WEB EXTRA! (continued)
Ed had arranged for us to give a special performance in Lakeside, Ohio, at the International Platform Association convention before heading out on tour, but first we were driving to New York to see some agents like Chamberlain Brown and maybe audition for them. Then we would drive up to Holyoke, Massachusetts, and pay a visit to Bertram Tanswell, who was with the Valley Players summer stock company. We’d let them take a look at us. Just in case.
At Pittsburgh we hooked up with the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the proud forerunner of a hundred interstates, and in Manhattan the Hotel Bristol took us in. We kept moving the car from block to block to save garage fees, and we hit the pavements. The New York agents wouldn’t see us, but we had saved Chamberlain Brown’s office in the West Forties for last. We climbed the stairs and opened the door to an album of American theater history. On the walls were faded posters heralding Minnie Maddern Fiske, Sothern and Marlowe, Maude Adams, Richard Mansfield, Ethel and John Barrymore—names to knock your eye out. It was an aging cell of theater antiquity. Not a dustrag had passed over an item in it for decades and the rug was exhausted, past the boundaries of descriptive hyperbole. The walls were reasonably perpendicular, but the glue on a long-extinct pattern of wallpaper was releasing its grip on its old mate.
And now we come to Chamberlain. He was tall and full in the waist, with a kindly face, somewhat cherubic, but it had the presence of a long career to give it strength. His pale blue shirt became the focal point of his appearance because it was not fresh. It is doubtful that he exchanged it for a nightshirt, because it had the exhausted appearance of double duty. The sleeves had been cut off just above the elbows and one wondered if this was a personal style choice or if they had simply rotted off along the forearms so that Chamberlain
had to cut them away and was waiting for the rest of the shirt to follow suit. And yet he did not smell bad. There was a smell, indeed there was, but it was not the smell of body odor. He smelled like the walls.
We had taken the precaution to write Chamberlain and his brother Lyman and had given them a brief description of our show and the looming tour. It caught their interest, these two pioneers in the profession, and they invited us into their office. Lyman even stood up and shook our hands. They wanted to know about the tour and our choices of dramatic material “for the cowboy lands.” They pointed out that even Edwin Booth, as a boy, had accompanied his father, Junius Brutus Booth, on a tour of the far western goldfields, a kind note to throw our way. We wondered if they had booked it. They said they would like to see one of our pieces if we would do it for them.
“Now?” I said.
“Just pull the chairs away. Can you do one of your scenes there?”
“I guess so. Ruby, what do you think?”
“Victoria and Albert?”
“Not much movement, good. This is the shaving scene from Victoria Regina.”
“Oh yes,” Chamberlain said. “Helen Hayes and Vincent Price were quite fine in that.”
“We’ve had to shorten it. So . . .”
We did the scene for them, and Chamberlain said, “Quite fine, don’t you think, Lyman?”
“It’s important that we see his understanding that he must never lead, but only gently inform his queen. Yes, I think you have the idea of the scene.”
“You have a quality, Ruby,” said Lyman. “Good for the role.”
“Yes, we must do something for you fine young people. We will organize something. We’ll keep an eye on possibilities for you. Perhaps when you complete your tour you will return here and Lyman and I will present you in a small performance for the benefit of producers and other influential persons in the theater.”
“That would be wonderful!” we chimed in together.
“You must keep in touch. Write us from Texas and let us know how the western lands are responding to your presentations.”
We stumbled downstairs in a trance, filled with dreams of a glorious future, filled with the confidence that we could make it because Chamberlain and Lyman Brown had paid attention to us! Whoopee!
Off to Holyoke. We were nervous about this trip because we did not want to seem pushy or to embarrass Bertram. On the way we passed the boarding school where the Headmaster had taken such pleasure in whipping me, igniting an anger that still burned in the regions of my gut. Maybe someday I would rise above the memory and put it to some good use. We drove along the handsome Connecticut River past Springfield, where I had boarded the train with Grandpa for those overnight rides to Cleveland, snug in the upper berth. My past was beginning to connect to my future. I was in New England again.
We arrived in Holyoke just in time to see the play that night, You Can’t Take It with You. It’s an irresistible farce, and in the hands of a company of professionals who could project their characters into the cavernous space of the Mountain Park Casino it was hugely enjoyable. Jean and Carlton Guild ran this theater, and after the show everyone came together at the Guilds’ home to drink beer and run lines for the next week’s play. We were made welcome, but it was like dropping in on a family preparing for a wedding or the imminent birth of a baby. It wouldn’t do to hang around, so we left on Monday for the drive back to Granville.
Ed had persuaded the people at the convention in Lakeside to put the Holbrooks on the evening program with artists like Leadbelly and John Jacob Niles. I believe it may have been the first time the convention had featured a new act like ours on the big stage at night, a remarkable fact we may have only dimly understood at the time, but it was enough to raise our anxiety level. We would be seen by booking managers from all around the country and we wanted to score for Ed’s sake as well as our own. In Columbus we purchased two 500-watt spotlights for the tour and an amplifier for the little musical themes between scenes, and rehearsed what we would do at
Lakeside: Rosalind and Orlando, Victoria and Albert, Hamlet and Gertrude, and Mark Twain and the Interviewer.
I began to think about my sisters for the first time in ages. Maybe we could drive to California at Christmas and see June. When she was living in an apartment in Cleveland with Bill Meyer right after the war, Gion Fenwick had written Grandma to say he’d always liked June and how was she. Grandma read the letter to June, and she left Bill two days later and went to Los Angeles with her daughter, Cheryl, and married Gion two days after her arrival. I hope she divorced Bill. Sometimes the people in my family sound like characters
in a comic farce, except it really wasn’t very funny living through it. Sad things happened. Ruby and I had seen Alberta, who was now called Bee for short, a few times when we were able to get to Cleveland, and we would drive there to see her after Lakeside. She and I had practically lost touch during the war. She had married a young man from Cincinnati named David Drazil and had lived there until the marriage broke up. Then she’d taken her small daughter, Diane, to Cleveland, where she’d met Howard Holton. Howie fell in love with her and they were now married and living on the east side of Cleveland in a dreary walk-up apartment. You drove your car through an alley between sooty brick buildings into a dark parking area and entered the apartment building from this unpromising aspect. The stairs were dimly lit.
Ruby and I were nomads now. Our home was the station wagon. We stored in boxes what little we couldn’t carry; we owned scant furniture and had no ties to bind us except the one that kept us together. We knew there were miles and miles of unknown territory ahead and experiences we would have to meet firsthand. But we didn’t know the realities. We were in a lifeboat with four wheels, made by Ford. Our compass was our show and our hope of survival was our belief in it.
The theater at Lakeside was huge and sat twenty-nine hundred people. That scared us. Could our show go over in such a huge hall? Ed was already there to reassure us and to guide us in our preparations. We needed furniture for the show: a table and two chairs, and we had the bench that served us for the As You Like It scenes as well as Hamlet and Queen Gertrude. Soon after we arrived, two young men sought us out, Richard Corson and Mitchell Erickson. They had heard about us from Ed and wanted to hunt up the stage props for us and do anything else we needed. Dick was a makeup artist and Mitch was an actor and sometime stage manager. They were from New York and they opened their arms to us and took us on faith.
In the evening we went to the big theater where we would be performing and saw Leadbelly. God Almighty! Inside his ordinary suit of clothes was a sweating giant in ball and chain, and the torture of his raw life exploded out of him in a voice smoking with brimstone, the living sculpture of a black convict swinging his giant guitar like a sledge in John Henry’s hands. “Take this hammer! Whoomp!!! Take it to the Captain! Whoomp!!!” God! It lifted me out of my seat. I had never seen or heard such controlled violence so viscerally employed onstage.
How were we supposed to follow that? The next night we came second on the program. I’d given the stagehands instructions about pulling the curtain, and the huge audience gave us a polite and even friendly welcome. Our first two scenes were received with a good round of applause. We were rolling along in control, but when I strapped on the sword for Hamlet, a sudden wild anger clenched at me and the unleashed energy that pulls an actor out of tune with his role got loose as I entered my mother’s chamber.
“Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.” That line always goaded me.
“Mother, you have my father much offended!” The scene spewed out in emotional bursts too raw and personal for me to control. When it ended and I strode offstage, a stagehand pulled the curtain too soon, cutting off Ruby’s pantomime, which gave me the extra time needed to change into Mark Twain. “No!” I shouted, and drew my sword in a fury and flung it past the frightened stagehand, nearly spearing him to the wall. He lunged into a broken field run to get away from this maniac kid actor who’d lost control. We were all shook up and sweating hard, but Ruby comforted the stagehand and went out to introduce Mark Twain while I raced through the big costume and makeup change. My hands shook so bad putting on the mustache that I almost glued it to my nose. Somehow we got through the scene and took our bows and as we came off, the stagehand gave me the sword and said, “You missed me. Better luck next time.”