Thursday, February 26, 2009

Across and down to Brooklyn, again

Tomorrow I'll be traveling to Brooklyn to compete in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament for the second year in a row.

Last year I finished 262nd out of 699 competitors.

And met a lot of nice people.

And for the second year in a row, I'll be reporting on my adventures.

If you want to know more about the tournament, look here.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

John Carradine, Sylvia Sidney and me

Not long ago I wrote about the summer stock productions that used to be staged at the high school up the street from where I grew up.

One of the things I didn't get around to mentioning is that my sister Mary once worked as an apprentice for these productions. The show-biz bug had bitten her hard, and the experience was invaluable, which was a very good thing because the pay was zilch. But Mary did get to be Shirley Booth's dresser in a production of "Desk Set," and the gracious Ms. Booth, as I recall, gave Mary a nice trinket at the end of the weeklong run.

Mary also worked on a production of "Play It Again, Sam," starring George Gobel, and I recall her rather sadly telling us about all the bottles of booze in his dressing room. Gobel played the Woody Allen part and, after each show, did one of his famous monologues about Uncle Elmo or whomever. I only know this because Mary told me -- I didn't have the brains to walk up the street and see this master comedian at work.

(Please excuse me for a few minutes while I beat myself senseless.)

Now ... where were we?

Oh, yes. Mary went on to pursue an acting career herself and is now an accomplished storyteller. (You can hear for yourself here.)

After apprenticing up the street, Mary spent a summer doing much the same thing at a playhouse in the Poconos. The following summer, she was back in town but not working at the local playhouse. However, a friend of hers from the Pocono days was now the stage manager for the local playhouse, which this particular week was offering "Arsenic and Old Lace" with John Carradine and Sylvia Sidney.

The stage manager invited Mary over to see the show and to bring a guest, which turned out to be me.

I still remember wandering backstage, trying not to trip on all the cables, while Mary magically glided through the backstage area as if they weren't there.

I got a close-up view of the play's set, which, like most sets seen that way, was tacky. I could also see the two stars' dressing rooms, though I didn't exactly see the two stars. My memory, which is about as reliable as a geyser with kidney stones, tells me that I saw Ms. Sidney's hands knitting something. I'm pretty sure I saw Mr. Carradine's arthritic hand holding a smoking cigarette. Ah, show biz!

Mary and I went out into the audience for the first act and returned backstage during intermission.

"What kind of a house is it tonight?" the stage manager asked. She was thinking about cutting the intermission short.

It was a Wednesday night. A pretty light house, Mary said, I think a short intermission would be fine.

I remember the stage manager going to the stars' dressing rooms to ask their permission; I remember Mr. Carradine grunting his assent and Ms. Sidney saying something like "Fine, dear."

So Mary and I returned to our seats.

Then disaster struck.

The stage manager was supposed to coordinate the intermission with the head usher, who (I think) would flash the lights to get people to return to their seats.

Problem is, the head usher was a woman whom no poet would ever compare to a Ginsu knife. Indeed, during a previous season, she had caused a few uneasy moments of ad libbing for some cast members of a show called "The Happy Time" when she failed to recognize that the strange man in the lobby who was in costume as French Canadian photographer and who was trying to enter the theater after the curtain when up and whom she was now trying to restrain was actually the star, Ray Bolger, who was supposed to make his entrance that way.

So on this night, the stage manager and the head usher got their signals crossed, and the play started again while a lot of people were still in the lobby.

I should explain that the side entrance to the auditorium led to a ramp that wasn't all that far away from the stage. So as John Carradine, seated at a table, tried to go on with the play, a number of returning theatergoers were only a few feet from being in the play themselves.

And I don't think it was a small number of returning theatergoers, either.

Mary and I slid down in our seats.

"We're not going backstage afterward," she said, at least somewhat redundantly.

I would like to think that John Carradine, veteran trouper that he was, took this all in stride.

But for years part of me has feared that John Carradine, veteran horror movie actor that he was, removed the stage manager's head and kept it in a jar.

Ah, show biz!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Mark Rothman

Chances are you've seen this guy's name if you've watched any TV at all over the last few decades.

He wrote for "Happy Days" and "The Odd Couple" and co-created "Laverne and Shirley."

Yes, that Mark Rothman.

And now he has a very funny blog that you can find here.

One warning: Don't start catching up with his blog late at night or you'll be too laughing so much that you won't make it to bed until well into the next morning.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

James Whitmore and the Rolls-Royce Lady

The recent death of actor James Whitmore brought back some memories...

For many summers in my town, a local impresario and his wife brought in touring companies for a season of plays -- what used to be called "summer stock" or (don't ask me why) "straw hat theater."

These plays usually starred accomplished, respected performers who weren't exactly on the A List anymore. (Then again, they didn't have A lists back then. Or B, C, D ... well, you get the picture.)

For a few summers, these performances were staged at the high school that was (and still us) up the street from the house where I grew up. I can remember some of the headliners (some of whom you might not remember unless, like me, you're over 50): Shirley Booth, Van Johnson, Durward Kirby, Hal March, George Gobel, Hans Conried, Dody Goodman, Ray Bolger, Mickey Rooney...

And James Whitmore.

I can't remember what Whitmore appeared in; matter of fact, the only one of these summer plays I ever saw was "Don't Drink the Water," starring Conried and Goodman.

But my parents saw Mr. Whitmore's play.

And they went backstage afterward.

And my mother, um, touched Mr. Whitmore's hair and told him how she'd always wanted curly hair like his.

And he was gracious.

And I'm cringing now, remembering it, even though I was at home that night.

But I remember another occasion where I was all too present.

That week, the playhouse was featuring an Agatha Christie play. The star was a very famous actress who is still, even now, very much alive and well and, as far as I know, very much litigious.

I don't know where this lady was staying during the play's weeklong run, but I do know that she drove a Rolls-Royce to the theater every day. I can still remember it passing by our house on our little two-block street. Why do I remember it as being grape-colored? It probably wasn't, but I can just about swear that it wasn't black.

One evening after dinner, my mother decided it would be fun to hide behind the school, near where the celebs parked, and see if we could catch a glimpse of the Rolls-Royce Lady in person.

Keep in mind that we weren't exactly dressed for this event on this summer night. And by "we" I mean my parents, me and two or three of my six siblings.

We got to the parking lot and stood around like a bunch of hicks until the Rolls-Royce Lady rolled in.

And got out of her car.

And looked for the stage door.

And couldn't find it.

At which point we all emerged from our hiding place and descended on her.

She looked us kids over (her nose wasn't big, but it had more than enough cartilage to enable her to look down it without breaking a sweat), and she said, "All these all yours?"

Her tone implied that up until that point she'd been completely unaware that the lower classes were being allowed to repopulate themselves with such abandon.

My mother said that yes, those were all her kids. I seem to recall her stiffening as she said it.

My father, who I suspect was oblivious to the imaginary daggers my mother was mentally hurling in the direction of the equally oblivious Rolls-Royce Lady, gamely showed the star the way to the door.

From that day on, my mother hated the Rolls-Royce Lady's guts.

And I'm still cringing.

Friday, February 13, 2009

I thinky not

At a local mall, a fast-food chain is advertising a new taste sensation. which it says is: