October 11, 1967 is a date firmly imprinted on my memory. It was the night I saw my very first Broadway show—and today marks it being exactly fifty years ago. The show was I Do! I Do!, its stars were Mary Martin and Robert Preston, and seeing it changed my life forever. And try as I might, I can't quite get a grip it happened a half-century ago.
It wasn't your average-run-of-the-mill first night in the theatre ... but wait. Before going on, for those who have already read my book, Up in the Cheap Seats, much of this is already covered in my “Preface, so you can probably take the rest of the column off: 😊
When I was ten years old, my Aunt Helen took me to see my first Broadway show. And she didn’t pick just any show to take me to. I Do! I Do! starred my idol, Robert Preston, who ever since I was five-years-old had been my favorite actor, once I had seen him in the film of The Music Man. Now here he was in a two-character musical, co-starring none other than Peter Pan herself, Mary Martin. Wow. The air in the theatre that night was electric. I couldn't escape a feeling that all eyes in the house were focused on me from the moment I sat down. It was as if everyone was murmuring, "Welcome to the theatre kid. Having a good time?" I was all alone in my seat in G112 of the orchestra, since Aunt Helen couldn’t get two seats together. She had graciously given me the better seat (don't you just love her?). Needless to say the show was sensational, what with those two pros, a wonderful score, Gower Champion’s inventive staging and a full orchestra the likes of which you rarely hear anymore. At intermission I turned around to get the attention of my Aunt, only to find her pointing at me, emphatically. I didn’t know why until we met up in the lobby. “Don’t you know who’s sitting in front of you?” I said, “You mean the lady with the big hair?” And that’s when she let me know that I was seated directly behind Lady Bird Johnson, then First Lady of the United States. Apparently I was surrounded by secret service. And all those eyes I thought were on me in G112, were for the woman seated in F112. Switching seats with me before Act II started, Aunt Helen attempted to schmooze the secret service agents surrounding the First Lady into getting me backstage. After all, this little ten-year-old was Preston's #1 fan. But the answer was no, and the only glimpse I got of the star dressing room was a photo in the next evening's New York Post of Lady Bird, Preston and Martin sharing a laugh together. I cut it out and hung it on my wall next to my ticket stub, where both hung for years, the clipping eventually turning a dull yellow with age. My desire to meet Preston never went away, and one day the opportunity presented itself. On March 4, 1985 (my birthday, in fact), Preston was going to be inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame, and I knew I had to be there. This was the chance I was waiting for. I was not throwing away my shot. So what to do? Simple. I got dressed in a suit and tie and took the subway to 50th Street and the Gershwin Theatre. I summoned all my courage and approached the official-looking woman at the entrance, who had a list of the invitees on a clipboard. I walked up and said,“Hello, how are you?” and breezed right past her. Sometimes acting as if you belong is enough. Preston was introduced by his Mack & Mabel co-star Bernadette Peters and made a wonderful speech, asking to be remembered for his flops as well as his hits. It was a very small, informal gathering and at its conclusion, people scattered. I finally found my opening. Preston was collecting his overcoat from a chair and I timidly approached him. I extended my hand with a million thoughts racing through my brain and said, “Mr. Preston—congratulations.” He said, “Why thank you,” shaking my hand. I’d seen him on stage and screen, but in person he seemed larger than life. Though he wasn’t tall, he had a huge head and that grin seemed to cover his whole face. He held my hand firmly and I completely froze. “Congratulations” was all I could say and then he was gone. Flash forward to three years later, the night of March 21, 1987. I’m living in Los Angeles, and on that evening I had attended a screening of the 1960 color broadcast of Peter Pan. As an extra added bonus, Mary Martin was there, live and in person, introducing it. It was an emotional night, but I had no idea what else was in store when I came home to my answering machine blinking with a dozen messages. Friends and family had been calling, all of them asking the same question: How was I dealing with the death of Robert Preston? The answer, as it turned out, was not too well. Stunned and shocked, I cried. And for the next few hours, I didn't know what to do with my grief except write down why Preston meant so much to me. In a very short amount of time, I wrote an appreciation of his work as an actor, the night with Lady Bird, finally meeting him, and other tie-ins that made for what I hoped was a moving piece. Imagine my surprise. when after having submitted it to Playbill, it was published it a few months later. When a friend suggested I send it to Catherine Preston, his widow and wife of forty-seven years, I got her address, popped it in the mailbox on my corner on a Wednesday afternoon and mailed it off to Santa Barbara. On Friday, I went to my mailbox and there was a large padded envelope with the return address “Preston." Due to its size, I knew it had to contain more than a written response. I opened it and read Mrs. Preston's note first:
“Thank you for sending me your lovely piece in Playbill. I found it quite touching. I feel Robert understood your few words in their fullest sense. As one actor to another, the meaning was all there.” I thought that was so sweet, only it couldn't begin to match what she sent along with it. “It occurred to me you should have a picture that has hung in Robert’s study for years—taken backstage the night you and Lady Bird saw 'I Do.' I hope you love being an actor. Be a good one. All my best wishes, Catherine Preston.”
This is what she sent me:
Mrs. Preston had gotten my note on Thursday, went into the study, took the photo out of the frame and mailed it out so I would have it the next day. Talk about an irresistible impulse! Her heartfelt generosity remains one of the most meaningful gifts anyone has ever sent my way.
Saddened as I was by Preston's death, by doing something positive with what I was feeling, I ended up being entrusted with something once having belonged to him—something he kept for his lifetime. It commemorates the first time I ever went to the theatre. It doesn't get more personal than that.
That night was fifty years ago to this day. And I'm happy to confess that my passion for all-things theatre remains intact. And the story goes on.
If you enjoy these columns, I encourage you to purchase Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now available at Amazon.com. Please email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.