Sunday, November 4, 2007

Celebrity Sunday: Part One of a Possibly-Recurring Series on My Close Encounters with Celebrities

When I was a very young and naive 19, I moved to Manhattan to be an actress. I was trying to put some distance between myself and a difficult freshman year at U.Penn, and what started as a summer fling in an Upper West Side sublet turned into a two year sojourn of auditioning, group therapy, dance classes, and occasional theatre work.

Most of my celebrity encounters were a direct result of waiting tables at Tavern on the Green, but my favorite celebrity story unfolds as pure serendipity. I was living in my second apartment, still on the Upper West -- a studio in a pre-war building with 12-foot ceilings and large, southern-facing windows. I was sharing with a ghastly roommate (British, blonde, thin and fashionable) who seemed to make it a point to never be in the apartment, and thus I had a lot of alone time on my hands.

It was on one such Saturday evening that I decided to get the heck out of the apartment and find something to do. I walked down to Lincoln Center with twenty bucks in my pocket and no idea what I might find. (This was back when you could actually go to the theatre without taking out a second mortgage or selling a kidney to do so.) My twenty bucks was enough to get me a last-minute ticket to the Vivian Beaumont Theatre that night, so I plunked down my dough and took my seat for the revival production of "The House of Blue Leaves," starring John Mahoney, Swoozie Kurtz, and Christine Baranski. (This was in the mid-80s, and while these fine actors were well-established in the theatre community by then, none were really the household names that they have become through their respective television and film work.)

A few minutes after I sat down, another solo theatre-goer made her way to the seat next to me. We exchanged the usual cordial smiles as she got settled. After a few moments of arranging her belongings -- she seemed to have a lot of bags on her person -- my new row-mate said "Well. They've certainly renovated this theatre since I last acted here!" That got my attention, but I couldn't garner wit enough to reply much more than "Really?" "Oh, yes," she exclaimed, "that whole area over there was completely different and they've changed the whole shape of the apron, there. But it's been years and years since I acted here."

She seemed in a chatty mood, so I asked whether she was still pursuing acting as a career. "Oh, yes, I'm on a TV show now. I live in California; I'm just here visiting." She named the show, and while I'd heard of it, I had grown up without a TV in the house and was completely unversed in pop culture. I confessed as much, and mentioned that I was an actress, as well -- in fact, I had just gotten cast in my first New York stage show (a misbegotten production of Webster's "The Duchess of Malfi," the less about which said, the better). I was feeling rather exuberant, though, and pressed one of the promotional fliers for the production into her hand and we quickly exchanged names as the house lights began to dim.

The production was brilliant, and my new pal and I were both entirely swept up in the experience. Being a rather ignorant and poorly-read aspiring actress, I had no idea what was coming at the end of the play. The climactic moment struck me dumb, and my row-mate was literally on the edge of her seat, gasping and clutching at her own throat as the John Mahoney we had loved and rooted for for the last two hours strangled his adorable, beloved, dotty wife Swoozie until she was dead.

Moments later, the lights were up and the applause was still echoing. My companion and I did not rush to collect ourselves, as the emotion of the play continued to work on us both. Finally, though, she collected her many bags and we both stirred ourselves toward the exit. "Well. Best of luck to you in your acting career," I extended. "To you, too," she smiled. She was quickly gone, and I slowly wandered the four blocks back to my apartment, still lost in the dream of the play.

When I returned, the answering machine was blinking (remember answering machines?). My mother had left me a message hours earlier, and I knew she'd fret if I didn't phone back that evening, regardless of the time. (The roommate, whose name I have honestly forgotten, was still nowhere to be seen.) I returned my mom's call, and gave her a brief run-down of my evening. I had gone to the theatre, amazing play, really terrific. Sat next to a woman who said she was an actress. Oh yes, she did tell me her name -- Julie something -- maybe Harris?

My mother nearly dropped the phone. Julie Harris? The Julie Harris?!!

Now, in my own defense! Though we got out a fair bit, my parents did not flood our lives with culture when we were growing up. It wasn't until I was out of the house that I started catching up on some of the wonderful classic movies that introduced me to some of Miss Harris's extraordinary body of work. But at the ignorant age of 19, I knew nothing, and my mother's embarrassment at that fact was acute enough to engulf us both. (How could she possibly have raised a daughter -- a theater-loving daughter, no less -- who didn't even know who Julie Harris was?! What on earth must she have thought when I -- gag -- wished her luck in her acting career? The woman has five Tony Awards, for god's sake! And on and on.)

Years later, when I had moved back to Philadelphia, an opportunity arose for me to -- in my own mind -- partially atone for my appalling former ignorance. Miss Harris was touring with "Driving Miss Daisy" and there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity. I bought my ticket and watched the show, and during intermission I sent a note backstage. It was written on one of my head shot postcards, and it said:

Miss Harris, after watching "The House of Blue Leaves" with you, it is a great pleasure to be once again sharing theatre space with you.

To this day I don't know whether she got the note, but I'd like to think it gave her a chuckle. Even if it was at my expense.


Anonymous said...

Oh, that is too funny. Even I, pop-culture ignoramus and theater illiterate know and admire Julie Harris. But, probably not when I was 19. I'm sure she had a chuckle, both at your original meeting when you wished her luck, and later when you sent her your note. She is a class act, part of a dying breed, alas.


Charles said...

I absolutely love this story.