Archive for October, 2020

200 Times a Year; My Life at the theatre — Dramatis Personae

DRAMATIS PERSONAE

 

While there is no live theatre because of the pandemic, I shall be posting chapters as I write them from a book I am working on about my experiences in the New York Theatre. Here’s my latest.

Over the course of my many years in New York, I met a lot of cool people, as well as a few oddballs. I have written about some of them in my chapter on Samuel French, but there are many more.

When I was the Editor at Samuel French, I used to get a lot of walk-ins, mostly actors looking for help in finding a scene to work on in class or a new monologue to use for auditions. Sometimes, playwrights would drop by and ask if I would read their work. Several years ago, I was called out to the reception area, and there stood a nattily dressed elderly gentleman who was about the best-looking geezer I had ever seen, with a full head of silvery white hair. He looked rather like Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., only shorter. “May I help you,” I said. “Mr. Harbison?” he asked. “Yes.” “My name is Guido Nadzo.” I was flabbergasted. “The Guido Nadzo?” I blurted out. “Yes,” he said. “I see you have heard of me.”

The name “Guido Nadzo” is something of a jokey footnote in Broadway theatre history. As the story goes, when George S. Kaufman was casting The Royal Family, which he co-wrote with Edna Ferber and which he directed, he travelled out of town (to Philadelphia, I think) to see a play featuring a young actor named Guido Nadzo, who had been recommended to him for the “juvenile role,” which is what they called the young man who was not the lead in those days. Supposedly, he sent the following telegram back to New York: “Guido Nadzo was nadzo guido.” When the story got around, young Guido Nadzo found himself such a joke that he had to give up acting. And here before me stood that very same Guido Nadzo.

Mr. Nadzo had written a play and asked if I would read it. I said I would be glad to, of course. Then, I couldn’t resist. I asked him about the story. He chuckled and told me that it was completely untrue. When the story started circulating, Kaufman contacted him and told him that he never sent such a telegram. Furthermore, he told everyone in the business that the story was untrue, even though he did not cast Nadzo in the play. Guido Nadzo continued his acting career until the onset of World War II, when he joined the Office of Strategic Services, serving there until the war’s end, at which time he decided he liked this line of work and remained — in his words – in “government service” until he retired. After the war, the O.S.S. became the Central Intelligence Agency. In other words, Guido Nadzo spent the second half of his working life as a C.I.A. spy.

We had a very pleasant chat. I have forgotten what Mr. Nadzo’s play was about, or even if it was any good; but I’d like to set the record straight about this strange myth.

Sometime in the early 1980s, I was sitting in my office one day when a guy from the Order Dept. came in to tell me that there was a woman who wanted to see me. I went out to the reception area and there she was. She appeared to be in her 50s, heavily made up, elegantly dressed, with curly black hair. “You wanted to see me?” I asked. “Mr. Harbison?” she asked. “Yes,” I replied. She stretched out her hand and said in a thick Italian accent, “I am a-Gina Lollobrigida.”

You may be too young to know the name, but not me. Gina Lollobrigida was an Italian film star in the 1950s and 1960s. In those days, foreign film actors were hot in Hollywood. Of particular interest to Hollywood were extraordinarily beautiful women, often referred to as “Sex Goddesses,” and Ms. Lollobrigida was one of the most beautiful. She came over here at pretty much the same time as another Italian Sex Goddess, Sophia Loren, and became just as big a star. She starred in several American films, such as “Solomon and Sheba” with Yul Brynner and “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell.” She was Esmeralda in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” with Anthony Quinn as Quasimodo. And there she was, standing before me.

I managed to stammer, “What can I do for you?” She told me that a Broadway producer named Harry Rigby who had recently produced SUGAR BABIES, a huge hit starring Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller, was looking for a play for her. Apparently, he had suggested that she come to see me, as even then I was known in the biz as a guy who knew a lot of plays. I immediately thought of Tennessee Williams’ THE ROSE TATTOO, as the lead character, Serafina, is Italian. Politely, she shot that idea down. The reason? Williams wrote the play for his longtime friend Anna Magnani. Although she got cold feet and didn’t do it on Broadway (the role was played instead by Maureen Stapleton) she starred in the film version, which was one of her most famous roles. No Italian actress would dare go up against La Magnani. It would be like an American actor daring to appear in an iconic Brando role, such as Terry Molloy in “On the Waterfront.” Side note: a stage version of this film was presented on Broadway, with highly regarded young actor Ron Eldard in the Brando role, and this pretty much derailed his career, even though he was quite good.

I suggested a few other plays to her (I have forgotten what they were) and asked a guy in the Order Dept. to pull them. I offered to give them to her, but she insisted on  paying for them. Then, we had a nice chat. She was absolutely charming and very intelligent. I asked her if she was still acting; but she said, no, she was now a highly sought-after photojournalist and a successful sculptor. I asked, was she worried about returning to acting after so many years? “Absolute-a-not!” she replied. She left with her scripts. I never saw her again.

While I was writing this chapter, I found out from Peter Hagan, an old friend and colleague who was an agent before he became the President of Dramatists Play Service, that his client, the great set designer John Lee Beatty, whom he still represents, was actually hired by Harry Rigby to design the set for THE ROSE TATTOO, to star Miss Lollobrigida, to be directed by John (“Joey”) Tillinger — so she must have changed her mind and did decide to do the play. The plan was to open out of town, play a couple of other venues and then open on Broadway. Then, she told the team that she had hired a top Italian fashion designer to design her costumes (which was common in the Italian theatre, apparently). Mr. Beatty told me that these were completely inappropriate for the American South, let alone the character; and, anyway, a costume designer had already been hired. Miss Lollobrigida was adamant that they must use her designer’s costumes. When they told her “no way” she ditched the production. What a shame. I think she would have been brilliant. She’s still alive, and will turn 93 this year (2020).

Shortly thereafter, Harry Rigby died – so that was that.

As I mentioned, when I was at Samuel French, I used to get a lot of people who came in to ask for my help, and I was always glad to drop whatever I was doing, go out to the bookstore and sit down with them. Mostly, these were young women looking for a new scene or a monologue; and I was usually able to come up with something for them.

Sometimes, they had recently arrived in New York and they just wanted my advice about what to do next. Someone had told them, “Go see Larry at Samuel French.” As the years went by, I often got what I came to call “The Look,” which betrayed their suspicion about why I was spending so much time with them. It was like a thought bubble in a cartoon, attached to their head. They were thinking, “Does this geezer think he has a shot with me?” Once, I asked a young actress not to give me “The Look.” She asked, “What look?” “This look,” I replied, imitating it and said, “And I know what you were thinking.” “What was I thinking?” she asked. “You were thinking, does this geezer think he has a shot with me?” She thought about this for a moment and said. “I was thinking that.” “Look,” I said. “I don’t want anything from you; I just want to help you.” Then I saw another thought bubble containing, “That’s a relief!” I expect most of them gave up eventually, it being practically impossible to establish an acting career in New York unless you have an agent, which few of them did.

A few times, though, I had walk-ins who beat the overwhelming odds and became Famous. Ellen Barkin came in once, just in from wherever she came from. I forget what she wanted, but we had a lovely chat. In about 1980, another cute young actress came in, fresh out of Carnegie-Mellon, from whom she had received an M.F.A. She had long, blondish-brownish hair and spoke with a distinctive southern accent, as she grew up in Georgia. We hit it off and I began inviting her to join me at the theatre. One play I remember taking her to was BABY WITH THE BATHWATER, in the old Playwrights Horizons upstairs studio theatre. Chris Durang, the playwright, was there and I introduced her to him. She was amazed that she was meeting such a famous playwright. I have a story about Chris and this play, but I will save it for later. As the play was rather short, afterwards we moseyed over to the Hotel Algonquin for a drink in their cozy lounge. While we were sitting there, Morton Gottlieb came in. Morty was a Broadway producer whose hits included ENTER LAUGHING (which made a star of Alan Arkin), SLEUTH, SAME TIME NEXT YEAR (with Ellen Burstyn and Charles Grodin) and two other Bernard Slade hit comedies, ROMANTIC COMEDY (which starred Anthony Perkins and Mia Farrow) and TRIBUTE (starring Jack Lemmon). I asked Morty to join us and he readily agreed. I doubt if my young friend had ever heard of him, but she was flabbergasted to find herself having a drink with a Famous Broadway Producer. By this time, I was kinda sweet on her and thought, “This is gonna be my night!” but, alas no.

At the time, I was still trying to get something going as a director, and she did several readings for me. She was the greatest I have even seen at a cold reading. With no rehearsal even, she was always fabulous. Many years later, I was at the Humana Festival and a casting director reminded me that I had recommended her for a role she was having difficulty casting. She was amazing in the play, BATTERY by Daniel Therriault, and this was her first New York acting credit.

Many years later, I happened to sit next to Morty Gottlieb at the theatre one night. He told me he had retired from producing – not because he couldn’t raise money anymore but because of the difficulty of getting a star willing to commit to 6 months on Broadway. I asked him, “Mr. Gottlieb, do you remember coming into the Hotel Algonquin one night after the theatre many years ago and joining me for a drink?” He thought for a moment and replied, “Sure! You were there with some cute young actress. Whatever happened to her?” To which I replied: “That cute young actress, Mr. Gottlieb, was Holly Hunter.”

After she went on to film stardom, I lost track of Holly. More than thirty years later, she acted in a production by the New Group of David Rabe’s STICKS AND BONES. I waited for her afterwards and when she finally came out, I went up to her and said, “Holly, it’s a Blast from the Past!” She didn’t recognize me after all those years so I added, “It’s Larry, from Samuel French.” She lit up. “Oh my God, Larry! I haven’t seen you in years.” Well, Holly,” said I. “You’ve been busy.”

Before Samuel French, I worked for Robert Whitehead and Roger Stevens who, at the time, were producing Preston Jones’ A TEXAS TRILOGY; plus, Katharine Hepburn touring around in A MATTER OF GRAVITY. I was the receptionist and general office factotum. One day, Mr. Whitehead asked me to read a script for him which an old friend named Chester Erskine had sent him. It was called THE KING’S FAVORITE and was about King Edward II of England. It was really well-written but required a very large cast and obviously wasn’t something that could be produced on Broadway. Mr. Whitehead asked me to compose a letter from him to Mr. Erskine; in his words, “a nice note,” which I did. I decided to write him myself to tell him how much I had enjoyed his play. He replied, thanking me, and we began a correspondence. After several months, he wrote to tell me he was going to be in New York and would like to meet me. We set up a date and time, and he invited me over to his digs, where he and his wife were staying.

I arrived for our appointment, to a townhouse in E. 49th Street. I rang the bell. The door was opened by a middle-aged woman with an Irish accent named Nora, the housekeeper. I told her my name and she replied that Mr. Erskine expected me and was upstairs in the parlor. I went upstairs and met Mr. Erskine, an elderly gentleman in a tweed sport coat and tie (it may have been an ascot), who shook my hand, invited me to sit down and asked if I would join him for tea. I said I would, so he asked Nora to bring us tea.

We talked about his play, and he was surprised that I was so knowledgeable about Edward II. I told him that I had been in a production of Brecht’s EDWARD II while I was in grad school and, as is my wont, had read a lot about the King, his notorious relationship with Piers Gaveston and his deposition and horrible murder. Meanwhile, I started to notice that there were a lot of Katharine Hepburn memorabilia in the parlor, such as a photo of her with Laurence Olivier taken during the filming of “Love Among the Ruins” and a Giacometti sculpture of her. I remarked, “You must be a big fan of Katharine Hepburn.” “Oh yes,” he replied. “She’s been one of my dearest friends for many years. As a matter of fact, this is her house.” Imagine the look on my face when he told me that! Miss Hepburn was out on the road with A MATTER OF GRAVITY and had invited Chester and his wife Sally to house-sit.

Well, we hit it off and started to meet every week for lunch, during which he told me stories about himself. In the 1920’s and 30s, he had been a Broadway producer and director. He produced and directed the first play in the Golden Theatre, rehearsing it in the downstairs lounge. In 1930, he directed THE LAST MILE, a prison drama by John Wexler, produced by Herman Shumlin, which made a star of Spencer Tracy. In 1934, he decided he wanted to make a film, which was problematic because there were no indie films at the time as the Hollywood studios owned all the movie theatres, so there was nowhere to show them. The only one in New York they didn’t own was Radio City Music Hall. Chester bought the film rights to a thriller called MIDNIGHT which didn’t succeed on Broadway but which he thought would make a good film. Chester asked an actor friend of his, who at the time was playing juvenile roles (you know, the kind of character who walks through the French doors in whites and asks, “Tennis, anyone?”) to play the “heavy,” a gangster, to which he replied, “Are you crazy, Chester? Nobody would believe me as a heavy, I’m a juvenile.” Chester said, “You’re a good actor, and a good actor can play anything.” The guy accepted the challenge and they made the film (In case you’re interested, you can watch the film on You Tube). which played a week or two at Radio City, and he so impressed people in the theatre that he was cast as the heavy, an escaped criminal named Duke Mantee, in a new play by Maxwell Anderson called THE PETRIFIED FOREST. The play was a hit in 1935, at the Broadhurst Theatre, and he was a sensation. Hollywood put him under contract and he never did another play. The film version of the play made him a movie star. His name was Humphrey Bogart.

I went to the Library of the Performing Arts and looked all this up. It was all true.

In the 1950s, Chester went into television production; but by the time I met him in 1976, he was retired.

Chester was close friends not only with Kate but with Gar and Ruth (Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon) and Spence (as in Tracy). He told me that Kate and Gar had had a huge falling out when Kanin published Tracy and Hepburn, in which he revealed for the first time that the relationship between Kate and Spence was not exactly merely a professional one. They lived together for years, but Tracy couldn’t get a divorce because he was a Catholic. They were together when he died. Hepburn never spoke to Kanin again.

One afternoon, we were sitting in the parlor when I noticed a copy of Ruth Gordon’s latest autobiography, My Life, on the table next to Chester’s chair. I asked him if he had read it yet. He had, and offered to lend it to me. I asked him if he was mentioned in the book. He was, several times. Then he thought for a moment and said, “You know, I think I am the only man mentioned in the book that Ruthie never slept with.”

Shortly thereafter, Miss Hepburn’s tour finished up and Chester and Sally returned to their home in Santa Monica. We corresponded for a while but then he passed away and I never saw him again.

I met several more cool people when we were at the “old place,” in 45th St, such as Paul Green, who stopped by several times. He had been a successful Broadway playwright in the 1930s, winning the Pulitzer Prize for IN ABRAHAM’S BOSOM, before he started writing outdoor historical pageants such as THE LOST COLONY and THE STEPHEN FOSTER STORY, both of which are still performed every year. Mr. Green was an elderly, soft-spoken Southern gentleman, surprised that I knew who he was.

The Dramatists Guild used to hold an annual party in May for every member who had had a play produced that season, and they invited a few industry people such as myself as well as old-time playwrights. I met the aforementioned Gar and Ruth, Robert Anderson and his wife, the actress Theresa Wright and several others. One year, I saw an elderly man sitting by himself, off to the side. Since nobody seemed to be paying any attention to him, I went over to him and introduced myself. His name was Marc Connelly, and he was surprised that I knew who he was. Mr. Connelly was George S. Kaufman’s first collaborator, and together they wrote DULCY, MERTON OF THE MOVIES and BEGGAR ON HORSEBACK. In 1930, he won the Pulitzer Prize for THE GREEN PASTURES, which was set in Heaven and featured an all-black cast. It toured for years and made Richard B. Harrison, who played God (called in the play “De Lawd”) famous. He was also a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table. He told me some stories about Kaufman and the other Round Table members, all of which I have forgotten. I asked him if he was still writing plays; but no, he hadn’t written anything in years. He still saw every Broadway show, though, missioning in from New Jersey where he lived, but he told me he always left at the intermission because he just didn’t enjoy them, the theatre having changed so much since his day. He was a charming fellow; but I thought to myself, “This guy’s an Old Fart. I hope to God I never become one of those.” Later in this book I’m going to have a chapter on Old Fart-ism.

While Samuel French was still at the Old Place a strange little man, a playwright named Bruce Millholland. used to drop by from time to time, usually to see if we had any money for him. He was a legendary moocher, notorious for crashing parties to get free food. He probably had a room in a flophouse. He had long white hair and the way he dressed was very eccentric. One day, he showed up all in emerald green, wearing green plastic shoes and large, thick glasses with green frames which made him look somewhat bug-eyed. He looked like a giant frog. I always enjoyed talking to Bruce, because he was very witty in a catty sort of way. In the 1920s and 30s, there was a guy at Samuel French who used to function as an agent, representing Bruce’s plays, none of which ever went anywhere except for one called NAPOLEON OF BROADWAY, which he managed to get optioned by George Abbott and Philip Dunning, who hired Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (who had written THE FRONT PAGE) to rewrite it. This became TWENTIETH CENTURY, a Broadway hit at the Broadhurst Theatre during the 1932-1933 season, which Mr. Abbott directed, running for 152 performances. In those days, a play which ran 152 performances was a hit. It would run five or six months, until late spring, then close because there was no air conditioning then, and go out on tour. I guess audiences on the road didn’t mind sweltering. The play was made into a very successful film which starred John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. Since Bruce wrote the original play, he received a tiny percentage of the royalties which, somehow, he lived on for the rest of his life. The play was revived in 1952, at the ANTA Theatre (which is now the August Wilson), and near the end of his life (which is when I first met him), he hit the jackpot when the musical version, ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, opened on Broadway in 1978 at the St. James Theatre and became a hit, running for over a year. Bruce died in 1991, aged 88.

After Samuel French moved to the New Place, the young actresses kept coming in. There were several acting schools and studios in the area. A woman had a studio nearby, where she worked with models who wanted to get into acting, and she would lead a group of them in from time to time and ask me to help them find scenes and monologues. For some reason they were all tall, very beautiful blondes, Jorge Ibbott, who worked in the Order Dept. for many years, called them the “Swedish Bikini Team.” He would come into my office, salute, and announce, “Sir, the Swedish Bikini Team has arrived!”

As I said, most of the young people who came in to see me were women; but. Occasionally, I got a guy. One was a muscular, very Italian fellow who had a thick Brooklyn accent. I gave him a couple of monologues which I used to call “monologues for Vinnies.” “Lemme show you something,” he said, and he rolled up his sleeve. He had “Vinnie” tattooed on his arm. Another was a very cute blonde man. I spent several minutes with him, and noticed that Lurch was lurking in the Order Dept., observing me. When I finished up, Lurch said, “He was attractive.” “Oh, come on, Peter,” I said. He asked, “Do you think he was a Club Member?” I told this story to my sister, who is a lesbian, and she said, “We call them family.”

Sometimes, Famous People came in to talk to me. I had a couple of sessions with Ron Howard. Ron is a very friendly, unassuming man, and we always had a delightful chat. The second time he came in, he was looking for monologues for his daughter, who was auditioning for college theatre programs. She later became a pretty successful film actress – Dallas Bryce Howard. Robert Uhrich came in once, looking for the script of THE MUSIC MAN, a revival of which was running on Broadway, because he had been asked to go into the show when the star, Craig Bierko, left. I had to tell him that the show was handled by Tams-Witmark, which didn’t sell their libretti but rented them, so we didn’t have a copy. We had a nice chat about “Lonesome Dove,” in which he played the horse thief Jake Spoon. He never did THE MUSIC MAN.

I met Twiggy once. She had been a super model (before that term was coined) in the 1960s, epitomizing the term “mod.” She was appearing in a musical revue of songs by Noël Coward called IF LOVE WERE ALL at the time and she wanted some plays to read. She bought them using her credit card which had her real name on it: Lesley Hornby. She’s now Dame Lesley Hornby and is 70 years old. Hard to believe.

The British actor and director Roger Rees came in often. He had shot to fame in the title role in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s NICHOLAS NICKLEBY; and at the time I met him, he was the Artistic Director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. He was always looking for scripts to consider for production there. Roger was quite the wag, very funny. The Festival had recently opened a small theatre named after its late founder, Nikos Psacharapoulos, called the Nikos. Roger cracked, “Maybe when I die, they’ll name a theatre after me. They could call it the ‘Roger’.” To “Roger” is a British sex slang verb, as in, “I rogered her.” One time, he regaled me with stories about “corpsing” in the British theatre, a term for the common practice of an actor trying to make a fellow actor lose it and break character. He was pretty knowledgeable about plays, but he often asked my opinion of some of them which interested him. After he left Williamstown he co-wrote and co-directed PETER AND THE STARCATCHER and starred in the musicals A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE and Kander and Ebb’s musical version of the Dürrenmatt play THE VISIT, alongside Chita Rivera. During the run, he developed cancer and died very quickly. I’m still waiting for Williamstown to honor him; if not with a theatre then perhaps with a lobby or rehearsal hall, called the “Roger.”

John Davidson stopped by once to talk with me. He brought his bike up to our bookstore. You may not remember him, but in the 1960s he was a TV star, a tall, handsome man with a beautiful singing voice. He was appearing on Broadway in the stage version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein film musical, “State Fair.” He looked exactly like John Davidson, but with gray-flecked hair. He wanted to do a one-man play about Thoreau, so he wanted to read other monodramas. I talked to him for quite a while, recommending several and told him my opinions about what makes a good one-man play. He looked down and asked, “How come you know all this?” I knew that he was a Denison alum. Denison was my alma mater Kenyon’s arch revival. They always beat us in football; we always trounced them in swimming. Denison was in a dry county, so the students had no access to liquor. Mr. Hayes, who ran our local grocery store, had no problem selling alcohol to underage Kenyon students, so our frat parties were well-lubricated. The problem was, Kenyon was all-male, so we needed women. Guys would get in their cars and drive over to nearby Denison, pull up in front of the sororities, and yell to the girls coming and going, “Hey girls, party at Kenyon tonight. Anyone wanna go?” In two shakes, they had a full car. The Denison guys hated us. My reply to Davidson’s question when he asked me how I knew so much was, “’Cause I went to Kenyon.” He replied, matter of factly, “I went to Denison.” “I know,” I said. He thought about this, realized I was kidding him, and then gave me a “that’s a good one” big smile. I have never heard that he actually did a one-man Thoreau play, but he had his own theatre in Branson, Missouri, where he was probably making too much money entertaining all the geezers who trekked to Branson.

Sometimes, instead of people stopping by, they would call me up. I would answer the phone, “Lawrence Harbison.” One time, the voice on the other end said, “Mr. Harbison, this is Jon Voight. I’m an actor?” Me: “I know who you are, Mr. Voight. What can I do for you?” He said, “Well, my daughter is a student at N.Y.U. and she’s playing Nina in THE SEA GULL. I was wondering if you could recommend some research materials for her.” Konstantin Stanislavski directed the original production and later he published a journal he kept during rehearsals entitled, “The Sea Gull Log.” I told Voight about that and recommended that she read a good biography of the playwright, because I was pretty sure that Chekhov based Nina on a real girl. Voight thanked me profusely and then we hung up. I found out the name of his daughter a few years later. She was Angelina Jolie.

Another time, I answered a call in my usual way and heard a shakey, geezer voice on the other end: “Mr. Harbison, this is Buddy Ebsen.” Holy moly, it was Jed Clampett! We talked a bit about “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “The Adventures of Davy Crockett,” in which he had played Davy’s sidekick, Georgie Russell, who said things like, “Give ‘em what fer, Davy!” He had written a play and asked if I would read it. “Of course I would,” I told him, so a few days later his play arrived. The author’s name was Christian Ebsen, which was Buddy’s given name. It was a beautifully written play about an army camp during the Civil War, but it had a gazillion characters, all male, so there was nothing we could do with it. I had to return it to him. A short while later, he died.

One time, I got a call from a woman who identified herself as “Goldie Hawn.” I almost said, “Who is this really?” because her voice was that of a middle-aged Jewish matron, nothing like Goldie Hawn. She wanted recommendations for plays with strong dramatic scenes for a young man, because her son was auditioning for the Actor’s Studio and they expected wannabes to come in with a scene. One time, a woman called me needing help to find a scene for the same reason. In order to better assist her, I asked who her scene partner was. “Stephen Lang,” She said. Again, holy moly! In my humble opinion, Stephen Lang is one of our greatest actors, both in film and on stage. Although he has had a pretty successful career, playing major roles in the films “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” “Gettysburg” and “Avatar,” he never became the star he should have been. Anyway, I hope she got in. Back to “Goldie:” She was being driven around Manhattan, and I asked her to give me a half hour to pull some plays for her. Then, I asked her if I could have an autographed picture for a fraternity brother, Randy Giarraputo, who was nuts about her back in the day. I chose ten or so plays, and a half hour later her driver came to the counter to purchase them. He handed our clerk an 8 x10 glossy, signed, “To Randy. Thanks for being such a great fan. Goldie Hawn.” I sent this to Randy. Imagine the look on his face when he opened the mailing envelope.

I wrote about Jerry Sterner, Don Nigro and Ken Ludwig in my chapter on Samuel French, but there were many more playwrights with whom I became friendly, such as Tina Howe, Theresa Rebeck, William Mastrosimone, Michael Weller and John Patrick Shanley. I was Donald Margulies’ first agent; Richard Dresser’s and Mark St. Germaine’s as well. I tried for a couple of years to place their plays before hooking them up with real agents who had the time to promote their work; and the rest is history.

I want to reminisce a bit about two lesser-known playwrights, Leonard Melfi and John Ford Noonan. Leonard was a cheerful bear of a man with long, curly, dark brown hair who spoke with a minor stutter. In his youth, in the early 1960s, he had been at the epicenter of the Off Off Broadway movement, along with Lanford Wilson, Jean-Claude Van Italie, John Guare, Sam Shepard, Terrence McNally, Tom Eyen, Doric Wilson, H.M. Koutoukas, Paul Foster and Robert Patrick. Note: all men. There were a few female playwrights then, but it wasn’t until later that they started getting much attention. Several playwrights in the above list managed to move beyond their OOB roots. Leonard never really did, I think largely because his plays were whimsical almost-fairy tales which seemed rather silly to critics, although Theodore Mann of Circle in the Square did commission him, McNally and Van Italie to write three one-acts, which he produced as MORNING, NOON AND NIGHT. Leonard started out mostly with one-acts, the kind which could be produced simply at places like Café La Mama and the Café Cino, his best-known being BIRDBATH. He did have a couple of full-length plays produced under mini-contracts later, FANTASIES AT THE FRICK and PORNO STARS AT HOME, but these came and went and are now pretty much forgotten. I lost track of Leonard, then was saddened to learn of his death in 2001 in a S.R.O flophouse. His body went unclaimed for several days and then was misplaced by the hospital staff and wound up being buried in Potter’s Field. When his brother learned of his death, he had Leonard exhumed and buried in Binghamton, his old home town. His was a sad and ignominious end for a man who never lost his child-like wonderment and optimism, even when he was struggling with alcoholism.

John Ford Noonan started out as an actor, appearing in several films such as “Last Stop, Greenwich Village.”  Then Joseph Papp “discovered” him as a playwright, and Papp produced his early play, THE YEAR BOSTON WON THE PENNANT (which featured a then-unknown actor named Roy Schieder in the lead) during his brief tenure at the helm of Lincoln Center Theatre. Subsequently, Papp took a lease on the Booth Theatre and announced a subscription season of 5 new plays, one of which was by Noonan. Also in this season were to be plays by Michael Weller, Thomas Babe, David Rabe and Dennis Reardon. Papp opened with Reardon’s THE LEAF PEOPLE, which was such a critical bomb that he cancelled the rest of the season and refunded the subscribers’ money. In 1979, Noonan had a huge hit Off Broadway WITH A COUPLA WHITE CHICKS SITTING AROUND TALKING at the Astor Place Theatre (where those Blue Men seem to be permanently ensconced), starring Susan Sarandon and Maureen Brennan. In his heyday, he was a large hirsute fellow; but when I got to know him, he had slimmed down considerably. This was around the time he had a modest Off Broadway success with SOME MEN NEED HELP, which starred Treat Williams and Philip Bosco. John often used to call me just to talk. I would answer the phone and I would hear, “Who’s-your- favorite-playwright?” “You, John,” I would reply. “How are you?” “Still sober,” he would reply. John had had a huge problem with alcohol and cocaine. He had received $500,000 for the film rights to A COUPLA WHITE CHICKS SITTING AROUND TALKING and in 6 months it was gone – up his nose. After I left Samuel French, I lost track of John, though I tried to contact him a few years ago on behalf of a Greek friend who wanted to direct a production of A COUPLA WHITE CHICKS in Athens. Even Noonan’s agent, Buddy Thomas at ICM, had lost track of him. I told the Buddy to contact Noonan’s brother, the actor Tom Noonan, who told him that he had Power of Attorney, as John was in the Actor’s Home in New Jersey and was non compos mentis. John passed away there in 2018 at the age of 77.

When we are young and just starting out, we are convinced that Fame and Fortune are just around the corner. The ends of Melfi and Noonan are cautionary tales.

 

For many years, Lawrence Harbison scouted for new plays on behalf of Samuel French, Inc., during which time he was responsible for the publication of hundreds of plays, by playwrights such as Jane Martin, Don Nigro, Tina Howe, Theresa Rebeck, William Mastrosimone, Charles Fuller and Ken Ludwig among many others. He has been a free-lance editor for Smith and Kraus, Inc., and Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, for whom he has edited annual anthologies of ten-minute plays and monologues for men and for women, and for several years edited annual New Playwrights and Women Playwrights anthologies. His book, How I Did It: Establishing a Playwriting Career, a collection of interviews with playwrights, was published by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books in March, 2015. Forthcoming anthologies include books of 10-minute plays and monologues by members of the Honor Roll, an advocacy group comprised of women playwrights over 40. His column, “On the Aisle with Larry,” is a regular feature at www.applausebooks.com as well as on his blog at www.playfixer.com and on www.doollee.com, the international playwrights database. He works with individual playwrights to help them develop their plays (see his website, www.playfixer.com). 

“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”

                                                                                      — George F. Will 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” 

                                                                                    — Theodore Roosevelt

 

 

 

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200 Times a Year; My Life at the Theatre — the Humana Festival

HUMANA FESTIVAL

 

In 1976 Jon Jory, recently hired Actors Theatre of Louisville Artistic Director, decided that a good way to increase the theatre’s national recognition would be to start an annual new play festival. Problem was, he had no idea how to get plays to produce, so he placed ads in major newspapers all over the country and had his Literary Manager, Elizabeth King, scour these newspapers for reviews. He started out small in 1977 with two plays, one of which had been discovered by King when she read about an Equity Waiver production in Los Angeles. This was THE GIN GAME by DL Coburn. Major critics were invited, including ones from New York. Their reviews of Coburn’s play attracted the attention of Broadway producers, who saw in it a vehicle for two of Broadway’s biggest stars, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. It not only became a hit on Broadway, it won the Pulitzer Prize. Talk about starting off with a bang!

In the 1978 Festival, the theatre produced a play by a local journalist who had written a series of articles about people who had gotten out of prison. Jory saw the potential for a play in these articles and worked with their author to develop it. The author’s name was Marsha Norman. The play was GETTING OUT, which was subsequently produced Off Broadway by the Phoenix Theatre, directed by Jory, with ATL actress Susan Kingsley as Arlene, an ex-con, the older version of Arlie, a troubled young woman who was sentenced to prison (played by Pamela Reed). It was a sensation, and Marsha Norman’s career as a playwright was on its way.

In 1979, the first year Humana, a health insurance company based in Louisville (their building a few blocks away from ATL is one of the most beautiful in Louisville) began sponsoring the Festival, ATL had another hit with a play written by an actress who had given it to a director friend who had worked at Actors Theatre, who gave it to Jory. This, too, attracted Broadway interest. Lester Osterman optioned it and mounted a new production at a regional theatre, directed by Stuart White, one of three co-founders of the fledgling WPA Theatre in New York. This production was not as successful as the one in Louisville, so Osterman decided to try and get an Off Broadway theatre to produce it before taking it to Broadway if the reviews were good enough. All the Off Broadway theatre companies turned it down, so Osterman turned to Gilbert Parker of William Morris, who by that time was representing the author. He called Lynne Meadow at the Manhattan Theatre Club and told her that if she did it, his client Melvin Bernhardt would be available to direct it. This would be a big deal for MTC, which was not nearly the powerhouse it is today, as Bernhardt had won the Tony Award the previous season for his direction of Hugh Leonard’s DA, so Meadow took it on. It got sensational reviews and Osterman moved it to Broadway. It won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award. The play was CRIMES OF THE HEART, by Beth Henley.

Actors Theatre was on a roll. In 1980, they produced a play by an actor who had worked at the theatre, John Pielmeier, which also went to Broadway and became a huge hit starring Elizabeth Ashley, Amanda Plummer and Geraldine Page, running a year and a half. This was AGNES OF GOD.

In 1981, I received an invitation to attend my first final weekend of the Humana Festival, when you could see all the plays they had opened since late February. Thankfully, my boss at Samuel French, M. Abbott Van Nostrand, decided to send me, God bless him. I saw six full length plays, plus two compendiums of short plays. My first play was EXTREMITIES by William Mastrosimone, quite a start for my first Humana experience! I had seen an earlier Mastrosimone play called THE WOOLGATHERER at Circle Rep, which I got Abbot to publish. It got terrific reviews but for whatever reason didn’t have a commercial transfer. I hadn’t met the playwright until I met him in Louisville. He was a working-class Italian sort from New Jersey who always wore a black beret, which made him look like he should be hanging out at the Deux Magots in the 1920s with Sartre, de Beauvoir and Hemingway. Thus began a long friendship with Bill, which continues to this day. EXTREMITIES was in the Victor Jory Theatre, a “black box” space. For those of you who don’t know the play, it’s a nail-biter about a woman who is almost raped in her home by an intruder. She manages to subdue him and knock him out. When he comes to, he’s in her fireplace. She’s used her brass bedstead to create a kind of cage, and she plans to douse him with gasoline and burn him to death. My seat was in the front row of the middle section. Actress Ellen Barber was (almost) raped a few feet away from me. The play moved to Off Broadway, starring Susan Sarandon, later replaced by Farrah Fawcett, who starred in the film, and had a long run. That year, I also saw Wendy Kesselman’s MY SISTER IN THIS HOUSE, which later was produced by another fledgling Off Broadway theatre, Second Stage, with Elizabeth McGovern and Lisa Banes as two sisters, maids who murder their employer and her daughter. It was based on an actual case, the one on which Jean Genet based THE MAIDS.

I saw many brilliant plays during the years I went to the Humana Festival (35 and counting), but before I write about them, I want to tell you what the Festival experience at the culminating weekend was like, at least in the early days.

You started on Thursday evening, at a dinner party hosted by a board member at his home. They took turns. Every year, there were four or five parties, with plenty of sumptuous food and drink. Present were VIPs from all over the country – indeed, the world. There were Artistic Directors. Literary Managers, critics, publishers, agents and local supporters of the theatre. One year, I found myself at an antebellum plantation house which had been designed by Thomas Jefferson. There were spiffy little cabins on the grounds, all painted white. I asked my host, “Are those what I think they are?” They were originally slave cabins. Another year, I was at a party hosted by the Bingham family in their mansion on high ground above the Ohio River. The Binghams were the wealthiest family in town. They owned and ran the Louisville Courier-Journal.

You started your playgoing on Friday morning at 9 am and saw anywhere from eight to twelve plays over the weekend, the sets of which were all by ATL’s resident designer, Paul Owen. Each night, your last play of the day would end at about 10 pm and then you would head downstairs to the bar/restaurant, operated by the theatre. The actors, many longtime company members, would come out and join us for drinks and merriment. These people became my friends. They were wonderful actors, but just as wonderful people. Unfortunately, the great Susan Kingsley never joined us, I think because she had to get home to her husband and kids, so I never got to know her. Susan started at ATL checking coats. Jory encouraged everyone who worked at the theatre to participate in whatever aspect of the theatre interested them and Susan asked if she could do play readings. She so impressed Jory that he made her a member of his acting company. Susan was a rather plain-looking woman, not “actressy;” but onstage she was riveting, one of the greatest actresses I have seen in a lifetime of playgoing. Sadly, she was killed in a car accident in 1984, on her way to begin rehearsals for that year’s Humana Festival. She was 37. Longtime company member Bob Burrus never joined us either. Bob was a wonderful actor; but if you met him you would never know it. He was a rangy, quiet fellow who looked and sounded like a trail boss on a cattle drive. Think, Curly in “City Slickers.” His performances were always indelible, such as “Mr. One-Eye Deneuve, down from Lecher County Kentucky for the wrasslin’” in Jane Martin’s hilarious CEMENTVILE, a devious horse trainer in Benjie Aerenson’s LIGHTING UP THE TWO YEAR-OLD and Clem, one of three middle aged brothers in “Miz Martin’s” MIDDLE AGED WHITE GUYS, who meet every year on the fourth of July on the site where they won the state baseball championship in high school, which is now a garbage dump, to mourn the death of R.V., the girl they all loved. Clem’s wife shows up to inform him that she is leaving him; but first, she intends to shoot him. She is disarmed, though, by Moon, a soldier of fortune, played by the late, great Leo Burmeister.  “What am I gonna do, Moon?” moans Clem. “My wife left me.” “All wives leave, Clem,” says Moon. “It’s a shit job.” A Messenger from God appears, Elvis in his white jumpsuit, to inform the men that God (who’s a woman) is pissed off at the mess they and their ilk have made of the world, so they must atone by stripping butt-naked and walk all the way to Washington, D.C. carrying signs that say, “We’re Sorry.” This is the final image of the play. The audience went wild.

The bar at the theatre closed at 2 am, then everyone would go over to a nearby dive bar called Zina’s. There, the actors (many of whom were wonderful musicians) would set up and play country and blues music until 4 am. Then, you’d stagger back to your hotel room, get four hours’ sleep and do it all over again the next day. I had to take Monday off every year to recover.

Jon Jory was a wonderful director. He did all the Jane Martin plays. Another memorable one he directed was Wendy Hammond’s JULIE JOHNSON, about a housewife full of despair until she realized the source of that despair: she’s gay. Jon was omnipresent and quite the schmoozer, and I enjoyed our conversations over the years. In 1993, I brought my son Kenyon, who was 13, and Jon chatted with him as a colleague, not a kid. I will always cherish that memory. Your tickets came with a free breakfast buffet on Saturday and Sunday. One year, I was having breakfast with Jon and he asked me, as he asked everyone, what I thought of the Festival. “Well, Jon, I have a complaint to make.” Startled, he asked, “What?” “Well,” I said, “there just aren’t enough plays to see.” He laughed and pointed to a fellow sitting at a table across the room. “That’s Paul Owen, our set designer. Go over and say that to him.” Which, of course, I did, much to Paul’s amusement. Paul was the unsung hero of each year’s Festival. His sets were not only amazing, but they could be struck by the apprentices in about 15 minutes and replaced in 15 by another set. I used to enjoy lingering after my play to watch this happen. It was amazing. When Marc Masterson sacked Paul’s Technical Director, he resigned in protest; otherwise, he probably would still be designing sets for ATL. What a loss for Louisville audiences and Humana Festival-goers. In 2017, the Kentucky Fund for the Arts bestowed upon him its Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award. Paul is still alive, semi-retired, although he occasionally designs sets for the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival.

Every year, there was a showcase for the apprentice actors which, even though it was early Sunday morning, was packed. We were given each actor’s picture and resume. Each one did a monologue. One year, I was invited by my alma mater, Kenyon College, to meet with drama majors to discuss what they might do after graduation. I recommended, enthusiastically, ATL’s apprentice program. The next year, an apprentice at ATL did a monologue from a play by Howard Korder and I noticed on his resume that he had gone to Kenyon, so I went over to talk to him after the showcase. “You probably don’t remember me, but you’re the reason why I’m here,” he said. This was Neil Pepe, who is now the Artistic Director of Atlantic Theatre Company in New York.

There was a bookshop and souvenir stand in the lobby of the theatre. The books were scripts of plays that had been produced at previous Humana Festivals, many published by Samuel French because of me.

I saw many wonderful plays at the Humana Festival, several by Jane Martin. The most memorable of these were TALKING WITH and KEELY AND DU. At my first Festival, there was a compendium of short plays, about 10-minutes in duration, the most sensational of which was a monologue called TWIRLER, whose author was Anonymous. The lights came up on a woman in a baton twirler costume holding a baton, played by Lisa Goodman, telling us how she came to twirling but she never became really good until her hand was crushed by a horse named Big Blood Red. She proceeded to tell us that twirling is about far more than we thought. Nobody knows its true significance because it’s disguised in the midst of football. “People think you’re a twit if you twirl,” she says. “But it is God-throwing, spirit fire. You have to grow eyes in your heart to understand its message. There is a meadow outside Green Bay where all the true twirlers converge at the Winter Solstice. They wear white robes and stand in the snow.  Their feet are bare. Then acolytes bring them the batons. They are ebony tons, 3 feet long, with razor blades set in the shafts, and as they twirl, their blood drips in the snow. Red on white, red on white. I have seen the face of God 30 feet up in the twirling batons. You can’t imagine what that’s like.” There was stunned silence. We knew we had experienced not just powerful dramatic writing. We had been in the presence of the Sublime. At the next Festival, TWIRLER reappeared as part of a collection of monologues, TALKING WITH by Jane Martin, a pseudonym. It was unforgettable. The legend of Jane Martin was born. I’ll be doing a separate chapter on “Miz Martin,” in which I will give you my theory as to who she was.

In KEELY AND DU, a woman named Keely has been raped and impregnated by her ex-husband. On her way to an abortion clinic, she was kidnapped by a radical right-to-life group, which then has secreted her in a basement room hundreds of miles away. Their intention is to force her to have the baby. They will cover all her expenses, including raising the kid to the age of 18. Keely is furious, of course. An elderly woman named Du (short for Dorothy) has been assigned to be her companion. In one memorable scene Walter, the leader of the group (played by the great Bob Burrus) shows her the brochures the hand out, which include pictures of aborted fetuses. As she screams at him in rage, he replies calmly,” You do not have the right to your opinion unless you can look at these.” What made the play particularly remarkable was that it did not dismiss the right-to-life group as a bunch of brain-dead idiots. That year, KEELY AND DU was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, losing out to Edward Albee’s THREE TALL WOMEN.

The Humana Festival began to diminish in influence and importance for a number of reasons. One was that the New York Critics started attacking productions which came to NYC from Louisville, such as A WEEKEND NEAR MADISON, TENT MEETING, HUSBANDRY and A PIECE OF MY HEART, all of which had been hits of their Festivals but which failed in New York. I think these cultural ayatollahs were pissed off that the Humana Festival had achieved such a prominent place in the American Theatre without their approval. This meant that nobody wanted to produce a play in New York which had been successful in Louisville, as this was the Kiss of Death, so there were a lot fewer producers there than were in the Festival’s early years. One producer got around this Kiss of Death by optioning a Humana play, mounting a completely different production, taking this first to a regional theatre and then bringing this production in, without mentioning in any of their publicity that the play had premiered at the Humana Festival. In the program, this appeared in very small print. This was Donald Margulies’ DINNER WITH FRIENDS, which came in to the Variety Arts Theatre Off Broadway (sadly, long gone) from the Hartford Stage, winning the Pulitzer Prize.

There were several Humana plays I loved from the Jory era which were never done in NYC, such as AUTUMN ELEGY, ZARA SPOOK AND OTHER LURES and LLOYD’S PRAYER. AUTUMN ELEGY, by Charlene Redick, was about an elderly couple. They are well off financially, but live in a simple cabin in the woods. The wife has to confront the reality of her impending death. At the performance I saw, the Cronyns were sitting near me. Unfortunately, they decided not to do the play in New York. Had they done so this would have become a Very Famous Play. ZARA SPOOK AND OTHER LURES, by Joan Ackerman, was a wild comedy about women at a professional bass fishing tournament near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. LLOYD’S PRAYER, by Kevin Kling, was equally wild. It was about Bob, who was raised by racoons, and an ex-com named Lloyd who sees in him a money-making opportunity. Pitted against Lloyd is the Angel of the Lord, and what ensues is a hilarious tug of war between Lloyd and the Angel, with Bob as the rope. Kling was hilarious as Lloyd, as were Julie Boyd, who had played Keely in KEELY AND DU, as the Angel, and Walter Bobbie as Lloyd. Bobbie later became a top Broadway director. His production of the revival of CHICAGO is still running (or was before the pandemic hit).

Every year, there were several plays like the ones I have mentioned, a few which were OK but not great and, usually, one bomb. Then, Jory decided his theatre had developed a reputation for being too conservative, so he decided to “push the envelope” by doing more to varying degrees experimental plays. For instance, he started bringing in Ann Bogart and her SITI Company. The Bogart event was the annual Bomb of the Festival. Everybody hated it, but not the ATL people. I once had a discussion about Bogart with Michael Bigelow Dixon, ATL’s Literary Manager, “Yes, Larry,” he said. “We all know your opinion of Ann Bogart, but she’s an internationally-recognized avant garde genius.” “Michael,” I replied. “The emperor has no clothes.” So, although there was always one Hit of the Festival, many of the other offerings were, shall we say, unpopular.

Another factor which contributed to the decline of the Humana Festival was that it started to shrink. It’s now down to 4 plays, plus the annual Apprentice compendium. The Festival is also a lot less fun. ATL no longer operates the bar/restaurant downstairs. The company which does opens it for lunch, closes it, reopens for dinner and then closes it at 8 pm. No more hanging out with the actors into the wee hours. No more place to hang out your fellow Festival-goers. By the way, there is no company of actors anymore – everyone is jobbed in. What a bummer.

Sadly, Jory left ATL in 2000 to teach at the University of Washington. His replacements, Mark Masterson and then Les Waters, couldn’t hold a candle to him, so they were another factor in the Festival’s decline. Neither was particularly sociable, compared to the affable Jon Jory. Waters was downright chilly. Masterson did some fine plays, such as THE SCENE and AFTER ASHLEY, but many that I didn’t care for. Waters did few that I liked. To be fair, though, there were some wonderful post-Jory plays, all produced during Masterson’s tenure, which went on to New York, to varying degrees of success (by this time, the New York critics had gotten over their knee-jerk antipathy to Louisville plays), such as Theresa Rebeck’s THE SCENE (produced at Second Stage with Tony Shalhoub, Patricia Heaton and the delicious Anna Camp, a holdover from the Humana cast), OMNIUM GATHERUM by Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros at the Variety Arts, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and AFTER ASHLEY by Gina Gionfriddo, produced by the Vineyard Theatre, directed by Terry Kinney with Kieran Culkin in the cast.

Still, the really exciting plays became fewer and fewer, and few and fewer theatre professionals showed up. All the actors I knew and loved are either retired or dead. And then there’s the barred bar downstairs. I don’t know if I ever will go back. It just makes me sad.

 

For many years, Lawrence Harbison scouted for new plays on behalf of Samuel French, Inc., during which time he was responsible for the publication of hundreds of plays, by playwrights such as Jane Martin, Don Nigro, Tina Howe, Theresa Rebeck, William Mastrosimone, Charles Fuller and Ken Ludwig among many others. He has been a free-lance editor for Smith and Kraus, Inc., and Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, for whom he has edited annual anthologies of ten-minute plays and monologues for men and for women, and for several years edited annual New Playwrights and Women Playwrights anthologies. His book, How I Did It: Establishing a Playwriting Career, a collection of interviews with playwrights, was published by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books in March, 2015. Forthcoming anthologies include books of 10-minute plays and monologues by members of the Honor Roll, an advocacy group comprised of women playwrights over 40. His column, “On the Aisle with Larry,” is a regular feature at www.applausebooks.com as well as on his blog at www.playfixer.com and on www.doollee.com, the international playwrights database. He works with individual playwrights to help them develop their plays (see his website, www.playfixer.com).

 

 

 

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