Essay: What’s in a Name?
By Pamela Gaye Walker
I was sitting on
the pot, minding my own business, contemplating potential acting work on the
West Coast after our hand-to-mouth existence in Chicago theatre.
Savoring the rare
moments of peace in a household with two kids and a 100-pound dog, I let my
mind wander over the age-old existential question: Who am I? Actress? Wife?
Mother? How will I be known in this new landscape of Hollywood after leaving
Chicago, where I’d made something of a
name for myself? One thing I’m sure of,
I won’t be silenced. I won’t
make myself small as I did when I was younger because my family wanted me to
shut up and be pretty—messages reinforced by my zealously religious mother,
patriarchal father, and a punch in the face by my older brother. No, this new
chapter in our lives was going to be the start of a conscious transformation
into the woman I know I am, no matter what label anyone else applies to me.
It was March and a
soft spring breeze blew back the handmade curtain I’d
rakishly stitched together before we could afford to shop at swanky places like
Restoration Hardware. Chicago’s bitter,
frigid winters had receded from my brain; no more trudging through a blizzard
to get to Lincoln Park for a waitressing gig; no more oily, filthy snow banked
up on slushy streets. Southern California was aglow with bougainvillea,
wisteria, and jacaranda trees. I could hear the high school band practicing
from the open, upstairs bathroom window. On a megaphone someone was singing the
lyrics to the school song, “Onward
Tigers, onward Tigers, forward to the fray…”
My husband and I
were living the American dream and building memories with our
girls—cheerleading, football games, Fourth of July parades, and fireworks on
the field. After doing general court-jestering in the principal’s
office back in Chicago to get our kids into a magnet school and busing them an
hour each way, they’d learned every curse
word imaginable. In comparison, our move to South Pasadena was like entering
Andy Griffith’s idyllic TV town of
Mayberry. I was overjoyed to be able to meet other parents and the girls’ friends, face-to-face, for the first time ever,
starting at the age of ten and thirteen. Kids would come over before dances and
other major events, as our charming Craftsman home was located two blocks from
the middle school and two blocks from the high school.
It was the best of
The hall phone
rang, breaking my reverie.
Stella, called down the upstairs hallway—“MOM! Telephone!”
“Oh, jeez, who…I’m busy, uh, say… Who…?”
not home… Who IS it? I’m on the
know no stinkin’ Sharon,” I jokingly yelled.
What? Frick. “What?
Okay! Okay, hold on.” Oh no…my
cover is blown. She’ll know…I poop? No. I’m a mom, not young anymore. She’ll think I’m a
FLUSH. I hurried
to the phone, dropping the hair dryer I’d dragged
down the hall by mistake. Smoothed the leg of my pants with the sweaty palm of
my hand, noticing I’d broken a nail in my
How about that. In a quest for calm, I drew in a long breath, grabbed a pen to
doodle, tried to kill a fly with the bottom of a nearby cup. The fly stumbled
aimlessly about, undead. I heard the innards of the house gurgle; something was
sluggish, the pipes. There was a smell of last night’s
leftovers emanating from the kitchen—the chipper tuna casserole I’d
made for the girls.
“Hello? Oh! Hi, how…how
are you, Sharon? Thanks for responding to my note.”
When we got to LA,
just shy of my fortieth year but still looking twenty, I had joined a group
called Fast Forward, a career accelerator of sorts, and one of our assignments
was to write a letter to a performer we admired, asking them if they would
consider being a mentor in a way that involved very little time commitment.
Even though I’d barely seen her
movies, I chose Ms. Stone because I admired her activism, so I carefully wrote
out the details of what a minimal, casual mentorship would look like. I sent
the note to her manager thinking this was a lesson in, well…truthfully?
Futility. Not my middle name yet, but cynicism was no stranger. Among other
crappy Lalaland realities, aging isn’t allowed
at the dream factory.
Stella skipped down the hall steps, tossing Beanie Babies in the air. Our
golden retriever, Dreyfus, barked below; someone was at the door. Sharon was
speaking from the other end of the phone. “Hello. I got your… Nice
to… I’m sorry, I can’t
be your mentor right now, I’m busy,
but I was so impressed with your résumé, and you’re
beautiful, I thought I’d call and
let you know.” Her voice had a dripping quality. She luxuriated, dropping her
voice at the end of a phrase like a 1940s movie star.
“Why, I appreciate that.
Thank you, thanks so much.” I talked over her with a bit too much exuberance.
She sniffed with
an air of nobility. “Do
you have any questions for me now?”
I felt unprepared,
and to make matters worse, Dreyfus was having a barking fit below. How embarrassing,
I thought, the general pandemonium and typical chaos inside these walls. If
they could talk, they might tell of last night’s
fight with my husband. If These Walls Could Talk—Sharon’s limited
series—considered what goes on behind closed doors, and here I was fresh from
last night’s marital storm.
Thinking on my
cold, bare feet, I proceeded. “My
agent is…well, uh…” I paused, ran my fingers along the dirty chair rail. “I’d love to hear your take on the importance of, uh…” She
was going to think I was a dolt if I didn’t come up
with a question tout de suite. “An…a
manager versus an agent.” The words from my mouth produced a dry, metallic
“Do you have a manager?”
I drew in a smidge
of breath, then elongated my exhale. I hedged my bets. “I have an agent, yes…but,
like all actors, we never think they’re good
Barking. Footsteps. Gurgling pipes, the smell. Chaos, pandemonium. I broke the
interminable pause with a girlish giggle.
“Well, let me give you the
name and number of my manager,” she offered. My jaw dropped as I screwed my
finger into my ear to be sure I heard her correctly. “You can get a hold of him
and pick his brain,” she added.
very generous.” I tried to act natural, as if of course she was going to share
her manager with little ol’ moi. She’d read my résumé,
after all. We were besties now.
I tossed my
partially highlighted hair, drew back, and widened my shoulders, pulled in my
stomach, and felt an inch taller. This was good. At five feet two and a half, I
needed to walk tall in Tinsel Town. I could hear my husband talking to the
plumber below. The mumbling downstairs roared with distractions, until: “Do
you think I should go by the name of Pam or Pamela?”
Kind of lame, I
thought, but she half laughed, amused. I put my hand over the mouthpiece,
scratched my ass, and listened intently for her response.
She finally cooed,
your fine credits, you need the grandeur of Pam-e-la.”
That Sharon has
some mighty fine basic instincts, I thought. She’s
right! Geez! What was I thinking—I must watch her movies!
I had always been
interested in something with gravitas. Joking aside—no Pamelala, Pamelama,
Pamelita. Pamela it would and must be. After all, here was Sharon Stone on the
other end of my very own home phone declaring the trisyllabic name like it was
As an actor, I
know the issue of what you call yourself runs more than skin deep. There’s a tradition of actors being renamed for the sake of
their careers. After all, would anyone think of Norma Jeane Mortenson as a sexy
bombshell? She became Marilyn Monroe. The beautiful, talented Rita Moreno was
born Rosa Dolores Alverío, which is lovely, but the studios had her change it.
Someone called Archibald Leach hardly conjured the image of a suave,
sophisticated gentleman—Cary Grant. And Tom Cruise? Would he have made it as
Thomas Mapother the Fourth?
world and across cultures, naming ceremonies for children are serious business.
Every ethnic and religious group has traditions and ceremonies welcoming
newborns and announcing the name that will identify the child. In a spiritual
circle, adopting a new name signifies a shift in identity. This issue of what to
call myself was not a frivolous exercise—it went straight to the core of not
only my professional life but my self-image as well. And the journey to making
peace with my name took several twists and turns.
My given name—Pam Gay—is unsophisticated, after all.
Unsatisfied with my name in the past, I had tried a couple of iterations, but I
mindlessly used this misnomer from birth through high school. And now?
An early sign of
my name challenge happened in 1989 outside Chicago’s
newly built Royal George Theatre, that magnificent edifice now directly across
from the groundbreaking Steppenwolf Theatre’s new
space. I’d handed a flier to a potential
patron who was studying the marquee: Pam Gay stars in Repeat with Madeline. The
photo was of me and another actress at a table gossiping; behind us was a nerdy
character vying for our attention. A startled look of recognition dawned on the
patron’s face as I talked up the show,
gesticulating wildly to keep her rapt attention.
“Let me tell ya,” I
bragged like a puffed-up pouter pigeon, “it’s
comical! Lots of humor, conflict, and then hilarity ensues!”
The patron pawed
the ground and sheepishly confessed in perfect Chicagoese, “Dat
you? Gay? I saw your ad in da paper. Your last name on da poster… I didn’t go because I thought it was one of dem gay shows, you
know, the two women, your name, and dat dere…Gay, maybe an activist name? I
didn’t…and I wasn’t…”
She pointed to the marquee, the flier, then delivered the final analysis. “So, well, NO. And dat dere.” We stared at
each other until her ride pulled up to the curb, revving the motor of his 1970s
I scrunched up my
face as if blinded by the sun, all the air deflated. “Anyway. It’s
a funny show,” I yelled back with an indignant flair. I made an inner bow, with
panache, mind you.
Picture where this
might have started. I came home from sixth grade one day wondering why I was
being teased all of a sudden. “So,
are you gay?” A kid named Steve with teeth like thumbtacks lifted the edge of
my skirt when he asked, causing me to drop a borrowed home economics book.
I asked Mom, “What’s gay mean?” My puritanical mother was rendered
speechless. Maybe she didn’t know
either. She stammered and finally told me to widen my grin, grit my teeth, and
cheerily say “Happy
gay!” How delightful! I practiced it around our 1,300-square-foot house,
inhabited by seven Gays. “Happy
gay!” I jumped high in the air, then threw my seventy-pound body on the couch ’til I thought the rafters shook. “I’m HAPPY-GAY!”
When I got my
union card, in my early twenties, I added an “e.” Simple, easy. Pamela
Gaye. My mom took issue with that. “Mom,
seriously? It’s an ‘e.’”
“Well, your father was
very proud of our name.” She huffed in her church lady way, clutching her
little 1970s hat to her tiny bodice.
“Who names their kid Pam?”
It could have been
worse. The youngest of five kids, my twin sister and I were almost Bonnie and
Connie. Instead, they named us Pamela Jean and Patricia Ann. I thought about my
brothers in the army during the Vietnam War with “Gay” stitched on the
front of their uniforms like a scarlet A. What must they have endured in those
My mom dropped the
issue eventually; in her seventies, she had little energy for such balderdash.
Instead, she took my young girls aside, asked if they knew any gays and if her
church should be compassionate toward gays and lead with loving-kindness. “Yes,
Grandma, of course.” They snickered and skipped away.
At one point in my
career, I acquired Zamela as half of the vocal duo Zamela and Dawnadette. We
did a show as part of Chicago’s cabaret
scene, where we had the nerve to sing a couple of Motown tunes, before we knew
much about cultural misappropriation. We had a whole table full of Black folks
walk out on us one night, and rightfully so. We never sang Motown in public
again. I still like the name Zammy; it has a zing to it. Très cool. An old family friend, Neddy, used
to call me “Wham”
and laugh; I guess as in “Wham,
bam, thank you, ma’am.”
spent my college years in the theatre at the University of Notre Dame as Pam
Gay. For my senior project, I played in Samuel Beckett’s
existentialist one-woman play, Happy Days, in the front vestibule of O’Laughlin Auditorium, surrounded by a full house of
students sitting on the cold stone floor. In the first act I was buried up to
my waist in a mound of earth. Second act, up to my neck. “This will have been
another happy day!” declares Winnie, my beloved character, making her way
through her days by rote. This was a tour de force piece for me, and I had
memorized 100 minutes of non sequiturs. In the starring role, the poster read “miss
Pam Gay.” I know, this credit listing has nothing to do with my name, per se.
However, dear clueless designer, “miss”
reads like a verb. And so, the message was: “Don’t
be an idiot and go to this show. I demand you to miss Pam Gay.”
In the 1980s, I
began calling myself Pamela Walker, grafting my husband’s
name on to mine. His full name is John Walker, but he is well-known by his
When I added “Walker”
to my name, I feared I’d
completely folded my identity into my husband’s.
I mean, right? He had become the general manager of the respected,
eighty-year-old, 600-seat Peninsula Players Theatre in Door County, Wisconsin.
Professional Summer Stock Theatre on the Lake, in the Garden” was where we
earned our chops playing in about twenty-five shows together. We were stars in
Door County, we used to joke, but it was a glorious time. We were grown-up kids
doing our thang, getting paid, on a union contract, 325 smack-a-roonies a week.
I was singing cabaret post-shows too, and we were dancing, and sometimes
fighting, under the Northern Lights. Spectacular.
publicity photo caption read “John
Walker and wife.” I was an actor in the company! No name, no title, just the
generic, frickin’ wife. I was a lost
person, buried, appalled. An ugly sign of the ongoing times; I never wanted
that to happen again.
Years later, when
picking an email address, I chose my initials—PJG, for Pamela Jean Gaye,
followed by Walker, my married name. This read (small p, j, g, picture it)
pjgwalker@blablabla, which a few mistook for something horrifying. The first
time someone asked—it was Corky, our entertainment lawyer—if my email was still
PIG walker, I thought I’d die.
Though sometimes an accurate description, this could be insulting to my husband
too, couldn’t it? We do take walks together. At
least my name wasn’t Corky.
The journey with a
long-ass, three-name moniker like Pamela Gaye Walker also included a detour
with my LA talent agent, Josh, who was the head of a well-respected boutique
agency that repped very good New York actors in Hollywood. Exeunt Pam Gay. We
had a brainstorming session as he mentioned something resembling my name might
be better. He, himself, was gay, but he was cool with a change. Josh came up
with Grace. Not my middle name, Jean, mind you. Jean after my mom’s
one and only sibling. That might have led me to being called Pammy Jeans, I
thought out loud to no one. How about just Pammy? Too diminutive. I should
embrace Grace, maybe. It starts with a “G” anyway. Pamela, thanks
to Sharon. Grace, thanks to Josh. It’s pretty.
It’s feminine. It has a g-ring to it.
Why not? Pamela Gay was now Pamela Grace.
After a few months
in LA, I got cast in a very nice part in a movie for the Starz Network directed
by our pal Kevin. Kevin co-produced a show we’d
taken from Chicago to Off-Broadway, starring Denis O’Hare
and written by John Logan, called Hauptmann, about the Lindbergh kidnapping. I
thought about buying an ad in the Chicago trade paper proudly announcing my
first LA gig. In the ad, my head shot would take up a quarter page, with the
Grace, previously known as Pam Gay, featured in Last Rites with Randy Quaid.” Deep
down in my gut I wondered, Who the hell is Pamela Grace?
sweet South Pasadena home receded into the rearview mirror along with
farther-retreating Chicago. We settled into the lovely hills of Berkeley for JW’s new job producing for Pixar. Who am I now? Merely the
wife of? I was somewhat resigned. Who cares about my professional name? Why
wasn’t I baptized Tallulah Belle, or
Stella, or Francesca Zambello, like our cool opera director family friend. With
any of those names, folks might think I was exotically different. But, alas,
Pam, Pam, Pam I am.
From the outside,
I presume these are the roles other people see—warrior woman; quirky, loving
Mom and Grammy; caring yet dramatic wife; challenged sister; rebellious
daughter in recovery; soulful dancer; sometimes singer; capable director;
reluctant producer; determined writer; creative filmmaker; forever comedic and
dramatic AEA actress extraordinaire. What about on the inside? Do I know who I
From decades of
journal keeping, I scan to see what stories surround my name. Here are numerous
declarations I made:
Wanderlust is my
middle name! This one’s for the
missing piece in the small city in which I live. “It has some culture,
smart progressives, civically high-minded folks, beautiful views and flora and
fauna. But I miss LA and the shallow-minded engagement with beautiful people
who inspire me towards optimal health with the dreamy closeness to show
business and the potential that lies within those walls, crumbling though they
Risk is my middle
name! That one reflected my part in our upward mobility, being the train that
got my family west when it was time to grow.
Compassion is my
middle name! “Even
as the winds of change shift in the world, I am full of hope and understanding.
This is what I’m known for—along
with the gifts I share, handed down from a power bigger than myself. I am
filled with abundance and gratitude.”
Fun was my middle
name! When we met, all the world was at our feet. We were finally free from our
childhoods, and we’d been unleashed upon
the world. There was possibility, newness, excitement. We were irresponsible.
We got to share the joys of care-freedom. We were not yet strapped by
eventualities like jobs and kids. We rode the wave of happenings, youthful
bodies and minds exploring and enjoying together. “Let’s
skip classes and get high.” I provoke him.
already high,” he says.
“At 9 a.m.? Oh, wait, it’s noon. What happened to this morning?” I was passed out
from last night’s bacchanalia-for-two
on the beach. It had lightly rained. Only us. I felt the mist on our bodies
while we mmm, mmm, mmm-ed.
“That memory is worth
losing a morning for, isn’t it?”
Time for me to
shout it out. Am I being who you want me to be or conforming to social
expectations of being? Am I worrying that the name Gay will trigger something
in you, or will I remember that this is my family’s
surname? How people see me doesn’t matter.
I’m finally landing in that place of
self-knowing. Nothing to do with what people are calling me but what I’m owning.
My battle cry can
be softly spoken, as I’d like,
and will echo through the canyons and be heard. No shrillness. Peace abounds.
Arrival is here. From the inside, I know who I am; that’s
all that matters. I have planted a flag with my name on it. So, here’s to Pam Wanderlust Risk Compassion (still) Fun Walker.
Just call me PWRCFW.
Pamela Gaye Walker is
an actor, writer, and director for theater and film. Her writing has been
published in Green Hills Literary Lantern. Her acting has received a Joseph Jefferson
Award nomination, and she taught acting at Pixar Animation Studios and Victory
Gardens Theater in Chicago. Pamela adapted and directed the film Trifles, which
was screened at numerous film festivals. She also hosts artistic retreats in
Lake Tahoe, Berkeley, CA, and NYC. Pam is president of Flown the Coop and Ghost