Sailing with the STARS!
One would think travelling with theater stars such as Lee Roy Reams, Jean Stapleton, Patricia Neal, Zoe Caldwell, Eli Wallach and a dozen other stars of Broadway would be a dazzling experience. Oh, it was dazzling for sure, but not for the reasons you would think. You see, onboard a ship they are simply fellow travelers and everyday people. In other words, the barriers are lifted between star and theater-goer.
The ship was Cunard's Royal Viking Sun and we set sail from Venice, Italy for an 18 day voyage with the Theater Guild's Theater At Sea cruise. Lee Roy Reams (left) was the entertainment director and would be hosting and putting together all of the shows we would see onboard. The shows included musical performances and dramatic presentations.
Prior to boarding ship, we had a festive dinner and cocktail party at the Hotel Danieli in Venice. Lee Roy greeted everyone and chatted up a storm. He's a great guy, aside from entertainer, and he's got a wicked sense of humor. He and Howard McGillan performed a few musical numbers which set the tone for the voyage, and that tone would be "friendship."
While planning for this vacation I kept thinking of the interview possibilities for Talkin' Broadway. However, I abandoned that idea on the first day. This was going to be a non-working expedition for me and if I met the stars, well, that would just happen. And I did meet them all eventually, however, our conversations were only sometimes about the theater. I mean, for instance, the first time I chatted with Jean Stapleton it was about the weather and the second time was about a show she did called Bon Appetit. I knew better than to ask about a certain television show. Anyhow, she's lovely and has a terrific sense of humor.
As for the others, I talked to Patricia Neal about our daily bingo games. I also asked her about her Tony Award, when she was given a monogrammed compact mirror as her award. This was before the current statuettes. She actually gave it to someone who never returned it. No, I didn't talk about her Oscar for Hud or other film roles. But I did ask her how much she paid for the kaftan she purchased in the wild Marrakesh market.
I did give Howard McGillan a quick lesson in blackjack. He's performed a lot on Broadway, garnering a Tony nomination for Anything Goes and a myriad of other shows. Did he mention he's working with Sondheim on something? I forget. I lost my train of thought when he split tens.
While sipping a cocktail one night in the Polaris lounge, the guy next to me is Robert Whitehead. Him, I had to talk shop to. His production of Medea with Dame Judith Anderson is theater history. That was way back, but then he did it some 30 years later, this time with his wife, four time Tony winning Zoe Caldwell. I talked to Zoe about the Internet and Master Class. She's a great listener and got a kick out of hearing how web users can see a one minute video of her on the Web.
Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson exercised daily by walking miles around the promenade deck. I would watch them while sipping a Bloody Mary, which is about all the exercise I got. Those two are amazing, and I just don't mean their acting abilities. They walk around holding hands and you could see the love in their eyes, like teenage puppy love. It's so apparent, and yet, they are married 50 years. The onboard cinema ran a favorite film of mine, The Magnificent Seven, in the theater and Eli answered questions afterward about how it was working on that movie. He also likes to tell jokes, and he's got great comic timing.
Others onboard included Cherry Jones, Karen Mason, Kitty Carlisle Hart (yes, her legs are still fabulous), Susan "Miss America" Powell and Anna Bergman. Every night there was a show and all these stage stars performed in an intimate setting.
To watch Jean Stapleton from a front row seat perform in her one-woman show, Eleanor, was simply a treat. Cherry Jones could have read the phone book instead of Dickens for all I cared and I would have still been mesmerized. (She's headed to London for Prides Crossing early next year.) Anne and Eli read from Tennessee Williams. Patricia Neal mesmerized the audience with her life story. And there was so much more with Lee Roy Reams and the musical performers.
The leisurely days just seemed to pass by. I would start each day with an improvisational acting class with instructor/actor, sense of humor extraordinaire, Joel Vig and then continue on my merry way. Friendships were made with fellow passengers and each day we met at appointed times to either have a drink, some fun, or to tour in the ports of call. One passenger was a real delight. Her name was Virginia and I could tell she really loved theater. She and I traded stories and I had so much fun talkin' Broadway with her. Later I found out her married name was Bloomgarten. Bloomgarten, as in Kermit Bloomgarten, one of the greatest producers on Broadway in the 20th Century. She and Kermit had The Most Happy Fella on Broadway while their upstairs neighbors, Kitty and Moss Hart, had My Fair Lady also on the boards. Talk about history!
Another passenger was Arlene Kieta. Arlene is a cracker with a voice like Carol Channing and a sense of humor beyond belief. Arlene was the first female disc jockey on radio in New York city. Out of boredom one afternoon I gave her a script to read and she loved it and so, like Mickey and Judy, she said "Let's do a show!" And we did.
Each afternoon we rehearsed and at the end of the cruise we did a stylized reading of a new play called The End of Ever After by M. Reynolds. We didn't expect much of an audience, but to our surprise, we had a nice turnout and were received very well. Imagine me, performing for Jean Stapleton! Yikes! A special thanks to Allison Shigo and Armistead Johnson (Theater Guild Associate Producers) who performed with us is in order. Casting was difficult because the average age of passengers on a cruise ship is usually death. If the Theater Guild were smart, they'd latch onto this play and produce it. It's that good!
But all good things must come to an end. The cruise is now over and I have memories to fill the old trunk. I've even come home with theater memorabilia autographed by the stars for our auction for charity next August. (Patricia Neal: "Darling, if you don't get a hundred dollars for this next year, call me.") Would I go again? Oh absolutely. It's really first rate entertainment and fun. Philip Langner and his beautiful wife Marilyn, as director and producer of the Theater Guild, sure know how to put on a helluva show!