By JIM BROCHU
My first time at The Players was in November 1969. I was just starting out in show business and auditioning for every show I could find in hopes of getting my Equity card. There was a casting call in Backstage for a production of The Taming Of The Shrew that would play over the forthcoming Christmas holiday at Town Hall.
The audition was absolute chaos. There were hundreds of people squeezed into a small, moldy hallway, being herded by a frazzled, wide-eyed woman trying in vain to keep it all together. I found out later that she was Jean Slon, wife of the producer-director Sidney Slon, pressed into service to help out her husband. He made his reputation as one of the writers of the radio classic The Shadow and had always wanted to direct Shakespeare on Broadway.
After I read, he smiled, said “very good,” and then asked me my age (a practice that one would be fined for doing at an audition today). I was 23 and he said I was far too young for the role, “but thanks for coming.” Before I left, I slipped my picture and resume into his briefcase.
Early in the morning two weeks later, the phone rang. It was Sidney Slon. He told me that they had started rehearsals for Shrew and that the actor he had picked for the part was not working out. He was very proud that he had seen “something” in me at the audition and had deliberately “saved” my picture and resume. Could I meet him at The Players for lunch at noon? I was excited but overcome with fear that I had sneaked into an Equity audition and was about to be found out.
I was fifteen minutes early and waited outside on a freezing November day so that I could walk into the club at the stroke of noon. I looked up at the impressive sandstone building, marveling that this was the home of one of the greatest actors in American history, Edwin Booth.
As the first bell struck, I opened the oak door bearing the seal of The Players and walked up the marble steps to the first landing. Dominating the room was a huge fireplace over which loomed a portrait of Booth himself, greeting anyone who entered. Sid Slon was sitting on one of the red overstuffed couches facing the door and leaped up when he saw me. He couldn’t have been nicer, greeting me like a veteran actor rather than the tyro I was.
“Come, let’s have lunch!” he half-ordered, half-invited. “I’ll give you the tour later.” We walked into the dining room and took a table for two against the dark wood paneled wall. Sidney was a tall, sturdy, stately fellow, with the face of a butler and the bearing of a prime minister. He began by saying that the actor he had cast returned the favor with nothing but attitude, problems and grief. I assured him that I was extremely easy to work with. He pulled out the script and asked me to read some lines. I only got a few words out before he said: “Very good. Nice interpretation. You’ll do well. We can age you up a bit.” He told me the salary was $156 per week, a Broadway contract.
Sid thought that I should join the club, and I was the first to agree. Sid would sponsor me and Davy Burns was my second. Now I had to go before the membership committee for an interview. Roland Winters, who made a name playing Charlie Chan in the movies as well as some stereotypical heavies, was the new president of the club, having just taken over from Alfred Drake, the great star of Oklahoma!; Kiss Me, Kate; and Kismet.
Sid suggested I get to the interview early to hang out and meet some of the other members. I arrived just after lunch and went down to the bar where Sid was at a table with two other men. I recognized one of them immediately. It was Frank McHugh, one of Hollywood’s most beloved character actors. I knew him as Bing Crosby’s fellow priest and pal from Going My Way and also as the actor who had replaced Davy as Senex in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.
Sid made the introductions: “Jim Brochu, I’d like you to meet Frank McHugh.”
“Hello, Mr. McHugh. Great to meet you.”
"And,” continued Sid, “say hello to Jimmy Cagney.”
The other man came into focus, my heart stopped, my head pounded, and indeed I was shaking the hand of one of my favorite actors of all time. He stood. To meet me? Good Lord! “Have a seat, pal,” he said. “I hear you’re up for membership. A little youth is a welcome addition to a bunch of old farts like us.”
“Thanks, Mr. Cagney. Yankee Doodle Dandy is my favorite film of all time.”
Cagney laughed, scrunching his face and said, “Mine too. And call me Jim.” A bit startled by his openness, I stupidly said, “You can call me Jim, too.”
The committee was taking their time and the interviews were going well over their appointed hour. I didn’t care. It just gave me more time to spend with one of my idols. Frank McHugh kept egging Cagney on, making him tell story after story.
Then it was my turn to face the committee. I went upstairs, passed the library, which contained the finest Shakespeare collection outside of the Folger in Washington; along the glass case, which displayed George Arliss’s costume from Richelieu; and into the conference room, where twelve grim-faced men welcomed me with stony silence.
Roland Winters sat in the middle. Next to him was the President-Emeritus, Alfred Drake. And George Melville Cooper next to him. Winters asked me my name, what kind of acting credits I had, what my aspirations were and then the biggie, “Why do you want to be a member of this club?”
Without hesitation I answered, “Any place where a little nobody like me can sit and talk to James Cagney as an equal is a place I want to be a part of.” They all got up to shake my hand before I left. Alfred Drake stood, and he wasn’t much taller standing then he was sitting. The giant of Broadway was about 5’6”. So, despite ending my last sentence with a preposition, I left the room a Player.
Jim Brochu joined The Players in 1970. He is the recipient of the New York Drama Desk Award, the Helen Hayes Award, two LA Ovation Awards, the GLAAD Media Award, and a Sardi's caricature in recognition of his fifty-year career in the theatre as an actor and playwright.