by Maria Lagalante Schulz
For my birthday this year, my family told me to pick any restaurant I wanted to go to so that we could celebrate. So where did we go? I chose Johnny Rockets. Besides the great burgers and sandwiches, milkshakes and root beer floats, they have something you can’t find just anywhere: live entertainment.
Whenever I hear Donna Summer sing the slow opening lines of “Last dance,” I watch with anticipation and glee as the teenage waiters and waitresses run to get on a chorus line. It isn’t long until Donna’s singing and the teenagers are singing and dancing too.
Now since I enjoy minor discomfort almost as much as a burger and onion rings, I’m always delighted when there is a group of teenagers that look bored, frightened, and/or disturbed to be a part of this. Some of them may be mouthing the lyrics while others are doing the hand jive with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm.
But as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter. I love watching a group of downtrodden teenagers singing for the man almost as much as I enjoy watching a group of inspired Broadway hopefuls belting out tunes from Wicked and Les Miserables.
I am so used to teenagers looking mortified and unhappy while they sing and dance that I was amazed when we stopped into Ellen’s Stardust Diner in the heart of the theater district in Manhattan. While we waited to be served and to have our order taken, one of the waitresses jumped up on the table and belted out Respect by Aretha Franklin.
She was dancing in her poodle skirt, sashaying and grooving, and she sounded so good that I thought she must be lip-synching to the original. But no, she was just blessed with real talent, stage presence, and a love of the spotlight. I’d say she was a ham, but that’s an understatement—she was more like the whole pig.
Once she finished, there was a flurry of orders taken before one of the waiters jumped up in a booth and started singing “Once You Have Found Her, Never Let Her Go,” from South Pacific. He was really amazing, but I was also hungry. I wondered where our waiter was, and then realized when Mr. South Pacific finished singing and came to our table, that once I had found him, I had better never let him go.
Some people weren’t into all the singing and dancing, and were getting cranky waiting for their food. Well, what do you expect? This wasn’t Johnny Rockets, after all.
My early love of singing was nourished by the existence of the band in my basement, New York’s Unemployed. My brother Jude and his friends, Jerry, Gary and Mike were always practicing for their next big gig. One night, they were recording Mott the Hoople’s All The Young Dudes and they realized that they needed a backup singer because Mike’s voice, which was kind of high, wasn’t high enough.
Chris usually got called in for this kind of thing. His early recording of Jim Dandy to the Rescue earned him a place in their hearts forever. So, when they came up and interrupted our made-for-TV movie, I was sure they would take Chris away and my mother and I could go back to our show.
“Chris, we need you,” Jude said.
Now that it was quiet, we could finally hear Sally Field in Sybil. She was up to about her 10th personality, and I was riveted. So riveted that I didn’t hear Jude when he said, “Maria, we need you too.”
I tore myself away from Sybil’s multiple personalities and followed Jude and Chris to the basement. For the next hour, I sang “All the young dudes/carry the news/boogaloo dudes/carry the news.”
To this day, I still don’t know what that means. But I do know that I enjoyed myself and would’ve liked to combine my love of music with my future jobs.
I thought I might have gotten my chance when I got a job at the Sizzler Family Steakhouse. I would have been delighted if they let me use the microphone for singing such rousing songs as “Respect” during lulls in the service or even “Dominic The Donkey” during the Christmas season.
It would have been a lot more fun than putting silverware into napkins and bundling it for hours on end, making iced tea and chocolate pudding, cleaning the salad bar or washing down the counters for the millionth time. My co-counter girl, Ann, used to call me the Sizzler Sinatra because I didn’t just say my orders, I sang them.
In my head, there were many compelling reasons to let me wow the crowd with my talent. I was so bored that I was sure I was ready, willing and able to amaze and entertain them, if only they’d let me. But no, the managers and owners just wanted me to use the microphone for ORDERS.
I really think my talents would have been put to better use if I’d been singing “Think” by Aretha Franklin. Like, when someone was browbeating me because we were out of Chopped Sirloin Steak or Baked Scrod, I could grab the microphone and start singing while my fellow counter girls sang backup:
You better think (think) think about what you’re trying to do to me
Yeah, think (think, think), let your mind go, let yourself be free
Oh freedom (freedom), freedom (freedom), freedom, yeah freedom
Freedom (freedom), freedom (freedom), freedom, ooh freedom
You need me (need me) and I need you (don’t you know)
Without each other there ain’t nothing people can do
Instead, night after night, I had to say things like “one Malibu Chicken, extra swiss, one baked potato, extra sour cream, one Sirloin steak, rare. The customer asks that you please make sure that’s rare.”
I would look into the kitchen at the cooks, and there was Gene, engulfed in flames (and he wasn’t the only one). Since Gene’s hygiene was questionable, I thought it was better to have high heat directed at any food he touched, but I realized that “rare” was not going to happen to that Sirloin steak, or any steak, while he was cooking.
This would turn the food buying public inside out with hunger-induced rage. For once I was very glad not to be working as a waitress, who got to make twice what I did thanks to the magic of tips. Yes, I was a lowly, salaried counter girl, but my customer interaction was limited to that moment in time when the hungry masses were still living in hope, instead of dining in despair.
The only way to assuage most of the angry hordes was to give them free food. Usually, this would involve one of our managers. Barely out of their teens, acne-ridden and not really blessed with people skills, our managers would often get the customers even angrier with exchanges that went like this:
“So I hear you’re not happy with your steak.” –Billy the manager
“It’s burnt to a crisp! I can’t eat that.”—Customer
“Well what do you want me to do about it?”—Billy
“I’d like a new steak.”—Customer
Billy scratched his head. “But you ate half of this one.”
“I took two bites. It’s tougher than a hockey puck.”
“Do you like hockey pucks? Because there’s more than 2 bites missing,” Billy replied.
Since the $3 wholesale for the steak wasn’t coming out of his pocket and the customer was becoming apoplectic, Billy would give it to them.
He returned to the counter laughing. “See how I made that customer work for their new steak?”
I nodded. “But it was really burnt. Why’d you give him such a hard time?”
Billy shrugged. “Slow night,” he said. We heard a WHOOOSH from the kitchen and looked back to see flames engulfing the customer’s new steak. “Things should pick up once we serve this,” Billy said, as he chuckled and hid in the back office.
I think that Billy would have been much more popular if he’d been out there, singing and dancing while he explained why the steaks were burnt beyond recognition. But Billy’s strengths lay in his magic act—the ability to mostly disappear whenever there was a problem.
I never did get to sing at The Sizzler, although I thought about it when I knocked on the owner’s office door to tell him that I was quitting. I wanted to grab the microphone and sing “All my bags are packed/I’m ready to go/I’m standing here outside your door/hate to wake you up to say goodbye…”
Instead, I just poked my head in and said: “I quit. Saturday’s my last day.”
He didn’t cry, but at least he didn’t applaud either.
I finally got my big break as a singer when my brother’s band, Pee Wee Sweet, needed a backup replacement. My brother Chris, my cousin Tommy, and friend Mike had brought in a girl who was supposed to sing a solo in Aerosmith’s Big Ten Inch, and backup vocals on School’s Out for Summer.
Unfortunately, on the day of the show, the girl was home sick with mononucleosis.
Now that my moment had arrived, I realized in a panic that there was no way I was going to get up there and sing by myself. Although desperation made Chris, Tommy and Mike my biggest supporters, my brother realized that even as a backup, I needed backup. My brother recruited one of our classmates to sing with me on School’s Out for Summer and ditched the solo for a female lead altogether.
Pam loved being on stage. She was very outgoing and pretty. Unfortunately, she couldn’t sing or dance. Pam tried to teach me everything she knew about being confident, having stage presence, and looking good for an audience in the 45 minutes we had to practice while I fought off heart palpitations.
Up to this point, my only singing experience had featured me in the last row of the Folk Group, singing such rousing hits as Shout to the Highest Mountain, She Will Show us the Promised One, One Tin Soldier Rides Away and I’m Getting’ Nuttin for Christmas.
Folk Group was great because no one could really hear me, so no one could say I wasn’t any good. Meanwhile, I got to sing with my friends and put on skits for nursing homes and children’s hospitals.
Sometimes those visits were not a lot of fun. Once, when we went to St. Mary’s Children’s Hospital to sing, we got to meet some of the patients. One little boy had been in a terrible train accident, and you could see all the way through his skull.
I was amazed that I was still conscious at this point, since reading about a fictional character getting her leg bitten off in Jaws had knocked me right out. I tried to focus on singing and making the kids smile.
As my friends and I sang “Jingle Bell, Jingle Bell, Jingle Bell Rock,” we danced and swayed and clapped. When we got to “Dancing and a-prancing in the Jingle Bell Square/In the Frosty Air,” we suddenly heard a loud crash.
The entire Folk Group continued to sing and sway while we looked over our shoulders to see Mrs. McGrath dragging our fellow singer, Kim, off the stage before she started to throw up.
I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to faint this time, but vomiting was not out of the question.
When we finally got our cue to come on stage, I pushed myself out there. Despite the fact that I was suffering from the worst case of stage fright known to mankind, I sang. I also tried to keep up with Pam’s bizarre dance moves. It was the longest three minutes of my life. So what was my favorite part of the afternoon? The minute I ran off stage.
Perhaps a career as the next Janis Joplin wasn’t going to work out for me after all.
It’s too bad I was so shy. I spent most of my high school life yelling out funny things from the back of the room but being petrified if I was asked to come up front and share my thoughts with the crowd.
I like to think things would be different now, if had the chance. In fact, I couldn’t help but notice the last few times that I was at Johnny Rockets that there was an older waitress working there. She leads the teenagers out, dances by their sides, and makes them all laugh and smile. She laughs a lot and never messes up any of the orders.
I wonder if they’re hiring.
Ah, steak. I learned to really love it well done thanks to the culinary geniuses running the grill at the Sizzler. However, once I left there and got to taste steak that wasn’t charred more than a Mafia murder victim, I started enjoying grilling steaks to medium rare perfection. Here’s a London Broil recipe that my family always enjoys.
½ cup Italian salad dressing
¼ cup lemon juice
½ cup Worcestershire sauce
¼ cup Heinz 57 sauce
¼ tsp onion powder
¼ tsp garlic powder
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
¼ tsp kosher salt
1 tsp. Italian seasonings
1 tsp. parsley
1 tsp. basil
¼ tsp. lemon pepper
1 ½ pound London Broil (or flank steak)
Rub garlic powder, onion powder and Kosher salt into meat on both sides. Mix the other ingredients together and pour over the meat. Allow to marinade for a couple of hours or overnight if possible (if you’re in a rush, this still tastes good if you’ve only got ½ hour).
When you’re ready to grill, heat up your barbecue to about 450 degrees. Place the steak on the grill and turn the heat down to low for about 9-10 minutes per side. After about 20 minutes, pull the meat off the grill and serve with fresh mashed potatoes and green beans. Yum!
Got a steak recipe or funny story you’d like to share? Leave a comment and tell it to all us Hungry Lifers (now don’t be shy).