DON'T WAIT FOR SMILES
A Collection of Theatre Anecdotes
-- Dedication --
To those who first told me these stories.
One of the first things I learned
as a young actor was
don't wait for smiles.
She's in the Closet
The B.O.W.S. Incident
NoŽl Coward and the Queen of Tonga
Kaufman and Hart
The Paper House
Mrs. Fiske and the Missing Script
Tit for Tat
Howard and Lana
A Fate Worse Than Death
Mrs. King and the Visitors
Looking for Work
I Can Hardly Wait!
An Old Chestnut
Jascha Heifetz and His Fiddle
The Lucid Moment
Boris and Bela
I'll Never Forget What's-His-Name!
NoŽl Coward and His Godchild
Calhern Plays King Lear
Dorothy Gish and the Groper
Peggy Wood and the Glass Eye
What's in a Name?
It's a Long Swim Home, Kid!
What's for Dessert?
DeWolf Hopper at Bat
Wired for Sound
The Barge Trip
Grin and Bare It
James Cagney and the Toy Poodle
A Name in Lights
The Ad Lib
Once an Artist
Bert Lahr's Phobia
Advice to the Young
The Play Must Go On
The Notorious Mrs. Pat
A Week in the Country
Dressing Room One
Camera -- Action!
The Al Jolson Story
The Toy Stars
John Drew and the Suitor
The Boob Tube
The Westport Summer
Cross Your Fingers
Bea and John
Mary Garden's Dad
The Men's Room at Shanklin
They Can't Act!
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word "anecdote" as "The narrative of a detached incident or a single event, being in itself interesting or striking."
The shorter the anecdote, the better, especially ones related about oneself. The grave danger of an anthology of anecdotes is that they tend to quickly sate the reader's interest no matter how amusing or profound. A collection devoted to one subject, such as mine, is especially daunting. As a gentle warning, I would suggest any person opening this volume read three or four stories and then seek amusement elsewhere. Of course, it stands to reason it will take a good deal longer to read the entire book but I am convinced by taking it in easy stages, the individual stories will provide more enjoyment.
Most of the following anecdotes are true, or, at least they were told to me as having actually taken place. If some reader should harbor doubts about the veracity of a certain story, I would appreciate he or she putting it down to my gullibility.
Of all the stories to come out of World War II, none was more touching than the amazing diary of courageous little Anne Frank. In the 1950s it was made into a stirring hit play and, since then, it has been seen around the world. It's been translated into every language but Sanskrit because of its truly universal appeal, and the pivotal role of Anne is one any young actress would sell her birthright to play. Unfortunately, not every ingenue has the depth and experience required to successfully score a triumph in the part. Once the drama was presented by a little theatre group in the midwest and the girl chosen was woefully lacking in talent. She was so poor, in fact, that when the climactic scene of the Third Act arrived, when the brutal Nazis have broken into the secret attic hideaway, the entire audience cried out, "She's in the closet!"
During the Second World War, the U.S.O. Camp Shows produced thousands of productions to amuse our armed forces. Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Marlene Dietrich and James Cagney were among the superstars who volunteered for these worthy morale boosters. They told jokes, sang songs, and danced for the troops all over the world. Large casts of hit Broadway plays were presented on tiny atolls in the Pacific as well as across Europe. One of these was known as the "B.O.W.S." Unit, which toured Italy. It was the popular drama, The Barretts of Wimpole Street and it starred Katherine Cornell and Brian Aherne as Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. In the war zones, the cast all wore uniforms and had the designated rank of Captain in case they had the misfortune to be captured by the enemy. When they weren't acting in their play, members of the troupe would "double in brass," so to speak, by paying visits to military hospitals to entertain those who were unable to see the play.
After a few weeks, Miss Cornell approached her co-star and asked him why he hadn't joined the others? Brian Aherne told her he didn't have an act, he didn't sing or play an instrument and he wasn't up to giving impersonations. In short, he simply didn't feel he had anything to contribute. She then went on to explain she, too, had felt that way but had been convinced her presence alone was all that was required. After all, most of the poor boys were wounded and homesick so she would go into a ward, introduce herself and inform then she came from Buffalo, New York as an ice-breaker. Once getting their attention, at least geographically, the rest was easy. Brian agreed he could probably manage that and, at their next stand, he found himself at the entrance of a ward filled with men attired in maroon corduroy bathrobes. He cleared his throat and began, in his clipped British accent, "Hello boys! I'm Brian Aherne and I'm from Hollywood!" The sea of faces stared at him blankly. "Any of you from Hollywood?" No one spoke. He quickly added, "My wife, cinema star Joan Fontaine and I keep a small pied-a-terre in New York -- anyone here from New York?" The only sound was the whirring of a ceiling fan overhead. A bit of desperation crept into his voice. "I've toured all over the states! Perhaps one of you unfortunate chaps is from Detroit? Saint Louis? Richmond? Erie, Pennsylvania?" His voice rose an octave. "Come, come now! Someone must be ..." -- but he got no further. A small patient by his side pulled at his sleeve and announced, "Ve are Churman Prizzonors!"
When it came to a gift of wit, few people ever topped the late NoŽl Coward and, in a lifetime devoted to acting, writing, composing, and directing, even less were his equal. Away from the theatre his repartee was just as keen. There comes to mind the Coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. All London was decked out in bunting as the glorious day arrived and, for the occasion, Coward had rented an apartment with a balcony which overlooked the colorful parade. He provided champagne for his guests while they waited for the spectacle to begin. Although the star of this particular production was undoubtedly the new Queen herself, the press had devoted a great deal of space to various visiting dignitaries including the statuesque Queen of Tonga. She had caused such a stir you might say she was giving Elizabeth II a run for her money. Below the balcony the enormous crowd sent up a roar as the first carriages began to pass by. Breathless with anticipation, Coward's guest began to scream with excitement as the carriage bearing Tonga's Queen came into sight. There she was, all six feet of her, wearing a long white silk gown, her ebony skin shining in the sun. Seated next to her was her Prime Minister, a tiny Black man dressed in a morning suit with a gray top hat and just as they went by, one of Coward's guests inquired who the little chap was? Without a moment's hesitation, NoŽl Coward announced, "That's her lunch!"
In the 1930s and 1940s, no playwrighting team was more successful than George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. That their chemistry worked is evident in the many hit plays they wrote such as Merrily We Roll Along, You Can't Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner. During the pre-Broadway tryout tour of You Can't Take It With You, Hart evinced great concern as to how they would replace the two small cats which appear briefly in the first scene. Kaufman told him not to worry as they would use the kittens Hart would undoubtedly have on opening night. Down in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Moss Hart had fully grown trees planted in his new estate and when his collaborator saw the result he remarked, "It just goes to show you what God could have done if He'd the money!" Acerbic Mr. Kaufman once attended a performance of one of their plays to check up on the cast and, after the First Act curtain fell, he sent back a note to an actor who had strayed from the original direction to an alarming degree. The note read, "I'm out front in the audience. Wish you were here!" He once had an appointment with Jed Harris and when he arrived and was ushered in, he found the eccentric Mr. Harris stark naked. They conducted their business and just as Kaufman was leaving he whispered, "Jed, your fly's open!" George Kaufman was an avid bridge player and on one occasion his partner trumped his ace. Realizing his great faux pas, he apologized, saying "I'm dreadfully sorry, George. I'm my own worst enemy." To which Kaufman replied, "Not as long as I'm alive!"
Kaufman and Hart's formidable legacy to the theatre can be measured, to a degree, by the fact that most of their plays continue to be revived to the present day.
There's an old Broadway expression, "papering the house," which simply means the producer of a show issues a lot of free passes to guarantee a large audience. It's not done, of course, with hits but rather for productions which are having a hard time. Such as the case of a musical comedy called Minnie's Boys, about the famous Marx Brothers and their indomitable mother who was played by Shelly Winters. She vowed she would never miss a performance after being told how excellent her standby was in the role during understudy rehearsals. Under no circumstance would she allow her to go on in her place. One night it appeared as if the standby's big chance had finally come when Ms. Winters arrived at the stage door with a hacking cough and a fever of 101į. Contrary to all advice not to perform, she brushed aside the arguments and appeared. It was obvious she was a very sick lady but she had the satisfaction of knowing her understudy had been kept in her place -- backstage! She had nothing personal against the girl so when, a few nights later, she met her in the hallway, she went out of her way to explain why she had gone on. She pointed out that she was a seasoned trouper but, beyond that, she was billed as the star of the show and she didn't want to disappoint the audience. The standby listened, quietly nodding her head in agreement. Then she smiled sweetly and said, "You're right, Miss Winters. If they had to announce that I was going on in place of you, they would have had to return all that paper!"
During the early years of this century, Minnie Madden Fiske was a superstar on Broadway. Her husband, Harrison Fiske, managed all her business affairs leaving Mrs. Fiske free to indulge herself in her favorite role, that of being the talk of the town. She was known for her quick temper and her keen wit. Once, when asked to give her opinion of a certain actor, she replied, disdainfully, "He has a firm touch on the wrong note." Among playwrights she had the disturbing reputation of being very careless with scripts they would send to her. One such dramatist finally decided to confront the great lady in person about this failing. Through Harrison's intercession, he was able to gain admission to her lavish apartment where he accused her of losing his precious manuscript. Mrs. Fiske listened to his tirade impassively then replied, "This is all nonsense! I have never, in my life, misplaced a script!" Then she turned to her butler and snapped, "Perkins -- I feel a slight chill in the room. Be a good fellow and toss another play on the fire!"
For those of you who are not steeped in trivia I would like to remind you of an actor who went by the name of Robert Q. Lewis and who had achieved a modicum of fame in radio. I'm not certain what it was this odd fellow did as I don't recall ever having heard him as he caressed the airwaves but it is unlikely I shall ever forget the one time our paths did cross. It was out in Phoenix, Arizona at the Sombrero Playhouse where I directed him in a stock production of a frail little comedy called, Send Me No Flowers. I had appeared in the play when it had been, briefly, on Broadway in 1960 and, in the summer of 1961 I had both directed and performed it in a number of theatres on the Eastern Citronella Circuit where it starred David Wayne and, later, Orson Bean and the lovely Julia Meade. Wayne was a delightfully adept light comedian who had been in the original in New York and thus needed no direction and Orson and Julia were competent performers who were more than up to the slight challenge of this lightweight vehicle. It was in the winter of 1962 and I had been asked to fly out and tender my services in Phoenix and I'm afraid I allowed the lure of three weeks of sunshine to overcome my better judgment. Julia was to repeat her role so the only unknown ingredient was Robert Q. Lewis. At our first meeting this slight, reptilian actor informed me that he had seen the play in New York and thought David Wayne was "dreadful." If I had had a grain of sense I should have flown back to New York at that moment, but the weather was perfect and I felt I was in too deep to back out. Rehearsals began and if I harbored any doubts after Mr. Lewis' critique of David Wayne, I was soon to realize we were in for a theatrically disastrous debacle! The bespeckled Robert Q. Lewis announced he had spent a great deal of time improving the script and he proceeded to instigate complete and utter chaos. If he possessed a tincture of talent it was to this end and he succeeded to an alarming degree. Once the actual performance began he discarded all of his outrageous improvements and descended into the realm of base vulgarity. For no reason, he played one scene dressed as Santa Claus. At times, he would descend from the stage and mingle with the audience, leaving poor Julia Meade to make what she could of it!
In the final scene -- I won't compound the felony by explaining the plot -- Julia is supposed to forgive her erring spouse and presumably they ascend the stairs together for a romantic interlude. On the last night of our tempestuous engagement I made a suggestion to Ms. Meade which she proceeded to pull off with aplomb. Instead of forgiving him she suddenly announced in a loud, clear voice that she had changed her mind and was indeed leaving him for good! Then she turned and slammed out the front door, leaving Robert Q. Lewis standing alone in the middle of the stage, his mouth agape, as the curtain descended.
I never did find out what that "Q." stood for. Nor do I care.
Joe Frisco was a stuttering comedian and eccentric dancer who was very popular with vaudeville audiences many years ago, but his everlasting fame was the result of the countless stories which are still being told about him. Peter Lind Hayes, another fine comedian, is capable of relating Frisco stories for hours on end without ever repeating. The following anecdotes are merely the tip of the iceberg that is the Joe Frisco legend.
A clerk once called him on the house phone to accuse him of having a woman in his room, adding he would be required to pay double. Frisco replied, "In that case, s-s-s-send up another Gideon!"
Once he found himself in a restaurant where all of the waiters wore red jackets. He inquired of one of them, "Which way did the fox go?"
When asked his opinion of New York City, Frisco stuttered, "It'll be a n-n-n-nice place if they ever finish it!"
If Joe Frisco had a major failing it was his unfortunate mania for playing the horses. This flaw in his character kept him forever in debt and dependant on his friends, one of whom was Bing Crosby. To make ends meet he had assumed the position of baby-sitter for Crosby's three small sons and, on the day before Thanksgiving, the famous crooner gave him twenty dollars with which to buy a turkey for the family. Crosby returned from the studio around noon and was surprised to find Frisco in the act of cooking hamburgers for the Thanksgiving dinner. He asked what had become of the turkey. Flipping over a thin meat patty, Frisco replied, "It r-r-r-ran fifth!"
For additional adventures of Joe Frisco I suggest you get in touch with Peter Lind Hayes -- he knows them all!
Out in the land of palm trees and falsies, the erstwhile orange grove that became Hollywood, the movies aren't the only game in town. Romance, love affairs, and musical beds all rank high in popularity and no one ever practiced them more ardently than the exceedingly eccentric Howard Hughes. It's odd that the bizarre millionaire would indulge in so contact a sport after reading he couldn't tolerate shaking hands with another human being but the checkout counter publications of the period were filled with his peccadillos. It was said he once developed a great passion for Lana Turner who, in turn, fell head over heels in love with his bank account. Sniffing the scent of impending orange blossoms, Ms. Turner prepared for what she was certain would be a trip to the altar by ordering vast amounts of sheets, towels, and various personal items of apparel all monogrammed with the initials, `HH'. The day they were delivered she telephoned Hughes to arrange the final plans. To her surprise, she was informed by one of his minions that Howard had had a change of heart and had transferred his affections elsewhere. The chagrined movie star wailed "What about all of my monogrammed linens?" After a brief pause, she got her answer: "Why don't you start dating Huntington Hartford?"
In a small town in France where everyone knew one another, the village baker was approaching his shop one morning when he ran into Madame L., who operated the local house of ill repute. She began at once to sing the praises of a new employee who had recently joined her establishment and before they parted he had made an appointment for the following evening. At nine o'clock, liberally doused with lilac vegetal, the baker presented himself. "Before you go up I feel I ought to inform you of a peculiarity of this lovely creature. It seems she sings while she works!" He nodded and climbed the stairs to his assignation. A half hour passed and he once more confronted Madame L. "Mon dieu! The girl is breathtaking. Never have I seen such a body and, as for that voice -- the child belongs in the theatre!"
Madame L. looked at him with amazement and shock. "Her parents would never allow that!!"
The late Dennis King once went out to Hollywood to make a film with Laurel and Hardy and he was away from his home on the north shore of Long Island for several months. On the first evening he was back he asked his wife if everything had gone smoothly during his absence? She told him she'd had a very quiet time while he was away. It wasn't until after coffee had been served that she added, "Of course, there were those two men!" King was startled and demanded to know what she was talking about. She calmed him down and went on to explain that late one night she had been reading in bed when she had heard a noise outside the window. Two men were trying to raise the garage door so she flung open the window and cried out, "Quick, George! Let the dogs out and get your gun!" The two men had fled into the night. It was all as simple as that. Dennis congratulated her for her quick thinking and finished his coffee. A half hour later he suddenly asked, "Why did you say `George'?" Mrs. King smiled at him sweetly and answered, "Because, dearest, if I'd said `Dennis' they would have stolen our car!"
It was late in 1951 that my wife and I went out to Australia to appear in the musical Brigadoon, and we hadn't been in Melbourne two weeks before we learned the happy news that Virginia was pregnant. Our daughter was born that November and in December we opened for a run in Sydney. As Virginia was returning to the cast as the leading dancer, we hired a full-time nurse for the baby who lived in our flat overlooking the beautiful harbor. We were anxious to have Sheila Denholm, that was her name, see our production at the Theatre Royal and we suggested that we get a baby-sitter to care for the infant. She quickly informed us that under no circumstances would she acquiesce to such an arrangement but she finally agreed to deposit the baby backstage in my dressing room where we could keep an eye on her. Little Wendy was six weeks old.
At the opening of Brigadoon there was a big production number in which all the villagers troop across the stage on their way to a fair. One of the chorus girls usually carried a doll but that afternoon I suggested she take my daughter in its place which she proceeded to do. As if on cue, Wendy let out a convincing cry as they arrived center stage. She must have made an impression because The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children called on me the following day. I assured them the whole incident had been a lark and she never repeated her role again.
A number of years passed and I found myself out in Hollywood making a film. On a day off, I paid a visit to my old friend Lionel Barrymore who was by now an old man confined to a wheelchair. Having read somewhere that his Grandmother Drew, who had raised all three of the Barrymores, had been on the stage for 80 years, I thought I'd have some fun with him. "Is it true your grandmother was actually on the stage for 80 years," I asked. He rasped back, "Absolutely -- she made her debut on the stage of the Walnut Street Theatre when she was nine months old!" Then I informed him that my daughter had made her stage debut when she was six weeks old. Teasing him, I added, "What was your Grandmother doing all of that time?" He looked me straight in the eye and said, "Looking for work, you idiot!"
Howard Lindsay and his wife Dorothy Stickney were the stars of the hit comedy Life With Father which opened in the autumn of 1939 and ran for seven and a half years on Broadway. Along with playing the title role, Howard had co-authored the play with Russell Crouse which accounts for the fact he was able to skillfully ad lib through a scene on opening night in which the actor playing the minister forgot most of his lines. During that same shaky debut performance a maid in the first scene dropped a tray of breakfast dishes on stage in full view of the audience but, in spite of these minor disasters, the play went on to play 3,224 performances.
A number of years before Life With Father, Dorothy had appeared in Paul Osborne's bittersweet play, On Borrowed Time in which she played the old grandmother. One evening, Howard visited her backstage in her dressing room where she was donning a gray wig and lining her face to give the illusion of old age. He looked over her shoulder at her in the mirror and whispered, "I can hardly wait!"
According to the rules of the Actors Equity Association, if a performer is let go after the first five days of rehearsals have passed, they are entitled to receive two weeks' salary but if the performer is released during the probationary period, he gets nothing. The acting profession is, financially, an exceedingly risky venture at best with very few actually earning a living wage. Many in the profession are forced to hold down other jobs while they search, usually fruitlessly, for work in the theatre. One such actor was a young fellow who augmented his income as a salesman at Macy's, a job he detested but his hours allowed him to make the rounds. One day his luck changed and he found himself hired to play a small role in a new comedy, destined for Broadway. Being well aware of that five day clause he mapped out a strategy to remain as invisible as possible. During the first few days he would speak his few lines and then he would disappear into a dark corner steering clear of his fellow actors and, of course, the management. All went well until just before five o'clock of that fateful fifth day. To his horror, as he sat in the shadows, he spotted the Producer's secretary coming into view. She was obviously looking for someone. Finally her eyes fell on the hapless actor and she approached him, holding out an envelope. He took it with the reluctance of one grasping a red hot poker. Once he had glanced at the note inside, his face lit up and he began to laugh. "Are you alright?" asked the secretary. "Oh yes! I'm fine," he replied happily. "My mother's dead."
The great violin virtuoso, Jascha Heifetz, was once out on a tour dispensing musical culture to the heartland of America. Being world-renowned, his concerts were usually sold out well in advance and, in the vast reaches of the midwest, people would drive miles to attend. On one occasion, however, a great blizzard paralyzed the entire state of North Dakota, leaving the roads almost impassable in its wake. Schools were forced to close and emergency crews were pushed to the limit to alleviate the situation. Heifetz, himself, was just able to make his way through the snow drifts to the auditorium in Fargo where he was to give his concert and when he arrived the manager informed him there were only five people out in the audience. Reluctantly, he decided to call the whole thing off and he went out in front of the curtain and made his apologies. Just as he was about to leave the stage, one of the five people who sat huddled in the front row arose and addressed him. He pointed out that he and his family had braved the storm and had driven over fifty miles to hear him. Then he added, "I feel the least you could do for us, Mr. Heifetz, would be to sing one song!"
Charles Hanson Towne was a noted author and editor in New York many years ago. Late in life, he had gone on the stage in a road company of Life With Father. Because of his erudition in poetry and literature, he was also very much in demand as a lecturer. He was once asked to give a talk to an audience in a home for slightly disturbed patients, not violent types but simply poor dear old souls who were addled. The auditorium was packed and the doctor in charge duly introduced Charlie who crossed to the center of the stage midst generous applause. He put his notes on the lectern and began his speech. He had hardly spoken a dozen words when a little old lady in the first row got up and disappeared up the aisle. Charlie continued his lecture, after which the doctor, clearly distraught, approached him and said, "I'm dreadfully sorry about old Mrs. Quimby walking out on you, Mr. Towne." Then he added, as an afterthought, "I assure you it was the first lucid moment she's had since she's been with us!"
A very wealthy Southampton matron once invited Albert Spaulding, the violinist, to a dinner party at her estate. Along with her invitation were imperial instructions that he was to bring along his fiddle so he could entertain her guests after dinner. Spaulding telephoned her to say he would be delighted to accept her invitation but if she expected him to play he would want his usual fee of three thousand dollars. After a long pause, he heard his hostess say that if that were the case, he would have to eat with the servants. After an equally long pause, Spaulding informed her if that were the case, his fee would be five hundred.
I've often wondered if it could have been the same dowager who invited Josť Ferrer down for the Labor Day weekend? Joe had arrived Friday evening and the holiday weekend had gone swimmingly until Monday morning when the butler had knocked on his door to inform him it was time to go to the train. Somewhat distressed, Joe told him he had been invited for the Labor Day weekend and that today was Labor Day. The butler disappeared only to return in a few minutes to say, "I'm sorry, Mr. Ferrer, but my mistress has instructed me to tell you she has never heard of Labor Day!"
Out in Hollywood in the 1930's both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi achieved film stardom and a certain immortality playing in horror movies. Mr. Karloff, of course, was the terrifying monster in Frankenstein and Bela Lugosi played the title role in Dracula. Theatre managers would boast after these two films were shown there wasn't a dry seat in the house! The two gentlemen sometimes teamed up to dispense their particular brand of ghoulish entertainment and they became fast friends. They didn't enjoy a monopoly on this genre -- there was Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Lionel Atwell and Lon Chaney, Jr., but Boris and Bela were recognized as the kings of shiver. Karloff was to return to the stage in Arsenic and Old Lace in which he played a homicidal maniac who goes 'round the bend when someone says he looks like Boris Karloff. For a while, Bela Lugosi assayed the same role out on the road.
When Lugosi died in Los Angeles he left strict instructions that he wished to be buried wearing his famous Dracula costume, black cape and all. The services were held in a mortuary and the undertaker had laid him out as requested. One by one, the mourners filed by the open casket to pay their last respects. Boris Karloff, of course, attended but he patiently waited in an ante room until the crowd had dispersed. Then he went into the room and approached the bier. After looking around to make certain he was alone, he bent down to his old friend's ear and whispered, "Bela, old chap, you're not putting me on, are you?"
Binky Beaumont, the famous London producer, was once auditioning a young actor and just as the lad was leaving the stage he asked him, bluntly, if he were a homosexual? In desperate need of a job, the aspirant replied, "No, sir. I'm afraid I'm not but I don't think it shows in my work!"
Two elderly ladies were making their way up the aisle after seeing a superb performance by Robert Morley in the title role of the drama, Oscar Wilde, which was mainly concerned with his famous trial. One of the old ladies observed to her companion, "You know, Maud dear, there's one right here in New York!"
All of which brings to mind a visit the ballet star Margot Fonteyn once made to W. Somerset Maugham's delightful villa at St. Jean Cap Ferret. Maugham was famous for his hospitality which drew many celebrities and this particular day was no exception. Around the swimming pool, in various stages of undress, were Cecil Beaton, NoŽl Coward, Robert Helpman, and Cyril Richards. The great ballerina had never been to Maugham's luxurious estate before and her eyes grew large as she surveyed the exotic scene. Breathlessly, she exclaimed in a loud voice, "Oh my! It's a veritable fairyland!"
In the past fifty or sixty years the most famous acting team undoubtedly has been Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, but around the turn of the century it was E. H. Southern and his wife Julia Marlow. When on tour they traveled in their own private Pullman Car furnished with their own household possessions including silverware and china. They were presented by the Shubert Brothers who had to pay them ninety percent of the gross and, socially, the famous couple were considered "American Royalty." They knew everyone who was anyone and they led very exciting lives. The only drawback was Julia Marlow's inability to remember names. This was odd in an artist who made vast sums of money memorizing lines but such was the case. One day she ran into a young friend of hers on New York's Fifth Avenue and, as they stood gaily chatting, she tried her best to come up with the girl's name. She was still at a loss when her companion mentioned she'd recently visited her father. Julia Marlow thought if she could find out his name she would be able to identify the girl. "How is your dear Dad?" she asked. "Just splendid!" came the answer. "And just what is he doing these days?" asked the famous actress. An odd expression crossed the young lady's face as she answered, "Miss Marlow, he's still the President of the United States!"
The girl, of course, was Theodore Roosevelt's daughter Alice.
The late David Niven used to relate an anecdote to illustrate NoŽl Coward's talent as a godfather. Having many friends, Coward found himself, in middle age, with an extraordinary number of godchildren and he was famous for the graceful manner he discharged his duties. He never failed to remember birthdays and he relished being a baby-sitter. His popularity in this department sprang from the uncanny way he had with children of all ages. Of course, Coward could more than hold his own with adults but children can sometimes ask questions which require much thought and tact. On one occasion when the great playwright was strolling through Kensington Gardens in the company of a dazzling four year old, he really found himself on the spot. Hand in hand, they had just rounded some bushes on the path when they came upon two dogs in the unmistakable act of mating. His little charge gazed at the scene and asked what they were doing? Within a blink of an eye, Coward carefully explained, "Well, darling -- the little dog in front is blind and ill so the dog in back is pushing her to the hospital!" She nodded knowingly and they quickly walked on.
A long time ago when people used to arrive in New York on the railroad at Pennsylvania Station, Louis Calhern detrained and hailed a cab to take him to his hotel. As he settled back in his seat lighting a cigarette, he detected the driver giving him fleeting glances in the rear-view mirror. He was accustomed to this as people recognized him from the numerous films he had made but they seldom knew his name. After they had gone a few blocks, Moe Ginsberg, the driver, according to his identity card, admitted defeat: "All right, already. Who are you?" Calhern replied, "I'm Louis Calhern," at which the fellow beamed and said, "Of course you are!" Then he went on to tell the actor how much he and his wife enjoyed him in the movies over the years but what brought him to New York? Calhern told him he'd come East to play the title role of King Lear on Broadway. This information really excited Ginsberg who said it was his favorite of all Shakespeare's plays, adding he had seen all of the great Lears down on Second Avenue including Maurice Swartz, Jacob Adler, and Thomashefsky. How wonderful for Louis Calhern to return to the legitimate stage in such a vehicle! Then, after thinking for a moment or two he inquired, "Tell me, Calhern -- how do you think it will go in English?"
Louis Calhern did open in Lear and one night after a performance, the author Harry Kurnitz visited him in his dressing room. Calhern, taking off his makeup asked if he had liked the performance? Kurnitz replied, "Liked it? I loved it, Lou! You must have heard me laughing."
Lillian and Dorothy Gish began their careers under the direction of D.W. Griffith in the early days of the movies and, along with Pickford, Fairbanks, and Chaplin, they were internationally famous. Lillian, being the older of the two, kept a very close eye on her younger sister. Art imitated life when they were cast as sisters in the silent epic, Orphans of the Storm, a story about the French Revolution in which Dorothy is blind and Lillian spends a great deal of time and effort keeping her out of trouble.
Once they were invited to a large formal dinner party in Hollywood and, upon their arrival, Lillian checked the seating arrangements to see who would be next to her sister. To her dismay, she discovered it was to be a raffish old producer who was known to have a penchant to grope his feminine dinner companions. She took Dorothy aside and, as delicately as possible explained the situation, adding that, as all of the other guests were aware of the old goat's predilection, Dorothy was to act as if nothing was amiss. Sure enough, they had just finished the fruit cocktail, when all eyes saw the ancient satyr's hand disappear below the table. Lillian was horrified but Dorothy just laughed and continued to chatter to the man on her left, betraying no sense anything was wrong. The others were amazed to see an expression of revulsion flood the producer's face as his hand shot back in sight. Lillian couldn't wait to confront her sister and, as soon as coffee was served, she whisked her off to the powder room. Innocent little Dorothy explained that all she had done was to put an orange under her stocking.
For many years the name Peggy Wood lit up the skies over Broadway and in London she had starred in the original production of NoŽl Coward's operetta, Bittersweet. She was an exceedingly glamorous lady with a lovely singing voice and she was a superb actress as well. As if all of this wasn't enough, Ms. Wood was very active in various charities such as the Actor's Fund, The Red Cross, and the ASPCA. One time she paid a call on a very wealthy neighbor of her's in the country to solicit a donation for one of her causes. The old fellow had the reputation of being very close with a dollar so she poured on her considerable charm during their interview, but when she had finished, he curtly dismissed her saying people should learn to take care of themselves as he had done. Peggy Wood thanked him for his time and was just about to leave when the old miser stopped her. He informed her he had, at great expense, just been fitted with a new glass eye and if she could tell him which eye it was, in a sporting gesture, he should give her a donation. Without a moment's hesitation from across the room she told him it was his left eye that was made of glass. True to his word, he nodded and wrote out a check. As she was putting it into her purse he asked her how she was so certain? She smiled at him sweetly and replied, "I knew at once because I detected a tiny touch of kindness in your left eye!"
The theatre, as a profession, is not unlike the Straits of Magellan, perilous at best and only the strong manage to survive. Of these only a scant few earn a living wage and fewer still ever achieve stardom. Once a person finally gets their name in lights, there is still the daunting challenge to remain there.
I've always been in awe of actors who achieve success but I'm more amazed by those who rise above physical handicaps to do so. Late in her fantastic career, Sarah Bernhardt had to lose a leg but it didn't prevent the great star from performing. I once knew a fine actor, William Hanson, who, although not a star, had a long and distinguished record on the Broadway state in such hits as Brigadoon, A Member of the Wedding, and Teahouse of the August Moon. Bill went though life with a club foot. That stunning actor, Peter Falk, who has delighted television audiences for years as "Columbo," has a glass eye and I once saw the famous burlesque comic, Mike Sachs, who was totally blind. Among other notables who were blind are Alec Templeton, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, and Elmo Tanner, The Whistler. Herbert Marshall, that suave British film actor had a wooden leg and the late Martyn Green of Gilbert and Sullivan fame had a wooden foot. Our country hasn't produced a finer actor than Alfred Lunt who enjoyed stardom with one kidney and a wall eye. Marlee Matlin won an Oscar in 1986 for her performance in Children of a Lesser God. She played a deaf mute -- which she is. When I saw Ruth Gordon accept her Oscar in 1968, I couldn't help thinking that she had had to have both of her limbs broken to correct her bowlegged condition.
Ours is an age of specialization, for better or worse and nowhere is this more evident than out in Hollywood. Ever since the film industry displaced the orange growers, trade unions have played a major role. There is the Screen Actors Guild, of course, whose members we see on the screen but aside from this organization there is the Directors Guild and the various unions covering everything from the construction of the sets to the operators of the cameras. Among those behind the camera are professionals in charge of props, motorized equipment, even plants and shrubbery. One group is held solely responsible for special effects. These may include everything from the parting of the Red Sea to an inferno in a skyscraper. Michael Curtiz, a bombastic director at Warner Brothers, was once involved in an epic production laid in Ancient Egypt which, in one scene, called for thousands of extras, camels, and a parade of elephants. The camera was just about to roll when one of the enormous pachyderms committed a huge nuisance. Curtiz, realizing they couldn't proceed until the mess was removed, used his bullhorn to summon the prop department for the task. The chap in charge of props informed him that until the elephant's embarrassment stopped steaming, it was the job of special effects!
I've been told George Bernard Shaw was, at one time, passionately in love with the breathtakingly beautiful English actress, Ellen Terry, yet they never met. It seems, the playwright had no wish to have his illusions shattered so he carried on this love affair from a safe distance. Be that as it may, I never wanted to find myself in the company of the Australian actress, Coral Brown, but, for another reason. Over the years I'd heard numerous stories about her prowess as a master wit and I didn't want to be disappointed to find her anything but extraordinary. I once met the legendary Dorothy Parker, she of the snappy comeback and I found myself in the presence of an exceedingly gloomy lady! Perhaps we'd met on an "off day" but I wasn't about to take any chances with Ms. Brown. I've always remained quite content just to hear, second hand, her ripostes. For example, I was once told she went into Fortnum and Mason's, that chic London food store, where an employee in a frock coat approached her and asked "What, may I inquire, is madame's pleasure?" After a moment's pause, she answered, "Kite flying and fucking but at the moment I'm looking for lemon puffs!"
Another time Coral Brown was modeling a wig she'd been given to wear in a play. The director told her he thought it looked splendid but what did she think of it? In a twinkling she said, "I feel as if I were peering out of a yak's rectum!"
Years ago she was married to a very effeminate actor and she always did her best to get him a role in her current play. The director was well aware of this so when she approached him one day he held up his hand and announced that under no circumstances was there any part for her husband in this particular play, whereupon she whipped out the script and said, "Don't be so sure! Look right here at Act Four, Scene Two, which clearly says, `A camp near Dover'!"
There was once a journalist with a wooden leg, who shall remain nameless. If you're curious, there can't be many who fit the category. She made the dangerous mistake of writing something unpleasant about Ms. Brown who bided her time for revenge. It came at the Savoy Grill where the actress came upon the offending columnist, surrounded by a group of admirers. Coral Brown surveyed the scene, then gushed, "How delightful to see you, dear, with all London at your foot!"
I never did meet this wondrous lady, but I shall, forever, be in her debt.
Rosalie Stewart, who produced plays on Broadway in the 1920s and who later became a well-known literary agent in Hollywood, originally came from St. Louis where she and her two brothers' family name had been Muckenfuss. The brother's first names were Lee and Stewart so they became Lee and Stewart Stewart. Upon hearing this, George S. Kaufman pondered, "What was Stewart's name before he changed it? Muckenfuss Muckenfuss?"
Many a performer has seen fit to change their name for one reason or another and it's the ones using their real name that are the exception that proves the rule. Gladys Smith became Mary Pickford and, of course, Marilyn Monroe began life as Norma Jean Baker. Often, it is immediately obvious why the change was made. Take, for example, the following samples, gleaned at random from the World Almanac:
††††† Cher....................................................... Cherilyn Sarkisian
††††† Fred Astaire.......................................... Fredrick Austerlitz
††††† Karl Malden.......................................... Malden Sekulovich
††††† Garbo...................................................... Greta Gustafsson
††††† Roy Rogers.................................................... Leonard Slye
††††† Howard Keel................................................... Harold Leek
††††† Nastassia Kinski.......................... Nastassja Naksyznyski
††††† Mike Nichols............................. Michael Igor Peschowsky
††††† Robert Taylor............................. Spangler Arlington Brugh
††††† Clifton Webb........................ Webb Parmalee Hollenbeck
††††† Jane Wyman.......................................... Sarah Jane Fulks
††††† Lana Turner.......................................... Annie Mae Bullock
††††† Cheryl Ladd........................................ Cheryl Stoppelmoor
††††† Sandra Dee............................................... Alexandra Zuck
††††† Judy Garland.............................................. Frances Gumm
††††††††††† Maria Callas† Maria Kalogeropolos
Over the years I've heard many stories about the legendary Barrymores, John in particular. Two remain fresh in my mind, because they concerned an uncle of mine, Richard Harding Davis who, ninety years ago, had written a play called The Dictator which starred the popular light comedian, William Collier. By today's standards it would seem a creaky melodrama but, in its day, it was a big success. In the play was a minor but important role of a wireless operator and it was this part Ethel Barrymore convinced both Davis and Collier to assign to her young brother. As the play was to be presented out in Australia, Ms. Barrymore surmised it could keep him out of mischief. By a quirk of fate the cast was in San Francisco when the Great Earthquake had occurred and all able-bodied men, including young Barrymore, were put to work by the Army, cleaning up the wrecked city. When informed of this, his famous uncle John Drew remarked, "It took an act of God to get him out of bed and the United States Government to put him to work!"
Collier rehearsed the cast on the long voyage to Melbourne where their tour would begin. To suggest that the premiere didn't go smoothly is a serious understatement. At the beginning of the First Act, Barrymore, as that wireless operator, is supposed to enter and hand Willie Collier a long telegram from which Collier then reads facts important to the complex plot. It was immediately obvious to Collier that the young actor had been imbibing and if he harbored doubts, they disappeared when Barrymore handed him a piece of paper the size of a postage stamp, insisting it was the message. Collier, an adept professional, wasn't having any of this nonsense. Out loud he said "Go back to your post and get the real message!" Under his breath he muttered, "It's a long swim home, kid!!" No sooner had Barrymore exited than another character appeared who was supposed to sell Collier the use of his name to further the plot. Suffering from acute opening night nerves plus the fact that he, too, had been drinking, he became confused and lurched off the stage before telling Collier what his name was. Collier was forced to ad lib, "I know his name because his old Dad is a friend of mine! It's Doyle!" Having gotten over this hurdle, Collier looked up to see Barrymore appear again, still clutching that tiny scrap of paper! "I'm sorry, chief. This is the only message I've received!" Collier wailed, "It can't be!" Barrymore continued, "But it is! It was sent by a man who earns his living engraving the Lord's Prayer on pin heads!" At this point, the frantic Collier snatched the offending stamp with one hand while he pushed Barrymore out the door with the other! The star then proceeded to read the endless telegram, turning the minute scrap over and over. Just as he managed to come to the end, that nameless character re-entered and exclaimed, "I forgot to tell you my name. It's Shultz!"
David Doyle, one of the stars in the popular television series, Charlie's Angels, was fresh out of Lincoln, Nebraska a number of years ago when he auditioned for a position at the famous Barter Theatre down in Virginia. Robert Porterfield, a son of the old south, had founded the organization in the frugal 1930s and its name was derived from the fact the audience could gain admission by donating groceries. It had become a renowned spawning ground for stars and young Doyle desperately wanted to be accepted. To this end, he decided to act the sophisticate rather than the Midwestern bumpkin he really was. One day Mr. Porterfield and a number of his staff took him out to a local eatery for lunch and when it came time to give the waitress the dessert order, Doyle decided it was time to parade his erudition. While the others ordered sundaes and fudge cake, he scanned the menu with a jaundiced eye and finally announced grandly he would forego such mundane fare and settle for a piece of fruit and some crackers and cheese. He could sense his hosts were thinking what a continental little chap they were entertaining until the waitress asked what kind of cheese did he want? After a long pause, with them all looking at him, he heard himself answer, "Velveeta!"
In spite of blowing his cover, he was admitted to the august company.
Edwin Booth, the famous actor, was the moving force behind the founding, in 1888, of The Players, on Gramercy Park in New York. His prime purpose was to provide a charming atmosphere where actors could meet and mingle with men in the other branches of the arts such as writers, painters, poets, and sculptors. The list of members over the past one hundred years is mind-boggling, containing such diversified gentlemen as General W.T. Sherman, Augustus St. Gaudens, Mark Twain, James Cagney, Don Marquis, Laurence Olivier and Frank Sinatra. Someone once described the place as "a den of wits" and I can personally attest the aptness through my own long association. As one partakes a drink in the Grill Room, one is likely to hear some marvelous story which has been handed down from generation to generation, perhaps being slightly embellished along the way. Don Marquis, from whose fertile imagination "Archie" and "Mehitabel" were born, once astounded everyone who knew him by going on the wagon. He had been known as one of the bar's best customers and many of his fellow members were very skeptical until one day he stumbled down the stairs and, very intoxicated, announced, "Gentlemen! In me you see a man who has conquered his will power!"
John Drew, for many years the president of the club, once spent a number of hours at the bar after which he went out front where he hailed a cab and ordered the bewildered driver to take him to the Players! The cabby drove the famous actor around the block and delivered him to the same door where Drew gave him a handsome tip and returned to the bar.
Today, few recall the writer-illustrator Oliver Herford but, in his day, he was noted for his wit. Every club seems to have its club boor and in Herford's day it was an old poet by the name of McGruder. One day there appeared, by an upstairs window, a sign neatly drawn by Herford which read, "Exit in case of McGruder!"
Mark Twain was once told by the doorman that a member, on his way to a funeral, had taken Twain's umbrella by mistake. Twain grumbled, "I hope the funeral is a failure!"
The actor, Roland Winters came to the club one day and was informed that the price of one of the spartan bedrooms on the top floor had risen to twenty dollars, to which he remarked, "My God! The Booth-Hilton!"
Franklin P. Adams, who was the editor of the newspaper column, "The Conning Tower," was once playing pool when his opponent missed a shot and uttered a stream of obscenities. Adams stilled him with, "Please, sir! This is a gentleman's club -- and he may enter at any moment!"
I believe it was Oliver Herford who was responsible for the sign over the urinal in the men's room which advises, "The more haste, the less speed." in 1989 when ladies were first admitted as members, the writer Leo Prosser suggested the sign which graces the lady's powder room, "It droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven."
"Den of wits?" I should think so.
It's difficult to believe but in the past age of vaudeville a comedian could rely on his act to keep him employed for years on end, doing the same routine, sometimes as many as six shows a day. Take the case of DeWolf Hopper who had a blue complexion and was a headliner around the turn of the century. He was also married and divorced a startling number of times, once to a young lady who later became the well known Hollywood gossip queen, Hedda Hopper. He was once starring in the comic opera, Prince Methusalem and he learned that a group of baseball players from the New York Giants were coming to a performance. Wanting to make a hit with the young athletes, he stepped out of character in the middle of the show and proceeded to recite a poem, Casey at the Bat. He was stunned by the fantastic reception he received and he immediately incorporated it into his act. No matter where he was at, the audience never failed to demand he perform Casey. By his own estimation he recited the poem over ten thousand times before his final curtain fell. The author, one Ernest Lawrence Thayer, who had written it in 1888, was said to have rued the day he had composed it. Both Hopper and Thayer are long gone from the scene. But old Casey and his Mudville Nine are still going strong.
Anna Marie Alberghetti was a lovely young singer-actress when she played on Broadway in the musical, Carnival. There was no argument she was a stunning creature, and she was a competent actress, but her singing voice left something to be desired. She simply wasn't capable of projecting beyond the fifth row of the large Imperial Theatre and something had to be done. Fortunately, in our age of technology, they were able to equip her with a device which, when worn under her costume, broadcast her songs over a carefully monitored amplification system. By becoming what amounted to a radio sending station, she could be clearly heard in the last row of the balcony. Problem solved -- or was it? At each performance, just as she was to make her first entrance, a stagehand in the wings would flip on the amazing device and, when she exited, he would be there to switch it off. One evening something or other arose backstage which caused him to be absent from his appointed post, and the dainty star returned to her dressing room where she chatted gaily with her maid. Their spirited conversation, of course, went out over the loudspeakers to the ears of the puzzled audience. This was bad enough but it became a disaster when she had to use the facilities in her bathroom. I never knew anyone who happened to be in the theatre on that particular night but it must have been interesting, to say the least.
Howard Lindsay and his lovely wife, Dorothy Stickney, the original stars of Life with Father once took one of those trips through the midlands of England on a barge. Howard complained that he had difficulty digesting his breakfast without a daily newspaper but as the trip progressed, they became very hard to come by. He was finally reduced to reading small town weeklies which he found along the canal and although they didn't contain much in the way of world news, consisting of reports of local fetes and rural trivia, they did get him through breakfast. One morning while perusing such a publication, however, he came across an item which certainly captured his rapt attention. It was in a column pertaining to bird watching and it read, "Local naturalists have noted with great glee a growing number of hairy tits on the Northumberland Broads." Howard said it made his trip!
Don't let anyone tell you the English language is universal. It's true English is spoken all over the world but the meaning of certain words change drastically from one country to another. A lady in London once asked an American how one could send someone up the river by selling them down the river? I, myself, was once asked how you drive out of a drive-in?
Quite some time ago, my wife and I went out to Australia to appear in a production of Brigadoon and no sooner had we arrived "down under" when the English language presented us with some perplexing questions. I found myself all tangled up with the various meaning of biscuits, muffins, and crackers. Somehow our coffee cake became tea rings and my wife ran into difficulty trying to buy plain cotton with which to remove her makeup. The clerk looked at her blankly until he decided what she really wanted was cotton wool. Cotton, he explained patiently, was simply thread. In Australia the director of a play is called the producer and the producer is known as the management. I had a line in which I referred to Haig and Haig Scotch whiskey but I had to change it to Haig's Dimple to be understood.
Once rehearsals got underway, we were faced with a far more serious misunderstanding when my wife kept exhorting the dancers to tuck their fannies in! They all looked at her in alarm until some brave soul explained, in Australia, the fanny was a lady's sexual equipment.
William LeMassena, a perfectly superb Broadway actor, began his long career in The Taming of the Shrew starring Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. He was later to appear numerous times with the illustrious pair and he finally achieved the status of an adopted son in their eyes. He was once summoned to audition for a new play and to his delight, he was offered a major role. It wasn't until his second meeting with the director and the producer that he discovered not only he but the entire cast would be required to appear on the stage stark naked! In his case all he would wear was a wrist watch and a pair of horned rim glasses. A bit taken aback he informed them he would have to give the matter serious consideration which he proceeded to do. He reasoned that this presented a highly unusual challenge, to say the least, and, coupled by the fact they had quoted a very handsome salary, he accepted the job. Both the productions of Hair and Oh, Calcutta had contained nude scenes but the whole point of this little comedy was the fact that it was about a family of practicing nudists. When it had first been written in England in 1928 it had been called, "The Unproduceable Play," but times had changed. for the first week the brave cast rehearsed wearing bathrobes and slippers but finally, one after another discarded these props, and they all appeared in their birthday suits. The previews (well named!) were sold out and the ecstatic audience response presaged they were in for a long run -- barring pneumonia. On opening night at that staid old lady of a theatre, the Belasco on West 44th Street, Bill received a telegram which read, simply, "Tsk-tsk-tsk."
"Grin and Bare It" just didn't manage to capture the affections of the critics and it closed after (barely) three weeks. After all, once the cast had appeared as their maker had fashioned them, there wasn't any place they could go. They'd shot their bolt, so to speak. Conspicuously absent from any mention in the playbill was the name of a wardrobe mistress.
It served to remind me of an anecdote I once heard about NoŽl Coward when he was appearing with the Lunts in his comedy Design for Living. A lady was visiting Lynn Fontanne in her dressing room before a matinee when Coward entered and stripped off his dressing gown to show Lynn the wondrous tan he had achieved under a sun lamp. The startled visitor murmured he must be referring to his color to which he replied, "Of course, my dear. The rest is just the same old story."
Louis Shurr, a Hollywood agent, had the nickname "The Bloodhound" because of the uncanny resemblance he bore to those canines who pursued Liza across the ice. He had many important clients including Bob Hope and he was well known for his tenacity in his pursuit of gainful employment for those he represented. One ploy he resorted to was sending telegrams periodically to producers to remind them of this or that actor on his roster. These wires would span the globe and usually did the trick.
Legend has it that in the early 1930s, Gutherie McClintock, the Broadway producer-director and his wife Katherine Cornell were touring the theatrical sights in Russia. They had seen the renowned Moscow Art Theatre and were on their way to Leningrad aboard a sadly primitive day coach in the middle of the frigid Russian winter, when McClintock had a sudden call of nature. To his horror he found the lavatory facility consisted of a small bare room with a hole in one corner. To add to his dismay, there was no sign of any toilet tissue. It was at this propitious moment that the train came to a stop and a huge burly woman telegraph operator burst into the room and handed him a telegram. He ripped it open and read the message from Louis Shurr, "What can you do with Ramon Navarro?"
In the early 1920s James Cagney and his wife were a dance act in vaudeville and the troupe of which they were a part seldom played the big cities but rather the so-called "tank towns," named after the water tanks by the railway. The headliner in their company was an "over-the-hill" soprano who took her number one billing very seriously. Traveling with her was a tiny, aged toy poodle by the inspired name of "Fru-Fru" which the rest of the cast loathed, not without reason, because she smelled, did her best to bite people and, on overnight train trips, she yapped incessantly! She'd done all of these things by the time they had arrived for a week's engagement in Elkhart, Indiana where a new act had joined the company featuring a huge, moth-eaten lion. As usual, the soprano proceeded to dominate the orchestra runthrough and while she was out front of the curtain, arguing tempos with the harried conductor, the rest of the cast sat glumly backstage awaiting their turn. They had a clear view of that lion in its cage behind the scenery when all of a sudden, out of nowhere little Fru-Fru appeared, having gotten the scent of the King of Beasts which was evidently a good deal stronger than her own. Jim and the others watched, fascinated, as the flea-bitten little pest danced daintily over and peered into the cage. Just as the soprano was trying, in vain, to reach a high note the lion made his move. With one swipe of his enormous paw, he popped Fru-Fru into his cavernous maw. The cast sat there horrified and stunned by what they had seen! No one said a word nor did they say anything after the rehearsal when they heard the late Fru-Fru's mistress calling out for her. She spent the rest of the week going up and down alleys in her hopeless quest.
Many years later, Jim and his wife were walking up Broadway when who should appear but the old soprano. As she recognized them her face clouded over and her eyes filled with tears. Then she managed to wail, "Oh, my dears -- you were with me when my darling Fru-fru vanished!" Neither of the Cagney's had the courage to tell her where!
It was two weeks before Christmas and business at the Quincy, Massachusetts Bijou Theatre was dreadful. The pathetic stock company had valiantly struggled through the autumn of 1926 but Abe Greenglass could now feel the relentless, cold breath of his creditors. Reluctantly he had just typed out the closing notice when the telephone rang. It was Amos Washburn, the wealthiest man in town, who had a proposal to make. He had indulged himself by writing a play and, if Greenglass agreed to present it in his theatre, he would not only pay for the production, but he would satisfy all debts lodged against the stock company. As far as Abe was concerned it was the United States Cavalry arriving just in time to rescue the settlers from the Indians! How soon could he see a script? Washburn said he'd send it over by messenger in ten minutes. Greenglass hung up the phone and tore up the notice, dollar signs dancing before his eyes. An hour and a half later he finished reading the drama which was about reincarnation. It was perfectly awful as well but there was no question about his raggle-taggle gypsies not doing it. This represented a life boat for his sinking ship. They had to do it and do it they did. Amos Washburn wielded enormous power in the town and when he spoke, people listened. What he said now was that everyone was to go to the Bijou and they did, filling the theatre at each performance. As Washburn owned the only newspaper in Quincy, the drama critic lavished praise in his review of the proceedings. The curtain fell each evening on a stunned and bewildered audience. Some vowed never to venture into a theatre again.
On the afternoon of the closing night, which coincided with Christmas eve, Abe notified the cast that they were all invited to a formal buffet at the Washburn Mansion to celebrate their triumph. Actors, since the ancient Greeks, have never been known to turn down a free meal and this forlorn band of buskers were not to be the exception. About 11:30 they trudged through the slush and made their way up to the huge, brass-studded front door with its lion's head knocker. A butler ushered them into the enormous living room, lit by the glow of a hundred candles as well as a blazing yule log in the massive fireplace. Beyond beckoned the dining room where an endless table groaned under a mountain of food and drink.
It was at this point that the ancient crone of a character actress surged ahead of the others. She was well fortified by the gin she'd been sipping from a hot water bottle since the end of act two. Her eyes drank in the scene as tears and mascara ran down her withered cheeks. Suddenly she announced in a long wail, "Oh my God! Fifty-six years ago I left a home exactly like this to go on the stage!"
Every aspiring actor who comes to New York dreams of the day when his or her name will appear in lights. Only a scant few ever realize this thrill, echoing the truth of that old song which went, "There's a broken heart for every light on Broadway!" Peggy Cass, that delightfully witty actress who earned both fame and a Tony in Auntie Mame, is a case in point, as it was Rosalind Russell, not Peggy, whose name appeared above the theatre. In 1960, however, Ms. Cass was finally elevated to stardom in a hit, A Thurber Carnival which also starred Tom Ewell and Paul Ford. The production played the ANTA Theatre, now the Virginia, on West 52nd Street and on the opening day she asked me to accompany her to the theatre to share the thrill of seeing her name emblazoned against the sky. It was a cold, wet day in February but for Peggy the sun was shining. This was the moment she had looked forward to since arriving in New York from Boston a number of year's before. Our cab drew up to the stage door and we got out. Then we both looked up at the huge electric sign. One letter had shorted out. It was the "C" in Peggy's name.
Russell Hicks was one of those actors you used to see in the movies whose name you never knew. Those fellows were like old friends but they remained anonymous. I can recall seeing Hicks as a doctor lecturing me on the dire effects of contracting gonorrhea and syphilis. It was produced by the Army to scare the hell out of soldiers and, as recruits, we had to view it as part of our basic training. He must have made his point because, for months afterward, I didn't want to shake hands with a girl! Russell Hicks was a competent enough performer but the one thing he was not is funny, except on one occasion. Years before he had gone into the movies, he was the leading man in a stock company in Portland, Maine. Hicks was plying the title role in their production of Dracula, not the most amusing of roles. He was known off stage as a dour fellow without so much as a grain of a sense of humor, which is alright because the part didn't call for one. At the final performance, however, as Roland related it, Hicks was inexplicably touched by the wand of comedy. It was in the last scene, when the infamous vampire has been trapped in his coffin by Dr. Van Helsing and the juvenile. Roland Winters as Van Helsing cries out, "Quick, give me the stake! The Stake!!" At this point, from the depths of the coffin, Hicks, as Count Dracula, muttered, "And don't forget the french fried potatoes!"
Out in St. Louis there is an enormous outdoor theatre called the Muni Opera which seats twelve thousand people. Its apt appellation is "Alone in its Greatness" and it's located in Forest Park. I once found myself playing in this vast arena in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Allegro, a musical which traces the life of a young doctor from his birth to middle age. At the very top of the play, an actress, portraying his grandmother, sings a plaintive song as she gazes into his crib. On our opening night a chorus boy approached the formidable lady, who was just about to go on to sing her cradle ditty, and he informed her the dancing boys called her song, "The Penis Number." She tartly replied that she failed to see either the connection or the humor and abruptly left him to make her entrance. She was half way through the number when the dawn broke! With an amazing display of stage deportment she managed to reach the end and then beat a hasty retreat intent on murdering her informant. The lyrics which caught the fancy of the imaginative chorus ensemble are these:
††††††††††† Starting out, so pitifully small
††††††††††† It's hard to believe that you'll grow at all
††††††††††† It's hard to believe that things like you
††††††††††† Suddenly spring into men --
††††††††††† But I've seen it happen before,
††††††††††† And I know it will happen again.
The wonderful Danish comedian-pianist, Victor Borge, tells a story of a violinist in a symphony orchestra in Europe who was dedicated to his art to an extraordinary degree. Under the direction of a famous maestro, the orchestra had spent weeks rehearsing for a gala performance and, after a session a few days before the opening, the conductor felt the time had come for him to compliment the violinist. He pointed out how this man had always arrived an hour before the rehearsals were to begin and then, when they were over, always faithfully remained for another hour of practice! He went on to remark he felt the other musicians would do well to follow this exemplary example. He then asked the gentleman to stand up and take a bow which he promptly did, garnering a long and sincere round of applause. It wasn't until they had all been excused for the day that the violinist approached the maestro and said, "Thank you so much for your kind words, sir, but I'm afraid I must tell you I will be unable to play on opening night!"
One of the strangest stories in the annals of the Great White Way is the true tale of Conrad Cantzen, a small-time actor who spent much of his long, uninspired career either unemployed or out on the road. He never married and to describe his lonely life as being frugal would be a major understatement. When he was in a play on tour he never stayed in hotels but rather managed to sleep in his dressing room at the theatre and, wherever possible, he ate in Salvation Army soup kitchens. In short, he took Benjamin Franklin's old axiom, "A penny saved is a penny earned" to a fanatical extreme. He shunned buses and subways, always relying on shanks' mare to get himself around the city and he circumvented buying a newspaper by reading the one in the Public Library. In short, Conrad Cantzen made George Eliot's fictional character "Silas Marner" seem like the last of the big-time spenders. He resided in New Jersey in a shack and his wardrobe was threadbare. The Actors Equity Association provided him with bus fare to go uptown to a hospital at the off-set of his final illness but he chose to make the long journey by foot, adding the money saved to his bank account. Rather than pay a lawyer, he wrote his will on cardboard shirt backs. It was the content of this last testament that would assure this eccentric actor's everlasting fame in the theatre community. Over the years, his shrewd investments and his savings totaled over a quarter of a million dollars, all of which he left to Actors Equity to establish a fund for the express purpose of providing shoes, free of charge, to members of the profession.
"Run-down shoes -- run-down actor" was Cantzen's observation and he meant to see to it that it would never have to be so again.
Alice Pearce was a perfectly delightful fey comedienne who appeared in many Broadway musicals including On the Town and Gentleman Prefer Blondes. She was also very popular on the supper club circuit with her unique delivery and her grand lady demeanor. The latter came naturally to her as she had attended a finishing school in Paris.
In the summer of 1954 I was out on a stock tour with Alice in a revival of an old play, The Vegetable which had been written in the early 1920s by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Our company starred Wally Cox who was famous at that time through the television show, Mr. Peepers. When the play had been first produced it had been a flop, not even making it to Broadway but the combination of Alice and Wally made it passably entertaining. Burdened by playing a rogue, directing as well as producing the creaky vehicle, I found myself suffering from the severe case of insomnia for the first time in my life. Knowing that Alice traveled with a little black bag filled with various pills, I implored her to come to my rescue. She dove into her satchel and brought forth a small, pink capsule as well as another which resembled a mothball. Having a scant knowledge of drugs I asked her to explain the difference. Patiently, she pointed out if I took the pink pill it would seem as if a nun had tiptoed into my bedroom and quietly lowered the blinds. When I inquired about the mothball, she cooed, "Dearie, that would have the effect of a mother superior hitting you over the head with a baseball bat!" I took the pink one.
One thing Alice disliked over all others was water in any form. Lakes, ponds, rivers, she even mistrusted ice cubes. Near the end of her life when she was appearing on the television series, Bewitched, out in Hollywood, she learned she had cancer. With her usual fantastic courage, she faithfully faced the camera right almost to the end. She left instructions that she be cremated and her ashes sprinkled over the film capital but a new city ordinance forbade any additional substance to be added to the smog-clogged atmosphere. Her executor decided to hire a plane in which he and a number of her close friends could fly out over the Pacific to dispose of the remains. Armed with the canister and a bottle of vintage champagne, the mourners took to the sky. Finally, when the pilot indicated they were legally far enough off shore, the wine was uncorked, a toast delivered, and a window opened to consign Alice to the sea. Of course, she was having none of this! The ashes immediately blew back, turning the cabin and its occupants into an airborne Pompeii!
In December, 1942, after managing to survive six weeks of basic training in Texas, I was sent to an Army Air Force school for flight controllers in Los Angeles. We were billeted in the relative comfort of a rundown hotel and took our meals in a cafeteria the Army had taken over in the downtown area. I shared a room with two Texans, George Lyder and, yes, Woodrow Wilson and each Sunday we were released from duty from eight in the morning until midnight and we all did our best to take advantage of this rare freedom. Before the war I had been with the hit comedy Life With Father as an understudy to Richard Ney who had come out to Hollywood to play the role of Greer Garson's son in Mrs. Miniver at MGM. When I arrived in Los Angeles I learned they had married and were living in an estate in Bel Air so I telephoned them. Richard was away on assignment in the Navy but Ms. Garson graciously invited me for a swim and brunch, adding I was welcome to include my two friends. I thought these two country bumpkins from the Pan Handle would be thrilled to meet a glamorous movie star and I was thunderstruck when they informed me that they preferred to roam around the bars in Hollywood. I wasn't about to miss this golden opportunity and I proceeded to have a memorable day in the astonishingly beautiful company of Greer Garson. I'd just gotten back to our room about eleven o'clock when George and Woody showed up. I had just began to berate them for missing the chance of a lifetime when they each produced an autographed photo. It was Greta Garbo! It seems they were picked up by the legendary star and had spent their holiday at her retreat, high in the Santa Monica hills.
The British, in contrast to we Americans, are known for the faithful loyalty they show old stars! Here we are apt to look upon artists who are in the sunset of their careers as "has-beens" but across the Atlantic, it's once a star, always a star! Many years ago a young girl, who was a piano student, was taken by her mother to Albert Hall to hear a concert by the great Polish pianist, Ignace Jan Paderewski, who was almost eighty and rather unsteady. When, at the conclusion, the child looked up at her mother and whispered, "Why are we applauding when he wasn't very good?" Her mother replied, "He once was magnificent, dear!"
Recently, I read a fascinating account about the indeed magnificent Mr. Paderewski who, aside from his virtuosity at the keyboard, was the first Prime Minister of modern Poland, a post he held from 1919 to 1921. When he died in New York in 1941 he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery but his heart was interred in Brooklyn following an old Polish custom of burying a person's heart in a place they had loved. The article went on to state his remains in Arlington were to be returned to a final resting place in Poland. Frederick Chopin, on the other hand, is buried in Paris but his heart is entombed in Warsaw. It's a bit confusing.
Theatre people are very particular about their billing, and it often concerns them more than their salary. Many years ago, Gertrude Lawrence and Dennis King were about to embark on a tour of Pygmalian and Ms. Lawrence coyly asked him if he'd mind if she were starred alone? Dennis, of course, flatly refused, but he added he wouldn't mind if the program read "Gertrude Lawrence in Pygmalian but Dennis King"! She quickly got the point and they were co-starred.
In 1952 an American actor, Hayes Gordon, went out to Australia to play in Kiss Me Kate. The "Kate" in question was a well known Australian actress by the name of Evie Hayes and, because of her local reputation, she demanded she receive top billing to the left. She was surprised when he acquiesced without argument but she quickly informed the management of the arrangement. It wasn't until opening night that she saw the error of her ways. There, etched against the Melbourne skies, for all to see, were their names:
††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Evie†††††††††† Hayes
††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† HAYES†††††††††† GORDON
The late Bert Lahr, a brilliant comedian both on stage and off, took his profession very seriously. Like W.C. Fields, he was one of a kind and, although he is best remembered today as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, he enjoyed a long and successful career on Broadway in such diversified productions as DuBarry Was a Lady and Waiting for Godot. In one play, S.J. Perleman's The Beauty Part, he played a number of roles including a Chinese houseboy and a lady editor. David Doyle was a member of the cast and, like everyone else, he idolized Lahr. They weren't many days into rehearsals, however, before Doyle realized the great star was an exceedingly complicated man. He had a habit of frequently whipping out a thermometer and taking his temperature. On seeing him go through this odd routine a number of times, Doyle finally asked him how he felt? Lahr scrutinized the instrument and replied, "Talented!"
One day Lahr took the young actor aside and confided that he had a phobia. Doyle thought, to himself, just one? But he asked what it was? Bert went on to explain he didn't want any other actor to move on the stage as it drove him crazy. The slightest movement, he went on to explain, ruined the scene. David listened politely and then said, "Well, look now, Mr. Lahr -- I've got to move to get out there and, it follows, I have to move to get off!" Lahr was silent for a full minute while he digested this information. Then he looked at Doyle with admiration and said, "I like you kid. You've got class!"
Back in the 1940s, when few people had television sets, radio was the major source of amusement. Among the popular programs was Duffy's Tavern which starred Shirley Booth and Ed Gardner. Gardner's famous opening line always went, "Hello, Duffy's Tavern -- Archie speaking!" He not only starred on the show but was the chief writer as well. In short, he was a very gifted fellow, not the least was the ability to come up with a suitable tag line. A number of years before he had married Shirley Booth and on the day of their wedding, they had embarked on an ocean liner to spend their honeymoon in Europe. In those days sailings were an event where much champagne flowed and a party atmosphere prevailed. For Shirley Booth, this was supposed to be the most romantic night of her life but the only problem that arose was she had misplace her groom. She searched all the bars, in vain, and then went up and down the labyrinth of endless passageways. No Ed. Just as she was about to give up she heard feminine giggling coming from a stateroom. She stepped through the door and there was Ed Gardener, with three nubile young ladies paying him court. Upon seeing his bride, he leapt to his feet and blurted out, "Alright! Now you know -- I'm a jewel thief!"
The Yiddish Theatre flourished down on Second Avenue in New York during the early part of the century. The audience, who were immigrants and their families for the most part, were very loyal, and most performances were sold out. Both plays and musicals were presented and the stars were venerated. Elsie Feranson, who was later to move uptown to Broadway with great success, was once asked if there was any particular method of acting in the Yiddish Theatre? "Oh yes," she exclaimed, "It's every man for himself!"
On one occasion, the star was the aged Boris Thomashefsky who had risen from a sick bed to perform Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Somehow the old actor managed to wobble through the first two acts but at the second intermission, the manager stepped before the curtain to inquire if there was a doctor in the house? Twenty minutes later he reappeared before the now restless audience and in a low, sad voice announced, "Ladies and gentleman, I regret to inform you we have lost our beloved Thomashefsky!" Sensing they didn't understand he added, bluntly, "He's dead!" He didn't have to point out that without Shylock, The Merchant of Venice wasn't much of a play.
Suddenly the gloomy silence was broken by a voice high up in the balcony, "Give him an enema!" The manager looked in the direction of the speaker and said, "My friend, you don't seem to understand! The great Thomashefsky is dead!" After a slight pause the voice repeated, "Give him an enema!"
Exasperated by now, the manager shouted, "It won't do any good!" The voice spoke again, "It couldn't hurt!"
A beautiful young girl once came to New York to become an actress and she vowed nothing would stop her in her march to success. The very first night she arrived in town, she made her way to Sardi's, that mecca of the theatrical world, where she tossed her curls in the bar. In a matter of moments she struck up a conversation with a pleasant young man who informed her he was the assistant stage manager in a new play which was just about to go into rehearsal. One thing led to another and before you could say the words, "garter belt," she was back in his apartment sharing his bed! A day or two later he informed her he had arranged to have her audition for a small part in the play and, after the reading, she accepted the director's suggestion they have supper together. Later on, in bed, he told her she'd gotten the role. She next met the playwright who, after succumbing to her charms, considerably lengthened her part. After sleeping with the producer she learned, to her delight, not only would she be receiving a much larger salary but her name would be featured in lights.
The cast eventually found itself in a parlor car bound for the opening in New Haven. Our heroine sat down next to the venerable old character actress and told her she would be only too glad to receive any advice the seasoned trouper could give which might further her career?
Laying aside her copy of the National Geographic, the old pro observed, "My dear, the only thing which seems to have escaped you is the fact that you can't fuck the audience!"
"Truth is stranger than fiction" was never more apt than in the case of the birth pains of Garson Kanin's magnificent comedy, Born Yesterday, which ran for over four years on Broadway. If I'm allowed a bit of fancy semantics, the play came very close to be known as "Stillborn Yesterday." When rehearsals began, the late Jean Arthur, she of the foggy voice, was the sole star with Paul Douglas featured as the junk dealer. At first, it appeared to be inspired casting as Ms. Arthur enjoyed an enormous following due to her many years as a popular movie star. Douglas, on the other hand, was quite unknown, having been a radio announcer, but his role fitted him perfectly. Garson Kanin directed the play having served an apprenticeship under George Abbott, a master in the art of comedy. However, nothing prepared him for the trouble he encountered from Ms. Arthur. From the very start, she began to miss rehearsals, calling in from her hotel suite to announce she was "out of sorts." At this point of the story it's important to mention another member of the cast, Mary Laslo. She was hired to play the minuscule part of the manicurist who briefly appears in the First Act, buffs Douglas' nails and exits without saying a word. She was far from being pretty but Kanin had seen her at the American Academy and had felt sorry for her. Now, having little else to do, she learned the role of "Billie Dawn" and when the quixotic Ms. Arthur chose to stay sequestered in her hotel, Mary Laslo stood in for her. She wasn't an official standby or even an understudy to the star but being available, the rehearsals were able to continue. In spite of this unfortunate situation, Garson Kanin somehow managed to get his play on its feet and through an opening night in Boston. Then disaster struck when Jean Arthur absolutely refused to play a scheduled performance on Christmas Day! Max Gordon, the producer, pleaded with her, and when that fell on deaf ears, threatened to report her conduct to Actors Equity. One thing, however, had become clear to Kanin and that was his play just wasn't a star vehicle. Paul Douglas had received rave notices as had the play itself and it was apparent its success didn't depend solely on Ms. Arthur. Frustrated and angered by her unprofessionalism, he announced that Mary Laslo would substitute for the illusive star! The day of the performance he did his best to make this ugly duckling into a swan by having a crew from the Ritz Hotel's Beauty Salon give her the works. His suspicions proved correct when, at the final curtain, the audience's approval was as enthusiastic as ever and very few had asked for their money back when it had been announced Jean Arthur was indisposed and wouldn't appear.
It would be a scene out of the musical Forty-Second Street if it could be recorded that Mary Laslo had gone out and had become a star but the sad truth of the matter was, she simply was not up to the challenge. It wasn't her fault, she'd done the best she could do but everyone connected with the production realized this was a temporary solution to the Jean Arthur problem. Kanin even went so far as suggesting to Max Gordon that the play be closed and that they all return to New York. In the meantime, the temperamental Ms. Arthur, realizing her absence had not prevented the performance taking place, decided to act with a bit more rationality. She played what was left of the engagement in Boston, deriving some satisfaction by seeing Mary Laslo back in her manicurist's costume. It was in Philadelphia that Jean Arthur really got sick or at least she convinced herself she was too ill to go on. Once more into the breach went Mary Laslo. By this time, however, Garson Kanin had contacted an unknown actress in New York who arrived on the next train from New York to rehearse around the clock to replace the now departed movie queen. Judy Holliday opened on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre and the rest is history. She became a big star, winning the Academy Award in 1950 in, what else? Born Yesterday.
The bittersweet ending of this story is that plain Mary Laslo play≠ed that mute manicurist for the rest of the 1,642 performances and, when the play finally closed, returned to the obscurity from whence she came.
George Bernard Shaw wrote the role of Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalian for his friend, Stella Campbell, known to the world as Mrs. Patrick Campbell. It was she who reportedly said to the famed vegetarian, "Heaven help the women of London if you ever eat a lamb chop!" Once, in New York, she asked a friend to return a pair of shoes she had bought and have them stretched a bit. The friend obliged but once in the shop she simply asked for the same shoes only two sizes larger. When Mrs. Campbell tried them on she heaved a sigh of relief and cooed, "You see, all they required was the slightest stretch!"
Mrs. Campbell had a tiny Pekinese she called "Moonbeam" and once when the great lady was riding with her pet in a taxi, Moonbeam forgot his manners and did his business on the back seat. When she had arrived at her destination and was paying the driver, he suddenly yelled, "Who did that in my cab?" Mrs. Campbell snapped shut her purse and replied, "I did!"
Frederick March and his wife, Florence Eldridge co-starred in many Broadway hits including The Skin of Our Teeth, Years Ago and A Long Day's Journey Into Night. When they were first married, however, times had been a little less lucrative and, although they longed to escape the heat in New York, where to go posed a financial question. They finally decided on a farm in New Hampshire which a fellow actor had suggested. It was rural and happily fitted into their limited budget. The first day they arrived, however, Florence complained to her husband about the bathroom facilities. There weren't any! March immediately explained to the farmer, a Mr. Muggins, that he and his wife were spoiled city folk and would require some sort of arrangement. Muggins promised to put up an outhouse out back which he did. The Marchs had an enjoyable week. The following summer, although they had had a much better year, they decided it would be nice to go back to the Muggins' farm. Upon arrival, Florence, astonished to find no trace of the privy, once again spoke to her husband. He found Muggins out by the barn and he inquired what had happened to the outhouse?
The old Yankee replied in his nasal New England drawl, "Oh, I had to take that damn thing down, Mr. March. Last summer after you'd gone, I'd go into town and people on the street would shout at me, 'There goes proud-ass Muggins -- shits in a box!!"
If this isn't a true story, I don't care to know!
Of all the plays in the American Theatre referred to as being classics perhaps the one most deserving the description is Thornton Wilder's Our Town. After writing several one act plays including The Happy Journey from Camden to Trenton his comedy-drama of a village in New Hampshire at the turn of the century was his first attempt at a full length play. The route the play traveled from Wilder's imagination to the stage was not a smooth one by any means. Producer after producer turned it down until the brilliant if eccentric Jed Harris decided to gamble on a production. Coming as it did, at the end of the Great Depression, backers were not eager to share his enthusiasm but one thing in its favor was the fact it required no scenery, having been fashioned to play on a bare stage. Once rehearsals got underway, Harris and the playwright suffered a rupture in their relationship which resulted in Wilder being barred from the theatre. Actually, securing a Broadway playhouse proved difficult and the best Harris could manage was in interim booking into the Henry Miller. To further conserve funds the limited out-of-town tour was to include only Princeton and Boston. Variety, the bible of show business, always covered out-of-town openings and one can well imagine what the author, cast and director thought when they saw the notice for Our Town which began, "What the erstwhile wonder-boy of Broadway, Jed Harris, had in mind when he presented this disjointed farce of New Hampshire farm life is beyond this reviewer's understanding."
In Boston they played to empty houses and it wasn't until after the magical opening night in New York that everyone realized a great hit had been born. The play went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and has thrilled audiences all over the world for the past 54 years.
There was once a famous silent movie star who was known to be fond of a nip or two. She enjoyed a long career in front of the camera in the days before the talkies revolutionized the business, mainly because her slurred speech wasn't heard. As long as she was able to remain on her feet she was able to delight her hordes of fans all over the world. When sober, she possessed an acute business sense -- investing her considerable salary in real estate. Wanting to further guarantee her lavish lifestyle, she had the good sense to marry a jovial Texas millionaire who had struck oil. When the sun finally set on her film career, her husband indulged her whim to the extent of purchasing a delightful villa on the CŰte D'Azure where they soon became famous for their parties. As the years passed, the celluloid queen's intake of gin increased. Her adoring spouse did his best to hide the vile stuff but she was a wily old sot and exceedingly gifted at stashing a supply in various hiding places around the swimming pool. One sun-drenched day they were giving a brunch and by eleven o'clock she was, to put it politely, smashed! The guests began to arrive and, by now, she was quite incapable of rising from a chaise although she did manage a weak wave of greeting. Promptly, at the stroke of noon, her doting husband appeared with a shaker of martinis. In a loud, jovial voice he chortled, "All right, precious! The sun is over the yard arm -- may I tempt you?"
Florenz Ziegfeld was the most outstanding producer in the early part of this century, presenting his Follies each year to "Glorify the American Girl." It's said he only tolerated such comedians as Will Rogers, W.C. Fields and Eddie Cantor because their acts provided the time to rearrange the scenery and give his stunning show girls time to change their elaborate costumes. It was Will Rogers who made the observation that these elegant ladies were always retiring from the stage to get married to some millionaire and it was sometimes as long as two weeks before they would return to the show. Ziegfeld and his designer, Joseph Urban, spared no expense or effort to make these glamorous extravaganzas the hottest ticket on Broadway. Although Ziegfeld was apt to look upon his comics as a necessary evil, he was partial to Fanny Brice who convulsed audiences year after year as one of his headliners. He himself had been married to the exotic Annie Held who was purported to indulge in mild baths and, following their divorce, he wed the beautiful Billie Burke who lives on today as Glinda in The Wizard of Oz. One of the brightest stars in this amazing man's stable was the black comedian, Bert Williams. In his day it is said he commanded the largest salary of anyone behind the footlights although that fact didn't protect him from racial prejudice. He had just exited to the wings after a performance one night when an obese stagehand paid him a back-handed compliment saying, "You're a good nigger, Bert." When Williams asked him what he meant, the boor answered, "You know your place!" Walking quickly away, Bert Williams said, over his shoulder, "That I do and I'm going there right now! Dressing Room One!!"
Rudolph Valentino was the rage in the early 1920s with a large percentage of the female population swooning in ecstasy as he raced across the silent movie screens. When he went into a tango, there wasn't enough smelling salts to go around and when he would make a public appearance, the riot squads had to be summoned. Men dug deep into jars of pomade in an effort to emulate his slick hairdo and many of them went so far as to practice flaring their nostrils in front of a mirror. His fantastic career was suddenly cut short when he died of appendicitis at an early age, but if he had been mobbed during his lifetime, it was nothing compared to the disturbance his funeral caused. Campbell's Funeral Parlor, on the upper West Side, was the scene of a dangerously large and unruly demonstration bringing forth hundreds of mounted police.
The day of Valentino's roman circus coincided with the arrival home of Gertrude Ederle who had made headlines by swimming the English Channel. Ms. Ederle's proud father was a butcher on East 76th Street and, on this day of days, he arranged to have a huge banner unfurled across the avenue which read:
††††††††††††††††††††††† "So Long Rudy -- Welcome Trudy!"
In the days when revues were popular forms of theatre entertainment, the term, "Blackout Sketch" simply meant a comedy skit which was terminated, hopefully with a huge laugh, followed immediately by a sudden and complete blackout. The whole effect could be ruined if the stage didn't disappear in a flash and many an electrician could expect a severe tongue lashing from irate comedians if there was any deviation from a total lack of illumination. One of these actors, who wrote his own material, became so fed up with the blackouts provided by a stage hand running the electrical board, he decided to write a skit which required no blackout at all! In fact, the entire sketch was to be played from beginning to end, in pitch darkness. Here is his script:
††††††††††† Scene -an empty stage in complete darkness. Not a glimmer of light! The sound of a telephone bell is heard.
††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Feminine Voice
(Very sleepy) Hello? Oh -- hello, darling ... No dearest, I was just drifting off ... What? Oh, I see ... un-huh ... I understand. Alright, darling ... yes, well you have a good time. I love you too. (smack) Goodbye.
(sound of telephone being hung up followed by a long pause)
†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Same Voice
Isn't that interesting? That was my husband! He's at the Yale Club playing bridge ... with you!
The international star Beatrice Lillie was married to Sir Robert Peel which, of course, made her Lady Peel. She once confided that she loved to answer the telephone in France because she could say, "Lady Peel -- qui parle?" Once, in Paris, the great lady was staying at the Hotel George V to which she had returned after a long a liquid night on the town. Walking as steadily as possible, she made her way past dozens of onlookers down the long entrance hall and up to the front desk where she gathered herself together and demanded "Lady Keel's Pea, please!"
Sometime a time-worn anecdote is worth repeating on the chance it might find a new audience. Perhaps there are some who have never heard of the time Ms. Lillie was starring in a show in Chicago and one afternoon found herself in a booth of the beauty salon at Marshall Fields? Over the closed curtain she heard the socialite, Mrs. Armour of the meat packing family, loudly complaining about the presence of a mere vaudevillian in her allotted space! Not to be outdone, she gaily chirped, "You can inform the butcher's wife that Lady Peel got here first!"
I had the enormous good fortune in 1949 to appear with her in a revue called Inside USA, and when we arrived in Boston, I invited her out to dine between the matinee and the evening performance. I took her to Durgin Park, that unique eatery which features an endless entre consisting of pot roast, dumplings, and steamed vegetables which she attacked with relish. Back at the Shubert Theatre that evening she suggested I watch her in the Mermaid number for which Howard Deitz had written a witty song whose lyrics began,
††††††††††† "In me you see a Massachusetts mermaid,
††††††††††† Now a mermaid is a different kind of fish," etc.
At that particular performance she sang,
††††††††††† "In me you see, a boiled New England dinner..."
I can't imagine what the audience made of that, but, as for me, I shall never forget it.
Nor is it likely I shall ever forget Beatrice Lillie!
Out in Hollywood, that city of tinseled dreams, no one is higher on the moviedom pecking order than the cameraman. Even the greatest directors depend on these cinematographers to capture their inspirations on celluloid and famous movie queens, such as Swanson, Garbo, and Dietrich, always insisted their favorite be included in their contract. Film historians give much of the credit for D.W. Griffith's success to Billy Bitzer, his cameraman. It was Bitzer, for example, who invented the fade-out effect which came about when a faulty iris slowly closed during a shot. Unfortunately, when Griffith's career went into eclipse, Bitzer ended up running a small electrical shop in the Bronx. Many of these artisans, however, live high on the hog and enjoy a lavish life style. On the night the Academy Awards are announced, one of the most sought-after Oscars is the one awarded for cinematography and no one has more of the coveted statues than James Wong Howe. A number of years ago, as an investment, he opened a Chinese restaurant off Hollywood Boulevard and he decided he needed a photograph of his establishment to put on postcards. A photographer, who he found in the yellow pages, showed up with his equipment on the appointed day and was setting up his camera when Howe suggested he take the picture from a different vantage point. Ignoring him the fellow growled, "Look, I'll take care of the photography and you stick to the Chinkee food!"
In the 1920s and 1930s Al Jolson was known as the Number One entertainer and not without reason. Jolson could hold an audience in rapt attention and always left them screaming for more. Both on the stage and off, he was much bigger than life, but he wasn't the most popular person as far as his fellow performers were concerned. In some cases it was just plain envy but, for many of them, his enormous ego diminished his charm. His popularity on the stage was never duplicated out in Hollywood although he did blaze a trail for talking pictures when he starred in The Jazz Singer. He prophesied a whole new era when, from the screen, he exclaimed, "You ain't heard nothing yet!"
A small-time vaudevillian once found himself and his wife stranded in Los Angeles with insufficient funds to get them back to New York. He approached Jack Benny with the hope he would help them out but Benny told him that as much as he would like to come to the rescue, he was having a dreadful time with the income tax people and reluctantly had to turn him down. He did, however, tell him he'd seen his act which he thought was perfectly wonderful. Another old friend, George Burns, told him the same thing. The poor fellow described both of these interviews with his wife, emphasizing how much they two stars had admired his act. Of course, as she pointed out, praise didn't get them any closer to New York and she suggested he appeal to his old pal, Al Jolson. To his amazement, Jolson listened to his story and immediately peeled of the necessary cash but, before giving it to him, he told him he'd caught his act and had found it dreadfully dated. That evening, the first thing the fellow said to his wife was, "You won't believe this, but that son-of-a-bitch Jolson hates my act!"
Ruth Hammond, the actress, played the entire seven-and-a-half year run of Life With Father, missing but one performance, a Broadway record that has never been equalled. She was also the mother of a little boy who, like all children, doted on a collection of stuffed animal toys. Ruth numbered, among her friends, a great number of stars, including Helen Hayes, Katherine Cornell, Ruth Gordon, and Judith Anderson, all of who presented an assortment of teddy bears, racoons and cuddly puppies to her son. Little Ricky was very attached to his stuffed zoo and to the famous ladies who had given it to him. He named each animal after its donor to show his appreciation. Thus, a realistic elephant became "Pauline Lord" and a pink pig, "Blanche Yurka." None of the stars seemed to mind, in fact, they looked at it as flattery. After all, there can't be many koala bears named "Lillian Tashman." However, something else did occur which was difficult to explain to the neighbors in their building. Ricky's bedroom was on a courtyard and each evening his four-year-old voice could clearly be heard, wailing, "I want Lynn Fontanne, Helen Hayes, and Judith Anderson in bed with me!"
Today John Drew would be a "superstar" but he flourished on the stage around the turn of the century before the term had been invented. In those distant days he was known as a "matinee idol" although he was a big star six nights as well. As befits such a stage luminary, he lived in a large mansion in East Hampton, Long Island, along with his wife and lovely daughter, Louise. His niece and two nephews, Ethel, Lionel, and John Barrymore were frequent guests as well as a parade of other celebrities. Louise had a stable of swains who paid court to her on the large verandah overlooking Lily Pond Lane but Mr. Drew kept a close watch over his only child an, as far as he was concerned, none of her beaus seemed worthy of her hand. None, that is, until a handsome actor by the name of Jack Devereux arrived on the scene. John Drew took a shine to this suitor and he encouraged Louise to ask him to spend a weekend. Young Devereux was happy to accept the invitation in spite of the fact Louise had warned him he would be under the microscopic scrutiny of her famous father. He arrived Friday evening on the train from New York and everything went well until Saturday evening after dinner. It was then that John Drew suggested he and the young man take their leave of the ladies and repair to the den to enjoy a cigar and some vintage brandy. The cautious father wanted to find out how well this prospective son-in-law could hold his liquor. It was almost midnight when the bottom of the brandy decanter came into sight and the air was blue from the smoke of numerous Havanas. The ladies had long since retired upstairs and Mr. Drew announced it was time to do the same. He had decided that young Devereux would make, not only a fine husband for his beloved daughter, but would prove a splendid drinking companion for himself as well. After switching off the lights, the two men began the long ascent up the steep flight of stairs. All went well until Drew, who was about to reach the top, slipped and fell. The thunder his body made as it bounced down to the bottom would have awaked the dead. Jack Devereux, certain that America's foremost actor had killed himself, was petrified with horror until, suddenly, in the blackness, John Drew's stentorian voice rang out, "Are you all right, dear boy?"
The dear boy in question went on to marry Miss Drew and they lived happily ever after.
It was around 1950 that actors began to take television seriously as here was a medium which promised employment in a profession famous or infamous for its lack of same. Aside from the weekly dramatic programs, there was a new gold mine to be found in making commercials, those thirty- or sixty-second spots which paid for the entertainment. A new, delicious word, "residuals" entered the actor's vocabulary as, once an ad appeared on the screen, the fortunate participants could expect payments as long as it was shown. The onus of portraying a person in need of a deodorant instead of playing "Hamlet" was far outweighed by the monetary gain, nor was this new fount restricted to unknowns. Stars quickly became enchanted by the lure of filthy lucre as well. Bert Lahr was happy to munch potato chips, Edward G. Robinson sip instant coffee and the renowned Sir Laurence Olivier peddle Polaroid cameras, all for the almighty dollar.
I, myself, was able to put both of my offspring through college as the result of doing commercials. Sometimes one did a number of different spots for the same product. By good fortune I was chose to appear as an old Yankee character opposite Margaret Hamilton -- remembered as that wonderful Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz -- on a series of ads for Maxwell House coffee.
The strangest experience I encountered in my television huckstering days involved three sixty-second plugs for the little candy bar, Peter Paul Mounds! At the audition for the first commercial, I was asked if I could ride a bicycle? I answered in the affirmative but I was shocked to find, on the day of the shooting, I was to ride a "penny-farthing," one of those relics from the Gay Nineties which have an enormous front wheel and no brakes. If that wasn't enough of a challenge, I was to whiz down a long steep hill, eating the chocolate covered shredded coconut as I swept past the camera. Two burly teamsters were stationed at the bottom of that Matterhorn to catch me. I can recall thinking at the time, what an odd way to depart this life, trying to persuade the viewing public to buy a ten cent candy bar! Somehow or other we got through the day!
A few months later, the agency called to ask me if I had a driver's license. After that first perilous adventure I should have been suspicious, but hungry actors often go where angels fear to tread. This time I was to drive a bus through the serpentine streets of Riverdale. The huge juggernaut had a dashboard which resembled that of a 707 jet, but far more precarious was the fact the camera was placed where the windshield was located, almost completely blocking my view. As if that weren't enough, a high school band blasted out a marching song behind my driver's seat. Why the population of that pleasant little suburb wasn't reduced that day will forever remain a mystery. I've forgotten to mention that, once again, I was required to munch the product!
My third and, thankfully, my final encounter with Peter Paul Mounds, had me going to an address in New York to be fitted with a harness. This is the sort of device which made it possible for Mary Martin to fly in Peter Pan. The brilliant plot of our epic had me flying a box kite on the seashore in New Jersey and, on cue, I was to shoot up into the ether as if pulled up by the kite. One end of the invisible wire was attached to my harness and the other to a building crane. I don't suppose I flew more than thirty feet into the blue but as far as I was concerned, I was a mile above the beach, shaking with terror. The director, far below, kept bellowing at me over the bullhorn, "Don't kink wire -- or it'll break!
During the making of these three commercials, I must have consumed two dozen Peter Paul Mounds and, today, years later, the sight of their wrapper is enough to nauseate me.
Some time ago, more years than I care to think about, I was one of the co-operators of the famed Country Playhouse in Westport, Connecticut. Many of my adventures of that season, both zarre and bizarre, have faded from my mind, but two still remain clear. My partner in crime that summer was Philip Langner, the son of the owners of the theatre, Lawrence Langner and Armina Marshal. During the first weeks I had been slightly discouraged when I realized Lawrence Langner didn't seem to have a clue nor did he seem to care what my name was but I felt much better when it became obvious he wasn't always certain of Philip's name. This odd difficulty with names wasn't his only quirk by any means. Among others was his penchant for directing traffic on matinee days. He'd stand out by the parking lot, in a white suit and a panama hat, and indicate where the incoming customers were to park their cars. I used to watch him from my small office, fascinated at the sight of one of the founders of the Theatre Guild indulging in his strange hobby. Also taking in the scene were a number of inmates in a home for addled adults which was adjacent to our grounds. One Wednesday afternoon, Langner was at his post when one of the elderly patients called down to him, "Hey, who do you think you are?" The great producer of Oklahoma! as well as the plays of George Bernard Shaw, finally discerned where the voice had originated and he answered, "I'm Lawrence Langner!" The old man came back with, "You can't be. I'm Lawrence Langner!" This little vignette closed as Lawrence thought this over for a moment, then shook his head and returned to directing traffic.
The other incident I recall has to do with Tallulah Bankhead, whose arrival sent my partner Philip into seclusion, leaving me to contend with this living legend. Someone once said that a day away from Tallulah was like a month in the country. Wearing a mink coat and slacks she arrived in a station wagon along with three odd young men whom she introduced as "my guardian angels, darling." She was there early, she explained, to inspect the scenery and especially the furniture to make certain it met with her rigid taste. After all, she reminded me, she had once had a beau who had become, for a short time, the King of England. I guided her to our stage and stood by while she make her inspection. Immediately her eyes fell on a small chair which she disdainfully tossed over the footlights. Next to go was a frail table which crashed into the first row next to the shattered chair. She announced she was too big a star to appear surrounded by such vulgar trash. Then she drawled, "I'm sure you understand, darling!" "Oh yes, Miss Bankhead," I answered, "but I would like to point out to you that that vulgar trash came from your own house in Ossining! Your guardian angels, per your instructions, delivered it last night!"
I'm sure it was one of the few times in her life she was at a loss for words.
For some reason, the theatre is a breeding ground for superstitions and they seem to thrive in its atmosphere. Heaven only knows how or when they are born but once they take hold, they seem to be passed from one generation to another. Shakespeare's Macbeth is almost five hundred years old and I have no idea when actors decided it was unlucky to call it anything but "The Scottish Play." Somewhere in the murky past it became very rash to utter the final line in rehearsal. Under what circumstances whistling in a dressing room presaged doom also escapes me. I'm told bullfighters usually kneel in front of a crucifix in their dressing rooms before entering the arena and, for their part, actors' makeup tables inevitably sport a number of good luck charms. The Barrymore clan always received a large red apple on opening nights. Some actresses are convinced it is courting disaster to wear the color green. Dancers, in wishing another well before a performance, always cheerfully suggest, "Break a leg!"
Aside from being very superstitious, most actors are exceedingly poor mathematicians. When asked what his current salary amounts to, an actor will usually put it at two or three hundred dollars more than the fact. An elderly star once appeared in a revival of one of her lesser hits and at one matinee only three people were in the audience. At dinner she was asked how the house had been in the afternoon to which she replied, "Not so good I'm afraid. We only had 10 people!"
Josephine Hull was a beloved little rotund character actress who, in her last play, finally achieved stardom. She is long gone now but the memory of her lingers on, especially with anyone who saw her magic of the stage. Her maiden name had been Josephine Sherwood but she had been married to the actor Shelly Hull and she was always referred to as "Mrs. Hull." Her handsome young husband had died in the flu epidemic just after the First World War. When she had married she had given up her stage career but after her husband's untimely death she returned to the theatre. When the Depression set in, acting jobs seemed to evaporate overnight and after a long, fallow period, she made the decision to retire to a small cottage she owned on the Hudson River. In preparation for the move she sold most of the furniture in her modest apartment, even notifying the telephone company to close her account and shut off the service. The day before they were to snip the wire, the phone rang. She hadn't had a business call in months but it was George S. Kaufman to inform her he and Moss Hart had written a new play and they wanted her to be in it! Reluctantly she informed him of her plans. but he insisted that she, at least, read their comedy. The play was You Can't Take It With You and, beside running over three years on Broadway, it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937. Mrs. Hull played the dotty mother "Penelope Sycamore." No sooner had it closed than she found herself playing another dotty lady in Arsenic and Old Lace which enjoyed a run of 1,444 performances in New York before finally going out on a long tour. When the motion picture was made, Mrs. Hull appeared opposite Cary Grant. Mrs. Hull hardly had time to catch her breath before she went into a leading role in Harvey which starred Frank Fay and was to run for a total of 1,775 performances. Once again she headed west to appear in the film version, this time with James Stewart. For her contribution, she was awarded the Academy Award in 1950. Beset with illnesses, the indomitable lady was finally starred above the title in The Solid Gold Cadillac. She died in a nursing home in East Hampton, Long Island and was buried next to her husband whose photograph for years had graced her dressing room in the theatre.
One wonders what might have happened if that telephone had been shut off one day earlier?
I quite unwittingly played a strange role in the life and career of the late Beatrice Lillie and, in looking back on the incident I am not at all certain it was for the good. It all began back in January 1949 at the Majestic Theatre on West 44th Street in New York. I was a member of the cast of Inside USA starring Ms. Lillie and Jack Haley, the erstwhile Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. Incidently, I suppose Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger and Jack Haley, all of whom enjoyed stardom on the stage, will be best remembered for their respective roles in that picture which has been enjoyed by generation after generation. In Inside USA there was a skit in which Beatrice Lillie played a mermaid who sat on a rock and sang an Arthur Schwartz-Howard Dietz number. Encased in the mermaid costume, she was dependent upon having someone literally carry her from her dressing room to the stage and then, when the number was over, back again. As we were about to embark on a road tour, I was asked by the stage manager to select one of the new chorus boys who appeared hefty enough for this important task. I believe they would be paid an additional twenty dollars a week and the perfect person was a muscular singer who had served in the Marine Corps. His name was John Huck and he agreed at once. I never did find out what passed between the two of them on those brief trips but whatever it was, it changed both of their lives forever. Once out on the road, a number of us would accompany Ms. Lillie back to her hotel suite for drinks and John Huck quickly became one of this select group. Finally he stayed in the same hotels as she did and they became inseparable. After six months I left the show to go into a production of Brigadoon and I didn't see either of them for over a year. When we finally met again John Huck had changed his name to John Philips and he was now Beatrice Lillie's manager. I never felt this was a love affair but rather a relationship which grew out of a mutual dependence. She couldn't abide being alone and he became dazzled by the life style she afforded. Over the next twenty five years I would see them both, on occasion, never alone. John developed a complete dominance over Bea and she, for her part, seemed perfectly happy with the situation. Along with his domination, he put on a great deal of weight as well as garnering a very poor reputation among her old friends. During High Spirits he and NoŽl Coward almost came to fisticuffs. When, at last, she fell ill with a mentally debilitating disease, it was John Philips who took her back to her estate in Henley-on-Thames in England where the great comedienne died in 1989. This odd couple had been together for forty years! A footnote to this story is that John Philips died of a heart attack the following day.
The musical comedy Gypsy delightfully chronicles the high jinx of the ultimate stage mother, who pilots her two young daughters through the shark-infested waters of a career in the theatre. Mary Garden, the famous diva, didn't have a stage mother. She had a stage father who, once she had become an international star, did his best to make her life miserable. He constantly bombarded the petite Scottish singer with requests for money. Eventually, his urgent requests became demands. She was aware of his affection for Scotch whiskey but she was amazed at his evident capacity! As her salary increased, so did her father's appetite for funds. Finally, they had a dreadful scene, each loudly reproaching the other. When they parted she announced, with a broken heart, she never wanted to see him again! Undaunted, the old man said that was fine with him, adding, from then on she could just mail the money to him. After all he was her destitute father, and she was coining money in her remarkable career as an opera star. This odd arrangement of monetary filial piety continued for years. Although financially draining, at least she no longer had to face her parental sponge in person.
In 1929 Mary Garden suffered two catastrophes. The stock market crash wiped out her financial assets, and she lost her thrilling voice. The news that her father had died, to her, paled in comparison, and she didn't manage a single tear. She was contemplating her bleak future when a lawyer telephoned to inform her that her father had left his considerable fortune to her along with a personal note in which he explained he had banked every cent she had ever given to him to ensure his "wee bairn" would enjoy a comfortable and secure life. The price he had paid was their sad estrangement. Her tears, at last, flowed freely.
A number of years ago I found myself in the quaint, thatch-covered village of Shanklin on the Isle of Wight. After checking into a bed and breakfast arrangement, I set out to explore this mecca of greengrocer tourists. I was delighted to come across a theatre on the main street and I was more elated when I saw the opening night coincided with my arrival. I stepped up to the box office and purchased a ticket noting an announcement which informed me I was to be entertained by a "wickedly amusing bedroom farce."
Having solved the problem of my evening diversion, I went into a tearoom where I partook of a scone, smothered with English marmalade to be washed down by a pot of Twinings Earl Grey. I was feeling quite the toff. After all, when in Rome, etc.!
The theatre was crowded that night and, before the play began, someone introduced as the Lord Mayor of Shanklin gave a speech in front of the curtain, welcoming the audience and profusely thanking the actors for sharing their artistry for our enjoyment. Then, unfortunately, the curtain rose on act one. When British actors are good there is no one better, but when they are bad there is no one worse. This cast, according to the bios in the program, had all cut their teeth, dramatically speaking, on television.
Before the play started, I, being an actor myself, thought how nice it would be if, after the performance, I would go backstage and introduce myself, perhaps inviting anyone willing to a pub for a pint or two and some shop talk. Once this "sinful bedroom farce" got underway, I rapidly changed my mind. Mercifully the first intermission finally arrived and I went to the gentleman's loo. It's surprising how British one gets when one is in England!
There, on a wall next to the wash basin, was a metal vending machine much like those one sees back in the States which offer a stick of gum. This particular one, for a shilling, coughed out a condom. I was fascinated, for the first time that evening I might add, and I examined it more closely. There was a sign which read "Thoroughly tested and guaranteed by the British Safety Commission." Under this reassuring notice someone had printed, with a felt pen, "So was the Titanic."
I returned to my seat, basking in the happy knowledge that somewhere in Shanklin there was an incipient Oscar Wilde. I can no longer remember that awful play or its unfortunate cast but I shall never forget that washroom.
There once was an old couple who had retired after playing years in vaudeville. They weren't headliners, by any means, and the nearest they ever got to The Palace was as members of the audience. They had spent a lifetime out on the road, traveling in cheerless day coaches and living in cheap hotels and now, in the twilight of their years, they didn't have much to show for their careers in show business aside from a large album filled with yellowing newspaper notices. They didn't complain because it had been a life they had chosen to live. Performers are a breed unto themselves, and these two were fiercely proud of their profession. They now lived in a walk-up apartment in Jersey City and one evening they traveled to Manhattan to see the lights on Broadway. They were just about to catch the ferry home when it began to rain. As they stepped off the curb a huge black limousine roared past, sending a great sheet of muddy water cascading down on them. The wife, looking down at her ruined dress, began to weep. The husband shook his fist at the disappearing offenders, then turned to his bride and said, "Never you mind, my darling. The bastards can't act!"
Among the many people, over the years, who have related these anecdotes to me are the following:
Charles Hanson Towne
Peter Lind Hayes
John Drew Devereux
Copyright ©1992 Peter Turgeon
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