Adam Nelson began his career with an actor’s grant for gifted and talented children after an appearance on the Jerry Lewis annual Telethon. He was associated with some of New York’s most notable groups including Naked Angels, Cucaracha, Manhattan Class Company, Circle Rep, Arden Party and the Adobe Theater Company. In 1997, he was granted exclusive rights by the Lenny Bruce Estate, Bruce's mother Sally Marr, and producer Marvin Worth to produce andperform his one-person show How to Talk Dirty and Influence People: The Story of Lenny Bruce which moved Off-Broadway. Performances benefited God’s Love We Deliver and received critical acclaim from the Village Voicewhich praised his rendition as “restless, brilliant and hilarious” and TimeOut New York’s chief theater critic, Sam Whitehead, branded him “an impresario, a notorioustheatrical madman.” After the tragedy of September 11th, he co-produced The 24 Hour Plays to aid The NY State WTC Relief Fund with a cast that included PhilipSeymour Hoffman, Rosie Perez, Mary-Louise Parker, Julianne Moore, Marisa Tomei, Kyra Sedgwick, ScarlettJohansson, Liev Schreiber, Robert Sean Leonard, Sam Rockwell, and more. He founded his independent creative agency Workhouse in 1999. Widely regarded for original thinking, imaginative ideas and strikingly unique hands-on approach, Workhouse brings a keen understanding and deep expertise to contemporary communications. Celebrating its 20th anniversary, Nelson received the Clutch Global Leadership Award this year in recognition of his unorthodox industry command. In creating Boy Scout Nelson aims to honor the original spirit of those who continue to break revolutionary new ground through a wellspring of popular, untraditional, gay, and concrete culture. Listen and learn.
From the cave man to the campfire, the serenade of storytellingappears to be obscenely absent within the impatient immediate. In creating Boy Scout, I realized how very much I miss the artof listening. The bigness of biography. The siren of each soul singing. Talesof triumphs and tragedies. Of hopesand hardships. Of wants and desires. Ofsound and fury.
I was standing before a masterwork of pointillism with my young son,explaining the genius strokes there at close inspection. As we moved furtheraway, I described the greater mosaic. Howit’s ultimate reveal allows for thebreath and imagination of the artist’s palette. His grand design. The big idea.The work of art.
And it occurred to me that as I approach my 50th Birthday, whathas often felt like the desperate walk of circles, may also reveal a greaterstride.
These last couple of years have buckled my knees. Claimed combatover my spiritual center. And no matter how much I tax my mind, dive deep intothe pulpit of prayer, starve myselffor the sacrament of sanctuary, you cannotoutrun fate. Greek myths catch every Achilles heel. In this arc of age, I realized that I might not have been walkingat all. But rather enjoying a disharmonious ‘softshoe of the soul’ on everuncertain ground.
This is the brutal beauty of storytelling.
Boy Scout illuminates the voice behind the words. The clarity ofheart in the vocalization of each subject’s spirit. To hear passion and pride,nostalgia and need — this radio play returnto truth — gives greater importanceto the mystery of meaning, syntax, cadence and cool.
Listen and learn x
Everything I never really wanted to know about Public RelationsI learned from my father. He just wasn't around to teach it.
This shadowy figure from my conception, whose whereaboutsremained a mystery, until one day in my late teens, my mother handed over ameticulously documented scrapbook thatshe'd apparently kept hidden throughoutmy childhood.
"Here," she said. "See for yourself."
I plopped down on our floral patterned couch in Houston, Texasand I flipped open the cover to find page after page of crinkled and fadednewspaper clippings from the late 1960s.
One headline in particular caught my eye. "Long Island Dems CrySpy -- With 2 Mata Haris!”
Nelson, a then 37-year-old, high-priced ($350 per week!) aide,had been accused of trying to bribe a pair of secretaries into giving up thegoods. During the heat of the campaign,the Republicans were desperate toobtain a copy of the County Executive's budget prior to its release. A female staffertold my father that she could get him inside Nickerson'soffice after hourswhere he could take a copy for himself. But things didn't go that way and hewas caught in the act.
The Newsday article went into great detail to describe whatreporter Dick Zander had termed "The wildest cloak-and-dagger tale in thehistory of Long Island politics" and five years before the Watergate scandal:
(NEWSDAY, Oct. 27, 1967) Mineola--A political spy thriller,complete with a miniskirted courier, a phony document and a variety of otherintrigue, burst into the Nassau Countyelection campaign yesterday. Democratsaccused a GOP campaign aide of offering $3,000 to obtain secrets about theadministration of County Executive Nickerson. TheRepublicans vociferouslydenied the charge and countered that it was the Democrats themselves who hadset the stage for the wildest cloak-and-dagger tale in the history of LongIsland politics. Nassau Democratic Chairman John F. English publicly lit thefuse of the political bombshell at a press conference by producing twoDemocratic lady counter- spies.One charged that the GOP aide offered her$3,000 for confidential Nickerson documents and a key to the county executive'soffice. The other backed her story.
By evening's end, the GOP aide had quit his campaign post, hiswife had been fired from her job as confidential secretary to a top Democraticcounty official, and District AttorneyCahn had pledged to look into the wholematter, after Election Day, to see whether any crime had been committed.
The spy story involved my father, William Nelson, the head of the citizen'scommittee for Nickerson's opponent, Republican Sol Wachtler. It turned on thequestion of whether (1) theRepublican approached the Democrats to obtain information,or (2) the Democrats lured Nelson into seeking it. It included surprise aftersurprise, including an admission byNickerson that he drew up, in his ownhandwriting, a partial and admittedly phony "budget message," which"recommended" a 16-percent tax increase next year, for the purpose of"feeding" misinformation into the espionage pipeline….
“I didn't have any qualms about it,” he was quoted unabashedlysaying in the New York Times. "Hey, that’s just politics. This is as much ofthe game as anything else that goes on ina campaign,” he rationalized.
Naturally, he claimed that one of the secretaries had approachedhim first--“in desperate need of money,” he said--not the other way around. “Ifeel like I was sucked in andtrapped” he explained.
Whatever the exact circumstances, the high-profile gaffeultimately cost him his job. My mother, who at the time was his 28-year-oldwife, had been ironically employed by theDemocratic opposition, was working asa confidential secretary to the county clerk. She too was sacked.
“She can't be on both sides of this at the same time,” her bosshad explained to the Times.
Their marriage wouldn't survive, though my father's JamesBond-like libido may have had more to do with that than the political fallout.
Looming larger than the lurid text of this public spectacle, were the strikingphotos of the press-hounded couple.
I remember one snapshot in particular of my father holding thecrook of my mother's back, pushing her from the doorway of some building in theEmpire State, while hoveringshutterbugs fired away. She was dressed stylishlyin a short black number with pearls. My father, on the other hand, looked likea brow beaten Richard Nixon: sweaty, guilty, andgluttonous. Nothing truly sayscriminal more than bad photography.
I learned a lot about my father flipping through those clips. Irealized that he was in the Army (dishonorably discharged). That he wassomething of an actor—with bit parts inSomeone Up There Likes Me with PaulNewman and 12 Angry Menwith Henry Fonda, to name a few–all prior to hisfinally achieving fame as a bumbling political saboteur.
But, more than anything, getting to know him through the presscoverage of his pillory would prepare me well for a career in Public Relations.
Here you have a perfect case study in crisis management stemming straight fromthe family tree—a ream of rotten photographs, the enforcement of spin, and, inthe case of mymother, what happens when you're dragged under the bus due tounkind association.
You would think that, after such a spectacular fall, my fatherwould find himself confined to county lock up. Nope.
Mixed in the clutter of the same scrapbook was a bone-whitepress release on RC Crown Cola letterhead announcing some new fizzy initiative.The media contact? William Nelson,Director of Publicity.
It all seemed like a bad afterschool special.
From what I gathered from the accompanying photo, he spent agood deal of time publicizing RC Cola by setting up shop in grocery storeparking lots, singing and dancing in garishbarber shop quartet costumes withtwo hot blondes. It's a picture I wish I'd never seen, but there it was. It'sas if your mother walked into the room and said, "I didn't want to tellyou, but your father is Bozo the Clown. And here's his original outfit!” Inthis new role, I don't think it took him long to ditch the parking lot entirelyfor the comfort of those twoblondes and a pay-by-the-hour hotel.
We were living in the developing hamlet of Oakdale, NY, where myparents were building a house from the ground up. A century ago, Oakdale wasknown as a place where men ofgreat fortune and power built South Shoremansions, the most prominent being William K. Vanderbilt, grandson of railroadtycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. And here we came, scarredpolitical scruff sellingsoda pop. But before the house was even finished, my father abruptly removedall of his belongings and informed my mother he was through. The marriagewasover. And with that, he simply... Disappeared.
I was two years old when my mother realized that we werefinancially spent. We subsisted on welfare checks and food stamps over the nextsix years. My mother, descended fromgenerations of Borscht-belt bubbes, wasnever one to back down. She enrolled in night school while raising three kidsalone during the economically challenged 1970s. Soon aftergraduation, sheaccepted a teaching position across the country. In 1979, we sold our house,loaded-up the station wagon and transplanted to the wild, wild west of Houston,Texas. It wasn't the best moment for a frizzy-headed Jewish kid from the landof pickles and coleslaw to relocate to a place where Rodeo was a junior highschool elective. I, electedout.
I moved to Philadelphia immediately after graduation, enrollingat the University of the Arts, where I majored in, of all things, theater.Somewhere up in Olympus, a Greek chorus wasforetelling that which was yet tocome.
One weekend, my mother came to visit and we decided to take in ashow. Flipping through New York magazine, I stumbled upon a listing for ariveting new production then runningat the dilapidated Hudson Guild Theater.Almost Perfect concerned a philandering husband who leaves his wife. Theproduction, directed by legendary screen star GeraldineFitzgerald, featuredCathy Lee Crosby (from the TV show That’sIncredible), Ethan Phillips (from the hit TV show Benson) and Bill Nelson.
As a fledgling actor myself, I knew that Actor's Equity had onemain rule: only one actor can have one name. Therefore, it only made sense thatthis Bill Nelson might very well be myfather. My mother and I decided to driveto New York to see for ourselves.
We entered the theater just as the matinee was ending. I locatedthe stage door and walked into the nearest dressing room. There, surrounded byactor scrum, was the bulbousbrute himself. Eager for gratitude, the performersinvited me in. An uncomfortable silence ensued. They begin to turn to oneanother asking: “Who is this guy?” I looked squarelyupon the mountain of manbefore me, locking eyes, and answered: “I'm your son."
Even to television actors, it was a bad scene.
Everyone split but Bill. He sighed and scratched at the side ofhis neck, looking down at the floor. "Yeah, there's some things that weneed to talk about," he said. "Who's here? Yourmother?" Inodded. He sighed. "I'll meet you out front," he said.
At the bar around the corner, I ordered a bottle of whiskey eventhough I was underage. From the end of the table, I watched my mother and myfather fight it out over 30 years ofunresolved tension. After they were spent,my father turned to me and said, "So… what do you think?" I studied my father as he cried.
He quickly composed himself, "You know, your brother, Gil,would love to meet you,” he said. “He's written poems about you. Your sisterStephanie would also love to meet you." Atthis point, I realized we hadbecome the friggin' Brady Brunch.
We went outside. Amid the chill, the space between us, theawkward silence. "I'llcall you," he said. "We'll write, talk…whatever."
A few months later, he did call. He had an urgent request."So, I'm doing this movie," with Robin Williams and TimRobbins…."
Directed by Roger Donaldson, with an all-star cast alsoincluding Fran Drescher, Annabella Sciorra, Lori Petty, and Elaine Stritch, CadillacMan was billed as “One disastrous week inthe life of a Queens car salesmanwho's involved with three women, and is in jeopardy of losing his job, sanity,and life.” My assumption was that dad had been cast to type. Butlater Irealized he wasn’t playing the car salesman but the owner of the used cardealership, Big Jack Turgeon. "I'd love for you to swing by the set,"he said. "It'd be good to seeyou."
Apparently, my mother had told him that I was on my way to YaleUniversity for the summer to study in their theater arts program. He asked meif I could make a slight detour enroute and come visit.
It was on eve of my birthday. My girlfriend at the time decidedto accompany me on the journey. On the train, she gifted me with a handsomevintage Yale baseball jersey, one shesaid had once belonged to U.S. PresidentGeorge Herbert Walker Bush. I have no idea who sold her that line of bullshit,but she was really proud of her purchase and insisted that Iwear it.
I was possessed with a mixture of excitement, powered by thelocomotives lullaby as she steamed toward New York City. But I also had aprofound sense of dread about whatmight await me upon arrival at Grand CentralStation. We eventually made our way to the Queens where the cast was filming ata local car dealership. “Adam!” My father took me bythe shoulders, touring mearound the set and introducing me to everyone in range, exclaiming, "Thisis my son Adam; he's going to Yale tomorrow!" as he pointed to the lettersuponmy chest.
He turned to my girlfriend. “Do you mind if I talk to Adam for amoment?” He ditched her at craft services, spiriting me away to the confines ofhis trailer. “So, you like the set?” heasked. Better than the trailer, Ithought: plastic furniture, florescent lights, Styrofoam cups. All the glamourof being on a Hollywood film was drained by the grim reality of a cruddybackstage, with its cardboard motif, folding chairs, card tables, and port-o-potties.But what did I expect? It was a used car dealership.
My father asked me to take a seat and he began his soliloquy: “I made some good money on this movie—about two hundred grand—but --- I blew itall,” he said with a sniffle, “on cocaine.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Did you know,” he went on, “on every film, you've got to get aphysical? So, I went to the doctor. Well, damned if my kidneys haven’t turnedto shit.”
Now, I was stultified.
“I was talking to your mother,” he continued. “Did you know? Youand I, we're the same blood type. Son, I need a big favor. Think you couldspare me a kidney?”
In one moment, I had the full preparation for a life incelebrity publicity.
What follows is the creation of Boy Scout magazine. It’s about loyalty in a post-loyalculture, about service and pride, about actingout, aboutmessage and medium. But most of all it’s about being beaten, bruised andbloody, flat out on the floor and still having the steam to stand up on yourowntwo feet and shamelessly ask, “So... is this going to be in the printedition or only online?”
To learn more about Adam Nelson, visit him here *Story from Art Pimp written in collaboration with Chris Shott