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Theater Hall of fame inductees reminisce about days of glory, passion

Thursday, February 04, 1999

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

NEW YORK --"To me, theater means only one thing - acting," confessed Tony Randall at Monday's 28th induction ceremony for the Theater Hall of Fame. "Acting is my religion." But the electorate (350 Hall members, critics and historians) takes a broader view. So this year's class included a designer, a director, a composer-lyricist team and pairs of producers and actors.

Randall, himself a Hall member, was inducting veteran actor Charles Durning. "As fine an actor as we have in America," Randall called Durning, who has appeared in more than 200 plays in New York since making his debut in 1943.

In response, Durning spoke with a feeling mix of humility and pride. "I'm smiling like a shoplifter who just made it past the door," he joked. Claiming "age's worst side-effect [is] nostalgia," he declared that, "I was welcomed into theater with all the warmth of a Russian winter. ... I'm driven by the fear of failure." Then with success came the realization that, "The media come to praise you, so they can betray you."

But Durning (who would hurry on to Pittsburgh the next morning to open "The Gin Game") expressed his deep belief in live theater, since "the only life I'm sure of is the life of imagination." He concluded with a tribute to his three adult children: "My children no longer cling to me; I cling to them."

The reference to family was in keeping with the low-keyed, communal nature of the annual Hall of Fame ceremony, held for about 150 theater veterans and friends in the upper lobby of Broadway's Gershwin Theater, where the walls are inscribed with the names of nearly 400 Hall members. Only seven or eight are now admitted each year, after meeting the basic requirement of 25 years in the profession and five major credits. Like Durning, all this year's inductees sped past those milestones many years and plays ago.

Take erudite, opinionated and already legendary producer Alexander H. Cohen: In the 58 years since his 1941 debut with "Angel Street," he has produced 100 stage shows, along with such impressive TV specials as the "Nights of 100 Stars" and (for 20 years) the Tony Awards.

"Thank you for this honor," growled the heavy-set Cohen: "It will encourage me to persevere. And thank you to the American Theatre Critics Association [cough] ... I almost choked on those words." Cohen pointed out he had persuaded the owners of the (then) Uris Theatre to have it renamed the Gershwin, as part of his continuing campaign to name theaters after great artists rather than real estate magnates.

"The theater is a fraternity," Cohen rumbled - "my vocation, avocation, passion and love." He was inducted by producer Bernard Gersten of Lincoln Center, who headlined his remarks, "Hall of Fame Comes to Its Senses," placing Cohen in the line of 20th-century producing greats such as David Belasco, Robert and David Merrick.

Cohen was instrumental in starting the Tony Award that honors not-for-profit regional theaters, and the first went to Washington's Arena Stage. Also inducted Monday was Zelda Fichandler, who founded and ran the Arena for 40 years before moving on to run the graduate acting program at New York University.

Presenting the feisty Fichandler was actress and ex-NEA chief Jane Alexander, whose breakthrough was in the Arena's "Great White Hope" - the first Broadway play to originate at a regional theater. Following the Arena's example, America grew some 400 regional professional theaters by the 1970s (Pittsburgh's Public and City among them). "We are all deeply indebted to the dream Zelda dreamed," said Alexander.

"It's nice that someone from Washington is being inducted rather than indicted," Fichandler quipped. She joins William Ball as the only Hall members honored primarily for work outside New York. Her eloquent remarks cautioned regional theater: "Do we wear our non-profit halo as a crown or a vise? Has it gotten too tight and given us a headache?"

Cohen confessed he turned down a chance to produce "Cats." For her touch of humility, Fichandler admitted she once told Alan Schneider he was out of his mind to want to stage this thing called "Waiting for Godot," she once criticized George C. Scott's audition as "monochromatic" and she "turned down 'The Fantasticks.' "

Now in its 39th year, "The Fantasticks" is only the longest continuously running musical ever. So it was time that its composer Harvey Schmidt and lyricist Tom Jones, a couple of charming, ebullient Texans, be inducted. Doing their honors was actress Karen Ziemba, who traced their careers from their meeting at the University of Texas 50 years ago through their other musicals, "110 in the Shade" and "I Do! I Do!"

With rumpled glee, Schmidt described coming from Crosby, Texas, where "the first stage show I ever saw, I was in - playing a rich Long Island playboy." On trips to Houston he would seek out the Sunday New York Times and dream of Broadway. "I was only inducted once before," said the angular Jones, "and that was into the Army, and I didn't feel like thanking anyone." But he was eager to thank the original cast of "The Fantasticks," the current cast and everyone in between, from the now-famous (Jerry Orbach, F. Murray Abraham, one-time assistant stage manager David Mamet) to the obscure. "And I'd like to thank our backers, who I hope will be rewarded in heaven, but until then, I'm glad to say they are also being rewarded on Earth."

"There are stars in our business who are not recognized" said Broadway power Gerald Schoenfeld, head of the Shubert Organization, as he presented the Hall's Founders' Award to lawyer Edward Colton, "one of those who wrote the book about how to do business in the theater." "I have a long list of people I'd like to thank," responded Colton, who has practiced law for 69 years, "but I've outlived most of them."

The wittiest presentation was made by John Heilpern, drama critic for the New York Observer, doing the honors for set designer Robin Wagner. He described the "wall of shame" in Wagner's studio - covered with posters of his flops - as well as the "wall of fame," which includes "Hair," "A Chorus Line," "Dreamgirls," "City of Angels" and "Angels in America." Heilpern praised Wagner as a minimalist with "the playfulness of a child" - "a set designer who wishes never to design a set."

Describing the practice of hauling used sets to a New Jersey dump to burn them, Wagner marveled at the impermanence of theater - "just like life."

Richard Kiley, forever to be known as the Man of LaMancha but with a long list of roles in plays and musicals, was ill. Presenting him was Joy Abbott, legendary director/producer George Abbott's widow, who also served as the evening's emcee. She reminded the audience that Kiley started out as a radio soap opera juvenile ("Guiding Light," "Ma Perkins").

Accepting for Kiley was old friend, John Connell, who told about presenting a half-hour version of "Man of LaMancha" for President and Mrs. Johnson. Warned by the protocol chief that Johnson usually fell asleep during such events, Kiley said, "He isn't going to sleep tonight!" - and LBJ didn't, leaping up to lead a standing ovation.

Inducted posthumously was famed actor, director and producer Ellis Rabb (1930-98), a graduate of Carnegie Tech (as it then was). He was presented by T. Edward Hambleton, whose Phoenix Theater housed Rabb's A.P.A. company in a glorious, short-lived attempt to bring classical repertory to Broadway. Hambleton remembered Rabb's "Tennessee timbre, tempered by Carnegie Tech and the imperious Edith Skinner" - legendary CMU voice teacher. Accepting for Rabb was his one-time wife, the beautiful actress Rosemary Harris, herself a Hall member, who cited Rabb's advice on such occasions: "Presto subito, and avoid sentiment."

Sentiment was the order of the night, however, as honorees and their guests followed the ceremony with an evening of food, drink and happy reminiscence.

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