Toad the Mime

Toad the Mime was a character that I made famous in the late 1970’s San Francisco.  During this time a large picture of Toad’s face would greet a passerby and passing motorist on a freeway billboard. The cover was my face from San Francisco Magazine welcoming everyone to San Francisco.

I came from an old fifth generation San Francisco family.  My father was a violinist with the Orpheum Theatre, my mother a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner. My brother was, and still is, a very talented Jazz musician. At the time, I was a working actress with the American Conservatory Theatre.  I was lucky enough to get into the original production of the musical “HAIR,” portraying the pregnant girl, Jeannie.

One day, I saw a story about a very pretty, male mime in Union Square.  His name was Robert Shields. Robert always likes to boast that he was the very first street mime, and perhaps he was.  All I know is that he inspired me to start working as a street artist. I worked solely in Ghiaredelli Square and the Cannery at Fisherman’s Wharf where stages were built for me.

I was thankful to Robert Shields for having inspired me, but in real life he never helped me; in fact, I believe we must have had some past life Karma together.  He may have been one of the innocent village men I killed in a past life who came back in this one seeking revenge, because he always seemed to go out of his way to put me down and take jobs away from me.  Still, I think we respected each other; at least, I know I respected him. — and all the other wonderful street artists.

I was very young, and I wondered what to do next with my life. Everything seemed to me such an adventure, and I had just returned from traveling around the world on a Crystal Ship — just like the Doors song.  The ship was a college called Chapman College Seven Seas.

I performed my first street mime show near the mountains in Nariobi, Africa dancing to the rhythm of a man playing a Zebra drum. Neither of us knew the others language, but movement and dance
made us family. Because of my dance he gave
me his drum.

I studied with some of the greatest mimes of the time: Jean Louis Barroult, Marcel Marceau, Carlos Mazzone, and my favorite mentor, the Japanese mime, Mamako Yoenyama. 

It was an exciting time.  Many wonderful performers were working outside doing street performance.  It was our Vaudeville.  There was Noel Parenti, Bari Rolfe, The Pickle Family Circus, Ray the Juggler, Whitney Brown, Mark Pita, Bob the Puppet Man, the Trumpet Man, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Rene the Dancing Lady — the blonde woman who danced with the Grateful Dead – just to name a few. So many artists, so many stories.

What so intrigued me about this type of performing was that I myself had a fear of silence.  I hated that uncomfortable feeling I would get while sitting in a room full of people during moments when no one had anything to say. It was like throwing a ball of uncomfortable silence into the middle of the room.  Everyone would just look at each other, and this would cause me extreme discomfort. I surmised that I had better take a close look at what it was that frightened me, because I believed that if something made you afraid, you should face the fear.  Putting on whiteface I went down to the Cannery and did my first street show.  I think I made $10 dollars that day.  I saw all these people walking past me not caring, and I thought to myself, “No this can’t be happening.  This is worse than silence, because no one is even looking at me!”
I knew I couldn’t copy any other performer, so I decided I must create my own magic.

The next day I returned, bringing with me my favorite music –-
I loved the horns and the beat. It was funky but still had great rhythm to it.

Hanging up my costumes in the trees, I laid down my hat on the ground for collecting money, tied my little puppy CoCo to a chair and started dancing.  This time, though, I danced not for the
people but for myself.  I moved through the air, leaping and jumping, thinking to myself, “it’s time to start my show,” when to my amazement I noticed that there were about 150 people all
frozen in various poses — some carrying shopping bags, others just looking dazed. I began to draw them closer until I broke what we actors call, the proscenium arch. I went out into the crowd flirting madly and started bringing people up on stage with an imaginary rope.  I lassoed someone and we pretended to ride a mime horse together. I brought someone else up with me, and we had an imaginary gun duel. 

It was magic! And, thus, Toad the Mime was born.

I later added a piano to my act played by a wonderful man named David Paquette.  David had a gold tooth with a note on it.  He later bought a bar in Lahina, Maui.

I also met Paul Scanlon and his trained dog Brownie Bag Bottom. Brownie would fall over playing dead after Paul aimed a toy gun at him and pulled the trigger causing a sign to pop out that said Bang
Whitney Brown juggled, and so did Mike Davis.  Both men went on to become famous, Whitney on Saturday Night Live and Mike for the Follies in New York.

I also fondly remember Joe McCord who called himself Dolphin the Mime – everybody in those days was something the Mime.
Joe’s story always amused me, because he was really a man’s clown.  Joe would wear blue makeup on his face and do mimes like pretending to slip in dog doo.

One day at the Cannery Joe asked me if he could do my set.  Reluctantly I said “yes.” During his performance a man put $1000 dollars in Joe’s hat.  This was a lot of money to all of us in those days.  A good day working the street a performer would be lucky to bring in $100 to $150.  Of course I said to Joe, “Hey, don’t you think I should get half the hat?” to which he replied: “No I am going to Switzerland to find Charlie Chaplin and ask him his secret to comedy mime.”  So Joe went to Switzerland and found Chaplin who was not happy to find this guy knocking on his door. When Chaplin finally opened the door Joe was so much in awe of him that all he could manage to say was, “What is the secret to your comedy?”  Chaplin replied:  “I always wore my shoes on the opposite feet.” 

Another story I remember about Joe was when he went swimming in the ocean one day.  After swimming a while he suddenly got cramps. He was bent over, and the cramps were so bad he realized he was starting to drown.  Suddenly, he felt I sharp nudge in his back.  This further frightened Joe, because he thought it was a shark.  The intruder, whatever it was, managed to push Joe all the way back to shore, saving his life.  When he had recovered enough to look he saw that his savior had been a dolphin swimming just within the reef.  Realizing it had been a dolphin and not a shark he swam and out and played with the dolphin.   After a while he noticed a whole school of dolphins waiting for this one lone Dolphin. The Dolphin finally swam back to its school, and from that day on Joe began taking boats out in to the ocean, where, accompanied by a flautist, he would do mime for the dolphins.

Robin Williams, Greg Dean, Professor Irwin Corey and Francis Ford Coppola were some of the regulars who would join in and play with me during my shows. Many characters came to watch.  One elderly man played a saw. Unfortunately the only song he knew was She’s only a Bird in a Gilded Cage.

These pictures bring many stories to mind — opening for Bill Graham’s rock and roll venues and for Pink Floyd in England when they did Bring down the Wall. Traveling through Japan (Story), performing in China, England, Africa, and Japan and throughout 350 colleges in the United States.  I also fondly remember working with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, choreographing the rock video Bette Davis Eyes; doing the New Laugh In with Robin Williams, Frank Sinatra, Henry Fonda, Shirley Maclain, Bea Arthur, Jimmy Stewart, Wayland Flowers and many other greats.  It was an exciting time for me.

During this period I met a wonderful man named Jim Baldochhi who became my stage manager.  Jim was 6’ 6” tall, and during some of my performances I made him wear a tutu with white tights in my show.  Jim would have preferred to wear a bag over his head.   He was my rock and roll angel who would do a dance at the end of each show and fling me in the air to Jimi Hendrix music.  Jim usually had the most girls around him after the shows, so I don’t believe the illusion hurt his masculine image any no matter how much he might have complained about dressing up like that.

I later met Chris Huson who looked like a tall Elton John. Chris played piano and mini moog synthesizer.  He did all the music, voiceovers and percussions for my shows.  I used to kid him that if I could, I would tape cymbals to his eyebrows. Sometimes just to tease him I would also put him in the show.  One particular funny moment happened when I was opening for Steve Martin.

I was fortunate during my career as a mime to have been given some grants, which enabled me to bring mime to the blind. I also did mime with animals. One in particular whom I adored was Margie the elephant. Margie loved little sour lemon candies.  I would give her one in the morning, rubbing her big tongue with it, and then I would throw it way back in her mouth.  Later in the afternoon when I would come back, she would see me and pretend to be still sucking on it. Animals recognize humans by their faces, not by smell as many people think. 

I also performed in mental hospitals, for veterans and the elderly.  During one of my performances at a senior citizens home an elderly woman suddenly stood up, looked around, walked right through my illusion of a box and said to me: “Bring me some Coffee, which, of course, I did.

Herb Cain, a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote about my antics every week. I even made the San Francisco tour books as one of the sights to see.

There were some very talented Improv groups during the period I was performing as a mime.  I discovered that I also had a knack for Improv, and I loved to do it.  My favorite improv group, The Committee, let me open for them for a while. One night while performing my mime act I wondered why no one was laughing. Eventually I looked out into the audience and noticed that all the people had on dark glasses and were bearing canes with them. Listening closely, I heard guides narrating for them, whispering things like, “She’s feeling a glass wall,” and all the people would say, “ah.”  I had been set up, of course, but it was what gave me the idea to bring the art form to the blind.  I still remember looking off stage and seeing all the Committe members laughing. 

I performed on many television variety shows.  When they did a cartoon about Robin Williams and myself Robin said, “You know you’ve made it when they make a cartoon about you.” I was so proud of this accomplishment. 

Steve Martin encouraged me to take off my white face and come to Los Angeles, a place I never wanted to come to. I still reside there, and I know I have stayed too long.  That Hollywood never get old myth is one of the greatest ones.  After four one-woman shows, and countless adventures doing improv and comedy, I have come to realize that I have lived in La La Land too long. One day I was standing outside a supermarket with my dog when a man asked me how old my dog was.  I replied by lying about my dog’s age! 


Thank you for letting me share these stories with you.  Looking at some of these pictures makes me want to share one final thought with you readers.  At the time many of these pictures were taken I was not pleased with how I looked.  I didn’t think I was attractive.  This was not true; of course, I was just different.

Always remember there is nothing wrong with being different.  Take pride in who you are as a person. You don’t have to be the best; just have heart and don’t make fun of others.  Play with them, involve them, but don’t make fun of them. 
And remember:  You are bigger then anything that can happen to you.  Just don’t forget to laugh…it’s the laughter that can heal you!

Toad the Mime