When a friend or acquaintance gets famous, or even sort of famous, we are delighted. Absurdly we feel connected to them. Not that we don’t love living in the low-key midwest, but few celebrities come through, except touring rock stars like Fleetwood Mac or Paul McCartney. And we don’t know them.
We are incurably bookish. I grew up in Iowa City, now a UNESCO City of Books, and attended the University of Iowa, home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. For years I was a journalist, and interviewed dozens of famous writers, among them Denise Levertov, Galway Kinnell, Ann Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason, Karen Joy Fowler, Margot Livesey, Frank Conroy, Oscar Hijuelos, Robert Hellenga, Peter Stothard, Karen E. Bender, and Michelle Hunevan.
Over Thanksgiving dinner, we invented a game whose goal was to rattle off our famous “friends” who once lived in Iowa, or even visited here. My cousin claimed she’d partied with Ashton Kutcher at the University of Iowa (possible) and had sex with Keith Richards in Des Moines (certainly a lie!); my husband took a writing class from John Leggett, who was reputed to be a mean bastard (I don’t know why my talented husband gave up writing); I also claimed Leggett because I lived around the block from him (and the noise from his parties kept me up all night); we absurdly claimed Jane Smiley, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer who got her Ph.D. from the University of Iowa and taught for years at Iowa State, because we’ve attended two of her readings; and I took a writing class from T.C. Boyle when he was a T.A. (Do read his hilarious Iowa City short story, “A Women’s Restaurant,” in which the hero desperately wants to break into a Grace and Rubies, an actual women’s restaurant/club I belonged to in the ’70s!)
“Don’t you know anyone who isn’t a writer?” someone asked.
“Greg Brown?” we hazarded.
Yes, we have all heard the musician Greg Brown at the Mill or on Prairie Home Companion.
But then I had a flash! Duck’s Breath Mystery Theatre! This brilliant comedy group, founded by five University of Iowa students in 1975, is famous. Their performances and radio sketches were broadcast on NPR, and they had finale show a couple of years ago . All right, I don’t “know” them, but Leon Martell was the T.A. for my Drama in Western Culture class. I do vaguely remember him perched on a desk in our discussion group. And was there another T.A., Jan, who founded the Haunted Bookshop, or was that the second semester? And I think Leon may have directed the college production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, or perhaps he played Oberon. And were the fairies on swings?
The Duck’s Breath Mystery Theatre skits are hilarious: I love their performance of “When I Get Rich” and “More Than a Box.” And you can watch their finale performance in San Francisco online. Actually, there seems to be a lot online.
WHAT FAMOUS PEOPLE DO AND DON’T YOU KNOW?