Oliver Mayer’s second-favorite dog was first called Monito, the Spanish word for little monkey. The small mixed-breed with chestnut fur and white spots was only about eight weeks old when Mayer, an associate professor of dramatic writing at USC and a resident faculty master at the Parkside International Residential College, got him.
“We had this precedent of being close,” Mayer said.
Too young to stay home alone, the dog left the house with Mayer. He took him to class and to office hours. At the time, Mayer had a play running, so he took the dog to the play, and the play’s after party, where the name Don Aldo was thrown around in conversation. For some reason, the name resonated with Mayer. So that night, the dog came back to Mayer’s apartment in Parkside officially christened Don Aldo. He’s stayed by Mayer’s side ever since.
“There’s really not a shrub here that he hasn’t peed in and probably not too many undergraduates that he hasn’t at least sniffed around before,” Mayer said. “He knows everybody. He knows people I don’t even know, and they know him too.”
The connection that Don Aldo had made with the university and the people in it struck Mayer. Last fall, he began to toy with the idea of writing a book about the university through a dog’s eyes. And then he remembered that there had once been a famous dog that lived at USC: George Tirebiter.
“I thought, wow, 50 years later, maybe there’s an opportunity for another dog to be a representative,” Mayer said.
So he decided to write Don Aldo’s story, titled Big Dog on Campus, which hit stores today. He wanted the book to reflect the warmth he felt from being a part of the Trojan Family after he came to teach at the USC School of Theatre in 2003.
“I had a responsibility here, not simply to myself and my dog, but to a university where I’m employed and a place that I believe in,” Mayer said. “It may be that the single best thing to happen to me was coming to USC, because it gave me the opportunity to do my research — which is my plays — in a loving environment, and share what I know, and be able to have a life, get married and make a family, while following my art.”
When Mayer first started writing the book, he and Don Aldo walked to the statue of Tommy Trojan where the five Trojan values are listed. He wondered what those values would look like from a dog’s perspective.
“I thought, well, let me push this a little bit. If he comes in contact with those values, what might it mean to a dog who wants to be a better dog?” Mayer said. “That’s what the story’s about, a dog who just before his first birthday become aware of the Trojan values and strives to become a better Trojan and, in so doing, dreams about George Tirebiter, who helps him.”
In Big Dog on Campus, the theme of identity also helped add power to the story. Mayer’s mother is Mexican and his father was Anglo-American. Don Aldo, incidentally, is half St. Bernard, and half mixed breed, including traces of Corgi and Boxer. Mayer couldn’t resist having Don Aldo explore his own identity in the story.
“You can find your identity in so many ways,” Mayer said. “In the end, it’s your choice: How are you going to define yourself? You can’t stop these things — the chromosomes are what they are, people will see you the way they will. But that is not the end of your definition, only the beginning. It seems to me it’s maybe one of the most creative things we do, is figure out who we are and who we want to be.”
Mayer, who grew up in the Valley, said he first started writing because he liked to picture people, or in this case, dogs.
“When I was a little boy, I drew. My dad was an artist, and my dad thought I was really good, and my dad was a pretty discerning guy,” Mayer said. “Well, at a certain point, I never got any better. After about 8 years old, 10 years old, I still drew at that level, but I think I started to draw with words at that point.”
He attended North Hollywood High School and tested into the honors track. But Mayer said he wasn’t a good student until 11th grade, when his dad got sick and eventually died of cancer.
“That period kind of sobered me up, it woke me up,” Mayer said. “I wanted to do well for him, and I suddenly realized that if I were good academically, I might get to a better school and have a better life, so I did it.”
He went on to attend Cornell University and then Columbia University. After working in theater for more than a decade, Mayer turned to teaching, first at UC Riverside and Art Center College of Design. Now at USC, Mayer is a professor and a residential faculty master as well as a playwright. Wearing multiple hats here has given him the chance to live on campus, work with students and write.
“This place is a magic place, and as soon as you step off, it’s another world,” Mayer said. “Nothing against the rest of the world, I love L.A., but it’s not this.”
His love of USC is what inspired Big Dog on Campus, which he hopes to turn into a series. For now, writing about Don Aldo has helped him get to know USC and his dog on a new level.
But Don Aldo is still Mayer’s second-favorite dog. The honor of being the great dog goes to Balder, Mayer’s pet growing up, who appears in Mayer’s most well-known work, Blade to the Heat.
“He was such a big part of our family,” Mayer said. “He went through life and death, the death of my father. He just loved us so much, and so I grew up around so much love with that dog.”
Still Don Aldo, who Mayer still refers to as Monito when he is acting like his former namesake, has made his own space in Mayer’s heart.Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s Mayer’s first Trojan canine.
“He’s getting real close to the great dog,” Mayer said with a smile.