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Lauren Bacall RIP

Jan McNulty

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Another day, another artist felled.  These memories separate into before and after that I wrote of yesterday pertaining to Robin Williams' sad demise.  


BEFORE:  I am nine years old.  That is, in fact, now exactly half a century ago.  In many ways - at least in my head - it doesn't seem quite so long ago.  I had gone to my father for a summer job.  He told me that I "was unemployable" but that I might stand a chance in the strange world of the theatre.  (Child labour laws were very different then; slim to the point of being almost non-extant.)  That suited me down to the ground.  My mother had always forbidden television.  "Mind rot" she called it.  Theatre was my TV.  My idea of a holiday was going to the theatre nine times in a week.  You could do that then if you carefully plotted.  I was also prudent.  (Depression raised parents and all that.)  Theatrical galleries were my second home.  "Right", I thought, "I'm getting that job."  


I won't go into my travails but I did EVENTUALLY get a job with BBC Radio Drama because of the poor [to be read 'kind'] stage doorman at what is now the glistening Playhouse Theatre on Northumberland Avenue.   (It was then a virtual shell covered in soot and old playbills proclaiming former glory - 'Marie Tempest in 'Hay Fever' was one I recall.)  It was then used by the BBC as a platform for broadcasts.  The doorman took pity on me, this idiotic child in his school uniform.   Daily I would dutifully knock on the stage doors listed on my rounds.  Did they have a job - any job - I might do?  I didn't know what else to do and I was nothing if not persistent.  (I must note that my loving parents had nothing to do with this whatsoever and were in that day and age never at risk of being arrested for letting their son wander about alone and - it must be said - frequently aimlessly.  They sincerely believed I'm sure that it was just part of my education - as much, I suppose, as the daily IRA bombs.)  


Having not been an embarrassment in my initial foray (making 'whisping noises' in a live relay) the proverbial 'they' threw me into the lion's den with a 'real part' in a broadcast with Jimmy Thompson (lovely) and Kenneth Williams (frightening -  a bigger child than even me).  "Congratulations," the head of casting observed, "You've survived Kenneth."  The dear lady took pity on me.  I think she thought I was a waif.  (I wasn't.)  She would tell me about theatrical auditions I could go to.  I was delighted.  "An 'in' at last," I thought.  One I recall - still in my school uniform - was for the role of 'Patrick as a child' in the musical 'Mame' with Ginger Rogers.  "What are you going to sing?"  the voice in the dark asked me.  "I'm not," I replied politely.  [A pause ensued allowing me to reflect on the fact that I should at least attempt to be honest.]  "Well, ... I really can't."  "Do you know "Happy Birthday?"  "Yes", I said.  "How about that?" they offered. [Yet another pause]  "I'd rather plumb for 'God Save the Queen," I responded.  I did ... and didn't get the job.  


A couple of weeks later I DID get a job.  It was as a replacement in a West End play by John Mortimer.  I had auditioned six times already; always reading the same thing.  On the last occasion they asked if I would 'read with Alec'.  I thought this was probably another lad trying for the other boy's role.  "Sure," I proclaimed. "Send Alec in."  I heard this cough behind me.  I turned.  There was Guinness.  Even then he was smaller - well, less tall - than me.  I turned back immediately and began to read. I was very nervous. (He'd been a hero of mine.  I'd seen him as T. E. Lawrence in ROSS.]  Guinness never read 'his part' AT ALL. There was just an awkward silence as I looked at him with my eyes expanded as if to give him a cue.  He glared over his half glasses and continued to walk about me as if he were the KIng of Siam.  I finally finished the side.  There followed what I remember as an almighty silence.  Guinness walked to the lip of the stage:  "The boy's marvelous.  Give him the job."  He walked off never looking at me again.  I walked home on air.  I did that play (with both Guinness and later Michael Redgrave) until I was in my eleventh year.  I did it for eight performances a week and went to (a minor public) school for six. I had half days on Wednesday and Saturday.  While the other lads played sports "I heard" as Coward put it in THE BOY ACTOR "the curtain going up."   My father would die that same year when I was nine.  (He dropped dead at 42 at a cricket match.)   He would never see the play.  I would pay my own school fees.  I've always been proud of that fact.  


But how does this involve Lauren ('Betty' to her friends) Bacall?


Well, .... must go now but will continue ... 



Edited by Bruce Wall
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Continuation ....


We played at the Haymarket Theatre (Prince Albert's favourite apparently) and across the street at Her Majesty's Theatre (where, after the LONG run of Fiddler On the Roof with, amongst others, Topol) was APPLAUSE (a musical version of 'All About Eve') starring Lauren Bacall.  She had, in fact, won a best actress Tony Award for it on Broadway.  


It was a Wednesday.  Between performances I had gone out to get something to eat and had become engulfed in some homework at my table.  (I'm a more than a middling dyslexic so it always takes me longer to complete these kind of tasks.  That is why I'm often defeated by the BcoF clock.)  Suddenly I looked at my watch - (a birthday present from my parents - I still have it).  I was about to be late for 'the half'.  I dashed out of the cafe and made for the Stage Door - which in the Haymarket's case - as are many on Broadway - down (in this instance a rather salubrious it must be said) alley.  I was running head first with my books as a kind of battering ram lest I should meet any interim disturbance.  'Wham!'  I felt a sudden jolt.  I looked below.  On the pavement was a black sequinned mass.  (Bacall was still in her last act costume - and massive make-up, her cultivated eyelashes approaching heaven.)  She must have been running for her half too.  I had knocked her over.)  Of course I knew who she was.  For a moment we were both frozen.  Then those cat like eyes bulged.  She picked herself up.  She WAS taller than me then.  Her lips curled..  'Excuse ME!' she snarled in that unmistakable baritone.  I jogged much more gingerly to the theatre - like Guinness NOT looking back - and smiled as I signed in on the board, hoping the Stage Manager wouldn't notice.  Her supine vision would haunt me for some time.


AFTER:  I'm now myself on Broadway.  In fact it was my debut and again I had gone in (much as I had in the West End) as a replacement.  It was in the Morossco Theater which sadly no longer exists.  It stood somewhere underneath today's Marriott Marquis.  It was immediately behind the old Helen Hayes Theater (as opposed to the long standing new one) which itself was across from the Lunt-Fontaine Theater which happily survives.  In fact the second play I did on Broadway (ONCE A CATHOLIC) WAS at the [old] Helen Hayes.  We closed I remember the same week the London run did after three years.  Only we had played just three weeks after coming in out of town - where the production had been hailed.  I remember re-rehearsing in the crumbling space that had been Florence Ziegfield's private theatre (where all his extravaganza FOLLIES had been initially staged).  It was, for me, magic.  Of course it too has long since subsided.  We opened CATHOLIC on the occasion of the Pope's visit to the Big Apple:  BIG MISTAKE.  'Once a Catholic twice a bore' Walter Kerr's review began in the New York Times.  It seems he was a devout member of that particular club but was, bless him, kind to me.  Not so to Rachel Roberts.  I vividly remember standing at Sardi's as she hastily tore her copy into shreds with an almighty flow of expletives. Charming woman.  She was so kind to everyone ... as long as they were Welsh.  Rex Harrison had played mightily with her mind.  Still the (old) Helen Hayes and the Morossco stood back to back in defense of all.  They were like Siamese twins.   In fact they shared a staircase.  They were entwined. I used to pass performers I'd been in 'DA' with - my debut play - as I ran to go to the stage to do the Mary O'Malley.  Dejavu.Surpeme!)  But for now I'm in that debut play; playing yet another son - 'Charlie Then' - to the strains of Hugh Leonard's lilting text.  


It's the middle of the (non-matinee) day - and far before mobile phones as we know them were ever realised.  (I'm sure they'd been dream't of.)  I was wandering about doing my business.  It was just opposite Bryant Park I remember between Fifth and Sixth Avenues (sorry, Avenue of the Americas).  There was one of those string of telephone boxes you used to see in Manhattan; all glass plated and sleek stainless steel supports.  I dashed into one of the pods.  I had to call my agent.  I put my dime in (those were the days) and turned my back watching the traffic flow.  The secretary answered and we began to chat.  I turned - as one does - and WHO should be in the next phone both but - yes, you guessed it:  Lauren Bacall.  I panicked.  I dropped the phone and ran out of the booth.  I didn't even collect my residual change.  (Very unlike me).  I kept running til I was out of her possible sight.  Silly, I know.  (I thought so even then.)  Still, the memory was pervasive.  


A COUPLE OF YEARS LATER I had the good fortune to actually meet and - in a way - work with her as member of the union's (Equity) so-called 'Alien Committee'. 'Call me Betty', she purred. I told her my story and we had a good laugh.  She was really good fun it must be said - and very bright.  Certainly she didn't suffer fools though. Didn't want to be those 'bad books'.  Still, the famous bark I think was much worse than any of her oft reported bite ... as long as you kept your wits about you, were honest and minded your p's and q's.  She was, I found, wonderfully human ... and certainly humane.  She was most kindly helpful to me when raising money for the Shaw Festival. 


BUT BACK TO 'LATER'.  I was still on Broadway - I'd been in a variety of shows - but there was one job I REALLY wanted.  It was a 'day job'.  I wanted to do both.  Moonlight as t'were.  The role was to be the so called 'Director' of the Harkness House for Ballet Arts.  I applied and was, ultimately successful.  To this day it's one of the best jobs I've ever had.  It was at the end of the so-called 'dance boom'.  I was hired by this creature calling himself 'Nikita Tallin'.  He had been - (at least that bit was real) - with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.  He fancied (and dressed himself) like Serge Diaghilev.  He wore fur coats off the collar and wide brimmed hats.  He lived in half a floor at the luxurious Carlyle Hotel.  He was driven in a Rolls Royce.  He spent his time squandering Rebecca Harkness' sixty four millon dollar fortune.  He hired me because he thought - or so he kept telling me - I "was pretty".  Perhaps I was.  It didn't much matter to me. Certainly he had NO idea who I was.  What mattered to ME was the job.  Sadly Nikita (his real name was something like 'Joe Smith') never got what he wanted.  I did.  (Well, maybe he did.  He insisted on hiring my so-called secretary.  I didn't care.  I didn't need one.  I had a never ending string of 'pretty' boys sit at that desk.  "What's your name?" I'd ask.  "Tommy' he'd say.  "What's your background, Tommy?"  "I was with the Irish Ballet" was the retort.  "I see", I said smiling.  This actually would prove quite useful when I - quite innocently - found myself having to work under cover for the FBI.  (But that's another book).  [side note:  I remember an extraordinary afternoon sitting with Danilova (She and Nikita really were good friends) and this lovely lady telling me these truly obscene stories.  She seemed quite delighted.  She used to lower her chin and giggle like a young girl.  I've always thought of myself as being more than broadminded ... but some of those goings on would I think make Bacchus blush.]


In any event - in the above guise - and to bring this posting to its full circle - I was invited to a soiree at Nureyev's at the Dakota on the Upper West Side, Central Park West in fact.  (The Dakota is where Lennon was assassinated and where 'Betty' Bacall (amongst many other notables) lived.  (I myself was happily ensconced on the Lower East Side.)  I was signing in at the Dakota reception desk when I felt a tap on my back.  Before I could turn round I heard that FAMOUS voice murmur 'Excuse me'.  There was Betty.  Only this time she smiled.


She was one classy dame.


RIP Miss Bacall.  

Edited by Bruce Wall
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