There is one downside of annually attending 250-300 theatrical productions: I don't see more than five or six movies a year. Yet I made sure I saw "The Thomas Crown Affair" moments after its release. Only a production of Follies would have kept me away.
That's because original "Thomas Crown Affair," nee "The Crown Caper, "was made in Boston, my hometown, during the summer of 1967. I was an extra in the polo match scene. Look closely, and you won't see me.
I got involved because The Mirisch Company in charge of the picture needed 114 rooms in a hurry, and the newly opened Ramada Inn where I was a desk clerk could accommodate them. Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, director Norman Jewison, and plenty of the supporting players either stayed on premises or dropped by often.
I had virtually no interaction with McQueen or Dunaway, but I'm ashamed to admit that, one day on the elevator with Jewison, I whistled the title song to Here's Love -- the 1963 musical from which he was canned. (Remember, I was very young then.) Credit to Jewison, he didn't flinch, probably because he didn't want to dignify me. An equally likely scenario has him completely forgetting the tune.
Every day I came to work, I might find someone theatrical at the hotel. Like Biff McGuire, who gave a great performance in the national tour of Mary, Mary. Or Leon Janney, who had been both in Kelly and Pleasures and Palaces. And then there was that afternoon when I came in and saw that Sidney Armus was in Room 506. Sidney Armus! He was the first understudy I ever saw go on, on March 12, 1964, when a comedy called Never Live over a Pretzel Factory was trying out in Boston. The usher brought me to my third-row seat, which I immediately left to sit in the empty first row center. As you may have inferred, there wasn't much advance interest in Never Live over a Pretzel Factory.
Armus had taken over for Robert Strauss, best-known as Animal in that wartime drama, Stalag 17. That the management had hard feelings towards Strauss for bolting is best shown by the Playbill. He had been pictured on the cover, back-to-back with co-star Dennis O'Keefe, but on the night I arrived, a little white piece of paper had been pasted over his face on each of the programs. To this day, I still feel bad for the poor production assistant who had to cut up the pieces and rubber-cement them.
Because I'd never encountered an understudy in my 32-month theatregoing career, I was prepared for the worst. He wouldn't know his lines or where to walk. How could he? No one could learn so much so fast. I was sure his wig would fall off, too.
None of the above. Sidney Armus gave as fine a performance as one can expect from a play called Never Live over a Pretzel Factory. That was the night I began to learn that understudies can do a good job, and usually do.
Now, three years following the nine-performance run of Never Live over a Pretzel Factory, I dialed his room.
"Is this Mr. Armus in Room 506?"
"This is the front desk. We're going to have to move you to another room."
"Why?" he said, astonished. "There's nothing wrong with my room."
"There may not be, sir, but Room 406 is a pretzel factory."
There was a long second before it sunk in. Then he gave a big laugh, and said, "I'll be right down. You're someone I want to meet."
We had a nice chat about his part of the original productions of Wish You Were Here (he was astonished when, after the show opened in New York to putrid reviews, Josh Logan pulled them into rehearsals and reworked it) and The Odd Couple (He may have been the poker player with the least number of lines, but for the rest of his life he could say that he originated a role in a household-name hit). We talked for at least an hour, and a good time was had by both.
On the other side of the coin, there was Hillard Elkins.
And to think I was so ecstatic when I saw that we had a reservation for him. Here was the producer of Golden Boy, and Come on Strong, a play that starred Van Johnson and Carroll Baker, which may not mean much to you but was the very first non-musical I ever saw on stage, during its Boston tryout.
Better still: Elkins also had under option two of my favorite books, Robert Gover's The $100 Misunderstanding and Kurt Vomnegut's Cat's Cradle, and planned musicals of them. I couldn't wait to talk to him about those. Not to mention the time he planned to import to Broadway an Italian play called La Lupa that would star Anna Magnani -- who'd do it in Italian.
So when he came in, I immediately started babbling all of the above. He smiled weakly and nodded, as if he expected everybody to know all that about him. Nevertheless, I put him in 401, one of our best rooms.
The next day I had to work a double shift -- 7 AM till 11 PM. Around 8:30 the morning, Elkins came to the desk holding a pair of mustard-colored pants. "I need these pressed."
"Oh," I said sympathetically, "the cleaners only come one a day, at seven, and I'm sorry to say you missed them."
He put the pants on the counter. "Get them done," he said, then left.
Around five he returned. From the way he said, "I left some pants here to be cleaned this morning," I could see that he didn't recognize me.
"Well, they weren't done -- "
"What?!" he snapped. "I was assured by the clerk on duty this morning that they'd be done."
I was apoplectic. "I was the clerk on duty this morning, and I told you they wouldn't be done."
He sighed deeply, but he wasn't embarrassed, and certainly not apologetic. "Give 'em back."
Years passed. Elkins co-produced The Rothschilds and Oh! Calcutta! I became a teacher, then a writer. And during the revival of The Rothschilds, I did a piece that mentioned "The Producer," the unflattering book Christopher Davis wrote about Elkins during that era.
Eight months after the article was published, I received a phone call. "This is Hillard Elkins, and my friend Mike Burstyn just told me what you wrote about me."
The best defense is a good offense. "Mr. Elkins, you don't remember me, but I first met you when you were staying at a Ramada Inn where I was worki -- "
" -- I have never," he interrupted, "stayed at a Ramada Inn."
I smiled. "Yes, you did, when you came to Boston during the filmi -- "
" -- I have never stayed at a Ramada Inn."
"Yes, for The Thom -- "
"-- I have NEVER stayed at a Ramada Inn."
Now I was angry. "Room Four! Oh! One! At the Ramada Inn on Soldiers Field Road in Boston."
"You," he said airily, "must be confusing me with someone else."
"You produced Golden Boy! And Come on Strong! And The Rothschilds! You were going to do musicals of The $100 Misunderstanding and Cat's Cradle, but never did! You were going to import an Italian play called La Lupa and have Anna Magnani do it in Italian!"
"Your memory is extraordinary," he conceded, "except for one thing: I have NEVER stayed at a Ramada Inn. Are you sure that you didn't work at the Ritz-Carlton?"
Here came that ol' apoplexy. "And one day you came down in the morning and threw a pair of pants at me and said to get them done by that evening! And I told you that the cleaners had already picked up and wouldn't be back until the next day! And you said to get them done no matter what! And when you came back that night I was still on! And when I told you they didn't get done, you said, 'I was assured by the clerk on duty this morning that they'd be done."
"Oh," he said, immediately contrite, "That does sound like me."
Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theater critic for the Star-Ledger. You may E-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com