Wednesday, July 7, 2010
Alfred Drake as Curly and Betty Garde as Aunt Eller in the original 1943 Broadway production of "Oklahoma!"
By the time I met him in the early 1980s, Alfred Drake looked nothing like the young man he had been in 1943 when he starred as Curly in the original Broadway staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein's groundbreaking musical, "Oklahoma!"
Instead of a fresh-faced, up-and-coming actor, he was now paunchy and pushing 70. He was also pushing a play called "The Hiding Place." Drake had written the script and convinced Virginia Museum Theatre Artistic Director Tom Markus to stage it in Richmond. The show was a flop. Backstage staff referred to it derisively as "The Hidey Hole," and audiences, as they say, stayed away in droves -- except for season ticketholders and others who remembered Drake from his roles in musicals such as "Kismet" and "Kiss Me Kate."
I spent a lot of time with Drake during the run-up to VMT's production of "The Hiding Place," which he directed and in which he played the leading role. He was not an easy-going man by that time. In fact he was downright prickly. My job was to drum up publicity for the show. It wasn't easy: Reporters and editors with graying hair were the only ones who knew his once-famous name.
Drake was the exception to the big stars I worked with at VMT. I have never been enamoured of celebrities, perhaps as a result of having interviewed too many of them in my earlier career as a TV reporter. Sure, I was often impressed by their body of work, but I rarely looked forward to hanging out with them.
Helen Hayes was a major exception. Miss Hayes -- I can't bring myself to call her Helen, given that she was about 80 when I met her -- had won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony. She was also a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Arts. Renowned as the First Lady of the American Theater, she had played everybody from Queen Victoria to Amanda Wingfield. Her husband, Charles MacArthur, was the co-author of the play "The Front Page," which was later made into "His Girl Friday" and several other films.
Tom Markus had persuaded Miss Hayes to come to Richmond to accept VMT's award for contributions to the American theater. It was at a small gathering of reporters in the museum's library, after the working newsmen had neared the end of their questions, that I asked her about her late husband.
"I read somewhere about your husband and a bag of peanuts," I said. Her eyes began to sparkle and a warm smile lit her face. And then she told me the story.
"It was during the 1920s, during the Depression," she told us. "Charlie once took a bag of salted peanuts out of his pocket and poured them into my hand. 'I wish they were emeralds,' he said to me. It was a funny and touching moment.
"Many years later, after we both had had some success in the theater, he surprised me on our anniversary by pulling a small bag out of his pocket and pouring emeralds into my hand, saying, 'I wish they were peanuts.'"
Helen Hayes was a star of the first magnitude, and it was a pleasure to meet and talk with her.
Two other recipients of the VMT award also made deep impressions on me. Mildred Dunnock, who had starred in the original Broadway production of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" in 1948, was a tiny woman of quiet dignity. In our conversation on the day she was honored, she didn't want to talk about her past triumphs. Instead, she wanted to know about Richmond, about VMT, and about the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Every time I tried to steer the conversation toward her roles on Broadway, she graciously, but firmly, changed the subject.
John Houseman was equally gracious and dignified, but he was completely willing, perhaps even insistent, on talking about himself. There was much to talk about, from his collaboration with director Orson Welles in their days with the Federal Theatre Project through to the production of the movie "Citizen Kane." By the time I met him in the early 1980s, he was far more famous, however, for his commercials for the brokerage firm Smith Barney and for his starring role as Professor Charles Kingsfield in the movie "The Paper Chase." He won an Oscar in 1973 for that one. We had a pleasant lunch in the Members' Restaurant overlooking the Fan District, but I could hardly get a word in edgewise. Houseman was a great raconteur, and I listened with rapt attention to his tales.
I loved my years working in publicity and advertising for the Virginia Museum Theatre. I learned much about the business of entertainment, and I remain an eager fan of live theater. I also treasure the extraordinary opportunity I had to meet some remarkable people.
Posted by Don Dale at Wednesday, July 07, 2010