With theatrical openings at a minimum during January each year, the month tends to see a larger than usual number of celebratory events. On Monday the 28th, inductees to the Theater Hall of Fame for the year 2001 were formally honored. They are: Robert Brustein, author and founding director of the Yale Repertory and American Repertory theaters; Alvin Colt, costume designer; Peter Gennaro, dancer/choreographer; George Grizzard, actor; T. Edward Hambleton, co-founder of the Phoenix Theatre; Henry Hewes, drama critic; Isabelle Stevenson, chairman of the board of the American Theatre Wing; and Charles Strouse, composer. In addition, the Founders Award for outstanding contribution to the theater was presented to Tom Dillon, president of the Actors' Fund of America.
All of the honorees were present at the ceremony except Gennaro, who died in 2000. Those elected to the Hall of Fame have their names inscribed in large letters on the interior walls of the Gershwin lobby; the nearly 400 members include such theater legends as George Abbott, Julie Andrews, Tallulah Bankhead, Agnes DeMille, Moss Hart, Geraldine Page, George C. Scott, Tennessee Williams, and Patricia Zipprodt. Just before this year's ceremony began, Isabelle Stevenson told me that she was involved in the establishment of the Theater Hall of Fame: "It was Jean Dalrymple's idea that England was able to honor its theater people but America had nothing like it, so she had the concept for a hall of fame. We went to Jimmy Nederlander and he said, 'Okay, here's your theater.' That was right around the time when the Uris was renamed the Gershwin."
Alvin Colt was in an equally expansive mood during an interview before the ceremony. "I invited Cy Feuer to be my presenter tonight," said Colt, "because he was the co-producer of Guys and Dolls and that show was such a turning point for all of us. But it wasn't my first show. It wasn't even my first big hit. That was On the Town." George Grizzard, asked by reporters what he was up to, replied: "We're gonna read Ossie Davis' play Purlie Victorious in a couple of weeks. It's a wonderfully funny play that I had never read. We're reading it at the Westside Arts, just to see if there are people interested in doing it again. Ossie's going to direct, so it's something I wanted to be part of. But mostly, at my age, I do memorials and benefits!"
The ceremony was emceed by Marian Seldes, herself a member of the Theater Hall of Fame. Among the presenters was the legendary Carol Channing, who seemed to be in good health but who was admitted to the hospital the next morning when she collapsed on the set of the TV program The View, suffering from what was later diagnosed as an unspecified virus connected to food poisoning. According to her publicist, Harland Boll, Channing was released from Lenox Hill Hospital late yesterday and is set to fly back home to Rancho Mirage, California today, which happens to be her 81st birthday.
Also on hand to celebrate the new Hall of Farmers were Elaine Stritch, Mike Wallace, Celeste Holm, Sally Ann Howes, Lee Roy Reams, and Jim Dale.
"I've spent 55 years or more in the theater...and half of those years were spent in Shubert houses. They've improved greatly over the years!" Thus spoke the veteran actor Eli Wallach in his opening remarks at a January 29 reception to celebrate the publication of The Shuberts Present, a lavishly illustrated history of the Shubert brothers and their theatrical endeavors published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. The reception was held on the 11th floor of the Sardi's building on West 44th Street, in a space that now functions as a Shubert office but has been restored more or less to how it looked when, years ago, it was the private apartment of J.J. Shubert himself. Among the attendees: Tony Randall and wife, Claudia Shear, Roger Rees, James Naughton, Peter Gallagher, and two incarnations of Dreamgirls' Effie White: Jennifer Holliday and Lillias White.
After his remarks, Wallach introduced Phil Smith, president of the Shubert Organization. Giving credit where it is most definitely due, Smith said: "I'm proud to be part of the launching of this beautiful book, [which] was put together by the Shubert archivists Maryann Chach, Reagan Fletcher, Mark Swartz, and Sylvia Wang, with original photographs by Whitney Cox and a brilliant foreword by our chairman, Gerald Schoenfeld, and published beautifully by Harry Abrams. The quality you see in the book is the quality we strive for in all our endeavors. I hope that all of you find as much pleasure leafing through it as I have. The book present a unique pageant of the past 100 years of the American stage, and it should be irresistible to any theater lover."
Next up at the somewhat recalcitrant microphone was Gerald Schoenfeld, who waxed nostalgic. Following is an edited transcription of his remarks: "I guess I can speak as one of the few people who ever met Lee Shubert, although I'm sure he didn't remember me after I walked out of his office because I was a neophyte at that time. But I logged my time with J.J. Shubert, whose apartment you are in.... Those were tempestuous times, and as I said in the foreword [of the book], I was fired more times than anybody else.
"I want to just give you a few little anecdotes, if I may, so you can get a picture of J.J. Shubert--who, together with Lee, was responsible for the most significant organization in American theater. One day, I was out with Mr. [J.J.] Shubert, riding around in his car. He used to say, 'Let's go to see our properties.' They stretched from 190th Street and Broadway down to Greenwich Street, where they had their scenic shops. I used to say, 'Your properties, Mr. Shubert, not mine.' He said, 'Let me tell you this: If you have properties, you have problems.' I said, 'I would like to share a couple of your problems.' Then he looked out the window and said, 'There may be some people who are richer than I am, and there may be some people who are more powerful than I am. But very few have their own private street.'
"One hundred years is, of course, longer than any other organization [in the American theater] has endured. The fact that it has endured, I say, is one of the justifications that a lot of the people have for giving basically their whole lives to working for the company. It's not an easy company to work for, and the Shuberts were not easy men....But probably everybody that worked for the theater until about 1940 was on a Shubert payroll. As I say, this is a company of great loyalties. Phil Smith and I have worked together here for 40 years, and I think the legacy is that the people who are working here today are committed to another 100 years.
"So I want to thank you again for coming, and I hope that you enjoy the book as much as we do. Because, really, it's been a labor of love. All those associated with it are deserving of our thanks for creating a memorable record, an accurate record, a true record of some of the great accomplishments of the Shubert brothers. Really, these two men created something from nothing. [They basically had] no education; I don't think Lee Shubert ever went to school and J.J. only went to grade school. Their sister died of malnutrition, they were so poor. Yet they entered into a business with a basis in art, and they thrived."
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Hall of Famers (standing:) Charles Strouse, George Grizzard, Tom Dillon, Robert Brustein; (sitting:) Alvin Colt, Isabelle Stevenson, T. Edward Hambleton, Henry Hewes (Photo: Michael Portantiere)
Carol Channing (Photo: Michael Portantiere)
Claudia Shear and Gerald Schoenfeld (Photo: Michael Portantiere)
Roger Rees, Peter Gallagher, and James Naughton (Photo: Michael Portantiere)