“According to biographers of McCartney and the Beatles, McCartney composed the entire melody of Yesterday in a dream one night in his room at the Wimpole Street home of his then-girlfriend Jane Asher and her family. Upon waking, he hurried to a piano and played the tune to avoid forgetting it.“ This according to Wikipedia.

Last night I dreamed the beginning of this letter. In my dream, Terry and I are partners in a small-time comedy act touring out of the way vaudeville houses and mining camps much like Hope and Crosby did in the Road movies. (Quick straw poll: who is Bing and who is Bob? Extra points for properly explaining your reasoning. The most entertaining and most libelous response will be published in next week’s Letter) We were, of course, performing “Who’s on First,” though not as Hope and Crosby nor as to the originators of the sketch whom you all know to be Abbott and Costello (or as we knew them in Vaudeville circles, Alex Abbott and Franny Cristillo.) And we were bombing. We were about to be “handed our pictures on a broom” when I had an idea. I switched to speaking Russian gibberish peppered with frequent “poZHAlustas,” “spaSIbos, “Da”s, and “Nyets-key phrases I had picked up over the course of the three Irondale tours to the then Soviet Union. I SpaSiBoed our minors for coming and told them that we were Russians doing a tribute performance honoring the greats of American comedy that we had worshiped our entire drab lives growing up behind the Iron Curtain. From that moment on we had them in our pocket. Sympathy triumphed over talent. Boffo! Of course, that was also the moment in the dream that I work up, so I don‘t know what might have happened had the falsity of our true identities been discovered.

Tomorrow we have our first genuine rehearsal of our Radio Mother Courage, and I’m sure that my dream is my subconsciousness’s warning that I’d better have a version of the Russian plan ready to go in case unseen difficulties arise in the course of embarking upon this new project in a medium that I know little about except that Orson Welles made a big stink in it with his version of War of the Worlds in 1939..uh..(I just looked it up on Wikipedia) 1938.

Will it be an “authentic” radio show?

I only bring this up because this is a word that seems to be taking on the increased significance of late, as in “Can I give an ‘authentic’ performance if I step outside of my own cultural, ethnic background?” If I write a book inspired by my imagination rather than my “lived experience” will I be appropriating someone else’s authentic story? I don’t think so, but it seems to be a question that that is open to debate. Where do you come down?

On the front page of Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin, one of Germany’s largest publications, 185 actors have come out as members of the LGBTQ community. The cover of the magazine is filled with pictures and names of the actors, along with the message: “We are here.”

“We are actors. We don’t have to be the characters we portray. We act as if – that is a very quintessence of our job. We play wives and fathers, lovers and politicians, heroes and creeps. And often enough, characters whose ideas we never agree with. That’s why we can play murderers without having murdered anyone. We can save lives without having studied medicine. We can play people with sexual identities different from the ones we live out. And, by the way, this is something we’ve been doing for a very long time, the entire time in fact because it is the nature of our profession.”

Not much to be against here I would say. But does it seem that we might be against just a few too many things today? Ruth Gordon wrote in one of her memoirs Myself Among Others about the importance of finding more things that you’re for rather than against. “Of course if Hitler came back, you’d have to be against him, but spend most of your time being for things.” That’s something I have to remember every day.

I met Ruth in a drug store in a small Michigan town where I was doing summer stock in the summer of 1973. There wasn’t much to do there in the evenings, and do you remember how drugstores all used to have those carousels of paperback books up front next to the magazines and comic books? I was spinning the carousel, no doubt looking for something salacious, and came across My Life Among Others. I knew Ruth from Harold and Maude and that film about the witches that took place in the Dakota that I can’t remember the title of. The Dakota, by the way, is the building that John Lennon was murdered in front of.

Ruth’s book is something of an oral history of Twentieth Century theater and Manhattan peppered through with advice on the subject of how to survive and find a place in the theatre. “New York is a rough tough town. I’ve cried my eyes out as far north as the Bronx and as far South as the Battery.”

I actually got to know Ruth personally through several letters we exchanged back and forth following the publication of her second book, My Side, a more traditional autobiography that came out a few years later. I bought my copy on the first day of issue at a little bookstore on 2nd Ave in the 60s that, of course, is no longer there. Several days later I read in the paper that she was having a signing at the Brentano’s on Fifth Ave, also long departed. I showed up with my copy in hand on my way to my temp job. It was early morning, but the line was already long and Ruth was taking her time with each person. I stayed as long as I could but ultimately departed, unsigned and disappointed.

That was when my dear friend Susan Oakey took things in hand. She knew where Ruth and her husband Garson Kanin lived on, I believe, Central Park South. Susan took it upon herself to write Ruth and ask her if the situation could somehow be remedied. A few days later, a manilla envelope arrived in my mailbox. In it was an inscribed photo of Miss Gordon and an invitation to drop off my book at her building so she could sign that as well. I don’t know what happened to that particular copy of the book, as Ruth said, “it’s funny what sticks with you,” but I still have the signed photo on my living room wall forty-five years later.

My favorite bit of advice from her was in the last message I got, or actually, Barbara got.  It was on the cover of the program of the Doll’s House Ruth had done on Broadway in 1938. In 1980, Barbara was playing Nora in the first professional production I directed. I asked Ruth if she would inscribe the program as a gift for Barbara which she promptly did.

She wrote a lovely note and ended it with these words that explained much of what made her life in the theatre, a career that lasted seventy-four years, possible. “And remember, when bad things happen, get over them.”

She also said, “Never give up, especially at the beginning. That’s when it’s easy to give up. Stick around long enough, and you got too much invested to quit.”

 

 

Jim Niesen

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