The Force of Gratitude


Tamara – Emilia and Mario (played by John DeMita)

By Gloria Mann

Sometimes, whether due to work, passion or fate, we find ourselves playing multiple roles. But this may fragment us; it’s not always easy to maintain our center.  Where will we find the glue that binds us together under one purpose?  What resources, what treasures exist inside ourselves to help us to maintain our balance during these times?

When my daughter was still a little girl, I was faced with a dilemma; a choice seemingly to be made between the responsibilities of my life as a single mother and my life as an actor.  Just out of graduate school and already with an Actors Equity card, I had worked hard to attain the kind of role that young actors long for; a great part in a long running, critically-acclaimed play. I had moved from San Diego up to Los Angeles and immersed myself in rehearsals.

Written by John Krizanc, Tamara is a play set in pre-World War II Italy about the historic meeting of glamorous Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka and the Italian poet, playwright, soldier, political activist and womanizer Gabriele d’Annunzio, who before the War was placed under house arrest by Mussolini. The play has been described as a “passionate, sophisticated mystery mixed with an exploration of decadence at the dawn of Italian Fascism.”

Featuring a unique audience participation experience, an entire building becomes a stage, and audience members follow one of the ten characters of their choice from room to room, immersed in their rendezvous and reveries. The many rooms were all designed to fit the extraordinary atmosphere of d’Annunzio’s villa including beautiful art of the period.  Several scenes take place simultaneously, so that while one scene is going on in a bedroom, another is occurring in the kitchen and another in the dining room. You could observe d’Annunzio and his housekeeper cook breakfast in the kitchen, overhear Mario the chauffeur plotting while sitting outside in the seat of a 1929 De Soto, or eavesdrop on a Fascist spy.  Throughout the experience, you were treated not as an audience member but as a weekend guest in an elegant Italian villa, with refreshments catered by the famous Ma Maison Restaurant.

The play became a Los Angeles sensation and people returned week after week to follow either different or favorite characters across the multiple rooms. There were many wonderful actors who appeared in this play, including Anjelica Huston. I played Emelia Pavese, the downstairs maid who was having a passionate love affair with Mario the chauffeur. It was a great role for me, and my character had a large following among the returning audience. The weekly audience itself included a Who’s Who of actors and celebrities, including Jeff Bridges, Jack Nicholson, Goldi Hawn, Jane Fonda, Sally Field, Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton to name a few.

Tamara ran for nine consecutive years in Los Angeles; I acted in eight shows a week for five of those years. And though the part was demanding and the schedule was grueling, I loved the work! But then life presented me with a dilemma from outside the play.

My daughter had arrived at the age when she needed a new school and I had explored many private schools in Los Angeles. Finally I found the one that was clearly the best fit for her, to which she was accepted. It was also very expensive. While I had regular work as an actor in a long-running show, along with some TV and film work, my income was not enough to send my daughter to this wonderful school.  I now needed to balance my role as an actor with my role as breadwinner, but what else could I do that would fit my acting schedule?

Just down the way in Studio City is a hugely popular restaurant. Known as a celebrity watering hole, Jerry’s Famous Deli remains one of the best Jewish delis in LA and is a landmark in the American restaurant landscape. I already knew the menu and had waitress experience from my father’s restaurants back in Miami. One day while on my way to rehearsal, I decided to apply as a waitress for the graveyard shift.  I walked in and told them that I needed a job right away to cover my daughter’s school tuition. They hired me on the spot and I started that same night working under Jerry’s founder, the larger-than-life Ike Starkman.

I became a quick-change artist. I would perform in Tamara until 10:30 PM, change out of my costume, quickly change into my Jerry’s uniform and then rush over to Jerry’s to appear in what was basically another show. My waitress uniform was as much a costume as the one I wore in Tamara, with a blue jean mini-skirt, red high-top sneakers, the Jerry’s Famous Deli T shirt, and my waitress apron. The Jerry’s environment was indeed quite the scene, with enormous crowds coming through at all hours of the night, including many musicians, celebrities and eccentrics.

Patrons that I served included Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Drew Barrymore, Johnny Depp, River Phoenix, Steven Tyler, Weird Al Yankovic, Howie Mandell, Kevin Costner, Jeff Goldblum, Charlie Sheen, Jerry Seinfeld, Gary Busey, John Goodman, Larry David, Jason Alexander, Eddie Murphy, Mickey Rourke, Cliff Robertson, Chaka Khan, Danny Aiello, Slash of Guns N’ Roses, even O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown, truly too many to count.

With such a colorful clientele, people would come just to watch who else was coming in the door; the great food and high-energy staff was just an added bonus. Working there was exciting and fun and I always gave it my best. Even though I was often tired when I finished Tamara, I was grateful to have this opportunity to bring in extra income to pay for my daughter’s education. I would always renew my sense of gratitude at the start of each shift and would be rewarded with a surge of new energy.  I made lots of friends, spoke Spanish back in the kitchen with the cooks, and helped out wherever I was able, even training many of my fellow wait staff. Many of the staff people were themselves struggling actors or comedians. I eventually became the head waitress on Jerry’s graveyard shift.

Counting this job and the play, I lived with no days off. Usually I would get off at 7 AM, take my daughter to school, go to my gym and then catch a bit of sleep. But always looking to cover that school tuition, I would often pick up Double Shifts, with a Morning Shift following the Graveyard.  One time I served someone breakfast lunch and dinner on the same day! I always worked on as many holidays as I could, especially the busiest day of the year, Christmas Day. Though my schedule seemed crazy, I worked there for seven years and paid for my daughter’s tuition, then her college fund and also bought her a brand new car for her sixteenth birthday.

I was an actor, but first and foremost I was a mother. It was this core identity that gave me the strength and gratitude to maintain this pace without losing my sense of purpose. I was simply a single mother grateful for many things – for my beautiful daughter, for my work as an actor, and for the chance to send my daughter to one of the best schools in Los Angeles.

Since Tamara is so participatory, people who had just attended the show at Tamara might come in to Jerry’s and recognize me. I might see people who had followed my character from room to room and now here they were as my customer! Sometimes they would hand me the Tamara playbill and ask for an autograph. Or they might give a start and say, “Excuse me, but didn’t we just see you on stage down the street? Weren’t you the Italian Maid in Tamara?” I would simply smile and reply, “Yes, earlier tonight I was an Italian Maid and now I’m your waitress at Jerry’s Famous Deli. What would you like to order?”

Gratitude is a treasure that can give us the opportunity to unlock the indomitability that we never knew we had. No matter the challenges that we may be facing, gratitude allows us to live a happier, more creative life. It can change our experience from “not enough” to abundance.

If the only prayer you say in your life is ‘Thank you,’ that would suffice.Meister Eckhart