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Recession is the emotional roll of a lifetime for actor

March 18, 2009|STEVE LOPEZ

If you've seen that wacky TV commercial for Chili's, the one in which a hot dog man slingshots a wiener clear across a busy street and all the way up and through an office window to fill a lunch order, you've seen Jason Singer.

The hot dog vendor is a journeyman actor, which means, of course, that he has a day job: Singer works Hollywood awards ceremonies and puts together parties for studio and corporate events.

But in this quicksand economy, the acting jobs are as infrequent as summer rain, and the events are either canceled or never scheduled. So at 44, Singer's bank account is down to a few shekels, and he is not far from begging for work as, oh, I don't know. Maybe a real-life hot dog vendor.

So how does Singer cope?

"I had a long, bizarrely strong and debilitating cry the other day," he wrote on his website March 5, saying he'd gone through half a box of Kleenex in a single session with his therapist.

Writing has become a daily exercise for Singer, who once played Nathan Detroit in a touring production of "Guys and Dolls." Gathering thoughts is a time-killer and a way to work through his frustrations.

"But this was a once-in-a-blue-moon cry," he wrote. "The kind of cry that makes it hard to breathe, shoulders heaving, capillaries around the eyelids bursting left and right."

When I went to see Singer at Toast, the Mid-City coffee shop he frequented when times were better, he didn't look like a man in despair. He still had his sense of humor, anyway.

Teachers are losing their jobs in this economy, and to be perfectly frank, it's easier for me to feel their pain than the pain of a guy in a Chili's commercial. But the entertainment industry is a huge piece of the L.A. economy, and as Singer pointed out over breakfast, Hollywood's fall is being felt by electricians, carpenters, caterers and other bit players.

"My mom really worries about what's going on," he said. "I tell her, 'Mom, I'm uniquely qualified for this. I've been broke all my life. I'm an actor!' "

But yes, he admitted over an egg sandwich, this has been pretty bleak. The floor opens beneath you, you fall, and then you realize the descent has only just begun.

Bills pile up. Old reliable contacts have no work for you. Friends are no help; their own denial is giving way to a kind of fear that's all too familiar.

"I started to call the catering companies, first as a manager and then as a server. Nothin'," Singer wrote on . "Asked about managerships at area restaurants. Nothin'. Started to ask about waiting gigs. Nothin'. A week later, after battling the three weeks of illness, I saw my account hit bottom."

When he got over the flu, he had jury duty -- not that that's necessarily better. During a lunch break, he went to a burger joint near the courthouse, ate something foul and turned green, which landed him in the hospital for a few hours with an IV drip. It was like being in a sitcom, except there was no money in it.

Singer gave up his premium channels, switched to a cheaper cellphone plan, dumped the trainer, gave up the lattes -- a recession package that isn't going to make anyone's heart bleed.

He also tried thinking about the bright side but came up with a very short list: He had nothing for Bernie Madoff to steal, he could play saxophone at weddings if worse came to god-awful, and he had no wife and kids to support.

"Good thing I'm single 'cause if I had a gal pal this would be about the time we'd have to spend serious quantities of time together in lieu of restaurants and wine," he wrote in that March 5 essay.

Any psychiatrists out there? Did you catch that?

A man who jokes about the joys of being single, in the middle of an essay about despair, is probably not really a happy bachelor.

When I asked Singer about it, he stopped eating, paused long enough to recall every lost girlfriend, and wiped away a tear.

"The downturn makes me think about things," he said.

Such as?

"That I'm single, and that really sucks."

He fell silent again, staring down at his plate.

"I'd rather be working than thinking about being alone."

Maybe that loneliness is one reason he loved work so much, he admitted, and why he considers himself really bad at being unemployed.

Working an event or doing a voice-over, playing a hot dog vendor or doing a guest appearance on "Monk" or "Medium," was a full-time diversion, a gratifying act of denial about the nature of what Singer truly wanted.

But if a steady mate is what he's wanted all along, why doesn't he have one?

Ahhhhhh, said his therapist when I asked that question of her, that's the $64,000 question.

(Why, you ask, is he still paying a therapist if he's so broke? The answer in a minute.)

"A lot of people I see have not connected, which is what therapy is all about," she said, speaking with Singer's permission.

The therapist told me she's seeing a lot of terrified, out-of-work people, and for some -- as for Singer -- the condition has brought them face-to-face with deeper questions about themselves.

It's like a double-whammy; unemployment followed by identity crisis.

"Do I really want to do this? Do I really want to be . . . in Hollywood?"

Singer will be fine, the therapist predicts. Some people never have the good cry, the way he did, and some never know what the cry was about.

Singer touched on that when he wrote that the first step to rising up again is to admit fears and to recognize the lessons revealed by hard times.

"This is the time to put away the tears, roll up the sleeves, help each other off the ground and ideally. . . . get a therapist like mine," he wrote. "She let me slide on my payment for the session."

--

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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