Elaine Stritch Bids the Stage Farewell at Cafe Carlyle; Playbill Was There
By Robert Simonson
Tony Award winner Elaine Stritch offered stories and songs on April 2, the start of a weeklong engagement — her farewell to showbiz — at the Cafe Carlyle.
Half of the show at Elaine Stritch's farewell stand at the Cafe Carlyle was in the audience.
A couple feet from the stage sat Bernadette Peters. Across from her was Tony Bennett. Next to Tony was Liza Minnelli, and next to her was Michael Feinstein. Near the door was James Levine of the Met. And in the far corner was Tom Hanks, his wife Rita Wilson, and Martin Short. Even for the most jaded New Yorker, it was a starry room.
The 88-year-old Stritch was aware of the wattage in the room. With her usual mix of salty cynicism and teary sentimentality she called the opening night of her one-week stay — titled Elaine Stritch at the Carlyle: Movin' Over and Out running April 2-6 — "the most frightening night of my life. There are stronger men than me in the audience."
Hanks, whose show, Lucky Guy, had opened the night before, was of particular fascination to Stritch. "You have no right to be that talented," she said. She continued to vamp on Hanks for another ten minutes, praising his performance in "Sleepless in Seattle" and congratulating him on his Broadway debut, leaving Hanks no choice but to shout out "I love you!" from his banquette. When she said she had some advice for the movie star, he yelled, "I've got my pen! I'm ready!"
"This is an evening with Tom Hanks," Stritch joked after a while. "When is your opening?"
"Well, it was last night," called back the film star, "but it pales in comparison to tonight!"
The actress and icon referred to her goodbye act as "just saying hello. I've been getting on stage and saying hello all my life." Following her performances at the Carlyle, where she has performed off and on since 2005, she will retire and move back to her native Michigan. "I'm going to be taking it easy," she said, "because every time I leave the building lately, I fall on my ass!"
As a piece of cabaret, the evening was more talk than song, though her longtime musical director Rob Bowman sat at the ready at the piano the whole while. Stritch sang a total of three numbers, each lasting about a minute: the World War I-era ditty "How You Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm"; a bit of a Cole Porter paternity-suit parody of "You're the Top" called "You're the Pop" ("My mistake was in getting plastered/What a break for the little bastard"); and Rodgers and Hart's "He Was Too Good to Me."
The remainder of the hour-long show was taken by reminiscences, some of which were prompted by cards plucked out of a silver bowl by members of the audience. Attendees were encouraged to shout out the topic written on each card. "Gregory Peck" led to a memory of Stritch encountering the film actor standing in the lobby of the Savoy Hotel in London. "Oh my God! It's Gregory Peck!" shouted the ever star-struck actress. Peck's cool, deep-voiced response: "I know."
"Jane Fonda" provoked a remembrance of encountering Fonda, seemingly alone, on the street. "Jane!" called out Stritch. The next thing she heard was "Cut!" It was a film set.
Anecdotes about going out to dinner with JFK and planning a hypothetical tour of Mame with Judy Garland (with Garland's daughter listening in the audience) followed, some of the stories familiar to any follower of Stritch's Zelig-like career. Two calls from the crowd to talk about her relationship to Marlon Brando were rejected. "It's too f**king complicated," complained the actress.
A long passage about meeting Stephen Sondheim teased the audience that a final performance of Stritch's signature song, "Ladies Who Lunch" from Company, was imminent. But, sadly, it was not to be.
She closed by reading from a fan letter written by Alex, a third grader in Memphis. The boy had been assigned the task of writing a note to someone whose work he enjoyed, and asking for an autograph. "I was going to write to Brett Favre," Alex wrote, mentioning the Green Bay Packers quarterback, "but then I thought I'd write to you." His reason: his mother, who was sick, laughed a lot when she watched videos of Stritch in the documentaries "Company: Original Cast Album" and "Elaine Stritch: At Liberty." "I guess I don't know much about your work," wrote the boy, "except you made my mom happy."
With that, she made her long journey from the stage to the dressing room, with stops to greet and enthuse over the celebrities in the audience.
"I've been up all night, all my life," she commented. "Now I can go to sleep at 9."
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