I Met Conan in an NBC Men’s Room…


An accurate claim, I swear.

More than a few years ago my neighbor, Jeanine was a writer on NBC’s LATE NIGHT with CONAN O’BRIEN, his original show in New York. One day Jeanine called me, “Hey, we’re looking for someone to play Andy Richter’s mom in a sketch and I thought you’d be perfect.”

Conan+Andy

 

Andy Richter and Conan O’Brien: NBC’s LATE NIGHT with CONAN O’BRIEN

 

It was one of those moments when, within a single heartbeat, both joy and hope join together then splat against the windshield of your reality. Being invited to do a comedy sketch on national television, totally swell! Being told you’re “perfect” to play the mother of someone 11 years your junior, totally not. (For the deep dive into that pool, see “Angie & Ethel & Me“.)

But an acting job is an acting job. So in under ten seconds I was at Jeanine’s apartment door, picture and resume in hand. “Yes, yes, I’d LOVE to play Andy’s Mom.” I got the call from the casting director the next day – I was in!

TV works quickly and the following afternoon, I reported to 30 Rock. As I entered the magnificent Art Deco lobby, I could smell my break just around the corner. Within minutes I was standing at the brass turnstiles which guard the elevators to NBC Studios. To my right snaked a long line of tourists eagerly clutching tickets for the NBC tour. “Amateurs!” I giggled under my breath. I stepped to the left; the employee entrance. I felt more than a few pairs of eyes follow my progress. Invisible thought bubbles silently queried “Is she someone famous?” Go ahead and wonder,” I purred to myself. With a toss of my head and a perfect runway walk, I stepped into the elevator. The doors closed behind me. And, scene!

The 8th Floor receptionist hit a button and announced my arrival. In a nano-second, Joyce appeared. She was short, somewhere between 35 and 63 and wore a smock with patch pockets. This smock could have doubled as Rommel’s battle strategy map; it hosted two or three battalions of straight pins. She scurried us back to wardrobe. Once there Joyce donned the glasses that hung around her neck and gave me a cursory once-over. After fingering the collar of my jacket she pronounced my outfit “perfect.” I was quickly introduced to Tom, my soon to be TV husband. Interestingly, Tom had managed to dress “perfectly” as well. Either we were both really good at this or it didn’t matter what we looked like. My story, my dream. I chose Door #1.

As it turned out, Tom and I were briefly acquainted from a previous acting class. Not too acquainted, since we couldn’t remember where or when. Still, it greatly informed our relationship backstory for the scene ahead. This turned out to be a lifesaver as we were whisked into makeup, where one makeup artist spent a total of 7 minutes on the pair of us. At minute 8, we were called to set.

By “called to set” I mean we were ushered into the nearest NBC Men’s Room. Once inside, the Second AD (assistant director) explained the scene. As the room was fully tiled, her voice kept bouncing off the walls. Each time it hit us, Tom and I nodded in eager comprehension.

“You are Andy’s parents, in from out of town. Andy is really eager to introduce you to Conan, but he’s been having trouble making that happen.

Suddenly, Andy spots Conan step in here to use the facilities. He sees his opportunity and pounces. He drags you, Mom and Dad, into the Men’s Room where you find Conan using a urinal!”

She pauses here so we can telegraph our delight at the hilarity we’re about to take part in. I mean, she really pauses. So, we oblige.

“Now, that doesn’t stop Andy, nor does it stop you, Mom and Dad. You’re a family made from the same friendly cloth or maybe it’s Quilted Northern Toilet Paper, both soft and strong! Who knows, right?”

There was a slight pause. Empathically, we sense the TP bit was a creative touch she threw in on the fly and she’s not sure it landed. But Tom and I are already a team. We offer the Second AD a quick nod and a smile. It’s just enough; she continues.

“Andy jumps right into the introductions. Now, Mr. Richter, Senior, you offer your hand. To Conan. Who is actively using the urinal!! And you, Mrs. Richter, Senior you smile and wave (shyly, of course – this is a Men’s Room, after all. Wink. Wink.)”

I think you get the picture…

Now, as excited as I was to be on TV, and national TV at that, even though this was a union gig for Tom and I, contractually speaking, it was the equivalent of doing background work. Performers’ union contracts are very specific. They spell out exactly what actors are being paid to do. And if during this scene, what Tom and I did involved anywhere from 1-5 spoken lines, under the AFTRA contract in place that would be considered an “Under 5” and NBC would have to pay us a lot more, plus residuals. While we tried to communicate (without words, of course) that we were more than willing to go there, for us the scene remained mute.

So, therein lay our acting challenge. Tom and I needed to make the most of a comedy scene with Conan and Andy in an NBC Men’s Room on national television. And we had to do it without uttering a word. Now you can see what I meant about the benefit of our having that instant backstory, right?

When the director yelled, “ACTION!,” Andy Richter’s Mom and Dad quickly settled into heartfelt murmurs and deep communicative glances. Without technically talking, we pushed it a little harder with each take. I finally started muttering actual words here and there, but NEVER COMPLETELY! (Genius, right?) It may not have been dialogue, technically speaking, but our intentions were clear. Sadly, I don’t have the tape to prove this. It’s lost somewhere in the NBC vaults. But in my heart I know on that afternoon, in that NBC Men’s Room, Tom and I silently and successfully made a connection with Conan. At a urinal. And we were darn nice about it.

We looked “perfect.” We offered our hand in friendship (okay, strictly speaking, I waved my hand in friendship — potato, potahto.) But what’s really important is, we made our son proud. And at the end, isn’t that what it’s really all about?

EPILOGUE

AmyPoehlerLittleSis

Amy Poehler as “Stacy Richter” on NBC’s LATE NIGHT with CONAN O’BRIEN

I recently discovered that Amy Poehler, before SNL fame, played a recurring role on LATE NIGHT as Andy Richter’s younger sister, Stacey . She was lucky enough to always appear in full headgear (SEE LEFT).

If I could, I’d consult with Stephen Hawking on this, but since I did watch his PBS program the other night, I think I can make a case that, space and time being relative, this means I either could or already have played Amy Poehler’s Mom. I know!

So, if you happen to run into her, please let Amy know I’m eager and available to reprise the role. Maybe we could get Andy, too? And Tom. A full on family reunion. But this time, nobody’s keeping Mrs. Richter, Senior in the corner!

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Angie & Ethel & Me


For a woman without children, I’ve played an awful lot of moms.

Back in eighth grade, I should have seen the writing on the wall when the girls in my class (all 13 of us) banded together to “let’s put on a show!” We decided to mount a production of SLEEPING BEAUTY in the school basement. I wanted to play the Princess (natch!), but Linda T.won that crown. I would have settled for the Prince, but the cape was tossed around the shoulders of Cindy D. (she had very short hair.) Me? I was chosen to play the mom. Yes, I know, she was the Queen, but a sting, nonetheless.

The show now cast, our all female production began unsupervised rehearsal in the St. Thomas school basement — a whole hour after lunch during school time; for two entire weeks. Unbelievable! A fierce baker’s dozen, we blocked and rehearsed with the zeal of a David Merrick. When the moment finally arrived,  my performance as Queen for a Day was a royal success.

Throughout high school, I snagged a series of support roles. occasionally I was up for the lead, but my natural jack-of-all-trades ability kept me smack in the middle of character land. Any baseball coach worth their salt knows you never waste a good utility player. When our ingénue contracted mono during rehearsals for THE ROAR OF THE GREASEPAINT… I was plucked from the chorus to stand-in for “The Girl.” My heart swelled with excitement! But, she recovered before Opening Night. Not my Peggy Sawyer moment after all.

The summer following my sophomore year, I was in a production of West Side Story (see earlier post, MR SMITH GOES TO HIGH SCHOOL.) It was the most exciting thing that had ever happened in my life. Cast as Riff and Bernardo, the leaders of the rival gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, were two very hot, very popular guys. They had just graduated from the nearby boys high school, Bishop Guertin. I’d seen them perform on stage and swooned from afar. And now they were going to be treading the boards — with me!

These boys weren’t just cute, they were talented. I was beside myself. Twice.  As rehearsals got underway, even in my smallish role as Rosalia, one of the Puerto Rican gang girls, I garnered a bit of attention. Oddly not because of my decidedly non-Puerto Rican coloring (this was summer stock, folks,) more because unlike half of our cast, I could actually sing and dance. In fact, I ended up choreographing several of the musical numbers. As far as I was concerned, this was turning out great!

To look at them, Bob and Joseph were pretty much opposites. Bob, a wiry ball of energy with a curly mop of dirty blonde hair, was perfectly cast as Riff, the cocky New Yorker longing to rule the streets. Joe, slightly quiet with a romantic sweep of dark hair, easily convinced you he was Bernardo, the smooth Latin lover — mysterious enough to have been born in another country. A little bit foreign, a little bit rock and roll.

When they started chatting me up, I was ecstatic. I knew it was more in the little sister than the “Gee, I’d really like to take you out” vein, but that didn’t stop me from hoping. One day, our conversation took a surprising twist.

BOB: “Hey, I know who you remind me of!”

ME: (almost afraid to ask but too thrilled not to) “Who?”

BOB: “Vivian Vance. You know her?”

Though at that moment I wished that I didn’t, I knew exactly who Vivian Vance was. We all do, I LOVE LUCY’s stalwart side-kick, Ethel Mertz.

JOE: “Yeah (shaking his head in amazement), you do look like Vivian Vance! Crazy.”

I tried valiantly to keep my face looking pleasant, but my smile stretched pretty thin. Here are these two hunky guys for whom I have, at minimum, an artistic crush, at maximum, a full-out heart flutter, telling me I look like a 45-year-old landlady.

BOB: “Of course, a younger Vivian Vance.”

JOE: “Way younger.”

I bit my tongue. Did they seriously think that helped? Apparently I was a better actress than I was aware of as neither picked up that my 15 year-old self found this comparison devastating.

From that day on I was “Viv,” clearly a term of endearment. After a while, I decided what the hell. She was a pretty funny broad. Then one day Bob came up with another one.

BOB: “Hey, I was thinking, you know who else you look like?”

About now I was wondering, “Couldn’t it just be me?” Instead —

ME: “No, who?”( silently praying that he went a little younger this time.)

BOB: “Angela Lansbury! Do you know Angela Lansbury? Hey, Joey, doesn’t Viv look a lot like Angela Lansbury?”

JOEY: “Oh, yeah. Definitely see that!”

I considered the statement. At that moment, I wasn’t exactly familiar with the actress. I had seen her on TV when they’d broadcast her movies, BLUE HAWAII and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. A movie actress versus a sitcom second banana (admittedly, a classic sitcom) — things were looking up.

As time went on, I learned much more about Miss Lansbury. One interesting tidbit, in both of those films, she was cast as the mother of men very close to her in age. In the MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, Angie was only 3 years Laurence Harvey’s senior and just 10 years older than Elvis Presley in BLUE HAWAII. I’m sure playing Mom to these gentlemen on the big screen made her feel totally sexy and alive. I can relate.

A few years ago, here in New York I found myself in an acting class with Brian, a guy I’d been very friendly with and pretty hot for in college. (Ed. Note, total lack of interest from his perspective.) We hadn’t been in touch in a while. As Brian got ready to perform a big dramatic scene, he asked that I sit in a special spot in the audience, front and center. I was touched, until he went on to say, “…because I want to make sure my Mom can see me!” The words were no sooner out of his mouth than his face said “oops, didn’t mean to say that out loud.” But there was no unringing the bell. I may have looked like I was watching Brian’s big scene, but I was really looking back on our 20-plus years of friendship to see that the guy I’d had a crush on in college viewed me as his Mommy substitute. Oh, goody-goody. Break out the pasties and grease up the dance pole, cause I’m feeling sexy now…

Over the years, I’ve heard a few more comparisons. Back in high school one night I received an excited call from a girlfriend. “Turn on Channel 5,” she panted. “Hurry up, turn it on. There’s a girl on Mannix tonight who looks just like you.” I was a desperate 14-year-old, eager to see herself through someone else’s eyes. I sprinted to our portable black & white and switched it on. “Are you watching yet? “Yes, yes, ” I assured her. “There she is…” my friend screeched, “…right there. The blonde. Doesn’t she look like you?” I held my breath. This girl was 1970s pretty. I stayed glued to the end of the program and digested the credits. The actress was Carole Lynley and I though I didn’t really believe what my friend had said for a second, I was entranced at the possibility. I floated on that for days.

Many years later, in 1986, I got a call one evening at my apartment in New York. It was another friend from college, Tommie. “Hey, have you seen the new Bloodworth-Thomason series?” (Tommie lived in LA and, working in television, she was on the inside with the breaking news and patois.) “What new series?” (I didn’t, and therefore, was not.) “Designing Women. You have to catch it. There’s an actress on there looks just like you. The two of you could be sisters.” I was ready for this. “Carole Lynley?” I smoothly inquired, the 15-year-old memory still fresh. “No, her name’s Jean Smart. New to me — tall, blonde, funny. My first thought when she came on-screen was, she looks like Dee.”

At this point in life I had a firmer grasp on me, so though I was definitely curious I wasn’t counting on a glimpse of Jean Smart to magically define me. But it’s still a kick to take a glimpse at how you appear to others. Guess what, Tommie was right. I do resemble Jean Smart. In fact, from then on she’s served as a professional touchstone for me. She’s fashioned a terrific career. I think she’s great.

Starting with that experience during West Side Story, I learned more and more about Angela Lansbury and her monster talent. I regret I missed her revival of GYPSY on Broadway but I know the cast album by heart. I came down to New York from college specifically to catch her in SWEENEY TODD. But her standby, Marge Redmond (Sister Jacqueline in the 1960s Sally Field TV series, The Flying Nun) went on for the matinée. I was terribly disappointed until the show began. Then, I was just in awe. Marge wasn’t Angie, but she was fantastic. Since then, I’ve been lucky to see Angela live on Broadway several times and have always marveled at how brilliantly she commands a stage.

When SWEENEY TODD was first making the rounds in summer stock, I was plucked out of the crowd during several cattle call auditions for Sweeney for no reason other than I reminded them of Angela. As a legit soprano, I couldn’t give them the sound they were after, so this resemblance never quite got me cast.

Later in life I chanced to read the biographies of both of my dopplegangers, Misses Vance and Lansbury. It was there I recognized a shared experience. Quickly skipping over ingénue to mother/matron/side-kick in short order was sometimes a painful career pill for all of us. I learned that Vivian Vance was a singer and accomplished stage actress (who knew!) She was almost too attractive for Lucy’s comfort, hence they dressed her down. Angela found leading lady status on Broadway but never managed to be the star of her own film. Just a bit later, bet she laughed all the way to that quaint little bank in Cabot Cove.

But here’s the truth, I’m totally delighted that as a 15-year-old, two hot guys thought I resembled these lovely ladies. Because I’m finally smart enough to appreciate that Angie and Ethel were real, sexy women living vital, creative lives. I can only hope I find as much joy, success and satisfaction as it appears they both managed to embrace.

I do confess to still harboring one Angie fantasy. For years I’ve wanted to pitch a film about three generations of women, with Angela as my mother, Drew Barrymore (another look-ish alike) as her granddaughter and, in case you haven’t done the math, me — the one in the middle. So any producers out there looking for a golden indie opportunity, Facebook me.  I’ve got a couple of script ideas percolating.

Good old Carole Lynley? I lost track of her and her hot pants right after The Poseidon Adventure. But Jean Smart, she’s as busy as ever. And all I can say is “Rock on, baby. You remain an inspiration!”

Oh. My. God. Jean, I just had the most fantastic idea!! You and I could play sisters in a new cable series. What do you think? Comedy. Drama, you call it cause you do it all. And we know there are networks just begging for good programming and someone with a solid TV-Q. (That’s you, not me. But I’ll get started on mine as soon as I can.) I’m so inspired, I’m going to start the treatment tonight. So drop me an email and we can do lunch. I like the Olympic Diner around the corner. They know me so I can always get a front booth. And they make an awesome gyro platter — see you there?

[Ed. Note: Look what I have to look forward too!]

Carol Lynley Paperdoll

I’ve Been SMASHED!!


No, this is not a tale of mammograms, or the movie of the same name from last year which no one went to see. And it sure ain’t a chronicle of my inebriations past (unless we’re talking the morning after a family-size bag of Kettle Chips.) What this is is a status report on one of my current TV passions.

With their move to Saturday nights at 9pm (starting this week) it’s clear the hammer is about to drop on Ivy and Karen and Tom and Julia and Derek and Eileen. Yes, boys and girls, I’m talking about that full on fan letter that supposedly pulls back the curtain on the Great White Way — NBC’s SMASH.

Out of the mind of Steven Spielberg and creatively birthed by Theresa Rebeck (one of my favorite playwrights), the first season of SMASH generated lots of buzz and a flock of die-hard fans. But crappy ratings.

Me? I’m there watching every week. As television musicals go, this ain’t no COP ROCK (apologies to that other Steven – Bochco – though I applaud his effort.) Smartly recruiting forces from the actual Broadway community lends an incomparable level of craft to SMASH, despite the necessary evil of compressing the time and process of creating a Broadway musical into fifteen 42-minute TV dinners. Add to that the multiple layers of television and film experience involved and, baby, you’ve got yourself a show that works (sometimes…)

Last season while I enjoyed many of the characters and could swallow most of the storyline, I did take exception with all those fully costumed, choreographed and well lit workshops. (No, I’m not referring to the dream/fantasy sequences.)  I have never attended a workshop with such incredible production values. Or seen one in a rehearsal space that bright and clean. Everyone’s usually wearing their own clothes and still on book. But I’ll issue a creative license on that point. After all, over the years I managed to embrace such NY shows as FRIENDS and THE GOOD WIFE, despite the fact the wardrobe and apartments their characters inhabit are a total urban myth.

While we’re on the subject of real estate, can I get an “are you kidding me” on the size of Tom’s apartment? Julia’s — maybe, since it’s in Brooklyn. And that penthouse where they installed Derek — it’s too painful to even think about. However, when the show wraps (which appears to be soon), could somebody get me a broker’s appointment to rent Eileen’s “downsized dump”? It’s just perfect!

Back to the story — does the business of show as seen on SMASH ring true? Caveat here, my opinion is filtered through my vast personal Broadway experience — in other words, three years bartending in Broadway houses, several creative team call backs for long-running musicals and one four-month audition process that almost had me treading the boards with Vanessa Redgrave (another post, perhaps…) So, dear reader, snack on this story with as much salt as your taste buds require.

Though I can’t technically call myself a Broadway Baby, over the years I’ve had plenty of friends who are. Despite this connection, and despite the vicissitudes of portraying live theatre within the confines of a TV series, I continue to tune in each week, fingers crossed. So that says something.

I’m sad to learn that the newest Law & Order casting carrot for NY actors may be no more. I really thought this time I had a chance. I’ll admit, over the 20 plus years the legendary Dick Wolf series shot here in the city, all I managed to book was background on two episodes. But as they say, it’s never over if you won’t give up. Or something like that.

After the flush of Season One I started planning my attack. SMASH — just like LAW & ORDER — shoots everything right here in New York. So last summer, I took it as a sign when this notice appeared on my block:

It reads:

Dear Residents and Merchants,
We will be filming scenes for NBC’s second season of “SMASH” in your neighborhood on MONDAY, July 30th, 2012…

I live in what’s referred to as the “theatre district.” Times Square is a block and a half from my front door. My neighbors and I are used to production crews. Many years ago late one hot August night I returned home from work to discover MONEY TRAIN had transformed my entire block into a winter wonderland. It looked so real that, despite the 88 degree temperature, I felt a chill. Another time, I was sitting in a movie theatre watching the 2009 remake of FAME (not by choice, I feel compelled to explain.) Suddenly there was my apartment building on the 30 foot screen, at least triple its normal size. May I say that proved to be the high point of the film for me… 

SMASH shot on my block for several days and didn’t really impede my existence. In fact, it was kind of fun. I kept hoping to see Megan Hilty or Katherine McPhee carefully descending the steps of any one of the giant corrugated Kleenex boxes known as production trailers which lined my street. My friend, Eric did hear Megan rehearsing a duet as he passed by late one afternoon. Alas, no sightings.

So a couple of weeks later, in a completely different neighborhood (where I work in Chelsea), as I left the office one night, a familiar notice was dotting the block:

I did a quick 180 to see if it was Ellis trying to gaslight me. (Poor, Ellis, we hardly knew ye. Although, oddly, that was enough.) Nope, no Ellis. And no Jerry Rand, the reigning villain of the television theatre family this season (played by Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Michael Cristofer who just happens to be the brother of a former boss of mine. Six degrees…) This notice was genuine. SMASH was not only shooting on my home block, they’d followed me to work! Odd or opportunity?

Oh come on! Clearly, the serendipity of these shoots could not be ignored. Here it was, my way into SMASH. I just needed to interface with someone, anyone from the SMASH crew, and get my butt on that show. But who? And how?

As I strolled toward my office the fantasy began. I casually pass a trinity of SMASH folk engaged in a frantic (though highly unlikely) conversation.

“What ever will we do?,” Casting Director says to the Producer, “There’s a police incident on the Number 6 train. Our character woman is stuck on the subway.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Episode Director explodes, “We’re just about to shoot that seminal scene inside the Broadway theatre bathroom and I need that Ladies Room Attendant on set NOW! She’s crucial to our story arc.”

“There goes my budget.” sighs the Producer and they fall into a worried silence.

This is it — my chance!!  I take a breath then stop in front of them, ready to pull my best Claudette Colbert, IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT hosiery adjustment. (Okay, I no longer submit to shoving my legs into nylon casings, but this is my fantasy so go with it.) Just as I’m about to seductively straighten of my seams, back in reality I trip on the sidewalk. I glance around the real world. No Director. No Producer. My only possibilities seem to be a couple of gaffers, a best boy and a woman from hair and makeup who’s looking pretty cranky. Not exactly what I had in mind so I continued toward my office.

Suddenly I saw this:

All right! With my new-found knowledge, that day at lunchtime I decided to head east which took me right past Megan’s trailer. But no action. I left work early that day but returned in the evening to finish a project. Upon my return, my taxi dropped me on Fifth Avenue right in the middle of a familiar crowd. Tourists with cameras behind red velvet ropes: a genuine “shoot sighting.” I glanced across the avenue and saw the production set-up.There was lots of activity — clearly they were just about ready for a shot.  Feigning nonchalance, I tried to snap a picture. This was great, perhaps Megan was about to leave her dressing room on her way to the set. I scurried over to check…

Alas. I continued upstairs at my desk and I dialed my friend, Eric. Before I could spill, he said, “Guess what?”

Me, “What?”

“I was just walking down your block,” he continued, “…and decided to drop by Kathy’s [a friend who also lives on the block.]  And guess who was sitting on her stoop?”

“No idea,” I replied.

“That guy who plays the composer on SMASH, I can’t think of his name right now…” he paused, “…and the blonde, Megan Hilty.”

“Wait, wait. On my block? You saw Megan Hilty on my block?”

“Yeah, sitting on Kathy’s steps. Both of them. I had to ask them to move so I could get in the building.”

“Hold on, you’re saying SMASH is shooting on my block?”

Tiny deliberate pause. “Yes.”

“And Megan Hilty is there?”

“I believe that’s what I said.”

Dammit. How and why was Megan Hilty 25 blocks north of her dressing room? Who was shooting on Fifth Avenue? My mind was churning. Eric continued.

“I welcomed them to the neighborhood and told them we were happy to have them shooting here. Mentioned they were both terrific in the show, but I didn’t want to bug them while they were working. So I said goodnight and stepped inside.” Classy guy.

“What’d they say?,” I prompted.

“Oh, you know – thank you. They were very gracious and seemed pleased by the compliment. It was kinda’ fun to see them just sitting there on Kathy’s front stoop.”

I quickly flipped the possibilities, but knew I could never make it home in time. Of course, ultimately it wasn’t necessary because the pattern was now clear. The universe had finally revealed my truth: the SMASH crew was my new neighbor. My television BFF. At work, at home. I’d be seeing them again. And next time, by God, I’d be ready.

EPILOGUE

Well, since Season Two filming completed without me and the news of the likely cancellation of the series, it looks like I’m back to my LAW & ORDER reality. Always the bridesmaid. Never the bride. Perhaps I should try a new wedding planner. I’m open for recommendations…

Mr. Smith Goes to High School


I’ve been a theatre afficianado since I can remember. And like every little girl whose dreams of theatrical success were filtered through Busby Berkley turntables and tap shoes, of course I wanted to be the STAR.

It started early. I logged more hours in front of our little black and white portable than the rest of my family put together. My creative guardian was my Dad, frequently heard pronouncing he could have been the next Fred Astaire. The man could dance. When I was five, he taught me how to jitterbug to Lester Lanin records. It was HIGH SOCIETY right there in our living room as the orchestra thrummed You’re Sensational. No Crosby or Sinatra for this Grace Kelly, my practice partner was the kitchen doorframe. But the biggest deal, the most exciting experience was the afternoon he came home from work and announced (duh-duh-DUH). . .

“I’m going to be in a show!”

I stopped breathing. Seems his boss, Mr. Wright, had a wife, Mrs. Wright, who was to star in this community theatre production. And they’d asked my Dad to be in it! Of course, now I understand this was predicated on that basic truth of amateur theatre, grab every available man then lock the theatre doors. But at the time, I thought we’d won the let’s put on a show lottery. There was Judy and there was Mickey and now — there was my Dad!

This extravaganza was entitled THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS (I know, so bad it’s good!) and I attended every rehearsal. By week two I knew all the dances, each piece of music and everyone’s lines. I have three distinct memories of this production: my father sang Stouthearted Men as part of a cowboy quartet; Mrs. Wright — looking exactly like Gypsy Rose Lee — sang Let Me Entertain You to a hand mirror while wearing a black corset and fishnets and I nearly plotzed when I observed Mr. Wright devouring a McDonald’s hamburger before curtain on opening night — a Friday. I thought the hand of God was about to come down and slam the box office shut. As I pointed, my Mother quickly mumbled something about different rules and made a “don’t you embarrass me” flap of the hand.  I snuck a Sign of the Cross and went back to my peanut butter sandwich.

Well, my father was a success. A year later, the next show was called CIRCUS DAZE (cross my heart) and this time I had a part. Well, two parts, actually because the savvy director double-cast nearly every role. My Dad played a magician (we got to foster the little white mouse who was his prop) and a trapeze artist. I was cast in the pivotal roles of “circus guest” and (wait for it) tightrope walker!

It was deep into the evening when it came time for the circus grand parade. We entered from the back of the house, down the center aisle. I greeted the crowd from high atop my Daddy’s shoulders, in a get up I remember to this day: Peter Pan green tights and my Mother’s sleeveless black velvet evening top trimmed in rhinestone. This fell below my hips and was belted with patent leather to keep it on my 6-year-old frame. With arms thrown wide to the crowd, you could have mistaken me for Degas’ “Dancer with a Bouquet of Flowers.” As an onstage experience, it set the bar pretty high.

By the time I got to high school I’d sung Buttons and Bows at a Ladies Sodality Luncheon, choreographed several seasons of summertime shows (the concrete floor in the basement was perfect for tap dancing in my Mother’s old high heels) and played the Queen in Sleeping Beauty. I was jonesing for top billing. What I got was a series of support roles. Okay, occasionally I was up for the lead, but my natural jack-of-all-trades abilities usually kept me smack in the middle of character land. Any baseball coach worth their salt knows you never waste a good utility player.

When Nancy Roux contracted mono during rehearsals for THE ROAR OF THE GREASEPAINT… I was plucked from the chorus to be the ingenue stand-in. My heart swelled with excitement but, sadly, it was not be my Peggy Sawyer moment. It didn’t seem to matter that I sang and danced the role of “The Girl” to perfection (much better than Nancy, everyone agreed.) Nancy, she of the sparkling blue eyes and long blonde hair could have stepped right out of the Grimm Brothers fairy tale and she recovered just in the nick of time. [Ed. Note: See “Sleeping Beauty”.] So, high deedle-de-dee, the urchin gang for me…

Well ito my first year of high school, I became frustrated that my TV-honed talents were so clearly being overlooked. So one evening, I decided to confront my drama teacher (and de facto director/producer of everything), Mr. Smith and get things straight, once and for all. 

Allow me to set the scene: Immaculata High School — an all girls Catholic institution of some size. Christopher Smith — twenty-three and fresh out of the University of Chicago in his teaching debut. Mr. Smith taught English and Drama and we all adored him. He had a dark, neatly trimmed beard, wore corduroy jackets with suede elbow patches and spoke to us like adults. There may even have been a pipe, it was all very young James Mason.

One day in drama class (that is what we called it) he addressed the room to ask had anyone read “Ghosts?” My hand shot up. It was the only one, so he turned to me and said (tres, tres entre-nous), “Of course, you agree it’s a treatise on morality using syphilis as a thematic instrument, right?” I knew immediately I was screwed. Later I realized he meant the Strindberg play. Howeve, my “Ghosts” was a completely unrelated historical pulp fiction novel I’d devoured the week before. (Although, in my defense, it did have a very serious looking cover.) Self preservation kicked in. I was not about to lose this moment of personal connection with Chris Smith, heart-throb to the theatre community at large. “Oh, yes,” I nodded, “absolutely.”  The end. [Ed. Note: That was the day I learned about Strindberg, venereal disease and when acting like I know what I’m talking about, keep it short. Who says theatre doesn’t educate.]

By his second year at Immaculata, Mr. Smith had a veritable harem of female fans, of which I was one. We were all totally in love with him, blindly passionate as only a group of naive Catholic girls of a certain age and era could be for a clearly gay man. When he first arrived at the school, Mr. Smith resurrected the drama department with an energy and enthusiasm that was contagious. My freshman year saw an impeccable production of BLITHE SPIRIT, complete with staircases, gramophones and a flying Elvira. Even though Barb Ashooh did fall from the Foy Flying Harness and break her leg on opening night, we reopened two weeks later with Elvira in a walking cast playing to a sold-out house. Now, that’s show biz!  

We did Anoulih and Shakespeare, conducted a formal ceremony to initiate our own International Thespian Society (Troupe 1055 – see above.) We took bus trips to Boston and New York to see live Broadway musicals. We’d return to class sounding like so many Gene Kellys — “Gotta’ dance, gotta’ dance!” So we did. We staged the prologue from WEST SIDE STORY (that bit with all the whistling and finger snapping) and the Harmonia Gardens scene from HELLO, DOLLY (because we just happened to have a grand staircase lying around) and we loved every bruising minute. Our costumed bodies slid across the floor and descended the stairs — and all this during regular school hours. I do admit I had a leg up here. I could sing. I could dance. And I could steal choreography off the stage or screen like nobody’s business. But I still hadn’t managed to capture that elusive spot light…

INTERIOR.  IMMACULATA HIGH SCHOOL.  NIGHT.

We’d just wrapped our final performance of THEATRE OF THE SOUL by Nikolai Nikolaevich Evreinov, a 1915 monodrama in one-act translated from the Russian. This was full-on theatre of the absurd,  involving endless black drapes, jazz hands and multiple tubes of Ben Nye clown white. (I know, you’re sorry you missed it…) Frustrated by my role — silent in silhouette behind a scrim — I took a deep breath and decided this was the night. I would approach Mr. Smith.

In the darkened hallway outside his classroom, Room 165, my heart was pounding like a drum. Framed in the doorway and backlit by the streetlights below, he looked positively Humphrey Bogart on the runway in Casablanca. I took a breath,  “Excuse me, Mr. Smith?” “Yes?” he smiled and leaned in. Pregnant pause. Finally, “Ummm (polite cough), why don’t I ever get cast in the lead?”

Maybe I surprised him. Perhaps he found my blatant self-promotion unseemly for a Catholic school hallway. Whatever the reason, for the first time in our acquaintance his face darkened. He drew himself up to his full 5’9″ height, glared across the inch between us and said,

As the great Constantin Stanislavsky has said,
“Remember, there are no small parts, only small actors.”

With a jut of his bearded chin, he huffed away. It was a frustrating answer and not the one I’d hoped for. In time I realized Mr. Smith had an impossible task, distributing role after role to his hungry Catholic constituency while trying to maintain a semblance of fairness. As time went on, I also realized that a couple of the girls who had seemed to be his favorites — Sue and Carole — were just more natural Graces to Mr. Smith’s Will.

Luckily, he did not hold a grudge. That summer, Chris Smith realized what I believe was one of his life’s dreams and also fulfilled one of mine. He mounted a production of WEST SIDE STORY. It was my first taste of summer stock and still dazzles my memory. Chris was both producer, designer and star. In truth, his performance as “Tony” was neither the best acted nor the most musical, but it was certainly heartfelt. And he called in every favor and connection he had to get this show up. He secured the Practical Arts Auditorium — a beautiful 1,500 seat theatre; assembled a conductor and orchestra for the recessed pit; and rented the actual road company sets.

Although the rest of the cast were locals, he jobbed in a “Maria.” Noel Fratterigo was a soprano from the New England Conservatory of Music. She truly could not act but she sang the shit out of those high notes, which went a long way when you got to the Quintet. But my favorite move — in tribute to the legend of Jerome Robbins choreography, Mr. Smith had hired four dancers from the Boston Ballet. Our very own ringers — Chita Rivera and George Chakiris would have been proud.

So of course I was cast as a Puerto Rican. My Irish Catholic Consuelo looked perfectly natural next to Maddy Williams Episcopalian Rosalia. Strictly a musical decision, vocal coach Marty Battista declared. She needed us in I Feel Pretty since we were the only two girls classically trained Maria wouldn’t sing right off the stage. Fine with me!

And guess what? Remember that crazy habit of mine, stealing choreography? It came in quite handy on this production. [Ed. Note: Please remember this was way before DVRs or DVDs or even VCRs. WSS was truly event television, broadcast once a year. And I’d seen it every time.] As an unbelievable cast-building exercise, Mr. Smith announced he’d rented the entire downtown movie theatre for the evening and was hosting a private screening for the cast. It was the fanciest thing that had yet happened to most of us.

So of course, the next day at rehearsal I taught everyone the choreography for America and that lovely cha-cha sequence in the gym (you know, when Tony and Maria meet cute and dreamy-like.) Why, yes — the production did have a choreographer, a Miss Evelyn Howard. Her bio mentioned she’d entertained the troops in USO and Red Cross shows, and my guess was WW II. We’d been rehearsing for weeks and she was still blocking the prologue. I was impatient. I decided she was too old and slow, so I took it upon myself to fill in the gaps. Yes, she did notice. But instead of whacking me with her ballet stick, she offered me a scholarship to her dance studio. I dismissed her. (Oh, the ignorance of the young.) I still regret that decision. At the time I was convinced she had nothing to teach me. A few years later when I started to study dance seriously, I realized I’d missed the boat. Had I accepted her offer at age 15, I may have had a fighting chance at developing genuine technique. By 20, it was too late. Hubris, we have a problem…

Mr. Smith did not return to school the next year, no word as to why. I realize in writing this that I never really got to thank him. Not for paying me the compliment of assuming my fluency in Strindberg at age 13. Not for insisting we see the original production of FOLLIES during it’s pre-Broadway run in Boston when Yvonne DeCarlo was still singing Can That Boy Foxtrot before it was replaced by I’m Still Here. And certainly not for tossing a bucket of cold Stanislavksy in my face during the hour of my discontent.

If I could, I would thank him for the passion. The passion he instilled in me for the craft and the business of theatre. He taught us to build actual flats. He introduced us to costume plots and spirit gum. He explained all about Actors Equity and IASTE and Local 1. I’d thank him for the passion he bestowed with equal measure on the dramatic, the scholastic and the musical aspects of theatre. And I’d certainly thank him for the endless hours and I can’t imagine how many personal dollars it took to mount that fabled production.

But most of all I’d thank him for the passion he stirred in the hearts of that group of incredibly lucky girls. In the moment, we all thought we were in love with him and in a very special way, we were. Because Mr. Smith was the magic that is theatre.

I Fired Aaron Sorkin

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Technically, true. I did fire Aaron Sorkin.

It was sometime in the mid- to late-80s and we were both working for a concession company, bartending in Broadway theatres. We were far from friends, but certainly acquaintances. I distinctly remember one night, working the Jackie Mason show at the Brooks Atkinson with Aaron because as soon as the show started, he handed me a script to read. It was his first play — a one-act called “Hidden in This Picture.”

The Brooks Atkinson is an old, small theatre — no cushy lobbys like some of the other houses. You work out in the open with the audience and must remain quiet throughout the performance. So as the show got under way I sat down on one of the theatre’s “antique” settees and quietly began reading Aaron’s script. It wasn’t long before I was beating my hand on the cushion in an effort not to laugh out loud. To this day, I have never experienced anything as funny as the moment when the cows appear on the hill in “Hidden in This Picture.” I don’t want to ruin it for you so I won’t explain how he managed to write cows into a stage play and make them funny, but trust me — he did. Soon there were tears running down my cheeks as I continued to choke down the laughter. I wasn’t wholely succesful and a few audience members turned around to give me the stink eye. Thankfully, Jackie Mason didn’t notice.

A while later I was working with Aaron again, this time managing the bar at the former Alvin Theatre — newly renamed in honor of playwright Neil Simon. Matthew Broderick was reprising his role as Eugene Morris Jerome, the somewhat autobiographical stand-in for the playwright himself. This go round featured BILOXI BLUES, the middle child in the Simon Trilogy. Earlier at this same house, I’d worked the run of the trio’s first-born, BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS. The baby of the family, BROADWAY BOUND, came along soon after.

Bartending on Broadway was a nifty little gig. Not a whole lot of money, but then it didn’t require a whole lot of time. You showed up 90 minutes before curtain, set up the bar and leisurely served drinks before the show (in industry parlance, the “walk-in”.) There was that 15 minutes of human chaos known as intermission, but it wasn’t long before you got to break it all down and say good night. What made this gig different, the delicious cherry on this bartending sundae was you got to watch Broadway actors in Broadway shows—for free!

As this was a cash business, a representative from the concession company made the rounds every night, you know, giving everything the once over: Was your bar set up properly? Are you wearing the correct uniform? Are you keeping your hands out of the till?

Now I was a good manager from the standpoint that I was honest, hardworking and responsible (not to mention incredibly quick, regularly serving 75 people overpriced drinks in the span of 15 minutes.) That, cashing out for the night and inventory was usually all that was required. But one week, Ida (from the office) stopped at my bar after the walk-in. She leaned on one elbow, sucked hard on her cigarette (this was the 80s, remember) and with all the gravity of Edward G. Robinson in LITTLE CAESAR, pronounced,

“Aaron’s not wearing his tie.”

I smiled pleasantly, but when she blew a steady stream of smoke past my ear, I realized she was expecting more of a response.  “Oh, okay.”  She still didn’t move.  “I’ll speak to him?” She nodded silently and was gone.

Now, at this point in my life I could barely confront myself, forget about anyone else. If you’d asked me, “Hey, what do you do?” I would have replied “waitress” or “bartender” despite the years of music and theatre training. Sure, in my heart of hearts I thought of myself as an actress but I wasn’t going to tell anybody about it. That would be forward. That would be gauche. I would wait silently until somebody else told me I had earned my chance at the spotlight…Cue John Houseman, my mother and the Catholic Church. So the thought of disciplining anyone, let alone someone daring and creative enough to write one of the funniest plays I’d ever read, presented a definite challenge.

Aaron Sorkin, on the other hand, did not appear hampered by similar self-doubts. That evening after the show started, when he walked down to the lower lobby to relax until intermission, I took a deep breath and quickly said,

“Aaron, you’re not wearing your tie.”

He barely looked in my direction as he settled onto the sofa with his newspaper. Slightly uncomfortable pause. Well, it was uncomfortable for me.

“Aaron, excuse me, but you need to put on your tie.”

“I don’t have a tie.” He didn’t even look up.

Had he done so he might have seen me smile — not a happy smile, more a facial tick to cover my panic and confusion over what to do next. Crap, you’re the manager. This is part of your job. You need to—

 “Aaron, Ida said you have to wear your tie.”

So there.

There was an almost imperceptible pause. “Well, Dee,” he said casually, “I don’t have a tie.” He turned the page of his newspaper and continued to read.

Bob — the understudy for the role of Eugene Morris Jerome’s Dad, who sat with us in the lower lobby every night until intermission on the off-chance the actor he was covering would sprain an ankle, choke on prop cornflakes or mistakenly walk off the front of the stage — watched me out of the corner of his eye. Seconds seemed like hours. “Well, Aaron,” I finally replied, somewhere between a whisper and a choke, “I guess you’ll just have to go home and get one.” Bang. Zoom. To the moon, Alice!!!

“If I go home, Dee, I might not come back.” He lazily turned another page. [Ed. Note: Aaron lived a 3 minute walk from the theatre. This stand-off was purely academic and may have served as an influence for the tone of THE WEST WING, specifically any scene involving President Bartlet.]

Bob’s eyes clocked back to me like he was watching the final volley at Wimbledon.

“Well. Aaron…If you’re not wearing your tie you — I guess you don’t — I mean, maybe you shouldn’t come back.”

Okay, not exactly an ace. But as passive aggressive shots go, it at least cleared the net.

So Aaron Sorkin slowly folded his paper, tucked it under his left arm and left the theatre, sans neckwear. And he did not return. As I envisioned his chastened journey home, chest emblazoned with a scarlet “A” for arrogant, I scurried to the payphone (again, this was the 80s) to report in to Ida. I was nothing if not the dutiful schlub. So they sent me a replacement bartender and that was that.

A few months later, ME AND MY GIRL opened at the brand new Marriott Marquis Theatre. My good friend, Eric Johnson (yes, dear readers, that Eric) was in the original Broadway cast. (Check him out as the Pearly King with Robert Lindsay and cast at the 1986 Tony Awards. He’s the guy with all the shiny buttons and spoons.) As I was invited to attend the opening night, I walked into the theatre feeling like a million bucks. And who should I see blithely managing the bar in this brand new palace of pleasure, a gig that turned out to be the golden calf of Broadway bartending, raking in unprecedented tip money as a monster Tony-winning musical hit? You guessed it, Aaron Sorkin. Big as life, not a shred of shame or embarrassment at his previous comeuppance, but this time — I noted — wearing a tie. I side-stepped to another bar and ordered a stiff drink.

It took me years — and a few more Aarons — to process the complexity of the life truth it’s as simple as doing what you want. No, I mean actually doing it. After his success, when someone learned that I’d crossed paths with him, their inevitable “What’s he really like” was met with, “He’s an asshole.” After a while I was amending it to, “He’s an asshole — but that’s why he is where he is today.” And I mean that as a compliment.

I have always been his fan, for a while albeit a reluctant one. But now I understand that despite how he appeared to me, and despite the fact that he has been so incredibly successful doing what he loves, he probably has as many insecurities as the rest of us. He just didn’t use them to plan his TripTik.

So should I happen to run into Aaron on the street again someday, and should he happen to inquire, “Dee, how are you? What have you been doing?” I’d reply without hesitation, “I’m great. Still an actor. And now a writer, too — a little like you.”

However whether he’s wearing one or not, don’t think I’ll mention the tie.