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August 23, 2006

Book Notes - Hillary Carlip ("Queen of the Oddballs")

From her early experience as a child on Art Linkletter's House Party, to her juggling in the film in Xanadu and stints as both pop star and screenwriter, Hillary Carlip has lived a life of pop culture. Her memoir, Queen of the Oddballs, recounts this life with charm in one of the funniest books I have read in a long time. Carlip's self-deprecating humor befits this Gong Show winner's account of her life. This is my favorite non-graphic memoir of the year, on a par with Alison Bechdel's excellent Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.

In her own words, here is Hillary Carlip's Book Notes contribution for her memoir, Queen of the Oddballs:

Queen of the Oddballs is laid out chronologically, each chapter taking place in a specific year. I’ve chosen one song for each chapter.

“Moon River” (Breakfast at Tiffany’s Soundtrack)

After taking on different personas to become someone interesting enough to be noticed, at age eight I was suspended from the third grade for smoking on the school playground when I was being Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany's (elbow length gloves and all.) Although I was suspended and sent to a child psychologist, a few weeks later I was chosen out of everyone in my elementary school to appear on television -- on Art Linkletter's House Party. This subliminal validation that it was OK to be an oddball set me out on my path of doing everything unaccording to plan.

“Papa Loves Mambo” (Perry Como)

When I was eleven, I was sent to Mrs. Paul Henreid's Cotillion for dance lessons. Not only was I overweight and geeky, my class was largely made up of children of celebrities. I was always the last one picked to dance, and with good reason -- I had zero confidence and my dancing sucked.

On the night of the Grand Trophy Ball, it was quite fascinating to see who kept winning the contests -- the children of Charleton Heston, Vincent Price, Michael Landon, and Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh (yeah, Jamie Lee Curtis). Finally, in a freestyle competition, my father pulled me up and started to rock out. Eyes closed, he gyrated and spun, offering up interpretive dance moves as if he were listening to the Rolling Stones instead of Tony Bennett. Dancing with abandon, fingers snapping, arms flailing to the beat, he was groovy, man. I was mortified, but we won, vindicating all the children of the non-celebs.

“Anticipation” (Carly Simon)

In my teens, I frequented the Troubadour, the hottest nightclub in 1970s L.A. The "Troub" was an intimate joint where the great singer/songwriters performed two shows a night, six nights a week. I saw Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Laura Nyro, and even Elton John, whose sweat dripped onto my arm as I watched from a table right under the stage.

I saw Carly Simon open for Cat Stevens at the Troub when I was fourteen, and I decided then and there that I had to befriend her. Fueled with determination, my pal Molly and I ended up hanging out every night in Carly’s dressing room; she got us in for free to all the shows, reserved the front row table for us, dedicated songs to us, and even talked about us in interviews. We were friends… or so I thought. This chapter includes a letter from Carly in her own handwriting.

Summer 1971: THE KING CASE
“Ladies of the Canyon” (Joni Mitchell)

After Carly, there was Carole King. At the height of her success, with the "Tapestry" album number one on the charts, my friend Greg and I spent an entire summer scouring Laurel Canyon, determined to find, and befriend, Carole. Armed with maps, and clues like her license plate number, pics of her posing in her house, and addresses of all her band members, on day 57, after almost giving up several times, we finally accomplished our mission. Carole King invited us into her house for lemonade. Six months pregnant, we even witnessed the hottest singer of the time performing Lamaze breathing exercises on her kitchen floor!

Spring 1972: TEEN LIBBER
“Walking in Space” (Hair soundtrack)

"My body (my body) My body
On a rocket to The Fourth Dimension,
Total self awareness, the intention"

I was in a High School Women’s Consciousness Raising group. We met weekly, gathering in basements and bedrooms, to discuss sexism, racism, classism, ageism, and any other ism we could think of, along with other intimate topics. We weren't just talkers, we also took action. At NBC studios in Burbank, we spearheaded a demonstration against Sexism in the Media, picketing The Dean Martin Show and his scantily clad Gold Diggers. That landed us on the news. Articles about us appeared in L.A. newspapers, headlines proclaiming: "High School Feminists Speak Out" and "Teen Libbers Fight for Own Cause."

One meeting we all got naked and sat in the middle of our circle, one girl at a time, to discuss what we liked about our bodies. That’s exactly when I realized how much I hated mine.

Summer 1972: (Heart) Breaking News
“Music for Zen Meditation”

The same day five men were arrested trying to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate hotel, my 17-year-old high school revolutionary brother led police on a high speed chase in my parents’ Lincoln Continental, and ended up being committed to a mental hospital. I was fifteen, and going through my Zen period -- I meditated, chose a Zen name (Munan Duvi) and listened to “Music for Zen Meditation,” knowing where every skip and crackle were on my worn out record. The only way I could find to deal with my brother’s huge and surreal predicament was to turn to a book of Zen quotes and pick a page randomly, hoping to find guidance.

Sure enough, this is the quote I turned to: “Accept the anxieties and difficulties of this life. Attain deliverance in disturbances.”

Anything by Pharaoh Sanders

My friend’s older sister taught me how to juggle when I was fifteen. I had thought only foreign men in spandex unitards juggled. I became instantly addicted. After some time mastering the skill, I began performing on the streets and in nightclubs. I was a regular at the Ash Grove, opening for big acts. One night I opened for Pharaoh Sanders. His audience was filled with hard-core, elite jazz-enthusiasts waiting to see a musician who had performed his own genre of “Nubian Space Jazz” with Sun Ra and John Coltrane. I knew they would not be welcoming. So I decided to go with it -- I borrowed a guitar case, and headed onstage with it. The audience actually booed, thinking a 15-year-old white girl in a wrap-around leotard and Indian-print pants, was going to sing folk songs. Once I pulled out the balls from the case, and launched into juggling, along with my comedy patter, I won the crowd over.

“Gong Show Theme Song” (Milton Delugg) and “Got To Be Real” (Cheryl Lynn)

I won on The Gong Show. With an original comedy juggling song, I actually have the distinction of receiving the first-ever perfect score of a 10 from cocky critic, Rex Reed. But he then gave his second-ever 10 to a singer, and we tied. I ultimately beat the singer, who was Cheryl Lynn -- just before she scored with her huge disco hit song, “Got To Be Real.”

There I was with a confetti-tossing midget, a professed CIA assassin (Chuck Barris), a huge lady dressed like a chicken, and an old toothless fiddler. I was surrounded by a posse of oddballs, and I was the Queen.

“Magic” (Xanadu Soundtrack)

I spent weeks filming the ’80s cult classic film Xanadu, as a dancer and juggler in production numbers. Although I felt gawky and undesirable, I set my sites on a gorgeous dancer, determined to have a wild affair with her. The Olivia Newton-John song in one particular scene we were filming played over and over, all day and night, for weeks, fueling my confidence:

“You have to believe we are magic, nothing can stand in our way
You have to believe we are magic, don’t let your aim ever stray
And if all your hopes survive, destiny will arrive
And bring all your dreams alive… for you.”

It definitely worked!

“This Town” (The Go-Go’s)

I saw a new girl group called The Go-Go’s playing in clubs around L.A. (they were pretty terrible, but had a lot of personality and spunk!). At the same time period, I was delivering singing telegrams, often to celebrities. This chapter is about the time I was sent to perform at a joint birthday party for veteran producer/director Jack Haley Jr., and actor Tony “The Name of the Game” Franciosa, and spent over an hour waiting to go on. Where did I wait? Stuffed into a tiny coat closet.

“Buffy Come Back” (Angel and the Reruns)

As the character Angel, I started an all-girl, all “ex-con” band. The idea was that in the slammer, Angel found the light -- not through religion, but through TV reruns. She/I banded together with other inmates, and formed Angel and the Reruns. Everyone bought the story -- press, news, etc. Many articles were written about us, with headlines like: “Jailbirds turn Songbirds.” We were on TV shows and in films (including being the band in the Tom Hank’s classic, Bachelor Party). We also had an international cult hit song called “Buffy Come Back” that spent months at #1 on KROQ.

Peter Gunn theme song

Right after the demise of a five-year relationship, I began dating someone new, while still trying to work things out with my ex. Not sure who to spend my 29th birthday with, it was basically decided for me as I was sent on a three day, surprise treasure hunt throughout Los Angeles. Everyone I knew, including the current and the ex, convincingly denied being behind it. So it became quite the spy case – very Peter Gunn, Harriet the Spy, Emma Peel.

“Only in my Dreams” (Debbie Gibson)

The first screenplay I ever wrote, which I co-wrote with my girlfriend at the time, was sold to Columbia Studios in a bidding war. After the big sale, all sorts of mayhem ensued -- including the casting of pop princess Debbie Gibson as the lead, the end of my relationship (while my ex and I were still doing rewrites for the studio), getting notes from the President of Columbia’s MAID, the studio being sold to Sony just days before filming was to begin, and our project being shelved despite the green light it had received. Only in my dreams just about sums it up!

“I Put a Spell on You” (Nina Simone version)

At a total crossroads in my life, relationship-wise AND work-wise, I turned to psychics for guidance. Many were kooks -- like the effeminate, bleached blond man in his 50s who, throughout my reading, held on his lap a blind Chihuahua wearing a tiny sombrero, and the woman who, during our session, kept answering her phone, placing bets with her bookie. After the sixth call she finally shrugged apologetically and said, “What can I do? I’ve got the gift.” Madame Zola, a not-so-exotic foreigner with a hacking cough, gave me insight that I took with me for years to come.

“That’s Amore” (Dean Martin)

I met and fell in love with a woman as she was dying of leukemia. Well, she wasn't—the character she played on the highly rated soap opera was. My father had been battling the same deadly disease for three years. This chapter goes back and forth between taking care of my father (an ex-artist turned businessman, who was forced to come to terms with squashing his inspiration over the years), and an incredibly inspiring and romantic trip to Rome where my soap opera girlfriend was a huge superstar.

“Constant Craving” (k.d. lang)

What do you do when you’re on a self-imposed sabbatical from serial monogamy and meet the person you’ll probably spend the rest of your life with? Run like hell. And that’s just what I did when I met Maxine. Yet I still agreed to go with her on an ill-fated trip to Italy where everything came crashing down on top of me -- including, quite literally, a whole line of Vespas. This was also the same time when k.d. lang, with Grammy nominations for Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Female Pop Vocal, came over to my girlfriend’s house for dinner, and broke out into her hit song, “Constant Craving,” acapella, in the foyer.

“Viva Las Vegas” (Elvis)

Las Vegas = my idea of hell. Las Vegas = my mother’s heaven on earth. Feeling badly about not spending enough time with my mom after my dad died, I agreed to take her to her favorite place, Las Vegas. This became a yearly sojourn of torture for me. Especially since every year we’d go, some huge celebrity died while we were there, and we’d spend hours in front of the TV, watching the breaking news coverage.

“Didn’t We Almost Have it All” (Whitney Houston)

Every author dreams of getting a whole episode of Oprah devoted to their book. It equals instant bestseller. But when I was featured on Oprah with my first book, Girl Power, let’s just say it turned out a little different than I had expected. Much like Whitney Houston’s life -- though not nearly as bad a train wreck -- I can certainly relate when she sings, “Didn’t We Almost Have it All.”


There are some lyrics in the song “If She Knew What She Wants,” written by Jules Shear and sung by The Bangles, that really sum up Queen of the Oddballs and my life:

“Some have a style they work hard to refine so they walk a crooked line
But she won’t understand why anyone would have to try
To walk a line when they could fly.”

see also:

The Author's Website
The Book's Website
Fresh Yarn

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)