Some women choose other women for support, but many of our mother’s generation behaved like perpetual damsels in distress needing a man around to help them with the simplest things, catering to every male entering a room, putting their needs first and foremost, soliciting their opinions before making a decision, giving them the larger portions, the better chairs, the greater control, and endlessly feeding their egos.
Above all, they needed to be married to a man while encouraging every female within their inner circle to adopt their medieval mindset.
Elizabeth’s mom was like that, marrying three times after Liz’s dad suddenly died (although Liz ignores the nuptial that was annulled).
My mom was just as assiduous in promoting second-class citizenry, except for getting hitched again. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop her from relentlessly urging her daughters to marry, and dragging men into every conversation and situation.
Once, while leaving a Broadway show at the Palace theater in Manhattan, she grabbed the elbow of a man trying to maneuver the crowd outside the entrance and asked him what bus we should take to get uptown.
“How the hell would I know?” he steamed at her. “Do I look like a bus driver for God’s sake?”
“Well!” she huffed.
“That was Don Knotts, Mom.”
“The man you just asked for directions.”
“Andy Griffith’s Don Knotts?”
“He certainly wasn’t very polite.”
Okay, nevermind that I’d been living in the city for more than a year and had, single-handedly, succeeded in getting us to the theater from my upper west side apartment two hours earlier after reminding her I knew the way because I’d been to the Palace once before.
It was shortly after I’d won the Midwest Division of the National ABC Television Talent Hunt in 1965 and was chosen to attend The American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
I arrived in New York City on January 29, 1966 as a highly impressionable fledgling from a small Michigan town.
At the time, my older brother, Kit, was working as a stagehand with the musical, Hurray It’s A Glorious Day…and all that scheduled to open at the Theater Four on West 55th Street in March. The confidence he exuded pleased Mom, so they conspired to persuade me to don my Sunday best and meet him outside the Palace Theatre at 9:30 that night.
Let me say, I don’t know why I was still trusting Mom’s judgment of Kit. As kids he’d leave me holding the bag under the worst of circumstances, and lure me into the scariest settings. We referred to these dupes as ‘Kit tricks’ — like when he locked me in the basement coal bin minutes before a delivery was to be made. Kit has always been my bad habit dying hard.
Regardless, since my ‘best’ was a blue silk bridesmaid dress worn to a July wedding five years earlier, I felt peculiar standing there, fighting the dry cold wind with him, waiting under the marquee for the curtain to come down and the audience to emerge. Once it did, Kit ordered me to “just act natural” as we slipped under a purple velvet rope guiding a small procession of people invited backstage to greet the cast.
Once inside the stage door, Kit abandoned me to look for Polly, a woman he claimed was a friend he’d made while working summer stock the year before.
The backstage of the Palace Theatre is cavernous, with grips scurrying about in headsets, scenery on brails against brick back-walls, overhead catwalks several stories high and huge fresnel lanterns suspended from the ceiling.
Alone and afraid of being caught, I stood in the center of the chamber looking like a lost soul seeking flight when the alley door burst open and down the long steel staircase came Kit’s so-called friend, Polly, making her entrance while screaming, “Gwen, I’m here, Gwen, I’m here, I’m sorry I’m late, oh Gwen, I’m here, Gwen, I’m here!”
Upon reaching the backstage floor, she began barreling my direction. That’s when the redhead standing two feet away with her back to me pivoted on her black patent leather stilettos and asked, “Would you be a dear and hold my flowers so I can get a shot with Polly?”
As I accepted her large bouquet of scarlet roses, it finally dawned on me.
I was backstage, opening night of Sweet Charity, instantly cast as the unnamed flower girl in a publicity shot of Gwen Verdon and Polly Bergen.
Naturally, Kit was nowhere to be found — but something he’d said to me earlier proved my saving grace.
“No one will ask you who you are because they’ll think you must be related to someone important — and not knowing someone important would be too embarrassing for them.”
He was right. Nobody asked.
I waited until a bevy of friends gathered around the celebrated stars before quietly leaving the roses and fading away.
When I got home I called Mom and listened to her relate Kit’s version of the evening; of how Polly was a no-show so, after “I ditched him” he joined a group of the theatre grips and went downtown to the Red Lion to hang out.
I let it pass.
Now, in reminiscence, I often revisit my introduction to New York and say, “Hooray!”
It was, indeed, a glorious day.
And all that.
# # #
by Marguerite Quantaine, Copyright © 8.31.17
Marguerite Quantaine is an essayist and author.
Her novel, Imogene’s Eloise : Inspired by a true-love story
is available AMAZON, in paperback , and on Kindle.
Her book of essays, My Little Black Dress Is Pink,
has a planned release date of October 3, 2017.
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