Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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BACKSTAGE BOLDNESS

I went to the theatre twice this weekend and knew actors that were in both of the shows I attended. One didn’t know I was coming, the other did. As far as going backstage following a performance is concerned, it’s my general feeling that if you have something really positive to say (as I happily did in both cases), no actor on earth will feel put upon if you offer your congratulations on a job well done.

The actor who had my name on “the list” greeted me in the alley beside the theatre. I wasn’t expecting a genuine backstage visit like it was in the old days when I was a kid. No, the days of being invited into dressing rooms all up and down Broadway are long gone. We live in different times now. No one wants strangers poking around anymore. I get it.The show where my name wasn’t on any list, treated me just a little bit like a crazed fan who was only pretending to have a friend in the show. Again, I get it. That extra level of protection over the long run is probably appreciated by cast and crew.

But man — I can’t tell you how lucky I was in the halcyon days of when I went to a Broadway play or musical every weekend as a teenager and, with regularity, went backstage after every show. I guess it was some logical extension of the good time I was having that made me think the experience included meeting the actors. I still don’t know what drove me the first time I thought of it, which was only the second time I ever saw a Broadway show. I was eleven, it was Fiddler on the Roof, and I didn’t think twice about turning to the two friends I was with (chaperoned by their mom) to say, “C’mon! Let’s go back and see Tevye!” Somehow, we were elegantly ushered into the star dressing room of the Majestic Theatre, and there, looking up at us quizzically from his perch on a sofa was the very genuine and sincere Harry Goz, Broadway’s fourth Tevye. He couldn’t have been more welcoming and dutifully signed my program — the first actor who ever did that for me — and so I remember his kindness.

And what if on this same trip backstage, I had decided to visit some of the other actors’ dressing rooms? It would have been fun to report I had met Bette Midler long before she was famous. Having first joined the Broadway company in 1966 as Rivka, one of Anatevka’s townspeople, she had now moved up to the more substantial role of Tzeitel, Tevye’s eldest daughter. Fiddler was her first professional job in New York after arriving at age twenty-one from Hawaii, where she was born and raised.

Bette Midler, Harry Goz and Peg Murray in Fiddler on the Roof (1968)

Thus began a series of events, where I was invited time and again to meet actors in the privacy of their dressing rooms. I was always certain to check out the way they were decorated … the opening night telegrams (now a REAL thing of the past), artfully arranged surrounding the bulbs that framed their dressing table mirrors. Or whether they had a dog with them. Or if they still had their makeup on or off. Also their level of enthusiasm with which they greeted their visitors.

Some were dog tired. I’ll never forget Herschel Bernardi, slumped in his chair, after he’d literally stood on his head in Kander and Ebb’s Zorba. Or poor beaten-down Bernadette Peters after the Saturday matinee of a musical version of Fellini’s La Strada, that would open the next night and close forever after just one performance.

Some were so lit up after a show they positively glowed. Take for example a thirty-year old actor I met after having played the lead in Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real. Still generally unknown, with only two feature films to his credit, he had a recent Tony Award for Featured Actor in a Play for a show that unfortunately opened and closed quickly. He was certainly on his way and the name Al Pacino would mean a hell of a lot more when The Godfather would break every existing box office record two years later.

Al Pacino as Kilroy in Camino Real (1970)

When I knocked on his door, I heard from within a shout of “Yo!” What was this “yo?” I had never heard the word before. The door then opened and there was Pacino in a state of undress. I can’t remember if it was his shirt that was off or his pants, but what I do remember was that he was all smiles and when I told him how good he was it seemed to make him even happier. He signed my program with a flourish. Then I moved on to the dressing room next door to meet Victor Buono (an actor whose work I was far more familiar with). I mean, c’mon — he was King Tut on Batman! To this day I’m still surprised I knocked on Pacino’s door first.

Pacino’s autograph on the program cast page of the 1970 revival of Camino Real.

For the first two years or so, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. To see someone like Julie Harris or James Earl Jones give their all on stage — then to find them so generous with their time backstage was really too much. I met and chatted with Henry Fonda, Stacy Keach, Nicol Williamson, Margaret Hamilton, Jack Gilford, Donald Pleasence, Geraldine Page, Roy Scheider, Shirley Booth, Alec McCowen, Maureen Stapleton, Kim Hunter … even Muhammad Ali.

Yes, Muhammad Ali played Broadway. And get this: it was a musical.

You can’t see it in this photo, but under “CASSIUS CLAY” is a/k/a Muhammad Ali.

Return tomorrow for the full story.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available for pre-order exclusively from Griffith Moon Publishing. https://griffithmoon.com/cheapseats/

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© 2016 Ron Fassler - All rights Reserved

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