As many of you may have read here or elsewhere, my 92-year-old mother died last week. Thanks so much to all of you who sent flowers, cards, letters, and e-mails. Every one of them helped.
My mother was a housewife who worked part-time when my father brought home the bacon, and full-time when he got too sick to continue. Nice lady. Lots of friends. And thanks to her, I became interested in theater. But not, I should add, in the way that you might think.
The story begins the last week of December, 1960 in Arlington, Massachusetts. I was 14, and had asked my mother and father to get me a reel-to-reel tape recorder for Christmas--and, good souls that they were, they came through, augmenting the gift with three reels of tape. How wonderful! Now I could save spending 89 cents for each 45 record, and instead tape every rock 'n' roll (as it was called then) song off the radio.
What's more, I could tape all of Jim's records, too. He was the son of Edith, my mother's best friend, and she and my father used to visit Edith and her husband Phil quite often. My folks took me with them, because they were overly protective of their only child. I didn't mind going, that week after Christmas, because Jim was generous about letting me tape his many records. My favorites were the novelty songs, like "The Purple People Eater" and "The Chipmunk Song." What wit!
Finally, I finished taping them, every one I wanted, fitting them all on two reels of tape. My parents weren't through visiting, though, and I still had one reel left. So I started looking through Jim's parents' albums...just to kill time, really. Soon, I came upon the soundtrack to Gigi. I recognized the logo because the film had played the Gary Theater in Boston for something like two years. I hadn't seen the picture but, considering that it lasted that long in one place, it had to have something. So I put it on, and as soon as I heard the overture, I was taken aback. What was this majestic-sounding thing? It sounded so important!
The next song was one I knew: "Thank Heaven for Little Girls," which was okay to my 14-year-old ears. But it was the song after that that truly grabbed me: "It's a Bore," in which Maurice Chevalier, old but young, and Louis Jourdan, young but old, compared notes on Paris. I thought the lyrics were much funnier than "The Purple People Eater" and "The Chipmunk Song." What real wit!
I liked Gigi so much that I next grabbed another album with a familiar logo: Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi clutching each other under the dramatic looking words South Pacific. This one had a majestic and important sounding overture, too, and by the time I got to "Bloody Mary," I found even more wit. That I was hearing that naughty word "damn" on a record was an extra boon.
The tape had room for one more album and the one I chose was Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady; I had not seen the movie but I had heard the title mentioned. If I thought there was wit in the previous shows, there sure was more of it here. I would endlessly listen to Henry Higgins' rants in the weeks to come, prompting my mother to say, "You know, maybe we'll go to New York this summer and you can see it." (Believe me, this was a big sacrifice for our working class family.) I had hoped that the movie would reach Boston before that, but I was well aware from previous trips to New York that movies opened in Manhattan long before they came to Boston.
Many will notice that I referred to My Fair Lady as a movie. That's what I thought it was. As hard as it may be for people to believe, I didn't know there was such a thing as stage shows anymore. I could understand that they were done before movie technology was invented but, after film came on the scene, I thought they must have gone the way of the buggy whip. Why would people now bother putting on a show and doing it over and over again? That may seem especially strange, given that I was a kid living in Boston which was (I'd later learn) a great theater town. But my parents never went to the theater and no one else that they or I knew attended. We weren't taken on school field trips and if any of the nuns ever mentioned live theater, well, I was probably otherwise engaged, drawing triangles on the desktop.
For seven whole months, I played all three of those albums but My Fair Lady the most, awaiting the day that we would go to New York and I would see the movie. How well I remember the night before we left: July 25, 1961, when I was so excited, I couldn't get to sleep. In fact, I still recall staying up and seeing Trevor Howard on Jack Paar's Tonight Show, talking about his upcoming remake of Mutiny on the Bounty.
We drove to New York and, as soon as we checked into the Hotel Victoria, my mother immediately went downstairs to the ticket broker to see if we could get a seat for My Fair Lady. Wow, wasn't New York fancy that you had to go to a ticket broker to get a seat to a movie?! (By that time in the show's life, the show was on twofers, but mom didn't know that. And I sure didn't.) "H 19," my mother announced, handing me this small green piece of thin cardboard. "You're in the 19th row."
I wasn't surprised that I had to sit in a specific seat, for that had happened to me in Boston with "big" movies, like Cinerama epics. But I was a little disappointed that I was in the 19th row, because I like to sit close at the movies. Nevertheless, the important thing was that I was going to see the film--though it sure cost my mother a lot of money, $4.60. Wow, movies were expensive in New York!
Mom walked me to the Mark Hellinger in time to catch this Wednesday matinee and kissed me goodbye. What I couldn't help noticing, though, was that the marquee said Michael Allison and Margot Moser in My Fair Lady. Hey, what happened to Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews? I immediately figured it out, though. Trevor Howard was remaking Mutiny on the Bounty; this, then, was the remake of My Fair Lady. I snorted in contempt at how backwards Boston was. We hadn't even got the first movie, and here New York already had the new and improved one!
I entered the Hellinger and an usher handed me a program. Again, how fancy New York was! The usher started showing me to my seat and I immediately noticed that we were walking way down the aisle, far beyond the 19th row. Clearly, she was making a mistake; but I said nothing, hoping she wouldn't realize her error and just leave me in that eighth row so I could see the movie better.
Something else hit me as I took my seat: I heard the strange sound of musical instruments, which is the best way I could describe it because I didn't yet know the term "tuning up." Wow, it sounded like there were real musicians in the theater, but that couldn't be. What were those odd noises?
I sat, opened my program, and wasn't surprised that this remake featured none of the names that were on the album I'd taped. But what was under their names confused me: "Understudies do not substitute unless announced before a performance," followed by a whole bunch of other names.
Expensive ticket, different stars, live musicians, understudies--wait a minute, could it be? Was this a real live show I was going to see? I turned my head to the right so I could ask the person next to me. She was an aged woman, still wearing a veil (it was a Wednesday matinee, remember). And just as I was about to ask, "Is this a play or is it a movie?" I thought to myself, "Shut up. She's going to think you're a moron. All you have to do is wait till two o'clock and then you'll know."
Just then, there was a power failure. My heart sank! Now we'd all be filed out and given our money back and I'd never know if this was going to be a play or a movie, because I just wouldn't have the nerve to ask anyone. Of course it wasn't a power failure, just the house lights dimming. And all of a sudden, as I heard that now-familiar overture sounding better, richer, and even more important, the curtain flew up--and my heart sank again. What I saw was a large screen that filled the entire expanse. It had a lot of ornamentation on it, sure--that's fancy New York for you--but there was a white space in the middle on it, where, obviously, the movie was going to be shown.
I cursed myself for thinking it could be possible that it was going to be a real live stage show. How could I be so naive? This was 1961, the modern era! But more than that, I was already feeling disappointed. For though I came expecting a movie, once I thought it might be a play, that's what I wanted to see. Just then, though, the lights hitting this sheet dimmed and, instead, lights were coming up from behind it. I thought I saw people back there, and, yes, one of them was moving a little. It was real! It was live!
And the scrim lifted, and I've never been the same since... and it wouldn't have happened had my mother not known Edith, who had those precious records, and if my mother weren't gracious enough to respond to my enthusiasm about My Fair Lady by suggesting that we take a trip so I could see it. Both Edith and Phil have since died, too; but their daughter Martha showed up at the wake, and I'm sure she was surprised that I hugged her so hard and cried so much when I saw her. How could she know that both her mother and my mother completely changed my life?
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]