Fame -- Writ Larger Than Usual

Fame -- Writ Larger Than Usual AT THE 1996 HALL OF FAME CEREMONY

AT THE 1996 HALL OF FAME CEREMONY

If the nine new names added to The Theatre Hall of Fame seemed larger than the other 336 filling the foyer walls of the Gershwin Theatre, that's because they were. At the outset of the annual induction ceremony recently, Mrs. George Abbott pointed out the mistake, that the gold lettering had come out a half-inch larger than usual and would have to be redone. Swell heads deflated.

Former mayor David N. Dinkins, a man born to the tux, presided over the black-tie affair which welcomed to THE club an eclectic array of theatrical greats.

This year's roll call included lighting wiz Abe Feder, Negro Ensemble Company founder Douglas Turner Ward, two [Texas] playwrights (Terrence McNally and Horton Foote), two late actors (Joseph Schildkraut and Raul Julia) and three very alive actress (Elaine Stritch, Marian Seldes and Bernadette Peters).

Seldes, in fact, is alive and well and working in L.A. as one of Edward Albee's Three Tall Women. Stritch is in rehearsal for another of Albee (and Seldes') Pulitzer Prize-winning outings--the Broadway revival of his 1967 play, A Delicate Balance, which will open at the Plymouth on April 21.The 86-year-old Feder was the oldest living person ever inducted in the Theatre Hall of Fame, and 46-year-old Bernadette Peters was the youngest.

"It's a great experience to be a performer," said the latter. "You get to learn so much about yourself by doing characters with other people's points of view and other writers' points of view. You're out there totally vulnerable, exposed, taking risks--that's what a performer loves to do, is take risks--and just go out there and see what happens and pray that you're surprised and hope also that the audience is surprised and goes along with you on this adventure, this journey. It's such an exciting feeling to have a camaraderie and a connection--and that happens to a whole group of people you don't even know."

Manhattan Theatre Club's Lynne Meadow, who directed Peters in "Sally and Marsha," mentioned in her introduction to the actress that she had been performing since she was 13 and the road-company Dainty June of Gypsy--but Peters said that bio was out of date and she'd been acting even longer than that. "I became a member of Equity when I was nine with a show that closed out of town called 'This Is Goggle.' The reviews said things like "This is Goggle," gurgle, gurgle' and 'I'm getting on "Goggle".' Even at nine, I knew the only place to go was up, but I didn't realize I'd ever come to these heights and have my name embossed in gold in the hall of a Broadway theatre."

There is something about reaching this pinnacle that makes one remember the nadir. McNally had the same flashback when he thanked Ted Mann, who produced his first play--to one of the worst critical receptions in Christendom. "That will be my claim to fame when I'm gone: No play got worst reviews than Things That Go Bump in the Night. One review began, "The American theatre would be healthier if Terrence McNally's parents had smothered him in his cradle.'"

His parents were the first he thanked--New Yorkers who moved to Corpus Christi but kept the theatrical muse alive in him, taking him to New York on theatre visits--he saw Stritch do "Zip" in the Pal Joey revival--and even to Dallas to see Carol Channing (another icon present) do Gentleman Prefer Blondes.

"People like that you have to thank--your parents and the people up there doing it," he said. He also thanked a high-school teacher who opened up the world of Shakespeare to him and a college drama teacher he nurtured that. "I have to thank my friends, Robert Drivas and Jimmy Coco, who were there for me as friends and as talents," he added. "I have worked with some of the best actors this country has, and I consider them my friends--people like Nathan Lane, Christine Baranski and Tony Heald. We have all grown up together."

The other Texas playwright, Foote, said essentially he owed it all to seeing three Ibsen plays--The Master Builder, A Doll's House and Hedda Gabler--at the age of 18 when he was in California trying to be an actor in movies.

The third Texan conspicuously in attendance--syndicated columnist Liz Smith--introduced Pal Stritch by skipping down the memory lane of their relationship which began when she caught her Pal Joey act in Chicago. Even then she was a Star. To put a point on it, said Smith, "ever since she first sang 'No no no no, I don't wanna leave the Congo, no no no no' in a show called 'Angel in the Wings,' she had theatrical lore around her like a fox fur biting its ass!"

The honoree was a match for the high humor of her introduction and, in an unchartered extemporaneous fashion, succeeded in touching more than a few hearts. "If there's one thing I've learned in a long career on this town, I think I've learned how to live," Stritch said, "and, as a result, I'm finally learning how to act. I cannot tell you what a thrill that is--to finally, in a chosen career, know what you are doing. It is the greatest thrill for someone who fooled 'em a good many years to know what the hell I'm talking about."

There were examples, she readily cited, of NOT knowing what she was talking about--like the time the audience went crazy with laughter when she sang "Zip/I'm a heterosexual." She just shrugged. "I thought, 'Well, this is New York. I thought heterosexual was gay. Because it had the word sex in it,it had to be, because any heterosexual relationship I had did not have sex in it.

"I never asked. Anybody. I said, 'If you're getting a laugh, you just shut up and do it. Don't let that director know you don't know what that word means.

"And I'm even embarrassed to say this because I'm going to go to work with Edward Albee. In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I thought there was a son."

The 1995 ceremonies was videotaped for the achieves of Theatre-on-Film at Lincoln Center, to whom Blackwell left all of his Theatre Hall of Fame memoralia. And the piano that Peter Howard performed at during the show was part of the same collection--a gift Noel Coward had given to Blackwell.

-- By Harry Haun