“A recovering alcoholic walks into a hotel bar…”
You may be surprised on how this story ends. I’m the recovering alcoholic — that’s not a surprise to most of my readers — yet soon I will be scouting locations for my new web series, Hotel Bar. No worries, I won’t be drinking anything that contains alcohol during my site visits, but I will ultimately tell a story or two about a subject I know about, bars, bartenders, and the stories they hear.
The series of stories in Hotel Bar are a Twilight Zone-inspired treatment of St. Peter and the Pearly Gates and a riff on the traditional afterlife, the Roman Catholic view of heaven, hell, and limbo. Instead of an angel at the Gates of Heaven, who reviews the big book record of an individual’s life and decides the newly-dead person’s eternal destination, it’s a chatty bartender in a non-descript hotel bar. It’s a satirical take on how our lives are judged.
Think of classic films like Heaven Can Wait (a film by Warren Beatty and Buck Henry) and Defending Your Life (a film by Albert Brooks). Unsuspecting travelers, who have just died, believe they are on a journey somewhere and have temporarily stopped off at this hotel and bar for a drink and some conversation before they are on their way. Little do they know the innocent conversation they are about to have with a friendly bartender will determine their fate for eternity.
A Storyteller’s Resume (or My Tavern Drunk-a-Logue)
As a new member of the Madison Independent Filmmakers and a novice screenwriter — who aspires to be a showrunner — I will learn from talented, experienced, filmmaking colleagues who are directors, producers, actors, writers, composers, sound and camerapersons, script supervisors, hair, makeup, and props crafts people, location scouts, on-and-on, who will collaborate and mentor me, while making Hotel Bar come to life.
What I bring to the project is a passion for films. I’m a lifelong cinephile and storyteller. In addition, I’m a recovering Catholic, who grew up memorizing the Baltimore Catechism, which described the one true path to heaven. Through the years, my personal beliefs have evolved into agnosticism, a philosophical system that for me, aligns and complements existentialism, yet I still consider myself to be a spiritual person — a subject for another essay.
As a blogger, memoirist, and activist-essayist, I often write and comment on the culture and my interaction or experience with it. Over the years, I’ve written and performed stand-up comedy, spoken word monologues, and wrote and/or produced short plays and monologue performances. I like to find universal themes in my personal experience and write about it with a degree of humor and poignancy.
Another item from my resume about this subject, I grew up as a baby boomer in Racine, Wisconsin. Much like it’s neighbor to the north, Milwaukee, taverns were found on the corners in most neighborhoods, gathering places for the working-class, the destination for a Friday night fish fry, and a beer or boilermaker at the end the work week. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, my parents would often hang out at their favorite bar with friends on Saturday night, and often on Sundays, after church, yes, St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, we’d all go to the bar. Dad and Mom would bribe us restless kids with orange soda, potato chips, and quarters for the pinball bowling machine.
I also spent time as a child in my great-uncle, Joe Flanigan’s, Club 1100, which was kitty-corner from St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, our parish. Uncle Joe required a zoning variance for the tavern since bars were not to be approved too close to churches for fear that people would never make it to church, but go to the bar instead. Joe received the variance, because the Catholic priests liked to cross the street after Mass and tip a few beers, a brandy, or Irish whiskey with Uncle Joe. We often laughed, that Joe heard the priest’s confessions!
As a young adult, I spent time on bar stools and dance floors, in the beer bars in Kenosha County, when you could drink beer at the age of 18, until the law changed, partially due to the number of drunk driving accidents and deaths of young people travelling between county lines. When I married, my husband, Frank and I, would “double-date” with my parents and go out for dinner and “hoist a few.” Often, we’d return to my parent’s house, continue to drink and talk most of the night. We called those evenings our “cracker-barrels” because we’d have a pot of cheese and crackers to snack on between beers and conversation.
Years later, I separated from Frank, and came out as a lesbian. As was common in the late 1970’s, gay bars and discos were destinations and meeting places for our community. I experienced what could only be described as my lesbian adolescence, once or twice a week, drinking and dancing (and more) at one or more of Madison’s gay-friendly bars, The Back Door, Lysistrata, Going My Way, and the Washington Hotel. Years later other bars, restaurants and gathering places filled in the gaps. And then, I got sober 30 years ago when I realized I had already consumed my lifetime allotment of alcohol and because of a genetic predisposition to alcoholism on both maternal and paternal sides of the family, I decided to quit.
Lastly, during my working career, I’ve spent some time traveling, often staying in luxury hotels, but sometimes in more nondescript, medium-priced or economy hotels or motels, which usually featured a restaurant, business office, and a bar, usually empty, with a décor that lacked imagination. The bartender however was a friendly, welcoming person, willing to engage in a little conversation with a lonely traveler.
The Hotel Bar as the Pearly Gates
Like the name of my blog, Mixed Metaphors, Oh My! I like to play with words and concepts. During the past few years of partisan politics, hate, intolerance, and misogyny emanating from the conservative right, Evangelical Christians, and hate groups, most recently during Trump’s administration, it has become increasingly clear to me that there’s a disconnect and dishonesty between how some people purport to live their lives, and how in fact they practice them. There’s an increasing degree of hypocrisy.
If you believe in a heaven, hell, and limbo, this provides a challenge for St. Peter, or whoever is the gatekeeper for the hereafter. It will require someone who has good people skills, and the ability to chat and size someone up and get a quick and accurate take on their character. In my view, who better than a bartender. The ideal location, a hotel bar, where the displaced traveler seeks a little respite and conversation with a friendly stranger.
The web series will tell a single story in each episode. I envision a series of diverse characters with stories that feature people from all walks of life, ages, and religious beliefs or skepticism. Each of the travelers, will enter the bar and are greeted by the bartender. They’re a little confused about where they are or how they arrived at this hotel. The bartender reassures them that traveling sometimes does that, creates a kind of jetlag, or displacement by spending too much time on the road. They seem reassured. He asks if they want a drink or soda. He offers some snacks, like pretzels or nuts.
It takes place in the kind of bar you’d expect in an economy-priced hotel or motel chain. The time is present day. The name of the bar is the Pearly Gates. It’s staffed by a single bartender on a slow night. The bar is empty, though it looks like someone may have just left because the bartender is cleaning up the glasses and wiping down the bar. There’s music playing in the background. The bar is dark with some candles burning (red glass votives, the kind you might find in a church). There are decorative wooden signs hanging with homilies and humorous sayings like “Do onto others, before they do onto you!”
The bartender gets them talking about their lives, their regrets, dreams, and unfulfilled aspirations. Maybe an amends that they wish they had a made. An accomplishment or something they’re most proud of. After some conversation, the traveler excuses themselves for the restroom. As they leave, the bartender ponders for a moment then selects a button under the bar and presses it. The traveler opens the door, and enters. The door closes behind them and a hologram, or flashing or neon sign appears, “Welcome to the Afterlife.” They find themselves in an elevator. A disembodied voice says either “Going up,” “Going down,” or “This elevator is temporarily out of service.”
One of the concepts I’m considering, based on feedback from others, is that the series may employ an interactive feature, where viewers can cast their vote on whether the traveler’s destination is heaven, hell, or limbo, and at the beginning of a new episode one learns the outcome. Between each traveler, the bartender, cleans up the glasses, wipes down the bar and greets the next patron, repeating the cycle until the janitor, the only other reoccurring character, enters the bar, sweeping the floor, commenting to St. Peter, “Just another day in Paradise!” St. Peter pours a beer for the janitor, smiles, as they toast each other. “Let’s drink to that!”
For me, I need to take the next steps, develop my characters (I already have a list), begin writing the pilot, and collect stories for a few episodes. I’m grateful that talented, experienced, filmmakers have volunteered to collaborate with me on this project. I need to organize our initial planning and production meetings, create a crowdfunding source to help support the project. Like many creative people, I spend a lot of time in the procrastination and initiation stage of a new project. For people who’ve raised their hands to work with me, be patient. I will need a little nudge, yet I’m ready to take the leap, “come hell or high water,” as the saying goes!
Related Reading from Mixed Metaphors, Oh My!