Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Theater Memories Part 6: Ushering at the Lortel

After discussing summer stock, national tours, out-of-town tryouts and theatre on TV, the next category would be ushering. For a few years during the late 1980s and into the 1990s, I ushered quite a few Off-Broadway shows (Broadway is unionized, so it was easier to do Off) at the Lucille Lortel Theater, the Promenade and the now defunct Jack Lawrence and the Audrey Wood, its smaller studio theater. It was fascinating watching the same show for several consecutive performances and seeing cast replacements bring different interpretations. Here are the shows I ushered for at the Lortel:

Lucille Lortel: Isn't It Romantic, Wendy Wasserstein's long-running comedy. During the run, Alma Cuervo and Robin Bartlett played the lead and Joan Copeland, Julia Meade, Jay Thomas (Emmy winner for Murphy Brown), James Rebhorn, and Christine Healy were in the cast.

Joan Rivers (center) visits the cast of
Steel Magnolias: (l to r) Mary Fogarty,
Rosemary Prinz, Margo Martindale, 
Constance Schulman, Betsy Aidem
and Kate Wilkinson.
Steel Magnolias: I was with the show for much of the early run with Margo Martindale, Betsy Aidem, Rosemary Prinz, Mary Fogarty, Kate Wilkinson and Constance Schulman. The show was a big hit and we got lots of celebrities. Unfortunately, I was not there the nights Bette Davis or Elizabeth Taylor came, but I did seat Mary Tyler Moore, Valerie Harper (I went home during intermission and got my book of classic TV shows for her to sign--I already had Mary's autograph from Sweet Sue), Mildred Natwick, and Bob Fosse (who complained about his seat). (in the photo, the original cast with Joan Rivers). Here's what my colleagues told me about the night Taylor attended. She was late and the curtain was held for her (of course). Her seat was in the middle of the middle row, so half the row had to stand up when she and her entourage arrived. Before sitting down, she took a 360-degree look at the house as if to say, "Yes, it is me, Elizabeth Taylor." The show starts and one of the first lines is delivered by Margo Martindale as the hairdresser Truvy: "Ruth Robilene, now there's a twisted, troubled soul. Her husband was killed in World War II. Her son was killed in Vietnam. When it comes to suffering, she's right up there with Elizabeth Taylor." This line elicited an enormous guffaw from the audience, the loudest recognizably being from Taylor herself (People asked if that line were added just for that night and no, it was always there.) After the show, the star went backstage to greet the cast and the audience refused to leave. They wanted a glimpse of the legend and you had to exit through the theater to get out from backstage. Meanwhile, word has spread around the neighborhood that a real-live Hollywood star was at the theater and a huge crowd gathered outside. The police had to be called because the eager fans were blocking the narrow West Village streets. The cops finally had to escort Taylor out of the building to the applause of those in and outside the Lortel as if she were royalty, which she kind of was. And she loved every moment of it.

Groucho: A Life in Revue, Arthur Marx's play about his dad Groucho. Faith Prince played all the female roles and Frank Ferrante did a brilliant impersonation of Groucho. Much of the play was him speaking directly to the audience, so whenever someone came in late, he'd upbraid them from the stage.

Elisabeth Welch: Time to Start Living. After scoring a hit in the short-lived Broadway show Jerome Kern Goes to Hollywood, Welch, then in her 80s, did a solo concert show at the Lortel. It was heaven hearing her sing and tell stories of Cole Porter.

Not About Heroes: Edward Herrmann and Dylan Baker as real-life WWI poet-officers, Sigfird Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Dianne Wiest directed and Baker won an Obie Award.

Jan Miner and Marian Seldes
in Gertrude Stein
and a Companion
Gertrude Stein and a Companion: Jan Miner (Madge of the Palmolive commercials) and Marian Seldes as Stein and her wife Alice B. Toklas.

Ten by Tennessee and Orchards, the Acting Company in a series of one-acts. The former was ten one-acts by Tennessee Williams presented on two bills of five each in rep and the latter was a group of short plays by contemporary playwrights like Wendy Wasserstein, John Guare and Samm-Art Williams inspired by Chekhov stories.
(I will post about the Promenade and the Jack Lawrence separately)

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