To be or not to be. . .

Yeah, I would be jealous, too, only I never got to see her either. . . when the show went out on tour, there were two companies, one headed up to Boston with Roz and one headed down to Philly with

but still, I had never seen anything like it. . . and I’m not sure I have since, come to think of it. Something like 25 scenes, 25 actors in the opening scene, dozens of set changes and a leading character that stole my heart in the first five minutes. Hey, it’s about a ten year old boy, Patrick Dennis, who’s just lost his father and is taken in by his beautiful, wealthy, madcap, loving, “life is a banquet and most poor sons-of-bitches are starving to death!” aunt. . .

After two and a half hours of unbridled laughter, after hearing one of Auntie Mame’s last lines,

“I’m going to open doors for you. . . doors you never dreamed even existed.”

I burst into tears and cried all through the curtain calls while applauding like a wild child. . . I just couldn’t decide which I wanted more. . . to be Patrick or to be on stage playing Patrick.

Of course, seeing the play meant that I now had to read the book, which I was shocked to find was not available in the school library. “Simply not appropriate for Girard boys”, Miss Cheyney had said.

So I did the only sensible thing a fourteen year old boy would do under the circumstances. The following Saturday, I went downtown to John Wanamaker’s, strolled into the book department and shoplifted a copy. And since it’s sequel, “Around the World with Auntie Mame” had just been published, I five-finger discounted one of those as well.

The book was my introduction to “a world I never dreamed even existed!”

That Christmas, the film version of Auntie Mame came out and I was as excited as everyone else to see it and I have to say, in retrospect, it’s one of the best play to film transfers ever done. But at the time, I was so disappointed when I heard the changes in Auntie Mame’s dialogue. Those starving sons-of-bitches became suckers and Patrick’s bastard of a father became a seven letter word beginning with B that means your late father (is that even a joke?) and perhaps one of my favorite lines in the play was also bastardized, when Auntie Mame is trying to get her Madonna-like hairdo ready for Babcock’s first visit to Beekman Place. . .

“What am I going to do with this goddamned halo?!”

It was my first realization that the movies treated us all as if we were children. But the theater treated us all as if we were adults.

Still, I have to admit, I watch the movie every year when I need a lift and can’t reread the book without superimposing the actors faces onto the characters in the novel. And after fifty years, I still haven’t decided whether I would rather be Patrick or play him.

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Post “Holiday” — Pre “Gypsy” — Part 1

I have to confess that I lied in the first chapter. . . I only paid a dollar-forty for my ticket to see “Holiday for Lovers”, as the boarding school I grew up in sometimes got offers for half-price tickets to shows that weren’t doing so well in Philly, which was frequently the case. There’s an old show-biz expression that went, “The only thing worse than being booked in Philly for a week is being booked in Philly for two weeks. . .”

About the boarding school. . . you see, my daddy died when I was nine years old and I was sent off to a school for fatherless boys where I lived from March of 1954 until I graduated high school in June, 1960, two months after my sixteenth birthday. I only saw my mother and sisters on Sunday for several hours and on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter vacations. But I had Saturday afternoon passes to go into town and that’s when I could catch the occasional matinee. Most of them were community theater productions. . . some great, some not so and some very strange ones at that. But I loved them all.

I remember sitting in a messy, very hot little theater, with an half-empty audience, waiting almost an hour for the curtain to go up for the opening performance of a community theater production of “Uncle Willie”, a Broadway play that had closed the season before, which had starred Menasha Skulnik, one of the great stars of the Yiddish Theater for many decades.

The audience at this little theater had a ball listening to the stage crew banging away at the hidden set which obviously wasn’t co-operating, and we all roared with laughter each time we heard a piece of scenery hit the floor behind the curtain or an argument break out among the stage crew in not so muffled tones. Finally, after a long barrage of hammering, someone in the audience yelled out,

“What the hell are they doing back there?”

and a exasperated, tiny older man seated right behind me bleated out,

“I hope they’re hanging Uncle Willy!”

The performance wasn’t nearly as much fun.

But I have wonderful memories of seeing productions of

Of Thee I Sing

The Boys From Syracuse

Anything Goes

The Skin of Our Teeth” (which I pretended to understand), “My Sister Eileen”, half a dozen Gilbert & Sullivan’s and an evening of Eugene O’Neill one-acts, my first introduction to realistic drama.

These were all plays and musicals I had never even heard of. Each one made me want to be up there on the stage more than the last. . . but I told no one. . . that I wanted to be an actor so badly or even that I went to see plays. . . there simply was no one to tell. My mother wouldn’t understand, that was for sure! And to be a teenage boy in the 50s and in love with the theater was. . . well, you get the idea.

But after each production, I would go to the school library. . . which had an incredible collection. . . and looked up each of them to see what else the authors had written, to try and find out any information about them and, in the process, finally found an ally in Miss Cheney, the school librarian.

Then one day, she introduced me to

Theater Arts magazine, the Rolling Stone for theater in the first half of the Twentieth Century. And not only did the library have a subscription, they had the entire run of the magazine dating back to the twenties and each issue published a full-length play as it’s centerpiece.

So when I should have been in the library studying, I was usually in the library’s music room, listening to the few cast albums that were available in those days, over and over and reading every issue of Theater Arts ever published. Theater Arts magazine was my Xbox. . .

I was, of course, a member of the Drama Club (part of the Public Speaking Class), but to no avail. Try as I would, I was only cast once and then for a two-line bit in a terrible (royalty-free) morality play, “Love of One’s Neighbor”. . . originally produced on Broadway in 1915!. . . and was listed on the program as Photographer No. 2. It was the last role cast and I was the only one left to play it. But to this day I’m proud to say that on opening night, I ignored my teacher’s direction and got one of the biggest laughs of the night playing it the way I knew it should have been done. I hadn’t sat through all those plays and learned nothing. . . the audience loved it.

I got a D.

It was worth it. . .

“Gypsy” 1959 — 2012

I made my first trip to New York City when I was fifteen years old. The year was 1959 and the round trip bus fare from Philadelphia was eight dollars. You could buy an orchestra seat for a Broadway musical for about the same price. But for that kind of money and some “twofers“, you could see three shows in the last few rows upstairs.

That day, I went directly from the bus station in Manhattan to the Broadway Theater and asked for “one in the balcony, please.”

The ticket was to see Ethel Merman play Mama Rose in “Gypsy“. My first Broadway musical and, as it turned out, Ethel’s last original role. There will never be anyone or anything quite like her again. There were actually two shows being performed that night. “Gypsy”, the musical; and the Ethel Merman show.

While this fully realized backstage fable was unfolding on stage, whenever Miss Merman broke into song, she completely stepped out of the play, ignoring whatever action was taking place and any other actor on the stage, walked down to the footlights and sang directly to the audience. No one seemed to mind and every song brought down the house. When she finished, she stepped right back into the play and everyone went right along with her. She could make you believe anything. I was the last person to leave the theater.

 Since that first “Gypsy”, I’ve seen so many productions, I’ve literally lost count. After the first Broadway production, I saw the first National Tour back in Philly in 1960 with Mary McCarty and a tiny fifteen-year-old Bernadette Peters. . . as I was to discover many years later. . .  playing the Hawaiian girl, one of the Hollywood Blondes and understudying Baby June. . . and all the Broadway Roses.

Tyne Daly [1989], who really couldn’t sing worth a damn, but no one cared because she tore your heart out acting the part. I wound up standing in back of the orchestra (the only ticket available) next to one of her oldest friends, the Irish actor Joseph Maher, having also flown in to catch her final show. I introduced myself, as I recognized him immediately. I had seen him several times on stage, most memorably playing Ed in “Entertaining Mister Sloan” at The Cherry Lane Theater in 1983, a performance that still stays with me. He was warm and as excited to be there as I was and it was a treat to watch the show standing next to someone who appreciated what was happening on the stage as much as I did and we wound up having a wonderful shared experience that spilled out into the lobby during intermission and after the show while he waited a bit to chat before going backstage to meet with Miss Daly.

Bernadette Peters [2003], certainly the sexiest of the Broadway Roses, but somehow the least memorable of them all. . . she could never quite convince you she was the heartless Rose and was stuck in a production that looked small and lost on a Broadway stage.

In between came countless summer stock, dinner theater, community theater, high school, TV and film productions; and even played Herbie, Rose’s ill-fated intended, myself once, in a very crowded but soul-satisfying production on the tiny stage of the Wilton Playshop in Connecticut [1983].

So here I am, over fifty years later and no-so-long returned from New York where I watched Patti LuPone give her final and eat everything but the props and therefore probably greatest performance as Mama Rose at the St. James Theatre. Certainly one of the most memorable nights in the theater I’ve ever had.

And now I feel as if my life has come full circle in a very important way. I was mesmerized by the power of the theater the first time and just about every time I saw this show and to have had the chance to see a world-class “Gypsy” one more time, made me feel just like that fifteen-year-old boy stepping off the Greyhound bus from Philadelphia for the first time. . . one more time. And really, what more could anyone ask, even if the ticket did cost more than fifty times as much.

I wonder how old I am?” — Stephen Sondheim — Gypsy, 1959

“I wonder how old I am?” — Sal Bovoso — Yucca Valley, CA 2012

It all started, actually, with Gypsy Rose Lee

Rose Louise Hovick
aka
Miss Gypsy Rose Lee

I was nine years old and for some reason my mother thought it a good idea to take me to see Ms. Lee and her girls strip at the Erie Social Club in Philadelphia. Now that I think of it, I guess it was part of her campaign to “make a man out of me”. Fat lot of good that did. It was, however, a great Sunday afternoon. Yes, Ms. Lee did matinees! The place was SRO with couples out for a day of good clean fun. In fact, I’m pretty sure it was Easter Sunday. And I’m almost certain I was the only nine-year old there. . .

Gypsy came out fully dressed in a floor length Victorian costume, complete with ruffled collar and cuffs and proceeded to slowly undress while bantering bawdily with the audience until she was left with only three black bows one much larger than the other two. . . her signature start and finish, I would, much later in life, discover.

She was very funny, even to a nine-year old. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the semi-nudity. . . my parents were frequently naked around me, so it was no big deal. But then she performed the most amazingly erotic stunt and a piece of stagecraft that has stuck with me for 60 years. She stepped behind a white linen screen and with a pin spot on her face and a back-light casting her shadow onto the linen, she proceeded to slowly dress in silhouette while she spoke. It was the sexiest thing you ever saw. When she stepped out from behind the screen ten minutes later, fully dressed again in a new floor length costume, the crowd went wild. She was quite a broad. Probably the only stripper in history to bring down the house by putting her clothes back on.

So when she wrote her autobiography, “Gypsy“. . . a great read — if you haven’t read it, you should, even thought it is mostly fiction. . . I got my hands on a copy as soon as I could. . . which wasn’t easy for a twelve-year-old in 1957.  And in the course of a few weeks, two things happened that would change my life forever.

I finished the book and became fascinated with Gypsy, her sister June (Havoc) and their stage mother from hell, Mama Rose; and I bought my first ticket to a professional play.

Holiday for Lovers

One in the balcony for a Philadelphia, pre-Broadway tryout of “Holiday for Lovers” starring Don Amece. Two dollars and eighty cents, thank you very much. And did I get a beating when my mother discovered the ticket stub in my jacket pocket! Just who the hell did I think I was? Three bucks for a theater ticket? The fact that I had saved my allowance for months, foregoing Cokes and Clark Bars held no weight in the one-sided discussion.

Having read the play recently. . . yes, it’s still in print. . . I can assure you it’s 50s’ winkey naughtiness at it’s worst; but at the time I thought I was witnessing the rebirth of Shakespeare. How long had this magical thing called the theater been going on without my knowledge? There on the stage was a world-famous actor, incredibly beautiful sets that changed with each act, and I fell under the spell of every second of it. And who were all these sophisticated people, clutching Playbills and paying fifty cents for ten-cent orange drinks during intermission?

Playing the daughter in “Holiday” was a girl named Sandra Church who, three years later, after seeing every other bomb that tried out in Philly. . . hey, you could get seats at half-price. . . I would see her again playing Rose Louise Hovick, aka Miss Gypsy Rose Lee, in “Gypsy”, the first musical I ever saw in New York City on Broadway. I was fifteen years old and I never looked back.

Way to go, Ma. . .

And thank you, Miss Gypsy Rose Lee!

Sandra Church
as
Gypsy Rose Lee