how a '90s star saved christmas
Friend of Ricki
Actress Tanna Frederick: Okay, so it’s tough to be an artist. It’s a big huge competitive field, where one can be valedictorian of her University of Iowa Liberal Arts class, move out to Los Angeles and not have enough credentials to score a job at Marie Callender’s or Starbucks. I knew I wanted to act from age seven, that it was my destiny, that it was my raison d’etre—come hell or high water, it was film or bust. Luckily I had a supportive family who knew nothing about show business (thank goodness because if they did, they never would have let me out of my back yard) except that it would be difficult and they were going to support me and my dreams.
I drove out to Los Angeles in my Honda Civic at 20, after college, and slept on distant friend of a friend of a cousin of a friend’s couches or floors. I pounded the pavement, broke as a church mouse, passed out Pepsi samples in parking lots, wore tiny little Barbarella silver outfits that were much too small for me and passed out cigarettes in night clubs, and went to auditions for roles such as the ‘third alien woman on the left’ and didn’t book the role because my nose was too big.It was a full exhausting lifestyle of cockroaches and casting couches and criticism. Such is the life of an artist, and I did not complain then nor do I now because it’s what’s known as ‘paying one’s dues.’
There was a certain stigma I had noticed toward newbies like me, transplants to LA, who ‘hoped to make it in the business’, and often times when I would wait tables on successful other actors they would ask me so often, ‘What do you do?’ (because pretty much every busser, waitress, grocery delivery person and caterer is an aspiring actor). But what always got to me was the reaction of those I waited on when I would say I was ‘an actor.’ There were two common reactions. One was a silent reaction of self pain and preservation I saw in their eyes—details of their own days of being a delivery boy or make-up artist at Bath and Body Works. That pain soon to be covered up by a complete involuntary dismissal of me in an emotional battle of self-preservations and not enough therapy sessions with their psychiatrists, as if to talk to me were to be back there, with the desperation and terror and ramen noodles.
The other reaction, which was few and far between (I’m talking once-a-year kind of exchange) I learned my first year out in the fields, from Sinbad—most famous from his roles in sitcoms and film, as well as a standup comedy career. I was working a kiosk in a Woodland Hills mall at Christmas. It had been a dismal year in Los Angeles, Christmas time had arrived, my huge Czech family in Iowa gathering with yuletide joy and normal, steady paying jobs.
I had gotten a job working for two kiosks from a then-boyfriend. I would switch fourteen hour days from an ink jet refill kiosk, to a CD holder kiosk—a junky contraption which I would pray would work when I would demo it for random customers. The CD holder was the money maker. I was working with three guys, all actors, and when I got to switch off to the CD holders I was quite relieved because there was a chance of the little plastic bit picking up the CD and showing, with great vigor and love, that these holders were the perfect gift for any child who threw their CDs everywhere, to contain the CDs and not get them scratched. The Ink Refill kiosk was certain death… it would actually create anger in the customers to show them how to inject their cartridge with refill ink, and the mere fact that I was trying to sell this refill package with a life long guarantee was evil and sick.So I was much, much happier at the CD kiosk which aroused some, not many, to purchase one for their kid because it was maybe useful or they felt sorry for me, but never involved deep seeded anger like the refillable ink jet kiosk from hell.
On the 23rd of December, I had been working weeks straight, long hours, and had injected millions of shots of printer ink into my epidermis so that my fingertips were now permanently black, making me an incredibly bad rep for the Ink Kit Kiosk. Standing at the CD kiosk, just getting off the phone with my huge family brood in Iowa which I was away from, depressed, down and out, and dismal, terribly sad and homesick and devoid of hope of ever getting anywhere in ‘the biz’, who walks up to my kiosk but Sinbad.With justifiable humiliation mixed with star struck admiration and complete exhaustion I demoed the CD holder options: the small one, that held 50 CDs, and the large one which held 200 CD’s, which would always be pushed on consumers because it got us 15 dollars of hard earned commission.
“Where you from?” he asked politely. “Iowa,” I said tentatively, waiting for the dreadful run of the mill, ‘Oh you’re out here to be an actor’ type response.
“I have family in Iowa.”
Wow. He was nice to me. He treated me like a normal human being.
“I think my kids would really love these. I’ll take ten of them. The big ones.”
Holy cow. I had just made the 150 dollars I needed, finally, to buy my family Christmas presents with… and it was from the best, funniest comedian ever, Sinbad. And he was being so frigging cool to me. I quickly packed up the CD holders before he could change his mind, and thanked him from my heart, told him his kids would love them.
“I’ll help you carry them out!”
They were big plastic suckers, and I had ten huge bags killing my arms but I was walking out of the mall with Sinbad.
“What do your parents do in Iowa?” He asked with genuine interest. I, excited from the huge sale and Sinbad, started telling him how my dad was a pharmacist and every couple of weeks he would send me ‘drug pens’ to keep my spirits up in LA—pens that drug reps would drop off at the pharmacy in lovely flashy colors that said the name of some laxative or anti-inflammatory drug, lovely pens that Dad would patch up in rubber bands and send across the country as care packages. Funny enough, he shared my interest in pens, so I didn’t sound like a complete freak, and we kept talking about pens, and my dad, and how nice Iowa was.
My arms were killing me from the bags, we were almost out to the parking lot, when we passed an upscale office supply store in the mall.
“Could you come in here, just a second, and help me with something?” Sinbad asked.
Of course who wouldn’t go to an office supply store and help Sinbad with something. We went in and he started asking about these gorgeous pens.
“I’m getting my friend one of these for Christmas,” he said. “Which pen do you like best?”
We both studied several pens and their various fancy features, as the store clerk removed them from padded silk locked glass holders as if they were diamonds. We narrowed it down to two pens, and I told him I thought this beautiful streamlined pen was definitely the best of the two. He asked the clerk how much it was, “One fifty”, the clerk happily responded to his celebrity customer. I tried to look normal – but practically choked on my tongue – dollars? One hundred and fifty dollars? I had never, ever known a pen could cost that much.
“You sure you think this is the one?”
“Yes.” I said, acting studiously cool and knowing. “Definitely the one.”
He got two of those pens. It was the most amazing experience I had had to date – that pen was one hundred and fifty dollars. And I chose it for Sinbad. We walked out of the store silently.
“Thank you very much for helping me, it was nice to meet you,” he said, and I handed over the bags to him. Then he handed me one of the pens. “Merry Christmas, hang in there,” he said.
“I can’t –“ I protested. He stopped me.
He left me in the mall, stunned and moved, with a hundred and fifty dollar pen in my hand. For no particular reason at all, nothing except an exchange of words, Sinbad had given me a hundred and fifty dollar pen. To this day, I still have that pen. Twelve years later, seven leads in indie feature films, several awards for stage and film work in Los Angeles, happy and working, that pen has gotten me through ups and downs, rough patches, heart breaks, and glorious successes.
I have never met Sinbad again, but the fact that he gave me that pen, silently, confidently, without anything attached to it, made me feel like someone believed in me and knew I was going to be okay—I could keep going. He’ll never know how much that kind gesture and acknowledgement meant to me and got me through.
Merry Christmas, Sinbad, wherever you are. Thanks for the hope, the kindness, the career—and the pen.
Indie queen Tanna Frederick is currently starring in Henry Jaglom's "Just 45 Minutes from Broadway" with Judd Nelson. She can also be seen at the Edgemar Center for the Arts in Santa Monica starring in "The Rainmaker." Tanna is also founder of Project: Save Our Surf which raises money for various ocean charities and clean water initiatives.