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 times.
The hall phone rang, breaking my reverie.
My youngest, Stella, called down the upstairs hallway—“MOM! Telephone!”
“Oh, jeez, who…I’m busy, uh, say… Who…?”
“I’m not home… Who IS it? I’m on the pot, jeesh!”
“I don’t 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 washed-up…
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 haste.
Sharon frickin’ Stone. 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.
Twelve-year-old 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 taste.
“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 enough…”
Mumbling below. 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.
“Oh! That’s 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, “With 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 a coronation.
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?
Throughout the 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 Trans Am.
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?” I sneered.
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 days?
My mom dropped the “e” 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.”
I’d 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 initials, “J.W.” 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. The “Oldest 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.
Except: one 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 caption “Pamela 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?
Eventually, the 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 am?
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 may be.”
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.
“I’m 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?” He smiled.
“You’re damn straight.”
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 Ranch Productions.