I spent my earliest years in little Nebraska towns that could not be classified as hotbeds of culture. Not that the people were stupid, unenlightened, or unintelligent, not that they were uneducated, but their intellectual and cultural resources were, to say the least, limited. The first show business episode I remember was a Christmas Eve pageant at the Methodist Church when I was not yet 5. I so wanted to be a part of that show that my Aunt Ida had to forcibly restrain me from running up to join the performers.
Meadow Grove was a whistle-stop, an out-of-the-way hamlet, but it had what it proudly called an opera house. The plain wooden structure off Main Street never knew an opera, but it had "home talent" shows now and then, and it hosted the Skeen Family's periodic swings through town. The traveling Skeens were variety arts performers—mother, father, two sisters, and a brother—who provided my first intoxicating taste, such as it was, of show business. I identified with Norma and Thelma, the sisters. Norma was the sedate, pretty one. Thelma was the peppy, cute one. Thelma sang "Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye," and I longed to be like her. Other early memories are of Chautauqua tent shows in big white tents on green park lawns.
All this is a far cry from theatre as we know it today, from the actor's art as it has become. And how strange it is that such a skimpy early introduction led to my passionate love of and lifelong addiction to theatre. As a high school student in the early 1930s I was enthralled with the wit and sophistication of Noël Coward's Private Lives, seen in one of those plush downtown movie palaces, starring Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery. Una Merkel and Reginald Denny were their discarded spouses. I became a Coward devotee instantaneously. Among uncounted later Private Lives on the legitimate stage were a few memorable miscastings of Amanda. Tallulah Bankhead and Tammy Grimes simply did not have Amanda's je ne sais quoi. Richard Taylor and Elizabeth Burton were the battling lovers in an ill-conceived Wilshire Theatre production in 1992. Neither seemed to be taking their roles seriously. Battling lovers themselves at the time, obviously both had been sipping the sauce. Private Lives was a bit of a disaster, but the stars seemed to be having a ball.
I first saw Coward as actor playing a corpse bobbing about in the ocean, dripping seaweed with waves breaking over his face. It was the opening scene of a movie titled The Scoundrel. Julie Haydon co-starred. My actor friend George Keyser told me he had started to take his jacket off when the film began and remained transfixed throughout the movie, jacket half on, half off. Coward—later Sir Noël—was so enchanting a scoundrel I was instantly in his thrall, simply fell in love with him. Subsequent one-way encounters confirmed my infatuation; they included Coward's performance in his Design for Living at the Music Center. Coward had earlier shared the stage with Lunt and Fontanne in a classic Biltmore Theatre staging of his same ménage à trios. Maggie Smith, as Private Lives' Amanda to her then-husband Robert Stephens' Elyot, gave what remains the most devastating double take I ever saw when she first spotted him on that balcony.
Touch o' the Irish
I saw Dublin's eloquent Abbey Theatre Players at the bygone Biltmore, in what the now-yellowed playbill terms "a repertoire of brilliant plays which will be changed nightly." Abbey stars Arthur Shields, Barry Fitzgerald, and Maureen Delaney were authentically Irish in Drama at Inish, Playboy of the Western World, Juno and the Paycock, The New Gossoon, The Shadow of the Glen. I had just played ingénue Delia Duffy with Tommy Dixon as The Whiteheaded Boy in LACC's staging of that Irish play, and was especially receptive to the Irish. Later, with a group of friends, we did Drama at Inish. The bug-eyed excitement with which my sister Joy said her one line, "The actors is comin', mum!" made that line memorable.
I saw Gladys George at the Belasco in Personal Appearance. Subtitled How Far Is the Barn?, it was directed by Antoinette Perry. Stars Peggy Wood and Rollo Peters, in Taming of the Shrew at the Griffith Park Greek Theatre, were supported by Lloyd Bridges and Peggy Converse but didn't impress me much. I don't remember much about it. Joe E. Brown, however, impressed me as the definitive Elmer the Great at the El Capitan. I saw it as a high school student in 1930 and have the program to prove it. The program quaintly gave the honorific "Mr." or "Miss" to everyone on the cast list—there was no "Mrs." I have an ancient program to remind me I saw Ina Claire in Ode to Liberty, with Robert Warwick and Alexander Clark, in 1935, but don't remember much about it except that Miss Claire was obviously a star.
A star to remember was Gertrude Lawrence in a hauntingly lovely performance of Lady in the Dark—at what theatre I can't recall. Henry Hull made a definite impression in Tobacco Road, as did the play, which was a shocker in its day. They ate a lot of raw turnips onstage.
Gone but Never Forgotten
Bygone stars in our own theatrical firmament are a matter close to the heart. We knew them, they were part of our close-knit theatre family, they were our friends. Ray Stricklyn's death left such a big empty space that it comes with a shock of surprise to realize he died only last summer. Stricklyn fortunately left us his memoirs, his beautifully written, courageous, and candid autobiography Angels & Demons, significantly subtitled "One Actor's Hollywood Journey."
Stricklyn's journey began with the brightest promise, led through disappointment and heartbreak, ended with promise fulfilled. Stricklyn was a born actor who came to Hollywood as a beautiful young man headed for certain movie stardom. He had starred on Broadway in Moss Hart's The Climate of Eden, in Truman Capote's The Grass Harp, and others. His movie debut was with Deborah Kerr in The Proud and the Profane. He was heralded as "the next James Dean." It was a brilliant start, but stardom didn't happen. For long years Stricklyn was an exiled actor yearning to return home. He did, in 1982, hesitantly at first, with his muted, sensitive performance in a small theatre production of Naomi Court. Energized by the reception he got, Stricklyn's next, bolder venture was his powerful portrayal of an ill and aging Tennessee Williams in one of Williams' lesser-known plays, Vieux Carre. The character's name was Rossignol, French for "nightingale." This led at last to Stricklyn's greatest triumph, his brilliant portrayal of a platonic ideal Tennessee Williams in the self-generated, self-written Confessions of a Nightingale. It was Stricklyn's role of a lifetime, his swan song, and a lasting triumph.
The much-loved David Schall, a founding member of Actors Co-op, made his final exit as he might have wished—about an hour before the curtain went up on opening night of the Co-op production of Uncle Vanya, in which Schall was to play the Professor. For years an integral part of Actors Co-op, Schall first impressed me with his performance as the silver-fox boss/announcer Clifton Feddington in Walton Jones' The 1940's Radio Hour. Another Co-op luminary gone from the scene is Elaine Welton Hill, who played the Gertrude Lawrence-based character Irene Livingstone in the Co-op's Light Up the Sky. A special quality of style, charisma, and panache is required to enact a famous star's roman à clef—and Hill had what it takes.
Late playwright Win Wells wrote his The Pink Triangle as a searing indictment of humanity's ever-threatening potential for inhumanity—as shown in Nazi Germany's brutality to homosexuals, among others. In the Celebration Theatre's wrenching Pink Triangle, the superb, long-gone Richard Ryder etched an indelible portrait of an aging, blazing queen, a female impersonator. Ryder, like Hill, had that inborn ineffable quality of charm and magnetism that can't be faked.
More stars missing from our sky include such extraordinary producers as James Doolittle and Robert Fryer of the Ahmanson. Fryer was one of the movers and shakers who got the Academy Award-winning movie Chicago underway. Missing and missed is director John Allison, one of the first lost to AIDS in the 1980s. Allison played the eponymous lead in his own production of Luther, and his direction of Medea was outstanding. Productions at his long-ago Callboard Theatre had special signature theatricality. The late Ron Link was a one-of-a-kind directorial star who made his 1996 world premiere production of Blade to the Heat a Greek drama for the new millennium. Playwright Oliver Mayer's drama of life, sex, and death in the boxing ring of the 1950s was white-hot, balletic, stunning. Link's directorial touch infused his work with a heady excitement that often made a play better than it was. And I remember the late Leonidas Duderow Ossetynski's direction of the Polish tragic-comedy Matka as another stunner.
It's been said no one is indispensable. Some are irreplaceable. BSW