Wednesday, May 16, marks the 23rd anniversary of Andy Kaufman’s death. Why is this a date that sticks in my mind? Over 20 years ago, my life brushed up against the performer’s in a way that I will never forget. As the 16th approaches, I find myself thinking back to the encounter that taught me a strong life lesson about promises made – and promises kept.
When I was sixteen, my friend Rachel and I attended one of his performances at Carnegie Hall. It was a huge deal for us to finally see him live as we were big fans of his, camping out in front of the TV whenever he made a guest appearance on Saturday Night Live. We found his bizarre style of comedy hilarious. As awkward teenagers we related to his "outsider" persona. His “foreign man” character was my favorite. He did bad imitations and destroyed jokes in a gentle cartoon-like, generically "foreign" voice, (the character who eventually became Latka on the hit show Taxi).
We squirmed in Carnegie Hall’s red velvet seats, adjusting our corduroy culottes and feeling the dizziness of the bottle of Cold Duck we swigged down on the way to the theatre (Hey, give me a break – I was sixteen! I had no taste in liquor yet). Even at our young age we were seasoned concert goers, and though we were excited at the prospect of seeing Andy in person, we didn’t expect more than a stage version of his traditional act. All of a sudden Andy appeared alone on stage with no dimmed lights and no fanfare, and announced that if we were all good he’d take the entire audience out for milk and cookies. Certain that this was just one of his odd jokes, we all chuckled and settled in for the show. He was, as always, brilliant.
This was a period in his career when he began the controversial act of wrestling women on stage. People hated and loved this misogynistic, crude, and clearly sarcastic addition to his popular stage show. He called for female volunteers from the audience, and before you could say, "Cold Duck hangover," I was on my feet and running down the elegant, red-carpeted aisle towards the stage in my chunky-heeled brown vinyl boots. I was joined on stage by four other eager potential wrestlers, and I nervously thought I might have a chance to be chosen.
It soon became clear to me that one of the other women was a plant. She was tall, broad and attitudinal, yelling taunts at Andy as he paced in front of us like an auctioneer. The decision of whom he would wrestle was based on audience applause, and of course the Xena lookalike won. I returned to my seat, defeated and yet somehow relieved. It took all of my nerve just to go up on the stage of that revered hall. Actually wrestling Andy Kaufman – well, I’m not sure I could have pulled that off.
At the end of the performance, Andy returned to center stage, had the houselights turned on, and declared we had all indeed been good and instructed us to follow him. He then ran down the center aisle and out the front of the building. Figuring this was just a clever way to make an exit, none of us rushed to follow. The audience started filing out of the theater, the conversation lively as people reflected on the performance as they would any other. Rachel and I headed out, reluctant to put the show behind us, and started down the front steps of the theater.
As I struggled to get my arm in my coat sleeve (Cold Duck will often do this), Rachel gasped and pointed to the curb. I looked up and saw buses lined up and down 57th street. Everyone in the audience was standing on the sidewalk slack-jawed. Eventually, with the encouragement of show staff, Rachel and I joined our fellow audience members and stumbled aboard the buses, mouths agape, still disbelieving. The convoy carried us to a public school on the lower west side where we found the gray-hued, institutional-style high school cafeteria set up with thousands of packages of Famous Amos cookies and cartons of milk.
There was a bizarre show in the auditorium (all I remember is fire walkers and jugglers), and Andy thanked us for coming and joked that the party would continue the next day at 10:00 am on the Staten Island Ferry. Finally, after a call to our worried parents, we stumbled home after midnight.
It seems Andy's comment about the ferry really was a joke, but I skipped school the next day (don’t tell Sister Catherine) and joined about 12 other gullible types in the Staten Island Ferry Terminal who’d taken Andy at his word. After the milk and cookies incident, why not believe him? Among the group was someone who worked for him, and she called Andy to say we were waiting for him. The man himself arrived not 20 minutes later, very pleased that we’d come. He said he thought no one would take him seriously.
He was warm and totally approachable – nothing like one would expect a celebrity to be. He took us on the ferry and we rode back and forth twice while he told us about his life and his aspirations (he claimed his entire career was an attempt to impress a high school sweetheart), and he even wrestled several of the women. To my disappointment, just as it was my turn to wrestle with Andy, we docked in Manhattan again, and we all shuffled off the ferry. Andy, sensing our reluctance to end the 24-hour party, bought us all ice cream cones before he said goodbye.
It has been years since I have thought about this adventure. It was without a doubt the greatest concert experience I’ve ever had and a life-altering experience. Andy Kaufman was an amazing character and talented artist, but he was more than that to those of us who were his fans. He was a man who respected the guilelessness of an audience, of people, and repaid it with magic. He was someone who knew the party had to end, but at least he could buy you an ice cream cone to make it easier.
Although I'm afraid we did lose Andy Kaufman on that fateful May 16 in 1984 (despite Internet rumors to the contrary), in honor of his spirit, I think I am going to take my son out for some milk and cookies. If my husband is lucky, maybe we’ll fit in a late-night wresting match.