How Suzy Gilstrap hijacked our evening

This past week Keith Uhlich and Dan Callahan (two writers I very much admire) invited me out to their house in Brooklyn. I have met Keith before when he had me review some films at the Tribeca Film Festival last year for House Next Door but I had never met Dan. It just never worked out. I was really excited. They invited me out there because I’m working on a monster piece about Mickey Rourke (naturally) for House Next Door which should go live next week, before the opening of The Wrestler the following week. They both got screeners of The Wrestler and wondered if I wanted to see it to factor it in to my upcoming piece.

DO I WANT TO SEE THE WRESTLER?

Michael’s going to be so jealous. I sent him a taunting email about it yesterday.

So we made a plan that I would drive out there. Keith sent me a door-to-door Google map like an awesome host should, and I was all set. I’ve been driving all over New York these days and it’s been fun. Fun figuring it out. I know my way around this city, of course I do, it’s my home, but driving is a whole other ballgame. I have loved figuring it out. Someday I’ll write a post with my newly learned New York City driving tips. I am kicking ass.

The Google map took me over the George Washington Bridge and down FDR on the east side of the city, which I have never driven on. I know the West Side Highway so well I could drive it with my eyes closed. I think the East River and FDR are even more beautiful. For a brief month – in between apartments – when I was literally homeless, and had had to put my stuff in storage – I stayed with a friend who lived in a fabulous apartment complex on the East River, sticking out into the water. The helicopter launching pad is nearby so there were times when you would look out the window and it would seem like Red Dawn or something. Driving down FDR yesterday brought back that weird in-between month. It’s industrial, you’ve got Harlem to your right, the river to your left, and all you can see stretching down the side of the island of Manhattan is bridges stretching across to Queens and Brooklyn. There are no bridges (except for the GWB) on the Hudson side so the East River has a whole different feeling – much more BUSY. Interesting, because of my Walt Whitman post yesterday where I referenced his poem about the Brooklyn ferry. It was over a century ago that he wrote that, but you look at the east river now and it seems like “same ol’ same ol”, not too much changes.

I blasted Everclear. It was stop and go traffic for a while, pretty bad, but eventually it cleared up and you really must go fast. If you don’t, you are missing out on the whole experience, but also you will be endangering yourself. So I put the pedal down and flew along those curves. I don’t know. I suddenly felt light-hearted and excited and happy. I was on my way to Brooklyn to meet up with new friends and I was about to see The Wrestler. I felt happy about my life. I felt like, “I’m doing okay.”

At around the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge, it started raining. It was night now. I made my way through the familiar Brooklyn streets (Keith and Dan live near where my brother and Cashel used to live) and found a parking spot. It was freezing and rainy. Again, that light-hearted buoyant feeling, so rare these days, persisted.

It was great to see Keith and fabulous to meet Dan. It’s one of those things where you immediately have 5000 things to discuss and you almost feel like you have to ‘catch up’, even though you have just met the person, so you can get up to speed. Like, we immediately launched into the most fabulous conversation about actors we not only hate, but who drive us to drink or punch walls, who make us angry. Dan was like, “So who DON’T you like?” This conversation went on for pretty much the whole evening, we kept coming back to it – and we would get so worked up in our hatred that we would be shouting and gesticulating and doing hostile imitations. It was hilarious. It’s so funny to hear about the people who drive other people crazy. We were saying things like, “Oh my God, he makes my skin crawl” or “She makes me want to punch someone.”

Then, glasses of wine in hand, we settled down to watch The Wrestler. Keith had seen it. Dan and I had not. I was the resident Rourke fanatic so I regaled them with a treatise on the entire trajectory of Rourke’s career before we began.

We watched the movie. Not a word was spoken between the three of us the entire time. And that’s all I will say about that for now. I need to put it all into the Rourke piece I’m working on.

But we did all have an awesome conversation about it after the movie, which led us on to other things, all interesting, all thought-provoking. They are two film critics so their breadth and scope of knowledge is encyclopedic, but so is mine, in my own little area, so it was a great conversation. Critics we loved, ones we hated and why, Pauline Kael’s lingering influence – and also our own tastes.

I am working my way up to Suzy Gilstrap, because seriously – after this long monologue about FDR and Everclear and freezing rain and watching The Wrestler – what this entire night ended up being about was Suzy Gilstrap and I will always think of her when I think of this night. I emailed Keith and Dan this morning saying, “I was laughing about Suzy Gilstrap all the way home …” Or I think I said, “Suzy Fucking Gilstrap”.

It was one of those collective group freakouts that so rarely happens in life, especially between people who don’t know each other all that well. I am now thinking of me and Ted freaking out at Harold and Maude before we really were friends. But we sure as hell were friends after THAT and are friends to this day. I date the real beginning of our friendship from that laugh attack we had on the way home. At one point last night I said, with tears, literally tears of laughter in my eyes, “You know, there is very little on earth that is original. But I honestly believe that nobody has ever had this particular conversation before.” Dan said adamantly, “Absolutely not.”

It all began with a conversation about actresses. Dan’s writing is fantastic in this regard (I link to his pieces all the time – his latest Mia Farrow piece, his piece on Carole Lombard – he just “gets” acting and has a terrific eye and also knows how to talk about it – here’s an archive of his work – I LOVE his stuff) – so we had a lively discussion.

Dan’s favorite actress is Bette Davis. Hands down. He was talking about some of the later television movies she did – pre-stroke – and how he feels they are given short shrift by her biographers, who skip over them, some of which display really nice work. But it’s all kind of grouped in one paragraph under the heading “her final years” and he thinks that’s unfair.

I said, having NO IDEA what I would be unleashing, “I remember seeing a TV movie with Bette Davis in the early 80s I think, and she played a crotchety airline pilot or something …Was it called Wings?”

Dan flipped out. “SKYWARD.”

I flipped out. “Have you seen it?”

Dan was freaking out. “NO! NO ONE’S SEEN IT. IT’S NOT AVAILABLE ANYWHERE. I HAVE BEEN DYING TO SEE IT.”

“I saw it! I remember it vividly!”

Keith was like, “Now … what was this?”

I said, “It was a TV movie – one of the first things that Ron Howard directed – and it starred Bette Davis and she wore freakin’ mechanics’ overalls and a little cap and she worked at a small airport – and there was a paraplegic girl who just moved to the town who wanted to be a pilot. And the actress was really paraplegic …”

Dan interjected, “SUZY GILSTRAP.”

I was stunned at the new and beautiful world I had just found myself in. “What??”

“That girl’s name was Suzy Gilstrap.”

“You know her name??”

“Oh yes! And apparently Bette Davis was like, ‘It’s not right to get this girl’s hopes up that she’ll be a real actress’ while they were filming. She was pissed about it.”

“Suzy Gilstrap?”

Keith said, “Who the hell is Suzy Gilstrap?”

Oh, the questions we ask ourselves, the questions we ask one another. The most important one being: “Who the hell is Suzy Gilstrap?”

I was babbling, so excited, “She had long brown hair and she was in a wheelchair and she was maybe on The Facts of Life, too – but Skyward was her big moment.”

Keith went to get his iPhone so he could look her up. Dan and I continued to freak out.

Dan wanted to hear every single detail about Skyward, and I’m not exaggerating: that entire movie lives, in exquisite detail, in my memory (kind of like the Eight is Enough episode that changed my life). I think I was 11 years old when Skyward aired – and I have never seen it since – but I remember scenes, moments, etc. – so I began to act out the entire movie. What was so funny to me was that Dan, who hadn’t seen it, was imagining his way into the movie – just from my description of it – and was adding details, asking questions like, “So did her cro-magnon-faced boyfriend have any issues with her being in a wheelchair? Or was it all roses from the first moment?” “So Bette Davis was being tough on her, right? Tough love?”

It was so hilarious.

I was like, “So she’s a new girl in town, and her parents …”

Dan fired at me, “Who played her parents?”

“I can’t remember – but I’m sure they were famous TV stars at the time …”

“Right, right, okay …”

Keith, engrossed in research about Suzy Fucking Gilstrap on his iPhone, interjected, “Her mother was played by Marion Ross.”

Dan and I exploded. “OF COURSE. OKAY. MARION ROSS! MRS. CUNNINGHAM!”

I said, “Who else was in it, Keith?”

Keith replied, “Howard Hesseman …”

Dan and I exploded. “HOWARD HESSEMAN!”

“Lisa Whelchel …”

I exploded. “Oh!”

Keith said, “Who is Lisa Whelchel?”

“She played Blair on Facts of Life!”

“Ohhh, so that’s the Facts of Life connection!”

“Yes, now I remember her perfectly! She played another girl at the school!”

Dan kept egging me on. “So then what happened??”

I was doing imitations of Bette Davis, in her mechanics overalls, giving tough love to Suzy Gilstrap. “Listen, sweetheart, I won’t baby you. When you fly solo, you’re up there alone. I don’t give a crap that you’re in a wheelchair – you’re gonna do what I say, you hear me?”

Dan was howling.

Keith had now found an old People magazine article about Suzy Gilstrap and read the whole thing to us out loud. Dan and I couldn’t stop talking and interrupting. We, by this point, were in tears from our laughter. Why were we laughing? Is Suzy Gilstrap inherently funny? I have no idea. It was just a collective moment of hilarity that went on for over an hour and EVERYTHING was funny during that time. It got to the point where anytime anyone said the name “Suzy Gilstrap” (and that was all that we were saying. We also always had to say both of her names – she was never just “Suzy”, it was always “Suzy Gilstrap”) we all would LOSE it.

“So what else was Suzy Gilstrap in?”

We all would burst into laughter.

Keith looked up her career on IMDB. There had been a sequel to Skyward called Skyward Christmas (without Bette Davis) and Dan became obsessed with that one too. “I must see Skyward Christmas!”

I had tears of laughter on my face. “But why? Bette Davis isn’t even in it!”

“I DON’T CARE.”

The information we got from the People magazine article was extremely helpful, but we also couldn’t stop laughing. We heard that Suzy Gilstrap had been paralyzed from a falling branch from a eucalyptus tree.

Dan said, “So she pulled herself up by her Gilstraps!”

She was one of 50 wheelchair-bound girls who auditioned for Skyward.

Dan was like, “God, don’t you want to see those audition tapes?”

We kept saying how shocked we were that this movie was not available on DVD – especially because Ron Howard has gone on to such great success.

Keith kept reading. Anson Williams (aka Potsie) wrote the screenplay.

Dan breathed, in a tone of awe and revelation, “Potsie wrote Skyward …” and we all lost it.

Apparently, there was talk of turning Skyward into a series.

“But,” said Dan, “what would it be? Every week she has a new flight or something?”

According to the People magazine article, Suzy Gilstrap was hoping that Skyward Christmas would be a hit because then it would probably become a series. And once that happened, she said she wanted to get her pilot’s license.

Dan, once again imagining his way into the story, said in a sad voice, “But Skyward Christmas was not a success, the series never happened, and I wonder if Suzy Gilstrap ever got her pilot’s license.”

I was in tears of laughter. He was TRULY sad.

We learned from IMDB that Suzy Gilstrap had a couple of credits as “miscellaneous crew” – and when Keith dug a bit deeper – he saw that these were Ron Howard produced films. So he remembered Suzy Gilstrap from many years ago and continued to get her work. Not as an actress, though.

Dan said encouragingly, “But Suzy Gilstrap stayed in film production!”

He was happy about this.

I LOST IT. We were so invested in what had happened to Suzy Gilstrap.

Dan could not believe he was in the presence of someone who had actually seen Skyward (although, alas, I did not see Skyward Christmas, Dan’s new obsession) – and he was saying, “Not only have you seen it – but you just ACTED THE ENTIRE THING OUT FOR ME.”

Dan kept mentioning how sad he was that he couldn’t see Skyward and Skyward Christmas and Keith and I were like, “What is it with you and Skyward Christmas??”

Dan said, “If Skyward Christmas had been a success, then Suzy Gilstrap would be a pilot right now!”

Words cannot describe the hilarity. That that sentence would be said and that we all would know what he was talking about …

An hour and a half later, we were still howling about Suzy Gilstrap and it was now almost 11:30. Time for me to go. I had a long ride home. They walked me to the door and we were all still kind of hilarious and giggling – and I was laughing about Suzy Gilstrap the whole ride home.

Suzy Fucking Gilstrap. It’s probably just a matter of time before I get an email from a humorless person telling me it isn’t “nice” to “make fun” of people in wheelchairs. T-minus 10 seconds… here the email comes! But we were not “making fun”. The whole conversation just struck a funny-bone-nerve and EVERYTHING that happened was funny. We even found a freaky clip of Suzy Fucking Gilstrap on Youtube, dressed up as a cat, and playing a cassio. We watched it breathlessly, afraid for our lives. What were we looking at?? She had become mythological to us.

Skyward (and yes, Dan, Skyward Christmas) need to be released and we need to have a big screening of it. If not, then we can just invite a ton of people – and I can act out the entire movie for everyone, yet again.

It would be an honor. All for Suzy Gilstrap.

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24 Responses to How Suzy Gilstrap hijacked our evening

  1. ted says:

    Aside from always being happy to remember that night on which we knew we were friends, this is a fabulous, breathless essay. So much fun. There has got to be some magazine that would love this!

  2. just1beth says:

    Pulled herself up by her Gilstraps-haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahahahahahahahhhahahaha! I NEED to meet these men!!!! Can I come to your screening??

  3. mitchell says:

    im literally laying in bed…laughing out loud with tears streaming down….that is soooo fucking funny..i cant stand it!

  4. mitchell says:

    oh and btw…i saw it too.

  5. David says:

    This is freaking hilarious. I basically live for nights like this!

  6. Erik says:

    So this (hilarious) post sent me down the IMDB rabbit hole, to check out Suzy Gilstrap’s page, then the Skyward page, etc., and then I had to see what Lisa Whelchel’s been up to since Facts of Life, and I got so sad when I saw that the first bit of Lisa Whelchel trivia listed was this nugget: “Lisa is a licensed pilot.”

    My first thought was: “So Lisa got to become a pilot but Suzy Gilstrap didn’t?!?!?”

  7. Stevie says:

    Okay, so your post is already the number three Google entry on Suzy Gilstrap. Oh God, IMDB has the following: “Trivia: She is a real life paraplegic.” Gulp. And that Youtube clip is truly upsetting. I totally love your evening – a meeting of minds with kindred spirits. Is there anything better in all the world? xxx Stevie

  8. Jayne says:

    Oh my god, I’m reading along, reading along, and suddenly I REMEMBER THIS MOVIE! I SAW IT TOO! I felt like I suddenly fit in.

  9. red says:

    Mitchell – I actually remember you and me discussing this film. And then I casually brought it up to Alex and she was literally ANGRY that she had never seen it.

    “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said to me.

    hahahaha

  10. mitchell says:

    teehee..u called it a film!

  11. red says:

    bwahahahahahaha

  12. red says:

    Stevie – the fact that I am # 3 on Google for Suzy Gilstrap is disturbing! But I did expect that. I hope she’s okay with her life AND I hope she DID become a pilot and Lisa Whelchel wasn’t the only one of that bunch to fly the friendly skies!

  13. Stevie says:

    Totally! Many of the Facts of Life girls had pilot potential. Cap’n Tootie – has a nice ring to it.

  14. jean says:

    “Potsie wrote Skyward”?????!!!! That is f ing hysterical!

  15. nightfly says:

    By now, I’d be surprised if you didn’t get an email from Suzy Gilstrap herself. Your life tends to happen like that.

  16. red says:

    I hope she finds me! I would love to hear what she is doing. And dammit, I want Skyward to be released.

  17. A Ashdon says:

    Suzy Freaking Gilstrap was the worst actress ever.

    I’ve been wheeling all my life from physical disabilities and those Skyward movies were the bane of my teen years.

    Every fool who watched it had to verbally abuse me as a pep talk or ask me why didn’t I learn to fly so I could leave my wheelchair at the airport {hell I could have my wheelchair left behind by skycaps while flying on any commercial airline}.

    I found Susie Gilstrap’s two Skyward films and guest episode on Little House on the Prairie {titled’Deerest Albert’} set backs in disability awareness. The girl played pouty bratty roles.

    I was so happy to see her 15 seconds of fame end.

  18. Glenn says:

    I have a copy of both “Skyward” and “A Skyward Christmas”. I have been an avid aviation enthusiast for as long as I can remember. Back in 1980 I was a Freshman in high school (Wharton, Texas) and this movie pushed all the right buttons. I eventually graduated from a flight school in Waco, TX in 1988, and while there I made a trip to the Rockwall airport just to see it first hand; I even met a fellow who told me a bit about the way things were set up on the airport during the filming. Via email I contacted the pilot that owned the Stearman used in the movie. I was sad to find out that it was only in parts now. I also was in contact with one of the producers. Funny thing, he didn’t even have a copy of the movie so I sent him one. He was a nice guy and told me tons of what went on behind the scenes. Thanks for your post, it was hillarious.

  19. Wendy says:

    I am desperate to get a copy of Skyward Christmas because I was actually an extra in the film. I went to McKinney High School and the director came to our high school and chose extras from a big group of kids who signed up. I met Ron Howard and Anson Williams. Now I would love to show my kids that mom was an extra in a movie. If anyone can make me a copy, I would be happy to pay for it plus shipping. My email address is wvarner2000@netscape.net.

  20. joseph w. says:

    OK some strange trivia here. Is Suzy Gilstrap now Suzy Barbieri? I know she went from being Karen Kehela’s assistant to co-producing Blue Crush as Suzy Barbieri. Maybe she married a guy named Barbieri. IMDB won’t say it but if you look elsewhere, Suzy Barbieri was an assistant on movies such as Chamber and Nutty Professor but also produced Blue Crush. On IMDB you won’t find Suzy Barbieri on those movies but there is Ms. Gilstrap.

    There is no info currently on Ms. Barbieri but I continue the search…

  21. red says:

    Check out this article from Variety about Barbieri with a photo – I believe it is the same woman. Looks like her!

  22. joseph w. says:

    Yes she is – and doing well for herself.
    Kudos, Suzi!

  23. red says:

    Now all we need is a release of Skyward and Skyward Christmas on DVD, for a general audience.

    Come ON, powers-that-be – get to it!!!

  24. Petee says:

    If anyone has a copy of ‘Skyward’, would they please contact me?!? It’s one of only eight Bette Davis films I don’t have. cdpetee@aol.com