Thursday, July 2, 2009

Pat's Wish

One of my favorite comic character actors is Pat Carroll. Those of us in my generation are familiar with her work in countless sitcoms and romantic comedies of the 60s, 70s, and beyond. My earliest memory of her was her appearance in the mid-60s remake of the TV musical Cinderella, in which she stole her scenes as one of the stepsisters (I wrote an appreciation of that performance here). She is a Tony nominee, and an Emmy and Grammy winner. Her longevity is amazing. In 1970, she appeared in the first season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, as Mary's cranky hospital roommate, and 23 years later, she appeared in the final season of Designing Women, as Julia's former school teacher. If you saw her, you would remember her. She has a robust personality which shines through all her work, and an infectiously raucous laugh which reflects her love of life.
For later generations, she is known primarily as the voice of one of Disney's most famous villainesses:
Back in the mid-90s, I was thrilled beyond words to find out that, during my year at The Shakespeare Theatre Company, I would be performing with Pat Carroll. She was playing the (male) lead in Ben Johnson's Volpone, and among other things, I was to play the all-important role of the fishmonger.
Pat was a delight to work with. She clearly relished performing onstage, and behind the scenes, she treated everyone with the greatest respect. They loved her at The Shakes, and she appeared there several times over the years, winning Helen Hayes awards for her turns as Falstaff (another cross-dressing role) and as Mother Courage. When it was discovered that she would be turning 70 years old during our run of Volpone, a surprise party was planned. It was the end of a long week, and a long weekend, too. Like most theatres in DC, The Shakes ran a "five show weekend," meaning we did five shows in the 48 hours between Friday and Sunday nights. It was a particularly gruelling schedule for the leading players, and Pat was no spring chicken. She was suffering from bad knees at the time, and other ailments resulting from her advancing age.
The party was set up in the green room, and dozens of well-wishers (in addition to the company) gathered to surprise Pat when she emerged from her dressing room after Sunday night's show. All went well, and Pat was genuinely touched by our efforts. She was the belle of the ball, sharing stories and circulating among her admirers and her comrades with great humor (and a nice bottle of hooch). She led an extraordinary life, and had spent some of her early years living in Mexico (she claimed to have sung in cantinas as a child, and I believe her).
She told a little story which has remained with me since. I think of it every year on this day. Pat said that she had been receiving phone calls and messages all day long, from friends and family, who were sorry that she had to perform two shows on the day she turned 70. But Pat corrected them all. "When I was 12 years old," she told us, "a life in the theatre was my greatest wish. To have two shows on my 70th birthday? My dreams came true."
When I was 12 years old, I was afraid to wish for a life in the theatre. Today is my birthday, and like Pat on her 70th, I am lucky enough to have two shows to perform. They'll be dedicated to her.