6 PM: The Gypsy Robe

News   6 PM: The Gypsy Robe
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Mindy Cooper passes on the Gypsy Robe to JoAnn M. Hunter
Mindy Cooper passes on the Gypsy Robe to JoAnn M. Hunter Photo by Photo credit: Starla Smith

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Production Stage Manager Beverly Randolph's voice vibrates over the house PA system at the Richard Rodgers Theatre: "We'll be doing our robe in five minutes. Fiiiiiive minutes!"

Scarcely 24 hours after the fabled Gypsy Robe passed from the Dream cast to the Titanic cast, it's time to pass it along again, keeping alive a tradition that dates back nearly a half century. The most experienced chorus member in one show adds a decoration from that show, then passes it to the most experienced gypsy on the next show on opening night.

Dressed in leotards, jeans, sweats, overalls and everything else, the cast arrives by twos and threes on the stage, looking out on a sea of empty red chairs. "Good opening," they call to one another, many clutching each other in full body hugs.

The stage is clear because all the sets have been packed away or flown above the stage, held aloft by counterweights labeled "Burgundy Scrim," "Trenton Air Show," "Flying Shin Buster" and "Ballroom Tally." With less than two hours to go before the first curtain of Steel Pier, the ceremony takes place in a welter of rushing porters, assistants, attendants and stage hands. Mindy Cooper of Titanic arrives with Michael Cerveris and dons the rob, as a guy with wild grey hair rushes past carrying sticks of cotton candy and a large teddy bear.

Cooper sticks our her chest proudly as photo flashes burst. Many are disposable cameras aimed by her friends in this cast. "Are we ready?" she asks. Terry Marone, the Actors Equity official who oversees the passing of the robe says "Hi, everybody!" They roar back "Hi!," and applaud. Marone and Cooper then tell the history of the robe, as another stagehand trundles past with a colossal washbucket full of ice.

"I got this last night in Titanic," she begins, instantly interrupted by supportive applause. "I've had just a one-night stand with this robe--"

" -- but you look great," someone shouts.

Cooper then says, "The robe goes to JoAnn--," and she doesn't have to say the last name because everyone knows she means JoAnn M. Hunter. Cooper wraps Hunter in the robe and Hunter makes her three traditional counterclockwise turns around the stage as her fellow cast members touch the robe, and give her some affectionate squeezes.

Meanwhile stagehands are taking their places. The lighting crew is testing the spots, so the stage starts to resemble a disco, with lights switching on and off, swirling in different patterns that will make perfect sense in context in the show, but now just bathe the laughing chorus in accidental psychedelia. Adding to the surreal mood, yet another stagehand ambles past, this one with a big coiled hose. Debra Monk arrives in a kimono and starts handing out small wrapped gifts as the ceremony ends.

Hunter, whose first Broadway show was Jerome Robbins Broadway in 1988, says her greatest experience on that show was working with Robbins, "a legend." Nevertheless, she said Steel Pier choreographer Susan Stroman "is my idol." "Happy opening night, you guys," says Cooper, who must now cross 46th Street and do the second night performance of Titanic.

"Please clear the stage," a voice booms out. "We need the stage clear."It's time for one last test of the technical system before opening night.

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