By RORY LANCE
When I was in my teens I was a dedicated autograph hound. I would think that a trip to the theatre was not complete unless I came home with a number of pages of my little autograph book filled. My technique was to get to the stage door before the show and catch them going in. This way there were no crowds and on a nice day, the celebrated one might even be able to chat and answer a question or two.
It was under these circumstances that I was able to get some incredible advice from the great Jack Gilford. I was in the midst of rehearsing the role of Hysterium in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum at my high school when I caught Jack Gilford about to go into the stage door of the 46th Street Theater where he was performing in No, No Nanette. I remember leaving my parents at the Howard Johnson’s, not the one by the Loew’s State, but the one across Times Square by the Lunt-Fontanne, to linger over their coffee as I ran to have a pre-show hang out at the stage door.
There were always some stage hands chatting away outside the stage door and if I were a betting man...or betting teen in those days, I probably could have made some easy money with all the horse racing tips that were being thrown back and forth outside the 46th Street Theater. After a short while, I spotted Jack Gilford in a blue blazer with a newspaper under his arm walking west on 46th Street towards the stage door. I ran up to him and asked for his autograph which he was more than happy to give me. While he was writing, I informed him of rehearsing my current role of Hysterium to which he shared, “The key to Hysterium is to play him for his positive attributes. He is really devoted to the family and protecting the boy, but he is up against an avalanche of bad behavior in Psuedolus. He should not be played effeminately because an effeminate man in a dress is not funny, it’s just natural. He is a nervous wreck, but not necessarily effeminate.” Autograph: Check. Invaluable information on the playing of Hysterium: Priceless.
The first actor to start me off on my teen pursuit for autographs has remained a lifetime hero and that was Joel Grey. When I watched the 1967 Tony Awards and saw him perform “Wilkommen” I saw everything that drew me to the theatre and performance. My favorite film, to this day, has always been Yankee Doodle Dandy, so when I read that Joel Grey was going to do a musical about George M. Cohan I ran to inform my mother about it and in no time she wrote out, in longhand, her request for tickets and sent it along with a check to the Palace Theater by US Mail. That’s the way we used to do these things. I loved George M! Seeing my legendary hero, the real George M., and my current hero, Joel Grey, blend together in one musical bonanza was more excitement than my fourteen-year-old self could handle. As soon as I returned home, I sat down and wrote my very first fan letter to Joel Grey, and in less than a week, I received a gracious response, typed, but culminating with a giant signature. I will always remember his final word of advice to me, “Find out what it is that you do best and then study and work hard to do it better”.
The most celebrated autograph I was ever given was that of Miss Helen Hayes…but it wasn’t easy. She was appearing at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in a revival of her husband Charles MacArthur’s play The Front Page. I came to the stage door with great trepidation because I actually did not have tickets to see the show but only was there to get Helen Hayes’ autograph. I am a terrible liar and I had this feeling that if she stared at me while giving me back the autograph she would see right through me, which actually may have been the case. She was late. I was standing in the alley for quite some time and one of the stagehands did inform me that she hadn’t arrived yet, so I kept on waiting. Then about ten minutes to eight a taxi pulls up to the stage door and the great lady gets out. Now to be fair, the character of Mrs. Grant, whom she was playing, doesn’t enter till well into the first act, but she did seem in a rush. I probably should not have approached her, but I did because when would I ever get this close to Helen Hayes again, at least in this lifetime? “Can I have your autograph, Miss Hayes?” “I’m sorry, but I am running late.” “But you’re the First Lady of the American Theatre!” I must have hit a nerve because, with the reminder of her acclaimed title, she stopped cold, turned, and said, “Give me the paper”. As she wrote she added, “You’re making it very difficult for me.” Then as she gave me back the autograph book she said, “Why don’t you collect baseball cards?” And with that parting barb, she literally hit her opinion of me out of the park, (to keep the baseball metaphor going).
As much as I value the autograph collection, I value the stories even more which have been told again and again.
Rory Lance is the stage and pen 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.