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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Charles Nelson Reilly is a One Man Show

Charles Nelson Reilly came into the New Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco with his effervescent charm and one man show, Save it for the Stage: Life of Reilly, which runs over two and three quarter hours with intermission. Mr. Reilly must have known every theater legend in New York over the years and he drops names like rain drops from the sky. His stories are sharp, vigorous and effusive and he has an unrestrained way of telling the tales of his life. "Save it for the stage" is something that his mother used to say to him when he was growing up. Charles would say something about someone, his relatives, etc., and his mother would reply, "Save it for the stage."

Mr. Reilly is an award winning actor, teacher, stage and opera director. In this show, he enters from the wings of the small theater, in darkness, then sits on the left side of the stage, saying this is his favorite spot. This is where he directs all of his plays. He sits there for a few minutes while a blues number is played over the sound system of the theater, then moves center stage to take his audience on a roller coaster ride of his life.

Mr. Reilly tells how he grew up in the Bronx with a belligerent Swedish mother who was Lutheran and a henpecked Irish father who was Catholic. He talks about his father, who was a brush artist for movie posters for my old studio Paramount. These were made in the Bronx at that time. He tells that his father had an offer to go west to Hollywood to work for Walt Disney but his strict mother refused to move from her roots in the Bronx. If you want to hear about a dysfunctional family, this is it. The mother had ethnic slurs for all races with the exception of her own. She would throw insults at every race from her apartment window. It got so bad, she would carry a baseball bat with her whenever she went out of the house.

Charles describes himself as a weak child growing up in the Bronx. He knew he was slightly on the effeminate side and he could not play sports. When brush artists became passť and studios began using photographed posters, his father lost his job, and became an alcoholic.

The family eventually moved to Hartford, Connecticut to live with his mother's Swedish relatives where Reilly got his very first job as an usher in the legitimate house. You can still see the glow on his face as he describes seeing the great artists of the day in the theater; the Lunts, Bert Lahr, Bobby Clark, just to name a few. He also describes in horrifying detail the time when he and a friend went to their very first circus where the great fire occurred, in which 162 people perished. Mr. Reilly admits that to this day he will not sit in an audience. He says he just cannot.

The first act needs to be tweaked more since it just is a tad too much about his growing up. Being a theater buff, I wanted to hear more about the theater and people he knew. In the second act, Mr. Reilly tells some of his experiences in the theater. He was in Uta Hagen's first class at the Herbert Berghof Studio in New York where his classmates included Steve McQueen, Hal Holbrook, Geraldine Page, Jason Robards and Gene Hackman. He talks very briefly about being in the original production of Hello Dolly. He says he played the role of Cornelius Hackl forever. I got the feeling he was not happy with that role since he went over that very quickly. However he did state that this role got him a penthouse on 5th Ave. He also talks briefly about his role in How to Succeed.... He received Tony nominations for both of these roles but has never won the award.

There are so many stories that Mr. Reilly told that opening night, so many names dropped; as he said as he closed the play, "I have had a Life of Reilly." For all theater buffs, go see this amazing person. Even through tales of anger and pathos, he brings a wickedly funny sense of humor. He will soon be taking his show to New York to appear at the Irish Rep theater. The local production runs through September 9th. Tickets range from $20 to $35. Call the NCTC Box Office at (415)861-8972.


Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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