William Hickey: Reminiscences

“I have to go to LA, to lose the Oscar to Don Ameche,” was William Hickey’s explanation about his upcoming absence from his scene study class at HB Studio in New York City. It was March 1986, and he did lose the Oscar to Don Ameche, but that miraculous nomination for Best Supporting Actor for Prizzi’s Honor, really was his award.

Today he would have been 90 years old. My memories of studying acting with him remain vivid.

Though only in his late 50’s in that era, he looked a good deal older. That contrasted with his childlike aura and impish manner. He was short, very thin, wore glasses and his gray/white hair was often wild. There was a slightly disheveled quality to his appearance.

His unforgettable voice was a wavering assortment of various pitches, ascending from a whiny growl to raspy bursts that could be soothing. This vocal delivery made his irreverent, sincere and personal statements quite memorable.

“What were you trying to accomplish?” was usually his opening remark to students after watching their scene. During the scenes he would sit scrunched up in his chair, shifting around at his desk, his legs crossed and uncrossed or extended. Gutturally chuckling and alternating with other appreciative sounds, he was always engaged. These actions were done in unison with sipping from a liter seltzer bottle. There was speculation that the bottle had liquor in it as he was known, and confessed to being a big drinker. A heavy smoker as well, he’d light up numerous cigarettes during class.

 

Hickey glasses

No “Method” was espoused. Instead of the predicable acting school jargon of “objectives” “intentions” and “tasks”, his analysis was usually lengthy, digressive and wholly idiosyncratic.

There could be a recounting of his experiences from his long career that began as a child actor in radio with his older sister, or from his many stage and film appearances. Anecdotes about those he worked with such as Elaine May, Julie Bovasso, Tennessee Williams and of course Uta Hagen and Herbert Berghof, the founders of the school, were plentiful.

He would often talk so long that the last scene on the sign up list would have to be carried over to next week’s class. This wasn’t held against him as he was enthralling offering first hand, practical experience of performing in professional works.

Those reflections could be mingled with observations of recent events or biographical details.

I was so happy the day we dropped the atom bomb on Japan.

Oh, Billy think of all those poor people, my mother said.

 I know Ma, but it means I’m not gonna get killed in the war! I’m getting drafted but the war is over!

He was single and had lived in Brooklyn for much of his life with his now deceased mother. There was also his dog (Buddy?) that he frequently spoke of. He would later turn down movie work in Europe because he couldn’t bring his dog with him.

It was worth getting accustomed to his methodology because those stream of consciousness ramblings were well-constructed parables that directly related to the scene that had just been performed. Sometimes there would be strong criticism embedded.

Unlike a number of other teachers, he did not go in for breaking actors down. There were never harsh or stinging remarks. His class was a nurturing environment for a variety of people.

A sizeable contingent were in their 60’s and had past careers in the theater. They had studied with him for many years and didn’t perform outside of the class anymore. It was obviously therapeutic for them to continue to do so.

Young male and female models whose agents sent them there to get acting training were also present. Middle-aged people who had thought of being actors and now were trying were also there in sizeable numbers. Youthful, ordinary beginners was a major subset as well.

William Hickey took them all in without an audition and treated everyone with warmth, encouragement and respect. He was also known to help students get acting jobs and with financial assistance when he became successful.

“I see a talented young boy…” Hickey said to me after I had done a monologue from Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land. It was a comically baroque speech supremely done by John Gielgud in the original production that I had seen the television version of. Hickey was being kind as I was totally wrong for the character but I enjoyed that speech and enacted with glee.

I was new to the large class and was shy about getting a scene partner so I needed make my debut in something. That led to a serious of scenes I performed with many classmates during the two years I was in his class.

Most profoundly, I was paired with Kevin, a jovial recovering alcoholic in his early 40’s, for Waiting for Godot. I was Vladimir and he was Estragon. We rehearsed at my apartment and had a marvelous rapport. The scene went so well that Hickey told us to work on the next portion. Over a few months of classes we did the entire sequence before the arrival of Lucky and Pozzo.

I didn’t really understand the play at the time, but Beckett’s writing is so precise that by just saying the lines with the appropriate feelings was enough to carry it. Whenever I see it performed I can still mentally recite the dialogue before the actors do.

“That’s okay if you’re just playing an attitude…” was his assessment of my Lee from Sam Shepard’s True West. I saw John Malkovich in the celebrated Cherry Lane Theatre revival do the part, sparring with Gary Sinise. My take was one of intense belligerence. I wore a raggedy army jacket, swilled water from a pint whiskey bottle and threw my screenwriter brother’s typewriter across the room. It felt exhilarating but I knew he was right, that it wasn’t a fully complete characterization.

Being young, learning lines was quite easy and there was no overthinking, just raw impulse. Hickey’s enthusiasm and the support of fellow students made me feel as if I were on the right path.

A teacher at NYU recommended that I study with Michael Howard. He was quite distinguished in the field and had his own school. He was pleasant during our interview but explained he only dealt with professionals and not beginners. He advised going to HB Studio and studying with William Hickey.

By 1984, Hickey had achieved a career of small parts in mostly Off-Broadway plays and bit roles in movies such as The Producers. It was said that Hagen and Berghof kept him at the school out of long-time loyalty and that he needed the teaching fees to live on. He was not held in as high esteem in comparison to some of the other teachers.

“The worst actor in America, “ was said to be the renowned critic John Simon’s assessment of his gifts.

HB Studio prided itself as having a faculty that were working actors. Teachers could be absent due to a job. Hickey began missing classes. The substitutes ranged from the soft-spoken and perceptive Carol Goodheart and the engaging Frank Geraci, both of whom I later studied with. There were also two ogres.

“STOP! Would you wash dishes without water?!” yelled the owlish, aged mandarin, at a young man who was acting in a scene that took place in a simulated kitchen. “Go out into the hallway, take the sink and fill it with water!” Of course realism is desired, but that outburst was nasty. This substitute was mean and pompous, yet had a following at the school. He told a long story about seeing Gary Cooper on Fifth Avenue in the 50’s in the 1950’s. It was filled with off-putting testaments to Copper’s handsomeness.

Another revered substitute was said to have had a nervous breakdown and was definitely off. In his 40’s, he was chiefly interested in cultivating the attentions of young girls in the class. His critique of a young man’s performance in a scene from Jean Genet’s The Balcony was scathing and bordered on homophobic. Viciousness was his forte.

The reason Hickey was missing a lot of classes was that he had been busy filming John Huston’s film Prizzi’s Honor in Brooklyn. He told us how great Jack Nicholson was, and that he was interested in coming to observe Hickey’s class, but alas that didn’t happen.

Hickey played Don Corrado Prizzi, the wily head of the crime family. It was a showy role and several more established character actors had been suggested for it. These included Herbert Berghof who bellowed, ”Bill Hickey stole my Oscar nomination!”

He had a small part in Huston’s film Wise Blood (1979) as a preacher. With his intuitive sense of casting, Huston wanted Hickey for The Don. It was another of the many examples of Huston’s genius for picking the right person for a role. He did that with the 61 year-old Sydney Greenstreet for The Maltese Falcon, who had never been in a movie before and stage actress Grayson Hall for The Night of The Iguana. Both of them received supporting Oscar nominations. There was also the non-actor, Filipino hairdresser Zorro David who made a splash in a supporting part in Reflections in a Golden Eye.

“Another cookie my dear?” he distinctively croaked as The Don. I saw the movie at an advance screening. As a long-time John Huston admirer it was confounding as this mob drama was played as a comedy. I soon comprehended that that was the point.

Huston had him as the chieftain looking like a depraved, wizened gnome with cadaverous makeup, searing eyes and palpable malevolence, suggesting that he was in his 80’s. It was fascinating to see the little old man I knew from class on the big screen. He didn’t seem that different, especially his voice.

The movie was a critical and commercial success, and seemingly overnight Hickey was raised from obscurity and relative poverty to show business glory. His fee went from union scale to $15,000 a week, and he was never out of work from then on.

William Hickey*

Besides Don Ameche who was nominated for Cocoon, Hickey’s strong competition for the Oscar was Klaus Maria Brandauer for Out of Africa, his Prizzi’s Honor co-star Robert Loggia for Jagged Edge, and Eric Roberts for Runaway Train.

That summer of 1986, he was on Broadway in the revival of Arsenic and Old Lace, starring Jean Stapleton, Polly Holliday and Tony Roberts. Hickey played the Peter Lorre role from the film, the sidekick to Abe Vigoda. Watching him, it again was a case that he didn’t seem that dissimilar when he was acting from the way he normally was.

It was his last Broadway appearance but there was a steady stream of film and television roles that included National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Sea of Love as Al Pacino’s father, Puppet Master, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Jerky Boys. For an episode of HBO’s Tales From The Crypt he was nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series.

With his soaring success, he was gone so often that I didn’t sign up for his class again due to the varying sensibilities of the potential substitutes, and wanting to try studying with another teacher.

He died on June 29, 1997, of emphysema six weeks before he would have turned 70. His final movie, MouseHunt was released after his death and was dedicated to him.

This photograph is from the 1988 screen adaptation of author Hugh Leonard’s Tony Award-winning play, Da. Filmed in Ireland, it has one of his rare, “normal” roles as a bitter, Irish civil servant who mentors the young hero.

Hickey coat

The last time I saw him in person was in the late 1980’s, in a West 42nd Street porno store. He was wearing an exquisite trench coat over a blue blazer and gray trousers. From a shopping bag he took out several, rental gay porno VHS tapes and placed them on the counter as returns for the cashier. I was nearby but did not say hello and watched him leave after the transaction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Steven Berkoff is 80: An Appreciation

 

There were so many brave young actors and actresses whom one felt were brilliantly talented, but their genius crashed against the morbid rocks of indifference and stupidity represented by casting directors, directors and even writers, who seemed to view theatre as an aspect of themselves and a mirror for their own limited world, whereas the actors’ world was a different mentality.From Free Association: An Autobiography by Steven Berkoff (1996)

For nearly 50 years, Steven Berkoff has been an iconoclastic titan of the theatre in his native England, and around the world. A visionary purist that has rarely been affiliated with a major theatre company, he still heroically has achieved a tremendous career as an actor, writer and director.

On August 3, 2017, he will be 80 years old. I, and his many other admirers wish him a very Happy Birthday.

Berkoff Hamlet
As Hamlet in his 1980 production with Linda Marlowe as Gertrude. (Photo: Roger Morton)

I prided myself on being able to speak and move, and on the fact that I had taken the actor’s body as seriously as his voice, mind and totality of his equipment.

Possessed of a resonant, booming and expressive voice that often soars with bravado, and a lithe and commanding physicality, he has been a vibrant exponent of these beliefs. Then there are his fierce eyes, animated face and innate charisma that all add up to a thunderous presence. These traits have made his performances in his own unique theatrical creations, landmarks in the history of the performing arts.

In early 2002, Mr. Berkoff appeared in New York City in his solo show, One Man at The Culture Project (now the Lynn Redgrave Theatre) on Bleecker Street. I was so overwhelmed by his performance in this, that I was compelled to see it again a few weeks later. It is the work of theatre that has had the most influence on me.

To call it a monologue does not do it justice. This was a virtuoso display of mime and physical and vocal pyrotechnics, all resulting in a spectacle of grand stage acting. It was composed of three parts that he wrote, two of which were original pieces.

The Tell-Tale Heart was his eerie adaptation of the Edgar Allen Poe story. Dressed in black, with tails and a white ruffled shirt he portrayed the narrator, who has been driven to murder by obsessing over an old man’s malformed eye.

Berkoff BW

The breathtaking highlight was Berkoff meticulously miming sprinting down a long, narrow spiral staircase to let the police in. He acted out the parts of the inspectors, the old man and various sound effects with his expressive face, fluctuating voice and epic gestures. These effects were all accomplished with swiftness on the bare stage.

Actor ingeniously and poignantly dramatized the existence of a typical actor. Mesmerizingly running in place while center stage, he recounted auditions for roles not gotten, contentious meetings with casting agents, and colleagues getting breaks. Years pass, as he is running but not really getting anywhere. We learn that his amiable parents have died, that his girlfriend has left him, and he is ultimately alone. It was a heartbreaking, hilarious and painfully accurate depiction of the actor’s life.

In Dog, he portrayed a crass, racist, xenophobic loud-mouthed football devotee and his vicious dog. With his neck elongated, his teeth and tongue extended, he assumed the physiognomy of a barking canine. The dialogue alternated between the man’s bellicose observations and the equally unpleasant thoughts of the dog. It was a riotous and provocative tour de force.

Berkoff program

The lobby walls of the theater were adorned with printed blowups of his poem, Requiem for Ground Zero that expressed support for New York City in the aftermath of 9/11. Following the second time I attended, I waited in the lobby with my copy of Free Association, along with other fans.

Previously I bought one of the pre-autographed black and white pictures of him that was on sale. I selected the one of him from The Tell-Tale Heart, where he is stooped, with his feet bent as if to scurry down the imaginary spiral staircase. I later had it professionally framed and am looking at it now on my living room wall.

Eventually, The Great Man wearing a voluminous, battered leather coat, and a cap emerged, and slowly made his way through the lobby. People congratulated him. Smiling slightly, not making much eye contact, and with the clipped and melodious tones of his idol Laurence Olivier, he proclaimed variations of, “Thank you. Thank you very much. You’re too kind.” It was if he ware impishly acting out the part of a great actor besieged by his fans.

“Would you please sign this?” I extended my copy of his book and he scrawled his name in it. After thanking him, I went out into the cold exhilarated by his performance, the encounter and obtaining another memento.

Besides these souvenirs, more profoundly what I took away from these experiences was the burning desire to be able to do what he did.

Fixated by wanting to be an actor since childhood, I had taken a circuitous path. Not having been a theater or acting major in college, I started from scratch in my early 20’s. I took scene study classes and then began auditioning, and got roles in small productions here and there.

“You’re a little stiff, but that’s okay,” said a director who cast me in an Ionesco play just before it went into rehearsal. I had been getting by, and performed well, but felt physically and vocally limited.

After seeing One Man, I enrolled in several movement and voice classes and made progress. A few years later at an audition held at The Culture Project, I was overcome inside with emotion to be standing on the same stage where I saw Steven Berkoff perform.

Never having made it into Actor’s Equity, my audition opportunities were limited, but I managed to perform in numerous of showcases in a variety of parts, all enriched by the epiphany of seeing One Man.

The most lasting impact of that experience has been on my profession as a New York City sightseeing guide. This involves routinely taking large groups of tourists on the subway, walking around and delivering commentary without a microphone.

I am perpetually conscious of projecting and varying my voice, circling and pacing around so as to make sure everyone hears the material that I know backwards and forwards, and which is seamlessly delivered. All while gesturing gracefully and emphatically, while my eyes and features convey feeling.

Mentally I become the narrator of The Tale-Tale Heart, the actor and the skinhead and his dog. I am hurtling down that spiral staircase in my mind.

Berkoff
Steven Berkoff presenting the world premiere of his new play ‘Messiah – Scenes From a Crucifiction’ at the Assembly Rooms 8/8/2000 In 2000, (Photo: Murdo MaCleod)

I first became aware of, and was fascinated by Mr. Berkoff in the 1980’s, from his magnetically villainous screen performances. Octopussy, Beverly Hills Cop, Rambo: First Blood Part II in quick succession established his name recognition. Then there were his notable appearances in Revolution, Absolute Beginners, and Under the Cherry Moon, and as Adolph Hitler in the television mini-series, War and Remembrance.

In November 1988, he directed Christopher Walken in Coriolanus at The Public Theater. A few months later, in March 1989, he directed his adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, starring Mikhail Baryshnikov on Broadway.

In that era, I read everything I could find about him, including his plays. Harry’s Christmas particularly struck me. It’s a 17-page, bleak monologue delivered by a lonely, disaffected man in his room. He measures his life by the amount of Christmas cards he receives and relives his past through his collection of them that he displays. At the end he dies by suicide.

You score six miserable Christmas cards…Christmas to make you feel like you don’t exist…if I don’t get more than six I’ll definitely put up two from last year…maybe three… Why save them? …They remind me…It’s a piece of memory…Those two…not seen them for years…but every year they send a card and I send one back…so they know I’m still alive…

In the 1990’s, I was attending Anne Jackson’s scene study class at HB Studio. Due to my Bronx cadences and idiosyncratic speech pattern, I was most often selected to be in comedies. Like virtually all actors I wanted to prove my versatility, and decided I would perform an extract of Harry’s Christmas. I saw it as a great dramatic vehicle for myself.

I practiced and practiced and had the words down perfectly. I did not feel capable of using an English accent but it’s a universal story. I Americanized a few things such as television for telly.

After setting up some basic furniture and holding the Christmas cards I had brought with me, I began. I could feel the rapt attention of the students in the classroom as I expressed despair and emotionally erupted. Soon there was LAUGHTER!

Though disconcerted, I didn’t miss a beat, and went on with my histrionics to the continued sounds of merriment. My goal had been foiled. The piece does have funny sequences but I was immaturely consumed with being serious. Anne Jackson was quite complimentary. So far, that is the only Berkoff role I have attempted.

I finally got to see him onstage for the first time when appeared in New York City in January 2001. He brought his acclaimed solo show, Shakespeare’s Villains to Joe’s Pub. It was a galvanizing event where he performed portions of the roles of Richard III, Iago, the Macbeths and others. Interspersed was his insightful and irreverent commentary.

The summer of 2002, several months after seeing One Man I was in London, and was browsing in a used book shop near St. Martin’s Lane, before a matinée. On a shelf in the theatre section I saw the black spine of a jacketless hardcover volume that in gold lettering said, The Theatre of Steven Berkoff. Published in 1992, it’s a lavish assortment of stunning black and white photographs documenting all of his productions up until that time, accompanied by his informative text. I went to the counter to pay the £7.50 for it.

“Oh, he comes in here often,” said the bespectacled, middle-aged male clerk. “He’s quite a character.”

For more information visit: www.stevenberkoff.com

www.iainfisher.com/berkoff/index.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elaine Stritch at The 92nd Street Y

Elaine Stritch and Chiemi Karasawa with Michael Musto: Conversation and Clips (February 17th, 2014)  (Photo credit: Joyce Culver)

“I’m happy to be here. That’s what I want you all to know,” Elaine Stritch wistfully told the crowd at the 92nd Street Y. She was resplendent in a Margo Channing/Tallulah Bankhead “What becomes a legend most?” mink coat, with her trademark coif, makeup, earrings and jewelry. She made her entrance by being pushed out from the wings in a wheelchair to a standing ovation.

“I’ve only got two legs. I’ve been living on them for 68 years in New York. I keep falling down. I fell on Madison Avenue and I evened it out by falling in Michigan. I’ve got some problems. We’ll make believe I’m fine. I’m good at that.” The occasion was an event to promote the new biographical documentary, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.

“Merman was terrific!” She replied when asked about Broadway legend Ethel Merman whom she understudied in the hit musical Call Me Madam in 1950, when she was 25 years old, and later played that lead role in the national touring company. Fans of her Tony Award winning one-woman biographical show, Elaine Stritch: At Liberty will recall her raucous story about Merman coping with a drunken audience heckler during a performance of Call Me Madam. “Ethel Merman plowed on…”

Plowing on as well was the evening’s host, the loquacious longtime former Village Voice nightlife columnist Michael Musto. At age 89 and with serious health issues, Ms. Stritch’s hearing and focus were at times problematic.  This inspired Mr. Musto to deftly keep things moving during her idiosyncratically entertaining stream of consciousness responses.

“It’s a universal story about aging,” said panelist and the film’s debut director Chiemi Karasawa. Dryly witty and articulate, she and Ms. Stritch had obviously developed an affectionate relationship, bantering throughout the event.

Ms. Karasawa had noticed Stritch at a hair salon. “You should make a movie about her!” said their mutual stylist who arranged overlapping appointments for them to meet, and a great bond was forged. “I was scared shitless!” she said after conferring with Stritch before filming began. Editing took a long time because there was so much that was interesting that had to be left out of the theatrical version, some of which is intended for the DVD release. “Absolutely great! But I didn’t want to be in it,” was Stritch’s reaction on seeing the finished footage for the first time.

Throughout, clips from the film were shown. These included her commenting on posters and photographs from her career, “A Delicate Balance, one of the best things I ever did.” “At Liberty, my favorite poster from a of show of mine.” She was shown at an eye doctor’s visit comically undergoing an exam. Performing her nightclub act at The Cafe Carlyle, with her singing “The Road You Didn’t Take” from Follies, and forgetting lyrics. “Fuck it!” There were affectionate interviews with Cherry Jones, Nathan Lane, George C. Wolfe and Tina Fey.

From the front row, it was fascinating watching. Stritch watch herself in the clips. Her facial expressions ranged from stern, to grinning to intense.

The final portion of the 75-minute presentation was audience questions and answers.

Her longtime musical director, collaborator and close friend Rob Bowman who is prominently featured in the film, was in the audience and received a huge ovation. Musto also noted the presence of the drag queen Vodka Stinger whose stage name is a tribute to Stritch, as it’s a lyric from “The Ladies Who Lunch.”

“They can’t touch it!” was her tribute to herself regarding her take on her signature song from Company, though she had warm praise for two colleagues Bernadette Peters and Patti Lu Pone’s renditions of it.

“I’d rather be dead then fat,” were among the conversational highlights. On why she won’t use a TelePrompTer to aid her performances, “And lose all those laughs when I forget things?” On Cherry Jones, “I feel like laughing and jumping up and down. I’m going to see her in The Glass Menagerie!” She’d come back to New York if there were “a good part in a really good play that I understand.” On director Hal Prince, “Always a joy but a bit scary.”

“I’m less sentimental as I get older.” She reminisced about the happiest part of life, her marriage to the deceased actor John Bay. The most emotional moment was when she cried after being asked about one time co-star and friend James Gandolfini who appears in the documentary and who died last year: “I wish it hadn’t happened. I loved that man.”

With great fanfare last year, this New York fixture moved out of her suite at The Carlyle Hotel and retired to her home state of Michigan. This appearance was a memorable opportunity for many longtime fans to see Elaine Stritch once again live on stage, and for many to have that experience for the first and only time. “I’ve had a difficult life because of ME. I did it all to myself.”

“It’s nice to be alive. Isn’t it?”

Elaine Stritch and Chiemi Karasawa with Michael Musto: Conversation and Clips (February 17th, 2014)
Kaufmann Concert Hall, 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue, in Manhattan
Running time: 75 minutes with no intermission

Originally published by Theaterscene.net on February 28, 2014.

 

 

 

Laurie Lawrence (1959-2017)

Laurie

“She was very clear that she wanted her life to be celebrated, not mourned,” said Erica Dubno, who superlatively organized the packed, 90-minute memorial tribute to her close friend Laurie Lawrence. This was held at the Beach Point Club, in Mamaroneck, New York, on Sunday May 21, 2017, and it was a beautiful celebration.

Laurie program*

Laurie died on April 30, 2017, in New York City, at St. Luke’s Hospital, at the age of 57. She had suffered a massive heart attack on April 18, while at work. During her hospital stay, she was unconsciousness. Her room was decorated with pictures of her life. She was attended to by her many friends. She had registered to be an organ donor, but unfortunately that wasn’t possible.

“Imagine,” “In My Life” and a finale of “What I Did For Love” were the musical selections that Laurie specified to be played in her instructions. The acclaimed pianist and singer, Michael Isaacs ravishingly performed them. Mr. Isaacs regularly appears at the piano bars Brandy’s and The Duplex. Laurie frequently sang at those venues, and Isaacs reminisced about her appearances and their friendship, “I loved her.” He also mentioned their mutual close friend, Canadian resident Rory Taggart, who was unable to attend this event.

Laurie program1

In 2000, I appeared in a one-act play that was part of a festival of short works that was presented at The Producer’s Club theatre. One of the other plays was a Honeymooners-style dramedy about a quarreling married couple.

The actress who played the wife was superb. Wearing a blue plaid housedress, she had a fierce intensity that combined with her supreme comic timing, piercing eyes, animated facial expressions, and powerful voice, made her performance quite memorable.

She embodied the tradition of great American character actresses such as Maureen Stapleton and Eileen Heckart, along with the comedic depth of Doris Roberts. Though it was a minor piece, she brought as much conviction to it as if were a Clifford Odets drama.

As we were in separate plays, we did not rehearse together, and I only saw it once during the dress rehearsal. The only real interaction we all had was with the cast members of our own plays.

Three years later I became friends with someone who was part of The Duplex circle. There I saw the actress from that short play. It was Laurie Lawrence. I told her how much I enjoyed her performance and how memorable it was.

“Thanks! That’s the last play I did. I just don’t have the time or the energy anymore to do theater that doesn’t pay. I’d rather sing when I want to and do SAG-AFTRA work.” That belief was understandable, but this strategy was a great loss for her talent and for audiences.

This surfaced during a reading of a revelatory diary entry she wrote in 2010, and that was read aloud. She spoke of her never having had the feeling for the need to have children, being single but open to the possibility of marriage if the right man came along, and most poignantly of her disappointment that her acting career had not gone further.

The wonderful slide show of illustrative photographs of her life included family gatherings, work events, her involvement with animals and her coaching for the Special Olympics. There were also shots of her performing, and most telling were new headshots every few years. That dream never faded.

She was from New Rochelle, graduated from Ithaca College as a theater major and moved to New York City to be an actress. For the past 17 years she worked a full-time job in the legal department at CBS.

Creating a bubble within a bubble while chewing bubbling gum was her “Stupid Human Trick” that she performed on Late Night with David Letterman in the 1980’s. Her rapport with Dave was marvelous and he was quite warm to her. This bit was shown during a video highlights presentation.

There were clips of her at various venues dynamically singing. Her brassy and affective gifts were showcased with rousing renditions of Kander and Ebb’s “All That Jazz,” “Cabaret” and “Ring Them Bells.”

Local cable news channel NY1 profiled her for their program, “New Yorker of The Week” because of her volunteer work as a coach for the Special Olympics, and a touching excerpt of that was shown. She was also a long-time participant of Big Brothers Big Sisters, and organized an annual Holiday party in support of battered women.

Friends, relatives, and a former roommate poured forth with accounts of her frenetic lifestyle. Working full-time while seeing theater, movies, volunteering, taking classes and performing were all part of her jammed schedule.

Marilyn Sulzbacker, an older, Upper East Side neighbor of hers movingly recounted their long relationship and bond over their cats.

Her cousin George DeMarco, recalled her secretly rehearsing “Dance Ten Looks Three” from A Chorus Line that she was to perform at his surprise birthday party. She was stricken a week before it took place. Mr. De Marco’s partner, Andy Monroe then went to the piano and wistfully played and sang “Seasons of Love” from Rent.

Nick-nacks, souvenirs and mementos from Laurie’s collection were on display on a large table in the front of the auditorium. Attendees were invited to take something, to have a part of her. Apparently she collected penguins, as there were several figurines of various sizes of them. I took one of the miniatures. I soon returned, and took two more as they seemed to be part of a trio, and it felt wrong not to keep them together.

Over the years we kept in touch through email, Facebook and chance meetings. We once shared a Metro North train ride to Westchester, and joyously caught up. Later that day she wrote a glowing testimonial for my tour business page.

Like so many, I treasured her kindness, vivacity and passion for the performing arts, and was overwhelmed that she was gone too soon.

When my cat was diagnosed with a tumor, she was a constant stream of information and advice. Being an animal rights advocate and cat enthusiast, she was an expert on their care. Following my cat’s death, she eagerly encouraged me to adopt another by sending me notices of ones who needed homes. After her beloved Belle died, she soon adopted Vera, who survives her, and has been taken in by a friend.

“She made everyone laugh,” declared one of the speakers, and that was a common sentiment. In the past few weeks when going through my various contact lists, I would always smile whenever I came across Laurie’s email address, daffylaurie@aol.com.

“I am terribly, terribly unhappy to think that I shall never see her again,” wrote Noël Coward upon the death of that other legendary Lawrence, Gertrude.

Postscript: Laurie’s mother Elaine Krass was at the memorial.  It was painful to see this elderly woman sitting in a wheelchair hysterically sobbing, and being comforted by well wishers.  Ms. Krass died on July 6, 2017, at the age of 82.

Laurie program2

 

John Simon is 92 today

“For Darryl who isn’t Wally Shawn,” meticulously inscribed John Simon, along with his signature, in my copy of his collected theater reviews. This massive volume was part of a comprehensive trilogy that also included Mr. Simon’s reviews on film and music. The time frame chronicled was the 1970’s to the early 2000’s.

Being a long-time admirer of his, I had LUGGED it in October 2005, to the New York Times’ sponsored Bryant Park Book Expo, “Great Read in The Park.” I had noticed in the brochure that he would be among the many authors in attendance at tables promoting their work.

John Simon book“Could you please write ‘To Darryl, Shut up you fool!’” That was one of his many fabled, caustic zingers. He had yelled that from the audience of a New York Film Critics Circle awards ceremony, where Wallace Shawn had been rambling on during a presentation.

“I couldn’t write that as you are certainly not Wallace Shawn!” he chuckled. “Besides it would be self plagiarism. I never use a line twice.”

Then I reminisced with him about his spectacular appearance in the 1980’s, at New York University that I had witnessed. He participated in a panel about books adapted into films.

During the discussion, a man in the audience was quietly glancing at a newspaper. “Excuse me. I really must insist that the gentleman reading Le Monde kindly put it away! It is extremely rude!” bellowed Simon from the stage.

There was a hushed silence, and the embarrassed individual froze, and the talk resumed.

“I remember that. And I recall I went into the audience.” he beamed. That was his dramatic response to the man provocatively taking out the paper again. Simon got up from his seat, sprinted off the stage and up the aisle of the auditorium. Pointing at the scoundrel, he admonished him in French, to the astonishment and delight of the crowd. The cretin got up and left, and the proceedings continued. “Politeness is so important.”

After thanking him, I investigated the rest of the event. Later on, I saw him ambling to 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue, where he waited for a bus.

For 36 years he was the drama critic for New York magazine, then at Bloomberg News and most recently at The Westchester Guardian.

It is wonderful to still see him in the audience at shows, as he continues to wittily and eruditely hold forth at http://www.uncensoredsimon.blogspot.com

He is also active on Facebook, and reviews theater on the cable television show. Corner Table, that is taped at Joe Allen. He co-hosts it with Justin William Brown, who is in his 20’s. There is a marvelous contrast between them. Simon transcends time and embraces technology. Those who revere him are very lucky for that, and wish him well today.

Originally published on Theaterscene.net on May 12 , 2017

Brief Encounter

I got to the Tony Randall memorial at about 11:00 AM, when the line was still short, near The Majestic Theatre.  A well-dressed, spry, silver coifed, 80ish woman got chatty with me, and I regaled her with celebrity sightings around us.  She was from Ft. Lauderdale, and comes up to New York City, for six weeks every year.

“Do you stay with relatives?”

“No.  I rent an apartment.  It’s expensive but worth it.”

I inquired further.  She was originally from New Jersey, where she and her late husband, had the VERY successful Abram’s Furs.  He came to the U.S. from Poland, at 17, with nothing, and due to the booming times during and after WW II, and before animal rights activists and red paint, was able to retire at 51.  “We got out at the right time!”

“We sold the business to a lousy Greek, who ran it into the ground! It broke our hearts.”  When women came to get their furs out of storage, they were told that there was a robbery, and it was gone, and that they should contact their insurance company.  Actually the furs were stolen by the owner and sold to a Greek company.  Eventually the scandal was exposed, and was in the newspapers, and the good name of Abrams was tarnished. By then, they were busy on the golf courses of Florida.

This year she rented a one bedroom on 48th Street between 1st and 2nd avenues.  Usually she takes a studio, but her grandson from Connecticut, said he’d visit with his girlfriend on weekends.  “He came once on Labor Day and that was it!  “If I’m still around next year it’ll be a studio!”

We also spoke of my activities.

When it came time to go in, I said I was going to run to run the men’s room and as it was very crowded, “If I don’t see you inside, it was very nice meeting you.”

“Oh, I was going to take you lunch after the show.”

“Then I’m not going anywhere.”

We watched the event from good seats, as she complained to the usher that she couldn’t walk up any more stairs to the mezzanine, where those without invitations where supposed to sit.  She is a big opera fan and was delighted by Marilyn Horne and Sherill Milnes, who performed.

After it ended, in the lobby, she extended her hand, “I’m Harriet.  Where do you want to eat?”

We crossed the street to go to Angus McCindoe, where we could watch the crowds outside from the large, front window.  I ordered a turkey wrap, and she a hamburger, while we chatted some more.  She was very encouraging but suggested shortening my last name, “It doesn’t flow…”

After lunch, there were farewells and best wishes outside.

Nacogdoches

“It says, ‘Tour guide gratuity is not included,’ so here you go,” twanged an older, Vickie Lawrence/Mama’s Family-type woman, after reading aloud from the travel company’s voucher.

Wanda then handed me a folded bill that I later saw was $10, at the START of a Sunday morning, Statue of Liberty Tour, in 2005.  We had already established a playful bantering when I checked her, and her companion in, so this premature gift was in keeping with the whimsy.

She was here from rural Texas, with her 14 year-old, well-mannered, quiet, blond nephew, Morgan.

“It was the only thing I could tickets to on short notice.  ‘Isn’t that a chick thing?’  He’s not so happy but it’s on Broadway.”  The 3:00 PM matinee of Steel Magnolias was their time constraint for the expedition.  “I thought everything on Broadway was a musical,” was the boy’s puzzled reaction when I explained that it was a play.

They had seen touring productions of The Lion King and Beauty and The Beast.  “Yesterday, he said, ‘Look, there’s more people on these few streets then in all of back home!’” was Morgan’s observation of New York City, versus his hometown of Jasper.  Wanda lives 75 miles away, in the comparative metropolis of Nacogdoches.

There were 15 other nice people on the tour, who had checked in by the departure time of 8:00 AM, at Paramount Plaza, but Wanda and Morgan, made the most impact.

There was the usual routine.  The R train from 49th Street, to City Hall.  Show and lecture of that, as well as The Brooklyn Bridge, Woolworth Building, the plaques in the sidewalks commemorating the ticker tape parades, St. Paul’s Chapel, The World Trade Center site, Trinity Church and assorted tangents to fill the time before Battery Park.

After I got the ferry and Statue of Liberty admission tickets from the box office, we then had to wait on the ferry line.  As usual, it was modest at that time, but seconds later, at 9:15 AM, there was the inevitable large, group of high school students and chaperones lengthening it.  We got swamped, but most of my bunch pushed ahead, led by Wanda.  Following the intense security check, we all got on the boat, and after 15 minutes it left at 10:00 AM.

I read the Sunday New York Times downstairs, and as per my directions, most of my charge went upstairs.  As we headed into Liberty Island, Wanda and Morgan emerged to push to the front.  “Look we have the matinee, so we’re just going to rush in and out.  Thanks!”  My standard directions are that we’ll all gather on the dock, so that I can explain things, etc., but I understood.  “Thanks very much.  It was nice meeting you!”

After gathering the rest of the group, and seeing them into the Statue of Liberty, I had lunch in the crowded cafeteria.  Eventually I headed to the dock to wait for the next ferry with the mob.  From the corner of my eye, I could see Wanda and Morgan pushing through the crowd.  “You didn’t think we were going to let you get away!”  We got into the boat and sat downstairs. They did not get out at Ellis Island.

“I’m going be 70, this year, and a few weeks ago I thought I should see New York, while I’m still able to.  I took him out of school for four days, so he’s happy!  It sure is SOMETHING.  I was an educator, administrator, and dean for 34 years, at a vocational high school for aviation. We taught them how to fix planes so they could fall back out of the sky again. What’s a good place to eat before the show?

“Are there any restaurants that you’ve heard of, or were curious about?”

“A lady in an apartment complex I once lived in, talked about The Second Avenue Deli.  She used to live around there.”  I gave her subway directions,  “Take the green #4 train from Bowling Green, uptown to Brooklyn Bridge, and change to the green #6 train to Astor Place, then walk down St. Marks Place, to Second Avenue…”

“Yeah.  Right.  I’m going remember all that!”

We were standing near the exit door of the ferry as we were pulling into Battery Park.  “Come on, I’ll take you to The Second Avenue Deli,” I said. Why not let this adventure continue, I thought,

No Lexington Avenue trains were running below City Hall, so instead of getting it at Bowling Green, we had to trudge back up to City Hall. We got the #4, that today was running local, to Astor Place.

We walked down St. Marks Place, past all of the exotic emporiums.  “Morgan, would you like to get something pierced?  Or a tattoo?  Your Mom would love that!  If we still had film left, I’d sit next to HIM for a picture,” Wanda said, while pointing to a quintessential, tattoo aficionado who had an inked faced, and was smoking, on a stoop.

At 12:40 PM, we got to The Second Avenue Deli.  “Of course you’re joining us…” By 1:00 PM, the wait was obviously still too long.  We walked over to the Ukrainian landmark, Veselka.  “About 15 minutes?”  “Yeah, something like that,” said the unconvincing hostess.  That’s Sunday brunch in Manhattan.

We looked around, and headed up 9th Street, to the restaurant Around The Clock, which had room for us.

“This is a very good sandwich,” Wanda said of her Portobello mushroom concoction.  “I was a big Anne Richards fan.  After the governor’s election, everyone in the state could see what was happening.  You all couldn’t, but we could.”  “You mean HE was running for president from the start?”  “We could see what was happening.”

Morgan had a turkey burger with fries.  I had a brunch selection of a bagel/lox/tomato/onion, with a Bloody Mary and coffee.

“I could put some grenadine in a coke…” said the pretty waitress after Wanda sniffed, “No Dr. Pepper?!”

The check for the three of us came to about what one meal would have cost at The Second Avenue Deli.  After looking it over, she took out money, and gave the check to Morgan.  “As for the tip, that’s your job.”  With his calculator he figured out 18%, and after paying we left.

It was 2:00 PM, and they wanted to go back to their hotel first, to get their forgotten digital camera to replace the used up, disposable one.  Wanda chatted with the East Asian driver, and we soon arrived at 31st between 5th Avenue and Broadway, where a small building with a functional sign announced “Herald Square Hotel”.   “It’s kind of nothing, but it’s clean, and the beds are so comfortable.  It got good ratings when I investigated it, and for $139 a night, that’s fine!”

Due to traffic and construction, we got out on the opposite side of the street from their hotel.  “Well, we’re over there.  It was very nice to meet you!”  We all shook hands, and they crossed over, and I headed to Broadway, to go home.