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.

No comments: