By Kenneth Jones
12 Dec 2001
The reading of the heartwarming classic, about the yule past of a young man and his eccentric cousin, was a charity tradition 1991-93, when producer David Binder got stars — Irene Worth, Madeline Kahn, Elaine Stritch, BD Wong, Mercedes Ruehl, Kevin Spacey, Stockard Channing, Matthew Broderick, Olympia Dukakis, Chris Durang, and many others — to donate time, and businesspeople to donate singular spaces.
Binder is reviving the popular readings this year as a benefit for The New York Women's Foundation 9/11 Disaster Relief Fund. The readings will be held in the elegant, Florentine-style Campbell Apartment in the Grand Central Terminal, which has an entrance at 15 Vanderbilt Avenue, on the building's west side. In the first half of the 20th century, the space was the office and entertaining room of businessman John W. Campbell, who decorated it in a 13th-century Italian style, with lush rugs, vases, statues and more. It's considered one of New York's hidden treasures. The readings are presented in association with the Campbell Apartment.
All proceeds from the readings benefit nonprofit groups helping low-income women and girls directly affected by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The New York Women's Foundation was founded in 1987.
"I wanted to do something to respond to Sept. 11," Binder said. "[The New York Women's Foundation] was a smaller organization where we could make a larger impact. The [Capote] piece is such a magical thing that takes you back to a simpler time and place, and in doing so, it's providing the audience with kind of a safe haven from the events of the past few months."
Cherry Jones is the Tony Award-winning actress whose work includes Lincoln Center Theatre's The Heiress and Roundabout Theatre Company's Major Barbara. Ruffalo starred in Off-Broadway's This Is Our Youth and appeared in the Kenneth Lonergan film, "You Can Count On Me." Shannon is known for her comedic work on "Saturday Night Live" and the films, "Superstar" and "Serendipity." Mitchell made a splash Off-Broadway and in the independent film world as the creator and star of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Binder's previous "found spaces" for the readings were a homey bookstore-cafe in Chelsea and a Soho fabric showroom. Binder is a producer of De La Guarda (itself in a former bank, in Union Square) and was the original producer of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
"'A Christmas Memory' was the very first thing I produced in New York," Binder told Playbill On-Line. "We turned people away every night. Me and a bunch of friends, we produced it for three cents, we got the most incredible talent to be a part of it and we raised tons of money [for Equity Fights AIDS and the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund]."
The readings sparked enough interest to get National Public Radio/WNYC to record a 1992 session with Nathan Lane and Mercedes Ruehl, which aired in the years that followed.
The performers prepare however they feel most comfortable, Binder said. Some meet an hour beforehand and read, some do it cold.
Binder loves inviting audiences into new and different spaces. "When we go into a traditional theatre, we sit down and we're too comfortable," he said. "It's all too familiar. What I'm really interested in is 'found spaces.' In a way, it jolts the audience, it wakes them up. It's new, it's unfamiliar. Once you awaken the audience's senses, they are much more vibrant and focused on the event."
Tickets for the readings of "A Christmas Memory" are $25. Full bar service is available, although there is no drink minimum. Doors open 30 minutes before the performance. For reservations, call (212) 479-0807.