Welcome to the first chapter of a memoir. Yes it is all about me, but more importantly, about people and events that you may or may not know, but may have been influenced by them in one way or another. You might learn a little something about our world, you might hopefully chuckle a little. Best of all they are good stories, short and sweet.
by Susan Slack
Chapter One – Studio Arena
The very first famous person I ever saw was in New York City.
On stage doing one thing or another as far back as I have memory, I literally barked at the chance to apprentice at the brand new Studio Arena Theatre right out of High School in Buffalo New York. Woof! The Studio was an Equity (union) theatre that had grown from a community theatre, then started a school and finally a 500 seat three-quarter thrust (audience on three sides of the stage) professional theatre in a refurbished Towne Casino on Main Street. I had won a couple scholarships to the theatre school and was in the loop when word spread that they were looking for apprentices for their second season. And they found me. $15 dollars a week and all the envelopes I could lick (pre Seinfeld’s episode when George’s fiance’ died from stamp licking) I also eventually did props and costumes, set building and some backstage crew work.
The first show of the season was an all out production of “Cyrano de Bergerac”. Because part of my deal was that I would be in some shows, I was cast in the pivotal role of “villager” in the opening scene. Every night I got a real orange squeezed on my hair. My Muse awakened.
Roy Schieder, yes “Jaws” Roy Schieder, played Count De Guiche. You may be thinking that I could count him as my first famous person, but he was not famous yet. At that point he was just this extremely nice, nice, mega professional actor shipped in from “The City” – I picked up the lingo right away. If I talked to anyone outside of my 25 hour a day engagement, I always used “The City” at least four times within a conversation, and if they did not know to what I referred, it just pointed out how really sophisticated I had become in just a few short weeks.
And as long as we’re digressing here, I’ll also divulge that I always use the spelling t h e a t R E, “re” on the end because all we theatre folk do that as a kind of code to each other. Well that’s why I do it. Not sure about the others.
So back to Buffalo, 1966, Studio Arena Theatre’s second season, first show. We had a month to build the sets and costumes for Cyrano. I found myself attracted to the wardrobe room downstairs. Pearl reigned there: 5’4″, wiry, brownish-grey hair plopped on top, pointy-cornered glasses on a chain, no makeup and cigarette often dangling from her mouth. She could make a wedding gown from a paper bag without a pattern. I liked her. She suggested that I work wardrobe and specifically that I be the “dresser” for the name they had booked from The City, George Grizzard. Did you know there is actually a very important and respected profession called “Dresser”? Neither did I. Being ignorant is one thing, but I did not even know that I did not know. It was a big honor to be given this big honor, but I thought it was like becoming Miss Kumquat of Chautauqua County. You get the tiara and then return to washing floors. Not so. There was stuff that happened in between.
The memory of Mr. Grizzard from my seventeen-year old brain is very pleasant. He was slightly shy of average height, slim with sort a hint of strawberry blond to it and eyebrows that very soon, promised to be unruly. He was always very polite to me.
Did I mention how very patient Mr. Grizzard was with me? He would calmly tell me that this needed doing or that needed to be in this place. My job was supposed to be to make sure he had everything he needed but he wound up being my trainer. I don’t know if he ever complained about me, but I remained his dresser for the whole month long run – a good sign.
Playing Cyrano de Bergerac, he needed to glue on a big fake nose every night. He had brought two with him from New York – I mean The City. We finally got into a rhythm each night. Before the show I checked his props. That means that I made sure the sword was on the table in the stage right wing and the note was just outside the upstage door. (Any actor will tell you that you need to check your own props before each show. Everyone had stories of running onstage without the gun and saying “Bang” with pointed finger). I made sure his bloody bandage was in his dressing room for the last act; that he had a cup of coffee waiting before each show. And after the show I’d collect what needed to be cleaned mended, replaced, etc.
The rest of the cast, excepting Roy Scheider, were either local actors hired for under scale (union minimum) to fill in the larger crowd scenes or they were part of the Resident Company. That means about ten actors, hired through casting calls in The City were signed on for the whole season and would take roles of varying significance in each of the eight shows of the season. All of these other people had only the general Wardrobe Mistress to whom they brought their soiled socks and broken zippers. That duty fell to…well…me. But this isn’t about child labor laws. This is about ART.
Mr. Grizzard (never George from my lips) left after the show closed and I stayed running wardrobe for each show and playing the small but crucial and significant roles of a nurse with no lines entering in the third act to take an upset lady to the mental hospital, a 17th century French nun in an asylum, a Gilbert and Sullivan Geisha girl (a singing part) and finally a 20’s flapper with lines to say. (The show starred John Schuck, for all you McMillan & Wife, Herman Munster, Annie and Klingon and fans) And finally for that flapper role I was listed in the program as a member of the resident company and got my Actors Equity card – a really big deal.
Somewhere in there I also toured schools as Alice in Alice in Wonderland and Beaver Girl in a play about the local indigenous Seneca people. It was a supposedly true story about a white girl who was captured by and grew up with the Senecas. Soooo un pc. But back then people thought this was a good thing because the girl LIKED living with the Indians. (cringe level: 4). This is a big diversion, but I think worth a side trip.
I was doing props for this show titled….wait for it….”Indian Captive” and drove myself to the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation and after a little tour of the res. Not much to see. Dirt roads. Cheap little houses. They generously offered to lend a water drum and an elm bark rattle. It was getting dark and I was invited to witness a semi/social semi/ritual community circle dance. I was led to a large building and when the door opened I was transported into another dimension. 80, people in dim light – could have been a fireplace behind them – were dancing in a circle. My ears were not trained but I recall some singing of words I didn’t understand and some drumming. Most vividly the picture that pops up when I think of the occasion is the whole group moving exactly the same, relaxed about it, but all together, shadows in front of the light. There was the sound of feet shuffling on the rough wood floor bringing up a thin powdery dust, creating an even more magical atmosphere that could not be absorbed at that point. Internally, an impression was made somewhere between awe and fear. It wasn’t a show. I was the only ‘white’ person there. I let the feeling I was experiencing be labeled as fear (was the term “Indian Captive” subliminally pestering my head?) and so I left after… well I don’t know how long I stayed…until I left. And still embedded in me is the sound of rhythmically shuffling feet, puffing the dust between me and the light behind the dancers. Over the years the memory of it has evolved to a feeling a gratitude that I was allowed to be there. And who knew, but it may have been the start of something big in my heart.
Back to the Studio Arena: I was very busy carrying responsibility. I was promoted to Head Apprentice which came with a raise to $25 a week. The Executive Director of the theatre made a point of never making direct eye contact with me and I think he even enjoyed being so important that there were people whose existence he did not have to acknowledge. The 17 year old me thought this was the way things were. Reflecting, he had budgets and Boards and actors and designers all wanting a piece of him.
And now here comes the part where I meet my first famous person – you know, one whom I could see with gauze over my eyes and apply any kind of fantasy on them that I wanted to.
So the season is over, my apprenticeship is finished. I decide to visit The City and go see Mr. Grizzard in “You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running” playing on Broadway. I Grey Hounded it for the day with a great big suitcase because you just never know. I left a note at the box office when getting my ticket, letting Mr. Grizzard know I was there. I don’t remember the show, only that I wished I had liked it better. Afterward I went backstage and he thankfully remembered me and asked if I would like to go to Joe Allen’s on West 46th Street for a bite to eat. My Greyhound back to Buffalo would be leaving at 11:00pm-ish but I had a little time. I also had my suitcase, which I must have checked in the theater’s coat room. I do remember checking it in the coat room at Joe Allens, a half basement little bar and restaurant with close little checkered tablecloths where, rumor had it, many well known laps had sat under. The Maitre d’ gushed over Mr. Grizzard with the exact perfect tone – not too much – but certainly not too little. After all.
We sat at a little table and he ordered me one of their often mentioned hamburgers. And then it happened! I saw a famous person. I starred with open mouth and pointed and said somewhat too loud, “Look!” He turned his head quickly, then back and said under his breath that he didn’t know her.
“But she’s on a soap opera! OMG OMG. (Cringe factor here of 8). I didn’t know which soap opera. I didn’t know her name but I had SEEN HER ON TELEVISION. A famous person. I had just seen a famous person.
And that was when I saw my first famous person.
Grand Central Station was only two blocks east and I told Mr. Grizzard that I would walk there. 11:00pm. Hell’s Kitchen. Era of the worst crime rate the city had since they kept records. Mr. Grizzard kindly offered to accompany me and he carried my suitcase all the way there. (pre rolling suitcases) and as I said he was not a large husky man and every time I saw his carrying shoulder droop I felt guilty and the more I apologized the more, I’m sure, he wished I would stop apologizing.
The last time I ever saw him was there at Grand Central, making sure I had my ticket, that I was at the right gate. He put down my suitcase, rubbed his arm and we said good-bye.
Over the years I’ve seen him many many times on the tube and in films. In 1996 he won a Tony for best actor in Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance”. That is a very big deal.
He passed in 2007. None of his obituaries mentions “Cyrano” or “You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running”- not even in his many long listings of credits. The New York Times wrote that he was survived only by his long time partner. They didn’t mention me.
Mullah Nazruddin was a famous wise/fool from the middle east who has many teaching-while-laughing stories. Many disagree on when, where or even if he really existed. The following seems appropriate to cap off my story. You may have heard this one before, but earliest renditions are attributed to the elusive Nazruddin.
A friend came upon Nazruddin late one night. He was on his hands and knees next to a streetlight feeling the ground with his hands. “Mullah,” the friend asked, “what are you doing down there?”
“I’ve lost my key.”
“Where did you lose it?” the friend asked.
“Over there by my door,” he answered pointing to his home several yards away.
“Then why do you look for it here?”
Stopping his search he looked at his friend as though a child who needed an explanation. “Because the light is better here under the light!”