BRUSH WITH FAME: Burnet couple led life of encounters with famous and influential
Mary-Margaret and Cary Mason Stratton have had so many brushes with fame, they wrote a book about it, listing more than 120 celebrity names, from Frankie Avalon to Frank Zappa’s daughter Moon Unit.
That list covers decades of rising and falling stars, so many over such a span of time that anyone of any age will likely know at least a handful of the people mentioned.
“We didn’t write the book to be boastful or braggadocios,” Mary-Margaret said. “It’s just our personal memoir of fun and funny tales. We wanted to remember all the interesting encounters we were fortunate to have and, hopefully, share a laugh or some sage advice along the way.”
The couple splits their time between homes in Burnet and Johnson City, where they are building a retreat center. They moved to the area two years ago from Las Vegas, but both grew up and lived most of their working lives in Los Angeles.
Cary Stratton gets a head start on sharing rarified air with so many celebrities through his parents. Cary’s mother, Dee Arlen, was a featured player on the “Steve Allen Show” and a regular on the “Red Skelton Show.” She also appeared in “Ladies Man,” a 1961 movie starring Jerry Lewis.
Dad Gil Stratton started on Broadway, where he learned he couldn’t really dance after starring with Gene Kelly, who went on to become a sensation in the movie “Singing in the Rain.” Gil moved to Hollywood and worked for MGM Studios with Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Shirley Temple, and Debbie Reynolds. He is most known for playing the narrator and William Holden’s sidekick, Cookie, in the movie “Stalag 17.” He became a sports announcer in the 1960s.
Cary grew up around famous people. He and his sisters dated celebrities and worked with celebrities. Both Cary and Mary-Margaret performed and worked in Hollywood as waiter, stage designer, technical writer, art director, sound technician, and more.
“I have seen the celebrity brush from both ends of the spectrum,” Cary said. “I have been a fan of people, and I saw early on what it was like to be a celebrated person with my father. I watched him deal with complete strangers who thought he was their friend and had expectations of him knowing them, which is a common thing that celebrities have to deal with.”
Before meeting Mary-Margaret, Cary dated Linda Manz, who starred in “Days of Heaven,” “The Wanderers,” and “Out of the Blue,” all made in the 1970s. At dinner in New York one night, a fan came up to their table and told Manz how much he enjoyed her performance in “Days of Heaven.” That fan was mega-star musician Paul Simon.
“Even celebrities enjoy brushes with other celebrities,” Cary said.
Although Mary-Margaret’s mother was a dancer, who’s first job in Hollywood was as an executive secretary at NBC Studios in the 1950s, she married and became a stay-at-home mom. Mary-Margaret’s dad worked as a systems analyst for several big companies. She and Cary formed a band and performed at parties and events in Palm Springs, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. Her main career was in graphic design and art directing. She was also a technical writer for Dreamworks Animation.
As they say in the real estate business: location, location, location. Mary-Margaret and Cary lived in a renovated, mid-century modern home in Balboa Highlands in north Los Angeles. They leased the house for commercial shoots and movies.
“Homeowners were often in stiff competition to get shoots at their homes because one single film or commercial shoot could pay for a month or more of your mortgage,” Mary-Margaret said. “It helped that we restored it properly, so it was more in demand than homes that didn’t have ‘the look.’”
A shoot for People Magazine with Anne Hathaway in their swimming pool took an entire day for one photo of the young starlet in mid-bounce on the diving board, the house a blur in the background.
Their most memorable lease was for the movie “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”starring Robert Downey Jr.
“We’ve had some actors and performers of various notoriety in our house, but it was surreal having a movie star on the level of Robert casually hanging out in our kitchen and dining room and living room for the day’s work,” Mary-Margaret said. “He was super nice and posed for fun pictures.”
Their home was also used several times for the TV series “CSI,” which is set in Las Vegas but shot in Los Angeles. The entire cast made their way through at one time or another and have been added to the Strattons’ continually growing list of celebrity encounters.
Where you shop can also play a role. Both bumped into Eddie Van Halen and Valerie Bertinelli buying groceries after midnight one day in Hughes Market at Ventura and Coldwater. They were the only four people shopping at the time, all greeting one another as they passed by in the aisles.
A good majority of celebrity encounters were just part of Cary’s job doing sound in different capacities. Working that closely with a famous performer made them more real, more human, according to both Strattons.
Some favorite encounters are Anthony Hopkins, who, on the set of “Meet Joe Black,” made sure he introduced himself to every member of the crew as if they didn’t already know who he was, and Tom Hanks, who signed a Woody doll for Cary.
“I never asked for autographs of anyone I worked with,” he said, but quickly admitted Hanks was an exception.
In fact, the few items of memorabilia they do have, including a photo taken with Merv Griffin, are tucked away in boxes, almost impossible to locate.
“We just never did that — ask for pictures or autographs,” Mary-Margaret said.
For the most part, both Strattons have been embarrassed by overly enthusiastic fans when in the presence of celebrities. When Cary was working at a music shop, he sold a set of African percussion instruments to Marlon Brando, but his boss turned into such a starstruck, babbling, burbling fan that Cary forgot to mention his father had worked with Brando on the ‘The Wild One.’”
“I have never seen anyone that starstuck again in my life,” Cary said. “It showed me the worst of reactions to celebrity, and it was a lesson in what not to do.”
He missed out on having a reasonable conversation with the star.
Acting unimpressed with fame helped Cary rise in his career recording loops on an Automatic Dialog Replacement stage. His job was to capture dialogue for already filmed scenes that didn’t record well enough when the footage was shot. The actors had to recreate the dialogue in a sound studio.
Whether at work, attending sporting events, or going to concerts, shows, and parties with Hollywood industry friends, the Strattons managed to meet a slew of musicians (Jimmy Seals, Dash Crofts, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Busta Rhymes), athletes (L.A. Dodger Steve Garvey, NBA star John Salley, several L.A. Rams), directors (Mike Nichols, Steven Spielberg, Baz Lurhman, John Waters), comedians (Bob Hope, Will Ferrell, Fred Willard, Martin Short, Tim Conway), and actors (Jerry Lewis, Tom Hanks, Renee Zellweger, Michael J. Fox). Even more are listed in their book, which they plan to self-publish by Christmas.
Some meetings were handshakes, some backstage encounters. Some were a bit more intense, like when Fred Willard, dressed as Satan at a costume party asked them to sign away their souls on the guest-of-honor’s birthday card.
“I wrote ‘happy birthday’ but also wrote that we declined the agreement,” Mary-Margaret said.
So many names, so many funny and charming stories spanning the history of entertainment in America, all led to a new philosophy of celebrity.
“At one time, it felt like a big deal,” Mary-Margaret said. “Now, it’s back to, I’m more impressed to meet the pastor of our church. Did you know he provides bulls for the rodeos around here? That’s impressive!”
The Strattons attend Faith Christian Church in Johnson City, where Cody Hays is the pastor. Mary-Margaret also mentioned how much she likes knowing the produce manager at the Burnet H-E-B.
Over the years, they’ve learned that celebrities are human just like the rest of us.
“Even though Hollywood likes to think they are saving lives through meaningful entertainment, for the most part, they are not,” the Strattons write in their book’s conclusion. “Emergency technicians, ambulance drivers, farmers, truck drivers, chefs, mothers, fathers, teachers, electricians, plumbers, etc. etc. etc. are far more important and meaningful people in this world then even say, a Steven Spielberg and his ‘Schindler’s List.’ Without these people, the whole world might break down. Without celebrities? We actually might need to rethink our evening plans?
“So if you ever get an opportunity to brush with celebrity, consider this: That maybe it’s their lucky day to brush with you!”
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