Chapter Two Joe Allens NYC

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?”

“Manilow. Manilow.”

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!”

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Chapter One – Studio Arena Theatre

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.

DROPPING NAMES

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.

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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!”


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