My conversation with Ellen Burstyn

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I’m probably  jaded but for the most part covering the celeb angle at the inauguration for USA Today was no different than covering any other celeb event. I’m sure had I been assigned one of the 10 official balls then I wouldn’t write this because I would have hopefully been inside to see the First Couple dance to “At Last.”

Instead, I spent last night at a charity ball thrown by the Recording Industry Association of America and Feeding America. The bash, at Ibiza nightclub, turned out to be the place to be with a slew of celebs, including hosts David Arquette and wife Courteney Cox, Rihanna, who performed, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kanye West, T.I., Shakira, Rosanna Arquette, Herbie Hancock, Russell Simmons, Josh Groban and others. The red carpet was the same as the other glitterati-filled events I’ve covered over the years except the stars brimmed with hope about the future of America.

The previous night I covered Rock the Vote’s party, where Sheryl Crow and the Beastie Boys performed, at 9:30 Club. Afterward I hit Jay-Z’s after party, thrown by Jamie Foxx, at Ibiza. And the night before that I covered the Jessica Alba-hosted “Declare Yourself” soiree at the Renaissance Hotel, where John Legend, Jamie Foxx and Maroon 5 performed. Again, all seemed like just another party except for comments made by the stars when interviewed. When I walked into the “Declare Yourself” party after finishing my interviews in an adjacent room, there was a weird vibe. Without me mentioning my thoughts, a fellow journalist I bumped into said the party had the feel of a “dental convention.” Bingo! I couldn’t put my finger on it.

We’re too accustomed to elaborate, Hollywood parties with creative decorations and glamour girls in the latest designer fashions. D.C. is a different animal and that’s not to criticize the nation’s capital. It’s just what it is. Needless to say, I wasn’t impressed without Barack and Michelle. A bellman at my hotel asked me, “Who did you see?” The same people I’ve been interviewing over the years. Just a different location and better quotes since they dealt with Obama.

Thank goodness on Monday I had a chance to have a lengthy, sit-down conversation with Academy Award-winning actress Ellen Burstyn at her hotel’s restaurant. We sipped tea (both brought our own tea bags) and talked race and politics. She told me how the spent the earlier part of the day speaking to a group of the nation’s top high school students at a program at the University of Maryland. She was selected to quote Obama during a staged reading of quotes from various people by members of the Creative Coalition. She started off by telling the students a story of how, after she graduated from high school in Detroit in the 1950s, she took a bus to Texas and while at rest stops in the south was surprised to see “for whites only” signs at bathrooms and water fountains for the first time in her life.

“I felt embarrassed and sad,” she said.

“Then when we got to Texas I got on a public bus. It was crowded and I was standing for a while.  Somebody got up. There was a vacant seat next to an African-American man and I sat down. He looked at me startled and jumped up. I didn’t know what was the matter.

“Then a white man sat down next to me and he said, ‘You a Yankee?’

“I said, ‘Yeah.’

“He said, ‘We don’t sit next to colored folks down here.’ I felt this shame come over me that went right into my heart. I said, ‘Today that shame is lifted on Martin Luther King’s birthday and I have the honor to read the words of our next president of the United States Barack Obama.’  Then I read his quote. It’s very  nice to have lived through this whole arc of time and seen where we were.”

I’m glad I had a chance to speak with Ellen, who, like me, lived in Italy for a while. She spent a year in Rome back in the 60s. Now she’s a New Yorker, like me. She had never been to an inauguration before but supported the president at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

While this latest election reflects hope to the young people, it is really the people of Ellen’s generation who are able to fully appreciate how far we have come and witnessed the change. I wish my mother, who died in 2001 at the age of 73, was around to see this day. I told Ellen how because my mother was born in Los Angeles, then she probably never saw “whites only” signs and never shared any stories of racism with me. I don’t know what she experienced. I can’t say she was a follower of politics. She, like so many others of us, always seemed skeptical of politicians and it’s a trait that was passed along to me. But I know, if she were here, some of that skepticism would be removed because of Barack Obama. I know it has with me.

Here’s Sheryl performing. She was really good!

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And here are the Beastie Boys, who really had the crowd going:

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