Broadway Royalty Rose for Elaine Stritch at Moving and Laughter-Filled Memorial

Obituaries   Broadway Royalty Rose for Elaine Stritch at Moving and Laughter-Filled Memorial
Think you knew Elaine Stritch, the one-of-a-kind comedic performer who triumphed on both stage and screen, in musicals and dramas alike?
Elaine Stritch in <i>At Liberty </i>
Elaine Stritch in At Liberty

Well, if you're like most of us, you probably only knew half of her, the part that was most usually on display, the brash, acerbically funny, no-nonsense actor that entered a room like no one else in the business. But that indomitable force was only part of what made Ms. Stritch, who passed away July 17 at the age of 89, beloved to family, friends and colleagues.

And, dozens of those colleagues were out in full force Nov. 17 at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre to pay tribute to the Tony and Emmy-winning artist. In addition to those who spoke or performed, attendees included Cynthia Nixon, David Hyde Pierce, Joy Behar, Lois Smith, Megan Mullally, John Turturro, F. Murray Abraham, John Lithgow, Matthew Broderick, Judy Gold, Christine Baranski, Kathleen Chalfant, Billy Porter, Ellen Burstyn and many, many more.

Everybody, Rise! A Celebration of Elaine Stritch kicked off with a video montage of the late actress, accompanied by Ms. Stritch's recording of the Sammy Fain-Jack Yellin classic "Are You Having Any Fun?"

Tony winner Nathan Lane, currently back on Broadway in It's Only a Play, was the first friend of Stritch to speak, saying, "Elaine Stritch walks into a bar and says, 'I'd like a bottle of vodka and a floor plan.'" Lane, who referred to the actress as The First Broad of the American Theatre, said he hoped that was a true story. The Producers star drew laugh after laugh, explaining Stritch viewed pants as an "overrated accessory" and after seeing him in the musical version of The Addams Family came backstage and offered, "Whatever they're paying you, it's not enough!" Lane also spoke about Stritch's performance at his 50th birthday party, adding that her present to him was a "beautiful baby picture of her." Their connection, he said, may have stemmed from the fact that they were "both frightened Irish Catholics with a fondness for alcohol." Lane became visibly moved when he recalled a conversation with Stritch, who told him, "Don't be afraid to call me up for a burger and a movie sometimes… not many people do." He said he hoped Stritch, who often viewed Broadway shows from a single seat in the back of the house, was now enjoying an audience with God, eighth row center, with her late husband John Bay, watching performances by her friends Noël Coward and Judy Garland.

Bernadette Peters
Bernadette Peters Photo by Monica Simoes

Tony winner Bernadette Peters, who forged a close friendship with Stritch when they starred in the latter's last Broadway outing, the Broadway revival of A Little Night Music, delivered a deadpan rendition of "Civilization (Bongo, Bongo, Bongo)" from the 1947 musical revue Angel in the Wings that featured Stritch in various roles. Peters said during her run in Stephen Sondheim's Night Music, she had the privilege to become Stritch's good friend. Stritch, Peters said, would teach her about life, her favorite stripper's name — "Tequila Mockingbird" — and would often reference friends who had passed away, simply saying, "They had left the building." When Stritch moved back to her hometown of Birmingham, MI, Peters remained in touch, visiting the actress and speaking with her frequently by phone. Towards the end of her life, Stritch became confused, which Peters said bothered the elder actress, and she decided she would end her life as she had lived it, on her own terms. Stritch basically stopped eating and drinking until, as Peters said, with a lump in her throat, "Elaine Stritch has left the building."

Tony-winning director Harold Prince, who directed Stritch in the 1970 Broadway premiere of Stephen Sondheim's Company — which gave the actress one of her signature songs, "The Ladies Who Lunch" — said no other actor ever came close to what Stritch brought to the role of Joanne in the groundbreaking musical. He categorized her as a born original, a brilliant actress who often starred in musicals. Prince spoke about Stritch's marriage to actor John Bay, the love of her life, and their residence at the posh London hotel The Savoy, which had a no-pet policy that Stritch completely ignored, often carrying her dachshund in her pocketbook. He also pondered the now-famous filming of Stritch's recording of "Ladies Who Lunch," captured in DA Pennebaker's documentary Company: Original Cast Album. He remembered on the first day of recording, Stritch wore no makeup and struggled with the song, while on the second day, she looked terrific and nailed the recording. "Is it possible she planned the whole thing?" Prince asked with a laugh.

Betty Buckley
Betty Buckley Photo by Monica Simoes

Tony winner Betty Buckley said that Elaine Stritch was her "guardian angel," acting as a mentor throughout many years. "The martini needs to be a little dirty. Add the olive," Stritch would tell Buckley about her club singing, prodding the actress to be a little naughty in performance. Buckley also mentioned that the two had a spiritual connection, and Stritch would seem to appear whenever the Cats star was in trouble or needed advice. On one such occasion, Buckley was in distress upon learning that her second-act song in a new musical was going to be dropped. Stritch had caught the show that evening, and realizing Buckley was troubled, asked her what was bothering her. "They want to cut my second act song," Buckley told her. "What song? I don't remember you having a song in the second act," Buckley recalled with amusement. "Give them the song back," Stritch said. Buckley took the advice and saved herself from "shooting herself in the foot." Buckley said she plans to wear an ID bracelet that says "Elaine Stritch is my guardian angel" on one side and "WWED" (what would Elaine do?) on the other. Buckley then delivered a lilting version of "I Never Know When to Say When" from Goldilocks, the 1958 musical comedy starring Stritch in the role of Maggie Harris.

Tony winner Christine Ebersole offered a tribute solely in song, enchanting the packed house with Ogden Nash and Kurt Weill's "That's Him," ending the rhapsody about a much-loved person with, "Wonderful world, wonderful you, that's him, that's him. That's Elaine!"

Gossip columnist Liz Smith, who shared a Feb. 2 birthday with Elaine Stritch, met the actress in 1953, and said the two "never had a cross word. We never had a serious word!" And, she added, "Elaine left me money, which is astounding." The money, however, did come with a caveat: "It's for you to take Barbara Walters to dinner!" Smith spoke of Elaine's true love of men, but was often thwarted from commitment because her Catholic upbringing forbade her from marrying someone who had been divorced. Among her admirers were Marlon Brando, Kent Smith, Jack Cassidy and Ben Gazzara. In 1956 Stritch told Smith to quit her job and act as her secretary while she filmed "Farewell to Arms" opposite Rock Hudson. Despite Stritch's bravado, Smith said, she was an innocent who couldn't quite understand how Hudson could be both "married and gay." Smith revealed Stritch also had her eye on her "30 Rock" co-star Alec Baldwin and resented having to play his mother. She concluded by saying her friend was a "real character… a national treasure…"

Tony winner Cherry Jones and Emmy winner Alec Baldwin both offered reminiscences on video. Jones, who said Stritch was part of Broadway's Golden Era, believed audiences could empathize with the actress because "you sensed what was underneath it all." "I had tremendous reverence for this irreverent woman," Jones confessed. Baldwin said he relished speaking with Stritch because she had personally known so many of the theatre's great playwrights and songwriters. In fact, Stritch spent an evening telling him, "You really should do a Noël Coward play… Of course, you're going to have to lose 20–25 pounds. You can't do it in the shape you're in now."

Laura Benanti and Michael Feinstein
Laura Benanti and Michael Feinstein Photo by Monica Simoes

Before delivering a powerful version of "Fifty Percent" — another song from Stritch's repertoire — cabaret veteran Michael Feinstein related an anecdote that followed a performance at Carnegie Hall, where Stritch had the chance to meet Feinstein's father, who Stritch took a liking to. During a late-night phone call, Stritch said how much she enjoyed speaking with his father, and Feinstein said the feeling was mutual. Feinstein also said he was sorry that she hadn't been able to meet his mother that evening. "Damn," Stritch said, "I was hoping she was dead!"

Tony winner Laura Benanti joined Feinstein for a duet of the Call Me Madam showstopper "You're Just in Love." Before their duet, however, Benanti explained she was 18 when she first met the late actress. The occasion was a musical reading, and Benanti was a bit nervous on the first day of rehearsal. She got up her nerve to approach Stritch, who was, at the moment, testing her blood levels. When Benanti saw the drop of blood on Stritch's finger, she fainted. She awoke to Stritch saying, "Well, you sure know how to make an entrance!"

Joseph Rosenthal, who spent two decades as Elaine Stritch's lawyer, said every minute of that time was exciting. He referenced the vintage Reader's Digest column "The Most Unforgettable Character," a weekly spotlight on some person who cannot and should not be forgotten, adding that Stritch was the "Quintessential Most Unforgettable Character." Rosenthal clearly wanted people to remember the actress not just for her performing talents, but for her charity and goodwill towards both friends and strangers. She would often give large bills to homeless people; in fact, Rosenthal accompanied her one night when a homeless man said he was hungry, and fearing he might use the money to buy alcohol, Stritch took him to a fancy restaurant and bought him dinner. She was also a mentor for many in Alcoholics Anonymous, left "life-changing bequests" to many aides and colleagues, donated a half-million dollars each to both the Actors Fund and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund and established a fund for upcoming actors at the Stella Adler School of Acting.

Lena Hall
Lena Hall Photo by Monica Simoes

Like Nathan Lane, Holland Taylor, a Tony nominee for her performance in Ann, offered several amusing anecdotes, keeping the audience in, yes, "Stritches." She related that the stage and screen star refused to carry tote bags, insisting upon utilizing shopping bags from high-end stores, which would be "full of pharmacy and deli." And, as long as she had shopped at a store one time, Stritch believed she was forever-after entitled to crisp, new shopping bags from said store. Taylor also said that Stritch had a knack for testing her blood "in the quietest of moments"; yet, despite her quirks, she had an acute awareness of others and was often kind and "unfailingly sympathetic." Taylor said Stritch gave her more advice on and cared more about her work than anyone in her entire life. When she last spoke with Stritch, who had already moved back to Michigan, Stritch said, "I'm dying here," with Taylor adding, "as she might say of a performance." "Elaine, the great person, trumped Elaine, the legend," Taylor concluded.

Lena Hall, currently in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, followed, delivering a belty version of another Stritch favorite, Sondheim's "Broadway Baby." The new Tony winner was dressed in Stritch's signature white top and black tights.

Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, who made his Broadway debut in the aforementioned revival of A Little Night Music, said that Elaine Stritch was, simply, "my best friend." The young singing actor explained that at a recent dinner with his Night Music co-star Bernadette Peters, he asked whether she believed Elaine was in the room with them right now. "Well, if anyone could make it back from the other side," Peters said, "it's Elaine." Herdlicka said his late friend also had a true gift for making any Broadway opening about her, whether she was part of the production or not. He attended the opening of the outdoor Public Theater revival of Into the Woods with Stritch, and when the bows were about to begin, Stritch told him, "Honey, I'm going down." The audience began to watch this older star make her way down the steps, completely forgetting what was happening on stage. And, by the time Tony winner Donna Murphy came out on stage, Murphy didn't bother taking a bow, instead gesturing to the audience to recognize Stritch. Herdlicka said Stritch's nickname for him was "Later," the song he performed in Night Music. The actor was part of a week-long workshop in Chicago when he found out that his friend had passed away. His one day off was a Wednesday, which coincided with Ms. Stritch's funeral. Choking back tears, he said Stritch's gravestone simply read, "Elaine Stritch 1925-2014. Later."

Julie Keyes met Elaine Stritch at Keyes' very first AA meeting, where Stritch said to her, "If you weren't so bright red and bloated, you wouldn't be half bad looking." Keyes, who had no idea who this older woman was, moved her chair away, only to be asked later by Stritch, "Would you give me a ride home?" Keyes related that her truck was filled with cigarettes, empty beer cans and dog hair, but an unfazed Stritch simply pulled out a fancy hotel towel and placed it on the truck's seat. When they reached the Café Carlyle, Stritch told her, "Clean your truck, take a shower, buy a six pack of decaffeinated Diet Coke, and I'll see you here tomorrow at 3 PM." Keyes wasn't sure she would come back, but she did, and when she reached the Carlyle the next day, Elaine was standing outside waiting for her. That began a lengthy relationship that led to Keyes' sobriety. "She was an amazing woman who saved my life," Keyes said.

Rob Bowman
Rob Bowman Photo by Monica Simoes

Chris Bolton, Elaine Stritch's nephew, spoke next, and although he was suffering from laryngitis, his love, respect and admiration for Ms. Stritch was evident. "Elaine Stritch is my aunt," he said, adding, "I never got tired of saying that, and I probably never will." Stritch's nephew said he was especially proud that his aunt's work lives on in both the award-winning filmed version of Elaine Stritch: At Liberty and "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me," filmmaker Chiemi Karasawa's documentary that captured the vivid onstage and offstage life of the Tony Award-winning theatre icon. Bolton said he once asked his aunt how she had the nerve, at 17, to move from Michigan to New York by herself. "I had to express myself," she answered. "If I didn't, I'd have exploded." "Elaine," Bolton said, "Mission Accomplished."

The final speaker of the afternoon, and the one person to receive a standing ovation, was Rob Bowman, Stritch's long-time musical director, who also accompanied all the performers at the memorial. It was producer Fran Weissler who first introduced the two, inviting him to be musical director for a William Finn musical workshop 14 years ago. "From the get-go, it was magic," Bowman explained. The duo shared a "love of music and a love of each other," and Bowman said working with Stritch on her one-woman Broadway show and her Café Carlyle evenings was joyful. They often rehearsed 10–12 hours a day, and Stritch, he said, lived for the audience. "She couldn't wait to share everything we had practiced," Bowman said.

Fittingly, the tribute ended with a vintage clip of Stritch singing her signature tune, "The Ladies Who Lunch." The rare video footage captures Stritch's interpretive gifts and intensity. In fact, by the time she belted out, "Everybody Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise!," the entire audience at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre had done just that.

So, here's to the lady who acted, sang, thrilled, made us laugh, moved us to tears and kept us enthralled for decades. Elaine Stritch may have left the building, but her melody lingers on — on CD and DVD, but, mostly, in our hearts.

The rendition of "Ladies Who Lunch" shown as the finale of Stritch's memorial:

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