"What I most love about theatre," Irene Gandy says, "are the relationships with the stage community. Not just actors, playwrights and producers, but people behind the scenes — stagehands, box office personnel, journalists."
Gandy, 67, has been a Broadway and Off-Broadway press agent for 42 years. She was the first and is still the only female African-American press representative in the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers. She is a New York theatre fixture, immediately identifiable by her large and colorful hats and her oversize sunglasses. Her many credits include I'm Not Rappaport, Spring Awakening, August: Osage County, Eubie and David Mamet's Race, as well as this season's Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and A Life in the Theatre.
Gandy grew up in Westbury, Long Island. She attended New York University — "for six weeks. I didn't like it." But she "fell in love with Greenwich Village," where she took acting classes and, after meeting someone at a party, was cast as an extra in a movie, "A Man Called Adam," with Sammy Davis, Jr. "I had taken one class and got a job," she says with a laugh. "I figured this acting thing can't be so hard."
In 1968 her downstairs neighbor, who wrote children's plays, asked her to fill in as an Owl. "I ran into this guy I had graduated from high school with, who was with Douglas Turner Ward's Negro Ensemble Company. They were looking for a press agent. Everyone they had interviewed was white. They wanted someone black. He asked if I would go for an interview. I knew nothing about being a press agent. I never thought I would get the job." She spoke with Howard Atlee, who was the company's chief press representative. "I wound up interviewing him about what a press agent did. I got the job."
Soon after, Atlee told her to take a press release directly to Seymour Peck, then the head of the New York Times' Sunday Arts and Leisure section. "I was always a fashionable dresser. I showed up in my dark brown suede hot pants with pink pockets, my applejack hat with pink trimming, a pink belt and go-go boots. The guard at the paper wanted me to leave the press release, but I insisted on handing it to Sy personally. I waited, and Sy came out. He was very generous. He introduced me to everyone in the department."
Gandy says that she has experienced on-the-job racism only once — not in New York but in Philadelphia, in the early 1970s. "I was handling Purlie Victorious, with Robert Guillaume. I got there and told them who I was. They looked at me and wouldn't let me in the box office."
In 1987 she was working with director-choreographer Bob Fosse in Washington, DC, on Sweet Charity, with Donna McKechnie. Gandy was at a restaurant checking preparations for that evening's opening-night party when she got a phone call — Fosse had collapsed and died of a heart attack. "It happened at the Marriott hotel," she recalls. "We told the press it was the Willard. It was a more attractive hotel."
Two years ago, to honor her 65th birthday, Gandy's caricature went up at Sardi's, to join the images of hundreds of theatre stars that grace the restaurant's walls.
After 42 years, she says, she sometimes thinks it's enough. "But then something new and exciting happens."