A "Curtain Call" Unlike Any Other
by Ronni Krasnow
I've been living in New York for eight months now, and while the opportunity to see a Broadway show whenever I want is certainly a big plus, I've concluded that the best thing about being here is the ability to attend the "one time only" events. The lectures, the concerts, the readings, and even the occasional champagne reception. Only in New York can the dedicated but relatively "unconnected" theater lover begin a conversation with, "I was at this cocktail party and Hal Prince was there," and actually be telling the truth!
Last Monday, I did go to a cocktail party, and Hal Prince was there. Thanks to the wonderful world of the Internet, I had received an e-mail from the Actors Fund, inviting me to the free (a very important word in NYC) screening of the HBO Oscar-nominated documentary "Curtain Call," which chronicles the lives of several residents of the Actors Fund Home in Englewood, New Jersey. In addition to the movie, there would be food, champagne, and the company of theater luminaries Hal Prince and Brian Stokes Mitchell, both of whom serve on the Actors Fund board and appear in the film.
Since I am not "in the industry" I often feel a bit like Ella Peterson from Bells Are Ringing, worried that I won't know what to do or say at these show business fêtes. Luckily, as soon as I arrived, I met some fellow Chatterati who had received the same e-mail. The amazing thing about a passion for theater is how it brings people together, and how, once the conversation gets going, you're never at a loss for topics! We spent the better part of the hour partaking of the shrimp and other delicious fare and dishing about all the current shows. We also couldn't help but notice how Stokes can light up an entire room with just his smile. After some gentle prodding, NycatMT finally decided to "seize the day" and approach Hal Prince, one of her theatrical heroes. They reportedly had a very pleasant interaction, and I know she's glad she took a chance.
I took a chance of my own when I saw former New York Times drama critic Frank Rich roaming the room. I wanted to tell him how moved I had been by his memoir, "Ghost Light," and also to tell him that, until very recently I had been the librarian at the very same library in Washington, DC where, as a child, he had checked out his first books on theatrical history. He seemed to get a genuine kick out of our "six degrees of separation," and it was a thrill for me to be able to relay it in person. Like I said, only in New York ...
Of course, the real focus of the evening was the film itself and while I was expecting a good movie, I was unprepared for the emotional wallop that "Curtain Call" delivers. For anyone unfamiliar with the Actors Fund Home, the New Jersey assisted living facility is a place where entertainment professionals can go to be cared for in illness and old age. The residents there run the gamut from "household names to the people that helped make them household names." It's a place where anyone from actors to stagehands can live out their final years and still feel part of a community, " the family of show biz," as Hal Prince comments. Here, with their wheelchairs and walkers and oxygen masks, they can still sing or dance or act, and know that they face an appreciative audience. They are among their own.
You probably haven't heard of any of the individuals showcased in "Curtain Call," but it doesn't matter. Their stories are all remarkable. There's former jazz musician Bernard Flood who lost both his legs to diabetes, but still performs for fellow residents. He does a mean version of "Wonderful World" and clearly revels in the joy of it. There's Pamela Duncan, star of the Roger Corman films "Attack of the Killer Crabs" and "The Undead," who seems pleased and surprised at the cult status her films have achieved. Yet it's hard to miss the sadness in her voice as she explains that she only became an actress by accident. She came to California to meet her Naval husband's ship, and he greeted her with the news that he simply didn't want to be married anymore. She thought she'd feel better if she went and got her hair styled like Rita Hayworth, and the stylist asked her if she had ever done any film work ...
And then there's the story of Gaylord Mason, another actor you probably don't know. That's because, in the '40s when "the closet was still shut tight," during a run of a play in Detroit, he had the misfortune to make advances toward a man who ended up being a member of the vice squad. Mason got caught in a sting and was carted off to jail. He was replaced in the play by some guy named Kirk Douglas. Though Mason insists he picked up the pieces and was happy just to be a working actor, in his wavering and sometimes choked up voice, there's a definite sense of loss for what might have been.
Mason died of emphysema in 2000. At the end of "Curtain Call" we learn that several of the interviewees are no longer with us. I left the screening not with a feeling of sadness, but rather one of profound gratitude that these people had a chance to tell their stories and that they spent their final days in a loving and accepting environment. We should all be so lucky.
Afterward, at the dessert reception, (chocolate covered strawberries!) I asked Stokes why he gives so much of his time to The Actors Fund, and he laughingly said "I'll probably end up there someday, so it's an investment in my future!" He was half-joking, of course, but it made me think. Even though I had never heard of Bernard Flood or Pamela Duncan or Gaylord Mason, in the not too distant future, the Actors Fund Home will be caring for people who have brought a great deal of joy to my life through their work in theater and movies. I'm glad the Home will be there for them. And the next time a Broadway show has one of those special performances that benefits the Actors Fund, I'll make sure I go.
"Curtain Call" premieres on Cinemax on Tuesday, June 26, 2001.
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