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The Hills Are Alive

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Sunday, October 09, 2005

There was a time when statistically the highest percentage of Alcoholism in theatre people were/was the people who work in the Box Office. I have no idea if that is still true, but it was the case back in '08 when I worked in the Box Office during my 3rd summer at The Sea Cliff Summer Theatre, (I had been an apprentice there for two summer's and was so hooked I came back for a third torturous summer, working in the Box Office...yes, I was in three plays as an actress, too, but basically, my whole summer was spent serving the public in that tiny little hot room with a tiny little window, called 'The Box Office'. We answered phones taking reservations, etc., and helped people at the tiny little window when they came to buy tickets, in person.) This was one of God knows how many Summer Theatre's that existed and flourished, at that time...a great many were in existance then....remember it was a very different time and one of the staples of possible work for actors and 'Stars' was, The Summer Theatre. This really dates me, but screw it, I don't give a shit, I lived it so, as they say, I own it...so why not claim it. There were at that time what they called 'Summer Packages'. These were Plays or Musicals that were put together for a star or often by that 'star', which toured the 12 or 15 Top Summer Theatre's along the East Coast, or sometimes including as far West as Ohio and Michigan! You know Westport, (before Joanne Woodward),Ogonquit (?) there were more but I have forgotten the names now), and Sea Cliff was one of those theatre's. These 'packages, usually included, The Star, possibly his or her leading woman or leading man, the Director, the Advanced Director; all the other actors would be part of each resident company, or were 'jobbed in' at each theatre, just for that particular show. And if it was a Musical, there would be two(2) Pianists who played the whole show...no other musicians, except in rare exceptions--and I tell you that those two pianiasts, whoever they were, would play the hell out of a score....those 'Musical Arrangements' were an "ART" unto themselves! That third summer at Sea Cliff the Producers, Louis McMillan & Tom Ratcliffe decided they wanted to do a revival of "Cabin In The Sky", which was not a package, but originated and was done only at Sea Cliff.....the two piano's were played by, Luther Henderson, the best arranger in the business, at that time, who also did the musical arrangements for 'Cabin'; he had worked with Lena Horne among others, and the second piano was played by Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington's arranger/song-writing collaborator--"Lush Life", "I Want Something To Live For", one of the greatest siongs ever written....it was THRILLING, I tell you, utterly thrilling with those two genlemen at the piano's....they were like a whole orchestra; the arrangements were gorgeous beyond words...and the week of "Cabin" was memorable in every way. Generally, the way these things worked, was this: The whole summer was set up in weekly periods of time, and it was advertised and sold that way to the Season Subscriber's and, to any and all other audience people that might be interested. The entire summer was usually booked and set, by no later than April, with the first show opening sometime in June. Show 'A' opened on a Tuesday night...played through Sunday night with two matinees, closed Sunday night; the sets were pulled down...('struck' in theatre talk) that night, the stage was painted or whatever was needed to load in the new sets for show 'B' that followed, which were pretty much built and painted during the days of the week prior to the opening of that particular play, while the first show was playing at 8:30pm every night.( The apprentices were basically slaves. It was quite an honor to say you were 'apprenticing at Sea Cliff, this summer', or at Wesport, etc. Everyone happy and proud to be a slave!! (What we do for love, huh??? ....the Sunday night through Tuesday at 8:30pm...well really till the curtain came down on Tuesday night, was a particularly brutal period of time. Sometimes you didn't get any sleep at all, if there were 'special' problems.....the Advanced Director for play 'B', the following week's show had been there all the week before, overseeing the designing and building of the sets; this system was a well oiled machine by the time I became an apprentice that first summer at Sea Cliff. Of course there were variables; when the 'Star' or 'Stars' arrived on Monday for the run through and 'Dress Rehearsal' that Monday night before opening, there might be something about the set or the furniture that was not to their liking, or perhaps the lighting was not quite right, or in some cases, extra 'Baby Pink Spots' were added by the particular 'Star' so that they looked younger and more vibrant. If there were things wrong, they had to be corrected before showtime on Tuesday night, even if it meant staying up all night and working all day till 'Curtain', which happened more often than not! And that went on, week after week, ALL summer long; no breaks; no real time to recover, because right after the opening Tuesday night, early Wednesday A.M. we began working on the sets for play 'C'.! And so it went. And during the day, if you had been cast in next week's show, you got to rehearse all week, without the principals, I might add, and then the first time the entire cast would be together was on the Monday afternoon runthrough. (How the hell did everyone do this??? Not too well, most of the time, but, there were rare execeptions. And if a play originated at your theatre, which Sea Cliff did quite a bit, I'm happy to say, then, the entire cast was there, rehearsing all week, together...much much better result!
That first summer at Sea Cliff, we had a series of very interesting 'names', in mostly mediocre plays, (but not all mediocre). Most of these plays were chosen not just because each would show off the particular 'Star', but also they could be done more easily with this very difficult summer schedule, because Sunday night, after closing at Sea Cliff, the Star and his or her cast moved right on to the next theatre, arriving wherever, by noon on Monday, to begin this grind all over again.The 'Stars' were people like, Veronica Lake, Olivia De Haviland, Betsy Von Furstenberg, Art Smith & Kim Hunter, (a lot of women!!!) Joan Blondell, Lillian Gish, and the apprentices favorite that first summer, (NOT!) Miriam Hopkins, who upon arriving at the Theatre and walking through the play Monday afternoon, complained about almost everything! So furniture had to be recovered, yes...completely recovered!!!---the set had to be repainted---a Window had to be completely re-built----ALL before 8:30 on Tuesday night, and this, added to the fact that we had built a room 'upstairs' where Miss Hopkins could do her quick changes, which had to be lined with cloth so that none of her dresses would snag on any splintering wood......she did not endear herself to all of us, I can tell you, plus it was the Eleventh Week!!!! We were very very tired, to say the least. And on top of all that, we all worked the shows at night, too, in some capacity or other....I remember on that Miriam Hopkins play, I was working props, and I was so tired on that first Tuesday Opening, I lay on the filthy disgusting floor just off-stage, not caring about how dirty or hard the floor was, and fell asleep during the scenes and what would woke me was the curtain coming down and I'd scramble around changing props and then lay back down and fall asleep again, as the next scene began. What a great great time it was.
The true heroine of that summer, besides Eva Gabor, (I'll get to that later), was Lillian Gish. She was the easiest, best person to work with and her kindness and generosity to the whole company was legendary that summer. She left $30 for the apprentices. I know that sounds like nothing! But, it was a huge amount at the time, and with all of us feeling so much like used meat anyway, you know? I mean, the summer cost apprentices---room and board were your own responsability....we were not paid one thin dime, and in fact, at some Summer Theatre's the Apprentices were required to pay for the privelage of working 23 hours a day!!! So, Sea Cliff wasn't that bad. But conditions were pretty horrendous; most all these theatre's were very very old and run down; plumbing problems; roofing problems; no air-conditioning; dirt & dust problems; And we all LOVED every minute of it!!!
So $30. was like a fortune to all of us and the point being Miss Gish did not have to do anything! But she did. And after Miss Miriam Hopkins closed, we had a HUGE party, (yes, for $30!), and we finished our summer as apprentices with a bash to end all bashes! Ahhh to be young! But, the reason I started on this loooooong story was, Alcohol. Remember back that far? That third summer, working in the Box Office, one if the 'Original Productions' these terrific Producer's decided on was Ethel Waters in her 'One Wonan' show. Miss Waters had given the ten or so theatre's she committed to play that summer a choice of what they might have her do; either her One Woman Show, or "Member Of The Wedding". Well, Louis McM. & Tom R. wanted Miss Waters to do her One Woman Show, and Sea Cliff was the only theatre out of all ten or so that wanted her to do this show and not "Member". Miss Waters was etenally grateful because this was an evening that was very dear to her heart, and it turned out to be the pre-Broadway-tryout for the fall season in N.Y.....and the fact that Sea Cliff was the only Theatre that wanted this very special show, made her love these men and this theatre, and that included everyone----apprentices, staff, designers, etc. The only other cast member was Miss Waters accompanist, Regginald Bean. a brilliantly talented pianist, this Reggie; their musical communication was something to behold. His understanding of her and her talent; her utter confidence in his 'backing her up' excaly as she needed, was something to behold. She had been rehearsing this show for her long while, like her whole lifetime, you know, so truthfully, on the Monday Afternoon 'runthrough', she could have gone 'cue to cue to cue'....and not sung any song all the way through, except for songs where there were special light cues that were important within the song, but, because all of us who worked there were sitting all around the theatre listening and watching, she sang a great many of the songs all the way through. It was a stunning experience. Her signiture song, "His Eye Is On The Sparrow" was the closing number.....we were all bowled over. She was really something, this Ethel Waters person....all the pain of her life; all the struggles of her history; years of racism etched in her soul...all this was in every moment of her fantasic performance...."Suppertime", another signiture song; Lord, so moving, this is when you understood fully, that singing is acting in this finite and most difficult format; a song is like a little play; this song, "Suppertime", the story of a woman whose husband has gone out and has been lynched, is like Greek tragedy right here in your own yard. To say we were all in awe of her doesn't really describe what we all felt. I don't remember how old she was at that time, but not young, you know? She didn't have to sing ANY of these songs....she could do them in her sleep! But, she did them and sang the hell out of them! And it was, for us. Excited? We were all ecstatic at the privelage of being able to see her 'perform' for the next entire week; 8 performances, (Fabulous!!!!) well, nine really, because she would do a 'dress', that night. I was so excited I was beside myself with the awesome oportunity to witness this great great Artist for the coming week. I had always been very big on recording stuff at home, from the moment that reel to reel tape recorders were available to the general public....I talked to Louis & George, (his partner and our Stage Manager) about somehow getting my Wollensack Tape Recorder to the Theatre and like, wasn't there some way we could record this 'once-in-a-lifetime- theatre' experiemce? They got excited about the idea, but knew it was illegal to do this, but....but.... needless to say, we decided to try to do this, anyway, and not tell anyone and hide the recorder in such a way that no one would know, but us, and hide the micraphone, (and paranthetically, no one was miked in those days...not the performers or the orchestra's...it WAS better, folks, believe me!) and I would run the thing from my perch high up above the stage floor on 'stage left'. I don't think I ever had been as excited about anything, as I was about the prospect of having this incredible artist's performance captured forever on tape; recorded on my very own recording device, (WOW!) to listen to any bloody time I wanted! The night we chose to record just happened to be July 4th; we did not forsee that there would be fireworks down on the shore there in Sea Cliff, but there were a lot of booming and after-noise sounds from the fireworks....it was pretty extrordinary on "Suppertime" because it sounded like a war and that this wife-woman was singing during a bombing, so it worked in a funny kind of way, but it didn't work for the rest of the show. So, what was going to be only one night of secret recording, (OY), turned into two. The second night was sublime! Perfect. We now had this precious rare tape that no one would ever be able to hear, because we weren't supposed to be doing this recording thing, in the first place!

I just took a little break to cook and eat my lunch and I realize I still gaven't gotten to the 'alcohol' part! Well, I see what is happening; one thought leads to another and then and another and then I get involved with 'explaining' that stuff, etc. I promise I will get back to that part of this story that I began with, plus, I don't want to forget to talk about Helen Twelvetrees...! Look her up if you don't know who she is! So here it is, up to now; mistakes included! Later....

2 Comments:

Anonymous Kendall said...

This post was incredible -- That first sentence has got to be the first sentence of a book one day. I would buy any book that began with that sentence!!! It is such a true privilege to get to read these stories, it's all so alive, I just love it. By the way, I just read a great Miriam Hopkins' story in Bennett Cerf's autobiography. Miriam Hopkins was a great Gertrude Stein fan and when she came to America for a speaking tour, Miriam Hopkins would do anything for her and so Gertrude Stein would send her out on all her errands because it so amused her to have a movie star picking up her cleaning! So Gertrude got a little back fot the apprentices! In great anticipation of the next post... Kendall

9:47 PM  
Blogger OldLady Of The Hills said...

Hey Kendall..thanks for the comment! So happy you liked the post..LOVE that old Miriam was picking up cleaning for Gertrude Stein...It's funny about Miss Hopkins--I remember that the entire week before she showed up that whenever the Advance Director was asked things like, 'Is this color okay?' He said..'It's Fine'. He said 'It's Fine' to everything he was asked about and THAT had never happened before in all the previous weeks of the summer...well, we soon found out why he was completely vague about everything, didn't we?...He knew that Miss Hopkins would want EVERYTNING changed, no matter what color it was!!! But, she was a very wonderful actress, wasn't she?

10:05 PM  

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