Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Brushes with Fame – 2 "Tobi or Not Tobi"

In my last year of university, in the nick of time, I finally met a young man who caught my fancy. I won’t go into the details now, but suffice it to say, we began to enjoy each other’s company. We shared many interests, but unlike me, he didn’t hover around the backstage of life, he was right out there trying everything. He dragged me along with him, for the time of my life.

He directed the college’s annual musical comedies, wrote and directed the annual school review, ‘U.C. Follies’, a forerunner to SNL, and had actually attended the National Theatre School in Montreal before his mother put her foot down and made him come back home (in those days few Torontonians of our religious affiliation left the city to attend university unless their marks were too low for them to get in to U. of T. Jewish parents did not like their children leaving home before they got married, and sometimes even afterwards, too). In his spare time, he led the little Gourmet Club, a group of young gourmands who dined together weekly at whatever exotic eateries they could find nestled between Toronto's delis, pizzerias and the ever ubiquitous ‘Fran’s'. He also wrote the theatre reviews for the Varsity, the U. of T. newspaper. It was in his capacity as a budding Kenneth Tynan (in a good way) that he invited me to share his pair of centre orchestra seats to the opening night of every theatrical event that occurred in Toronto that year.

And, as the song says, “It was a very good year”, for theatre in our city.
A little background:
In those days, Toronto was on ‘the tour’ of every major pre and post- Broadway road show and many international companies paid visits, too. In 1960, ‘Camelot’ had tried out in our new O’Keefe Centre (now a condo). It was about five hours long before they trimmed it down. I had seen the whole thing and it was worth every minute. This new, ultra modern theatre and the refurbished Royal Alexandra put Toronto on the theatrical map. There were also several smaller venues, like the beloved Crest, (now a grocery store) which put on excellent local productions of the classics. Burned into my memory, is the infamous sleepwalking scene in their production of Macbeth, when Lady Macbeth, following a bizarre stage direction, climbed a high, centre-stage platform, (without tripping, even though her eyes were closed) but then got her flowing nightgown caught on a nail (oh, those unions) and had to multi-task a little, improvising the shlepping of the chiffon and the hand washing to sensational effect, for a student audience.

In my last year of high school, there were several productions of ‘Hamlet’ in town, lucky for me, since I was studying the play in English Lit. We could compare the recently filmed version, “Hamlet at Elsinore” which was actually filmed in Denmark at the genuine castle, starring Christopher Plummer, Robert Shaw, Michael Caine and Canada’s own, Donald Sutherland, in the small role of “Survivor Fortinbras”, with many real live stage productions. I didn’t have to choose, I got to see them all. There was a memorable locally produced version starring a teenage Richard Monette (later the Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival for many years). My girlfriend still treasures the coveted autograph she received from the other ‘Hamlet’ production in town. Richard Burton headed the cast for a modern dress version of the play before it opened in New York. As if that wasn’t enough, he was deep in the throws of a torrid affair with Liz, at the time, holed up in a local hotel suite, and the city (nay, Nation! Continent!) was in hysterics. And yet he still found the time to pen personal responses to the love notes of a gaggle of adoring fanettes! He was pretty good as Hamlet, too, as I recall.

So you see, unlike today, when a hit is constructed, branded, packaged, cast locally and played to death for the tourists who bus into the ‘big city’ from Cleveland, in their polyester leisure pj’s, to fill out the audience for months until the last cent is squeezed out of the scenery and the Four Seasons have come and gone several times, back then, the original stars hopped on the plane, truck or train with their genuine scenery and moved into town for a few weeks to give the local a taste of the Bard, Strindberg or Neil Simon.
Something for everyone.

There I was, going to the theatre openings like a miniature Dorothy Parker (that may not be accurate since I think she was even shorter than I was), and enjoying the finest productions of that era. Want some examples? How about the legendary Helen Hayes in the A.P.A.-Phoenix production of “The Show-off” (yes, she really was amazing), Eva Le Gallienne in a charming little confection by Ibsen called “The Wild Duck” and Peter Brook’s astounding interpretation of “A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream” which managed to ‘stone’ an entire audience without the benefit of hallucinogens. Chita Rivera ‘wowed’ us with her version of “Sweet Charity” and, for good measure, we managed to squeeze in to the Imperial Room to see Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee (excuse me, Miss Peggy Lee) and Joe Pass. Oh, yes, and Duke Ellington came to town, as did Count Basie, for dessert! Got to meet them. What can I say?

It wasn’t “Mama Mia”, but then, you can’t have it all or you’d get spoiled.

The highlight for any theatre snob was, of course, the British National Theatre, and they were to visit with three shows, “Dance of Death”, a rollicking romp through the ups and downs of a typical marriage, a forerunner to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” without the laughs, by that cheerful guy, August Strindberg, Feydeau’s “A Flea in Her Ear”, where I got to actually see what an audience ‘rolling in the aisles’ looked like and which spoiled me for farce for evermore, and Congreve’s elegant “The Way of the World”, which happened to be on my English course, how fortuitous.

The thread linking these tremendous productions together was the towering presence of Sir Laurence Olivier, the Artistic Director and the greatest actor of his day or any other as far as we were concerned. “Heathcliff” in Canada! He shook us to our cores in the lead role in the Strindberg and yet took the small part of a butler in the farce, to great effect, without hogging the stage or competing with the other actors, Geraldine McEwan and Edward Hardwicke (both with hysterical speech impediments that added greatly to our amusement and would probably be excised today, for fear of hurting feelings).

So it was with great anticipation that my not-insignificant other accepted an invitation to the big press conference with Olivier, at the Presidential Suite of the Royal York Hotel. I don’t remember whether he asked me to join him or I withheld affection until he agreed, but on the day, I trotted along, carrying his little tape recorder, to the big event, beside myself with excitement. The hotel is one of the illustrious chateaux of ‘railway hotels’ built across Canada in the previous century, that resemble castles, full of palatial lobbies, ballrooms and impressive suites, one of which we were ushered into for the event. It was packed with reporters, both theatrical, news and weather, from all the papers and networks in the region, all eager to meet the great man. The more fortunate among them squeezed onto velvet sofas and stools in the centre of the room, while others lined the walls, jockeying for a good view of the chair set up at the front of the room where the guest of honour would preside. My friend quickly wove his way through the crowd to the front table and with the excuse that he needed to plug in his tape recorder behind the chair, managed to secure a place at what would soon become the feet of Olivier, himself. I was left to my own devices, so shoehorned myself between a couple of journalists standing on the perimeter.

At this point, it is significant to mention, that all the reporters were men. Those were the good old days before equal opportunity and gender equity hiring, when girls could not yet dream of becoming doctors (or journalists) but could still marry them. I was given the fish eye by a few of the fellows, but was generally ignored due to the anticipation of much bigger fish to fry, so to speak.

Sir Larry (he wanted us to call him Larry) finally entered, playing the part of a gracious, elder statesman, and was politely ushered to the throne waiting at the front of the throng. Before sitting down, he smiled generously at everyone, casting his 'baleful eyes' back and forth over the crowd and noticed me standing at the back. He nodded graciously and stood and waited. And stood and waited. No one moved. Then, a PR flunky came over to him to see what was holding things up?
With a sweeping wave of his hand, he gestured towards the multitude and said:

“Gentlemen, there is a lady present and she is standing. Who, amongst you, will offer her your seat so we can continue?”

There was a resentful flurry of chairs moving in my general direction, accompanied by a lot of dirty looks.
I chose a perch.
Life resumed.

The bigger they are…..


  1. I love all your posts, and this one is wonderful - we didn't see everything you saw, but we sure shared a lot. Thanks for reconnecting the memories.

  2. You hit it just right again, Tobs! This one brings back memories of Burton's Hamlet, Dame Edith Evens Macbeth, as well as Oliver!, the first live theatre I ever saw. That was the day of the O'Keefe Centre, the theatre that beer built in the classic "brutalist" architectural style. Making the building into condo/apt. units is kind. Remember Hal Holbrook's "Mark Twain Tonight"? From where I sat he was the size of a flea. I suspect even elephants in Aida would appear the same.
    Your site is now on my "top sites", there for me to read each day. What a treat to find interesting content expressed intelligently.