Sir Ian & Brenda v. CJ: The Final Bell

RYBAK: It’s so hard to keep up with the folks on DishZilla C.J.’s shit list: it just keeps growing all the time. This week she trashed respected KSTP reporter Bob McNaney–not really for remarks he made at the Midwest Emmys, as she wrote in her column– but because he never makes remarks to the Strib gossip. And as people who really don’t want to deal with C.J. know–like an elephant, she never forgets.

Evidently, another person on her "must trash" list is Twin Cities’ star restauranteuse Brenda Langton (Cafe Brenda, Spoonriver), who was the focus of a big C.J. "scoop" a few weeks back because her restaurant allegedly turned away actor Ian McKellen–then appearing at the Guthrie as King Lear–because he came before the restaurant opened, or didn’t want to sit at a table–or who the hell knows why, given C.J.’s convoluted copy.

We were subsequently shocked, SHOCKED to learn that Sir Ian held a different view of that column item, as evidenced by his handwritten note on a faxed copy of the October 10 column. "Don’t believe a word you read in the Star Tribune," it reads.

Skeptics might be further assuaged by this picture of Sir Ian with Brenda and and Lear co-star Jonathan Hyde, who played the Earl of Kent.

The Strib has steadfastly ignored complaints about C.J., preferring instead to praise her regular appearance as one of the top columnists (on and off line) at the paper (not really that hard to do if you’re writing about media, gossip or sports, three of the reading public’s favorite topics/guilty pleasures).

Why would this change just because one of the world’s greatest living actors thinks she sucks (and, now, the paper as well)?

Perhaps the Pioneer Press’s marketing department (if it still has one) should give the McKellen note a look…it could make a dandy billboard, don’t you think?

LAMBERT: I called Ms. Langton, a.k.a. Brenda, this morning to get a little better idea how this CJ classic actually went down. I mean, the clear inference from the Oct. 10 column was that Brenda’s clueless, rube-like people had snubbed the great actor and … uh, maybe … we might imagine … McKellen was miffed. Right? (Again, hard to tell from the column.)

"It was just so stupid," Brenda remembers. "She [CJ] called up and was just so super nasty. She had this tone. And she’s saying things like, ‘Do you have weekly meetings?’ Uh, yes, CJ, we have staff meetings. What’s your point? ‘Well, don’t you think you might want to put up pictures of all the famous people in town so your staff recognizes them if they come in?’"

Brenda’s response was a steely, "No." She explains — and I freely admit we’re deep into This Has Nothing to Do With the Price of Rice territory — that she spotted McKellen looking at a Spoonriver menu one afternoon as she was on the phone, coincidentally enough, to the Guthrie. By the time she got off, the aged, rumpled McKellen, who doesn’t exactly have the same recognizablity quotient as, say, George Clooney, had left. Brenda asked her staff what happened, and they explained that, it being 5 p.m., they didn’t have a table free right then and McKellen didn’t have time to wait. No volcanic outrage on the great man’s part. Busy restaurant. Tight schedule. Can’t make it today. It happens.

Long(ish) story short, Brenda calls her Guthrie pal to tell them to tell McKellen she’s very sorry and she’ll find a spot for him. Word gets back that McKellen was not at all offended but couldn’t make it back that day; he would however try again. Still, at this point, no harm, no foul, no snubbing, no nothing — except the insinuation in the area’s largest newspaper that the provincial Midwest chowderheads bungled an opportunity to serve a lion of the theater.

Such a nice, light touch.

Anyway, according to Brenda, McKellen, true to his word, stops in a few days later. Again at 5. The restaurant is full. But this time Brenda jumps in and offers him and fellow actor Hyde "executive dining" in her tiny kitchen office. McKellen likes the idea. "Mah-velous! Mah-velous," he says. Lear must eat! Brenda tosses on a crisp white tablecloth, and the two men enjoy a fine meal before posing for a picture and heading back over to the office.

"They were both wonderful," says Brenda. "Ian went around and greeted everyone in the kitchen."

At some point, someone mentions CJ’s column to McKellen, and Hyde cracks something to the effect, about how, in general, "You can’t trust these papers." Off that cue, Sir Ian merrily autographs a Xerox of CJ’s Oct. 10 opus, which Brenda might well-consider framing by the front door. It’s a terrific reverse-barometer review, in a way.

"Famous people have been coming in for years," says Brenda. "Joe Perry of Aerosmith came back to talk to (the kitchen staff) one time. Elvis Costello comes in every time he is town. So does k.d. Lang. But I’m not about to pounce on people. You know?" (She says she hasn’t done the Sardi’s or Carnegie Deli thing and framed pictures of her famous clientele, but may start. "I’m 50 now. So what the hell, right?)"

She says CJ — who is nothing if not relentless — comes around frequently demanding to know, as opposed to "asking" — who has been in. (That velvet touch thing is so overrated, you know.) "She’s mad because I don’t tell her who has been in."

Brenda says she didn’t send CJ a copy of the autograph but did kick over a copy of the group photo you see here. "She didn’t see the humor in it. She called and asked if someone was playing a practical joke on her."

If there’s a bottom line to this "issue" it’s an almost pathological deficit of humor. But that’s not news, is it?