Side by Side by Sidney Armus
Filichia re-encounters Sidney Armus, who no longer lives over a pretzel factory.
During intermission at I Never Sang for My Father, I saw in the program that Theatre 22, where the show was ensconced, was owned by Sidney Armus. Ah, how that name made me smile! The most rarefied of musical theater aficionados know that Armus played "Itchy," the social director, in Wish You Were Here in 1952. But that isn't what I think of when I come across his name...
Our history begins in 1964. On March 12 of that year, I came home from high school to find a letter from Merrimack College. I opened it hesitantly. Was this the rejection letter saying that they would not let me go to school there? My parents and teachers had been warning me since time immemorial that if I didn't stop thinking about theater, I'd never get into college. Would this be my day of reckoning?
No! Merrimack said they'd take my money and let me become a freshman there. I had to celebrate! And what better way to rejoice than to see a show--even if the only show in town that I hadn't caught was the pre-Broadway tryout of a new comedy called Never Live Over a Pretzel Factory, starring Dennis O'Keefe (who'd been fired the previous July as Mary Martin's leading man in Jennie) and Robert Strauss (best known as Animal, the traitor, in the film Stalag 17). Except that, when I got to the theater, the program cover showed O'Keefe but not Strauss; a small square of white paper had been pasted over his face because, I learned, he had left the production. "Artistic differences," of course. For the first time in my three-year stint of theatergoing, I'd see an understudy go on. What would that be like? Would he know his lines and blocking? How would this Sidney Armus do?
I had a front row seat; you won't be surprised to hear that tickets for Never Live Over a Pretzel Factory weren't selling terribly well. As the play unfolded, I kept glancing at my program to see when this Sidney Armus would come on. I was so nervous for him! (I truly believe that, when he entered, he saw the nervousness in my face and flashed me a reassuring glance.) But he got through the performance without a misstep.
Never Live Over a Pretzel Factory opened at the Eugene O'Neill on Saturday, April 11, 1964--the same night that Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle closed at the Majestic after nine performances. What's ironic is that Never Live... closed the following Saturday after nine performances, too. Armus got luckier the following year when he was tabbed by Mike Nichols to appear as one of Oscar's card-playing buddies in the original Broadway cast of The Odd Couple. Seeing that play in its Boston tryout in February 1965 was a much funnier experience than Never Live Over a Pretzel Factory, about which I remember virtually nothing except that Sidney Armus--and a newcomer named Martin Sheen--were in it.
In 1967, I was working as a desk clerk at a Ramada Inn in suburban Boston. That summer, we hosted the cast and crew of The Thomas Crown Affair during filming, which meant that we housed Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, Norman Jewison, and--yes--Sidney Armus. When I saw that he was in Room 506, I immediately called him: "Mr. Armus, this is the front desk. We're going to have to move you from your room." "Why?" he moaned. "There's nothing wrong with it." "No, sir, you don't understand. Room 406 is a pretzel factory." There was a short pause, a big laugh, and then a very quick "I gotta come down and meet you." He did, and regaled me with tales of his theater experiences for a solid hour.
I hadn't seen Sidney Armus since then, but thought it would be fun to see him now. Wouldn't he be surprised and delighted to reconnect with the guy who remembered him from Never Live Over a Pretzel Factory? So, as soon as the interminable I Never Sang for My Father was over, I went to the person working the box office and shyly asked, "Is Sidney Armus here tonight?" "Yeah, I think so," she said, then thrust a thumb towards the door behind her. "He should be in his office."
I slowly opened the door and saw at a ramshackle desk a short, gray-haired man, who immediately barked: "You can't come in here! The actors are all naked! Wait for them out there!" "Actually," I said calmly, "I'm not here to see them. Are you Sidney Armus?" "I used to be," he said, with tinges of both humor and sadness in his voice. "We met almost 35 years ago," I told him. "Oh," he said, "That's when I was working." "Yes--in Boston." "Ah," he said with tenderness, "The Odd Couple." "No, that was 37 years ago," I said, immediately realizing that this made me sound like a smart-ass. I felt a little bad about it. "You were filming a movie."
"Aha!" he said confidently. "The Thomas Crown Affair." "Right," I crowed. Now we were cookin'. "You stayed in the Ramada Inn where I worked." "Ramada Inn," he said softly. "Guess neither one of us was doing too well then." He then reached over and fingered my shearling coat. "You seem to be doin' all right now, though." That made me laugh, and he went on: "I remember the hotel. Wasn't downtown. Was near a river."
"Right!" I said, giving him a second to snap his fingers and say, "You were the kid at the desk who knew me from Never Live Over a Pretzel Factory!" But he didn't, so I said, "You were in Room 506..." ("Boy, you got a good memory," he interrupted) "...and I called you and said we'd have to move you because 406 was a pretzel factory."
"Yeah?" he said doubtfully, breaking my heart. "Y-yeah," I stammered. "I'd seen you the first night you went on as an understudy." "I wasn't an understudy," he said, much the way Bea Arthur's Vera Charles said in Mame that she was never in the chorus. "I was brought in to take over the role. Gee, I can see the hotel, but I don't remember you callin' from the desk and saying that."
Funny; just last week, I was in a conversation with an actor who said he's amazed at how many fans act as if they're best friends with him, when that's not his perception of the relationship at all. Sidney Armus was my reminder that all we can expect from performers is a performance and not their lifelong devotion.