By GEORGE OPPENHEIMER
It is an admission of age to confess that I have been going to the theatre for sixty years, but it is also a source of great satisfaction. Fifty years or so before I became the drama critic of Newsday, I was a theatre buff, at as early an age as six when my parents took me to the Hippodrome and other entertainments appropriate to my callow years. I must have matured early since I remember my disappointment at not being permitted to attend, at the age of eight, a revival of Sapho with Olga Nethersole (I had missed the first production by not being born).
And so it is that my memories of playgoing and players are vast and incomplete, fond and often inaccurate. Older members may and undoubtedly will discover anachronisms and other errata. Let them make allowances for my comparative youth and keep their mouths shut. If, for example, I should write that Lionel Barrymore was the star of Kismet instead of Otis Skinner who, apart from dusty historians and fusty hair-splitters, shall say me “nay”?
Actually I am not likely to make so grievous an error. I was taken to Kismet at the age of 11 and became so terrorized by the proceedings that I was removed, screaming loudly, by my nanny, a large sheep dog imported from Peter Pan, to the exterior of the Knickerbocker Theatre. Once there I screamed so loudly that I had to be taken back. (I was more composed 42 years later when I saw Alfred Drake in the musical version.) However, it was then, in 1911, that I paid my first and most resonant tribute to an actor.
In response to a request for this article I have been studying the list of members for the last century and a half and tributes in profusion come to mind. There are the Hamlets — E. H. Sothern, Johnston Forbes-Robertson, Maurice Evans, Walter Hampden, Leslie Howard, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, and, to me, the greatest of them all, John Barrymore. I saw him at a matinée and was hypnotized. However I was rudely awakened when, after he had triumphantly ended a soliloquy, a lady behind me said clearly, “he takes dope.” I turned and fixed her with so withering a look that she forgot to gnash her chocolate creams for the remainder of the act. And while on the subject, let me not forget Hume Cronyn, the best Polonius I ever saw.
A fine tribute, not by me but by playwright Player Harry Kurnitz, was paid to Louis Calhern when he appeared some 17 years ago as King Lear. Harry and I were enormously impressed and gladdened, since Lou was our friend, by his fine performance.
“I want to say something really flattering,” said Harry, so he burst into Lou’s dressing-room after the show and asked, “Did you hear me laugh?”
Memories swirl into a montage without chronology or form — José Ferrer playing the young Cyrano and Walter Hampden playing the old in two scenes at an ANTA Album benefit; Dennis King as a gallant and melodious matinée idol mountie in Rose Marie; Howard Lindsay opposite his enchanting wife, Dorothy Stickney, in the record breaking Life With Father (I regret to say that I never saw Howard’s co-author, the warm and well-loved Russel Crouse, go on as the doctor in the same play in order to discover, as he put it, “if there was a doctor in the Crouse”); Hal Holbrook turning into Mark Twain and looking more like him than even Samuel Clemens; Leo G .Carroll defecting to television in the Topper series, the writing of many of whose scripts made me briefly rich; Rex Harrison and Robert Preston and Richard Kiley bursting records and into song in My Fair Lady, The Music Man and Man of La Mancha; Alfred Lunt and his peerless lady, Lynn Fontanne, in anything and everything they have ever done, including that glowing Pipe Night, whose recording I cannot play without a misting of the eyes.
The montage goes on — Christopher Plummer as the grizzled Pizarro of The Royal Hunt of the Sun; Jason Robards, Jr. as one of the doomed O’Neills, Charles Laughton as Galileo, Charles Boyer as Duveen, Otto Kruger as Will Shakespeare, Yul Brynner as the King of Siam, James Cagney as George M. Cohan (film not play), George M. Cohan and Ralph Bellamy as F.D.R. (not simultaneously), Melvyn Douglas as Harding, Raymond Massey as Lincoln and David Wayne as a leprechaun; Burgess Meredith in a teahouse, Spencer Tracy in the death house, Claude Rains in a communist cell; Franchot Tone a stalwart of the Group Theatre; Humphrey Bogart, Gene Raymond and Raymond Hackett as three teen-age gigolos; Bert Lahr and Bobby Clark, two of the greatest comedians of our times.
I must linger for a moment to recall Bobby Clark’s first entrance in the revival of Victor Herbert’s Sweethearts. He advanced to the apron, drawing behind him a large buggy. “Did anyone see a horse go up the aisle?”, he inquired of the audience. And another pause to marvel again at Bert Lahr’s superb performance of the tramp Gogo in Waiting for Godot, his first straight play.
Was John Drew really as suave and sophisticated as I remember him in The Circle? Was Dudley Digges as impressive and moving in John Ferguson? Was Charles Coburn as funny in The Better ‘Ole and Boris Karloff as sinister in Arsenic and Old Lace? Was Richard Bennett as fine and touching in They Knew What They Wanted? Was Cedric Hardwicke as eloquent in Don Juan in Hell? Were Raymond Hitchcock and Frank Morgan and James T. Powers and Francis Wilson (the last two in a Players Club production of The Rivals) as comical as they seemed then? The answer, I feel stubbornly, is a resounding “Yes!”
It is not often that a playgoer has the privilege, pleasure, and longevity to have seen in one lifetime David Warfield in The Merchant of Venice, Clark Gable in Machinal (not a movie), Fredric March in The Skin of Our Teeth, Walter Huston in Dodsworth, Edward Everett Horton in Springtime for Henry, Henry Hull in The Man Who Came Back, Thomas Mitchell in The Wisdom Tooth by Marc Connelly, Frank Craven in Our Town, Edwin Booth and Joseph Jefferson and Henry Irving and Richard Mansfield…I go too far.
Postscript: If any Player feels that he has been slighted, it may console him to learn that I intend to do a sequel on our 100th anniversary.
George Oppenheimer joined The Players in 1941. He wrote plays, screenplays, and teleplays; among many other credits, he was on the writing team for the Marx Brothers’ A Day At The Races (1937) and an Academy Award nominee for The War Against Mrs. Hadley (1942). Previously, he co-founded The Viking Press. A longtime drama critic, he served as president of the New York Drama Critics Circle. Copyright 1968 by The Players, New York. Faithfully reproduced from The Players After 75 Years, edited by George Woodbridge Stewart.