By RORY LANCE
As I was rehearsing a production of Gypsy at The Secret Theatre last year, a long-since-forgotten memory came rushing back. For all the time I spent on a previous production of Gypsy about ten years earlier, this memory had never resurfaced. When I was a young actor, I went to an audition for a revival production of Marathon ’33, June Havoc’s play about her years working the dance marathons of the 1930s.
Winning these dance competitions would sustain Miss Havoc for the immediate years following her running away from her mother and the vaudeville act she had starred in since she was three. She had married one of the boy performers at age twelve with the hope of developing a successful nightclub act. But at the height of the Depression, marathon competitions were all she could get. They were grueling, exploitative experiences that were most effectively depicted in the film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? In the early 1960s, on the heels of the success of Gypsy, June Havoc wrote Marathon '33 to depict her struggles during this strange phenomenon.
Around 1980, it was announced that there would be an Off-Broadway revival of Marathon ‘33 directed by the great lady herself. One Thursday, on my weekly examination of Backstage, I saw the casting call for this production. They wanted young actors who could dance. Well, I was young, I assumed I was an actor, and I had danced with my mother at my Bar Mitzvah, so this was made for me.
The audition was held in the basement of a church in Hell’s Kitchen. We had to go downstairs to a big rehearsal room -- and there sat Miss June Havoc, the real-life Baby June. She must have been in her sixties, yet she was still absolutely gorgeous. Platinum blonde hair pulled back, perfectly made up, she looked every inch the movie star she had been forty years earlier. I remember leading with a speech from Journey’s End, my go-to monologue circa 1980. She invited me to sit down and talk with her. She looked over my resume and asked about some of the roles I had played -- and about my experience as a dancer. My Bar Mitzvah with my mom no longer gave me the same confidence it had when I'd decided to go to the audition. I said, “Of course, I’m no Baryshnikov,” to which she responded, “Very few of us are.” I think she had my number. The best she was going to get out of me was a Bar Mitzvah waltz.
My knowledge of all things Gypsy developed over time. In 1980 I had yet to learn about the heartache June Havoc went through when Gypsy opened on Broadway and painted her in a less than sympathetic light. Not realizing this at the time, my last words to her were, “I’ve always loved Gypsy.” To which she replied, “You must always remember that Gypsy was a FABLE of Broadway, a FABLE of Broadway,” continually emphasizing the word "fable" to make her point. As I walked back up the stairs, realizing I would most likely not be appearing in the Off-Broadway revival of Marathon ‘33, I was still able to hear Miss June Havoc repeating the word, “FABLE!”
I thought this story might be of interest to the young actress who was playing Dainty June in our Secret Theatre production, but suddenly I froze and questioned if this exchange ever really happened. Did I really meet the original Baby June? Or did I daydream the whole thing and accidentally store it in the reality file? So I called my longtime friend Joe, with whom I certainly would have shared the incident at the time. “Absolutely!” Joe said. “That absolutely really happened. I have shared that story many times over the years. FABLE!”
Rory Lance is the stage name of Player Rory Schwartz. He is an accomplished character actor on both the musical and dramatic stages and in numerous film and television projects. He has also spent much of his career teaching and introducing young people to the joys and challenges of the theatre. This piece was adapted from his book My Year In Vaudeville.