Jewish Family Service Notes: Through an “extra’s” lens

By: Roz Antoun, Director

Come along, take a stroll with me, to a hotel in the Catskills of Sullivan County, in its heyday. A time when women of this ‘50s era wore girdles and petticoats, A-line dresses and skirted bathing suits; gents in high waist, pleated pants, thin ties and black/white wingtips made fashion statements. Hairstyles of Hollywood stars, like Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor were the height of stylishness; hair was kept close to the head with a flat crown and curls/waves were concentrated around mid-length. Long hair, swept into an “updo” was romantic and gorgeous. Aspiring middle-class housewives frequented beauty salons for those looks.
So, what’s my point and what does it have to do with Jewish Family Service. A month ago, I answered the phone at my Jewish Federation office, and on the line was a fellow from the casting company of the two time Golden Globe winning show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” of Amazon Originals notoriety. Sima Auerbach, director of the Jewish Federation, spoke to him about their need for Mah Jongg players and within a few minutes she and I compiled a list of dozens of experienced Mah Jongg players, sent out emails to them asking if they would like to apply to be “extra’s” for the TV series being shot in Deposit. Some of us did apply, got hired as the Mah Jongg bubbies, and off we went to be fitted for 1950s period clothing and onto the set. To clarify my purpose in writing this piece, I must explain that my point is not to describe the characters or plot or share trade secrets. If any of you are chomping at the bit for more details about the show, the show’s website is filled with tons of information about the actors, the plot and what to expect in the coming season. As the participant-observer that I was for three days as an “extra” my experiences were very personal and also speak to some universal themes in our society today. That is what I want to tell you about.
The work day began with bus transportation from Binghamton University at 7:10 am to Scott’s on Oquaga Lake in Deposit. Upon arrival: off the bus, beeline to “holding” for pay stub paperwork, next onto wardrobe where my bubbie clothes, numbered, sorted and ready for me were assembled amongst hundreds of other people’s costumes. My own clothes off, 50’s clothes on – red, white and blue striped pedal pushers on, resembling the canvass of wooden framed folding beach chairs that my parents schlepped to Jones Beach. Next to makeup and hair, then back to wardrobe for my jewelry, a flowered pin, stretchy bangle bracelet and clip on earrings (ouch!). No detail overlooked for this period production, including the perfect cap and insistence that I not wear my glasses because they were not of a ‘50s style. Sorry, but I just didn’t keep those cats eye glasses from my youth, so I managed to walk back and forth on set at the lake front in a haze of nearsighted confusion (oy vey!).
What seemed like organized chaos to me I’m sure was a well-oiled machine churning through production of the television show. It was fascinating to see people running here and there, listening through ear pieces, speaking into personal microphones, leading actors to their locations, shushing people while “rolling and action” was happening, with each department doing its thing 12 to 14 hours or more per day to recreate a ‘50s Catskill mountain resort, where Midge Maisel, housewife turned standup comedian, began her career bargaining for spots in the limelight with homemade briskets.
While my makeup was being applied and my hair being curled and sprayed, I had the time to do some interviews with both the local people hired from the Binghamton region and also the SAG-AFTRA union actors from NYC. Emily, a beautiful young woman told me that she was a first timer and that this “was magical. Looking down the line of makeup and hair designers and appreciating their ability to transform people was a cool experience.”
Alberto, a makeup artist, said, “I love the work and being with this show. Meeting new people is great.” A number of the artists commented that they loved the greenery of the mountains; such a lovely break from NYC. Another artist said, “I don’t get involved with scripts because I want to go home, watch the show and be surprised by the plot.” Some talked about being ready to go back home after being on this job for two weeks. Adam Auslander, whose home is in Westchester, talked about this acting job as a wonderful working vacation in a beautiful area; couldn’t ask for more, as his transportation, housing and meals were provided for two weeks and that Scott’s was perfectly reminiscent of hotels of their time.
One woman shared with me that she is turning 60 next year and is on a quest to have 60 new adventures to commemorate that milestone, hence her applying for this show. Dick, who also had a role in "Liebestraum" that was filmed in Binghamton a number of years ago, had a blast doing this show and although he worked like a dog felt that he was treated like gold.
And, as I have learned in my real life, I never know where my information and referral skills will be needed. One of the actors I met while waiting to be called to the set, asked me about synagogues in Binghamton, as he was staying at the Doubletree Hotel and told me that the previous Shabbat, he made kiddush in “holding” when sunset arrived. We talked about his Shomer Shabbos observances, and I was able to connect him with Rabbi Silber at Beth David for a personal welcome to the shul and to attend the Saturday morning worship service.
For me, although exhausted, I hated to see this scene in my life come to an end. Because the population of Binghamton tends toward middle agers and up, being with these vivacious, adorable, warm, energetic young men and women was a breath of fresh air. In their period clothing with hair and makeup coiffed to perfection, they were a sight to behold, of beauty, elegance and charm, surely of a time gone by. The life to which I was transported on the set brought me to my elementary school days and when my Mom was the suburban homemaker extraordinaire, a Mah Jongg lady herself. I could just see her right there in the Catskills because we used to vacation at such resorts. 
There was a sense of community in that place which is in such short supply in our daily lives. Our society is splintered with hatred and anger, so this respite was healing for me. Because there are lots of down times and waiting to be called to the set, there was time for joking, socializing and probably some matches in the making going on. I was welcomed into conversations with people of all ages, sat down with people who taught me about their teaching careers, social activism, previous theatre work and travels. Did it feel good? Oh, yes.
I can only imagine that for these young people trying to find stardom, this road is not easy; it’s got to be frustrating, painful, depressing and agonizing but for the very few thrilling and exhilarating . Every young woman on the set was thin and shapely, looking fantastic in the period clothes with their glowing makeup and stunning hairdos. The men were handsome, athletic and picture perfect. Now, think about the competition among them to be “found” by an agent, get a part in a production, and earn enough money to pay the rent. Balancing their drive to make it on the stage, enhance their careers and live a life of personal moral character and fulfillment must place stress beyond stress onto these kids. 
I certainly wish them well. And I am feeling so fortunate to have known them and have added this experience to the mosaic of my life. And, by the way, you may not recognize me on the screen, but you won’t be able to miss those striped pedal pushers.