Charlie Lustman has won the Super Lotto three times. But he didn’t get cash prizes — instead, he got the biggest prize of all.
“I won a different lottery, the big one, the one that means you get to stay on the planet.”
March 1st, 2006 — Lustman was diagnosed with an osteosarcoma on his upper left jawbone. A diagnosis like that is so rare that statistically, he would win the Super Lottery three times before contracting the cancer.
A songwriter and performer, Lustman had been running the silent movie theater on Fairfax Avenue when he got the call.
“I started getting stressed out because I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do,” Lustman says.
Having taken over the silent theater in 1999, Lustman was focused on the business aspect of his life, running the theater and staying afloat. The urge to do what he loved, though, had taken him back to the recording studio, which is where he was when he was given the diagnosis.
“Sarcomas are one percent of all cancers, and of that, one in 400 million get an osteosarcoma in their upper jawbone,” Lustman says. “If you had a choice between winning all this money or dying, I think you’d like to live and forget about the lotto ticket, so I got this one, the ‘you get to live longer on the planet’ ticket, and I survived with that mental attitude.”
This attitude is evident in Lustman’s accomplishments. After two surgeries and a year of chemotherapy, Lustman began writing “The Call,” the first song on his record, Made Me Nuclear, on March 1st last year. Each song on the record deals with a different aspect of the cancer ordeal, from the first tests to a final message of gratitude to all involved in the healing process.
Lustman adapted the album for the stage, and is presenting it as an operetta at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday nights from September 5th to October 11th at the Santa Monica Playhouse.
“The story is told through song and facial expression and movement,” he says. “You’re going through a journey with me, and it’s not just for cancer survivors, it’s for anyone who’s gone through a struggle or hardship.”
Each of the songs on the album are very personal, yet universal. In conversation, it is perfectly natural for Lustman to break out into song while telling a story, as he talks about his wife, whom he met in Costa Rica, or his children, who played an important role in his cancer recovery.
One of the songs on the album, “Just When I Needed You,” tells of how Lustman’s daughter Gita came into his life, as he says, just when he needed her.
Lustman had started chemotherapy when, during his wife’s pregnancy ultrasound, he began to feel sick. They had just seen their little girl on the monitor when Lustman realized his kidney had ruptured, as he was urinating blood. Torn between joy and pain, he says, his daughter’s entrance into this world helped his family during its time of need.
“I saw your face on that screen laughing at me/ And you made your mother cry/ While I had to hide what was going on,” Lustman sings in the song.
“Everyone has stories like these during chemo,” Lustman says. But it was the story of his father — a Holocaust survivor who now lives in a penthouse in the Marina City Club — that helped him survive the cancer.
“[My father] survived the Nazis and watched his family die,” Lustman says. “Seeing that gave me perspective, that this is just the tip of an iceberg of suffering my dad went through.”
Lustman performed Made Me Nuclear for the first time on July 31st at the Samuel Oschin Cancer Institute’s survivor’s day luncheon, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. In front of 500 people, Lustman laid bare his entire ordeal, singing of the hardships, the pain, the treatments and, ultimately, the gratitude he feels for having survived.
Limited seating is available at the Santa Monica Playhouse. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased through Lustman’s Web site, www.mademenuclear .com/ or by calling (866) 468-3399.
Information, www.mademenuclear .com/.