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The Coconut Corner (Winter 1997)

This article originally appeared in the Winter 1997 issue of Everybody's Talkin'.

This issue's Coconut Corner continues the theme of "my most prized Harry-related possession." Roger Smith's prized possession, however, isn't something he can show you. But he can tell you about it:

I guess it has now been about two years since I created a little "Harry Nilsson Web Page" on the Internet. The page consisted of nothing more than a single picture of Harry and a few words about his music. I never expected it to be much more than that and I had no idea of what it would lead to.

Shortly after I created the page, I began to receive e-mail messages from fellow fans of Harry's music as well as from a few people who knew and worked with Harry. I was thrilled to "meet" others who shared my love for Harry's music. Not too long after that, I was exploring the music message areas within America Online when I discovered an area devoted to Harry. Involved in the discussion were Zak Nilsson (under the screen name of ZakVogon) and several other Harry fans who I now consider as friends.

The America Online message area was a lot of fun, but it wasn't available to everyone on the Internet. So I hacked together some software and started the Nilsson mailing list. The list began with about 12 of us from America Online and now has over 150 participants from around the world. Then I realized that there must be many Nilsson fans without access to the Internet, so I started this newsletter.

One afternoon during a break at work, a co-worker and I were shooting the breeze and he quoted a line from the film Risky Business in which the character named Miles says:

Every now and then say, 'What the hell.' 'What the hell' gives you freedom. Freedom brings opportunity. Opportunity makes your future.

Okay, that's not exactly what the character says, but it's close enough for publication here. Anyway, that very afternoon I stopped by my post office box to get my mail. One of the letters I received was from Curtis Armstrong. In the letter he mentioned that he's a big fan of Harry's and that he'd like a subscription to the newsletter. I don't remember if I actually heard, or if I only imagined, the Twilight Zone theme playing as I realized that Curtis is the actor who played Miles in Risky Business.

Continuing to take this story in seemingly unrelated directions ... although it may seem pointless, trust me, I do have a point! ... I have a friend (and fellow Nilsson fan!), who worked on "The Simpsons" TV show and she invited me to be a guest at a Simpsons "table read." Since I live in Florida, I'm not sure she really expected me to take her up on the offer. But, when I later heard that Zak had moved to Los Angeles, I decided to plan a trip to LA to see my friend, attend the Simpsons table read and to meet Zak and Curtis in person.

My girlfriend (at the time), Ritta, and I left Orlando on Saturday morning and flew to LA. We couldn't see much as the plane descended. The sky was filled with a hazy fog. Unfortunately, that haze hung around for the duration of our trip. We rented a car and drove down to Anaheim. I guess we didn't get our fill of Disney in Orlando, so we had to spend a few days at that little park called Disneyland.

We had an enjoyable time at Disneyland, but I couldn't help being concerned that we might trip over the little castle.

On Monday we drove up to the Westwood section of LA and checked into the Century Wilshire hotel. Ritta was able to pick the one word which perfectly describes the Century Wilshire - quaint. But, it's location was great. We could walk into Westwood which is filled with stores, restaurants, and restored old movie theaters.

On Tuesday, I called Curtis and he said he wasn't sure when we could get together. He was working on a TV movie. He asked if we'd mind meeting him on the set. Mind? No, we didn't mind. I've always been interested in films and how they are made. So visiting a real movie set was exciting.

The TV movie was filming at a house in Brentwood. Curtis gave us directions to park at a public parking area and ride a film company van to the set.

As we turned into the parking area, I noticed a handlettered sign reading "Confessions" with an arrow under it. At first I thought it was some kind of California thing, then I realized that "Confessions" was the name of the film. The name of the TV movie, by the way, was changed to L.A. Johns before it aired.

We parked the car then rode in the van to the house where Curtis was filming. Neighborhood rules didn't allow vehicles to stop on the street in front of the house, so the van let us off at the corner and we walked to the house which was serving as the set. We found Curtis sitting on one of those director's chairs in the driveway. He explained that he was waiting for the movie crew to get things ready for him to rehearse a scene. So we had some time to talk. We talked a little about Harry, about Disneyland and Walt Disney World, and about the movie and TV business. Curtis mentioned that once during the "Moonlighting" series (in which he played Bert Viola) he had to sing. He was told to go to the recording studio where the show's music was recorded and see Rick Riccio. Curtis replied, "Rick Riccio? You mean the Rick Riccio?" Curtis knew Rick Riccio's name because Riccio had worked with Harry on the Popeye soundtrack and other projects.

The delay before Curtis could rehearse his scene was longer than expected, so we took a break for lunch. We rode with Curtis in the van to the film company's "base camp" which was located in a parking lot of a school. We got the star treatment along with Curtis as we sat at folding picnic tables, ate catered food off paper plates with plastic utensils and drank lemonade from paper cups - wow, celebrities are really pampered!

After lunch, they were finally ready for Curtis, so we rode in the van back to the set. Curtis told Ritta and I where we could stand to watch as he went through his scene. We watched for a while as Curtis rehearsed and performed then we snuck out to leave Curtis alone to do his job.

The next day we met Zak Nilsson at his office. Zak works for a company that creates promotional materials for movies. He told us that he had worked on the poster and billboard for Space Jam. I told him that there was a huge billboard visible from our hotel which advertised Space Jam. When he finally got a chance to see the billboard, Zak remarked "It's big."

We went to lunch with Zak then let him get back to his job. That evening we drove around looking at some Harry-related hangouts and sights like the former St. James Club (now called "The Argyle"), the Bel Air Hotel, the Westwood Marquis Hotel, the Troubadour, Canter's Deli (as featured on Harry), and the driveway to Harry's former home in Bel Air (the driveway was all we could see of it).

On Thursday morning we met my "Simpsons" friend at the Fox Studios lot. As you turn into the studios, you immediately run into a hubbub of activity. You find yourself driving down a New York street, trying to avoid construction vehicles, golf carts, catering vans, and people. We drove down that famous street and around a corner to some old buildings where the Simpsons offices are located. The buildings were probably built back in the 1930s. The offices are very small and the hallways are so narrow you have to back out of the way if you meet someone going the other direction.

We parked and met my friend who took us into a big conference room. There weren't very many people there when we arrived, so we picked out some seats against the back wall.

Pretty soon more people started arriving and I started to recognize some of the actors. Nancy Cartwright who plays Bart sat in front of us, Dan Castellaneta (Homer) was next to her. Then there was Yeardley Smith (Lisa). Across the table were Harry Shearer and Hank Azaria. Before the reading began, I got up to get some drinks from a small table on the other side of the room. I had to tap Matt Groening on the shoulder and say "Excuse me" to reach the snack table. Talk about a brush with greatness!

At the drink and snack table, I met Yeardley Smith. She was very nice and I was totally charmed - her normal speaking voice is much the same as Lisa's voice.

During the table read, the actors sit around a big conference table and read their parts. The episode they read the day we attended was called "Homer's Enemy."

During the read, Dan Castellaneta was especially funny. When he'd start to read as Homer, he'd slouch down in his seat and half-close his eyes. He added a few hilarious ad libs to the show.

The script had one scene with Homer saying "Whee" as he spun around once on his office chair. Castellaneta said "Whee" and the next actor started to say his line. Then Castellaneta said "Whee" and the next actor started to say his line. This went on a few times.

Hank Azaria (you might recall he was the houseboy in the film The Birdcage) was pretty amazing. He played five parts in the script and at times switched between three different characters talking to each other.

Pamela Hayden who plays Milhouse also impressed me. Her lines weren't particularly funny by themselves, but she managed to put so much enthusiasm and expression into them that they always got a big laugh.

Julie Kavner who plays Marge was absent, so Tress McNeille filled in. She did Marge's voice perfectly.

Bart's part in this episode was pretty small and Nelson only had a line or two, so Nancy Cartwright didn't have much to do. But, she did change a few of the lines to better suit Bart's personality ("Me?" to "Moi?" for example).

Harry Shearer (who co-wrote and co-produced Albert Brooks's album A Star Is Bought which featured Harry as "Lassie" - I had to find a Nilsson connection!) was, of course, pretty amazing because he did about six voices in the episode. He also ad libbed a line or two.

Yeardley Smith, who plays Lisa, captured my heart. First of all, she was the only member of the cast who said "Hello" to me as we got some snacks and drinks from a table before the reading. Second, she's the only cast member who's normal voice is almost the same as her character's, so it was kind of charming to talk with "Lisa." Finally, after the reading, she was kind enough to sign Ritta's copy of the script even though it is a "faux pas" to ask for autographs at a reading. She wrote almost a paragraph and signed and dated it. I was very impressed by how considerate she was.

After the table read, we met Curtis for lunch at a deli in Hollywood. During the drive from Fox to the deli, the haze cleared for just a moment and we spotted the famous Hollywood sign - our first view of it since arriving in LA.

During lunch, I kept hoping someone would recognize Curtis and wonder who those two people with him were. If anyone did recognize Curtis, they didn't let on. This was in Hollywood, after all.

After lunch we rode with Curtis to his house where he played a few Nilsson rarities for us and showed us some artwork he has from E.J. Gold's "The Moonbeam Show" based on Harry's songs.

Curtis has an amazing collection of Nilsson-related items. Unfortunately, he had to get back to work so we didn't have much time to spend with him.

That afternoon we went to a taping of the Tonight Show. Zak and his wife, Leslie, joined us at NBC Studios.

My "Simpsons" friend was kind enough to use her connections to arrange for VIP passes for the four us so we didn't have to stand in the long line that Jay Leno always jokes about.

After the Tonight Show taping, Zak and Leslie took us to a real Mexican restaurant. We knew it was authentic because no one there (except us) spoke English. After the meal (which was excellent), Leslie asked what things we wanted to do while in the LA area. We listed a few things including a visit to the La Brea Tar Pits. "Okay," she said, "let's go." By this time it was about eight at night and very dark. We drove to the tar pits and parked along the road. It was very dark. We walked a little into the park and realized that the tar pits is not really the kind of place to visit at night.

 
La Brea Tar Pits at Night

On Friday Ritta and I visited Universal Studios in Hollywood. On Saturday we visited the Griffith Park Observatory, and the La Brea Tar Pits (which is much more interesting by daylight). Later that day, we met my Simpsons friend and she drove us to Santa Monica and along the coast. We could sometimes spot the water through gaps in the haze. That night we boarded a plane back to Orlando.

Although, it was quite an adventure visiting Disneyland, touring Los Angeles, "meeting" the Simpsons, and seeing Jay Leno, the best part of the trip was meeting Curtis and Zak in person.

During the past two years, I've also had the pleasure of meeting Harry Nilsson fans who were visiting Orlando (including "Coconut Corner" columnist, Sue Schnelzer). And, through phone calls, letters, and e-mail, I've met dozens of other fans, friends, and family of Harry's. It is the memory of these meetings ... and the prospect of more of them in the future ... which are my most prized Harry Nilsson-related possessions.

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