread pudding slathered in whiskey sauce - that Americans should never take such a place for granted. "This is stuff like we see in the movies, only here it's real," he said in that squeaky accent of theirs. Later, he said it again - "This is stuff like we see in the movies, only here it's real." - but it was during the Jurassic Park ride at Universal Studios, with the animatronic dinosaurs and synthetic, prehistoric trees.
A British girl in town for my St. Patrick's Day party said that Norm's huge portions put England's to shame. I patted her on the head like Benny Hill, and laughed and agreed.
We went there the day after my wedding and ran into our photographer's assistant. She loved Norm's too! After a rocking night at Cherry, where guys with codpieces gyrated in cages, I brought a visiting Australian friend in to sample the late night menu. She wanted pancakes - they don't have them where she's from! When my sister comes to see me from back East, it's Norm's. We hit Norm's after the Viper Room shuts down, Norm's after the Rainbow, Norm's after parties in the Mondrian or Chateau Marmont. Early Bird Dinner, Eggs Get Crackin', the Three Deuces - war code, or specials at Norm's?
Specials at Norm's.
See, I'm at a loss over how to make Norm's seem comical because I'm so fond of it. It's like having a retarded cousin - you know something's a little wrong with him, but you can't make jokes about the dude to your friends because he's family. Maybe if he weren't related you could imitate his slothful, shuffling walk or his wild, inappropriate screams or his partially opened, always drooling mouth. But he is related. He's family. Well, by marriage. Not by blood. No way, man.
The waiters and waitresses at Norm's are just that - waiters and waitresses. That's one of its greatest qualities. No one who doesn't live in LA can appreciate the novelty, the comfort this is. As mentioned, most waiters here seem to think that they're in reality actors playing the roles of waiters. And since most actors suck as much at their chosen craft as they do at other things in life, they don't do justice to the part - meaning they don't know how to take your order, or bring the fucking plate out to you. Maybe actors from Julliard are better waiters, I don't know, but they're few and far between out here. We get the students from Playhouse West.
Customer: Do you have poached eggs?
Waiter cum Actor: Do we have poached eggs? Do you have poached eggs?
At Norm's I only have to sit near actors, I don't have to deal with them on a personal level. At Norm's there are Ruthie and Alice and Jesse and Art and Ephraim and Sonya. They've always been there, like when Kubrick shows that 1920s photo of the staff of the Overlook Hotel at the end of The Shining and Jack Nicholson is smiling up. He's always been there too. Granted, as I sit at the counter I sometimes overhear the conversations of the motley thespians - how Strindberg is sooo difficult to convey to an audience or how they've decided to take a more "organic" approach to their latest one-act. But at least I know that my soup won't be spilled, that I won't be handed the senior plate by mistake, and that I don't have to specify the type of water I want when I order a glass of water. It's tap.
That said, over the years at Norm's I've struck up an on again/off again friendship with an actor. And not just any actor, but one of the greatest of all time. The $1.98 Beauty Show. The Jerry Lewis Telethon. Other shows. That's right, I'm talking about Mister Rip Taylor. You can keep your Robert Mitchums and Steve McQueens and Paul Newmans - they're all clones of each other anyway. Rip Taylor was, and is, a true original. He was out of the closet before I knew what the closet was. Before my parents knew what the closet was. And though he had his less talented imitators - Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charles Nelson Reilly - Rip was pure gold. To tell the world that you were gay simply by throwing confetti is utter genius. It was the antecedent to performance art - the truth of the performance was to be found subtextually, beneath the patently obvious. To us he was a man who dressed kind of funny and did something kind of funny. To the homosexuals of Stonewall and the Castro District, he was a free speech partisan and patriot in the vanguard of their movement. And today, the man with CONFETTI on his personalized plates is my friend.
This is from Rip's website.
The confetti throwing maniac was created while Rip was doing Merv Griffin's show. "I was bombing, so I took my script and Merv's...tore it up into little pieces like confetti... and then threw it out to the audience... then I knocked his desk over... and I ran out of the theatre," recalls Rip.
When the show aired two weeks later, the switchboard lit up like a Christmas Tree, with "Who is that crazy man?" After that time he began throwing things at the audience (string beans, marshmallows, peanuts) and the audience threw them back! The rest is history.
I entered that history of Rip's rather belatedly. As I'd become more impoverished over the years, I'd realized that I'd have to make budget cuts in my life. After getting rid of my motorcycle insurance, I'd noticed that Norm's breakfast specials were cheaper than their lunches, but they only served them till 11:00. Therefore my daily schedule was reconfigured, and I began heading over to eat at 10:45. I'd been doing this for a couple of days, eating my breakfast with a friend, when we first noticed him.
"Go up and talk to him," my buddy prodded.
Alas, the shame of the Ben Stiller Incident remained fresh in my mind, as painful then as it is today. If Rip Taylor gave me the cold shoulder I didn't know what I'd do. Could I just chalk up Stiller's condescending snottiness to the modern entertainment clime in which he was fostered? Or should I be wary and consider all comedic geniuses anti-social misanthropes? Argh, Hobbes versus Locke, was it the individual or the environment? What to do? Walk past as if I truly didn't recognize the star of The Gong Show Movie? Ignore his commanding presence, simply out of fear that he'd treat me like Stiller had? I thought of the confetti. Stiller had never done anything as innovative as that. Rip even had his own tag line: "Oh, shut up!" Stiller didn't. Maybe they were different in other ways also. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I decided. Had that been one of Rip's lines also?
"Uh, Mister Taylor. Rip. I just wanted to say that I'm a huge fan of your work. I really think you've got an excellent wit, and I think..."
I waited to be cut off, but instead he said, "Well, why'd you stop?" and raised his legendary eyebrows at me. And thus the relationship began. Not regular meetings, per se, but certainly bi-monthly ones. Rip would tell me about his raucous Vegas gigs. He'd fill me in on how Flip Wilson was doing in New York. One day he excitedly mentioned a song he'd just performed for a film that was to be showing at the Cannes Film Festival. The tune was called, "I Saw Elvis Eating a Ding Dong (at the Piggly Wiggly Last Night)" and I still have the cassette he gave me. When he was in town to film an episode of Brotherly Love starring "that kid Joey Lawrence" he told me all about it. When I asked him if he'd consider playing the small role of the runway model announcer in Model Citizen, he said he'd have to read it first... and after doing so said, "Yes". From there on in he'd introduce me to various friends as "the next great writer in town". Wow. Rip Taylor. There is no one else I'd rather hear that from.
Once Rip and his constant companion stopped by the table where I was eating with my friend.
"Hello boys, how are you?"
"We're doing okay, Mister Taylor, how about you?"
"Oh, I'm just great." And he rolled his eyes to imply that he was not great. And by that we knew that he really was great. Do you see the layers upon layers? The sheer intricacy of it all?
"What are you planning on giving up for Lent?" he asked
"We're not Catholic. So nothing."
"I'm giving up pancakes," Rip's buddy chimed in. Rip nodded his head to let us know this was a true statement, and maybe even a serious commitment on the part of his compadre. I ended up giving up pancakes for those forty days also, just to feel that much closer to Mr. Taylor.
Another time we asked Rip why his schedule seemed so erratic. He explained that he spent a lot of his time at Debbie Reynold's casino in Las Vegas.
"Is that where you perform, mainly?"
"Perform? It's a hell of a lot more than that. I'm an investor in the place." This time when he rolled his eyes we knew it meant that things weren't going so well financially for the casino. Our relationship transcends language. I'm not too worried about how Mr. Taylor handles his money, though. He's clearly got his head on tight - he eats at Norm's, after all.
"Look, when I'm in town, it's Norms every day at 11:00. Later it's drinks and maybe dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel. And let me tell you, the food at Norms is a lot better - and cheaper."
Even though he didn't wear the ascot anymore, and even though the confetti days seemed long behind him, Rip still had plenty of catty zingers. Once he was telling us about a show given by Liza Minelli or Debbie Reynolds or Phyllis Diller and when we asked him how the crowd had responded he snapped, "Let's just say that they could've all been arrested and charged with impersonating an audience." Now that's a lame crowd.
Eventually, for various reasons, my time at Norm's became less frequent, and finally stopped almost altogether. As you know, I ultimately ended up selling my house and leaving the country, and Mr. Taylor and I drifted apart. Sometimes, though, I think about that crazy sonofabitch, and wonder just what he's doing. I'm on his website mailing list, but it's not the same. I'll tell you what though - if any of my films ever get made, you can bet your ass there's going to be a part for the oldest, gayest, funniest man I know.
Mr Breakfast recommends You Never Ate Lunch in This Town To Begin With... An Outsider's Inside Look at the Inside of Hollywood by Nicholas Kolya.
For More information on Rip Taylor, visit his official website.
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