She Collected Lava Lamps (My Time With Monica Johnson)

Written by Gary Austin

In 1971 I was an acting client at Compass Management in Beverly Hills. The agency was owned by Garry Marshall and Fred Roos, and the managers were Herb Molina and Pat McQueeney.

The client list included Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams, Penny Marshall, Martin Sheen, Howard Hesseman, Lynne Marie Stewart and more.

Pat asked me if I would like to meet a Compass client, actress Monica Belson, and work up an audition scene with her. Monica and I met and we selected a scene from a western comedy Movie Of The Week, written by her brother Jerry Belson.

We began rehearsing and in between meetings we spent lots of “money” speaking on the phone. This was before cell phones of course.

I don’t recall Monica ever telling me a joke, but she gave me laughing fits. Monica’s was a different kind of “funny” than any kind of “funny” I’ve ever known. I never thought of her as “The Funniest Man I Ever Met.” That moniker I reserve for the late Kip King. I don’t even think of her as the funniest “anyone” I ever met. She was Monica. Mention her name to anyone who knew her and you’ll get at least a chuckle and a Monica story.

Monica said things that were other-worldly and mind boggling and “where did that come from,” yet simple and oh-so truthful coming out of who she was. Her words were spoken dead-pan and so honestly that the outrageousness of what she said seemed perfectly logical.

Monica was in “Mensa.” If there is such a thing as genius, she came pretty close.

We decided to write sit com together (with Garry Marshall as our mentor), which we did for about a year or more in 1971-72. I spent many a night on her couch as we worked late into the night and then took it up again at dawn.

Monica usually spent her days in curlers and a nightgown. When we went shopping together she usually didn’t bother to dress or remove her curlers.

I was at her wedding to Andy Johnson, a marriage which lasted a very short time. Thus the name, Monica Johnson.

Monica became a student in my improvisational acting workshops and we improvised together at The Comedy Store in The Comedy Store Players.

One sunny afternoon Monica showed up where I was staying in Baldwin Hills (she lived in Sherman Oaks), and asked me if I wanted to go for a ride. I did and after we had gone some way, she announced that we were going to Las Vegas for the weekend. I told her that wouldn’t be possible on such short notice… that I had to take care of my dogs and that I would be without a change of underwear. I insisted in dramatic (as opposed to comedic) fashion that she take me home. After driving across much of LA toward Vegas, she relented and returned me to my abode.

I soon found that I didn’t enjoy writing sit com, and so we stopped writing together and our paths diverged. Monica went on to great success writing for TV’s The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Odd Couple, LaVerne and Shirley and more. She became a producer for LaVerne and Shirley and famously showed up for work in nightgown and curlers. She said she didn’t like producing because she had to show up on time.

Monica teamed with Albert Brooks to write (with Harry Shearer) “Real Life,” a 1979 comedy that marked Brooks’ feature film directorial debut.

Monica Johnson co-wrote four more films with Albert Brooks, directed by and starring Brooks: “Modern Romance” (1981), “Lost in America” (1985), “Mother” (1996) and “The Muse” (1999). They won a New York Film Critics Circle Award for best screenplay for “Mother.”

Monica and Brooks also co-wrote (with Andrew Bergman) “The Scout,” a Michael Ritchie-directed 1994 comedy starring Brooks and Brendan Fraser.

Enough of credits… Monica was a true friend. Between the years of 1973 and 2009 the only contact we had was one phone call (on cell phones). A year ago we found each other on Facebook and began emailing. It was another of those “no time had passed” moments. Monica invited Wenndy and I to come visit her in her home in Palm Springs. “Yes of course we will.” And we would have.

On November 1st our mutual friend Steve Bluestein called to say that Monica had passed away that morning from cancer. I didn’t know she had the disease.

Wenndy and I attended her memorial last week. It was a funny, sad and joyous occasion.

A card was handed out to each of us with pictures of Monica and her wishes.

“Just one last thing… please make sure ‘she collected lava lamps’ is in my obit if newspapers still exist.”

And, “That’s it..no more doom and gloom from me..who got kicked off idol last night?”

For thirty-six years of not seeing Monica I always knew she was “here.”

I will miss knowing she’s “here.”

My love to Heidi,

Gary

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5 responses to “She Collected Lava Lamps (My Time With Monica Johnson)

  1. Beautiful.

  2. It was a special time for me Heidi.

    Your mom was a true friend.

    Gary

  3. Gee, I’m sorry I didn’t know Monica. From her credits, I know she entertained me. Her trademark curlers and lack of pretense make me regret I didn’t have a chance to be her friend. Thanks for sharing this, Gary. I love lava lamps even when the lava shapes occasionally resemble poop. I hope Monica had a few mood rings too.

  4. Thank you Gary, for your article on Ms. Johnson. Your articles are so well-written. I took the opportunity to look through her FB memorial pictures, I hope that’s OK. What a talented beauty she was. What a life she lived. You were lucky to have known her.

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