Sam Norkin Self-Portrait(© Sam Norkin, 2002)
Sam Norkin Self-Portrait
(© Sam Norkin, 2002)
I was quite pleased and honored when Drama Desk executive director Randie Levine Miller asked me to speak at a luncheon honoring Sam Norkin. Good for critic Leslie (Hoban) Blake, too, for suggesting that a bash be given in honor of this master caricaturist, who has toiled in the theatrical vineyards for lo these many decades. As I spoke at the luncheon, which was held in the Eugenia Room at Sardi's, I mentioned that, when I was growing up in Boston in the early '60s and discovered this wonderful thing called live theater, Sam Norkin was the third jewel of my triple crown in the Boston Globe every Sunday.

The first jewel was a column called "Coming to Town." In those days -- before I knew about Variety, before I had friends who heard Broadway scuttlebutt, and decades before the Internet started telling us every move that everyone on Broadway makes 10 seconds after it happens -- I had to rely on this weekly column, which offered a short paragraph of bare-bones information on what was coming to town and when. Wow! Vivien Leigh will be at the Colonial in a musical called Tovarich, whatever that means! Look! Robert Horton (of Wagon Train!) will hang his hat at the Shubert in 110 in the Shade, a new musical by those guys who wrote The Fantasticks -- so the new show might be really good, given that The Fantasticks has been playing Off-Broadway for more than three years now! Terrific! Bert Lahr and Phyllis Newman will arrive in a new musical version of The Passionate Witch. (I'm still waiting for that one.) And then there were the three consecutive weeks when the column listed, in this order, "Carol Burnett in A Girl to Remember," "Carol Burnett in The Idol of Millions," and finally "Carol Burnett in Fade Out-Fade In."

The second jewel of the Sunday Globe's triple crown came when the shows would take out their first display ads, which often sent me to the drugstore on Monday morning to buy a money order that I'd mail off that very day. (In those days, you couldn't purchase such craven things on the Lord's Day.) These ads would give me the soup-to-nuts-and-bolts info about the shows that "Coming to Town" didn't bother to detail. Wonderful! Kay Medford, whom I loved in Bye Bye Birdie, is going to be in Funny Girl! Oh! How great that Columbia Records is going to do the cast album of Subways Are for Sleeping, for they do the best records with the best album jackets. Aha! Sandy Baron, that guy who was so funny on The Garry Moore Show last week, is coming to the Wilbur in Tchin-Tchin -- which I pronounced as "Tich-in-Tich-in" and not "Chin-Chin." I wasn't so hot on pronouncing the aforementioned Tovarich, either. It wasn't until I heard Taina Elg, who'd be replaced by Louise Troy after the show left town, say, "Taw-VARR-itch" in the show that I stopped saying "TOV-are-itch.

Walter Matthau, Art Carney, Carole Shelley,and Monica Evans in The Odd Couple(© Sam Norkin, 1965)
Walter Matthau, Art Carney, Carole Shelley,
and Monica Evans in The Odd Couple
(© Sam Norkin, 1965)
"Coming to Town" and the display ads were the first two jewels of the triple crown, for they told me what was happening. But the best plays show rather than tell. So what was much better than reading about these shows was seeing images of what they'd be like -- and that's where third-jewel Sam Norkin came in. Every Sunday before a show opened, a caricature by Norkin would have a prominent place in the entertainment section of the Sunday Globe. Those bold, brave lines, those heavy globs of black ink, all came together to make the shows come alive. How did I first know that The Odd Couple would feature a card game and that High Spirits would include a séance? From the Sam Norkin caricatures!

I remember when I was sitting in my first-row center seat at Flora, the Red Menace and Liza Minnelli entered with a tam-o-shanter on her head. I smiled because I'd expected it -- because I'd seen the Norkin drawing the Sunday before. Ditto the lily pad-like set and game board-like stage for The Roar of the Greasepaint -- The Smell of the Crowd, the New York skyline in Golden Boy, Herschel Bernardi's striped pants in Bajour, the balloon that ascended in Ben Frankin in Paris, the chaos that ensued in Black Comedy: I'd had previews of all of these courtesy of Norkin.

When The Apple Tree -- the new musical by those guys who wrote Fiddler on the Roof -- came to the Shubert in 1966, it brought a lot of scenery along. Most of it was going to be used in the opening scene, set in a spectacular Garden of Eden. But, at the last minute before the Boston premiere, director Mike Nichols decided that the Tony Walton set was too busy, so he scrapped it and replaced it with a simple, stylized apple tree. I never actually saw that original, ornate, phantasmagorical set but at least I have an idea of it, thanks to the Sam Norkin drawing that preceded the show into town. [Ed. Note: See image below.]

Norkin also helped me in the days before I was 16 and wasn't old enough to get a job, make my own money, and buy my own tickets. Up till then, I had to depend on the kindness of parents for an advance on my allowance. When I wanted a ticket for the aforementioned Tovarich, my mother reluctantly handed over the $4.40 I'd need for a first-balcony seat (as we called the mezzanine in those days) and said evenly, "This theatergoing is getting to be a very bad habit." (My friends were all going out and getting drunk on the Fridays when I'd head into town to see Beyond the Fringe, I Can Get It for You Wholesale, or the national tour of Carnival! -- and she thought I was the one with the bad habit!)

Larry Blyden, Alan Alda, and Barbara Harrisin The Apple Tree(© Sam Norkin, 1966)
Larry Blyden, Alan Alda, and Barbara Harris
in The Apple Tree
(© Sam Norkin, 1966)
Because of my lack of funds, I missed a lot of shows. Big hits like Never Too Late. Modest successes like The Chinese Prime Minister. Quick flops like Once for the Asking, The Riot Act, and Memo. High-profile failures like Lillian Hellman's My Mother, My Father and Me and Orson Welles's Moby Dick. (Yes, Moby Dick was done on stage. You know Moby Dick? It's about this... whale.) But at least, before these shows left town and long before they'd move to Broadway and be pictured in Theatre Arts or Theatre World, I had an idea of what they all looked like thanks to those wonderful Sam Norkin drawings.

Little did I know back then that I'd someday get the chance to know Sam -- a man with a twinkle in his eye and the disposition of a Santa Claus. While serving my four years as president of the Drama Desk, I could depend on Sam to design and make the actual awards, and to deliver them on time. On top of that, he once did a drawing of me, and it's prominently displayed in my apartment. What astonishes me about it is not only that he captured me quite well but that I can also see a family resemblance with one of my cousins. How's that for subtext?

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]