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Why theatre is my most enduring love
Welcome to our latest Theatre Lovers essay. In honor of theatres slowly reopening, TDF member Judith recalls highlights from her seven decades of seeing Broadway shows. If you'd like to submit your story for consideration, email TDF Stages.
I was 8 when Ray Bolger came out on stage and stole the show in Frank Loesser's musical Where's Charley? I remember how caught up the audience was and how we sang along to "Once in Love with Amy." Larger than life, Bolger improvised to his heart's content, so that number could last anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes, depending on his mood. Sandwiched between my parents, I was convinced that Bolger and I made eye contact. It was my first Broadway show and, though I didn't realize it at the time, that was the day I lost my heart to the theatre forever.
I was fortunate to belong to a family that shared the same passion, and we regularly attended shows. Such excursions were celebratory events. Back then, we would no sooner enter a theatre in casual clothes than board a plane in jeans and sneakers. A week before attending a Broadway performance, I would plan my wardrobe: a frilly and festive dress for musicals like My Fair Lady, Oklahoma! and Guys and Dolls; and a little black dress for plays like All My Sons, Inherit the Wind and The Member of the Wedding featuring a 24-year-old Julie Harris playing a 12-year-old tomboy.
I always brought my autograph book and waited by the stage door afterward with excitement. For a while, I envisioned becoming a performer myself. On our way home, I would pretend to be a Broadway Baby, adored by all who had the pleasure of seeing me act. This fantasy of fame was short-lived. Monday I was back to my usual routine of homework assignments and straightening up my room.
Throughout my childhood, we attended Broadway shows at least three times a month. The theatres were our weekend stomping grounds, and each one possessed its own mystique. The Martin Beck (now the Al Hirschfeld), the Booth, the Brooks Atkinson, the Majestic, the Lunt-Fontanne, the Ziegfeld (now gone), the Morosco (also gone), the Belasco and the Shubert were just some of the landmarks that captivated me. I imagined playing everyone's leading lady and earning standing ovations. I practiced my bows in front of my bedroom mirror and even perfected my curtsy.
In summer, the air of Times Square was pungent and thick, suffuse with myriad aromas from neighborhood restaurants. Exhaust fumes emanated from cars and buses and cigarette smoke curled around us. In winter, chestnuts popped open on beds of hot coals, and dank, musty odors emerged from manholes.
I would grasp my parents' hands as we walked toward our theatre. I vibrated with anticipation as we floated down the aisle, Playbills in tow, led by an usherette in a black dress and white apron. Settling ourselves in our plush velvet seats, we surveyed the ceiling of bas-relief cherubs looking down on us. The orchestra warmed up as people hustled to remove their coats and we geared up for that pivotal moment when the lights dimmed and the curtain went up. Post-performance, we ended the night with hot chocolate at Rumpelmayer's or sandwiches at Reuben's. The cheesecake at Lindy's was another après-theatre delight.
I fell in love hundreds of times over, first with Ray Bolger, then with Yul Brynner as the monarch in The King and I. Next was Rex Harrison as he whipped Eliza Doolittle into shape, followed by Robert Preston leading the marching band in The Music Man. I later saw summer stock revivals of those musicals, with new actors offering their own interpretations, but who could compare with those originals? On Broadway, I saw Death of a Salesman's Willy Loman portrayed by Gene Lockhart, George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman, Brian Dennehy and Philip Seymour Hoffman, all of whom gave masterful performances. My daughter and I stood at the stage door in the rain for 30 minutes to greet Mr. Dennehy, who apologized profusely for keeping us waiting so long to sign our Playbills.
Growing up, I got to see the great ladies of the stage, each with her own unique charisma and charm: Helen Hayes, Beatrice Lillie, Judy Holliday, Kim Stanley, Gwen Verdon, Celeste Holm, Ethel Merman, Carol Channing and Ruth Gordon. I watched theatre giants such Joseph Schildkraut, Zero Mostel, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ralph Richardson, Arthur Kennedy and the three Pauls: Muni, Ford and Scofield, all of whom inspired an unforgettable trail of memories long after their respective shows closed.
Today, I continue to embrace the theatre just as I did as a young girl, back when marquees lit up the town, women's fur coats smelled of French perfume and going to a show was my favorite adventure. The days of white cotton gloves and stylish hats are no more. Sardi's still exists but doesn't have the same allure as when Melvyn Douglas, fresh off the stage from Time Out for Ginger, surveyed the room from his banquette and, locking eyes with my 10-year-old self, gave me the best wink of my life.
These cherished experiences helped pave my way from childhood to adulthood, and my love affair with theatre has never waned. Theatre is always there to soothe my anguished soul, indulge my senses and carry me through. For a few hours, I am transported to another place. Over the decades, Broadway has remained my refuge against some of the harsh realities I've faced. I can't wait to be back in person in a theatre again. All grown up now, I am still a Broadway Baby at heart.
Judith Marks-White is a columnist, novelist and freelance writer. She shares her monthly essays in Connecticut's Westport News.
Top image: a photo of the author, courtesy of Judith Marks-White.