Irene Cara, March 18, 1959 – November 25, 2022
Love, the older woman, and the big kiss-off.
In the summer of 1974, I was thirteen and doing a little acting. A commercial, a pilot for what I believe would become Zoom a couple of years earlier. A couple of days on a soap. Some background on Super Cops. Some off-Broadway. Nothing to write home about, kid stuff. I met a lot of people but nothing serious. My mother heard about a class that was using new techniques based on the teaching of Viola Spolin to help child actors get into character faster and audition better.
I was signed up and sent to a walk-up studio in Hell's Kitchen/Times Square. The address escapes me. There were five kids and two coaches. Teachers? I don't know. I saw the other boy at some other auditions, and we nodded apprehensively at each other. There were three girls, and they were all bunched around a pretty Puerto Rican girl (I know her dad was Cuban). I recognized her from PBS's Electric Company. The coaches gave us a little time to get to know each other. Irene oozed confidence. She had been a beauty queen. She had appeared on T.V. (as a regular), in movies, and on Broadway! Irene Cara was a triple threat. She could act, sing, and dance. All facts she told me by way of introduction.
She even shook my hand. She did not ask me anything and moved on before I could say anything. How could I compete with that? Thankfully she was a girl. And we were not ever going to compete for the same role. The Spolin technique was stagecraft through improvisation. Over the next couple of weeks, we would play games that would sharpen our minds and allow us to go to ten immediately. Nail that audition, be that character, and go for it. I loved it. (I also had a nice run as a professional improver in various groups and even had my own troop- but that was later.)
We played games, Five Through the Door, yes and, Mirror, Touch, Gibberish, etc. The first week was fun, though one of the girls didn't return after the first day. By Friday, it was just Irene and me. All weekend I thought about Irene, the confident older woman.
On Monday, the coaches started giving us scene prompts. We were an old couple arguing about dinner.
"You like tuna."
"But not every night? What are you, meshuggah?"
"How about chicken?"
"Does it come in a can?"
"Why did I buy you that can opener for our 50th anniversary?"
It went like that. We were spies. She was James Bond, and I was a shorter Matt Helm.
We did everything they came up with. On Wednesday the prompts got a little creepy. They kept calling for us to do scenes of a romantic nature.
I was uncomfortable. I had recently gotten dumped by my first legit girlfriend (Jenny U. knows who she is!) and I was timid around Irene except for doing scenes where I was not me.
However, I demurred when the scene led to kissing. We played Romeo and Juliet, and Romeo was late to Juliet's crypt. She is already awake when I get there.
"I die, and you're late?"
"But the ice cream truck just pulled up."
"Whatever, aren't you happy I'm alive?"
"You betcha! I love you, that hair, those eyes, those lips!"
And then I was supposed to kiss her. But I couldn't. The coaches insisted that it was a perfect ending. Irene did too.
As I hinted before, I dated. I had kissed a few girls in junior high. But to my mind, Irene Cara was an adult, confident woman of the world. And I was not very optimistic about my kissing style. The sampling of persons with whom I smooched was not large enough to create a data base where I could see if I had a high enough score to instill confidence. After class, I got braced by Irene in the entry foyer of the building. Ever serious about everything we did, she started.
"Hey! What's your problem?"
"You don't like girls?"
"I like girls?"
"You think I'm ugly?"
"So, what's your problem?"
Irene was very serious about her craft. She was meticulous about everything. When playing an old lady, Irene asked the coaches if her character would move a certain way or be stooped over. She was trying to get it, working so hard and thoughtfully and trying to piece characters together before we played. Me, I was an old man! Gibberish spouted from my mouth like my first language! I got the whole improv thing, threw something at me, and did it. I loved it. Once Irene got her character down, she was a pretty good improver.
Back to the foyer: She grabbed my face and kissed me right on the mouth. It became a pretty real kiss. 30 seconds maybe? It could have been an hour. All sorts of pubescent bells started ringing in my body. Then she pulled away.
"That's how you do it!"
Dumbfounded, I watched her walk out of the building and turn towards 8th Avenue. During my entire trip home, I kept smelling her. My lips tingled. My tongue... lets not talk about my tongue. Oh boy. I had it bad.
I couldn't stop thinking about that kiss. Dinner slipped by, I lay in bed thinking about it—all night. Romantic notions floating up from my subconscious: were we dating?
I was shyer the next class. Stand-offish even. For our first prompt, I got a promotion, my wife was pregnant, and neither of us was supposed to let the other speak. It was okay, and then we switched so that I was the wife and Irene was the husband. I felt the electricity, and a kiss was coming. But it, alas, no. I was a funnier wife. (Just saying.) In the next scene we wake up in bed and don't know each other's names. I told you it was getting a little creepy. I was thirteen, and Irene was fourteen.
So we're on the floor under a blanket. We wake up and stretch and are shocked to see each other. I man up and move in for the smooch. Irene turns her head.
"Hey there, fella? Did you sleep well?"
"Sure, uh, doll. You?"
"You know it guy."
"Baby, how about some eggs?"
"That sounds great, bud."
I look under the blanket.
"Sweetie Pie, have you seen my underwear?"
It went on like that through the class and then on the last day. Irene asked me to come early, and we met a half hour before class.
Irene told me about going to PCS. The Professional Children's School. It was for real actors and performers. Not like me, I think she was saying. I was getting the "just friends" conversation mixed with being committed to your part. About finding the truth in character and doing whatever the role requires. In other words, the kiss means nothing, and you will never see me again, and not only that, you suck. That's how I took it. Also, it took a tremendous amount of willpower not to cry.
In our last class, we return to Romeo and Juliet. I tried to take her speech seriously.
"Oh, Juliet, you are alive!" Big smooch!
"I could have been dead. What took you so long?"
"There was a line at the candy store. Do you want a jawbreaker?"
Then I was Juliet.
"Hello there, come give your baby a little sugar."
She had to come in for the smooch. I held her tight.
"Don't you love the crypt? If we put in some windows, we could live here!"
I did my best. It was for the role. Ha! Give me the just friends speech. I'll show you. I was smitten for the rest of the summer before Summer camp in August. I was brokenhearted. I would never see my beloved Irene again. Sure she gave me one of her professional headshots, a candid one with her name on it, a keepsake of our time together. She didn't write any notes or sign it. But She knew she would be a star, and I was just someone she met on her journey.
But that's not the end of the story. We saw each other one more time. Well, two more times. But they are connected. I was working as an usher, filling in for a friend at Cinema three, located in the basement of the world-famous Plaza Hotel. I was on a break, exploring FAO Schwartz, the toy shop across the street. As I was crossing the street, someone was calling my name. A female voice. "Où sont les femmes?" I turned to see Irene. I was now taller than her. It was about four years since we last saw each other. (I was definitely confident in the smooches department.) I congratulated her on Fame which had recently opened, and I told her that a lot of my downtown friends who were actual students at the school were in the film too. This did not impress her.
When we got to the hotel, I told her the film would open on Friday. I could see her every day just by looking up at the screen. She asked if I could let her and a friend or two into the theater to see the film for free. Of course! I gave her the telephone number of the box office, and she should call to let me know when. She rang the theater, and I received my orders.
Cinema Three was a beautiful little theater, more of a screening room but maybe 100 seats. You had to traverse a gorgeous half-spiral staircase to get to the entrance. It was double high with a custom-made chandelier and a reasonably large Ficus tree that cost more to maintain than they were paying me. Irene arrives at the top of the stair. Our eyes meet.
"Ah, Ms. Cara! Welcome to the Cinema Three. Can I show you and your guests in?"
"Thank you," she replied demurely.
With a graceful wave, I stepped away from the entry and welcomed her through the doors. She descended the steps. Head held high, she entered the theater like Norma Desmond. A movie star. Close at her heels, she was followed by thirty of her closest friends. The manager looked at me and shook his head. I didn't get into trouble. Six months later, that very manager was gone with the wind, as was $100,000 smackers of movie theater money. They never saw the manager or the money again.
I stayed for the end of the show. Irene's friends oohed and aahed their congratulations as the house lights came up. Irene was queen for the night. I'm sure they had all seen the movie already. It had been out a month at least. It was all ridiculous. Why did she need this little ego boost? As the friends climbed the steps. Irene thanked me. She gave me a hug and a peck on the cheek, and she was gone. Like the manager, I never saw her in person again.
Irene Cara was many things. Actress, Singer, and dancer. A triple threat, as she said herself. She was also a songwriter and a musician. She was the only person to sing two academy award nominated songs in the same year from the same movie. Fame won. I guess she liked singing on the award shows. The following year she co-wrote and sang, What a Feeling from the movie Flashdance. It took home the Oscar for best song and was the start of an excellent year for her. Three Grammy's, One golden Globe, and a couple of Billboard awards filled her mantle. If she had one?
I was very saddened by her death. It was sudden, and so far, there is no listed cause. Rest in peace. I'll always cherish my first kiss from an older woman.
Note: The recreations of dialogue from the improv class were made up for today. The prompts were the same or as close as memory allows, and so were the jokes. I'm still that guy. I did my best in presenting the story.
This has been a cherished memory and not one I often share. These days everyone who dies seems too young. Maybe I'm getting too old?