Blythe Danner was there in the mid-1960s.
"Girls were running up and down the stairs singing," Danner recalls. "Rockettes, opera singers, budding actresses. There was a great feeling of life. We were all there just to start our lives in New York." And "the rent was $30 a week, including two meals a day."
For Carol Burnett, it was the mid-1950s. She lived in a room for five women, with five cots and five dressers, one bathroom, one closet.
"I was given the corner cot and dresser," she wrote in her 2010 memoir, "This Time Together." "The bathroom always had newly washed stockings, panties and bras hanging on the towel rods. The closet looked like it had exploded, leaving skirts, blouses, coats, sweaters and shoes piled on top of one another from ceiling to floor." Danner and Burnett are remembering the Rehearsal Club, two connected brownstone buildings on West 53rd Street in Manhattan that provided refuge for young women who had arrived in New York from all over the country with that dream of theatrical success, which has propelled countless thousands to a life of auditions in the big city.
The club closed in 1979, but since it traces its origins to 1913, a group of alumnae is getting together for a centennial celebration beginning June 27. On that evening at 6 PM, at the Bruno Walter Auditorium of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, at Lincoln Center, there will be a three-part event open to the public: the screening of a trailer, narrated by Danner, for a proposed documentary on the club; excerpts from a work in progress, Good Girls Only – The Rehearsal Club Musical; and a panel discussion on the need for affordable housing for young performers arriving in New York City.
On June 28 6 PM at the Museum of Modern Art, by invitation only, there will be a reception, a screening of the documentary trailer, and two short films about Rehearsal Club residents, Phyllis Jeanne Creore, the NBC Canteen Girl in World War II, and Doris Eaton Travis, the last of the Ziegfeld girls, who died in 2010 at age 106. On June 29 at the Players Club there will be a dinner for members of the Rehearsal Club and their families from around the country and the presentation of its Key Award to a young actress "who best exemplifies the Rehearsal Club girl." (For additional information visit rehearsalclubnyc.com.)
"It developed a reputation as a lucky club," says Lee Kelley, chair of the Rehearsal Club Women's Group, who lived at the club from 1972-74. And indeed, successful residents from decades past include such well-known performers as Lisa Kirk, Anna Russell, Ruth Hussey, Jo Van Fleet, Sandy Duncan, Audrey and Jayne Meadows and Bibi Osterwald.
Betty Lynn, Barney Fife's girlfriend Thelma Lou on "The Andy Griffith Show," was a resident, as was Donna Douglas, Elly May on "The Beverly Hillbillies," and Constance McCashin of "Knots Landing." Kim Cattrall of "Sex and the City" was there in the early 1970s.
Melanie Mayron, who played photographer Melissa Steadman on "Thirtysomething" and is now a Hollywood TV and film director, was there as well.
"I came from suburban Philadelphia right out of high school and went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts," Mayron recalls, "and I had to find my own housing. It was brownstones right across from CBS near Sixth Avenue, the most amazing location in the city."
Generally the young women lived two or three to a room, but there was also Burnett's five-person accommodation. The number of residents varied. It ranged from about 25 to 40, though occasionally reached 50 or so.
"It was such a safe place to be," Mayron says. "New York then wasn't as nice and clean as it is now. It could get pretty funky around Times Square and the theatre district, and Broadway and 72nd Street was called Needle Park. Our headmistress watched over everybody."
The story of the Rehearsal Club, Kelley says, begins with a woman named Jane Harriss Hall, a deaconess of the Episcopal Church. Hall ran an arts club for students, heard about an ailing young aspiring actress and went to visit her. "She wanted to help the actress," Kelley says, "and she goes into the room and finds the young actress with a loaded pistol beside her bed. Hall said, 'You aren't going to commit suicide, are you?' And the actress said, 'No. The neighborhood is so rough, and the gun is here to protect me.' Hall said, 'That's it.' And she decided to found an organization to protect young actresses."
The club began in a brownstone on West 46th Street near Times Square. "In 1926, John D. Rockefeller Jr. offered two adjacent brownstones on West 53rd Street, quite near where he lived – it was still a residential area at the time – to the club for $1 a year. It stayed there until it closed." The location was especially convenient for the many Radio City Rockettes who resided there.
"They were the ghosts of the club," Kelley recalls, "because they were never there. They had such a busy schedule. Sometimes they would sleep at Rockefeller Center. Every once in a while you'd see a Rockette. She'd come in and say, 'This is my week off. Hello, everybody.'" For a long time, Kelley says, "the club was not very well known." Then, in the mid-1930s, novelist and playwright Edna Ferber (Show Boat, "Giant") visited.
"She decided to write a play, and she disguised herself as a Boston socialite with a stage-struck niece. She got herself into the Rehearsal Club, talked to all the girls, got the atmosphere, said, 'Thank you very much' and left." She wrote Stage Door (1936, with George S. Kaufman). "Everybody in town knew it was the Rehearsal Club. And from then on, the club took off, especially when the film came out the next year. Young aspiring actresses wanted to live there. The place developed a cachet. If you got in there, the producers wanted to hire you."
The club received no royalties from Ferber, Kelley notes.
During World War II, club residents went to the Stage Door Canteen in Times Square. The canteen needed hostesses, "and most of the girls went over, danced and sang," Kelley says. After the war, they went to Veterans Administration hospitals to visit the soldiers.
Getting into the club was often a matter of luck. There was a waiting list, but it could be ignored.
"I came to New York from Lexington, Massachusetts, a real small-town girl," says Kelley, who studied acting and dance, worked Off-Broadway, in stock and regional productions and became an acting coach. "I had $200 in my pocket. I knew nobody. But I had the dream. I stayed at the East End Hotel for women, in a shoebox of a room, in Yorkville.
"After a couple of months, I stumbled into a big cattle call. There were people everywhere. While I was waiting three or four hours to sing my 8 or 16 bars, I noticed some people from the Boston Conservatory. I had studied there, so I went over and sat down. I started talking with one girl – I didn't know her – and she said she lived at the Rehearsal Club, the famous Rehearsal Club.
"I said I had never heard of it. She proceeded to tell me the story of Stage Door and all the well-known occupants. And her next sentence was, 'My roommate is moving out; would you like to move in?' The next week, [I moved in]. It was $40 a week. Room and board." Men were not allowed upstairs but, Kelley says, of course they sneaked in.
Sometimes the club would help the residents put on a show so they could get entertainment folk to come see them and perhaps offer them jobs, or at least to be their agents. As Burnett tells it in her book, one night in March 1955 she got her housemates together in a room and said an agent had suggested they do their own show. They chipped in for a rehearsal room, wrote a script, chose songs. They called it The Rehearsal Club Revue. Now they needed money for a hall.
"Miraculously, the rich ladies who contributed to the club came up with the $200 we needed . . . . We sent penny postcards to every producer and agent in town inviting them to our show, the postcard being their ticket."
Producers and agents came, "and after our two evenings, three of us got agents."
Residents could also hear from their clubmates what was happening around town, what shows were planning to open, where the auditions were.
"There was a very nice feeling of camaraderie among the girls," Blythe Danner says. "I think it's necessary for something like this to happen again."