When someone famous dies there is always an outpouring of how we knew them and/or what our experiences were with them…it is the way of us humans…and, I gotta tell you, I tried to resist all day.
Because, you see, (and I know I am not the only one…but) I have many feelings about Elaine Strich.
My gratitude to her is so deep and yet my fear of her was so strong (it was if you were smart) that I did not want to share it…but now as I look over all the articles that came out today…I cannot stop myself…you all can take this however you want to take it…but Elaine Strich changed my life.
And I want to write it out…more for myself then anything.
I have always thought that when she went to her greater reward (whatever that may be and I hope it is good) that a whole era would go with her. An era we will now only know about from stories told by others…instead of hearing them told in BY her…in her brutally fierce voice…with her brutally fierce personality…and she did love to tell a story…as well as generally boss people around.
I still feel so strongly about her and about what I learned from her that when Gavin Crawford and I were putting together our pride show, VICIOUS BITCHES, we thought (because of his perfect set of gams and his spot on impersonations…not necessarily in that order) that because I had a wonderful story to tell about her…he should actually play her. And play her he did. The piece, simply called, “Elaine” closed our show. And I was so happy for it.
I am not a big character in her amazing life…barely even a day player in the grand scheme of things…but between working a year with her in Showboat and then a magical trip to stay with her and my pal, Marge in NY, it felt like a blessed lot…a lot I am entirely grateful for.
Elaine was kind to me…she was mean to me…she shared some of her life stories with me…she forgot who I was…she remembered…and she eventually forgot again…after I told her one day that I was doing a cabaret she played her album for me on a cassette player in her Showboat dressing room…the song was “IF”…
( I can only find it on ITUNES…but it is grand)
and she smiled and looked me right in the eyes the whole time it played…”You should do that song.”, she said…she got me drunk one day AT THE THEATRE…she took the whole cast of Showboat, 8 people at a time (there were 64 of us), for dinner at Joe Allen’s on the Danforth in TO and regaled us with stories of Coward and Coleman… she was partially naked almost all the time I spent with her (not at Joe Allen’s) AND one memorable and amazing night while I was staying with her and my friend Marge at the Carlyle Hotel (yes, I have talked about it before…because I still cannot believe that visit happened) after standing with her stage manager (who was in a tux) and watching her amazing cabaret in the Cafe Carlyle I watched her take off all of her clothes down to her skivvies in the back of the VERY TINY room with THE WHOLE audience still there…and then she walked through the lobby and up to her room in said skivvies…NO ROBE…and I marched behind her like an acolyte, holding all of her jewelry that she had taken off as she shed her clothes and thrown my way….then I sat beside her bed in her room, on an automan, and Elaine asked me a number of questions about her show and, specifically, if I liked the way she did “50 Percent”…a song, she told me, that the Bergman’s (who wrote it) had insisted she do in her show…a song that my friend, Marge (who was almost always brutally honest right back at her) had told her she didn’t think fit the show.
I remember feeling a little sick to my stomach as she stared at me through her huge Coco Chanel glasses…waiting…and I said I thought it was wonderful…as Marge rolled her eyes…and Elaine smiled… harumphed… and yelled out…practically in my face, “SEE!!!”.
The day I met her, back in 1995, I was in awe.
On the first day of Showboat she started out at the cast meet and greet in a black hat, black coat, black glasses, white shirt underneath…and I am sure she was wearing pants…but who knows…and 20 minutes later she was changed into a cheetah leotard, with a white shirt tied around the waist and white keds.
She left her dressing room door open all day, every day…and she was nearly naked almost all the time.
When my dear George and I walked into the theatre and past her door on
e day, on the dinner break, she leaned out and asked, “WHO is he?”
e day, on the dinner break, she leaned out and asked, “WHO is he?”
Me: HE is my boyfriend.
And then she wandered out into the hallway in tights, a bustle, boots and a bra…and flirted mercilessly with him.
God, she could cut people…god, she could cause a ruckus…god, she could really throw a mean, grade-A tantrum…and god, she was one of the most consistent actors I have ever had the good fortune to watch onstage night after night.
One night, during the first act of the show, I was feeling sick to my stomach…and she found out…and she sent her dresser to find me…I quickly found myself in her dressing room with the door closed and she reached into the very back of a cupboard and pulled out a bottle, while her dresser, Kim, cut up a lime…and then she put a glass of whatever was in the bottle in front of my mouth and told me to drink…I felt that I had no choice at this point…because, again, it was always good to have a healthy fear of her…I drank the putrid stuff and then Kim handed me a lime.
Elaine: You will feel better in no time.
I leave…10 minutes later I feel that I might be drunk.
I go back to the dressing room.
Me: Is there alcohol in that?
Elaine: It doesn’t count…it is medicinal.
I remember watching her as she finagled a solo out of Harold Prince.
I remember the way her voice sounded when she yelled out, “HAL!” whenever she was unhappy.
I remember the way Harold Prince smiled at her and never let her moods bug him…like he knew she would bring it…and that this time of moodiness was worth it.
I remember watching the two of them working together in rehearsal… and as I look back on it now, I would like to cry with the luck that I got to see that with my own two eyes.
When I went down to New York City to do an audition (you may have heard this before…I have told it a number of times…you can skip ahead if you wish…but WHY!?) I called my pal, Marge, who became a friend and confident to Elaine on Showboat and helped Elaine run her life when she needed her…and asked if I could pull up some floor with her, as she was staying at the Carlyle with Elaine for a while and assisting her during her show. Marge said that there was more than enough room for me…for which I was greatly appreciative.
Well, after I saw Elaine’s show, carried her jewelry upstairs, and then I was invited to stay and talk in her room…her room…lord…and I sat beside her bed, she asked me what I was doing in NY, I told her I was doing a call back for a show and she asked who was on the production team…I told her who they were.
Elaine: I don’t know any of those fucking people…BUT tell them you are staying with me…
ME: Um…I don’t know if I will have a chance to.
Elaine: WELL, make the chance…they will be impressed…tell them that you are staying with me…and that I like you…it will make a difference… WHERE ARE MY GRILLED VEGETABLES?!?
Her room was not too big…smaller than I would have imagined.. but it was a gorgeous corner suite.
Her TV had all of her awards on top of it…at least that is what I remember…I could be wrong there…
She was wearing a Hanes v-neck tshirt and little white tennis socks with the balls on them…and her famous legs were uncovered.
She sat propped up on her grand bed, still reveling in her “50 Percent” victory, when she turned to me and said…
Elaine: Marge says you are doing cabaret.
Me: Oh…ya…I am…but it is hard in Toronto…there aren’t any venues…and no one really does it…there are no audiences…and I am not sure if there is future in it for me…in Canada…and I love Canada…
Elaine: Just fucking do it. Find a venue. Find an audience and just fucking do it. If you want it…really want it…just fucking do it.
And then she said…
Elaine: You know what…you should not have to sleep with Marge…I have my rehearsal suite just down the hallway…you can stay in it. DON’T touch ANYTHING. But you can stay in the bed and get some rest before your audition.
DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING!
Marge took me down to the suite…I think she could barely believe it.
She also told me it would be in my best interest to NOT touch anything.
I walked in and it was bigger than Elaine’s room…and the windows were cracked open a bit so the filmy white curtains were blowing in the wind a bit…and there was a big white grand piano against one wall and pictures of Barbra Cook, Eartha Kitt and Bobby Short on the walls…holy fuck they had ALL rehearsed in here…and cards, letters and flowers from Elaine May, Mike Nichols, Diane Sawyer, Sondheim,…and so many more…and I ran my hands NOT ON but near the top of her professionally bound scores for the cabaret.
I felt like I had finally found the right church.
At that moment, I stood stock still…this was my TRUE New York moment…this room…this feeling in it…never, never to be reproduced…it was so very special and dear to me…I still cannot believe it happened.
And I wandered into the bedroom…this was where she got ready…and all of her make up was there…covered with a silk scarf so that it would not get dusty…and there was a little stitched pillow at the very back of her make up table…it said, “COURAGE.”
And then it all kind of fell into place…before her show that night she stood at the back of the room and touched as many people as possible…on the back and the shoulder…winding up…while she was introduced…I was pretty much right behind her…and I could see how nervous she was…but it was hard to believe…and then she turned out a fucking awesome show. A truly awesome show…in this tiny, intimate room, in which she forgot the words a couple of times…and found them again…and who fucking cared, anyhow.
Elaine was still nervous and needed to find her courage after all these years…and that made me want to cry…and it made me thrilled…because she always did it anyway…. always… and was amazing… and consistent… and singular… and human… and scared…and brilliant…
When I left the next day I put a little card on her grand piano…I saw her in the hallway but she was busily on her way to check and see if I stole anything…I knew it…so she could not stop for more than a second.
I think she wished me a good audition.
I am sure I thanked her heartily.
But that was the last time I saw her in person.
And she sent me on a path that would change my life…and fulfill my dreams…
I wonder if she knew?
When she left me in that rehearsal room there was no way I could do anything else but follow my dreams…anything else would have felt like blasphemy.
I can still close my eyes and tell you EXACTLY what that room looked, smelled and felt like.
So, Elaine…I thank you, from the bottom of my heart and soul for that night.
It was a gift.
I wish you the very best on your grand journey.
I am better and so lucky to have known you…and I am still a little scared of you…as anyone should be.
RIP Elaine Stritch.