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Where Was I When the Lights Went Out?

In "light" of recent events, Filichia recounts his experiences during the last two major blackouts.

The lights of Broadway went dark on the afternoon of 8/14...
but where was Peter Filichia?
(Photo © Sue Knox)
The blackout that hit the northeast last week reminded me of the two others I've endured in my life. All three, of course, had theatrical implications.

How well I remember the late afternoon of November 9, 1965. On my way home to Arlington from school in Boston, I had stopped at Harvard Square to buy the cast album of Out of This World and then walked up a few blocks to the Holiday Inn of Cambridge, where I worked, just to see my best friend who worked there, too. It turned out that four employees from another Holiday Inn had stopped to take a look at "our" place and, when they were about to leave, they offered to drive me home. I accepted but, as a grateful guest, I modestly took my place in the crowded center spot of the back seat so that each of the other passengers could have a window. We pulled out of the lot onto Massachusetts Avenue, all talking animatedly about the hotel business, and I noticed that "The Great Sign" -- as Holiday Inn loved to call its screaming mass of green, yellow, and orange neon -- had suddenly gone dark, along with the rest of the building.

"The hotel's had a power failure!" I yelled. Then the driver said, "So has all of Mass. Avenue!" Indeed, the lights on both sides of the street had just snapped off. We turned on the radio but that wasn't working. All of us were talking animatedly when all of a sudden we heard a man on the street yell that it wasn't just Mass. Avenue and Cambridge but New York City, too.

"Oh, my God!" I cried out. "How is The Zulu and the Zayda going to open?!" There was a profound silence as my back-seatmates slowly turned and stared; at the same time, both the driver and the person in the front passenger seat turned around to look at me. Yes, it was dark, but I could nevertheless make out their scowls of disapproval.

"WHAT did you say?" said the person to my left. Then the driver, his eyes narrowed to slits, asked, "The Zulu and the WHAT?"

"Um, zayda. It's, uh, a Jewish word," I informed these Gentiles. "It means grandfather."

"And what's The Zulu and the Zayda?" the person in the front passenger seat demanded to know, her nose crinkled as if she'd just smelled a seven-year old cheese.

"It's a Broadway musical," I said -- before correcting myself with, "Well, a Broadway play, really" -- before correcting myself again with, "Actually, I'm told it's a play with music." (Indeed, the long out-of-print original cast album contains only 12 Harold Rome songs. Some of them are pretty good, though.)

The distinctions between musicals, plays, and plays-with-music were lost on my companions. Nobody talked to me for the rest of the ride and I thought I'd better stay as silent as the Cort Theatre, where The Zulu and the Zayda would be forced to open one day later. The following week, when Time hit the stands, I looked to see if the magazine had mentioned the show. Actually, I don't now remember whether it did or not, though one story of the '65 blackout has always stayed with me -- about an out-of-town executive who'd lost his way in the darkness and a black cleaning woman who helped him find his destination. He offered her five dollars for her trouble, but she refused it, saying: "Tonight, everybody helps everybody."

Cut to July 13, 1977. I'd moved to New York only 32 days earlier, so I was still in the honeymoon phase of going to the theater almost every night with my new roommate Jeanne Nicolosi (who today is one of the town's better theatrical agents). We were at the Vivian Beaumont watching Andrei Serban's terrific production of The Cherry Orchard, which had won the Tony for Best Lighting. Yet what happened at the end of the second act seemed like an awfully clumsy lighting effect to me.

I waited for the house lights to come up but, instead, I heard one of the actors on stage say in a low voice, "Hey." Wait a minute: Wasn't this the end of the first act? What had happened? Then someone from the back of the house told us the news that there'd been a blackout. And we in the audience who'd remembered what happened nearly 12 years earlier gave a "here we go again!" moan.

Times Square after dark during the Blackout of ’03
(Photo © Sue Knox)
"Let's go see what's happening at Chicago!" Jeanne immediately cried. (She was an enormous fan of the original production of the Fosse-Kander-Ebb-musical, which is why she's NOT an enormous fan of the cut-rate revival.) With much of the rest of the audience, we left and crossed Lincoln Center plaza, where a bus was just pulling into the stop.

"Do you have correct change?" I asked Jeanne at the same moment that she asked the same question of me. Our "no's" were said simultaneously, too. Still, I got on the bus, looked at the burly bus driver with pitiful eyes, and said, "We don't have the correct change, but" -- I took a long breath here before delivering my ace trump in my most tender voice -- "tonight, everybody helps everybody."

His reply? "Get off the bus if you don't got the correct change." So we had to walk umpteen blocks to the 46th Street Theatre, as the Rodgers was called in those days. I expected that, by the time we got there, the place would be long deserted. But no -- there was a tiny, bittersweet block party going on outside the stage door, for that performance was to be the last that Alaina Reed would give as Mama Morton. While we thoroughly enjoyed the little gathering, I now wish we'd stayed at The Cherry Orchard, for I later discovered that the rest of the performance continued by candlelight.

And last week's blackout? I missed it completely -- and theater's the reason why. Months ago, I'd planned to go to St. Louis on August 14 in order to see Party at the New Line Theatre on August 15 and Big at Stages on August 16. So, right around the time when the northeast experienced its blackout, I was in a red Saturn driving to my hotel. And what CD did I have in the player? Sugar, starring Robert Morse -- who, not-so-incidentally, was the leading man of the 1968 movie Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?, which was inspired by the blackout that kept The Zulu and the Zayda from opening until November 10, 1965.

********************

[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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