Commentary: Like a Ninja…Turtle

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No good deed goes unpunished. You’ve all heard this before but I learned it the hard way.

In 1990 we had a big party for my grandma’s 90th birthday. Family flew in, there were great tributes and all the other loving pomp and circumstance. As a special treat, my brother had the singer of his band come over to the house after the party and entertain my grandma with a private show. One special song was “Unchained Melody,” which brought a tear to my grandma’s eye. As I suspect, she was moved by the sweet performance and perhaps by her reflection back on her life and the husband she lost in 1979.

“I need your love. God speed your love to me.”

It was a wonderful night and very special for the whole Cohn family.

But then a few weeks later the singer asked if my brother would return the favor. This was a big one. The singer asked if my brother would come to his son’s birthday party out in Highland and perform for him and his friends. Oh, and could he bring his brother Blair, too.

Perform?

Yeah, as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Say what?

I reluctantly agreed. How could I not after the guy had been so sweet to granny.

The dreaded day came and we drove out to Highland. I had no idea how far Highland really was. It’s far enough to give you plenty of time to meditate on your impending debut performance as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.

We were told by our host that we were just supposed to make an appearance to the birthday boy and guests when the pizza was delivered. That seemed easy enough, but all I knew was that the turtles were named after renaissance artists. I could probably handle it.

We sat in a camper down the street so we could remain anonymous and put our costumes on. The camper was our “Green Room.” Literally. After we had our pajama-like clothes on we noticed that my brother’s mask didn’t fit him well enough and the back of his head and neck were showing. For authenticity’s sake, we had to quickly improvise and drape a green napkin over his neck so he’d be all turtle. Strike one.

The party at the house was in full swing and loaded with people by the time we were dressed and good to go. As our call time got closer I sat quietly in my green clothes giving my brother a look of pure misery. He gave a maniacal, knowing laugh about the situation. He knew we were in for it.

After making our plan for the grand entrance we walked up to the house. We convinced ourselves that it was going to be great–The kids would love us and cheer. They’d get turtles and pizza.

We opened the front door, jumped in and yelled our introductions:

Brother: “I’m Michaelangelo!”

Me: “I’m Donatello!”

Together: “And we LOVE BEING TURTLES!”

Silence.

No reaction. You could cut the air it was so still. People stared. Not one of the twenty kids huddled together reacted. Not a smile, a yell, a scream, or a hooray! In fact, the only movement in the room was from the guy sitting on the couch who stared and then slowly took a drink of his beer. Strike two.

Now what? Not even the host tried to rescue us.

My brother started to pace, and I knew he was in panic mode. If you could have seen under my mask you would have seen the three shades of crimson blush displaying my absolute horror and embarrassment. At that moment it became the most embarrassing moment in my life, surpassing the time in junior high when a girl snuck into the boys’ locker room and saw me naked.

I wasn’t a performer, I wasn’t used to being an entertainer, and we just tanked it. We skulked our way through this morgue of a party into the kitchen area.

Then the host told us that the pizza delivery was going to be thirty minutes late, and we had to go out in the backyard and entertain the kids. Strike three. That was the worst thing that we could have heard. This was going to be prolonged misery. I followed my brother’s nervous pacing past the packs of disinterested relatives out to the backyard. All I could focus on was that green napkin over his neck that was doing a poor job.

Once out in the backyard I felt even more exposed and clueless. And for some reason my turtle character broke into an English accent. I had no other ideas. I was 25 at the time and knew nothing about being a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle or what the kids expected. I had never seen one episode of the cartoon. I ended up just doing wind sprints back and forth across the lawn speaking in my accent. I think I was trying my best to kill time and not have to talk to the kids. I was like a balloon let go in a room just flailing around. I was possessed by the nervous stage fright. The kids would come up and say something and I’d respond as a Cockney Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle then run off. It was my nervous energy and adrenaline that kept me moving. I think the kids were really, really confused.
One girl said to me, “You don’t sound like a ninja turtle.” I answered, “You’re bloody well right!” and I sprinted off.

I don’t even know what my brother was doing this whole time among the swarming kids.

The pizza was finally delivered and we all filed into the house to surround the birthday boy and sing him Happy Birthday. At least people participated in that.

As pizza, cake, and ice cream were brought out, and as the unphased and unaffected relatives and guests grabbed their plates, we said goodbye and walked out of the house unnoticed. Just before we got out the door the host handed us a large pizza box and thanked us.

We hurried it back to the camper to change our clothes in record time and then speed-walked it to our car.

We got onto the freeway and drove in silence for the first few miles, both processing what had just happened to us. I think we both let out a primal scream shortly after that. And that pizza box which was our payment-via-snack, had three cold, slim slices with one partially eaten crust tossed in, too. Out came a mad rush of manic laughter and whining at the same time.

I gave up any idea of being a performer. And I don’t love being a turtle. (Somewhere deep in the Cohn archives is the one photo from the party and we’ll just keep it there.)

P.S. Highland is an even farther drive home when you have been humiliated.