PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill—Audra Takes a Holiday

By Harry Haun
14 Apr 2014

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"We had open auditions for Pepi because the producers wanted to find a dog that was already living in New York City," recalled Berloni, "but, out of the hundreds of applications we got, there wasn't one I thought would work, so we used my Legally Blonde dogs. The little dog tonight appeared in the national tour of Legally Blonde."

There are tricks to bring out a dog's affection. "We actually put peanut butter on Audra's glass, but this dog—when you bring her two inches in front of your face—she'll give you a kiss. So it's choreographed. Audra's controlling when the licks happen.

"The other part of this situation is that Audra, being such a method actress and a dog lover—she has three dogs of her own—said, 'What can I do to make the dog fall in love with me?' In between shows, she takes naps with it. An hour before curtain, it goes to her dressing room, and they play. She has really made this dog her own."

The play opens in March 1959, about four months before Holiday, tragically all of 44, would die of cirrhosis and heart failure at a hospital in Harlem.

The play's setting is a then-popular, now-extinct bar at 15th and Bainbridge Streets in North Philadelphia, a slight upgrade from a sleazy club that inspired the play.

"A friend of mine saw her a few months before she died in a small dive in North Philly," Robertson recalled. "I named it Emerson's Bar and Grill because she was bare and grilled, telling her life to the audience. I don't know the actual name of the place where he saw her, but he said only six or seven people were there to see her. The incongruity of an artist of her stature being so ignored—I don't want to cry telling you this, but it haunted me. My reason for writing this is to rid myself of that ghost.

"The play could have been set in any number of other cities in America of the late '50s where racism was rampant—Boston or New York or Birmingham or Atlanta—but it's set in Philly primarily because my friend saw her there and it was the place that sent her to prison. Philadelphia was not very high on her appreciation list. As she says in the play, 'Philadelphia's always been the rat's ass for me.' I also set it there because it would bring up—for the character—all of these emotions."

At 77, after writing plays (some 40, he estimates) for the past 35 years, Robertson suddenly—and, judging from the broad grin, happily—finds himself a Broadway playwright. "Since Lady Day, there has been more attention to the biographical plays I've done, but, in Europe and in Canada, more of the other plays have been done."