Thursday, January 12, 2012

* "Bless you, Dahling!": Toughened by Talullah


James Franco, actor/Yale student.

Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady

Henry Winkler, Fonzie

Teachers and students of drama at Yale have been in the limelight since "drama"  became its own department /school at the University:  Monty Wooley, who was fired and then rehired  and then fired again as a drama teacher before becoming a famous Hollywood star; Thornton Wilder, a graduate and later teacher, whose writings sought out "window-breaking ideas"; Jodi Foster, a Drama School student stalked on the streets of Yale by the star-crazed John Hinckley who later shot President Reagan: Meryl Streep and Henry Winkler, now famous Drama School alumni; and currently a heart-throb actor and Yale student named James Franco, who brings attention and his own Twittered-graffiti (see above) to Yale and The Yale Daily News.

Monty Wooley in The Man Who Came to Dinner

Thornton Wilder, Yale Graduation
Tallulah circa 1963

Tallulah in her prime.

When I was 17, half a century ago, my English teacher at Hamden High in the shadow of Yale, groomed me to be a gate-crasher.  

I had made somewhat of a name for myself in that category on my own by hanging out on the 79th Street Boat Basin in Manhattan for three days when I was 16 until I got to see 86-year-old Sir Winston Churchill debark Aristotle Onassis's yacht, the Christina---during which adventure I met his nurse who gave me one of his iconic cigars and a note signed by him on House of Commons stationery.

Divining a nascent paparazzo in his 11th grade student, my English teacher, Mr. Neil Topitzer, suggested I take-on the Shubert Theatre next, and he directed me, like a bank robber planning a heist, to a plain white door under the first balcony box to the right of the stage (Stage Left for the actors) of New Haven's dilapidated Shubert, famous for making or breaking sought-after Broadway tours.  

That door was so innocuous, it looked like it might be a broom closet , he told me.  In fact, it led immediately ( 2 feet maximum) onto the star's dressing room, and Mr. Topitzer primed me:  If I knocked, someone would open it and I could speak with the star of the show and get their autograph.

My first conquest ---or disaster --- depending on your point of view  , was the aging Tallulah Bankhead. 

It may have been in a trial run of Tennessee Williams' The Milk Train Doesn't Stop here Anymore. If it was 1962 or 1963, Tallulah would have been 60 or 61. She looked younger on stage, but when I knocked on the door and was given entry to a small bathroom-sized enclosure, she looked like a male W. H. Auden, with facial skin etched in crevaces not creases, as if by a sculptor's putty knife. 

I uttered some inconsequentiality about her acting and she boomed like a muted trombone, "Bless you, dahling!" I was dressed in a suit and tie and he next remark, took me by surprise in my naive 17 years: 

"Do you got go Yale, dahling?" she drawled. 

"No, Hamden High," I stammered.  "Would you be kind enough to autograph my program"?

She took the program and demanded, "How do you spell your name, dahling?" 

I said "Paul Keane, K-e-a---". 

She cut me off with "I cahn't be BOTHERED with the LAST name, dahling," scribbling across the program as I was gently edged out of the actor's closet.

Twenty years later, when I had become friends with Miss Isabel Wilder, the sister of another Yale graduate who had made a name for himself in drama, Thornton Wilder, I learned that neighbors on their Hamden street, Deepwood Drive, used to complain at the loudness of Miss Bankhead's voice and laugh, on summer evenings when she would be a guest at Wilder parties, her emboozed  guffaw echoing up and down the wooded drive.

I tried Mr. Topitzer's plan twice more at the Shubert  before I went off to college. The highlight of the three adventures was the comedienne Carol Burnett, who graciously kissed me, with the hottest, softest lips I had ever touched----even to this day !

Later, Mr. Topitzer's apprentice paparazzo would find the daring practiced on that little white door at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, very useful indeed,  in barging through, not a white door,  but, the White House itself, after the Kent State shootings in 1970,  and into the inner sanctum sanctorum of CBS's "60 Minutes" in 1984 when AIDS was ignorantly believed to be a male-transmitted disease only, after proof of the opposite was staring Yale in the face.

Tallulah and Mr. Topitzer taught me not to be intimidated by closed white doors, be they big or small, old or new.

Thanks you, my eleventh grade English teacher.  Thanks Tallulah!

From your carefully prepared  paparazzo,

Paul Keane
HHS '63

No comments: