I added a Theater major halfway through my undergraduate career at the University of Virginia. (I was already majoring in History.) When I graduated in 1976, I worked for several years as a journeyman actor. I did stints of dinner theater and children's theater, I did summer outdoor drama, and I even had bit parts in a couple of films. And like most actors, in between jobs I usually worked as a waiter or bartender.
Except for one summer in south Florida.
It was 1978. I had just finished a gig in Miami Beach at the Marco Polo hotel's experiment with dinner theater, playing in a British farce called, "Move Over, Mrs. Markham." Instead of opting for my usual interim job as a waiter in Key West, I answered an ad for a delivery position ... with a singing telegram company.
A brief sidebar: I'm sure you've heard the joke about the guy who ran away to join the circus. The next year, when the circus came back to his home town again, his friends saw him bringing up the rear of the circus parade, cleaning up after the elephants. His friends asked him if he wouldn't rather leave the circus and come back home again. He replied, "What, and give up show business???"
It was like that.
Every night I would load up the car with props and t-shirts and flowers, suit up in my red circus ringmaster jacket and black silk top hat, and deliver birthday wishes in song to usually unsuspecting victims, clearing about five bucks per telegram, plus tips.
Just like pizza delivery guys, I got my share of phony delivery calls. One night I was sure I had gotten yet another one. I was handed a request from someone in California to deliver a telegram to one "Elizabeth Taylor" who was staying incognito at one of Miami's more luxurious hotels. I was given the suite number and the name under which she was supposedly registered. I was sure it was another prank call, but ... one never knew for sure, and if you assumed the worst and failed to deliver a telegram that turned out to be legit, it would cost you your job.
So I went.
I knocked on the door of the suite, which was answered by a large scary-looking guy and a woman who looked like the classic Hollywood librarian. I told them that I was there to deliver a singing birthday telegram to a "Jane Doe" who was actually Elizabeth Taylor. I was actually getting ready to apologize for intruding and leave as quickly as possible when the woman asked me who the sender was. I told her, she asked me to wait there for a moment, and she left for an interior room, while I waited in uncomfortable silence with the large scary guy.
After about ten minutes -- the longest, slowest ten minutes I can remember -- the woman came back out and told me that Miss Taylor would receive me now. I just about lost it. I went into the suite, and there she was. Elizabeth Taylor.
She would have been in her mid forties. She really did have violet eyes. Blue so dark it was almost indigo, with just a hint of underlying red to take it into violet. I was momentarily dumbstruck. She was wearing a white dress and heaven only knows how many thousands of dollars of diamonds on her ears and fingers. I did my schtick, sang the stupid song, and gave her a rose. She was a delightful audience. She was polite and mirthful and applauded generously at the end. I did the deep bow with which I usually ended the performance, and left the room. As I was heading out the door to the hall, which was being opened by the scary guy -- I'm sure it was his job to make certain that I left -- the other woman stopped me and gave me a very, very generous tip.
I know that much has been made of Miss Taylor's personal life and choices, her marriages and her friendship with Michael Jackson, and blah blah blah. But she was one of the first to raise her voice for AIDS awareness, and I will always remember that night, with her alone with me in a hotel suite, her eyes sparkling as I sang this terrible TGI Friday's-worthy birthday song. She was gracious and charming and absolutely delightful to me, and I mourn her passing.