Chapter Two – Joe Allens – NYC
In an effort to become one myself, I soon met a lot of famous people. I took my Actors Equity card and moved to New York to make my fortune. I got a sublet on West 46th between 9th and 10th , just a block from Joe Allens. I walked down there a few times, bought my own hamburgers and within a couple weeks I was checking coats. I sat in the very spot my suitcase had taken in the coat room.
Some amazing coats walked through that little door. Michael Bennett who wrote “A Chorus Line” had a curious wool checked, Sherlock Holmes style coat with a short cape attached over the shoulders. Bill Theiss, costume designer for the original Star Trek series came in for a few months. He wore no lame’, or blue skin, just an elegant camel colored cashmere coat. Jerry Ragni who co-wrote “Hair” wore an amazing full length brown leather coat, which could not compare with his amazing, yes, – hair – big, dark, bouncy curls. London Fogs were big in the fall and spring i.e. Dustin Hoffman and Peter Falk. In case you don’t know, Peter Falk played a TV detective whose trademark was a rumpled trench coat and sure enough his was rumpled. I spilled coffee on it. You almost couldn’t see it. Peter Boyle was a very nice regular who talked with me a lot. This was pre Mel Books “Frankenstein” and “Everybody Loves Raymond”. Before hanging his coat he would often retrieve his ‘worry stone’ from a pocket. He said it relieved anxiety, which he seemed to have enough of. He didn’t have money to tip me but said he would make it up when he got work. I don’t recall if that happened. But I was never attacked by Frankenstein. Coincidence?
The successful actresses had enormous fur coats, which if I had fenced, would have bought me a nice brownstone to live in. I remember Angela Landsbury’s was pure white. Most people who were really really famous had someone else check their coats. I never looked Lauren Bacall in the eye, but I did hang her fur and in my book that puts me two degrees of separation away from Humphrey Bogart. Ms. Bacall was starring on Broadway in “Applause” (and won a Tony for Best Actress) which I never saw but understand it contained a scene taking place in Joe Allens. Before the show opened I remember some scurrying and many phone calls about what kind of china we used and what did the waiters wear.
Almost everyone who worked there was really something else. Albert the Maitre d’ was really a playwright. (I got to workshop his play at the Actors Studio). Phil the cute bartender, was really an actor. He actually played a Captain on Star Trek, but it was only at the beginning and his Starship blew up. We know the coat check girl was really an actress. Charlie the waiter, a singer. Darryl the waiter, an actor. And the quiet, stoic Charlie behind the bar who was by trade, get this, a bartender.
Joes really was the “in” place for actors to go. They could schmooze up work from agents, or booze away their careers, which I saw happen. It was not a swanky place. Far from it. It was half basement with rough brick walls. The coat room was a tiny closet, freezing in the winter. Man those fur coats looked good some nights, just sitting there on hangers. We finally got a little heater in there the second year.
The whole Joes experience wasn’t always a Judy Garland movie. Brain researchers tell us that when there is a strong emotion connected to an event, then the memory of it is stronger – more chemicals, stored in a different place than ho hum happenings. People who set up events are probably aware of this. That’s why there are soundtracks to movies. More emotion. You WILL return for the sequel. Here is an example of one incident for which I have gone back and fourth on about whether to use his name. I guess not. No reason to except to rack up points on my name dropping list. If you want to know, email me.
Sitting on my stool at the coatroom doorway, I looked out at the bar, tables to the left. The main and only entrance was three feet over my left shoulder. As customers entered they saw what I saw. One night a shorter man in a shiny shark skin suit swooped in with with his entourage, scoped out the place and waited to be noticed, not just for a table, but as if expecting autograph seekers. This being the den of blasé’ that it was, not a soul looked up from their schmoozing, from their listening to boring stories of important people, laughing too loud at punch lines. No. The short guy in the shark skin suit and heavily processed pompadour stood there and looked for a place to land. Albert was in the kitchen tending to something. The guest found me. “Do you know who I am?”
I’d been asked that before but it was because the asker really didn’t know. Our guest on this occasion, was asking if he knew how famous he was. He told me his name before I had a chance to answer.
“Hello. I’m Susan.” I replied. Well within the bounds of blasé policy I felt, I was giving him the gift of anonymity that our clientele so desperately sought …sort of. He told me he had just finished a show at the Apollo. Even though I had heard of it, I gave him my pretty blank stare, not knowing if that what he told me was a good thing or a bad thing. I was so much more interested in my beautiful long blond hair and false eyelashes than I was in my brain or other people, I finally answered something like “Oh that’s nice” when I saw that a reaction was expected.
Albert finally showed up and told them that all the tables were full (they were) and invited them to sit at the bar. Albert was pulling out every stop, balancing between reserved gushing and folksy good-natured smiles. Albert saw that this guest needed more gushing and did so. The problem in the kitchen had not fixed itself so Albert returned there. Our guest return to me and extended the great honor of leaving with him to go to a “party”. I respectfully declined, pointing out that I had to work, blah, blah, blah. The guest’s voice got louder. He lunged at me. Details are fuzzy except the last part that I am about to te tell. Suddenly Albert was there. Charlie and Daryl, the waiters, came over. Albert was asking him to leave. His entourage began exiting up the stairs but he wouldn’t have it. Albert, who was really a very thin, slight man, grabbed him, turned him and shoved him out the door. Charlie and Daryl were shoving, too. Charlie the bartender was hopping over the bar with the baseball bat. The whole time he was yelling toward me, “White trash bitch.” My memory of his voice remains. “White trash bitch. White trash bitch.”
His people got him outside. Had I looked closely I might have seen a nose feeling no pain. It happened very fast. The other famous people, seated in conversation, only looked up for a moment. Oh, and the guy didn’t leave a tip.
I bet you have surmised that our guest was black. Yes. Was our action a racist one? Absolutely not. The guy was a coked up ass. Was Joes a racially mixed establishment? Absolutely not. The excuse is that most places were culturally segregated. There were very few if any black actors working on Broadway. That is until the all black cast of “Hello Dolly” took the great white way by storm, starring Pearl Bailey in the title role. (historical reference: Pearl Bailey – think a down home country Queen Latifa) Imagine, more than one black actor on stage at a time and there was no talk of the black experience. Just life and love and everything turns out great in the end. “Hello Dolly” was a real game changer. Joes environment was finally and forever diverse.
Another game changer was “The Boys in the Band,” the first successful gay production about being gay. The plot was about being gay. It took a big step and lots of the actors came into Joes and were finally able to sit with their boyfriends. Before that, many had “beards” – female friends who accompanied gay men to prove their straightness.
But then another side of that out of the closet clientele began whispering in shadowy corners. So and so was “sick”, I would hear when I was not supposed to. It was there before anyone knew about it and then it was too late. It was an unknown, unspoken nightmare, but most straight people felt safe enough. Because AIDS could take so long to kill, over the years following I would read the names of many of the actors and designers who came in had died way before their final curtain should have come down. All those nice, creative, compassionate, bitchy, good-tipping men with fabulous coats were lost and with them all the creative gifts they had secretly been showering on us all along.
Occasionally I was the beard of the Director of the Ed Sullivan Show. He took me to some very fancy parties. I don’t recall any famous people at these events, just show business movers and shakers, who I had never seen on TV, who basically ignored me because most were aware of my function. They dressed in the very latest fashion trends of course. Lots of Nehru jackets, Beatles hair cuts, love beads. For them it was just a fashion trend. Imagine dressing up like something you were not.
Well actually I did that on some weekends. Eventually living on West 20th street in the late 60’s, it was just a short trip to The Village (come on people – stay with me here – Greenwich Village). I donned an army jacket, floppy felt hat and round sunglasses like John Lennon. My bell bottom jeans were strategically torn up the leg. Sometimes I passed out flowers. Tourists took my picture. If you happened to be taking photos back then, check your album. I wasn’t a real hippie, mind you. I wasn’t exactly sure what a real hippie was but at that point it seemed only very stoned, poor people were hanging around, some homeless. And lots of vendors selling love beads and tie dyed things to tourists. The hanger arounders didn’t seem very happy or blissed out. I heard that most of the real hippies had moved to the country to live on self sufficient communes. But what did I know? I loved dressing the part and pretending to be a flower child.
My second year in New York I roomed with Jeanne, a singer I had met while touring with a summer production of “South Pacific”. I wasn’t in that show. I ran wardrobe for the Brooks Costume company which gathered all the casts’ measurements and shipped the costumes to the first location on the tour. The star of the show was Giselle McKenzie, a very talented singer who had gained fame on the 50’s TV show “Your Hit Parade”(when there was only one black and white channel. Think MTV’s grand parent) She later recorded several albums. Miss McKensie was middle aged by this time, still in great shape. She got out there every night singing “Gonna Wash that Man Right Outta My Hair” and all the rest. I was her dresser (here we go again). While she was on stage I got to wear her diamond ring for safe keeping and because the character she was playing would not have a rock like that. Yikes. I have never before or since seen a diamond so big – big as the tip of my little finger. At first I kept my hand in my pocket the whole time. After a while it seemed normal. So saying I could get used to wearing big diamonds is now an undisputable fact.
Jeanne played one of the nurses and at the end of the tour she said she had an apartment and I could room with her. She wasn’t home much. She sang out on the road a lot and had a steady boyfriend. The apartment was basically her closet. (not much bigger). She played a two year run right in New York at the Upstairs Downstairs, in a music and comedy duo with this great pianist and arranger, Barry. She invited me to see him conduct the orchestra for a TV show, “Callback” and afterwards introduced me to a tall lanky fellow with big black glasses and an even bigger nose. He was very nice with no airs and totally focused. Always forgetful of names, on the way home in the cab I had to ask her over and over, “What was his last name again?”
I wish I could report more about him, but unfortunately I was more interested in what he thought of me than I was in him.
On another occasion I heard about a gathering in Central Park. People were trying to organize for ecology, whatever that was. The weather was perfect that April Day and it was a good excuse to go to the park. I mostly flew kites and was introduced to a new thing for playing catch with a ridiculous hang time. They called it “Frisbee”. I sort of listened to the speakers. I can’t drop names because I don’t know who they were, but I can drop the name of the event. It was the very first Earth Day.
And no, I didn’t go to Woodstock although I wanted to and had started plans to go, but didn’t.
My last year at Joes I saw a man I recognized from back home. It was the Executive Director, or rather, former Executive Director of the Studio Arena in Buffalo. I hung his nondescript London Fog and introduced myself. I had never spoken to him before. He didn’t need to say that he was very happy to see me. Now, finally, the conversation was all about me – how was I, what had I been up to. I remember feeling uncomfortable talking about myself so much (imagine that). It was clear that I was the only one in the place that he knew and by standing there talking to me, he was creating a comfortable little place to be. I had heard from friends in Buffalo that there had been some kind of big shake up at the Studio Arena and he had been booted out, but honestly that was such a small little part of the world and the gossip there didn’t interest me anymore. So there we were at Joes, talking over old times, which we had never shared. He didn’t bother to sit at the bar, but instead brought his drink to my little doorway so we could talk. He wasn’t hitting on me for sure. He was dressed too neatly for that. He was simply a lonely man, much shorter than I remember. I don’t think he was employed. Maybe talking to me he could feel important again. I don’t know. I genuinely felt compassion and always greeted him warmly. And I told him he could catch me later for the tip.
Three years had passed since moving there. I had dropped out of acting school, stopped taking singing lessons and went to fewer and fewer auditions. Rejections were hard to take. I did land a couple summer tours and a few short lived off off Broadway volunteer opportunities. Besides, I was very busy working office temp jobs. Right after my sixth mugging I got a call from my High School boyfriend who had just returned from Vietnam. I did not want to wake up the the city that never sleeps anymore. We drove around the country in a previously owned Chevy Step Van that had been an egg delivery truck in a former life.
Here is another little Nazruddin story that seems appropriate right about now.
One day Nasruddin went to a banquet with many important people in attendance. He had misplaced his invitation, and as he was dressed rather shabbily, he could not get past the bouncers. So he ran home, put on his best robe and fur coat and returned. He was let in with no problem and immediately the host came over, greeted him and ushered him to the head of an elaborate banquet table. When the food was served, Nasruddin took some soup with a spoon and pushed it into his fur coat and took some delicate fruit, smooched it in good and said, “Eat my fur coat, eat! It’s obvious that you’re the one who is welcomed to this party and so you are the one who should eat!”