I count 68 guys in line in front of me, all waiting to meet Scream Queen Heather Heather. Some are dressed like the killers from her ’80s classics like Frat House Party Massacre and Terror Bus, others wear “I’m Her 3rd Husband” tees in reference to her hit ’90s sitcom Two Many Husbands. If there are costume references to her failed morning talk show I can’t make them out. We have been standing outside of the former B.P.O.E. Lodge #136 for two hours, waiting for the doors to open. This is the first ever comic convention here in Wyman so you’d think there would be kids everywhere, but no. The only people who have showed up so far are 67 middle-aged losers and me, and from the looks of it none of them are interested in comics.
“Can you believe it? Scream Queen Heather Heather in Wyman!” the geek in front of me says.
“Yeah,” I say.
I don’t give him any eye contact. That’s just begging for more conversation. It doesn’t stop him, though. “I’m probably her biggest fan,” he says. I think he’s supposed to be dressed like the creature from Marsh Madness II, but he looks more like Sigmund the Sea Monster. “Did you know her real name isn’t Heather Heather?”
“No kidding,” I say.
He flips a strand of foam rubber seaweed away from his eye hole like an errant dreadlock. “Nope, she was born Nancy Greider, but she changed it before her debut in Beauty Pageant Massacre.”
“That wasn’t her debut,” I say, and Sigmund’s big googly eyes fix on me.
“You’re referring to her allegedly never aired 1980 appearance on The Dating Game, I presume? That never happened.”
“Oh, it happened.”
“I think I’d know if Nancy ever actually appeared on The Dating Game,” Sigmund says.
A guy dressed like the killer from Penalty Box walks up to Sigmund, the ketchup still wet on the blades of the hockey skates dangling over his shoulder. “Hey, Dave, what’s going on?” he asks Dave/Sigmund.
“This guy believes that old Dating Game rumor,” Sigmund says, and he waves a foam rubber flipper in my direction.
Penalty Box looks me up and down with an expression that’s half “what an idiot” and half “you don’t belong here.” Anywhere else in the world jeans and a Floyd tee wouldn’t stand out, but here I’m the freak. “What are you even dressed as?” Penalty Box sneers.
“Bachelor Number Three,” I say.
Anyone who says they live their life with no regrets is lying. Every one of the losers in this line is just a watery sack of walking regret who is hiding from something, mostly growing the hell up. Why else would a middle-aged man dress up like a marsh creature and stand in line for two hours just to meet an actress who hasn’t worked in 20 years? They can’t let them go, those uncomplicated childhoods when their biggest concern was how to sneak into their local movie theater for a glimpse of Scream Queen Heather Heather’s boobs while she shrieked her way through the woods, the marsh, the college dorm, the amusement park, the hockey rink.
Before today that was as close to Scream Queen Heather Heather as any of them could ever hope to get, but me? I knew Nancy before she was famous.
“From Hollywood, the dating capital of the world, it’s The Dating Game,” and here’s your host, Jim Lange,” the announcer said, and that famous theme kicked in. Everybody thinks that’s Herb Alpert, but it’s not. That’s from Chet Baker and the Mariachi Brass’s In the Mood album. Even back then I couldn’t give the Mariachi Brass albums away. Customers wanted cool Chet, “My Funny Valentine” Chet, junkie Chet. I dig those World Pacific albums, though.
The guy sitting next to me was obviously a joke. He was a little short guy from Peru, wearing a blue leisure suit and white Thom McCans with a matching belt. They put enough grease in his hair to start a fire if the lights got too close to his head. Every time I looked over in his direction he’d say “hi” in this funny little accent. I couldn’t tell if he was putting me on or if he was mental or what.
Lange welcomed the crowd and then he said, “Let’s meet our bachelors” and the stage spun around and the little Peruvian guy held onto his chair like he was going to fall. Then we could see Lange on the other side of the little wall. That’s the way they have the stage set up, so that he can see the bachelors and the bachelorette. Anyway, that’s when the Herb Alpert music kicks in. When Jim says “Let’s meet our bachelors” they play “Spanish Flea” from the album Going Places by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, released in 1965, whereas Chet Baker and the Mariachi Brass’s In the Mood dropped in ’66. Going Places had the better album cover, too, but they’re both pretty hot.
He made some dumb joke about bachelor number one’s golf game, and then he told some lies about him: “He’s a gourmet chef who plays guitar and loves good literature, let’s have a warm welcome for Mike Johnson,” and the applause sign lit up and so did the light on top of the camera pointed at Mike. I talked to that dude back stage before the show. The only thing he ever cooked was a bong load of weed, and he’d never read a book that didn’t have Betty or Veronica on the cover.
“Our next bachelor hails from Bagua Grande, Peru, which I think means ‘big water balloon.’ Let’s give a big welcome to Efrain Alvarez,” Jim said. The audience applauded, and Efrain said hi in his goofy accent and waved at the camera.
“When I met our next bachelor backstage, he told me was exhausted. ‘Why are you so tired, you just got here,’ I said, and he told me he’s been running through our bachelorette’s mind all night. He hails originally from Wyman, California, but now he’s a struggling actor from Los Angeles. He enjoys music, Frisbee, and customized vans. Let’s have a warm welcome for Vince DeGarmo,” Lange announced. That red light came on and the spotlight hit me, and I did just what the producers said. I smiled at the camera like it was ladies night, then I gave a little wink. They said with my mustache the wink would me make me look like Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit, but I didn’t know. I just did what I was told. It made me feel like an idiot.
“Those are our three bachelors, and we’ll be right back to meet our young lady for game one after these messages. Don’t go anywhere,” Jim said, and the applause sign lit up and then the director said “cut.”
The nerds are ranking Scream Queen Heather Heather’s oeuvre. Sigmund is getting a little heated, as the killer from Terror Bus keeps insisting that his costume is too leafy for Marsh Madness II. “It’s right for I, but when special effects wizard Jerry Hollings came on for II he felt that too many leaves made the creature look more like a shrub than a killer.”
“Hellings didn’t even work on Marsh Madness II. That was Charles Steiger,” Sigmund says.
“Steiger was credited, but Hollings was there during pre-production. He had to leave to work on a top secret Lucas project,” Terror Bus says.
“I don’t know where you heard that, but Steiger did all of the makeup and effects for MM II.”
“Let’s just say I know somebody that works at Lucasfilm and leave it at that,” Terror Bus says.
“Can we get back to the rankings, please?” begs the killer from Beauty Pageant Massacre, who has somehow managed to lay his hands on a piece of cold fried chicken at 8:15 in the morning. They go back and forth like this for the next 15 minutes, each of them defending not just his favorite Scream Queen Heather Heather movie but his individual ranking of her complete filmography. They try to outdo each other with minutiae: cast and crew, running times, continuity errors, box office receipts, poster artists, home video release dates. They’ll argue about anything. Imagine a presidential debate only stupider.
“Will you shut up?” I hear myself bark. “Nobody cares. It’s all the same movie. A group of good looking young people go somewhere to party and have sex, and a killer picks them off one by one. At some point Heather Heather’s top gets ripped off and she runs and screams. Jesus, you act like this is art or something.”
They stare at me, the killers and the third husbands. “Did it ever occur to you that those films were a metaphor for the AIDS epidemic?” the killer from Hell Park says.
“No, no,” Sigmund interjects. “The basic trope existed in urban legends long before AIDS. Think of ‘The Bloody Hook,’ for example. These movies are just extensions of old folk tales warning about the hazards of promiscuity.”
“Oh my God, you’re kidding, right?” Terror Bus says. “The underlying theme of all of Scream Queen Heather Heather’s movies is–” but I can’t hear the rest because they’re all talking now, or maybe it’s just that I don’t want to hear anymore.
“And now it’s time to meet our young lady for game number one, and here she is,” Jim said. Of course we couldn’t see her, so all we had to go on was the applause and Jim’s stupid jokes. “Our bachelorette was up for the role of Charlie’s fourth angel, but Farrah’s hair spray budget cut them down to three. Let’s give a warm hand to Nancy Greider.” The applause signs lit up and the audience obeyed, but it was more than that. You could tell from their response that Nancy was a fox. “What a pretty gal. You ready to play the game, Nancy?”
“I’m ready, Jim,” Nancy said. “Bachelor number one, if you were an arcade game which one would you be?”
Number one leaned forward. I guess he didn’t think his voice would travel around the little wall separating us from her, or maybe it was just a subconscious thing. Whatever. I told myself not to do it. “I’d be an Atari, because you’d want to stay home and play with my joystick all night,” he said, and then he pantomimed moving a joystick. If that was supposed to be his manhood, he didn’t have much to brag about.
The audience let out a collective “whoo” like a giant, horny firework exploded, and Jim said “Whoa!” and I tried not to roll my eyes. I knew the show’s writers gave him that line, because they gave me lines, too, one of which was, “Probably Rocky because I always go the distance.” There was no way I was going to say that.
“Bachelor number two, same question,” Heather said.
“Space Invaders,” he said in his weird little accident. No explanation, just “Space Invaders.” The audience laughed.
Is that all there was to this show, I thought? They just trotted us out there to read scripted answers to scripted questions so that the audience could make a little noise when the sign lit up? The whole thing was a poseur charade, a slick package devoid of any real emotion. It was a disco record, and I hated disco. Nancy did, too. I could hear it in her voice. Here was a real woman, someone of value and depth, not some feathered bang roller disco queen. Nancy was looking for somebody authentic.
“Bachelor number three, same question.”
I did not lean forward. I did not wink at the camera or read my lines. “I don’t know, it’s a stupid question. Video games are for kids and morons. Pinball is cool, though,” I said. The audience didn’t whoop. Jim looked at the producer, who made a “keep it moving” motion with his finger.
“Sounds like somebody is out of quarters!’ Jim ad-libbed. The laughter signs glowed and the audience complied.
The doors are open now and yes, there are actually some kids entering the old Elks lodge with their parents. That’s pretty cool to see, though I still don’t get the adults in costumes. Do they really think that they are Iron Man or Captain America or whatever? I just don’t understand fandom. It’s not like we’re talking about Rick Wakeman. We’re not even talking about Rick Astley. At least he’s a real person.
Part of me wants to go inside and look at all the nerds, but if I do I’ll lose my place in the Scream Queen Heather Heather line. It’s not like Sigmund is going to save it for me.
“Bachelor number three: You and I are on an episode of The Love Boat where you rescue me and we fall in love. What movie song is our theme song?”
I don’t know why both of my scripted answers involved Rocky, but this one was one of the questions they prepped me for. I was supposed to say, “’Gonna Fly Now,’ because being with you is like soaring,” and then the audience would respond with a big Love Boat sigh and Nancy would tell me how sweet my answer was. That’s what the producers thought would happen, but what was really going to happen was that I was going to look like some kind of vapid Rocky fan not just in front of Nancy but millions of viewers. How was I supposed to show my face after that? She could see right through these scripted answers anyway. She was looking for something real.
“Probably ‘I Wish I Was A Single Girl Again’ from Zabriskie Point,” I said. Self deprecating and ironic. Nancy would get it, but the audience didn’t. They just sat there like a bunch of dummies unsure what to do if the “applause” light wasn’t blinking.
“Okay,” Nancy said, but she dragged the “Y” out for a good two seconds. “Bachelor number one, what about you?”
“‘Gonna Fly Now,’ because being with you is like soaring.” Bastards! They didn’t even give us each unique lines!
They cued the music for the end of the game, “It’s Too Late” by Chet Baker and the Mariachi Brass. Jim said, “And that’s all the time we have for our first game. Which one of our three contestants will our sexy bachelorette choose? We’ll find out after these messages, don’t go away.” The applause light flashed and the camera’s red light dimmed. Someone shouted “clear” and the producer stomped onto the set.
The line is moving now. Somebody told Terror Bus that Scream Queen Heather Heather is charging 35 bucks each for autographs and selfies. Sigmund only brought 50 dollars, so for the last 20 minutes he’s been asking anybody who will listen whether he should go for the autograph or the selfie. “Which are you going to do?” he asks me.
“Neither,” I say.
“Why are you even here?” he asks. I try to answer him, but I can’t think of a good answer.
“What the fuck are you doing to my show?” the producer screamed.
“Are you talking to me?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’m talking to you. What the hell was that? I don’t remember hiring you as a writer. Are you a writer? No, you’re not a fucking writer. Jesus Christ, we’re over budget as it is and now I have to reshoot a whole goddamned segment because you can’t stick to the answers you were given? Congratulations, asshole, you ruined the show.”
Over at the podium Jim sipped a cocktail. This was just another day at work for him. A production assistant ran onto the set and did something for Heather, I couldn’t see what. Jim tucked his glass behind the podium and walked over to join her, and the whole time the producer was screaming at me, eyes bulging and teeth bared, face purple as a grape Fanta. The production assistant ran over to our side of the set, grabbed his arm, and pulled him off the set just before the director cued the show to start again.
“And we’re back,” Jim said. “Well, Nancy, you have a tough choice to make, but I’m going to ask you to make it anyway. Which one of these hunks is your lucky bachelor?”
“I think I’m going with bachelor number one.” The audience screamed and the camera zoomed in on his smug, smirking face.
“Why’d you choose number one?” Jim asked.
“Um, I liked his Atari answer,” Nancy said, and the audience whooped.
“Okay, before we bring out your date let’s meet the two bachelors you didn’t select. Bachelor number two is a…well, we don’t really know what he is. Here’s Efrain Alvarez.” The goofy little Peruvian walked over and kissed Heather on the cheek.
“Bachelor number three is an aspiring actor here in Hollywood, where he definitely does not play video games. Let’s hear it for Vince DeGarmo.” I stood and looked around the little wall that divided us. Nancy stared back at me: blonde, blue-eyed, perfect teeth, golden tan, radiant smile, tall, thin. I couldn’t do it. I just shook my head and walked off the set.
“Cut!” The director whipped his head around, looking for the person who was yelling. “Cut! Cut! Cut! Get that asshole off of my set!” the producer screamed. “Get him out of the building! Get him the hell out of my city! Shit can this train wreck, let’s shoot another one!”
Not more than a year later Nancy was Scream Queen Heather Heather, and I was back in Wyman managing Permanent Records, the same store I worked at all through high school. Turns out records weren’t so permanent, though: Dennis, the owner, refused to believe that CDs would catch on and thought that cassettes were low quality junk, so he wouldn’t let us stock either one. In 1988, the year that Scream Queen Heather Heather reportedly earned one million dollars for five minutes in Maniac Dentist, Permanent closed permanently. I’ve been sorting mail over at the post office ever since.
I’ve always wondered how much different my life might have turned out if I hadn’t been such a cocky jerk on The Dating Game. I mean, it all worked out okay for Nancy, but maybe that was my one shot. That little bit of screen time might have been enough to get my reel started. It worked for Andy Kaufman and Pee Wee Herman, after all, Schwarzenegger, too. I bet half the nerds in this line can tell you what year Sam Jones, aka Flash Gordon, appeared on the show, and half of that half can tell you who the bachelorette was. Whatever. Best to leave the past in the past.
We’re almost inside of the building now. I reach into my pocket, and then with one motion I withdraw my hand and point to the ground. “Hey, Dave, you dropped something,” I say to Sigmund. He turns his entire foam rubber body around and leans awkwardly toward the floor.
“That’s not mine,” he says.
“Sure it is,” I say, and I bend over and pick up the twenty dollar bill. I stuff it beneath one of his tentacles. “Now you have enough for an autograph and a picture.”
“Where you going?” Sigmund says when I step out of line.
“Just remembered I have somewhere to be,” I lie. “Do me a favor, though: Tell Nancy bachelor number three says hi.”