By ROBERT DOWNING
Sources no more reliable than usual at No. 16 Gramercy Park indicate that Pipe Nights began in 1905.
Hardly a man is now alive, Bill Tachau included, who remembers the day and date. At that time the conclaves were invoked at midnight. It was an era when gentlemen Players at the witching hour breathed forth contagion at their favorite Club after the theatre, leaving the Little Woman to whatever dark thoughts she chose to entertain and to her curds and whey.
In this carefree, gaslit era Players at Pipe Nights smoked clay churchwarden pipes. Hence the name of the event. Hence, one devilishly deduces, the prime arbiter of the revels became known as Pipemaster.
It is jolly to record that free tobacco was distributed. Also a gratis keg of beer was traditionally bunged. As recently as twenty years ago (a trice at The Players) clay pipes belonging to defunct members were on view in the dining room. For a time reproductions of these pipes were hawked at the bar. At contemporary Pipe Nights neither tobacco nor beer is distributed. One supposes that the suggestion of free cigars at these galas would be met by the Managing Committee with jovial opposition.
In early days no program was planned for Pipe Night. At separate tables stories were told. The rafters occasionally trembled to the singing of Goodbye, Nellie Gray and When I Fit For General Grant, a sop no doubt to the memory of one of The Players’ greatest theatre buffs, William Tecumseh Sherman.
If further entertainment was sought at such evenings, De Wolf Hopper, Raymond Hitchcock, and David Bispham might be persuaded to oblige with recitations or songs. Indeed there is no record that any one of them ever declined to oblige.
Eventually the delightful informality of Pipe Night was abandoned. A Chairman was appointed to supervise the gaiety. Theodore Steinway loaned the Club a piano. The good old days were gone forever — just as they keep right on going forever.
To list all Pipe Nights, guests of honor, performing artists, patsies, spoilsports, and special events would be more laborious than loving. To wit: a list.
In the Twenties, Pipe Night entertainers included John Barrymore, Charlie Chaplin, Robert Benchley, J. C. Nugent, Eddie Dowling, Donald Ogden Stewart, Frank Craven, Eddie Cantor, Ernest Truex, Ed Wynn, Oscar Shaw, Frank Crummitt, Harry Houdini, and Gene Lockhart. President John Drew frequently served as Pipemaster.
George Middleton became first Chairman of a constituted Entertainment Committee, whatever that may be, in the next decade. At his Initial Pipe Night in 1936 John Gielgud was guest of honor. President Walter Hampden was present, also Otis Skinner, Arthur Byron, Maurice Evans, and Sir Cedric Hardwicke.
The Thirties attracted many members to California, for reasons more economic than artistic. A Players’ West Room was established in Tinseltown, and it was here in 1939 that a Hollywood Pipe Night was observed. The rest is silence.
Walter Hampden and Ernest Truex impersonated Weber and Fields at a 1944 Pipe Night dedicated to Burlesque. Judge James Garrett Wallace was in the chair. Copping a plea, somewhere on the card, was bona fide burlesque comedian Joey Faye.
In 1946 The Old Vic Company was honored at a Pipe Night for which Robert Edmond Jones was Pipemaster. Bobby Clark, Alec Templeton, and Melville Cooper contributed to the evening.
Members under the bewitching impression than Sarah Bernhardt, Mary Garden, and Lynn Fontanne were the first ladies to be honored by special events at The Players are gravely sunk in error. There was once a Ladies’ Pipe Night at which Cornelia Otis Skinner was Pipemistress with Dorothy Stickney, Emily Kimbrough, and Martha Wright on the card.
In connection with the Mary Garden Night in the Fifties it is recalled that one of the speakers, Vincent Sheean, reminded Miss Garden that only once before had The Players dedicated an occasion to a lady, and that was for “The Divine Sarah Bernhardt.” Miss Garden batted roguish eyes at Sheean. “That’s all right,” she quipped. “Sarah was a friend of mine.”
Also in the Fifties two great American playwrights were saluted posthumously with Pipe Nights. John Mason Brown, Maxwell Anderson, Alfred Lunt, and Raymond Massey were on the dais to honor the memory of Robert E. Sherwood. Russel Crouse was Pipemaster at the Eugene O’Neill evening. Heard from were Fredric March, Jason Robards, Jr., Frank McHugh, Alan Bunce, William Laurence, Max Wylie, Lanny Ross, and José Quintero.
The Sixties brought The Players its most celebrated Pipe Night. On February 10, 1963, Howard Lindsay served as Pipemaster to honor Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson were on the rostrum. Marc Connelly, Peter Ustinov, and George Burns contributed to the festivities. Thanks to Chairman James Nelson’s wisdom, an LP album of the event has been preserved.
Maurice Chevalier and Victor Borge were recent Pipe Night guests from abroad. On April 12, 1962, an “all-star cast” honored the memory of the late Don Marquis. With Ed Anthony presiding, speakers and entertainers included Howard Lindsay, Dennis King, Elliott Nugent, James Rennie, John Griggs, John Alexander, John Seymour, John Cecil Holm, John Call, Luis Van Rooten, Charles Connolly, Homer Croy, Staats Cotsworth, and — George Spelvin!
On May 23, 1965, following the Annual Meeting held on that date, The Players offered a special Pipe Night for Howard Lindsay on the occasion of his retirement as fifth President of the Club.
Shakespeare, O’Casey, and Gershwin were subjects for Pipe Nights in the early Sixties. In fact, with the necessity of providing at least four Pipe Nights a year, Entertainment Committees have run the gamut in honoring individuals and groups. There have been Pipe Nights for sports personalities, newscasters, foreign correspondents, lawyers, musicians, magicians, circus performers, special holidays, and the Irish.
Virtually the only non-recipients of Pipe Nights at The Players are former child stars and animal actors. Their time will come. But it is sad to note that the man best qualified to be Master Piper for either event is not available. His name was W. C. Fields.
Robert Downing joined The Players in 1946, during a long and distinguished career as an actor and production manager for the theatre. He began in the Thirties touring with the Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne company, which performed The Seagull, Idiot’s Delight and Amphitryon 38 in repertory. Among his many managing credits are the Broadway productions of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Camelot, and Maurice Evans’s all-GI production of Hamlet. In 1970 he became the drama critic of The Denver Post. Faithfully reproduced from The Players After 75 Years, edited by George Woodbridge Stewart. Copyright 1968 by The Players, New York.