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.”
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.