A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO I decided to try my luck on Broadway.
At the first agency I visited I mentioned that I was from Canada. The receptionist rushed me into the office of the top man. He looked me over. “Yes.” he said, “you do look a little like Gisèle MacKenzie. " This resemblance meant mostly that I was wearing my hair in bangs. We had a long chat about the state of the theatre, but he had nothing that suited my talents at the moment.
Full of confidence, I continued my rounds of the agents. In each dingy office my announcement. “I'm from Canada.” had the same magical effect. After a number of agents had thrown Gisèle Macken-
zie's name at me. I got the impression that New York theatre people regard Canada as a small town upstate where everybody is related to Gisèle and went to school with Christopher Plummer, Donald Harron, Paul Anka. William Shatner and Bob Goulet. The agents seem to have developed the theory that any Canadian might turn out to be a million-dollar client.
1 hoped I would, and had typed
out what I thought was a fairly impressive dossier on myself: four years in Hart House productions; BA with honors in speech and dramatic arts; two years in summer stock; a major part in the Marian Year pageant at the Toronto Coliseum; sketches written for Spring Thaw, and enough assorted comedy roles in TV and radio, clubs and revues, to yield one prized clipping: "Unique comic
personality” — Herbert Whittaker, Globe and Mail.
More important. I had saved enough money to survive for a year or more, if necessary. And so 1 became one of the two thousand outof-towners who every year join the thirteen thousand registered — but mostly unemployed—actors and actresses in New York City.
1 found this an exciting atmosphere. but after several weeks of enthusiastic receptions by agents happy to meet a Canadian I still didn't have a part. When I complained of this to one agent, he said. “Get yourself an agent.” “You're an agent,” I said.
"I can't handle any more clients,” he answered quickly.
“Besides, you’ll have to do what everybody else does. Get yourself a
showcase so the agents can see you work.”
A showcase. That turned out to be the key word in the whole agonizing process of trying to gain a foothold in New York show business. A showcase, as I learned, is almost literally any place—from a church hall in the far suburbs to a cellar coffee shop in the Bowery— where an actor or group of actors can perform in front of an agent or producer. If no agent or producer happens to see them, so much the worse for the actors.
The agent tipped me off that the best place to look for a showcase was in the news and advertising columns of a publication named Show Business. The first notice I read said: “Actor wanted for publicity campaign. Two weeks in store window'. Nation-wide coverage. No pay, but tw'o weeks in store window!” Here, now. was a showcase. Scores of actors would vie for the opportunity of appearing, without pay. in a store window on the offchance that an agent or producer might recognize their talents.
I COULDN’T CALL THEM ROLES . . .
1 passed that advertisement up. but answered a dozen others. One young producer begged me to take the lead in Annie Get Your Gun. The only catch was that the show w'as going on in a church hall twenty miles out of town. I passed that one up, too. Another producer wanted me to play one of the leads in Two for the Seesaw. All I had to do was put up forty dollars to rent the theatre, and another twenty dollars for advertising, and thirty dollars for something else.
I sent my photographs and a résumé of my career to every producer mentioned in the columns of Show Business, and a few days later I got a call from one of them. ”We are shooting a movie tomorrow. Could you make it?”
Could I make it? I checked with the Equity Union to make sure that this was an established company. Yes, I was told. The firm made gangster pictures and seemed to be franchised by all the unions. I rushed out and had my hair styled at an expensive salon. I put on the dress 1 thought did most for my figure.
The boss of the firm told his secretary not to disturb him. Then he closed the door and locked it. This didn't disturb me, because I noticed on his desk correspondence about movies: The Vampire Calls, The Dead Man Talks Again and other gory titles.
1 hen he opened a locked drawer and showed me a scene he wanted for his next movie. I cringed. This office was a front for pornographic movies.
I remembered that locked door. The producer, unconcerned, asked me to walk around.
"Why. certainly,” I said.
I walked around toward the door, turned the key. and got out as fast as 1 could.
The weeks went by, and still I wasn't in a play. One day Show
Business carried an ad for an actress to play Sadie Thompson in Rain. The play was being presented by a well-established company. It was a role I felt w'as tailor-made for me.
I hurried to the audition, only to discover that more than 400 other women felt the same way.
When it came my turn to be interviewed the director introduced me to the male lead. He was five-feet-two-inches tall. I told the director I felt I w'as too tall to play opposite his star, but he brushed that aside. “About financial backing,” he said. It turned out that the pathetic little leading man had raised half the capital needed for the show, and the chief qualification the producer was looking for in a leading lady was the ability to raise the other half. For the eighteen months I remained in New York after that, the advertisement for a Sadie Thompson continued to run. Every time I saw' it 1 wondered who was waiting in line today.
In the meantime, I kept in touch with the big agents who had taken such an interest in me as a Canadian newcomer. Somehow their interest was waning. Without a showcase, I was just another out-ofwork actor. Someone suggested I look up the agents located on Broadway. Why hadn't 1 thought of it before? What a logical address! The first building I tried was dingier than any I had been in before. However, a book listing agents, which I had picked up, assured me all agents in the building were franchised by the theatre unions. They also had the advantage of being un besieged by other actors. In fact, in the first two offices I tried, everybody was out to lunch. The elevator man advised me to try one of the agents down the hall.
. . JUST BUMPS AND GRINDS
He turned out to be a polite, mild-mannered Negro. He asked to see my photographs and the résumé of my theatrical experience. He especially noted that I had a university degree. Then I noticed that the pictures on the walls were all of girls wearing very little. I realized that I was in the wrong place, and he realized it too. He was a booking agent for strippers. But we chatted for over an hour. I was never to receive again such a pleasant reception from an agent in New York.
My luck, if you can call it that, changed one Saturday afternoon not long afterward. I answered another of those casting ads in Show Business. The theatre was near the Bowery. I was the only woman on the street. I edged past a milling crowd of men around a mission building. They staggered, they wove, they fell in front of me. In the doorway of the theatre another drunk passed out. I stepped over him and entered the old theatre. The lobby was jammed with other appli-
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“The curtain opened, the lights went up and we saw the audience—one solitary, embarrassed man”
cants. My usual audition nerves suddenly vanished. I was glad to be with normal people.
I didn’t have long to wait. The director was anxious to see me when he heard I was from Toronto. He was a Canadian, too, and told me he had worked with the CBC for years. I’ll call this man Steve Kobrick. He told me of his work with "Josh,” known to me as Joshua Logan, and “Kaz.” Elia Kazan. Then he showed me around the theatre and pointed out the pictures of a girl who had got her start in his theatre. MGM had just signed her, he said, to a seven-year contract. Columbia pictures, he added, had just signed another of his leading ladies.
Because he had lost these two stars, Kobrick said ruefully, the leading role was open in the Ionesco one-act play. The New Tennant. Would I be interested?
Would I? This, obviously, was the showcase I had been looking for. And there was pay, Kobrick added. “Five dollars a week.”
“Five . . .”
“But an agent from NBC is coming in a few days.”
I took the job.
Between rehearsals I went to see agents at MGM and Columbia. I told them triumphantly that I was in the theatre where they had discovered their latest stars. They both looked blank. They had never heard of the actresses I was talking about. I was sick with disappointment and furious at Kobrick. But I wasn’t going to quit the Ionesco play. This was my debut on the New York stage.
Before the opening night curtain I developed a bad case of nerves which became worse when Steve told me that the man from NBC might be in the audience. He noticed my jitters and told me not to worry about forgetting my lines—he had stationed a prompter under a window. All 1 had to do was look through the window.
The curtain went up. The play began. It felt good to be acting. Then I lost my lines. A voice from the window shouted my cues. The play continued. Once more I lost my lines. 1 waited. There was no voice. In panic 1 rushed to the window. No one. I swung around to get a cue from another actor. There was the prompter, on stage. He was part of the cast.
I was now too shocked to recover any of
my lines. Somehow I stumbled through the rest of The New Tennant, ad-libbing while fifty-two pieces of scenery, called for in the play, were moved on stage. I said anything and everything to keep the play moving. The furniture kept coming in. Then, it was my exit, and, at last, the final curtain. We waited in the wings for applause. There was none.
The cast crowded onto the stage anyway. The curtain opened, the house lights went up—and we saw the audience—one solitary man, and he was too embarrassed to move. Steve, though, was cheerful. He told me I was terrific. And the NBC man had just called to say that he couldn’t make it tonight, but he would be coming tomorrow. Also the Theatre Guild was sending a talent scout in a few days.
If I had thought the first night was bad. the second night was a nightmare. I was greeted with the news that some of the actors were completely new. They were depending on me to carry the show. I did —I had written all my cues on the inside of a large fan. The audience was bigger, at least half a dozen people, but still no agents. I decided that if Steve couldn’t bring in the agents, I would. For the next six weeks, I canvassed, phoned, pounded doors, and argued at the top of my voice until finally some of the agents promised to see me.
On stage, I appeared with new actors every night. Some of them, I’m sure, were actually dragged in off the street just before curtain time. Steve promised them their big break, “the once-in-a-Iifetime-opportunity.” Reluctant stars he bribed with two dollars. To complicate matters, the warm weather made the theatre unbearably hot. Steve decided to open the back doors to get more
air. Now my biggest problem was to yell louder than the night traffic crashing down Third Avenue.
As for the agents, I did manage to get a few of them to see me. One was Carl Mansen. of the Music Corporation of America. I made myself as glamorous as 1 could when I called on him. and no doubt he was shocked w'hen he saw me in the theatre playing the part of an old caretaker. At any rate he was angry w'hen I walked into his office the next day.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded. “I'm a very busy man."
He had been practising flipping tiddlywinks w'hen I entered his office. A blonde w'as lounging beside his desk, combing her hair.
“Are you running a talent agency or not?" 1 snapped.
“Yes.” he shouted. “But you aren't talent!"
When I walked out the blonde was still combing her hair.
At the theatre Kobrick began to dodge me. He knew I no longer believed his
assurances that several agents had promised to attend any night now. We were playing to audiences that varied between two or three on week nights up to a couple of dozen on week ends. The biggest surprise of my New York career came when I read in a New York Times advertisement that I was playing in a big hit. 1 he Ionesco show, said the ad. was now in its “tenth smash month." One question plagued me at first: who paid for such ads and for the cost of running the theatre when there was practically no box-office take? The answer was simple. The woman who owned the theatre, rented it for movies or for onenight tryouts on Mondays, our day off. She also rented it for two performances of the Children's Theatre on Saturday mornings, and so took in enough revenue to allow «.Kobrick to keep his ridiculous operation going. It kept him in show business, at least, and might lead to bigger things, he uoped.
Riding home on a bus one night I sat next to a woman who told me she had seen the show. She told me that she was a housewife with four children, and added: “I liked your performance, and I’m glad I'm going to be your replacement."
That was how I learned that Kobrick had decided to fire me. He paid me off the next night, and I started job-hunting again. In the meantime I decided to go to
an acting school. Most professional actors keep these schools well filled while they are between jobs. An item in Show Business said that a well-known Broadway producer was auditioning. He had produced one hit several years before and since then had been running an acting school. Now', in conjunction with his school, he was planning to produce a show .
I w'ent to his studio. The fee—for a combination audition and acting lesson— was ten dollars. There were thirty people in his studio, none of whom looked in the least like actors. A young man named AI.
who. I later discovered, was a drug salesman, was declaiming from Hamlet when I entered. AÍ finished and waited for the producer's comment.
"Fine." said the producer. AI retired with his face wreathed in smiles. A nondescript couple did a scene from Romeo and Juliet. They, too. waited for the producer to speak. He said: “Next!"
I gasped. Was that the coaching and comment they would get for their twenty dollars? The producer noticed my expression and said in an undertone: “You will notice I teach in a very unorthodox way."
I'o say the least. I thought, mentally calculating his unorthodox income at $300 a night. I decided to pass up the benefit of his coaching. Incidentally, more than a year later his play had still not been produced.
Finally I got into a good play, presented by the Zacharias Workshop at the St. Mark's Playhouse. This was my introduction to “method" acting. If the role called for you to be angry, you would run around the room several times until you were short of breath. When the perspiration fell from your face, this was wonderful acting. My
role was a comical tirunken woman. I liked the role and was anxious to give it everything I had.
“No! no!” screamed the director at everything I did.
He showed me how to curb my strong voice, which I had been building up for ten years. With each rehearsal, I spent hours examining each word of my fifteen lines. I couldn’t just say them: there had to be a motive.
in my big scene I was to faint in a drunken stupor. So l fainted, on the dirty floor covered with spilled coffee and cigarette butts. The director said. “ H m h m h m h m h m h m. ”
I fainted again. He said, "Hmhmhmhm.”
After the fifteenth time, he sat back in his chair and said. “All right, now let’s look for motives.”
“You look for motives.” I said. "I'm going home.”
I came back, however, and finally my motives seemed to be okay. During the day before our opening night, a ten-inch snowfall engulfed the city. We played to ten people. Any critic or agent who might have seen the show was snowbound. The show never played again.
My spirits were at rock bottom as 1 trudged home in that cruel snow. Bui that night, by one of the strange accidents of fate. I met a professional fund raiser. He was dating my new roommate.
We started chatting, and soon he was reading a comedy revue I had written. He suggested I do the revue in a small theatre off Broadway. He said he had raised money for many such shows. So the nucleus of an off-Broadway show was organized. Instead of looking for a showcase, I was creating one.
We placed an ad for actors in Show Business, and in came the first of hundreds of pictures and résumés. Four months later answers to this ad were still coming in. The actors hounded me. One short, fat man made me laugh just to look at him. He started to recite some of Laurence Olivier's roles. I begged him to take a comedy role.
“Comedy.” he said. “Certainly not! I’m a dramatic actor!” And he stomped out.
In two months, I screened over five hundred actors. I soon learned that most of them couldn’t be recognized by their photographs. One such one was Carlos. His photos showed him more handsome than Rudolph Valentino. I was looking for that flashy smile when I called him in. I met a short man with a mop of bushy, black hair and a bad complexion.
I enjoyed a small triumph when I was invited back to the top agents’ offices. For the first time in months, the doors of the agencies were open to me again.
My show was beginning to take shape. We played ii in churches, gymnasiums, coffee houses, any place there was an audience and a stage. After each performance I would rush home and start the agony of rewriting. After three months I felt the show was ready. But we decided it was better to wait until fall.
Then the bottom fell out of the theatrical market. Shows began closing right and left. Moderately good productions that might have lasted the season before were closing overnight. At least 20(! off-Broadway shows were to close in one year.
We called an emergency meeting of the production staff. The facts stared us in the face. But the others left the choice up to me. I know the show itself could have done fairly well. There was nothing wrong with it. But there was something wrong with me. Suddenly I knew I couldn't bear New York for another day.
I boarded the Toronto train one nigh carrying five hatboxes, one violin, one guitar, and a huge stack of music, all tied together with little pieces of string. I had earned the right to look like a circus performer. The joke was, I still didn' know the secret of getting the “big break in show business. Perhaps the magic for mula is seventy-five percent hard work, another seventy-five percent luck, and still another seventy-five percent destiny.
I know it doesn't add up. but that’s show business, if