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Ruth Gordon Rocks James Madison

Updated: Nov 29, 2020

The author (l.) enjoying Ruth Gordon's address to James Madison High School in 1971.


When I was attending Brooklyn's James Madison High School in fall 1971, the great Broadway and Hollywood writer and director Garson Kanin published his book Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir. Kanin was also a James Madison alumnus, but he'd never graduated nor received his high-school diploma. So someone (probably his book publisher) thought it would be a nice gesture if, based on his award-winning body of work, Kanin would finally be bestowed an official James Madison sheepskin.

A special auditorium presentation was arranged, at which the school’s Drama Workshop, of which I was a member, would perform. Then our dignitary would be brought to the stage to be honored. When the school learned that Kanin would be attending with his celebrated wife Ruth Gordon, the Academy-Award-winning actress and original Dolly Levi, it was decided that a student should present her with a special award in theatre arts -- and I was the Chosen One.

We started the program with some sketches from our production of Story Theatre, the evening of fairy tale stories developed by Paul Sills. After the performance, chairs were placed on stage for our principal, our two guests of honor, and me! I made a speech about Miss Gordon’s contributions to the theatre and then introduced her. She got up from her seat and gave me a big hug, kissed me on my cheek, accepted the certificate I gave her, and then turned to speak to the audience of young high school students. “Kids, I’m going to give you some advice that was given to me by my friend Thornton Wilder many years ago: ‘Go out and get yourself some confidence, because no one’s going to just give it to you!’ Challenge yourself, for that’s what will make you strong.” After the ceremony I was brought into the principal’s office (my only time there), and was able to get their autographs. I enjoyed being a minor celebrity for the rest of the day.

A few years later, when I was studying at the Stella Adler Studio, I read that Ruth Gordon would be signing her new autobiography My Side at the Doubleday book store on Fifth Avenue a few blocks away. I waited on line and when I reached her, I reminded her of the day I gave her a theatre arts certificate at James Madison High School. With that, she jumped right up and screamed across the store to Garson Kanin, who had been talking with the store manager: “Gaaaarson, come here! James Madison High School is here!” She signed my book, then they both thanked me again for the wonderful time they had had at James Madison, and wished me luck in acting school, at which point I thought I caught a slight gleam of pride in Miss Gordon’s eye.

Some time later, I sent the Kanins a copy of a play I had written which I thought, thematically, would be of some interest to them. I never heard back and forgot about it. But soon after Ruth Gordon passed away in 1985, I received the self-addressed envelope. It did not contain the copy of the play I had sent them. Instead, the envelope was filled with all the condolence cards that had been sent to their office. Obviously, someone mailed the envelope out in error. I happened to know their agent, Milton Goldman, and brought the whole envelope over to his office on West 57th Street. The following week, I received in the mail a signed copy of Garson Kanin’s book Hollywood with a note profusely thanking me for returning the condolence cards. “Not many people would have done this,” were his final words to me.

On my bookshelf, I still have my two signed volumes from Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon that represent my minor interactions with these two beloved and respected theatre and film artists. After all, that’s what bookshelves are for.

Rory Lance is the stage 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. This piece was adapted from his book My Year In Vaudeville. Rory would like to point out that James Madison is also the alma mater of Bernie Sanders, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Chuck Schumer.


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