In 1955, an agent for Walt Disney discovered an adorable 8-year-old named Carl O’Brien banging on pots and pans at a charity concert in Southern California. The boy, known as Cubby–Mom thought lil’ Carl looked like a bear cub–would go on to be the youngest male Mousketeer on The Mickey Mouse Club . It was a hit television series, of course, and Cubby and his fellow Mouseketeers became famous. Later Cubby would play drums on The Lawrence Welk Show , get a gig in Spike Jones’ band and back a variety of performers including Jim Nabors, Shirley MacLaine, Andy Williams, Diana Ross and the Carpenters. And then, in middle age, he’d wind up joining the second-biggest phenomenon of his life, The Producers.
“It’s actually been a pretty normal life,” Mr. O’Brien said on a recent evening before a Producers performance at the St. James Theater. At 55, he is firmly built and athletic-looking. He wears wire-rim glasses, and his soft tenor and crew-cut brown hair make him seem a bit like, well, a middle-aged Mousketeer.
Unlike a lot of former child stars, Mr. O’Brien doesn’t feel cursed by early fame. And on this night–a short while before Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick tromped out on stage for yet another sold-out performance–he didn’t sound terribly philosophic about the impact of The Mickey Mouse Club on his later life.
“It was just a lot of fun,” he says, emphasizing the word fun . “I know that with some of the other kids who were Mouseketeers and were basically actors, [the show] got in their way. You were so exposed as a Mousketeer it was hard to move on.
“But I really don’t mind it! It really jump-started my life,” he said.
And now Mr. O’Brien, who had previously played drums in a traveling production of West Side Story , was in the hottest show in town, though he is largely hidden from view. Unless you land front-row tickets– ha! –you probably won’t see him, since he performs deep below the stage in the orchestra pit.
“The rehearsal process for me was the fun part of this,” Mr. O’Brien said, again placing emphasis on the word fun . “But, for the most part, you work three hours a night doing something that you really love doing. It’s the biggest show on Broadway.” Director Susan Strohman, he said, “likes drummers. And she loves things to be big. She’s very creative and very passionate.
“I’d have to be nuts to say I wasn’t lucky,” Mr. O’Brien said. He glanced at his watch, a classic, finger-pointing Mickey Mouse. Once again, Cubby had to get ready for The Show.
The Wood Man of Arthur Ashe
Men’s professional tennis is a bore: homogeneous, academy-issue lumps executing quick, artless points with the brutish mechanics of lousy lovers; crushing serves; mind-numbing ground strokes; M.I.A. net games; zero style.
Of course, you don’t hear much about this from the paying customers at the U.S. Open, in Flushing Meadows through Sept. 9. It’s an old maxim: He who shells out a couple hundred bucks to attend an event (plus $30 for parking and $11.50 for a plastic cup of wine) seldom rails against the total aesthetic disintegration of said event. At least until he gets his next credit-card statement.
But at least one paying customer at Arthur Ashe Stadium dares to confront the truth about men’s tennis. He’s a public-television executive and obscure part-time comedian named John Rubin, better known to fans at the U.S. Open as the Wood Man.
For the past two years, Mr. Rubin, who is 38 years old and single, has shown up during night matches at Arthur Ashe Stadium with a handful of homemade signs bearing a simple message: bring back wooden tennis racquets.
One night during the tournament’s first week, Mr. Rubin sat in the front row of the upper section at a half-empty stadium. He is short and stocky, with close-cropped black hair–he looks something like a cross between Russ Salzberg, the Channel 9 sportscaster, and Jared Paul Stern of the New York Post –and he wore white sneakers, puffy white tennis shorts, a blue shirt and a black fanny pack.
On the court, Andy Roddick, a pasty-faced 19-year-old American with a 140-mile-per-hour serve, was beating up on another American, a qualifier named Jack Brasington. Like all of his male counterparts, Mr. Roddick uses an ultra-light, composite-material racquet, from which he uncorks a lightning serve and a blistering forehand. His points with Mr. Brasington were brief and clinical, typically ending with Mr. Roddick smashing an ace, a forehand winner or an unforced error. Rallies were few. The crowd was having a hard time getting into it.
During a changeover between games, Mr. Rubin went to work. He stood up and held aloft sign that read “REMEMBER TOUCH, FINESSE, STYLE? TENNIS?” and he tried to start a chant. “Gimme a W!” he said. “Gimme an O! Gimme another O!” Some people joined in. Most did not.
Mr. Rubin turned toward the USA broadcast booth, where one of the more stylish finesse players in tennis history, John McEnroe, was doing commentary. He held up another sign: “MEN’S TENNIS–BIG RACQUETS–BIG SERVES–BIG SNOOZE BRING BACK WOOD!”
“Hey, Johnny Mac, lead us,” Mr. Rubin said. “Lead the sport. Go back to wooden racquets. Let’s go, tennis fans. We can do it. We all know this is boring. Everyone knows it’s so bad.”
A few people laughed, but mostly there was silence.
“Go home!” someone yelled.
“I’m not talking about the women’s game–that’s fine,” Mr. Rubin said.
Suddenly, loud pop-rock music–like a theme song for a Saturday-morning teen sitcom–blared over the speakers.
“Small-headed graphite is O.K.,” Mr. Rubin shouted over the din. “But I prefer wood.”
” Time, ” the umpire said in an English accent.
The players took the court. “O.K., I’ll let you enjoy some of this horrible tennis,” Mr. Rubin said to no one in particular.
Back at his seat in the last row of the stadium, Mr. Rubin explained his philosophy. “The problem is that these racquets do not allow subtle styles to compete at a world-class level,” he said. “They just eradicate any sense of touch, style or finesse. They’re just bashing the ball. It’s just not the way the sport was meant to be played. You couldn’t have an aluminum bat in baseball–you couldn’t have any historical perspective. That’s what’s happened in tennis. There could not be another John McEnroe now, because that style couldn’t win. With wood racquets, you could play the power game, but you could also serve and volley. You could play back-court game, and all those styles could play on a world-class level. And, as a result, you got different personalities. Because if someone plays touch game, their personality tends to be a little different.”
Mr. Rubin grew up in Northport, Long Island, and played competitive tennis during high school and at Harvard, where he made the J.V. team. “My game was all about the one-handed backhand,” he said. “A little McEnroe-esque: relaxed ground strokes and work my way to the net.”
After graduating from Columbia Teachers College, Mr. Rubin worked at the Mystic Aquarium, in Connecticut, where he pursued his other passion besides tennis– dolphins. However, he soon became disgusted with the conditions of the animals’ captivity, and he quit. Now Mr. Rubin works at WLIW Channel 21, and at night he pursues a career in stand-up comedy.
The Wood Man was born last year, when Mr. Rubin received an unexpected invitation to the U.S. Open from a friend. Just before leaving his Upper West Side apartment, inspiration hit.
“It just came to me,” Mr. Rubin recalled. “I thought people would get a kick out of someone speaking the truth. Everyone sitting here, they’re all thinking the same thing. The commentators don’t say it because they want their jobs. But everyone in the stands is realizing they just paid $80 to waste their time, to watch boring tennis.”
The Wood Man isn’t always a hit.
“Earlier this week, I paid extra and scalped a ticket for down there,” he said, pointing to the lower section. “But I couldn’t get the fans going. They’re obviously rich, so they’re more complacent about things. After a while, some old lady was like, ‘Don’t you think that’s enough?’ I said, ‘That’s part of my style,’ but she obviously didn’t get it.”