Monday, April 13, 2009

Mickey Mouse's Pass-over in the Holy Land

In hostile hands, it could have been a blood libel: Mickey Mouse Decapitated In Israel for Passover! All said and done, there was no denying he was in two pieces.

An Israeli producer had asked me to add the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons to a large package of performers I was bringing to Israel for a children’s festival during Passover. [See: “Once Upon a Passover” immediately below.] On Thanksgiving Day eve, I walked eight blocks north from my apartment to a cordoned-off Upper West Side, Manhattan block where a lot of industrious people spend all night once a year spreading out the large, flat balloons on the street and inflating them gradually with helium. Under the glow of lamppost lights, I found The Balloon Man who, with Mrs. Balloon Man, supplied “Mickey,” “Goofy” and the rest of the Disney/Looney-Tuney balloony-cartooney spectacle to parades and fairs.

I asked Mr. and Mrs. if they’d like to go to the Holy Land—with their balloons.
Two days later, from their home in deepest Virginia, they said yes. I learned they’d never been out of the country and needed passports, their first. The balloons had their own travel demands. They were bulky, fragile and costly, and had to be crated for cargo and fully documented for customs. Above all, I was forewarned, they required a LOT of helium.
My production partner Shalom and I gave the Israeli production people the helium specifications down to the cubic centimeter. Taking no chances, we phoned and faxed them repeatedly in advance to remind them: no helium, no balloons in the air.

The Balloon Couple got to Israel on time and without incident.
But “Mickey” and the three additional balloon “characters” we had agreed on transporting were detained by customs in almost every country, so it seemed, they passed through between the United States and Israel, and their anxious proprietors were concerned. It was like watching nervous parents waiting at the front door at night well past curfew for their tardy children. Early every morning, Mr. Balloon Man would wake one of our Israeli drivers to take the lengthy trip with him to the airport to claim his precious balloons, which were not there yet. Afternoons and evenings he would eat—foods he had never before seen, but was conspicuously consuming. When he complained of acute diarrhea
, Shalom instructed one of our drivers to find him some Kaopectate. It’s possible the directions on the label were in Hebrew. We learned he guzzled the entire bottle. He had no need for a john for days.

We weren’t happy with the hotel The Balloon Couple were in, so we started working on moving them to a better one.
As for the helium, when we asked we were confidently told ain ba’ayah,
“no problem.”

The balloons finally arrived!
Now they were only stuck in Israeli customs, but after several more superfluous trips to the airport, they were “sprung.” The crates were carted out to the park where the week-long festival would take place, and we summoned the helium. Ain ba’ayah,
we were told again. Fifteen minutes later, a man arrived carrying a can about the size of a football and proudly presented it to us. “Where’s the rest?” we asked innocently. There was no “rest”—not in the vicinity, not in all of Israel. We would have to send to England for it and, we learned, it would take a week to get it. That would be the day the festival ended.

Instead of four glorious balloons sailing high above Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Park, we were relegated to the grounded head of one balloon—of Mickey Mouse—anchored and protected from assault, at Mr. Balloon Man’s insistence, by a wooden fence on all four sides—and further guarded by his wife on a folding chair inside the fence.

We moved them to a new hotel, into a suite with picture windows overlooking the Mediterranean.
We encouraged them to let go of their disappointment over the balloons, as we had, and to enjoy themselves. You’re in the Holy Land! See it! We never mentioned food again.

Evenings, I had musicians asking me, more than once, when “this holiday” ended and they could have bread, egos of every age and assortment to massage, and two under-aged break-dancers from our company sneaking out of their hotel at every opportunity to a local disco to hustle $20 bills from customers intrigued by their novel moves.

While the Mrs. was on guard, nature called.
Trustingly leaving her purse on a fence stave, she abandoned her post. Everywhere in Israel, signs constantly remind people to “Be Aware of Abandoned Packages.” Someone alerted the bomb squad. The Mrs. emerged from the ladies room to witness a robot crossing the field en route
to dismantling or dousing her purse. (We saved it.)

While everyone else was singing and dancing by day and breaking matzoh by night, the Balloon Couple were idle—and reclusive.
As they lounged on the couch in their suite enjoying a sunset on the Mediterranean—after he recited a litany of how difficult and disappointing the trip had been for them—he said to her, “But honey, we have to give these people credit. They’ve gone out of there way [sic
] to make us comfortable.” And as the words were coming out of his mouth, an upright body, arms and legs splayed, mouth open and contorted, hurled past their window. Hysterical, the Mr. called the hotel operator who, in addition to having trouble deciphering his southern accent, already knew, amid the pandemonium, what he was frantically trying to tell her. The body had plunged through the lobby ceiling and onto the lobby floor. We later learned it was the body of a United Nations soldier who was stopped on the top floor and asked by a hotel security man if he was a guest of the hotel. The upset soldier hoisted and threw a courtesy shoe-buffing machine through a plate glass window (overlooking the Mediterranean) and followed it out the window.

Our Balloon Couple, who’d presumably never seen worse than a patch surgically attached to Bugs Bunny’s behind, was inconsolable.
Our Israeli producer was sympathetic and concerned. “What can we do for them now
?” he asked me. I said, “Get them the fuck out of here.”

No, quite the contrary. For their sakes, I felt, let them go home. I knew at this point nothing in our power could make it up to them. Nevertheless, we tried.
We arranged for them to have a weekend on us in Rome. We later learned they never stopped, in all likelihood never got off the plane, went straight through to Virginia. We never heard from them again. I said we brought two people to see the Holy Land and probably made anti-Semites out of them. The Revenge of Mickey Mouse?


  1. A terrific story. This time Mickey was split in two instead of the broom. Revenge of the broom maybe? (Sorcerer's Apprentice).

  2. A free weekend in Rome is no small thing to spurn. It was a most polite offer on your part, but I think Mr. and Mrs. were wise to call it quits.

    I have never been to the Holy Land, but I have been to Rome. Rest assured: if the Holy Land was unforgiving to these reluctant pilgrims, I doubt the resuscitated heart of antiquity would fare them any better. There is simply no way the story they would have brought home with them to Virginia could have possibly ended, "... and then we went to Rome, and all was well."

    Rome is no place for the tired, poor, or tempest-tossed... that's why they left! Rome is for the adventurous, the sleepless, the conquering-hero! Rome is a city of manic drivers and incessant peddlers, of tourist-traps and Spanish Steps, of uninhibited emotion and office-hours that make no sense, of Caesars, of nudes, of the best pickpockets in the world! Had they gone to Rome, Murphy Law would have been waiting in the shadows with unnecessarily tight pants.

    Assuming they even make it out of customs for their passports to be stolen, the cab ride from Da Vinci would have sapped them of their strength. They would have tried to sleep things off in their unair-conditioned room, but the engine-revs of scooters would have ushered them insomnia. There would be no time for romance, not once the mosquitoes smelled their foreign sweat. Sleep-deprived, dehydrated, and wrestling with insanity, Rome would finally pull a Hail Mary and push them over: a flying statue of Jesus piloted by Fellini outside their window.

    "Now all the truth is out, be secret and take defeat." To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing, William Butler Yeats

    We should applaud their decision.