“We are on our final approach to Boston,” the flight attendant announces.
My husband, Bob, is shuffling his newspaper beside me. In the middle seat of an overbooked flight, angling for elbow room on the armrest with my knees pushed into the seat in front me, I remember a different time in air travel.
In the ’70s, when I was a flight attendant for United Airlines, airplanes were half-empty because of government subsidies. There was no need to drag anyone off kicking and screaming. Today, the world is different, and so am I.
Boston breaks through the clouds. A fine city, but we will not be touring today. Instead, we’re driving 60 miles to Manchester, N.H.
Our son, Brett, is onstage there in “Million Dollar Quartet” at the Palace Theater. Bob and I will see four shows — one Friday night, two Saturday and a Father’s Day matinee Sunday — before flying home Monday.
Brett started acting when he was 8 in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” in which he cried in character when Snow White died.
“Mom, I cried real tears,” he said.
That same year he played a surfer dude in a children’s production at Cartersville’s Grand Theater. He wore Levi’s with a Hawaiian shirt.
“Yeah, surf’s up,” he said with a little hip thrust, as if he were on a board.
Brett was born in Newport Beach, Calif., where Bob and I moved as newlyweds. I was a flight attendant based in Los Angeles.
Like most young women who moved to L.A., I wanted to be a movie star. I did some modeling when the apartment complex where we lived made a new brochure. I was wrapped in a towel in the sauna for one shot, wearing a leotard and riding a stationary bike in the second photo, and dressed for tennis with the pro for the back cover.
Nina Blanchard, the famous modeling agent in Los Angeles, thumbed through my portfolio and read my résumé. “You’re a flight attendant? Where do you fly?”
“Honolulu,” I said.
“Why do you want to do this? You already have a great job.” She took off her glasses and ran her fingers through her bleached-blond curls.
“I need to do more. On the airplane, I watch life go by. People get off the airplane and go somewhere. I turn around and fly home.”
She studied me for a second then pushed my portfolio back to me. “These are pictures of an actress. You need to take acting lessons. You can do it all your life.” She wished me luck and added: “You’ll meet people from the industry on your flights. Introduce yourself. You’re already too old to model.”
I was 28.
I enrolled in the University of California, Irvine, to pursue a degree in drama. Ten years older than most students, I was closer to the age of my professors.
I played a nurse in a student film at the University of Southern California: “Boy With Wings,” filmed at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. I appeared in “Sweet Charity” at the Westminster Playhouse with two retired Las Vegas showgirls, who taught me a lot about dance and instructed me to just “sell it.”
I almost sold it on one audition.
As I approached a small bungalow in Hollywood for the audition, a pretty blonde raced past me.
“Don’t go in there,” she said.
Was she talking to me?
A handsome man answered the door of the bungalow, and we exchanged pleasantries in the living room. “You’ll play a woman who’s getting older and losing her looks. She’s depressed, looking at herself in the mirror,” he said. “Come in the bathroom. Let me see what you can do.”
The director stood next to me as I frowned into the mirror and brushed my hair forward. I squinted and pulled back my face with my hands, turning side to side. I gave a little sigh and shot a bird at the mirror.
“Good. Come back into the living room. We need to talk about a few other things.”
He sat down next to me on the couch and told me the film had nudity. When I didn’t object, he asked me to take off my blouse. I did.
“Would you mind taking off your bra? I need to see your breasts.”
I took off my bra and sat there topless. He smiled fiendishly. I looked at his lap, saw his erection and panicked.
I jumped up, grabbing my shirt for cover. As I ran out the door, buttoning my shirt while holding my bra, I saw a young girl coming up the walk.
“Don’t go in there,” I warned.
The industry has a seedy side. When Brett in college started auditioning for independent filmmakers in Atlanta, I advised him not to go on auditions in private houses alone.
The pinnacle of my acting career was when I was an extra getting union wages on the TV show “Archie Bunker’s Place,” starring Carroll O’Connor at CBS Studios.
“Mr. O’Connor, I have always admired your work,” I said when I saw an opening. He shook my hand warmly and walked away.
“What are you doing?” the director said, running over. “You don’t talk to the star. You are supposed to be a professional. If everyone ogled the star, we wouldn’t get anything done.”
The director later apologized, but CBS never called me back. I had an 18-month-old baby, Shayne, at home, and my baby-sitter made more money than I did that day.
I had three children in seven years, and I retired from flying and acting to stay home as a full-time mom. We moved across the country when Bob took a job in Cartersville.
The town has a vibrant community theater with the Pumphouse Players and the Grand Theater. I started acting again. My director needed a boy to play a 12-year-old in “Lost in Yonkers.” My influence on Brett’s career began. “My 9-year-old son can do it.”
Brett, my youngest, born when I was 39, played my grandson.
He took piano lessons, as did his two older sisters, Shayne and Kristy, and they all performed at the local theater. As a high school senior, Brett was leading man Tony in “West Side Story,” and Bob appeared alongside him as Lieutenant Shrank.
My daughters gave up the stage, but Brett took his University of Georgia drama degree to New York to make it a career.
He learned to play guitar as a teenager when he wanted a break from the piano. I bought him his first electric Squier by Fender, and he signed up for lessons with a musician who sometimes forgot to show up. As Brett became more proficient, he sold the beginner Squier and purchased a Fender Stratocaster in deep purple.
He later added acoustic and bass guitars to his collection, and he is the lead singer in a new band.
Brett recently toured the country as the lead vocalist in “Rockin’ Road to Dublin,” an original extravaganza complete with Irish river dancers, that we hope makes it to Broadway. Bob and I saw that show in Sacramento for Brett’s birthday, then in Austin, Macon, Montgomery and Fort Lauderdale.
In June, Brett had a four-week engagement of “Million Dollar Quartet” in New Hampshire. He called me when he got the part.
“Mom, Carl Perkins was a guitar virtuoso. He played lead guitar for all his music. I had to learn about 23 songs, not to mention all the dialogue,” he said. Brett agreed to cut his hair for the part and got to play the guitar solos for Elvis and Johnny Cash as well as his character, Perkins.
Unless you are a musician or a music lover, you might not remember Carl Perkins, who wrote “Blue Suede Shoes” but never enjoyed the fame Elvis did for the song.
People think Elvis wrote it. The drama plays out onstage in “Million Dollar Quartet” — Perkins, Elvis, Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis — with Brett as Perkins playing “Blue Suede Shoes” on a Les Paul electric guitar.
While in Manchester, we listened to a rough cut of Brett’s new album, played through our rental car’s speakers from a file on his phone. “You know the songs, but I have changed some of the arrangements, adding harmony and a piano.”
While I listen to the familiar tunes, I was reminded of the stages where he played them — Nashville, Austin, New Orleans, Cartersville.
Brett wrote “Something to Believe In,” and tears filled my eyes as it played.
“Brett, that is beautiful. I am so proud of you.”
“Mom, are you crying?”
“Yes. It’s so beautiful, it touches my heart.”
At the show that night, I watched Brett play the guitar behind his head and do a little dance, showboating Jimi Hendrix style.
When the quartet actors gathered around a piano to harmonize on “Peace in the Valley” in perfect pitch, I started to cry, remembering the song my mother loved so much.
“Are you crying?” Bob asked.
“Yes.” I laughed as the spell was broken, but that is what theater and music do. They take you to a place in your mind as nothing else can.
After the show, we went for dinner and drinks.
“Mother cried during your performance,” Bob said.
“Mom, you cried again?” Brett chided.
“Yes, son, I cried twice today, for cryin’ out loud.”
We laughed. It was so good to spend time with Brett.
I thought of a night two years before when Brett cried in frustration over his career in New York. He had been booed off the stage at the Apollo Theater’s amateur night. His band consisted of one other player, his roommate, Damian.
They moved to New York together after college. Brett played guitar and keyboard, and Damian, a rapper, played drums, keyboard and harmonica.
They wrote their songs and recorded them on video, marketing themselves online. They sold T-shirts, buttons and CDs at their concerts and busked on the subway until police chased them off.
Bob and I flew in to see them play the Apollo. The house was packed, and Brett and Damian’s band, Sham, came on last.
Brett’s hair was long and curly, and he wore a suit. Damian’s hair was cut short, and he also wore a suit. It took a few minutes to plug in and get set after they walked onstage.
They started to play a hard-rock original that Damian wrote with a long instrumental introduction. The members of the Apollo backup band looked at one another and shook their heads. Soon, the clown came onstage, blowing his horn and dancing them off while the crowd booed.
Brett and Damian were stoic outside as audience members shook their hands. One person thought they sounded good and should have been given the chance to finish their song.
“Thanks, man,” Brett said as he handed him his business card. “We play the Bitter End tomorrow night. Come see us.”
The Bitter End is a small, dirty, famous bar in Greenwich Village where Carole King, Bob Dylan and other great musicians played. Brett and Damian have a one-hour slot at 10 p.m.
Brett came out wearing the signature black suit I bought him at Macy’s for his New York look.
They opened with “Gotta Get a Cat,” a song Brett wrote about the mouse problem in their apartment.
“We were booed off the stage at the Apollo Theater last night. Can you believe that?” Damian said before vowing to return. The crowd loved it.
Over whiskey and chocolate cake at the crowded Hilton lobby bar with me and Bob later that night, Brett broke down and cried.
“Mom, why does New York have to be so hard?” he said. “I went to three callbacks for ‘One Man, Two Guvnors,’ and I didn’t get the part. Now the Apollo boos me off the stage, and I got to work dinner at the Spice Market tomorrow night. New York is so hard.”
“Listen, son, suck it up,” Bob said.
Brett cried more as I drank my martini.
In the quiet of our room on the 11th floor, Brett said he was OK. He picked up his acoustic guitar, played softly and sang his newest song. Bob and I were mesmerized by his talent.
“Son, remember the song ‘New York, New York’? ‘If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere,’” I said.
Brett smiled and kept singing.
“The Apollo Theater just isn’t ready for your sound, son. They always pick someone to boo off the stage. It is part of their schtick. Last night it was you,” I said. “Don’t feel bad. You are in good company. James Brown was booed off that stage the first time he played there too, but he came back and owned the place. Hey, you got booed off the stage, but you still played the Apollo Theater. How many people can say that?”
That night in Manhattan came back to me when I heard Elvis talk to Sam Phillips in “Million Dollar Quartet.”
“The Colonel had me open for Shecky Greene, and they booed me off the stage every night. I am never playing Vegas again,” Elvis said. Knowing his Vegas future, the audience laughed.
Elvis persevered, and so will Brett.
“How does it feel to have your son follow in your footsteps?” Bob’s brother asked me. “He looks just like you. It’s like watching you on stage again.”
I realized I went from the stage to stage mom. I had not considered my influence on Brett’s choice of the stage until I saw a televised interview he did for “Rockin’ Road to Dublin.”
“My mom played piano and sang at music parties she hosted in our home in California. There was always music around,” Brett said when asked how he got into musical theater. “When we moved to Georgia, my room was in the basement, and that’s where the piano was. Mom came down to practice in my room, and she would sing Patsy Cline songs so passionately. Sometimes she would open the basement door from the kitchen and sing loudly ‘House of the Rising Sun.’ It echoed down the stairwell.”
Brett’s interest in the stage had seemed to evolve organically. The whole family loved the theater.
“Don’t give yourself too much credit,” Bob said. “Kids choose their paths for many reasons. There are plenty of doctors whose children did not pursue medicine.”
Brett could have been a doctor, but he chose acting.
At 28, the age I started, he has endured longer than I did, and he has had more success.
How long before he tires of being the starving artist who is only as good as his last show, having to pay rent by waiting tables between gigs? He rides million-dollar tour buses across the country, which sounds glamorous until you realize that he falls off his bunk when the bus rounds a curve.
He’s a troubadour who knows the next ride will be smoother because he has something to believe in: himself.
Judy Benowitz (JudyBenowitz.com) is a freelance writer in Cartersville with a master’s in professional writing from Kennesaw State. She is writing a memoir, “Highway 11.” Brett Benowitz (BrettBenowitz.com), who lives in Brooklyn, is appearing at the Charleston (S.C.) Music Hall in “The Charleston Christmas Special” from Dec. 8 to 23.