By RORY LANCE
Those of a certain age anticipated two annual television events: the broadcasts of The Wizard Of Oz on CBS and the NBC presentation of Peter Pan with Mary Martin. When TV Guide announced airdates for these two classics, other planning ceased and all activity was arranged in those days before Betamax, VCR, DVR, and On Demand. These were true family events: it would be another whole year before we could hope to watch them again, and besides, most American homes had only one television set.
For twenty-six years, I taught at a high school around the corner from the NBC studio in Brooklyn. I was thrilled to learn that during the taping of Peter Pan, NBC rented an apartment in my neighborhood for Mary Martin so she wouldn’t have to commute back and forth from Manhattan. I have often wondered if Miss Martin stood on line, on occasion, at the very same bagel store where I bought my lunch for years.
Even though Peter was the hero of the story, my interest lay elsewhere. My six-year-old self was mesmerized by the brilliance of Cyril Ritchard as the “Villainous Captain Hook.” No other actor has ever played that role with such panache. Why? Because most others fall into the trap of foolishly playing …a PIRATE! Mr. Ritchard’s secret was simple: make the pirate stereotype walk the plank and replace it with the most silly, clownish, foppish, Christmas-Pantomime Dame that ever trod the boards of Drury Lane.
I particularly loved the moments when Ritchard would wink at the television audience. For instance, at the end of “Hook’s Tarantella” he exits by repeating the phrase “To the ship!” over and over, until he delivers his final “To the ship!” right into the camera lens in a way that says, “Enough, I’m going to my dressing room!” This was the moment that always had me giggling uncontrollably. After buying a pirate hat and sword at Ginsberg’s Toy Store, I completed the ensemble by tying my bathrobe belt in back for a bit of pirate flair and wearing a white shirt with a hanky tucked in at the neck as a quite serviceable jabot. I also had the curved handle of my father’s recently deceased umbrella to use for a hook. With my costume complete, I would dance around the kitchen singing, “What a pride, what a joy, Mrs. Hook’s little baby bo-oy” while my mother Shaked-’N-Baked a chicken.
Cyril Ritchard remained a personal hero and the kind of “character” actor I aspired to be. Now fast forward to college. My friend Peter showed me an ad for the Westbury Music Fair promoting a tour of No, No, Nanette starring Ruby Keeler (reviving her star turn on Broadway). Even better, in the role that Jack Gilford played on Broadway would be none other than Cyril Ritchard! So we quickly ordered tickets and pointed my 1972 Chevy Vega towards the Westbury Music Fair for our moment with the “Murderous Captain Hook.”
I don’t know how it looks today, but back in 1973 the Westbury Music Fair was this round flying saucer of a building in the middle of nowhere. There was a small paved parking area amid an endless field that could have worked for a outdoor production of Oklahoma! We arrived early, before the half-hour actors’ call, and it worked to our advantage — because at that moment Peter said, “Oh my God!” and pointed out to the field. There, about forty feet away, in a tweed coat walking his two white toy poodles, was none other than the “Terrible Captain Hook,” my hero, Cyril Ritchard.
Peter and I walked out to greet him and to our good fortune Mr. Ritchard didn’t run away. We chatted for a bit and finally I said, “I know you have heard what I am about to say hundreds of times, but Captain Hook has been a favorite performance for pretty much my whole life.” To which he replied, “Ah yes, Captain Hook. Many years ago I resigned myself to the fact that Captain Hook will be the role I am most remembered for. I suppose there are a lot worse things to be remembered for.” If you have ever shared a good laugh with someone you admire, it becomes a defining moment. We were savvy enough to know when to make our exit. We said our goodbyes and thanked the actor for his time as he said, “Enjoy the show, I need to be getting along and get ready, but this one” — as he tugged the leash of the poodle to his right — “this one is being a bit difficult this morning.” With that we left what we now knew to be the “Very Gracious Captain Hook.”
A few years later I was saddened to learn of Cyril Ritchard's passing, but the details brought great comfort. He died onstage performing in the Chicago company of Side By Side By Sondheim. If ever an actor deserved that particular honor of doing what he loved up to the last moment, it was the “Villainous, Murderous, Terrible, Very Gracious…Legendary Captain Hook.”
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.