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Role Call: New class celebrates induction into Theater Hall of Fame

Wednesday, January 29, 2003

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Editor

NEW YORK -- The annual induction ceremony of the Theater Hall of Fame is a cozy affair with no klieg lights and few paparazzi. On Monday, some 125 theater veterans, family and friends gathered at the Gershwin Theatre to honor eight of their own. With the wind chill well below zero, the evening had an increased feeling of huddling around the warmth of reminiscence and anecdote.

Waiting to be inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame at the Gershwin Theatre in New York on Monday night are Tammy Grimes, left, and Frank Langella, with presenter Chita Rivera.

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The ceremony was held in the Gershwin's upper rotunda, where the eight new names had already been added to the 394 previous members inscribed on the walls in gold. Receiving this year's Hall medallions were actors Stockard Channing, Tammy Grimes, Frank Langella and Jean Stapleton, playwrights David Mamet and Larry Gelbart, designer John Lee Beatty and producer Bernard Gersten.

At the last minute, Stapleton was too ill to attend, and Channing, Gelbart and Mamet were confined to Hollywood -- one filming "The West Wing," the other two shooting movies. But nobody took it ill because that's the nature of a gypsy profession, and those absent sent notable friends to accept on their behalf.

Beforehand, mistress of ceremonies Patti LuPone joked about singing the national anthem to start, guessing that in this case, that would be either "Another Op'nin', Another Show" or "I'm Still Here." She proceeded to handle her task with brisk energy and good humor.

Playwright John Guare inducted Gersten, 79, who started as a stage manager and became Joe Papp's associate producer at the New York Shakespeare Festival/ Public Theater. It was Gersten who, when "Two Gentlemen of Verona" was a hit in Central Park in 1971, suggested they produce it on Broadway themselves, instead of "giving it away" as they had with "Hair" -- thereby starting the non-profit invasion that has helped sustain Broadway ever since.

 
 
A full list of Theater Hall of Fame membership is in the "Best Plays" theater yearbook and on its web-site at www.bestplaysonline.com.
   
 

He arrived at Lincoln Center as executive producer 17 years ago. When Peter Hall directed there, he said, "I started the Royal Shakespeare Company and ran the National Theatre, and I always felt something was missing: [Now I know] I needed a Bernie."

Gersten paid tribute to his colleague of 12 years, Lincoln Center artistic director Andre Bishop ("I don't believe even six harsh words have passed between us"), then thanked his wife and family and gave his own version of the 23rd Psalm: "The board and the staff, they comfort me. They restoreth my soul."

Gelbart, 79, though also known as the author of "Tootsie" and TV's "M*A*S*H," was selected for his Broadway shows, including "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and "City of Angels." Madeline Gilford, widow of actor Jack and wearing his Hall medallion, inducted Gelbart, quoting his famous line when struggling with "Forum": "I wish Hitler were alive and out-of-town with a musical."

She then read Gelbart's witty letter to the Hall. He said that the last time he was inducted was when he was 18, which led immediately to a bad haircut, being jabbed with needles and slogging through quicksand at a Louisiana Army base, and "only the fear of receiving similar treatment keeps me from [being there] tonight." Writing "from L.A., the city that never sleeps alone," he said "the sweetest rewards are those you never seek" and pledged to do more work on the stage, adding, "I can only hope there's show business after death."

In inducting Beatty, 54, designer of nearly 60 Broadway shows, Lincoln Center's Bishop said we live in a golden age of theater design. He distinguished Beatty as "always actor-friendly -- the proper number of stairs, a door the right distance from the sofa."

Beatty is best known for his gorgeously detailed interiors, made "slightly larger than life ... he understands the life and history of a room" -- but he can also "reduce anything to its own theatrical essence," as in "Chicago" or "Ain't Misbehavin'." Bishop recalled that when the director of "Proof" first saw Beatty's set, he said, " 'Oh! It's so real, it's scary!' 'Oh, really?' replied Beatty. 'I thought it was more yummy than that.' "

The men who run theater at Lincoln Center, artistic director Andre Bishop, left, and executive producer Bernard Gersten, a new inductee into the Theater Hall of Fame, meet at Sardi's restaurant where show-biz caricatures adorn the wall.

In response, Beatty said that when his friend Kathleen Marshall called to congratulate him, he couldn't believe he had really met the Hall's minimum requirement of 25 years in theater -- though he certainly has more than the minimum of five major credits. "I thought I'd done five shows at Lincoln Center, and it turns out to be 17!" He said he was happy to be honored "where it isn't about winning or losing but celebrating what you've done. The joy is in the doing."

Playwright and Hall member Horton Foote inducted Stapleton, 79. Though widely known as TV's Edith Bunker, she has a theater history going back more than 50 years, including such Broadway plays as "The Rhinoceros" and musicals like "Funny Girl," "Bells Are Ringing" and "Damn Yankees," extending to recent national tours and a solo show as Eleanor Roosevelt. There was also her long association with Pennsylvania's Totem Pole Playhouse, run by her late husband, CMU grad Bill Putch. Accepting for his mother was John Putch, a documentary filmmaker.

Hall member Marian Seldes, introduced by LuPone as "the first lady of the American stage," gave a characteristically gracious speech, enrolling four long-dead veterans on the Hall roster: 19th-century Irish-American playwright Dion Boucicault; pioneer African-American actor Canada Lee; Jacob Adler, star of the Yiddish Theater; and Cleon Throckmorton, who designed for Eugene O'Neill.

Then Seldes inducted the unsinkable Grimes, 68, reading laudatory passages first from the diary of Noel Coward, who discovered her and featured her in "Look After Lulu," and then from critic Brooks Atkinson, who praised her in Coward's "Private Lives" as "so ridiculously artificial that she just has to be real."

In response, Grimes recalled meeting Coward when she was singing at Upstairs at the Downstairs. Roddy McDowell brought Coward to see her. "He came tripping downstairs [to the dungeon-like dressing room, saying], 'You were mahvelous, and I want you to do my show.' "

Mistress of ceremonies Patti LuPone strikes a regal pose at the Theater Hall of Fame induction.

"But I shook like a leaf," she told him. "So have I," he replied.

Grimes also thanked her daughter, actress Amanda Plummer, for teaching her "about being a human being," and the director of that "Private Lives": "I forgot to thank him when I won [the Tony], and I've had it on my mind."

Hall member Isabelle Stevenson, longtime head of the American Theater Wing, custodian of the Tony Awards, read the names of Hall members who have died since last year: Eileen Heckart, Irene Worth, Al Hirschfeld and Robert Whitehead. As arranged by Hall producer Terry Hodge Taylor, this year's ceremony was dedicated to Whitehead, the prince of producers.

Stevenson then introduced playwright John Guare to accept for Channing, 58, who he said was "busy saving the world as the first lady." Guare met Channing at a 1971 audition for "Two Gentlemen from Verona." It was the end of the day, everyone was tired, the rehearsal pianist had left, but in came this girl from Boston who blew them away.

"You're terrific, but there's nothing in the show for you," they told her. "You're too good for the chorus." "I need a job, what do you mean I'm too good for the chorus?" she yelled. So she ended up understudying all the leads, launching a career that led to 13 Broadway shows.

In inducting the absent Mamet, 55, LuPone described meeting him on a bus in 1977 when she went to work on one of his earliest plays. Describing his work and thanking him for being part of her life through six plays, she teared up, paused, then recovered herself: "Six plays! Six profound women! Six tiny paychecks!"

LuPone then introduced Hall member Chita Rivera, fresh from her Kennedy Center Honors. Rivera remembered when her own name went up on the Hall of Fame wall and she prayed, "Please God, don't let them take it down!" She then proceeded to induct Langella, 64, saying he deserved the superlatives frittered away on others and describing him, apropos his "Dracula," as "blood-sucking sexy."

Actress Hallie Foote with her father, prize-winning playwright Horton Foote, a member of the Theater Hall of Fame, at the post-induction dinner at Sardi's restaurant.

Langella's talk was the best, an especially fitting conclusion in that he added anecdotes, sometimes ribald, about others who had spoken. Clearly enthused over his honor, he looked around jokingly and apologized to the "many people in this room I've offended." He said a speech on such an occasion should not be self-serving, maudlin or sentimental and you "certainly should resist the temptation to sing 'I'm Still Here'-- though I actually did sing it in the shower when I got the news."

He described coming to Times Square at age 13 from his home in New Jersey and walking up and down all the cross streets reading the marquees. It was 20 years later he made his Broadway debut in "Seascape." Looking back, he said, "I can only see where I failed, where I lacked courage. My successes don't warm me as much as my failures haunt me. I'm quite shocked I got here. [But] it was my destiny to be an actor."

He ended with what might stand as a comment on the Hall of Fame itself, describing the fleeting nature of live theater: "That's the way it should be. I love that it lives in memory and disappears." And he quoted Carl Sandburg: "The past is a bucket of ashes ... [there is] nothing in the world but an ocean of tomorrows."

Whereupon everyone adjourned to Sardi's to chew over past and future, both.


Theater Hall of Fame selections are determined by a national ballot of the American Theatre Critics Association, other critics, theater leaders and members of the Hall.

Christopher Rawson is a member of the executive committee of the Theater Hall of Fame. He can be reached at crawson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1666.

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