Letter from The Berkshires
October 2012
© 2012 Joel

Quotes of the Issue

The Prophet Mohammed would be joining those protesting ignorance and poverty, not storming the American embassy.- Egyptian Journalist Mona Hahaway

A man died for me today. Am I worth dying for?- Eleanor Roosevelt Offered in tribute to Ambassador Stevens and the three embassy employees who were killed in Libya on September 11, 2012

Other Quotes

(Today’s) Republican Party....appeals to people as potential business owners, not as parents, neighbors and citizens.- Conservative columnist David Brooks

It is a world where, at times, pulling back- and focusing on rebuilding our strength at home- is the most meaningful foreign policy we can undertake, because when America is at its best- its institutions, schools and values- it can inspire emulation.- Thomas Friedman

Mitt Romney acts as if he learned his foreign policy at the International House of Pancakes, where the menu and architecture rarely changes.- Thomas Friedman

In the event of a water landing your seat cushion may be purchased for $45 and used as a flotation device.- a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette airline cartoon

Never!

Recently we visited a Republican friend whose study is lined with signed photos of him with Reagan, Bush and Quayle. We steered clear of politics until suddenly he bellowed, “You’re not voting for that asshole?” “Of course not,” I swiftly reassured him. “We would never vote for Romney.”

It works both ways. Shortly after George W. Bush left office, a man confronted the former president’s press secretary, Ari Fliescher with, “Your boss was an asshole.” Fleischer answered. “No, I never worked for you.”

Three Cheers for Mr. Leno

Congratulations to Jay Leno for taking a 50% pay cut so that workers on his program don’t have to be laid off.

Great People Come in Fourteen Year Old Packages

Malala Yousufzai, the grievously wounded fourteen year old Pakistani and others like her who demand an end to the Taliban’s ban on women’s education are our daughters, sisters and heros, too.

CVS

Have you ever wondered as I have what the initials CVS stand for? The Claustrophobic Vulture Society? An employee patiently informed me I was shopping at Customer Value Service, and I thought I’d pass that on to you.

Just My Bill

Want to make a lot of money in hard economic times? Go after people in arrears! “Debt collectors have come under fire for illegally menacing people behind on their bills with threats of jail,” The New York Times reported in a series. That came as no surprise.

This surprised me. Some district attorneys have given collection agencies use of their official letterheads for enhanced intimidation. A California single mother was threatened with a year in jail if she didn’t reissue a $47.95 check that had bounced at Walmart and pay the collection agency for a “financial accountability class” she could not afford. “The district attorneys receive a payment from the (collection) firms, or a small part of fees collected.”

Student loan debt is a bonanza for collection agencies. Grim statistics belie the lip service we give to higher education. “With an outstanding balance of more than $1 trillion, student loans have become a silver lining for the debt collection industry at a time when its once-thriving business of credit card collection has diminished and the unemployment rate has made collection a challenge,” The Times continues.

“The amount of defaulted loans- $76 billion- is greater than the yearly tuition bill for all students at public two- and four-year colleges and universities,” surveys report. “To get the money back, the Department of Education last fiscal year paid $1.4 billion to collection agencies and other groups to hunt down defaulters.” Referring to student loans, john ulzheimer, an executive of a credit monitoring service, offered this assessment. “You’re going to pay it, or you are going to die with it.”

Have you ever been hounded by a collection agency, much less one which has mistaken you for someone else? We have, often over the past few years, because my partner has a very common name. At first, Sallie Mae, a publicly traded corporation despite its governmental sounding name, contacted my partner about paying off his college loan. The first time they called was on his sixty-seventh birthday. When I told the caller his age she laughed and promised they would never call again, and for a year she kept that promise. Then came the daily calls and recorded messages. It took Congressman Henry Waxman’s intervention over time to bring this to an end.

That was just the beginning. We’ve gotten collection calls seven days a week for several years now because our phone number is paired with a person who bears the same name as my partner but who lives at a different address. When we tell callers they promise to eliminate our number, but they don’t. We know how being hounded- as in being chased by hounds- feels, but I’ve also read about bill collectors’ job distress and I don’t hesitate to make them feel more miserable.

Certainly debts must be repaid, or at the very least restructured. Many Americans are behind in their payments through no fault of their own, often due to illness or unemployment. I have some questions, then.

What kind of person does this kind of work? Do any of you count them among your relatives or friends? To me they are middle class Americans hounding other middle class Americans. No doubt many of them are nominally Christian. Those responsible for roughing up their fellow human beings to earn a paycheck are not, in my opinion, adherents of a faith that stresses ethics. A middle aged woman who was jailed over a small debt was told by the owner of the collection agency that sometimes jail is the only way they get their money. Have we lost all sense of proportion?

If bill collectors were real women and real men, they’d come knocking at our door. We’re not easy on trespassers, you know. If I had deeper pockets I’d hire investigators to check the offending companies. Trust me, no one is invulnerable. “But Joel, you mean you’d put these people out of work? “ In the bat of an eye, dear readers, Let the ruffians become debtors- or the unwitting bearers of a debtor’s name!- and have to deal with people like themselves.

No to worry, though. I’m sure collection agencies have bought representation in the halls of Congress. The rest of us need friends there, too.

May I Please Have Your Autograph?
Broadway’s Golden 1950s Part I

A reader in Richmond, Massachusetts has taken me to task about the quiz in last edition’s segment. “Not all of us know theater as well as you guys do,” he justifiably complained.

You probably all got the first one right. The first lady of the American theater was Helen Hayes. The star whose emotional range extended from A to B, some said, was Katharine Hepburn. (I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration. She never made it all the way to B! ) In one play Hepburn kept her distance from her fellow players. “Don’t worry,” a detractor told the star. “Talent’s not contagious.”

The Irish playwright who was fond of booze and died in his forties was Brendan Behan. For readers who don’t know of Tallulah Bankhead and her signature greeting, “Dahling!” get thee to a google. Bankhead was one of three performers in our experience who signed programs out of the sight of their admirers, backstage. (Vivian Leigh and Gloria Swanson were the others.) Finally, if you don’t know the name of the actress that follows the TV title “I Love...,” get thee to someone else’s blog.

Lloyd and I started our collections years before we met. Lloyd’s cousin Ann, whom you’ll soon meet, was in Burlesque, the first Broadway show Lloyd attended. Backstage afterwards, Ann prodded her six year old cousin to ask the male lead for his autograph, a word Lloyd had never heard of. Bert Lahr, of Cowardly Lion fame, had, and he gave Lloyd a signed photo.

In the 1950s my father managed a branch of John David’s clothing store in White Plains, N.Y., and he waited on celebrities himself. (Not far from the tree the acorn falls.) An up and coming TV comic named Johnny Carson was happy to provide an autograph for Dad’s stage struck teenage son. Several years later I ran into Carson in Shubert Alley and told him who my father was. “Of course I remember Mark,” he told me with a friendly smile.

The best was a note Dad brought home from stage and TV actor Art Carney, who, like us, lived in Yonkers. “Your father says you do a good imitation of me (as Ed Norton). Some day I’d like to see it.” Dad chose not to ask Ann Morrow Lindbergh for her signature on anything other than a charge. The widow of the legendary aviator asked that he respect her privacy as she selected clothing for her second husband.

Greta Garbo, whom we often saw walking around Manhattan, had the perfect approach to autograph hounds: she ran away. People would do anything to engage the furtive star in conversation. Once, in Bloomingdale’s, a fellow customer asked Garbo if she could provide him with the time, “Vy don’t you buy a vatch?” she countered.

For months I’ve agonized over how to organize this series. One idea was to divide the series into Big Stars, Nice Guys, Nasties, and Folks You’ve Never Heard Of. I’ve decided to take a leaf from The Sound of Music’s Maria and “start at the very beginning (which is a very good place to start),” in this case with the woman who, decades later, I mistakenly told was “first in our book.” But first, that story’s background.

On Christmas Eve, 1958, Cousin Ann gave Lloyd an autograph book with the first page inscribed to him by her. Ann Thomas began her fifty-five year acting career in the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus at the age of four. When she retired from the stage in 1974 she had appeared in forty-four plays on Broadway. As a Paramount contract player in the 1940s Ann landed the part of Miss Duffy, which she had played on radio, in the ill fated movie Duffy’s Tavern. Her voice graced over four thousand radio broadcasts. She appeared on countless live TV dramas and soap operas, and later in films such as Midnight Cowboy. To kick off Lloyd’s autograph career Ann wrote: “To my doll cousin Lloyd- may he never be an actor. Agreed?” Lloyd disagreed.

When Goldilocks, a musical about the silent movie era, opened on Broadway in October, 1958, Lloyd and I simply had to see it. The cast was stellar, and the Lunt Fontanne Theater on 46th Street “mine.” The preceding spring, fifteen year old Joel wandered around backstage while the Lunt was being built. I greeted construction workers as though I owned the place. I was so taken by the star dressing suite that I repainted my bedroom its French blue color. Lynne Fontanne, the wife of the couple for whom the theater was named, occupied the dressing room in its maiden production, The Visit. Subsequent occupants were Elaine Stritch of Goldilocks, and eleven months later Mary Martin of The Sound of Music.

Our Goldilocks tickets were for a Saturday matinee over the Christmas holiday. Minutes after the curtain fell Lloyd and I were on the empty stage. I had discovered the way backstage from the house during my “inspection” the year before, and I suppose we looked like we belonged there.

A tall blonde woman in dark glasses and a head scarf. both of which every Broadway actress wore back in those days, headed toward us from the wings. “May I please have your autograph?” we asked, probably in unison and too excited to add “Miss Stritch.” When we looked at the page after she left we were astonished. The signature belonged to Jane Carlyle, a member of the singing chorus who walked and looked like Stritch. We laughed about that for over forty years.

We kept more than busy while waiting for a Stritch who never came. Russell Nype, who sang the “You’re Just in Love” duet with Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam, was leaving with his family when we nabbed him. I hadn’t known actors had families, much less lives. Part of me imagined they slept backstage.

Nattily dressed Don Ameche, the male lead, gladly signed for us. A special encounter was with Margaret Hamilton, who taught kindergarten before she gained fame as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. Hamilton fondly remembered appearing with Cousin Ann in Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine a few years earlier.

My mother had arranged for us to meet another featured player, Martin Wolfson, whose tardiness enabled us to gather all those autographs. Wolfson, who played Mr. Peachum in the Theater de Lys 1955 production of Three Penny Opera and the original Captain Brackett in South Pacific, was a cousin of my mother’s friend. Martin had once gone to jail, I later learned, for actors’ rights. Lloyd’s cousin Ann had served with Wolfson on the Actors Equity’s board and regarded him something of a Commie menace. I walked the actor to the subway in great pain.

Goldilocks was absolutely awful and has never been reprised, although I still enjoy the score and marvel at the talent in the cast. Between New York’s moist December weather and the show, I had the worst sinus headache of my young life. Still, I threw Martin Wolfson a barrage of stupid questions, such as where he was going (home in Greenwich Village), what he was going to eat for dinner (no reply), and what he thought of the weather (“What difference does it make?”). I told him how wonderful he had been (in his small and stupid part) repeatedly. Then I went back home to Yonkers.

I was gray with pain when I walked in to find Aunt Helen and Uncle Sam in the living room with my Christmas present. “I have to take an aspirin and lie down,” I said before my mom could give a signal. “Goldilocks was so bad it made me sick,” I then explained. You should have seen the looks and heard the silence. “Merry Christmas!” Aunt Helen ventured as she handed me the original cast recording of a musical the title of which I need not mention. “We thought you’d like the show” was all that she could meekly say.

Helen and Sam were long gone by the year 2000, as were my parents, but Jane Carlyle, whom we had mistaken for Elaine Stritch at Goldilocks and who was not first but second in our book, was still running strong. Carlyle had written about her singing career for a Retired Professional’s Institute publication I picked up at the New School in Manhattan, where I was attending lectures, and she was listed in the local phone book.

“Ms. Carlyle, my name is Joel Laski,” I began, and ended. Thinking I was a telemarketer Jane hung up on me. I wrote to her and got a lovely, apologetic letter in reply. Others had mistaken her for Elaine Stritch during the run of Goldilocks, she explained, much to Diva Stritch’s consternation. Marty Wolfson had been Jane’s hero for what he had done for actors’ rights. Soon after Jane moved to Mexico, but she will always be second in our book.

Before Ann Thomas gave Lloyd that fateful present, each of us had collected autographs on theater programs and even scraps of paper. I’ve therefore had to rely on my memory for several anecdotes in this series, as the loose autographs are in various storage bins in Massachusetts and California and not as easily accessible as Lloyd’s books.

My first autograph was of a politician. Alabama Senator John Sparkman had been Adlai Stevenson’s running mate in 1952. My parents and I found ourselves sitting next to Sparkman on the Senate subway the spring after he and Stevenson had been defeated. In the days before enhanced security my father and the Senator chatted like old friends, and Sparkman signed my notepad for me gladly. Decades later in a decidedly bipartisan spirit, Lloyd and I bought a photo autographed by Ike.

Five years later I attended my first Broadway show alone. What an innocent I was back then. Before buying a ticket I asked the box office if a fourteen year old could attend Damn Yankees by himself. I’m sure the kindly lady behind the counter took that story home for dinner.

How I loved Damn Yankees! Blonde bombshell Gretchen Wyler had taken over the lead from Gwen Verdon, and someone named Jean Stapleton had a tiny featured role. Afterwards, I waited in the cold until every performer had gone and every other fan had given up. Wyler finally emerged, forty-five minutes later, on the arm of a husband or a beau. I was amazed to see a Broadway star dressed so casually. I melted when she told me, “You’re so cute” and signed my program “Love always, Gretchen Wyler,” I then followed the couple down the street from a discrete distance- immediately behind them-to where they stopped for dinner.

On a much warmer afternoon months later, I waited in an alley for the cast of Look Back In Anger, a British import I hadn’t seen. I did see a brassiere airing through an open window on the second floor, much as Julie Andrews’s bra was visible from the Majestic Theater alley during the run of Camelot. Was this a British woman’s thing?

Mary Ure, the female lead who was to die of an overdose in her early forties, wore a dressy afternoon outfit, as most working performers dressed like slobs, and had gone a bit overboard with her perfume. A dashing young Alan Bates was as friendly as Miss Ure, and I remember how tight his pants were. When I recounted the incident to Bates at a New York poetry reading in 2001 he wasted little time in moving across the room from me. I had the pleasure of chatting at some length with actor Jeremy Irons around the same time also. When I told Irons how handsome he was in a play I had seen at Stratford he also needed to be elsewhere. Was this a British man’s thing?

A major pre-Lloyd Broadway stake-out was by the Broadhurst Theater for the original cast of Auntie Mame. Dad and I waited by the stage door one evening after dinner. A long black car pulled up, and we recognized the occupant’s voice before the door was opened. Out flounced Rosalind Russell in a mink coat, head scarf, high heels and dark glasses, although the sun had long gone down. Russell told the press she dressed for her public, and she wouldn’t be caught dead in slacks or jeans, hear that Gretchen Wyler? The star bid us a memorable “hello,” although the sight of her fifteen year old son Lance, who was in the car, is what I remember most.

By the time I saw Auntie Mame, Greer Garson had replaced Miss Russell in the title role. Garson dressed for her public, too. Leave it to a Hollywood star to wear white mink to the theater. I tried everything I could to engage the stunning redhead in conversation, right down to talking about the weather. I could hardly sleep the night she agreed it was getting cold.

I first met Lloyd at an audition for Billy Budd, our high school play, when I was a sophomore and Lloyd in his junior year. Lloyd had a crush on stage and screen actor Brandon de Wilde, who was our age. De Wilde was appearing in a drama called Comes A Day, and we got more than we bargained for while waiting for his autograph. Like getting the play’s star Judith Anderson to sign. Anderson, the evil gal of stage and screen, was as friendly as she could be. Her eyes were a luminous blue although her hair was nothing special. Amazingly, she and my mother had the same tweed coat, which I then pestered Mom to wear more often. We ignored Brandon deWilde’s understudy, Michael J. Pollard, who later appeared in Bonnie and Clyde, and two other members of the cast. How were we to know who George C. Scott and Larry Hagman were to become?

Two Broadway musicals of the 1950s, Bells Are Ringing and Flower Drum Song, were to become our homes away from home before The Sound of Music opened. That’s when Bernie West and Arabella Hong came into our lives, and we into theirs.

Joel: Letters