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!

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