In this guest post San Francisco-based Christina Noyes pays tribute to her hero, Oscar-winning comedian Robin Williams, who changed her life many times. Williams died in a suspected suicide at his home in Tiburon, 20 miles from where Christina lives. He was 63.
Most kids have a cape or a mask and run around pretending that they are Batman or Superman; well this wasn’t the case for me. My super hero wore suspenders.
At the age of 8, I was deeply enamored with an alien called Mork. He was kind, childlike and would get into trouble for not always knowing the right thing to do. He was funny, really funny. He would sit on his head, wear his clothes backwards, talk really fast, and he had a special handshake that took me years to master. Where did this man come from? Planet Ork of course. At the age of 8, I was still mystified by what I saw on TV. Was it real?
When Mork first appeared on Happy Days, it didn’t make sense to me. He was so different from that cast and time period that had been so established. It made so much more sense when he appeared on his own TV show. My brother and I spent a good chunk of our childhood running around with our Mork suspenders and buttons, saying “Nanu Nanu” and repeating silly Mork sayings.
Robin Williams, the actor
As I got older, Mork was no more, but he had become Robin Williams, an actor who touched my heart in The World According to Garp, Dead Poet’s Society, Mrs. Doubtfire, Patch Adams, and my favorite, “Goooooooood Morning Vietnam.” He was no longer just funny. He was really good at acting. He was still funny, but when he slowed down and got that soft sweet voice, he was letting you into his heart. And this is when I loved him the best.
As a teenager, I came to know him quite well, not officially, but in a way that only he could understand. I memorized his funniest monologues from Good Morning Vietnam. Not just memorized, I learned his rhythm, his timing, his multiple voices. I embodied his character. I did this for forensics class. I wasn’t good at debate. No one took me seriously. So when I found out about the division of Humorous Interpretation in forensics class, where students would compete with other students I decided that this was the piece for me.
The day I performed the Good Morning Vietnam monologues, my life changed. People no longer discarded me as the class clown. I was now winning the class trophies. But more importantly, I began to understand Robin Williams on a much deeper level. I understood the way he would go in ten directions at once, how improvisation was his mind exploding onto the world, how fast his brain worked.
Robin Williams, the mentor
At the age of 17, my once childhood hero was no longer a funny alien, but a genius of words and perspectives that my eyes were just opening too. The Good Morning Vietnam monologues then became my audition piece. I landed my first play. Why this is important was that I was a very shy girl or in other words very insecure. I loved to perform, but not in front of my peers. At this point, my life was changing and I was finally beginning to share myself with the world. I was finding my voice.
Later in life, I became a theater teacher in a public school in San Francisco. I didn’t learn much in the credential program. The type of teacher I wanted to be was John Keaton, “O Captain! My Captain.” He truly felt his students and wanted them to feel the emotions of being human and being alive. I titled my class, Expressive Arts. My hero had helped transform me again.
One day in my classroom, I shared two bucket list goals. They weren’t anything grand like jumping out of plane or traveling the world. I simply wanted to see the Aurora Borealis and to meet Robin Williams. Little did I know, I was sharing my dreams with a friend who could actually make the later come true.
Robin Williams, the dream
A few days went by and my friend Peter Sloss magically made it happen. It was top secret: Robin was planning to try out some new material he was working on before he took his show to New York. He was planning to secretly show up at a small hole in the wall theater, The Marsh. He would watch the first act, which was an unknown comedian, and if he liked the audience, he would do a surprise performance. I felt like I had won the lottery!
My husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, came with me. We watched the other comedian do his act. To say the least, I was a bit anxious. I couldn’t sit in my seat. I decided to go to the bathroom and see if I could find Robin. I spotted him at the bar. Instead of being bold I darted to the bathroom. I reapplied my lipstick, took a deep breath and got ready to meet my hero! By the time I made it back out, he was gone. I was devastated. Had he not liked the audience? Had he left the building? Did I lose my chance? Why did I go to the bathroom? Damn!
Disappointedly, I went back to my seat and watched the comedian end his show. At this point, the owner of The Marsh got on stage and announced that Robin Williams was in the house. My heart jumped. There was literally fifty people in the audience, maybe seventy-five. It was small. In these split seconds, I knew that I had to make myself known or I might never get a chance again. What was I thinking? I wasn’t thinking. This was my hero for the past two decades. He was real. He was in front of me, just inches away.
As the crowd’s massive cheers of utter shock slowly quieted, I knew it was now or never. I did it. I shouted out, “I LOVE YOU!” And everything stopped. He looked at me and said, “I love you?” But it was with one of his ridiculous voices. His face was contorted. His eyes were crazy and he repeated with a slur, “I looooooove you.” Robin went on to do a twenty minute improv about how my boyfriend took me on a date, first to Thai Food, brought me here hoping to get lucky, but then his date yells out, “I love you” to some strange man on stage. Robin pointed out that he could be crazy. But of course he did it in the funniest of ways. My eyes were filled with tears because I was laughing so hard.
A once in a lifetime experience. I, Christina Noyes was the focus of Robin Williams’ performance. Multiple times throughout the hour, he would stop his train of thought, look at me and say, “I looooove you” and then go back into his act.
After the show, I was determined to meet him. My friend had told me that there were no backdoors at The Marsh, and that he would have to come out the front door. My boyfriend left to get the car and told me to take my time. I did just that. Slowly the place cleared out. I stood at the bar with some other older crazy lady and nervously chatted with her. I had gone through this moment of meeting him in my head multiple times. I thought maybe I would do the Mork handshake, a little “Nanu Nanu” or even better a quick Good Morning Vietnam! As time ticked by, I started to feel ridiculous standing there like a silly fan. Was he ever coming out? I finally asked the bartender about there not being a backdoor. He laughed and said that there were three backdoors. How did my friend get it wrong? Should I give up? The other woman and I slowly let go of the idea of meeting him.
Walking out the door, I was saying goodbye to a dream. I walked across the street and talked to my boyfriend who was sitting in the car. I was sad, but grateful, but also not wanting to get in the car. And then it happened, Robin walked out the front door. Ha, there were no backdoors! I asked my boyfriend, should I go? I felt ridiculous, but I made myself walk back across the street.
Robin Williams, the super hero
So right there on Valencia Street, in San Francisco, at 11pm at night, I met my hero. He was so kind. He kissed my hand. He spoke with his soft sweet voice. He tried to deflect the attention I was giving him to the other comedian that was with him. At this point, I knew what I needed to do. I needed to thank him for changing my life. I did just that. I shared that pivoting point in high school of Good Morning Vietnam. I walked away feeling on top of the world. My hero now knew that he was my hero.
Years later, I was alerted to two more surprise performances that I luckily attended. But nothing was as small and intimate like my night at The Marsh. He still made me cry with laughter on those nights. The last time I saw Robin was at his performance on Broadway in 2011 in the Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, set amid the American invasion of Iraq.
On occasions, I have taken my son to Robin’s house for Halloween in hopes to see him, but with no luck. For the past two years, my four-year-old daughter and I have been signing, “Prince Ali, Fabulous he, Ali Babwa.” I have to admit, it is difficult to sing it today. As she grows older, I will someday share more of my hero with her. But today, I cry, not tears of happiness, but tears of deep sadness knowing that someone I cherished so much, someone who made such a difference in my life, was so depressed and deeply unhappy. I wish I could have helped him the way he helped me.
I will always be grateful that I didn’t give up, that I walked across that street, and let my hero know that he was my hero.
Christina Noyes is an instructional designer and a digital media specialist. Since the 1990’s, Christina has shared her passion for visual and performing arts by leading workshops for children and families who live in the San Francisco’s Mission District. She blogs here.