Friday, August 19, 2011

They Die But They Don't Obits

It's been so many weeks since my last obituary tributes, the spirits are surely lined up from here to Purgatory. Now that I'm out of work (I mean, "between engagements"), I'll try to clean up the files. These people are out of work, too, since they're dead. These three spring to mind immediately, as they are all perfect examples of the kind of actor I admire: those who spent their careers in the trenches, working hard and often, but rarely if ever achieving the national spotlight. They are players in support.

Alice Playten


She was born Alice Plotkin which, back in the day, may have seemed an inappropriate surname, but in retrospect, she could have kept it. The name seems to fit the oddball characters she played. She had a long career on the New York stage, in comedic and musical roles. She was a replacement Baby Louise in the original production of Gypsy, then went on to create roles in two smash musicals. She was Horace Vandergelder's niece Ermengard in the original, iconic production of Hello, Dolly!, playing opposite such future luminaries as Charles Nelson Reilly, Eileen Brennan, Robert Morse, and of course, Carol Channing. She also created the role of Bet in the original Broadway production of Oliver, sharing duets with Georgia Brown and Jack Wild.

Her star never really took off, though she received glowing reviews, and a Tony nomination when, at the age of 20, she portrayed a maniacal teenager in the musical adaptation of The World of Henry Orient. The show, Henry, Sweet Henry, flopped, though Playten is seen to good advantage in this clip from the Ed Sullivan show. The NY Times called her a "toy Merman," and she continued to belt show tunes in more recent shows like Seussical and Caroline, or Change. She won two Obies for her frequent work off-Broadway, and she appeared on various TV shows, and in films (she wore heavy prosthetics to appear opposite Tim Curry in the sci-fi cult film, Legend).

Her diminutive frame and unusual, nasally voice were always welcome in children's programming.

But I will always remember her from this little commercial. It was part of an acclaimed advertising campaign by Alka Seltzer, a campaign which yielded several national catchphrases back in the 60s and 70s. Take a look at this howler, as Playten plays a newlywed, cooking for her new husband, played hilariously by Terry Kiser (who went on to become beloved as the corpse in the Weekend at Bernie's franchise).

Alice Playten died from pancreatic cancer on June 25, at the age of 63.

The soap world lost one of its most suave supervillains when this guy died on June 21:

Anthony Herrera


He spent some time on Search for Tomorrow, Loving, and The Young and the Restless, but Herrera will best be remembered as one of those supervillains who would not die. Until the show went off the air last year, the characters of As The World Turns could count on surprise visits from Herrera's James Stenbeck, who bedded women, sired children, and repeatedly returned from the dead, for a whopping 30 years on the soap. That's a feat worthy of remembrance, but Herrera's lasting legacy will have nothing to do with daytime drama. In 1997, he was diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma, a rare and deadly cancer. He made medical history when he received a stem cell transplant and went into remission. Though the cancer was to recur (despite a bone marrow transplant from his brother), Herrera became a tireless advocate for stem cell research and treatment. He even wrote a book about it, "The Cancer Wars," and continued, to the end of his life, to be outspoken about the medical advantages of using stem cells to cure disease. He died in Buenos Aires at the age of 67.

I was truly saddened by the death of this supporting player:

Tom Aldredge


"His glower is a thing of beauty," wrote the NY Times reviewer, of Tom's performance in the original Broadway production of On Golden Pond. He was the first to play Norman Thayer, Jr., the role which would win Henry Fonda his only competitive Oscar. Aldredge made a career of playing cantankerous old men, earning a whopping 5 Tony nominations along the way. He spent decades with the New York Shakespeare Festival, playing Romeo and Juliet's Tybalt, Twelfth Night's Sir Andrew Aguecheek, King Lear's Fool, and the title role in Cymbeline. His experience with Shakespeare didn't stop there; he played the Bard himself for the TV special Henry Winkler Meets William Shakespeare, and won a Daytime Emmy.

He played fathers, or father figures, on The Sopranos, Damages, and Boardwalk Empire, and on stage, he scored as the father of a blinded Vietnam vet in Sticks and Bones. I will always remember his no-nonsense work as another stage father, the Mysterious Man in the original production of Into the Woods. Along with Chip Zien, he introduced the world to one of the simplest, yet achingly poignant, ballads in the Sondheim canon, "No More."

He played Elizabeth Taylor's husband in the notorious revival of The Little Foxes in 1981, in a production which also starred Maureen Stapleton and Dennis Christopher; the production broke box office records and earned Tony nominations, despite a critically panned performance by Taylor, in her stage debut. In addition to Sticks and Bones and The Little Foxes, Tom received Tony nods for revivals of Where's Charlie? and Twentieth Century, as well as for the original production of Sondheim's Passion.

Aldredge's marriage to costume designer Theoni Aldredge was one of the most enduring in show business (I wrote a bit about that when she died last year), though they had no children. Tom was fond of telling the story of how he first got the bug to become an actor. As a pre-law student from Ohio, he was wandering around the alleys of Times Square on a visit to New York, and came upon two stage hands who were having a smoke behind a Broadway theatre. Aldredge asked if he could peek inside the grand house, but was given the surly answer to "buy a ticket." He did just that, spending $1.80, and took his seat, only to be surprised when the two stagehands, Marlon Brando and Karl Malden, walked out onstage to play A Streetcar Named Desire. Aldredge got the bug, and never looked back. He died last month at the age of 83.

Friday Dance Party: Summer Stock

I really shouldn't classify my recent gig in The Nerd as "summer stock," since it wasn't. Wayside Theatre operates pretty much year-round, though I imagine at some point in their 50 year history, they may have been classified as a summer stock theatre. But since my 7 weeks there coincided with the hottest, sweatiest summer on record, it surely felt like stock to me. Wayside's theatrical neighbors are true summer stock companies. Both Totem Pole Playhouse and Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre are in the same corner of the Shenandoah Valley as Wayside, and they both operate in true stock fashion: using a core company of actors (and adding jobbers as needed), they rehearse a show, open it, then begin rehearsal for the next show the day after opening night. That routine of rehearsing one show during the day, and performing a different show at night, is repeated all summer long. It's exhausting and exhilarating, and only the heartiest of stage actors can handle it.

Summer stock is not for sissies.

Even the cross-dressing John Kenley knew that. He ran one of the most successful summer stock touring circuits for decades, I wrote a bit about that when he died a couple of years ago.

This week's Dance Party celebrates the summer stock tradition with a clip from the 1950 film of the same name. Everybody knows a little about Summer Stock, the movie, mostly because of Judy Garland's troubles during its production. She was struggling with her habitual pharmaceutical dependency, and was overweight to boot. At least it was thought that she was overweight; she was certainly heavier than the public was used to, but I recently watched Summer Stock, and she looks exactly appropriate for a farm woman. But additional attention was brought to her weight when, after a two month hiatus during which she sought help from a hypnotist, she returned to film the most famous number in the movie, "Get Happy." She had lost over 15 pounds, appearing positively svelte in a tuxedo jacket and bare legs.

Summer Stock was a financial success, and Garland had begun work on her next movie (Royal Wedding) when her personal demons and her health issues once again interfered, and she was sacked. So, the clip below is from her final MGM musical. (BTW, this is not the first Dance Party which has featured a song from this classic. Go here to see a signature solo dance by Gene Kelly.) Nobody really cares about the plot of Summer Stock, but it should be noted that the film is misnamed. The musical-within-the-movie which is being produced in Judy's barn is not a true summer stock production. Like my recent production of The Nerd, it is a stand-alone show; just because it takes place during the summer, does not make it summer stock. But Judy, Gene, and I can be forgiven for considering our shows to be part of the summer stock tradition.

So, as a bit of a tribute to Ray and Thomasin and Rex and Wil and Carl and JJ and Steve and Mike and Rick and Robin and Susie and James and Karen and Tom and Hal and Cat and Warner and all my other cohorts who participated in some summer stock this season, enjoy this week's Dance Party. It begins as a country square dance, then morphs into a Lindy, finally becoming a dance-off and showcase for our two stars. Happy Dog Days of Summer, everybody!