When my Dad was around – which was not long, he died when he was 37 – he and my mother would regularly fly to New York (from Toronto) for brief, jolt-of-excitement getaways. Years later, my mother would regale me with tales of the shows they had seen at the Cotton Club, featuring performances by iconic entertainers, like Cab Calloway and Lena Horne. When she talked about it, her eyes lit up.
(Why did I go into show business? I wanted to do something my mother liked.)
As a widow, my mother would join friends on jaunts to New York, where she’d return with bags full of little, round “sprinkle candies” (I think they’re called non pareils) and a collection of Playbills – the official program for all Broadway shows – from historic musicals such as My Fair Lady, West Side Story and The Music Man.
These Playbills, when she delivered them to me, were never smudged or rolled up, but in mint condition, flat, crisp and unwrinkled. (The unspoken message was, they meant something.) I added the latest programs to the pile, diligently stacked on a special shelf in my bedroom. To me, they were priceless artifacts, secret missives from a magical place.
Finally, when I was sixteen, my mother took me to New York. Not me and my brother. Just me.
We stayed at the Paramount Hotel, in the heart of the theater district. You walked out the door – rows of theaters. On the same street as the hotel!
We ate at not expensive but famous nearby eateries – Toffinetti’s, with their oversized sundaes, the Automat – you dropped some coins in a slot, lifted a window, and there was a sandwich, or a whipped-cream-topped dish of Jell-O. Then, there was Howard Johnson’s, with its 28 flavors of ice-cream (Toronto had chocolate, vanilla and strawberry), and its counter, where I’d sit and gawk in amazement at the skillful and unruffled short-order cooks, their hands flying, as they whipped up half a dozen dishes at the same time. Those gifted guys (and today, gals too) do not get nearly the credit they deserve.
Times’ Square was a wonderland of neon and famous billboards. Look, there’s where they drop the ball on New Year’s Eve! And over there, that’s the world-famous Camel’s Cigarette billboard, a constant expulsion of smoke billowing out of the billboard’s mouth.
And then, there was our reason for being there – the theaters. There were, I don’t know, maybe forty of them, in a ten-block radius, each of them sporting an illuminated marquis, the participants’ names, glowing in the night. Deep, deep, deep, deep down, I wondered my name would ever be up there. And told no one.
We saw Fiorello! (at the Broadhurst Theatre) – I had memorized the entire original cast album; it did not disappoint, coming to life before my eyes. (A bonus, I was previously unaware of – there is a character in Fiorello! named “Mrs. Pomerantz.”)
We saw Come Blow Your Horn, Neil Simon’s first stage play, at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. A reviewer of the day praised,
“Mr. Simon served up a multitude of sprightly lines. Best of all, he has provided some explosively hilarious moments rooted in character.”
That may well have planted the seed.
There was a single but notable misstep on our excursion. One of the greatest musicals of all time – or at least a musical with one of the greatest scores, and indisputably the best overture – was Gypsy, starring the inimitable – meaning, never duplicated, though she is imitated all the time – Ethel Merman, at the Broadway Theatre.
I loved Gypsy – again, I had immersed myself in the album. (That’s how it worked back then. If you were from out of town, you bought the original cast album, long before you had access to the show.) My mother, however, nixed our seeing Gypsy, because it was about strippers, and she didn’t want me exposed to such depravity. At least, not with her, sitting beside me.
Missing seeing Merman in Gypsy was one of my lifelong regrets. (I saw a subsequent production starring Angela Lansbury. She was better as a teapot.)
The last show we saw was The Unsinkable Molly Brown (at the Winter Garden Theatre, where the immortal Al Jolson had once performed, and where I subsequently saw Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl.)
And therein lies a story.
We bought our tickets at the box office, a few days ahead of time. (Back then, you did not have to be a venture capitalist to be able to afford good theater tickets. The best seats in the house were less than ten dollars. Two weeks ago, I paid a hundred a forty-two fifty for the mezzanine.)
Okay, back to the story.
Saturday matinee, we arrive at the theater, and are taken to our seats. Not bad at all – right on the aisle, about a dozen rows from the stage. We sit back, eagerly awaiting the overture for Meredith Willson’s entertaining though not-quite-matching follow-up to Music Man. Again, I was already familiar with the score.
A couple steps up beside us. Politely, they ask us if we’re certain we’re in the right seats. We assure them we are, showing them our tickets to seal the deal. We are definitely in the right seats, and the couple departs.
Moments later, the couple returns with an usher, who asks to see our tickets, which we happily produce. The usher studies the tickets, and then announces,
“You are in the right seats. But these tickets are for next Saturday.”
Apparently, the box office had accidentally sold us tickets for the following Saturday matinee rather than the current one, a serious mistake because, by then, we’d be back in Toronto.
We get up, relinquishing our seats to the couple they belonged to. The question is, “Now, what?”
Taking responsibility for the error – though it’s the ticket buyer’s responsibility to check their tickets at the time of purchase – since the seats were entirely sold out, the usher invites us to watch the show from the rear of the orchestra, in the not sold out “Standing Room Only” area.
And so, with no option besides leaving, we proceed to the back of the orchestra, where, leaning against the partition, we watch a hoarse-voiced Tammy Grimes pluckily survive the sinking of the Titanic.
By intermission, however, my mother, standing in heels, is pretty much played out. The dutiful son, I go over to an usher, and throw myself at his mercy.
“My mother is old, and I have no muscles. Is there anything you can do for us?”
The sympathetic usher walks us up to the balcony, where, ignoring the fire-code regulations, he invites us to enjoy Act Two of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, sitting on the stairs.
And so we do.
It was not bad at all. There is actually an advantage to watching a show from a balcony staircase. There is nobody sitting in front of you.
We watched the rest of the show, perched on the staircase of the balcony at the Winter Garden Theatre. With not a word passing between us, we knew, and we knew the other person new, how special this was.