Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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THE MOON, THE METS & MAME

Forty-seven years ago today, Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon. I remember being glued to the television set as a twelve-year-old alongside my whole family while we watched Walter Cronkite, the most trusted newsman in America, wipe away tears at the sight of it. Most anyone who was alive on the planet could tell you today in an instant where they were that night.

But that summer of '69 was also about a lot of other things for me as a kid growing up in Great Neck, Long Island. The New York Mets, the worst team in baseball for the past seven of its eight seasons since joining the National League in 1962, were beginning a slow but steady ascent towards capturing the pennant. It was as close to a miracle as the men landing on the moon. After all, that came about in about ten years time, same as it did for these "Amazin' Mets," who had never had a winning season, nor ever finished better than ninth out of the ten teams in the league. No one in my family was a Yankees fan, so we were all behind the beleaguered Mets. When they won the World Series, it truly was as if the tortoise outran the hare and made for an incredibly exciting summer.

But for me, I had something else to mark this summer of '69 by. It was the first year of my going to Broadway shows all on my own, something I began doing at the beginning of the year in the dead of winter. It's the subject of my upcoming book Up in the Cheap Seats, and I thought I would tiptoe nostalgically down memory lane for some of the offerings that were on Broadway while an astronaut planted an American flag on the moon and Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Nolan Ryan were pitching their hearts out.

The titles alone were sensational. I saw the original productions (if sometimes not with their original casts) of Cabaret, Hair, Mame, Man of La Mancha, Plaza Suite, and Promises, Promises! Then there were the prices. I got to see Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Play It Again, Sam for $2.50 up in the last row of the Broadhurst Theatre. At this same theatre, the last row for a Saturday matinee of the upcoming star-studded revival of The Front Page, starring Nathan Lane and John Slattery, will cost $77. It doesn't seem fair, does it?

And how would a twelve-year-old today be able to afford that on his own? I was never given any allowance. Whatever it cost me to see these shows always came out of my own pocket with money I earned from a newspaper route. And guess what? Little kids don't get to have paper routes anymore. So I consider myself doubly lucky. Triply, when you consider that my parents gave me permission to come into New York City by myself at that age. And trust me, the heart of Manhattan's theatre district was nothing like the well-lit, Elmo-infused Times Square of today. As I like to say, for the four years I did this, when I saw 200 Broadway shows (fifty per season), I was only mugged once. 😊

The summer of '69 was a hot and sticky one, but I didn't care. Not only was I getting to see great theatre, but I somehow managed to finagle my way backstage most of the time and meet the actors as well. I even have the autographs to prove it. This is how I got to meet Julie Harris, Maureen Stapleton, Nicol Williamson and so many others. It was always an adventure, even when I was seeing something awful. Again, early on in my theatre going, I didn't care whether something was really good or not. As long as I was in a theatre, I was thrilled to be there, even if the actors sometimes weren't.

Case in point: a play from 1969 titled Angela, by Sumner Arthur Long, whose previous Broadway play, Never Too Late, ran for more than three years. Angela ran three days. Its plot? A bored housewife kidnaps a TV repairman, ties him to her bed and holds him hostage in his underwear—all to make her philandering husband jealous. An “intolerably bad play,” said one critic.

But this show holds a special place in my heart (I mean, that plot alone), due to having seen it with my sister Joanne. It fell to poor Joanne, two years younger than I, to attend shows with me that I couldn’t get anyone else to see. In good times, my paper route earnings made it possible for me to buy two tickets in advance, though this meant I would often be searching for someone at the last minute (usually in vain) to accompany me. I recall long Friday nights, with the next day’s matinee looming, calling everyone I knew to find a taker for my extra ticket. To make matters worse, I had to sell a lot of shows that had opened that week to pitiless reviews. Talk about working on my acting skills! My fellow teenagers had no idea what I was talking about. Mostly I was pitching them on the excitement of seeing a Broadway show for $3 bucks, rather than try to explain titles like The Chinese and Dr. Fish.

My sister has always remembered Angela since it holds the added pleasure of our going backstage and meeting Geraldine Page, who had the misfortune of playing the title role. One of the most accomplished actresses of her time. I remember the night almost twenty years later when Page won the Academy Award (on her eighth nomination) and Joanne called me and said, “She was so nice after we saw her in that funny show.” Yes, my sister was a pushover. Whenever I left the theatre with her after some stinker, I would always apologize. I could then count on her to usually say, “I liked it.” When we went backstage to meet Ms. Page my recollection is that of startling a rather depressed woman dressed in a frumpy bathrobe who stared at us, wide-eyed. Why wouldn’t she? Besides the sight of a twelve-year-old and a ten-year-old at a sex farce (unaccompanied by their parents), the matinee played to an audience of about fifty people, as Angela posted its closing notice the morning after its unanimous pans and was to ring down its final curtain that evening.

It was the play that marked the first time (and not my last) that I handed my ticket to an usher and was stopped from heading to my usual seat up in the cheap seats. “Honey, don’t bother,” she croaked in a world-weary sigh, waving at the empty orchestra. “Sit wherever you want.” Ms. Page was spared the critics’ venom, but make no mistake, venom was spat. In an almost existential comment, Clive Barnes in the New York Times wrote: “For some unaccountable reason, Angela opened last night at the Music Box Theatre.”

Men went to the moon that summer, truly memorable and great. Angela was truly terrible and far from great... but you can bet your life I'm glad I saw it.

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© 2016 Ron Fassler - All rights Reserved

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