BOOK EXCLUSIVE: Joanna Gleason Encounters The Martin Beck Ghost in Jennifer Ashley Tepper's "Untold Stories of Broadway"

"The Untold Stories of Broadway: Tales from the World's Most Famous Theaters, Volume 1," written by musical theatre historian Jennifer Ashley Tepper and featuring firsthand accounts from actors, directors, producers, stagehands, designers, ushers and more, will be released by Dress Circle Publishing Nov. 12. Author Tepper shares an exclusive excerpt with Playbill.com.

Cover art
Cover art

"The Untold Stories of Broadway: Tales from the World's Most Famous Theaters, Volume 1," will be available on Amazon, Kindle, Nook and at the Playbill Store Nov 12. For more information, visit DressCirclePublishing.com.

*

Here is an excerpt from the "Al Hirschfeld Theatre Chapter" (formerly known as the Martin Beck Theatre). "The Untold Stories of Broadway, Volume 1" will cover eight Broadway theatres that light up New York City. This is the first volume of a multi-volume work that will include all 40 Broadway theatres, as well as several Broadway theatres that no longer exist.

1987: The Martin Beck Ghost

Joanna Gleason, Actor Because of the memories and because of the time I spent there during Into The Woods, I love the Martin Beck, which is now the Hirschfeld.

Any time you're previewing, you need to do work. It's necessary to have that time in front of an audience to work on things. It was different back then, because now there are the dreaded chatrooms. Now, after the first preview, everybody decides that they're going to weigh in, and not give you any privacy. It's always been hard to be private when you're charging ticket prices and people are coming to see you, but now it's even harder. The word gets out.

We didn't have that with Into The Woods. We had some air and space. At first, the show was too long, and some songs didn't work perfectly. Steve Sondheim and James Lapine had their noses to the grindstone, and they'd come in the next day and say, "This is going, this is new, this is being replaced." Staging got changed. But I never felt rickety; I never felt there wasn't a very strong team at the helm, and I knew we could handle anything they gave us. It was all there in James and Steve's very fertile brains; we just needed time to do the work.

The original marquee

Into the Woods was the most memorable first preview of any Broadway show I've ever worked on because of the audience reaction at the end. It was stunning. I had never heard a sound like that.

You sometimes get lost when you're in this process and you get Stockholm Syndrome. But Into The Woods was received exactly the way we hoped it would be received. We felt that what we knew to be true about the piece did make it across the footlights. It was very heartening.

The Martin Beck has a ghost, and the Martin Beck Ghost found her comfort in my dressing room. During Into The Woods, Bernadette Peters and I had the two dressing rooms stage right.

Every Sunday, after the matinee, I would close all the lids of my makeup and I would group everything together in the center of the table, so that the housecleaning staff could come in and dust without having to fuss with my stuff too much.

About three months into the run, I came in and two of my blushers were all the way down at the end of the table. I thought: That's strange. I'd put them back, a week would go by, I'd clump everything together, I'd come in on Tuesday for the new week, and two blushers, again, would be all the way down at the end of the table. Nobody was using my makeup. It wasn't open, it was just all the way down at the end of the table. Then one week, on the mirror, there was the letter "M." I thought: Oh, it's just a thing on the mirror. I wiped it off. A couple weeks later, the letter "M" appeared again.

I thought: Someone is messing with me, and moving my makeup, and having a great joke at my expense. I still didn’t think anything of it—and it went on until I finished the run.

Flash forward many years, and I was doing an episode of a TV show. I was picked up at my apartment by a teamster, and we went through the theatre district. I said, "Oh my God, I played that theater," and I pointed to the Martin Beck. I said, "My favorite time was there in that theater."

He said, "Yeah, my mother worked in that theater too." And I said, "Oh, she did?"

He said, "Years and years ago. She's long gone. And her name was—" It began with an "M." I said, "What did she do?" And he said, "Well, she was on the housekeeping staff. She cleaned the dressing rooms." I said, "Really?" and he said, "Yeah, she loved the stars' makeup. She loved to just go and look at all the makeup." "Okay, okay! Well, your mom visited my dressing room, that's all there is to it."

Jennifer Ashley Tepper
Photo by Matthew Murphy

The dressing rooms at the Hirschfeld go up many floors, and mostly overlook 45th Street.

The two "star dressing rooms" on stage right have been populated by everyone from Daniel Radcliffe (How To Succeed in 2011) to Cher (Come Back To The Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean in 1982) to The Martin Beck Ghost!

The Hair revival cast members who filled the dressing room all the way on the top floor affectionately referred to it as "125th Street."

The Martin Beck was built by its namesake, a theater owner and producer. Born in Slovakia, Martin Beck arrived in New York when he was 18 years old without a penny to his name. He built himself up from an actor to a manager to a theater owner, and founded the Orpheum Circuit, one of the most successful vaudeville and movie chains of all time. He discovered and launched Harry Houdini and he built the Palace Theatre, the beacon for vaudeville performers for the first half of the 20th century.

Later on, he built the Martin Beck on 45th Street, which he proudly boasted made him the only Broadway theater owner without a mortgage on his theater. He was actively involved in every aspect of the business at the Martin Beck, from the day it was built in 1924 to the day he died in 1940. His obituary in the New York Times shared that he was often found in his office at the theater—which had three phones!—saying, "I am the staff of the Martin Beck Theatre!" In his time, the theater housed several notable hits.

The Al Hirschfeld is one of the only Broadway theaters to have an outdoor box office window. On the exterior of the Hirschfeld, there is an old-fashioned ticket booth that it says "Martin Beck Theatre." When the house was renamed after the famous Broadway caricaturist in 2003, this feature was kept, in honor of its original namesake.