Let’s begin with my uncle, a very short Hungarian immigrant, an orphan with 40 dollars pinned to his pocket and a cauliflower ear from boxing. His name was Adolph Zukor. He was born in 1873, three years before Custer’s Last Stand and died in 1976, seven years after the Landing on the Moon. Once, when I visited him at his New York office, I worked up the nerve to ask him a question. I said, “Uncle Adolph, in all your long life, living through so many generations and nearly 104 years of history, what was your biggest discovery?” He sucked at his third cigar of the day, it was always just three, and said “The biggest discovery? That nobody never had problems.”
After succeeding as a furrier in Chicago, Uncle Adolph had gone into the penny arcade business in New York, and then opened his first movie in the little theater near it with something called “Hale’s Tours”. Hale had filmed scenery from the fronts of trains tearing through the twisty mountain roads of the American West and even the Alps so audiences in Zukor’s theatre could sit spellbound in a mock-up railroad car that wobbled from side to side and made them jounce and sway as the train seemed to plunge on through the scenery projected on the screen in front of it. For one thin dime you could cross the United States, and my skinny other little Uncle, Al Kaufman, turned the crank that made the whole thing wiggle and, if he had a good day, made you train sick. Out of those pennies at his Arcade Zukor became the most important pioneer in the movie business, a shrewd visionary with a village storyteller’s sense of drama and a hard-headed instinct for business. He founded a company called Famous Players in a warehouse in New York, then built a studio for it on Long Island. Famous Players began with his importation of the silent film “Queen Elizabeth”, starring the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt, which Zukor played in legitimate theaters on days when there were no Broadway matinees and broke every record. When I asked Uncle Adolph whether he had ever met the divine Sarah and what the first brilliant unforgettable words were that she might have blessed him with, he told me they were in French, French for “How’s business?” He went on to create the star system, paying prodigious salaries to performers he felt were investments and made Mary Pickford one of the greatest stars twinkling on the silver screen and dubbed her, “America’s Sweetheart”. Famous Players grew into Paramount Pictures and Uncle Adolph was founder and president.
Now he’s looking at me over the New York Times through the pince-nez glasses he wears. “Tewie”, he says (he always called me “Tewie” instead of Stewie) “I just got back from the coast. I had lunch at the club, Hillcrest.” “Oh”, I say, “Was it nice?” “I didn’t see a soul I knew. Where are they? Where did they go? Where’s Jack Benny? Where’s Groucho? Where’s Jessel? All I see anymore is George Burns.” “They’re dead, Uncle Adolph”, I say.
I heard about Jimmy Durante from Marlon Brando. A call out of the blue at dinner time. “He’s gone”, says Marlon in tears. “That sweet man.” Neither of us knew him but we’re crying anyway. We’re of an age to have seen him in the theatre – the great Schnozzola – Hotchacha! That nose like an overstuffed knackwurst that was somehow endearing. The hat he’d slam onto the stage and then stamp on if he couldn’t pronounce a fancy word in an even fancier way. His funeral is happening right now, Marlon says. We put on our blue suits and meet on the church steps in Beverly Hills. Milton Berle is giving the eulogy. The coffin has a spray of meadow flowers on it and Durante’s old brown hat. An usher goes down the aisle to alert the funny man’s widow that Brando is here. She never met him, but signals us to join the family, a gesture so generous it destroys us. But Marlon makes a mistake when we leave – wanting to do the right thing, he does it wrong: he pulls me into the aisle to follow the coffin out of the church without realizing the family is meant to go first. We tighten our jaws against the withering looks on celebrity faces we pass and just keep on going ahead of the family, as if we were meant to. We support each other’s elbows down the church steps, blinded by flashbulbs of paparazzi walking backwards with Marlon cautioning me to keep smiling, then hugging each other goodnight in the dark of the street. We head for our cars in different directions. “Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash – wherever you are.”
I leave Uncle’s office and step out into New York City! Winter-time! Even today, when I’m in New York, everything seems to be about what’s no longer there: ghost images of old theatres are double-exposed over the new ones – the Empire, the Hippodrome, the Old Met – hover across new multiplex facades like holograms. But all the beloved ghosts still walk the streets and haunt the stage door alleys as if they’re still alive. All those amazing actors and playwrights whose names and words are legends now have faces and voices still warm with life for me: Otis Skinner, who had acted with Edwin Booth, brother of Lincoln’s assassin. I saw him in blackface in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” with great fake ice floes crashing across the stage and his cry of “You kin kill mah body but you cain’t kill mah soul!” still ringing in my memory.
Later, the great Laurence Olivier, in town with the Old Vic as “Oedipus the King”, his eyes streaming blood, shattering the ears of Broadway with a rising moan of such terrible recognition, that came from a place so deep in the gut that it seemed impossible for the human throat to produce such a sound of agonized grief, and it carried up, and up, and up, all the unhealed pain of the whole tired, war-torn world, and is still in me.
Young Montgomery Clift, a boy not much older than I was when I saw him in “Dame Nature”, then in “The Skin of Our Teeth” with Tallulah Bankhead and Frederic March, seemed the essence of all I ever sought to be, and I felt that if I drank him in enough from my $1.10 seat in the balcony, year by year as we both grew up, he would magically know I was there and tell me how to be like him.
I can never forget the ghostly wraith of Ethel Waters, erupting like a flow of black lava across the stage in “Mamba’s Daughters”, a huge cosmic event whenever she appeared. I can still conjure her sweeping her way across the footlights in “Cabin in the Sky”, she sang “Takin’ a Chance on Love” as though she were making it up.
Laurette Taylor as Amanda Wingfield in the very first week of “The Glass Menagerie”, slogging around that parlor flat with the simple reality of a washwoman who happened in through the wrong door, then lighting up like a child who has just stepped into the sun over the sudden memory of jonquils.
Tortured Frances Farmer, in the Group Theatre’s “Golden Boy” at the Belasco.
When I pass where the old Gramophone Shop used to be, near 51st and Madison, Beatrice Lillie, “The Funniest Woman on Earth” who wore her title of Lady Peel as casually as an old Tam o’ Shanter fallen across one eye, is still hailing the cab I saw her hail eons ego, in the same mink coat and little fez hat that she wore when I was thirteen and fell in love with her in “At Home Abroad”. My heart jumps when I remember that our elbows touched when I rushed past her so she wouldn’t see me blush, so she wouldn’t see how I longed to say hello. Her first actual words to me, at a party some providence pushed me into, were, “Hello Sergeant! Been getting much lately?” We became friends for life.
I see them wherever I look, those theatre ghosts. There’s another one! Orson Welles, that marvellous boy-magician at twenty-two, roaring into the mouth of hell as “Dr. Faustus” for the Federal Theatre, the whole audience on its feet like groundlings in sheer worship.
I’m 8 years old again. The ghost of the El comes rackety buckety buck banging down the tracks above Columbus Avenue, swaying at every curve, scattering soot on the street below and griming the windowsills it passes. It’s a jungle gym of criss-cross girders with little Victorian stations of green iron at every stop. It keeps the street and the shops below in permanent low-rent darkness. I am with Mom. It will be my favorite day with her – out of my whole life. The rackety-buckety-buck of our El train careens past tenement window, past the John Wanamaker department store, past the huge black Hippodrome where spectacles are shown along with movies, before they build Radio City. I’m going to be nine in March. Next stop, 14th Street, and my mother is peering out the window as the wheels screech around a long curve. “This is the street where Uncle Adolph started!” my mother yells and points below to where the Penny Arcade once stood.
I can’t believe she is only thirty-two. She has me clinging to her hand, skipping me down the steel stairs “because we have to make the curtain.” I wonder what curtain she’s making without needle and thread and a thimble? My shoes beside her skippy ones go jump-jump-jump, all the way to the bottom and into the maw of the Civic Repertory Theatre, which she has to pronounce for me, then hurry-hurry-hurry to our seats way upstairs, and the dizzying height of the theatre dome and the dizzying fall to the people below make me hold all the railings very tight. There are alot of people on our bench, loud kids with moms not dressed as nice as mine, and we all are very close together with my knee against my Mom’s leg. I hold tight to the rail in front of me and make Mom spell out what it says on the program. It says “Peter Pan”.
The people below have real chairs and the theatre is shrill with the voices of kids and the shushing of Moms as the lights are dimmed. Five old men come in and start to play five instruments, very happy music but a little sad too, and as the asbestos hisses up, my mother whispers smiling, “That’s the curtain we had to make.” She makes me stop picking my nails.
There’s a big dog on the stage and I think there’s a man inside. Things happen then Mrs. Darling says goodnight and the night lights go out and it all gets darker in the nursery. The big window blows open. Then into the gloom of the nursery, into silence deeper than the darkest night, into this blue hush, like a dark apparition, Eva Le Gallienne springs through the window, way high in the air with the buoyancy of a leaf and ends her flight as softly as a conductor’s baton coming to rest at the end of a note. Her smile is quick and seldom offered but, when it comes onto that spirited dirty-boy face, her teeth have the sudden luminosity of the hands on a radium clock. Her voice as she flies rings with the careless indifferent bravado of a boy with a scraped knee who’s pretending it doesn’t hurt, and I suddenly know she’s my brother. Le Gallienne made every Peter Pan who followed her look like lead yo-yos on the ends of strings, and sissy ones at that.
At the curtain call, she sweeps off her hat in salute, spreads her arms wide, gives the first big smile of the afternoon, then, in the first audience flight ever attempted but much higher than most of them since, Peter flies all the way up to where we are on our cheap gallery benches at the very top of the theatre! All of our hands reach out: “Don’t go!” we plead, “Don’t go! Take us too!” And we hear her heartless laugh as she sweeps down and away, just missing the edge of the stage as the curtain falls. The lights come on and the kids are all chattering. But I have been changed forever. I know what to do with my life. I have a brother now to lead the way. Peter Pan is my brother. Eva Le Gallienne is my brother!
My mother never laughed at me about it. She made me a Peter Pan suit as perfect as Le Gallienne’s and I’d sit in a tree on Uncle Adolph’s estate, near the 9th hole frog pond on the golf course, tootling Peter Pan’s music on my pipes. Sir William Wiseman, Barrie’s friend, heard me up there and was amazed. My father explained, as he pointed through the leaves, that I was the real Peter Pan, and Sir William told Barrie about it, and Barrie sent me a first edition of his book of the play, autographed to me “with kind regards from J.M. Barrie”. I visited Miss Le Gallienne many times when I got older. She would always let me hold the hat she wore as Peter. And she came to visit me when I was sick and she sat on a swinging wicker chair in Connecticut on Paul Newman’s porch, and talked of Ibsen’s play “The Master Builder” and told Paul he hadn’t lived in his face long enough to perform it. She was a friend I will honor till I die. Sometimes I sit on the bench where she learned her lines, up in the woods she left to Connecticut as a bird sanctuary, and I think of her and am grateful.
Le Gallienne’s “Peter Pan” was only one of the thirty-four plays she produced and directed and starred in at her Civic Repertory Theatre. She had given up stardom to create it, a people’s theatre, affordable to all, that played the classics the commercial theatre wouldn’t play – kept them as ready as books in a library and ruled a company of actors who had to know all their lines in every play and be ready to go on in each at any moment. She ran a free school, too, for apprentices to take the voice and fencing lessons she provided, and the acting classes she taught. She lived mostly in the theatre herself until the Depression wiped it out and made her go back to being a Broadway Star and the commercialism she hated. Some words she said survive her. They are what I tell my screenwriting students, what I believe myself.
“The theatre should be an instrument for giving, not a machinery for getting.”
So should the movies. So, above all else, should we.
© Copyright 2012 – Stewart Stern