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On Stage: Looking for Richard
Sunday, August 21, 2005

Mother and I always called him Richie -- the glamorous, absent father who dominated my youthful fantasies.

  
Above: "Dark of the Moon," 1945 caricature by Al Hirschfeld: Richard Hart as John the witch boy, with Carol Stone as Barbara Allen (below) and Marjorie Bell (later Marge Champion) as the Fair Witch (right).

Right: Hart on the cover of the Nixon Theatre program, also for "Dark of the Moon." Richard Hart was partnered with Hollywood's leading ladies, such as Lana Turner in 1947's "Green Dolphin Street," but his heart was in the theater.

He was born Richard Comstock Hart in Providence, R.I., scion of lawyers, professors and ship captains, the middle child of a distinguished lawyer who was president of the Rhode Island Bar Association and of the national Legal Aid Society. He was born in 1915, the same year as my mother. Teenage sweethearts, they married in 1938, soon after he graduated from Brown, where he'd been an all-American soccer player. He worked briefly for Gorham, the silver company, and he took an extension course in journalism. But he got bitten by the acting bug.

So he left the comfort and confinement of establishment Providence. When I was born, he was doing summer stock in New Jersey, his affections estranged in more ways than just vocational. Mother took her baby boy to live with him in Manhattan for a while, but she was back in Providence before my first birthday, seeking a divorce. A year and a half later she married Jonathan Rawson, who adopted me, and they tacked on that new name, giving me the impressive legal handle of Christopher Comstock Hart Rawson.

Meanwhile, Richie studied acting, did a number of off-Broadway shows and made a government propaganda film with Elia Kazan. Then, in 1944, he played John the witch boy in "Dark of the Moon" in Cambridge, Mass. (His future second wife, Louise, played the Fair Witch.) The Shuberts took him and the play to Broadway, where it ran for nine months in 1945, then went on tour, Pittsburgh included, where it played at the Nixon the first week of January 1946.

The best review was Harold V. Cohen's in the Post-Gazette ("Steeped in imagination ... it talks and sings with authentic words ... a canny mixture of fantasy, realism and mysticism"), who said Richard Hart "plays with force and consummate grace." In the Press, Kap Monahan said he "employs swift movements with the grace of a ballet dancer (but with he-manish vigor)." And the Sun-Telegraph's Karl Krug praised his "agile and fascinating" performance.

Eager to enlist new leading men for its studio of female stars, MGM whisked him off to Hollywood, promoting him as a new star, giving him leads opposite Lana Turner and Donna Reed ("Green Dolphin Street"), Greer Garson ("Desire Me"), Barbara Stanwyck ("B.F.'s Daughter") and Arlene Dahl ("The Black Book," aka "Reign of Terror") -- supported by much of the great MGM stock company (Robert Mitchum, Van Heflin, Frank Morgan, Edmund Gwenn, Dame May Whitty).

But Richie preferred the stage, where he was at his best. So in the late '40s he went back to Broadway to do "The Happy Time," "Goodbye, My Fancy" and the forgettable "Leaf and Bough." He also did lots of early live TV and was playing Ellery Queen (the first to do so) when he died in 1951, just 35.

Please forgive all this ancient history and personal detail, but I think it's time to write about Richie in more detail than I have in the past. His life and legacy have swirled around me this past weekend as his other children, Hillary and Sheila, my two half sisters, came to Pittsburgh so we could together experience the play that made his career, "Dark of the Moon," now being staged by Quantum Theatre in Mellon Park (through Aug. 28).

It's been intense. None of us really knew him. So we spent the weekend talking about this huge absent presence in our lives, sorting through boxes of childhood memorabilia, theater programs, newspaper clippings and photographs, comparing what we think we know.

I grew up in Providence with Richie's family (my grandfather, aunt, uncle, cousins) all around me while he was on Broadway and in Hollywood. I have just the vaguest memory of a visit one Christmas with his second wife; he gave me a chemistry set, which I messed around with for a while before trading it to the girl next door for some craft kit -- an ambivalent reaction to the absent father as much as to chemistry, I guess.

He was always in my mind, but probably more after he died. At age 13, I appeared in "The Happy Time" at the Providence Players, the same play he had done a few years earlier on Broadway. What I would have then given for a chance to talk to him! What would he think now of his son the drama critic?

Hillary remembers him better. Born during his few Hollywood years, she actually had his attention, judging by the many surviving photographs -- some the product of the MGM publicity department. But Sheila's experience was like mine. When she was born (in New York, when Richie was back on Broadway), he was living with another woman, and he died soon after.

In fact, neither Sheila nor I have ever seen a photo of us with our father, which is pretty spooky. There is a family movie showing him carrying a bassinet that almost certainly contains baby me, and there is a letter from him to his aunt, describing Sheila as a beautiful baby. Otherwise, there are lots of stories, a rich mythology, plenty of fantasy and the memories of others, which are vivid.

Like me, Hillary and Sheila grew up with a stepfather and other half siblings. We didn't meet until I was a teenager, delighted to discover two younger sisters. Surprisingly, they called him Richard, as their mother had; and his friends from college and later called him Dick; only my mother and the friends of his youth stayed with Richie. But our views of him differed in more than just name, derived from our different mothers, who lived (and spun) his story differently.

There's no doubt he was charismatic -- the testimony of his friends, family and lovers is overwhelming. Among the theater people who have spoken admiringly of him to me are Marian Seldes, Horton Foote, Robert Lewis, Adolph Green and Marge Champion. I have always regretted I never talked about him with Felicia Montealegre, the actress he lived with near the end of his life, better known through her later marriage to Leonard Bernstein.

We don't even know what he died of, whether a weak heart, disease, alcohol or what. (Several Leonard Bernstein biographies report his death differently.) On www.imdb.com, someone else claims to be his son, though I don't know the truth of that. Nor do I know what unhappiness or wanderlust drove him from woman to woman, more than the instability that is usual in an acting career. As John the witch boy says, "The moment you're human, you want something more."

I just know I have him inside me, in complex ways, and I have pieces of his life all around me -- the heritage of his family and the places they, he and I have lived; portraits and mementos; all those scrapbooks and photos. I came to love my stepfather, but I adored Richie, my absent father, figure of mystery and myth, personal failure and success.

I'm angry, too, that I have to know him through the memories of others and the unsatisfactory, untrustworthy testimony of videotape and clippings. But he never lived long enough to find himself, did he? So how could he have known me, or I him?

First published on August 21, 2005 at 12:00 am
Post-Gazette drama editor and critic Christopher Rawson can be reached at crawson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1666.
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