Golden Boys and Girls

“Burning Bush” by Karen Fitzgerald

I remember when Julie Harris became a star. The photo made all the New York papers. Well, maybe not the Times, but certainly the Mirror, the Daily News, the Journal-American, the Post in the afternoon. Nobody relied on TV for the news in the ‘50s and an event like this was front-page stuff.

Those of us in the know—and I include myself—had spotted Julie in “Sundown Beach”; a quirky ingenue with hair down to her waist. But that show closed too quickly for the general public—by that, I mean my parents—to notice. Then, she picked up every award around as Frankie Adams in “Member of The Wedding” but Ethel Waters, the star of that show, was not about to share her solo billing.

So, when “I Am A Camera” was doing out-of-town tryouts, every eye was on our Julie. She was only featured after the title with William Prince, but Al Hirschfeld in the Sunday Times sketched her with a new hairdo and cigarette holder—every inch a glamour queen. Sure enough, after fabulous reviews, the producers announced her elevation to stardom. They had a ceremony for the press with Julie on a ladder to change the marquee and, thereafter, when any aspiring actor neared the Empire Theater, his heart leaped from his chest and bounced along the sidewalk because there it was, spelled out bulb by bulb:

JULIE HARRIS

in

I AM A CAMERA

with William Prince

And, if it happened to Julie, it could happen to you. You too could be transformed into a glamour queen—fans asking for autographs, taking your photo, applauding your entrance, adoring you.

***

Everybody in lunchroom at the High School of Performing Arts wondered whether Julie’s marriage would last. Would she get the part in the movie? Would she win the Tony? Would William Prince have a fit?

It was Noël McHugh who brought up the latter. His name was really Gerald but he had changed it in honor of Noël Coward and, in lunchroom one day, Noël asked if there was anyone in the world less enviable than poor William Prince.

“Are you out of your skull?” Irene Dorfman squealed. “What about the starving children in Europe? I can think of a hundred people in my family alone who are worse off than William Prince!”

“I meant in the business, Birdbrain.” Noël was peeling an orange, all in one piece, with his long, polished fingernails. “Who cares about your Commie family?”

That shut Irene up. She had no talent anyway. After her final scene one year, a teacher had written, “Lacking emotional depth,” so I don’t even know what she was doing at our table.

“How would you feel if you were standing next to Julie when lightning struck and it missed you by a mile? You think William Prince will get another shot at stardom? Fat chance. He’s doomed to featured billing for eternity!”

“Life is tough,” I sighed.

“Tougher than you thunk it,” declaimed Noël, who was surely destined for stardom because he didn’t give a damn what anybody thought. Among many, I admired him for that—no matter what the no-talents called him.

Tallullah Bankhead went backstage with a lace handkerchief for Julie that Ellen Terry had given her. The papers said the present First Lady of the American Stage was crowning the future one, but we in lunchroom argued that Tallullah had never been First Lady. That title belonged to Helen Hayes or Lynn Fontanne. Nobody guessed that soon after, Audrey Hepburn would climb a ladder and put her name over the title of “Gigi” and Tallullah, or maybe it was Helen, would appear with yet another lace hankie to pass along.

Oh, we went to the movies every Saturday afternoon and devoured Modern Screen Magazine, but how could you compare a Debbie Reynolds with a Julie Harris? We belonged to the legitimate theater and we would never sellout. We were Performing Artists.

***

The High School of Performing Arts had just started and was still looked at askance by both junior high school guidance counselors and my parents who feared I would never get into a good college from there. Still, I auditioned and, when I was one of the few admitted (boys having an easier time of it than girls), I insisted they allow me to go.

They stared at me, ashen, their dreams dying of a doctor son or a druggist son or, maybe even—if they dared express the thought—of a straight son.

“And what’s so bad about being a druggist? It’s good enough for your father and you could take over the store.”

“Have you any idea whatsoever of the significance of this opportunity?”

“No need to get on your high horse.”

“Would you stop me from going to Europe because some guidance counselor said I couldn’t get into college from there?”

“I don’t understand. Who’s going to Europe? Harvey, do you understand?”

“I said he shouldn’t apply, nobody listened. I said he shouldn’t audition, nobody listened. Now, the ship is sinking, you expect me to understand?”

“Listen to your father. His parents came from Europe and they know more about it than you do.”

“Oh God. Let’s not get into that concentration camp crap again.”

“You never had such a fresh mouth before you became an actor.”

“Don’t waste your breath, Bev,” my father announced. “The ship has sunk.”

She rubbed her elbow. He sighed. Confusion forced my forehead low. Breath came in sobs which I stifled. In fact, even a boy doesn’t get into Performing Arts without talent.

“Harvey, what should we do?”

“Whatever you say, Beverly.”

She rubbed her elbow. Years before my parents had been in an automobile accident. The facts were foggy but two had lingered to haunt the household. It had been his fault and her elbow had been shattered. The bone had completely healed except that it ached in the cold, in the humidity, in air conditioning, before it rained, when she awoke, when she was tired, when she had to wait too long for him to show up, when she was coming down with the flu and, most often, whenever I tried to establish an identity separate from the family.

***

For months, I had worked on a monologue from “The Little Foxes” for the Performing Arts audition; as an aging husband pleading with his wife to pass the pills while a heart attack intensifies. I had rehearsed it in front of my parents who gasped when I fell dead from my wheelchair. I figured if I could not be the son they wanted I could be a star, which would more than make up for it.

On the way to the actual audition on the D train, armed with two Baby Ruths to calm my nerves, I ran my lines so that other passengers stared. The school itself was a decaying red building between a seedy hotel and an Indian restaurant. I was given instructions by monitors who were already Performing Artists. One girl, in an upswept hairdo and high heels, looked more like a teacher than a student and the ID card pasted on amazingly pointed breasts declared, “Hello! My name is SONDRA.”

Not Sandra, as would have been common in my neighborhood. Not Sandy, like my cousin, which invited friendly conversation. But SONDRA, which advised as to pronunciation and kept you at a distance. I had never met a SONDRA before.

All the Lindas were spelled LYNDA. There was a CIRCA. One girl, who wasn’t even in yet—she was auditioning, like me—changed her name right then and there from Lou Ellen to Llewellyn. I heard her explaining to the monitor, MARLYEEN, that it was to be spelled like Richard Llewellyn, who wrote “How Green Was My Valley” starring Maureen O’Hara and Roddy MacDowell. In any other school the student would have been advised to use the legal spelling, but Marlyeen knew that the guidance counselor who had passed along the old spelling had also advised not to audition. His information had no credibility.               

Llewellyn, in fact, did get in and went through all four years with me and what a mess when we graduated and the office secretaries had to make out diplomas and match transcripts with prior records and no girl’s name was the same as when she had started.

The boys were not as daring. Even after acceptance, we stuck with our Stephens and Allans and Jeffreys because the place had such an effete reputation that we did not wish to make our lives more perilous than they already were. It was bad enough that the guys in the neighborhood knew you wanted to be an actor. It was worse that you spoke in newly refined tones, the way we were taught in Voice and Diction class. You didn’t want to change your name and be labeled, once and for all, as a fairy!

Except for Noël, who ended up plucking his eyebrows and boasting about gigs in drag clubs.

Herbie Gardner, who went on to write “A Thousand Clowns,” and Dom DeLuise, the comic, were in the class ahead of me. The great dancer, Arthur Mitchell, was in my homeroom. One day he arrived reeking of perfume. “Whoa! Arthur! What’s that stink?” the no-talents hooted.

“Cologne is the final touch of the gentleman,” Arthur replied, all of fifteen years old. He’s dead now. So are Herbie and Dom.

Frank Valenza got a Broadway part in “Bernardine” while he was a student, but everyone claimed it was only because of his fabulous good looks. Frank lost his hair early and became a restaurateur. I used to see his cheesy television commercials: “Hi, I’m Frank Valenza and I’d like to serve you brunch.”

Dick Coleman, who was in our class, also got cast in a Broadway show, but they wrote him out on the road. That didn’t hold him back. Dick became an art dealer and made lots of money until he was killed in a grisly gay murder that hit all the papers.

But, oh, we were golden boys and girls.

***

I ran into Llewellyn on a bus some years back, herding a group of grandkids as old as we were then, and she never went on in the business but had retained the glamorous spelling. Also her high sense of drama never vanished since she went through a messy divorce due to an affair with her husband’s best friend. She told me all about it as we traveled down Riverside Drive.

I asked Llewellyn if she remembered the day Noël McHugh did a monologue from “Dear Ruth” as his end-of-term scene.

“I still think of it as an important moment in theater history,” she said.

“I was pulling the curtain that day.”

“Whatever happened to Noël McHugh?”

Each year, we performed for the rest of the student body with the faculty in the front row, taking notes on our development. Of course, shoulders were looked over, glances were stolen and evaluations were spread through lunchroom; which was how we learned that Irene Dorfman was lacking emotional depth.

My first final was a scene from “Death of A Salesman” with me playing Happy and my partner playing Biff. He was judged, “Sensitive and searching.” They called me “phony but funny.”

“Difficult but brilliant” they tagged Noël, who paraded through the hallways, eyelashes thickened, hair lightened, shoulders back. He never showed up for rehearsals on time. He could not decide what scene to work on. He had trouble memorizing lines. Which was why nobody wanted to be his final partner.

So Noël prepared “Dear Ruth,” a prissy bank teller’s monologue about how he has been dumped when his girlfriend runs off with a handsome soldier and he pours out the tale with impotent fury, punctuated over and over with the gag expression, “I could spit!”—which brought down the house every time.

All of us on backstage crew gossiped that it was a hack commercial piece. The character was a one-dimensional cartoon. This was not high art, like Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams. Noël did not go off in a corner and prepare himself emotionally—he did none of the concentration exercises we had learned. Not having a partner, he shimmied around backstage, showing off that he didn’t give a damn what the faculty wrote. He was sure he’d get his laughs, he claimed, and that was all he cared about.

We all hoped he would be awful but I pulled the curtain and, in a moment, we were mesmerized. His dyed hair glowed in the light. His torso straightened. His pelvic bones sliced through the air when he moved. He had widely set eyes which sometimes seemed crossed in lunchroom and a big nose which he always complained about but, on stage, his features popped and silent thoughts became readable—in every glance, every word, every breath.

That was it more than anything. You could hear him breathing in the last row, feel the vibrations in your seat. Soon, you were breathing in his rhythm and when, at a peak moment, he stopped, so did you. You didn’t have to understand the words; his rhythms commanded you to laugh at the punch lines. That, ladies and gents, is called Star Presence and if somebody has it the audience looks nowhere else.

Which I suppose was another reason nobody wanted to be his final partner.

He told the story of how his girlfriend met this handsome soldier on the subway and, all of a sudden, the new couple was on the train and he was on the station and the doors were closing between them and “I could spit!” he exploded. I can’t remember what was so hilarious about it. But his sense of truth was so acute that even standing backstage I believed every word and laughed.

He climaxed each time on the gag line—“I could spit!”—biting into the “p” with tense lips, tongue, and palate clashing on the “t.” As each repetition got more and more frantic, the laughter built to a tidal wave.

He whined, he nagged, he bitched, he scorned, he talked in circles and, inexplicably because he had never met my mother, he never stopped rubbing his elbow. While he paced, while he daintily stamped his foot, his elbow was cupped in his palm, his fingers were moving around it in eddies. He whined in one rhythm, rubbed in another and the hypnotized audience lost track of the words and howled at the frustration in the rubbing.

Was I the only one who was suddenly moved by the strident voice, the helpless posture, the pouting face counter-pointed by this inept effort at consolation? If we would just stop laughing and listen, I wanted to shout, the character would calm down. He was more hurt than angry but he kept raging, hating himself for being rejected, hating himself for being such a fool, hating himself for who he was, and unable to stop, hating himself even more for it.

The students in the audience, even the teachers, were doubled over in their seats, but I felt for my mother in a way I would never be able to express. We may have been fresh-mouthed kids on high horses, as she insisted, showing off to shock our parents, gossiping over the phone for hours while our poor fathers had to pay the bills. But Noël knew something about her pain that she did not know herself.  

“Actors are a dime a dozen. During the depression, they sold apples on the street corner like everyone else. You could be a teacher. I’m not even talking any more about a doctor or a lawyer. It’s too late already for that. But an accountant? A druggist? What’s wrong with that? If it was good enough for your father . . .”

Rubbing, rubbing, rubbing. Because she was afraid of losing me. Rubbing, rubbing, rubbing. Knowing full well that if she didn’t shut up, it was a certainty. Rubbing, rubbing, rubbing, because she knew I was gay, even if she couldn’t face this tragedy of tragedies.

***

And did I remember, Llewellyn asked, that when John Kerr, the handsome, straight, boring star of “Tea and Sympathy,” left the show, the producers announced they were looking for a replacement and the whole school immediately thought of Noël. Here was a play about a boy labeled gay who gets “introduced to manhood” by a beautiful older woman. Wouldn’t it bring Broadway into the modern world to replace Kerr with a real-life gay boy who was also a brilliant actor? Wouldn’t it make this stupid play more socially responsible?

Everybody was supposed to write to the Sunday Times Theater Section to form a committee. We made plans to picket the theater on Noël’s behalf. Other teenagers were circulating petitions about the Rosenbergs, but we had our own urgent concerns.

It was, I suppose, an early step in the painful process of reality acceptance when the producers hired Anthony Perkins—a closet queen, if ever there was one. In show biz bars he was known as “Baby Peggy.”

Oh, we knew there would be many who would never make it. Irene Dorfman, for instance. We knew there were many who couldn’t be stopped. Suzanne Pleshette was in the class behind me and she was beautiful even then. Diana Sands, tough and passionate, was in our class and even then she lit up the stage like an icy blue flame.

But Noël was the most spectacular talent of all and there had to be some justice in the world. If Noël McHugh became a star there would be hope for all of us. If somehow Noël got his due, it meant that each and every one who stood in line would get a fair share of the goodies.                                                                                                                                 

When Diana won the Most Talented Award at graduation, Noël applauded and accepted the inevitable, even though he couldn’t stay and hug her because he had a job in a New Jersey bar. And soon after Diana set Broadway ablaze in “Raisin In The Sun,” so at least somebody got what she deserved; that is, until cancer killed her before she had turned forty.                     

***

Noël went to Hollywood, but I never see his name in any rolling credits. Maybe he changed it in honor of somebody new. Maybe he had his nose bobbed. But I would recognize those nearly crossed eyes. That shining talent would come through. I watch television and search crowd scenes for a glimmer of his brilliance. If only the idiots who produced “Tea and Sympathy” had had imagination and courage. Things would be different today. Broadway would be alive with new plays. Noël would have Julie’s hankie.

“I can’t imagine what happened to him!” Llewellyn sighed but the fact is that both of us could, since AIDS had ravaged our generation. We were both near tears as the bus turned west to her stop on Seventy Second Street.

Our graduating class had been hit by the first wave of the epidemic and the disease was so stigmatized and scary that there were no goodbyes, no obits. Sick boys packed up and went home to die in secret. Neighbors simply vanished.

Llewellyn confessed that if Noël had replaced John Kerr she would never have left the business, never have married her first husband, and all this wouldn’t have happened. Noël would have been a star and everyone would have hung on a little bit longer.

“One break is all it takes!” she called from the door. “Look at what I Am A Camera did for Julie Harris! Look at what the same role did for Liza Minnelli! She won an Academy Award!”

She was holding up the bus.  

“Did you know that, Melissa?” she asked a child who looked exactly like she used to. “The role that Liza played in Cabaret made Julie Harris a star when we were kids?”

“Grandma, please. Everybody’s staring—”

“Whoever gets the role gets the break,” Llewellyn insisted. “Am I right? It has nothing to do with being a no-talent!”

“Sure,” I answered in my phony but funny voice, “but have you seen what Liza looks like these days?”

As I waved her off the bus, Melissa turned, half smiling in apology for this grandmother who never stopped blabbing about the good old days and people nobody had ever heard of like Noël Whoever and Julie Harris.

I felt like telling her that I had turned into one of the no-talents, myself; a copywriter in pharmaceutical advertising, settled down with a long-time lover, sending off dollars to starving children in Europe. Probably the faculty would judge that I too was lacking emotional depth.

Then I heard the echo of Noël’s “Tougher than you thunk it!” and his fingernails peeled my heart as easily as they did that orange, all in one piece, so many years ago.