One of my dearest, very best friends is Richard Enders. I knew him first as “Mr. Scrooge,” when he assumed that iconic role from David Murphy in the early 1990’s; I handled lighting for the production. In September 2000, Richard asked if I’d light his first play, Sketches of Boz, which he said would be produced Off-Broadway in December. Sure. This guy was going perform a play he’d written, a 2-hour one-man show, in New York City? I had my doubts.
First I needed to see the theater. We drove down in September, on a beautiful autumn day. I remember thinking, “It’s a four-hour drive. We’ll be together all day. Then four hours home. I barely know this guy – how are we going to fill the time?” From the moment we got in the car, things clicked. The hours flew by (and a dozen multi-day vacations together since then, and a weekly lunch date that has endured more than a decade.) This might be the definition of friendship – it’s never too much.
The show was scheduled for December 15th, 2000 (Richard’s 59th birthday). It was originally going to play at Theatre @ St. Clement’s. Barbara Crafton had liked Richard’s play and booked it without ever seeing him perform. During our September trip, we’d looked at the theater and made notes about the space. Then in early December we learned another show had been held over (Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw), and we were moved to The Irish Arts Center. That was a wrinkle.
Another wrinkle: our space was booked Monday night with a show called Merry Go Round. I received a call from the director, Jack Chandler. He didn’t have a lighting guy. He couldn’t pay me (the show was a benefit for at-risk youth), but I could stay in his apartment a few nights and save the hotel money Richard had offered me. Hmmm. Why not? It would be a good chance to learn the theater and get ready for Richard’s show. I could also face my fears – strange people, strange lodgings, unknown theater, unknown show, to be completed in a ridiculously short time in the Center of the Theatrical Universe.
The last Sunday train was packed and hot. It started 25 minutes late and got worse when we were stalled 90 minutes in Albany while Amtrak switched engines. I arrived in NYC close to midnight, in the rain. I walked from Penn Station to 43rd, rolling my luggage and carrying suburban fears about night in the big city. I arrived at Jack’s building and met my host for the first time. He was an aging hippie who liked to drop names and talk a lot. Not difficult to get along with, and thought I had a good deal – phone, sofa bed, Internet access, and 21st floor views of the Twin Towers and Times Square.
Around 2 AM, Jack’s 19-year-old son arrived with friends. They greeted me awake (I learned that whoever sleeps on the sofa is target for conversation at all hours), then developed photos in the bathtub while smoking pot. I wondered if I could get high from second-hand smoke, and as I became more and more nauseous I wondered where I could go to throw up if needed, the bathroom being occupied…
At 7:00 Monday morning, Jack roused me with French pressed coffee and steamed milk (there was no other food in the kitchen.) He pointed to an antique love seat, and said we had to get it to the theater. I was game, but I couldn’t picture us carrying it through the city for 8 blocks. (Welcome to the Center of the Theatrical Universe.) We loaded the love seat on a furniture dolly and tied all kinds of tool boxes on top, and headed down the block…to a garage where Jack’s Jeep was parked.
We arrived at the Irish Arts Center and as Jack parallel parked he banged a divot in his tailgate from a dumpster. Later that day as we emerged from the theater, a delivery truck raced by and took a swath of paint off the entire side of the jeep. It became a comic opera for the rest of the week; smashes and tinkling glass orchestrated by demons with commercial plates.
The Irish Arts Center is technically an Off-Off-Broadway Theater, because it has only 98 seats – 2 shy of the 100 needed to qualify as an Off-Broadway theater. Richard insists to this day that his show was technically Off-Broadway, because it was produced by Theatre @ St. Clement’s. Our theater was in the middle of a neighborhood known as Clinton (also the name of Richard’s village, next door to my own New Hartford), in Hell’s Kitchen. The theater has a dramatic pedigree, having hosted, among others, Kenneth Branagh and Frank McCourt. It’s between 10th and 11th on West 51st – 3 long blocks down from the main B’way action. On the opposite side of the street, canvas laundry hampers were lined up under scaffolding, bumper-to-bumper for half a block. They were mobile homes – during the day, their occupants moved them to more profitable locations.
I remember the theater as a wonderful, intimate space – a charming little auditorium, richly paneled in wood. The stage was 18 feet across and 10 feet deep, and the ceiling was just 11 feet high. Every inch of that ceiling over the stage was filled with lighting instruments – mid-1970s vintage, but enough to collectively accomplish some illumination. I brought 4 lights with me – together they put out the candlepower of everything else combined; I had a total of about 60 instruments to work with. The dressing room was directly behind the stage – no other entrance or exit except by crossing the stage itself. There were no flies or wings. The booth was a cramped space in the rear of the house, filled with cable and dimmers and a computer lighting board (overkill, but welcome.) The small lobby was decorated with a Celtic art exhibit. We thought it was great.
So Monday morning. With the clock ticking, I set about diagramming what I had to work with; it took 6 hours. No time for lunch. I started designing, re-hanging, re-patching and coloring. I still didn’t have any idea what that evening’s show would entail. Jack and a fantastic theater angel (a skilled person who works cheap) named Mike painted the stage, hung curtains, and fashioned a kind of set. Richard arrived in the early afternoon, just after his set was delivered. We buried our pieces behind curtains on stage. At 3:00, actors began to arrive, the pace became chaotic and I was dizzy from hunger.
Richard and I walked around the corner to a pub called Druids, which would become our hang-out for the next 6 days. Good food, eaten in clouds of cigarette smoke (bars weren’t yet smoke-free.) A running joke was born as Richard exclaimed that his meal was “the best food he’d ever eaten”… And I worried. The difficult task before us could produce abject failure or great triumph; both would come at a price. Failure is obvious, but success would mean that ordinary life might be tough to go back to.
From 5:00 to 7:00, I frantically tried to get a few cues set up, while another drama unfolded. The show’s piano player was blind. Following the afternoon rehearsal, he’d left and hadn’t returned. By 5:30, people were frantic, and after an hour of unanswered phone calls they went to his apartment. His wife informed Jack that the blind pianist couldn’t play the show! Jack distracted her while a cast member hailed a cab and another hustled the pianist into it. They literally kidnapped the orchestra. Life at the center of the theatrical universe…
At 7:20 I looked up from my notes in the booth and noticed someone on stage, apparently making a speech. Not only was he in the dark, but he’d moved the microphone off its spike mark, to a location I couldn’t put light on if I wanted to. I quickly brought up full lights, and our 7:30 show was off to a rousing start. 90 excruciating minutes of off-key singing, bad acting, and fumbling lighting later, my Off-Off-Broadway debut was over. I thought it was one of the worst things I’d ever seen, but the sold-out audience (98 people) had loved it, and some even had kind words for the lighting!
The cast party was at Druids, and I allowed myself a beer (I rarely drank back then; my brewery was not even a gleam in my mind’s eye.) I talked politics with a man from England, and about kids with a stunning Australian woman dressed entirely in black. She was engaged to one of the actors, her to-be third husband. She had 4 kids; her youngest was 18. They’d been raised in London while she lived in Brazil, but that had worked out well because “they were all very close friends now…” I felt almost foolish missing my own family, having been away for just 29 hours… It seemed normal in this city where you walk looking at the ground, avoiding eye contact, to spill your guts to a stranger in a bar. I also learned that among theater people in New York, if you know their name they are automatically a close friend; kisses hello and goodbye are expected. I snuck out and got back to Jack’s by midnight. I was first home. The parade of people and conversations over the sofa began around 1 AM, and I think I was asleep by 3.
Tuesday began our real work on Richard’s show. I worked slowly, using what I’d learned Monday to advantage. Peter Loftus, our director, arrived in the afternoon and we all headed to Druid’s. Then a rehearsal, followed by dinner at Emmett’s, which would be the site of next Sunday’s post-show party. It overlooked Phantom of the Opera, which is still there, although Emmett’s is not.
Wednesday brought more work, and moving day for me. At 5:00 I gathered my things from Jack’s, left a note of thanks and walked 20 blocks to 23rd St. (I had, and still have, a fear of taxis.) The Leo House was a welcome change after Jack’s – quiet and reserved. It was started as a hostel for Catholic Missionaries visiting New York, and is still run by nuns. The rooms are spartan and the nuns don’t approve of people coming in after midnight (I only did it once, and received a deep frown from the Sister at the desk when I was finally admitted by a security guard.) Breakfast was a $6 buffet with home-baked bread, eggs, pancakes, quiche, juice, muffins, coffee… in a dining room from a storybook grandmother’s house. I loved the place.
I took the subway back to 50th and walked the remaining block up and 2-1/2 over to the theater. The trip was maybe a mile as the crow flies (less?) and took 30 minutes. Another rehearsal was underway, and we quit at 7:30. Richard insisted we go to a show. Peter and a friend saw The Full Monty, and because there weren’t tickets for four, Richard and I saw Proof. A woman was selling her tickets at the door, and we got 10th row center for one of the most amazing nights of theater I can remember. Thus also began our crush on Mary Louise Parker, which drew us back for several more of her shows. It was a wonderful time. Back on the subway, and I saw Subway Rats for the first time – they reminded me of squirrels playing in my backyard. (The rats were bigger.)
Thursday was “preview night” – a benefit dress rehearsal for St. Clement’s. Most of the day was spent polishing the show. Kevin Matthews came from Utica – we all had dinner at Druids. Kevin stole the check and paid it; I was getting used to people trying to one-up each other by picking up tabs. (I went to NYC with $20 in my pocket – I tried to pay for a round of beers one night and the bartender laughed at me. I was pretty naive – and poor – then.) With 2 hours until curtain, Kevin and I went to find the Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center and sit in St. Patrick’s for a while. The preview was performed for 4 people, and it was good practice. We ended up at Druids again afterward, elated at our Off-Broadway premiere.
Friday was a lonely day – I walked until my legs hurt, found a present for Richard, and re-visited all of my stops in the city to record them on a disposable camera I’d packed. I read a book, drank a lot of coffee, and had my first-ever Krispy Kreme doughnuts. It was Richard’s birthday, a milestone because he’d outlived Charles Dickens. We played our official opening, and although the small audience was seeded with friends, we had a handful of locals – people we didn’t even know who’d purchased tickets because it seemed like a good show to see(!)
Saturday was 2 shows, and we were starting to crash. Peter had caught a cold, and Richard and I were just drained. The matinee audience was almost entirely strangers, and it turned out to be one of the best audiences we’d had to that point. Richard was getting a ton of positive feedback, and the lighting was even being mentioned (unusual, in my experience.) Although tired, we realized we’d done what we’d set out to do.
Sunday started with torrential wind and rain. I checked out of the Leo House, and walked my bags to the theater (for a week, we’d owned the place. We had a key, and could come and go at all hours.) I borrowed an umbrella from lost and found, and made the 15 minute walk to Richard’s inn. We had breakfast and I went to Times Square Church, held in an old theater. I arrived on time at 10:00, and was lucky to get a standing place in the rear of the balcony – there must have been 2500 people there. Everything was huge, and theatrically presented – lights, sound, dramatics, etc. I was moved by 2500 people singing “O Come All Ye Faithful.”
2 hours later, the service ended and I had almost dried out, but I ruined it by heading out again to the Irish Arts Center. More rain, and our final performance. 2 busloads of people from Utica arrived, and it was a great triumph for Richard. We had a reception at Emmett’s; just like a wedding reception, except no bride, although several very nice speeches were made.
The bus ride home led us into the cold and more wind, and we were home again in snow by midnight. Monday brought a hangover of sorts as I unloaded the set at Richard’s and returned the borrowed lights to Spring Farm. The world seemed a different color than when we left…