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Theater family comes together to celebrate Hall of Fame honorees

Thursday, February 01, 2001

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Editor

NEW YORK -- The annual induction to the Theater Hall of Fame is a family affair. About 150 friends of the inductees stuff into the upper rotunda at the Gershwin Theater, where members' names are inscribed on the walls, to celebrate and reminisce.

Director-producer Jon Jory, former head of the Actors Theater of Louisville, congratulates fellow Theater Hall of Fame inductee actress June Havoc while actress Mary Alice, another new member of the Hall, looks on before induction ceremonies at the Gershwin Theater in New York. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

There were eight honorees this year, but, as can happen in even the best-regulated families, not everybody showed up. Liza Minnelli, 54, wasn't well enough to travel from Florida, where she's recovering from encephalitis. Playwright Athol Fugard, 68, had to return to South Africa to nurture a play. And critic Otis Guernsey, 81, was confined to his home in Vermont by an operation. Two posthumous inductees were actor Nancy Marchand and producer Robert Fryer, who died last year, aged 72 and 80, respectively.

That left three honorees to provide focus: actress Mary Alice, 59, famous for her gritty Tony-winning performance opposite James Earl Jones in "Fences"; director-producer Jon Jory, 62, former head of the Actors Theater of Louisville, national center for new American plays; and luminous June Havoc, 88, a show biz legend.

The emcee was Hall member Marian Seldes, who opens tonight as co-star of Edward Albee's "The Play About the Baby." She gracefully stitched together the lives of the various honorees into a tapestry with a familial feel.

Inducting Mary Alice was Hall member and director Lloyd Richards, who recalled having her as a student four decades ago, "a willowy, wiry woman with such power and passion."

"Willowy?" laughed Mary Alice. "Where did that body go?" She spoke of theater as "a place of healing" and thanked five mentors: Richards; kingly actor Earl Hymen, who was there to cheer; Douglas Turner Ward of the Negro Ensemble Company; Ellen Stewart of La Mama ETC; and Joseph Papp of the N.Y. Shakespeare Co.

Joy Abbott, left, chair of the Theater Hall of Fame's board of directors, with inductee Jon Jory, accepted Liza Minnelli's induction on behalf of the actress, who couldn't attend. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Producer Martin Richards inducted Fryer, producer of 10 Tony-nominated shows and for 18 years artistic director of Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theater. Jeffrey Jenkins, a CMU grad and current chair of the American Theatre Critics Association, did the duty for Guernsey, editor for 36 years of the essential "Best Plays" theater yearbook.

Actress Debra Monk introduced Jory, who produced more than 1,400 plays at Louisville in 31 years and whose post there has just been assumed by Pittsburgh's Marc Masterson. He said "many people have left Louisville or places like it to come to New York and have a career -- thank goodness I never found the bus that would take me out of town." He accepted the honor on behalf of all those "working in relative theatrical anonymity between the coasts."

Joy Abbott, widow of George Abbott, "Mr. Broadway," accepted for Minnelli. She told how her husband had auditioned the then 17-year-old seven times before he decided she was mature enough to be cast in "Flora the Red Menace."

Susan Hilferty, Fugard's favorite costume designer, said the South African always describes himself as "a regional writer and a storyteller." She read a letter from Fugard thanking "the American theater family" for connections have been "among the richest and happiest of my career."

Tony-winning director Melvin Bernhardt inducted Marchand, telling us one of her first New York jobs was as a tester of consequences for the old "Truth or Consequences" TV show -- crawling through hoops, taking baked goods in the face, etc. Her Broadway debut was in 1957, and she won Obies 29 years apart for "The Balcony" and "The Cocktail Hour." Her talent ranged from the shy girl in "Marty" and many WASP ladies to "the definitive Jewish mother in 'Awake and Sing' and, on TV, the aristocratic Mrs. Pynchon on 'Lou Grant' and the murderous Mafia mama on 'The Sopranos.' "

The piece de resistence was the appearance of Havoc. She was presented by former New York Times drama critic and now political columnist Frank Rich, who sketched in her extraordinary career, the early stages of which as "Dainty June" we have some inkling of from "Gypsy." She was on stage at 2, in silent films with Mary Astor, starred on Broadway in "Pal Joey," wrote and directed "Marathon 33" and ran a theater in New Orleans, among much else.

"You want to make me cry," said Havoc to the only standing ovation of the night. Though speaking from a wheelchair, she assured us, "from the belly button up, I'm in great shape." Beautiful still, she has a striking mane of white and a 1,000-watt smile. "If I'd known this honor was coming my way," she said, "I'd have gotten older much sooner. ... I adored vaudeville, and the rest of it was lovely, juicy, and it paid the rent, but my heart was always in theater."

Then the big family adjourned to Sardi's for dinner, choreographer Kathleen Marshall said, "It's like walking through a time portal, with this crowd in this room."

Thursday, February 01, 2001

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