As part of our 100th Anniversary, we are collecting written stories and videotaped memories from members of our local community. Please enjoy this wonderful story that captures the feeling of the era, the excitement of live theater, and the special place the Shubert holds in so many peoples’ hearts.
I had been stage-struck for as long as I could remember – ever since I saw Shirley Temple doing a twinkle-toes with Bo-Jangles Robinson. I don’t remember the name of the first movie she starred in, but I saw them all. We aged together. She was only four months my junior. When I was seven she was a famous movie star. It was the year I was rushed to the hospital at midnight for an emergency appendectomy. The pain was worth it because my reward was a prized gift.
The first thing I saw when the anesthesia wore off was an honest-to –goodness Shirley Temple doll, with real human hair, all blond and curly and eyelids that blinked open and shut when her head was tilted the right way. I never quite forgave my younger brother when in a cruel and mischievous moment he tore off one of her legs (Twenty-four years later, my seven year old daughter had a tonsillectomy. I bought her a twin to my own Shirley Temple).
It was Spring of 1944, my junior year of high school and about six weeks before the big Allied offensive in Europe, -D-Day. War movies dominated the silver screen, school children bought “war stamps”, sugar was rationed, silk stockings were a thing of the past (before the age of nylons!). My father was a member of the Auxiliary Police Force and patrolled the streets at night to enforce the blackout.
A typical bobbysoxer, I wore penny loafers, Sloppy Joe sweaters and my father’s white dress shirttails flapping loosely over blue jeans. My friends and I dutifully knitted scarves and socks to warm the necks and feet of our young men fighting on the European front. (Pity the guys who were the recipients of my disastrous, full of dropped stitches, items). We baked brownies to ship to our boyfriends, our mothers’ sacrificing the precious rationed sugar and chocolate for a good cause. Of course, the goodies hardly ever arrived at their destinations in edible condition.
My favorite classes in high school were Play Production and Radio Production. I flipped when a skit I wrote (with a war theme, of course) was chosen to be presented at General Assembly. I played the British Army nurse, accent and all.
The Shubert Theatre in New Haven was famous. Most shows opened there before going to Broadway. Second balcony seats cost $1.20 and if I didn’t have a date who could afford to take me – Dutch treat was a no-no – I’d go on Thursday night with a girl friend or without. For a couple of hours every week I was Ethel Barrymore in “The Corn was Green”, Gertrude Lawrence in “The King and I” or one of the principals in the acclaimed musical “Oklahoma!”; never mind that I could neither dance nor sing. Better yet I WAS Margaret Sullivan in “The Voice of the Turtle”.
One Day early in May I excitedly read an ad in The New Haven Register: “Wanted, six or eight teenagers as walk-ons in a pre-Broadway production of a new play opening at the Shubert Theater. Auditions Monday Afternoon 2-5” I shared that bit of information with my best friend, Joyce. She, too, was stage struck and confident she would be one of the chosen. We both had difficulty concentrating on classes and when the last school bell rang at 1:00 we literally sprinted down Elm Street and across College Street, arriving at the theater at 1:30.
There it was on the marquee: “Love on Leave” starring Bert Freed and Rosemary Somebody. (the “Somebody” my substitute for a name I have long forgotten.)
I was crestfallen when I saw the mob of hopefuls waiting to get into the theater. There I was, all five feet two of me, in a wrinkled blue and white cotton dirndl dress, white bobby sox and penny loafers; arms filled with my chemistry, math and Spanish books. There I was, competing with at least one hundred fifty kids, most of them taller and older looking than me. Joyce and I were swept up with the slowly moving crowd, forming an uneven line until about an hour later we found ourselves on stage with about 50 or 60 others.
Pacing back and forth in front of us was a short, round man. A black beret sat at a rakish angle on his head of sleek, black hair. As he shouted orders, waving his arms to the right and to the left of him I couldn’t decide if he resembled a British Commando, as depicted in all the war movies, or perhaps a French impressionist artist, minus his palette and paintbrush. His accent was thick and heavy. Was it French, or Russian? Was it real? Obviously he was The Director.
He was now screaming at a visibly shaken, pimply-faced, painfully skinny young man who was standing near him. “No! No! You won’t do!, dismissing him. The poor fellow bowed his head and slumped off stage.
Mr. Director’s eyes swept over the crowd of us. Suddenly he thrust his right arm out in front of him and authoritatively shouted, “You, you there!” his index finger pointing in my direction. I looked at Joyce and then turned my head to look in back of me and up at a very tall girl.
“No! no!”, he yelled again. “You, the little one, come over here.” My God! He means me. “Come here. Walk over there. Put the books down. (annoyed) “Turn around. Come back towards me. Smile.”
Thank goodness for the years of elocution lessons: walking with a book balanced on my head. Mommy, Daddy, thank you for the braces on my now very straight, even and pearly white teeth!
Mr. Director’s eyes met mine. He smiled. I could feel the hot flush of my skin. Mr. Director had finished making his selections.
There were eight of us; four girls and four boys standing as a group, waiting for instructions. I hardly noticed the moans of the disappointed-and dared not look at Joyce. I couldn’t believe it. Me! A real honest-to-goodness Broadway play! My name in the Playbill magazine listed under “Cast of Characters”. I had a fleeting thought that I got a part because Mr. Director and I were at eye level with one another.
Mr. Director told us to give our names and phone numbers to “Dick” and report back stage that evening at seven o’clock. We would rehearse until about 11:00, return for rehearsal the next day at 1:00. Dress rehearsal on Wednesday. The girls to wear their own dresses, the boys would be outfitted with sailor uniforms. The show was opening Wednesday night, playing Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, with a matinee on Saturday.
Dick then took over, as the director left the theater. Dick explained that the permanent actors for our walk on parts were to be hired when the show moved to Broadway. We were to be paid $27.50 for the five performances-a-real fortune. I was earning twenty-five cents an hour, working after school and on Saturdays as a sales clerk at the Lerner Dress Shop.
I thought the trolley car would never come. The ride up Whalley Avenue to Ellsworth seemed to take forever. I ran the long block home. “Mom, surprise! I’m in a show at Shubert’s – THE Shubert Theater.” I excitedly related my experience to her. “Oh? Well, not if it interferes with school and homework.” Cook, pragmatic, no fooling around Mother.
I was amazed upon my return to the theater that evening to see the recently barren stage now a replica of a dingy looking hotel room. Dick was there in the same place downstage. I knew all about up and down stage because one of our assignments in acting class was to design a diagram and design a theater set. I had the feeling that Dick had not moved from his place since the afternoon-even to the clipboard and pencil in his hands.
We “walk-ons” were not to appear in the first or third acts, but would be on stage during most of Act Two. While this was explained to us, the stage set rolled around and there was a replica of a penny arcade, replete with all kinds of pinball and slot machines. The façade of a theater marquee, ticket booth and entrance to make believe theater was standing upstage-left.
I was directed to walk on stage, flirt with one of the sailors and go through the motions of playing at one of the pinball machines; the two of us engaged in stage whispered conversation. At the proper moment (on cue) we were to walk over to the ticket booth and then into the theater. There was a door on the other side that led to backstage. The remaining “walk-on” actors were to follow soon after.
Rehearsal over we were then offered a tour backstage and downstairs to our dressing room-one for the girls and one for the boys. Of course the stars of the production had their private dressing rooms.
I could hardly hide my disappointment as we were ushered through a dimly lit, wide, very dreary corridor. The ceiling was low, paint hanging like huge pieces of onionskin. The bile green walls were chipped, dirty; bare plaster showing through here and there. The girls’ dressing room was not much better, but over the long wooden dressing table hung bonafide theatrical lights. A makeup man would be applying makeup for the dress rehearsal for each performance.
By the time Tuesday night rolled around I had a problem. One of the principal actors, Johnny something or the other, became uncomfortably friendly. I was not sure how to react-country bumpkin me. He offered to help me with my “part” (also offered me a beer!) and invited me to the big bash the regular cast would be having at the Taft Hotel after the final curtain on Saturday night. I told him I would have to check with my parents. Remember, I was not yet seventeen and the year was 1944!
During a rehearsal break, Bert Freed, the main lead in the show walked me to the little porch outside the stage door entrance. He had overheard the exchange between Johnny and me. He had some fatherly advice for me. “Bunny, stay away from Johnny. He’s bad news. You are a lovely young lady, but naïve “, he continued, “If I were your father I wouldn’t let you go Saturday night. You’ll find yourself in a situation too hot for you to handle.” He then talked about the pitfalls of show biz. “Go to college, marry the boy next door and have a bunch of kids. If you want to get anyplace in the theater, believe me, you have to be prepared to sleep around. You have to have awfully tough skin and accept a lot of rejection…”
After the war was over and in the intervening years Bert Freed made a name for himself as a character actor in the movies, often playing the tough guy, gangster type. He played major roles in many of the TV drama shows in the 60’s and 70’s such as “Studio One”, Hallmark Theater and the FBI. He was the first “Columbo” before Peter Falk starred in the role. He was a bit heavier, but distinguished looking with white hair; as handsome as I had remembered him. I often thought of writing to tell him he influenced my life. He did.
Wednesday night. The curtain was closed, but we could hear the muffled sounds as the audience filled the theater. Butterflies in the stomach. Thinking back, I can almost feel the emotions of the moment when I was on stage and the curtain went up. This wasn’t a high school play. THIS was big time.
Everything went exactly as it had during the final rehearsal. I wore my favorite dress, my long, dark blond hair Veronica Lake fashion, straight, slight pageboy, with a wave of hair hanging down, almost covering my right eye. My sailor friend and I did our scene in the penny arcade and then proceeded to the ticket booth and then into the movie theater which led to a small closet like area, then a door to the back stage.
As we entered the “theater”, my fellow actor turned the knob on the door. Nothing. Meanwhile, the other actors and actresses – all six of them – followed us during the remainder of the Act. The stagehands on the other side of the stuck door tried pulling as we frantically pushed. Nothing.
It was the longest Second Act in theater history, or so it seemed to me. We were packed like eight sardines in a can, without a can opener. Good troupers, all of us. We quietly perspired, softly giggling in the pitch black, our sweat intermingling. After what seemed an eternity the curtain came down and the crew opened the door with the crow bar.
I never regretted missing the cast party. “Love on Leave” went to Broadway but faced the final curtain after a short run. I followed the advice Bert Freed offered me. I went to college and married, not the boy next door, but the one who was his best friend… and had a bunch of kids.
Several years later, my mom and I were reminiscing about the War Years. Mother was not very sentimental. My pack rat habits were definitely not inherited from her. I reminded her of all the wonderful, descriptive letters my father wrote to us during the many months he was in foreign countries on a secret mission for Uncle Sam. And oh, how chagrined I was when I learned she had destroyed the letters, but saved the envelopes for the foreign stamps. I told her of the moment of hurt and disappointment when, after I had married and moved away, she threw away my treasure trove of Playbills. I was especially crushed when I realized the program for “Love on Leave”, autographed by the entire cast, had fallen victim to her “everything that has no immediate purpose – goes!”
“Remember, Mother, I was listed in the Playbill with all the professional actors and treasured that book. But worse than that, Mom, I’ve never forgotten that you and Daddy never went to see me in the show.”
“YOU were in a play at the Shubert Theatre?” I don’t remember.
You must be dreaming!”
Bernice Levine Margolis