Theatre Lovers Share Their Neil Simon Memories
By TDF STAGES READERS
Thursday, September 27, 2018  •  
Thu Sep 27, 2018  •  
Broadway  •   2 comments Share This
"Never realized it until now that I quote a Neil Simon line every day of my life."

Twenty-three hilarious and heartfelt stories about the ways the comedy master impacted their lives

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Two weeks ago, we asked our readers to send in remembrances of the late Neil Simon and we were thrilled by the response. We received more than 60 emails (a few with photos!) about how the Pulitzer Prize- and four-time Tony Award-winning playwright touched their lives as theatre lovers and theatre-makers. Some were lucky enough to meet him -- one even got to work with him on Broadway. Others performed his plays in regional venues, at school or just around the family dinner table. And there are also tributes from audience members who adored his work from the comfort of their seats.

The reminiscences are rich and varied, and show how Simon's work crossed cultural and age divides thanks to an insightful mix of punch lines and pathos. In honor of his semi-autobiographical play Laughter on the 23rd Floor, we've compiled 23 of our favorite submissions below. Reading them it's clear that Simon's 30-plus plays will continue to serve as the gateway drug to theatre for generations to come.

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Stories have been lightly edited for style, length and clarity.

ON MEETING NEIL SIMON

Carla Harris and Rob Bartlett in
Carla Harris and Rob Bartlett in 'Barefoot in the Park' in high school

September, 1972, sophomore in high school, I got cast in Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park, significant in that it was my first lead role, and the first time I got to kiss a girl, Carla Harris, who played Corie. Fast forward 30 years and I'm sitting in a room with Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Joe Mantello and Mr. Simon himself, playing Speed on Broadway in The Odd Couple, still the funniest play ever written. Mr. Simon sat in on rehearsals with his yellow legal pad, making notes, tweaking dialogue, even 40 years after the show premiered. Never in my wildest imagination, as an awkward 15 year old, would I ever have thought that I would, one day, have the gift of saying Neil Simon's words in his presence. I made him laugh. It's a moment I will never forget as long as I live. -- Rob Bartlett

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Theresa Robbins Dudeck in
Theresa Robbins Dudeck in 'Biloxi Blues' at the Jewish Community Center in Birmingham in 1988

When I met Neil Simon on the film set of Jake's Women around 1995, through tears of joy I told him how much I loved his work. I was a bit of a mess. But instead of brushing me off as another crazed fan doing extra work, Mr. Simon starting asking me questions about my theatre experience, where I was from, and then he invited me to sit with him over the lunch break. I said no to his offer because I was young and intimidated and did not want to bother him any further. Dale, my husband, was standing next to me and, at one point, as I was trying to bring my emotions under control, said to Mr. Simon, "I don't know who she loves more: me or you." Mr. Simon didn't miss a beat, replying, "Well, you'll find out tonight!" Instantly, I found myself laughing through my tears! That's me in the photo, as Daisy, in Simon's Biloxi Blues at the Jewish Community Center in Birmingham in 1988, alongside Kyle Holman (Eugene) and Beth Polhemus (Rowena). I played Daisy again at the Blue Moon Dinner Theatre a few months later. Thank you, Neil Simon, for the laughter and tears. Looking back now, I wish I had said yes to that lunch invitation. -- Theresa Robbins Dudeck

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I worked for Neil for over a decade at the Ritz Tower. It was a perfect position. He was an unbelievable boss. He was thoughtful and generous and shared conversation. He also lived on Park Avenue where he had a beautiful duplex and a fabulous black piano. Composers would come over and play new songs and share ideas for future projects. I was always on the opening night guest list! I consider myself so fortunate to have had this rare experience and I miss him so much, but he will go on in our lives through his work. -- Gail Rogers

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It was the 1987 Tony Awards, and as co-producer of it for CNN, I waited for the rest of the crew to arrive in the restaurant next to the theatre where Tony recipients went after receiving their awards. It was early, but within a few hours the place filled with cameras. Until then I waited pretty much alone near a bar in the front of the restaurant by a large TV that was broadcasting the event. Another person was there, who if I didn't know better would've sworn was one of my short, bald, funny uncles. We smiled and nodded cordially and quietly sipped our cocktails. The televised ceremony was not nearly as exciting to me as was the parade of talent that I would soon meet. As the lists of names and awards were being announced, "my uncle" insisted upon looking my way for what seemed like some sort of affirmation. I smiled my 'no, thank you' smile, and so together but singly we listened as the names of the nominees were called for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play. He looked my way again to pretty much give me another chance to nod, that funny uncle. I smiled warily. Was now the time for glances, I thought? "And the Tony Award goes to Linda Lavin!" "How wonderful!" I said, and slowly edged toward the crew that had now arrived. Award winners poured in with grace and charm. We interviewed everyone and then headed to the after party, to the studio to edit the piece, and home. It was a wonderful evening, and sharing a moment with the mythical Mary Martin was a highlight. In bed, two days later to be exact, and an hour before I needed to rise, my eyes popped open. I sat up like bolt. I suddenly realized: IT WAS NEIL SIMON! My "uncle" was The Neil Simon. To be sure, I found a picture that indeed confirmed my dread. Mr. Simon wasn't looking at me, but instead giving this idiot a chance to congratulate him. His show and his actress had just won theatre's highest honor. I hope, at least, it gave him a chuckle. -- Bobbie Saltzman

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"I was born in 1954 and basically grew up with Simon's Broadway hits of the 1960s. In 2010, The New Yorker ran an appreciation of Neil Simon by John Lahr that I thought was way overdue. Shortly thereafter, I was at the theatre (I think it was Denzel Washington in Fences) when Neil Simon was among some theatregoers entering my row. As I stood up to let them pass, I said, "Mr. Simon, I thought that was a fine piece in The New Yorker." "Yes, it was!" he answered. Not an earthshaking encounter, perhaps, but I felt the man's star had dimmed unfairly, and he needed to be recognized for his enormous contribution to the theatre. -- Solange DeSantis 

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ON PERFORMING NEIL SIMON

As an immigrant in the U.S. and in New York City, Neil Simon captured for me the essence of the true New York theatre. For me he is the Shakespeare of New York! One of the first roles I did was Uncle Louie from Lost in Yonkers. To play this amazing material was the best acting school. Thank you Neil Simon for grabbing my hand through your plays (I have read most of them!) and showing me what great American theatre is. -- David Serero

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Jonathan Mendez, Elsa Kegelman and Kate Goorland during a rehearsal of
Jonathan Mendez, Elsa Kegelman and Kate Goorland during a rehearsal of 'Rumors' at Salesianum School Theatre in 2014

My fondest high school theatre memories are from rehearsals and performances of Neil Simon's plays. Rumors, in which I played Chris Gorman, was undoubtedly some of the most fun I've ever had onstage -- especially when we were thrown into crisis mode. There was a performance (that lives in infamy amongst those who saw it) when the actor playing Ernie accidentally opened the bag of pretzels upside down, effectively dumping a party-size bag of snacks onto the stage. My friend Kate as Claire started shoving the pretzels under the onstage rug, between couch cushions, down her dress, etc. And when our characters were supposed to be drunk, she and I started feeding them to each other in some of the funniest improv-problem-solving to ever grace that stage. -- Elsa Kegelman

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Bruce Ward and Chloe Leamon in
Bruce Ward and Chloe Leamon in 'Last of the Red Hot Lovers' at Merrimack Repertory Theatre in 1999

In 1998 and 1999, I was fortunate to perform in two back-to-back Neil Simon plays: as Lenny in Rumors at the now-defunct Worcester Foothills Theatre, and as Barney in Last of the Red Hot Lovers at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre. In the third, and final, scene of Red Hot Lovers, Barney asks Jeanette to give him her pocketbook -- 16 times -- each one a bit differently. "Give me that pocketbook, Jeanette!" "Jeanette, put down the pocketbook!" "The pocketbook, Jeanette!" Of course, I was determined to get them all down perfectly. It was a bitch. But that was Simon: all about the Jewish sensibility of rhythmic self-deprecation. I don't think I ever had so hard a time memorizing a script. I remember actually crying at one point. But, as many have mentioned, he knew how to get laughs. He used the word "pocketbook" and not "purse," brandishing the word like a comic dagger. After all, he himself said that, "Words with K in them are funny" -- let alone two Ks in the same word, 16 times. And, boy, it is amazing when you hear the wave of laughter as it overtakes an entire audience. RIP, King of the K. -- Bruce Ward

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My audition piece for NYU Tisch was Nora's monologue about missing her dad in Brighton Beach Memoirs. As a high school girl in Turkey, my research was very limited and I was feeling very lost when I finally found that monologue and instantly fell in love with it. Even after eight years of working in the industry, I am forever grateful to Neil Simon for his words that started my career in New York. -- Derya Celikkol

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I've been a working actor for many years. Neil Simon's characters were and still are in my wheelhouse. Most important to me though is I always saw my dad's world in many of his plays. My dad and Mr. Simon both graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx the same year, 1944, when some of the most brutal fighting in Europe still lay ahead. His and my pop's generation shared tough memories but always had time for a good laugh. Both were veterans -- my dad served on the USS Ranger. Growing up in the '60s and '70s that timeless comedy was around my dinner table. It has always influenced my work as an actor by seeping into who I am. Thanks Mr. Simon for leading such a creative life and being able to share your writing with different generations. -- Steve Greenstein

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I'm 16 years old. Last summer I was in a production of Brighton Beach Memoirs at the French Woods Festival of the Performing Arts and it was truly one of the best experiences of my life. It is such a beautiful piece of theatre and such a fun show to be a part of. I remember our director telling us about how Neil Simon had severe memory loss, but these biographical plays he had written helped him remember his childhood. There is something beautiful about a group of seven teenagers carrying on the legacy of a person who can no longer recall the memories he has recorded. The most wonderful part of all was that being in Brighton Beach Memoirs created a family among our cast. It is a story that is relatable in so many ways to so many people. -- Skylar Sherman

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After working as an opera singer most of my life, but always wanting to be a straight actor, I have had some opportunities to do straight roles. Two out of three of them (so far) were in Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound. I did younger Kate at summer stock 25-plus years ago, and older Kate two years ago. What a wonderful woman to play. But what is most salient to me about Neil Simon is how easy he is to memorize. It all makes sense, has a sensible stream of thought and he writes like we talk. Mr. Simon will live in our theatres for many, many years to come. -- Maggi Heilweil

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I remember a long time ago when I was in my first year at the Neighborhood Playhouse studying to be an actress, I kept getting tragic scenes with very heavy emotional preparations to work on. This was challenging and difficult for me because I am a comedian at heart. I spent most of that first year of training crying, making myself cry, then crying some more. NOT FUN! When I returned for the second year, I was very surprised when my teacher gave me a scene from Barefoot in the Park. He turned to my scene partner and said, "Your preparation is NO," and to me he said, "Your preparation is YES." I loved Neil Simon and was so happy to relax and let my natural instincts meld with my technique. MOST FUN EVER! RIP Neil Simon. -- Margaret Emory

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In 1993 when my son James was 12 years old, he was cast in a local production of Lost in Yonkers as younger brother, Arty. A little more than a year later after a growth spurt, he played older brother, Jay. He had a wonderful experience and I worked backstage as a dresser, assistant stage manager, gofer, ironer of shirts, etc., for both productions. Also in both productions was a very sweet older woman, Alice Schaefer, who played Grandma Kurnitz. It surprised me to hear that she had only recently taken up acting as she was just wonderful. It was hard to believe she played the crusty, hard-hearted old lady who terrorized her two grandsons on stage when she was such a sweetheart in real life! I learned much from my many conversations with Alice and from watching her on stage. Sadly, we lost Alice to cancer not many years after that, but her example gave me the courage to audition and get my first acting gig at 44 years old! Fast forward about 20 years, I had the unbelievable experience of being cast in a production of Lost in Yonkers as Grandma Kurnitz in the very theatre where my son played Arty and where we first met Alice! So thank you, Neil Simon, for your plays that have stood the test of time, and for bringing such a wonderful person like Alice into my life. -- Marie Fiorello

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I am currently appearing as Kate in a production of Broadway Bound in Los Angeles. We heard about Neil Simon's death during our rehearsal process. It has been an honor to bring the Jerome family to life. Each day I am so moved by the courageous honesty he brought to this story. He reveals the inner workings of a family with deep problems. His dialogue rolls off the tongue and his relationships are spot-on. That said, I found an interesting mistake in the writing. In the scene when Kate tells Eugene about the night she danced with George Raft, she says that she would never have had a crush on Raft because he is Italian -- but he was actually German. So, either Neil Simon didn't have the benefit of Wikipedia or Kate was wrong. We will never know. -- Jill Remez

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Maddy Cole in
Maddy Cole in 'Rumors' at Capo Valley High School in 2017

Neil Simon has always been my absolute favorite playwright. His work has affected so many young people -- most kids don't get out of high school without doing at least one Neil Simon. Last year I played Cookie in Rumors at Capo Valley High School in Southern California and ripped my dress in two while flipping over the couch! My Neil Simon dream show is I Ought to Be in Pictures. That play taught me that even in heartbreaking situations, it's okay to look for the comedy in them. We naturally do that as people, and the way he was able to pinpoint that in his work will never cease to amaze me. Neil Simon will always have a special place in all of our hearts and on our stages. -- Maddy Cole

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ON DIRECTING NEIL SIMON

I taught high school English to senior students for 30 years at St. Joseph by-the-Sea H.S. on Staten Island. During that time I directed dozens of non-musical productions, including The Odd Couple, Barefoot in the Park and Brighton Beach Memoirs. I would always tell my student actors emphatically that, "This is a Neil Simon show we are doing, and audiences expect meticulous timing and superior stage presence when they come to see a Neil Simon show!" My students came to understand and respect Mr. Simon's masterpieces. When we produced Brighton Beach Memoirs, I contacted his reps in his West Coast office and he was kind enough to send us an autographed photo of himself, along with a note of best wishes for the success of our production, and permission to duplicate the photo and distribute copies to each of our cast members! My student actors, many of whom were performing in their third Neil Simon production, were thrilled at this kind gesture. -- James Battista

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I was a high school drama teacher in the NYC public school system for 30 years. Richmond Hill High School was a typical NYC school containing students of varying cultures and ethnicities, and our casting was multiethnic. In Simon's play Plaza Suite, the character Mimsey locks herself in the bathroom on her wedding day while her frantic parents try to cajole her to come out and get married. Mimsey was played by a white girl, her mom was played by an Indian girl and her husband by a Hispanic boy. I invited my Jewish mother to come and see a performance. I remember she said that in the first moments she was surprised by the casting, but soon that completely disappeared and all she was aware of was the action going on. Simon's writing had a sparkle and energy that was different from everyone else. His work provided so much joy to me and my students for many years. -- Sande Sherr

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Neil Simon's Fools was the very first play I ever directed when I was hired as a theatre teacher 21 years ago. I was 21 and fresh out of school and wanted something accessible for kids, but also something that would pack the house. Of course, simply having the words "by Neil Simon" guaranteed filling the seats in the small community where I was then working. Fools isn't one of Mr. Simon's most well known, or even most loved plays, but it will always hold a special place in my heart. It was my first show, the kids were amazing to work with and it was a rousing success. People laughed, people said, "awww," and they clapped -- and they did each one at the right times! This year will be my last as the director in the high school where I work. A few years back, I changed jobs and moved from a teacher to an administrator position. Even though I crossed over to the dark side of the desk, I still was lucky enough to direct the school play. Working with the kids kept me grounded. For this year, I had originally chosen a different show by a different writer, but when Mr. Simon died, I wanted to honor his memory. We will be doing Barefoot in the Park. No matter what the play was, you could always guarantee that a Neil Simon show would have a healthy mix of humor and heart. His legacy will live forever as one of the most "real" playwrights of our time. -- Brian Ersalesi

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ON WATCHING NEIL SIMON

Tracey Berg outside the Plaza Hotel
Tracey Berg outside the Plaza Hotel

Scott Wittman [Tony-winning lyricist for Hairspray] and I are old friends and grew up one house away from each other. We did lots of plays together including a production of Plaza Suite at Nanuet High School as we were huge fans of Neil Simon. We even saw Maureen Stapleton and George C. Scott in Plaza Suite on Broadway. I couldn't find a picture of us doing the show together, but I did find some old black-and-white photos of us in the city. Here's me in character as a teenager pointing at the plaque in front of the real Plaza Hotel! -- Tracey Berg

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My favorite memory of Neil Simon was watching my college friends perform Plaza Suite and California Suite in rep. It was inspiring to see my usually quiet, unassuming friends say Neil Simon's words -- they were transformed. They made me laugh and cry. They definitely grew as actors and human beings. It was a special time for all of us. Will miss you Mr. Simon. -- Steven Silverstein

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My Dad passed on August 23, 2012, and this is part of the eulogy I shared about him at his memorial service: "I think the most I ever heard my Dad laugh at one event was when he visited me in New York City in the early 1980s for the day and we went to see a Neil Simon play entitled Brighton Beach Memoirs. Eugene, the lead character, is 15 and wondering aloud if he should be a writer or a pro baseball player. The play is set during the Great Depression and their extended family is struggling to pay their bills. As he considers his plans for a career in baseball, he realizes that maybe his Jewish heritage isn't the best background for such a sport, and so he wishes he were of Italian descent "because all the great baseball players are of Italian origin." But of course, "I'll never make it with the Yankees. All the great Yankees are Italian. My mother makes spaghetti with ketchup -- what chance do I have?" At another point in the play his brother, Stanley, comes home from work and is visibly upset. When Eugene asks what's wrong, Stanley responds, "I got fired today!" Eugene says, "Fired? You mean for good?" And Stanley just looks at his younger brother for a moment and then states, "You don't get fired temporarily. It's a permanent lifetime firing." Thanks to Mr. Simon for giving my Dad and me a wonderful afternoon at the theatre. -- Brian Godshall

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Never realized it until now that I quote a Neil Simon line every day of my life. -- Basil Kotsis

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Want more Neil Simon memories? Click here to read the rest of the submissions we received.

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2 Comments:
James Battista said:
Just a brief note to thank you so very much for including my heartfelt anecdotes "On Directing Neil Simon," in your TDF publication in "Theatre Lovers Share Their Neil Simon Memories." I am proud and humbled to be a part of your very moving tribute to Neil Simon. Many Thanks, James Battista
Posted on 9/27/2018 at 10:55 PM
Susan L. Edlis said:
I recall something that Neil Simon said (and I am paraphrasing) When it is 98 degrees in New York, (I am assuming he meant New York City) it is 77 degrees in LA. When it is 40 degrees in New York, it is 77 degrees in LA. But there are several thousand (I don't recall the exact number he used) interesting people in New York, and only 77 interesting people in LA.
Posted on 9/29/2018 at 4:42 PM
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