October 6, 2001
For a change, my husband and I were well prepared and running ahead of schedule... Or so we thought!
We made a list of necessities before leaving Las Vegas (last time we went out of state in formal wear, we left Bill's tuxedo shirt behind and he had to wear a black t-shirt), and checked them off both in the house and in the car.
We left Vegas on Friday afternoon, knowing most of the traffic would be going in the opposite direction - coming to Vegas rather than leaving it.
The drive across the desert was fairly uneventful; there were no great traffic jams, no accidents, no distressed persons at the side of the road awaiting a good samaritan, the car didn't make any funny noises and there were no flat tires. I took it as a good omen... but, then again, I've never been very good at omen interpretation.
Once in California, we went straight to my mother's place. We have lots of friends and family in California, but Mom and her husband were the only ones who knew we were in town... we didn't want to deal with all the people who would be offended if we didn't stop in to see them, so this was a clandestine trip. Even my Dad didn't know we were there.
We socialized with Mom and Stepfather Bill (not to be confused with my husband who is also named Bill) for a wee bit, then went to sleep so as to be bright and fresh and ready come the big Saturday.
According to the map and directions I had printed out online, it was only about an hour from my mom's place to the MPTF Wasserman Campus. We left Orange County with nearly two hours on the clock, planning to pick up some extra film on the way and still leaving us plenty of time for traffic problems or getting a wee bit lost... Or so we thought!
We flew up the 22, we raced up the 405... and then, without warning of any kind, 8 lanes of superhighway came to a complete halt. Bill and I looked at each other with wide eyes, then reasoned that it was too soon to panic... the road curved a few miles up ahead, so we couldn't see how far the traffic extended. Let's just see what happens, I thought.
We twiddled our thumbs impatiently, switched on the radio and searched for traffic info (we found none), and waited for something to give.
Traffic did start to move after a few moments, though not at max speed, and we were on our way again. For about three miles. We made it past the curve in the road, and saw before us a seemingly endless sea of brake lights. I searched the glove box and AAA kit for maps, but everything we had was either out of date or not detailed enough to provide a safe alternate route. We were stuck.
I started to panic, I wanted to cry. It wasn't fair.
Why me? Why now?
A few miles, and almost 20 minutes later, we saw a sign that said Mulholland Drive - Exit 3 1/4 miles. I knew we were still a good 20 miles from our destination, but the address was on Mulholland... maybe we should take the surface streets? What to do, what to do!?!
Since traffic was moving about the same speed as a crawling infant, we had plenty of time to consider our options. It was now 4:22 p.m., according to the traffic radio station (which still hadn't mentioned anything about the situation we were stuck in) and we had about 30 minutes to get to the campus.
I clamped down the tears that started to well up in my eyes, clenched my jaw, took a deep breath, and tried to calm myself down. It didn't work.
Bill was certain he knew Mulholland well enough to get us there, provided Mulholland itself wasn't as crowded as the freeway. Besides, I reasoned, if Mulholland was congested, we could always get back on the freeway, right?
Right. At least, it sounded good at the time.
Another ten minutes passed before we were in the exit lane, and the traffic ahead of us was backed up as far as the eye could see. At that, we didn't think we had much to lose... I mean, it couldn't be any worse, could it?
So off onto Mulholland we raced.
That's Mulholland Drive as in the most twisty turny road this side of 'Frisco's Lombard Street, so when I say "raced" you have to take that with a grain of salt. Compared to the traffic on the freeway, we were racing. Bill drove that road like a championship Nascar driver, and I have to admit that there were times when I simply closed my eyes, held onto the seat, and prayed we would get there alive and without too many new grey hairs.
It took about half an hour to get out of the mountains, and discover that Mulholland dumped us out onto Cahuenga right by Universal Studios... nowhere near our destination.
I took my watch off without looking at it... I knew there was no way we were going to make it on time. Hell, we were probably late already.
Again, I wanted to cry, but I knew it wouldn't do any good at all and would only upset Bill even more than he already was.
We tried to get back on the freeway, but the traffic had backed up the onramp so bad that cars were lined up half a block on the surface street. A quick look at the map showed Ventura Blvd. paralleling the freeway for the rest of our journey, so we took that instead. It was still slow going; far too many traffic lights, far too many of them red.
Finally, we made it.
We found the street we should have exited the freeway onto and promptly turned the wrong direction... no big deal, we figured it out right away and immediately made a U-turn. And there it was, Spielberg Drive and the Wasserman Campus!
I was an absolute wreck by this time, between the stress of being late and the wild, harrowing drive through Mulholland, my nerves were shot. I still had my watch off, but I knew that the best we could hope for would be catching the tail end of the Rose Garden Dedication.
We pulled up to the valet and had our car whisked away by a smiling young man in a Mercedes Benz coat.
I could see the Rose Garden from where we were and it was obvious that we had missed the ceremony. There were tables all about with half-empty champagne glasses on them, and a crowd of people moving away from the Rose Garden. I wanted to just sit down on the curb and die, lie down on the grass and sob. It just wasn't fair.
I pulled myself together... I had to find Virginia... If I could find Virginia, at least it wouldn't all be a total waste. That was my new mission, my new motivation, the only thing that kept me from losing it all completely.
So up to the ticket table I marched. A-G, no... H-L, no... M-R, yes, that's us! Roxanne Mills, I said to the woman. She checked her list and shook her head. Sorry, no Roxanne Mills here. Okay, how about Musgrave Foundation? Another quick check of the list, another shake of the head. How about Santos? I asked. The woman sitting next to her checked the S list... No, no Santos either.
Normally, I could handle a situation like this with ease. Already surpassing maximum stress levels, I just stood there like an idiot with my brow furrowed and my mouth hanging open. "But, but, but..." I stuttered.
I started to wander away from the table to think for a moment, when the woman directed me to another girl at the end of the table. I asked her to check her list, which was supposedly the master list. Nope. No Mills, no Santos, no Musgrave. Sorry. She looked at me like I was a seedy gate-crasher and I simply wanted to hit someone.
I showed her the invitations that came in the mail. I told her about the faxed VIP parking pass. I dropped every name from the MPTF I could think of, twice! The woman with the master list just shook her head, none too sympathetically, and shrugged her shoulders. This time I did walk away from the table... paced in a small circle... and went back for another shot. I started from the beginning... Who I was, why I was here, who made the arrangements, every step. She must have realized that my story was too elaborate to be a gate-crashers lie because she finally gave in and issued me two tickets.
We were in!
There was no information desk... no place where officials gathered. So we stopped every person wearing a badge and asked them if they knew the whereabouts of Virginia McDowall and/or Tracey Stern. Remarkably few people even knew who they were. Those who did know who Virginia was could only say "Oh, she was at the Dedication, but I don't know where she is now."
Someone said she was sitting down inside the Villa, so we checked there. Lots of people, none of them Virginia. Maybe she's touring the Villa, so we made a quick sweep of the area. Nothing.
I grabbed a glass of wine, hands still shaking with tension and nerves. I had become obsessed with finding Virginia... I was a border-line lunatic. Nothing and no-one else mattered to me.
Perhaps by the koi pond? No Virginia, but we did spot Charlton Heston. Maybe he knows where Virginia is, I suggested to Bill. I wandered away a few feet, trying to muster the calmness to approach and ask, but when I turned back around there was Bill talking to a smiling Charlton Heston like they were two old chums. I quickly moved to my husband's side and tried to smile my best smile. Introductions were made, hands were shook... And no, he didn't know where Virginia was. "She was at the Dedication..." but he hadn't seen her since. Oh, and how wonderful that we sponsored a bench.
Under normal circumstances, we would have stayed to chat with Mr. Heston until our welcome had worn out... but these weren't normal circumstances. I was on a mission, and celebrity hobnobbing wasn't going to get in my way.
The sun was setting and we were suddenly torn between finding Virginia and getting more pix of the garden while we still had available light...
Here and there we went, stopping every badged or radio'd person we saw. Our continued inability to find Virginia wasn't helping my nerves any, despite the glass of wine.
I think we saw every square inch of the Wasserman Campus, at least the area around the Villa, at least three times.
We saw many other celebrities during our search, but didn't stop for chatter or fannishness.
One person told us Virginia was wearing a big purple sweater... So we searched for that, and found it... the woman wearing it was, indeed, Virginia, but not Virginia McDowall. Another person said she was wearing black with embroidery on the front. Another said she was in pink. Another said purple, but we ignored that. Someone else suggested waiting for the show to be seated and then asking an usher where Virginia was. At this point, it seemed the best option, so we started to head in the direction of the stage area.
One of the many celebrities we had spotted over the course of the evening was Tom Poston, someone whom Bill and I both admire a great deal (especially Bill!). As we were milling about, trying to wait calming for show time, we spotted Poston again - standing alone at one of the tall tables that were scattered about the quad area.
Like the Schallerts and Mr. Heston, Tom Poston was a wonderful, friendly, outgoing individual. I rather got the impression he would have been happy to chat with us all night if someone hadn't come along and told him it was "time to go." Poston just shooed him away and went right on chatting for another five minutes or so until the intruder once again insisted that they had to be somewhere. We took some pictures, said our goodbyes, and Mr. Poston went on his way.
By now, it was shortly before 9 p.m. and people started gathering for the evening show. We paused at the table near the entrance to the seating area and watched the people pass by. At about 10-til, we went into the bleachers where our ticketed seats were and stood on our toes scanning the crowd, looking for pink, purple, black... Then we moved down to the front of the section to search for an usher.
That's when Tracey spotted us. She recognized Bill first (it seems Mel sent her Bill's web site address), then said "You must be Roc."
I was stunned.
And there was Virginia! Oh happy day! There was much rejoicing.
The show opened with a chorus of children accompanying Nita Whitaker.
Our seats were far from the stage, in the very back section, but Bill did his very best to try and get some pictures.
About half way through the show, I desperately had to use the restroom since I hadn't done so since leaving my mom's place.
Having spent so much time walking around earlier, I knew right where to go - a quick dash across the courtyard, and I would be back before the current speaker was finished... Or so I thought.
As I came out of the restroom, I ran into Virginia and her companion (whose name was pronounced, I believe, Seskata, but I'm unsure of the spelling). We laughed and chatted a wee bit, and Virginia complained that she hadn't seen the display they had made up for her. "I gave them the things," she said, "but I don't know what they did with them."
"Thank you, God," I whispered to myself. Super-Roc to the rescue!
I, of course, having toured the facility quite extensively, knew right where to go and volunteered to show her the way. The two women were delighted and off we went!
It wasn't far... but, unfortunately, when we got there we discovered that they had already dismantled the displays and put them back into storage. I reminded Virginia that she had one of my "business" cards, and told her that Bill had taken several pictures... and that we would be happy to send them to her if she wanted. Her friend said that would be wonderful, made sure Virginia still had the card, and assured me that we would be hearing from them.
I suggested getting back to our seats then, but Virginia had other plans. It seems that although she is to be a resident of the Villa, she hadn't seen any of the rooms yet and wanted to know what her room would look like.
Again, Roc to the rescue. "I'd be happy to give you a tour of the various room layouts if you like..."
Meanwhile, back at the show...
In the end, Keach read the letter himself...
Not knowing what was happening on stage (i found all this out from my husband later), off we ladies went on our exclusive guided tour of the Villa. It was sheer delight. For me, anyway.
Virginia was distressed about the inadequate amount of closet space in the studio room she had chosen... I assured her that, since everything was very modular, making a few changes like turning shelves into closets probably wouldn't be a big issue if she just told the committee what she needed.
We went to the garden and greenhouse area, the various sitting and visiting areas, and saw all of the model rooms at least once. At the end, she wanted another look at a studio room, so we trekked back to the beginning. She still wasn't pleased about the storage situation, and was becoming quite worked up about it, but I did my best to allay her concerns and assured her that it would be best to ask someone on the committee before getting too upset. "I'm sure they'll be happy to work something out for you, really!" (and i'll personally beat them to death with a stick if they don't!)
When all was said and done, Virginia wanted to step back outside and have a cigarette. This was fine by me, as I am a smoker, too, and hadn't had one in quite some time... nerves being as frazzled as they were, I really had the hankerin! It was also a pleasure to be able to offer her a light, and "stand guard" so to speak, since technically, she told me, there was no smoking allowed on the grounds. (I rather think they suspended the rule for the night, or didn't bother enforcing it... there weren't *many* people smoking over the evening, but I had seen a few smokers here and there).
We chatted over our smokes, and Virginia told her companion that she was tired and wanted to go home because she had "a lot to think about with those rooms being so small. There just isn't room for all of my stuff."
Seskata went off to ask the valet for their car, and I walked with Virginia to the driveway. We chatted some more. She wanted to thank us all, very very much, for our devotion to her brother. "He thought very highly of your group," she said, "and I think what you're doing is just wonderful. I just can't thank you enough." I assured her that the pleasure, and honor, was ours.
It was a strange feeling I had then. On the one hand, I had missed the Dedication ceremony, the one event I had specifically come to attend... On the other hand, I had spent some genuine quality time alone (more or less) with Virginia, and felt that the meeting would not soon be forgotten.
Then, bad wife that I am, I remembered my poor husband sitting in the freezing cold probably wondering if I'd drowned myself in the bathroom. I rushed back to the seating area as quickly as I could... and arrived just in time for the finale piece. Sigh.
Bill told me what I'd missed... the video of Elizabeth Taylor from the Rose Garden Dedication, Stacey Keach calling for Virginia... I gave him a quick run-down of what had happened and we left our bleacher seats before the rush of the rest of the crowd.
Bill and I wandered about for bit longer, to see who else we might spot, but by then everyone seemed to be heading for the valet station. Tired and still not fully recovered from the stress, we decided to leave, too.
The ride home should only have taken about an hour... but whatever mess on the freeway had screwed us up on the way in - it was stilling going on on the way out! It took us over three hours to get back to Orange County!