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Hall of Fame inducts ensemble of stage pioneers among friends

Wednesday, January 30, 2002

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Editor

NEW YORK -- "We're all joined at the hip, aren't we?" said Rosemary Harris, at Monday's induction ceremony of the Theatre Hall of Fame.

At the 31st annual Theatre Hall of Fame, inductees, actor George Grizzard, left, and drama critic Henry Hewes get together.

She was inducting T. Edward Hambleton, 90, producer of the famed Phoenix Theater, which pioneered serious drama and true repertory in New York in the '50s and '60s. As she reminisced, she recalled their working together with another inductee, costume designer Alvin Colt.

The evening was full of such connections, not just that between each of the eight new members of the Hall and those they chose to induct them. American theater is a network of professional tribes, a big family where the degrees of separation are rarely greater than two. But the annual ceremony is a small family affair, limited to 150 veterans and friends who squeeze into the rotunda at Broadway's Gershwin Theater, beneath lists of Hall members in gold letters, and then adjourn to Sardi's to dine and reminisce.

But the annual ceremony itself is a small family affair, strictly limited to 150 people who squeeze into the rotunda at Broadway's Gershwin Theater, where names of Hall members are mounted on the walls in gold letters, and then adjourn to Sardi's to dine and reminisce.

The master of ceremonies was actress Marian Seldes, star in the past year of both "The Play About the Baby" and "45 Seconds From Broadway," who used wit and timing in introducing each pair of honoree and inductor. The new Hall members are a cross-section of many theater roles -- actor, producer, composer, choreographer, designer and critic.

First up was CBS newsman Mike Wallace, who looked up at all the names on the walls and guessed he might have interviewed about half of them, then admitted to having played a romantic lead himself on Broadway 45 years ago. He was there to induct his tennis-playing buddy, Robert Brustein, 74, founding head successively of the Yale Repertory Theater and the American Repertory Theater at Harvard, as well as drama critic since 1959 for the New Republic.

They traded friendly barbs. Wallace described Brustein as a "theatrical curmudgeon," stirring memories of his denunciations of the Broadway establishment and his debate with August Wilson. Noting that Brustein is also a actor, Wallace said "he thinks of himself as a sort of Jewish Laurence Olivier -- but Bob, I knew Laurence Olivier . . . ," and the audience roared appreciatively. Brustein countered by saying he hadn't seen Wallace's Broadway show, but he was sure that "CBS's gain was the theater's gain."

More seriously, Wallace praised Brustein's many battles for funding of the arts and against political correctness. Educator, director, playwright and adapter in addition to producer and critic, Brustein marveled that the establishment he had long harangued against was gathering him to its bosom: "If you manage to live long enough, people will forgive you anything."

In introducing actor George Grizzard, 73 ("Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," "A Delicate Balance"), and playwright A.R. Gurney ("The Dining Room," "Love Letters"), Seldes made a plausible gaffe, imagining that Grizzard was there to induct Gurney, instead of the reverse, then recovered with comic aplomb. Gurney mentioned Grizzard's 20 Broadway plays but honored him for having also done the classics in such resident theaters as Minneapolis' Guthrie, where he played Hamlet directed by Tyrone Guthrie himself. Movies, TV -- Grizzard has done it all, along with four plays by Gurney. "If Tennessee Williams is right that all playwrights keep writing the same play," Gurney said, Grizzard had at least made each of his seem different. "He's honed his craft so it seems easy, natural, effortless, with clear diction grounded by clear thinking and firm, strong emotion."

Grizzard's acceptance was all humorous deprecation. "Let me tell you about fame," he said: "Do you know how many people still think I'm George Peppard? Or Ben Gazzara?" He told about a cab driver who took him to the theater one night and asked if his was one of the names in lights out front. "Yes, that one," said Grizzard. Replied the cabby: "Well 'scuse me for living, I never heard of you."

Inducting composer Charles Strouse, 73 ("Applause," "Rags, "Bye Bye Birdie"), was his librettist on "Annie," Thomas Meehan, who recalled a phone call exactly 30 years ago, when he was a New Yorker writer, asking him to collaborate on a musical about "Little Orphan Annie," which he called "the worst idea I'd ever heard." The dapper Strouse gave the most elegantly framed speech, a neat essay on acceptance speeches and their "struggle between self-confidence and self-doubt [which] is fascinating to watch -- in others." His humorous survey took in Oscars, Tonys and even Golden Globes, and he ended deciding to let confidence triumph because, "there are notes out there I have yet to hear, and I'm going to keep composing until I die."

Present to induct dancer-choreographer Peter Gennaro ("Annie," "Fiorello," "Irene"), who died at age 81 in 2000 after working 52 years on Broadway, was "Annie's" director and lyricist, Martin Charnin. He described Gennaro as "slight, agile, lithe ... all hips, all feet, but mostly all heart," and said he would have been a first ballot member of the humanity hall of fame. Accepting on behalf of the family was Gennaro's daughter, Liza, whose teary remarks were not the only ones to elicit responsive sniffles.

The radiant Harris, introduced by Seldes as "loved as much by the audience as by her fellow actors," claimed that Hambleton, familiarly called T, is the only person in the profession known by a single initial. In producing 219 plays, he endeared himself to his colleagues as "the still, small voice of calm." In response, Hambleton pointed out that the true legacy of his Phoenix Theater has been the nationwide spread of resident theaters, formed in that earlier company's image.

This reporter had the pleasure of inducting Henry Hewes, 84, from 1951-79 the erudite, supportive critic for the weekly Saturday Review. Nephew of Edith Skinner, preeminent American voice teacher, and son of the first woman to produce a play on her own on Broadway, Hewes was the first major New York critic to give full attention to off-Broadway, off-off and regional theater. But his Hall credentials rest on such behind-the-scenes service as founder of the American Theatre Critics Association, editor of "Best Plays," deviser of the Drama Desk Awards and founder of design awards recently renamed in his honor. Clearly a popular choice -- he knows everyone -- Hewes responded with characteristically self-deprecating jokes about his exchanges with the famous.

Carol Channing was on hand to induct Isabelle Stevenson, 86, for 33 years president of the American Theatre Wing, which founded the Tony Awards and devises programs for community outreach. Channing affectionately called Stevenson "the Mother Teresa of the American theater," and Stevenson, famed and feared for her negotiating and administrative skills, beamed with gratification.

The hall's Founders Award went to Tom Dillon, head of the Actors Fund of America, which last year provided support for 6,000 aged or infirm actors in 39 states. Originally a tenor who starred in Moss Hart's World War II "Winged Victory," he recalled being given a night off from that show to marry his wife of 58 years. Similar tributes to wives and children were very much the order of the evening.

Seldes herself inducted costume designer Alvin Colt, 86 ("On the Town," "Guys and Dolls," "The Lark," "L'il Abner"). Colt described his attic playroom as a child -- one half stuffed with his brother's sports equipment, the other with his miniature theater and posters of Clara Bow and Louise Brooks. His favorite show, he said, is the stream of memories in his head, "and that show will never close."

The select audience of veterans applauded appreciatively, among them Allan King, Elaine Stritch, Jim Dale, Patricia Neal, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, Barnard Hughes and Helen Stenborg, Joyce Randolph of "The Honeymooners," former New York City Mayor Dinkins, Jeffrey Eric Jenkins (CMU grad and editor of "Best Plays") and Madeline Gilford (widow of Jack). Several honorees praised Terry Hodge Taylor, for many years the producer of the annual Hall ceremony.

New Hall members are elected by ballot of the American Theatre Critics Association and Hall members. A minimum of 25 years in the theater and five major credits are required. Membership now totals 394.

Christopher Rawson serves on the board of directors of the Theatre Hall of Fame.

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