December, January and February are always the three months of the year, it seems, when jet lag insomnia is never far away for me. Those are the months in which I do the most jet-setting: Jordan to the USA to Bangkok to Jordan to London to Jordan to Boston to Jordan…lots of flying, and lots of opportunities for the nettling jet lag to set in.
But I thought I would look back this week on a book that was among the most delightful reads of an insomniac middle-of-the-night. I never want to read anything too weighty, too important, too life-changing, just in case I fall asleep! So I picked up at the Cincinnati Library, my beloved Westwood branch that I have frequented my entire life, and checked out a copy of actor Frank Langella’s memoirs, called Dropped Names. In the preface, Langella, the former Dracula of the late 1970s, writes:
“Oh, I’ll never forget when the Queen Mother turned to me and said…, “I couldn’t resist. I picked up a piece of silverware and sent it clattering loudly to the floor. “Oops! I dropped something!” I declared. And a ritual was born. Like a pack of wolves let loose on a defenseless critic, the gathered predators got the joke and began to drop names and toss silverware in a frenzy of competitive hilarity….So get out your silverware. I’m about to drop a whole bunch of names on you.”
I was telling my friend Dawn while we visited over an early-morning reunion breakfast, about the book and how fun it was to read at 4:00 AM and Dawn said, “You know, you could drop some of your own names. You have met some interesting people!” So, when the insomnia dropped in again, I thought I would make a list of some of my own names I can drop…okay, here begins a mini-overview of my life and the names that come back to me:
Helen Hayes The earliest celebrity that I remember meeting is the actress Helen Hayes, often referred to as “The First Lady of the American Theater.” She was on a book tour in the late 60s, promoting her memoir, and my mother took me downtown to one of the department stores to meet her. I was maybe four years old or so. You are supposed to buy a copy of the person’s book and then you stand in line for the celebrity to autograph the book. My mother bought Ms. Hayes’ book, and bought a copy of a Dr. Seuss book for me. Helen Hayes autographed them both, and as we watched her sign the book, my mother said, “My son likes drama very much—perhaps if you need a young boy in your next play, I am sure he would be happy to join the company!” That tells you a great deal about my mother! And I may be the only one in the world with a Dr. Seuss book signed by the great Helen Hayes!
Charles Taft The day I met Charlie Taft when I was in the 3rd grade is one of the most exciting days of my childhood. I was in full-blown American History mode by the 3rd grade, gobbling up every book I could find on the Presidents of the United States. The spring before my family had made pilgrimages to the Lincoln homes as well. One day my grandmother mentioned that she was acquainted with a man whose father had been a President of the United States. I could not have been more excited! She explained how she had done some volunteer work and met William Howard Taft’s son, Charlie Taft, who had been a mayor, and long-time councilman in Cincinnati. I begged her to introduce me to her. My grandmother asked, and Charlie Taft agreed to come and speak to my 3rd grade class at Westwood School. No way! I was beside myself with excitement! In those days I had memorized not only the Presidents names, forward, and backwards, but also their wives’ names. (Truth be told, I can still perform this feat, if wver you would like either list!) I couldn’t get enough Presidential trivia! And then the day came! He arrived and I met him! This nice older man, who came and told stories of running around the White House with Teddy Roosevelt’s rambunctious sons, hurling spitballs at the portraits of the First Ladies, and generally being nuisances for the entire staff charmed me greatly. He talked about his father’s work, then his father’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, and finally encouraged we 9 year-olds towards a life of public service. I beamed throughout. My mother called the newspaper who came and did a story on the day I met Mr. Taft. Too excited for words! I doubt anybody else in the grade was remotely as excited as I was. My mother took me on a tour of William Howard Taft’s boyhood home across town, and I must say, I was devastated when I volunteered to be a tour guide of the Taft home, and they said one had to be 16. I had to wait 7 years?????? Oh well, at least I met a President’s son!
Joan Allen and Peter Friedman I think it is too hard to try and go in order, so now I will jump 30 years and mention an evening I attended the movie Shakespeare in Love, in Manhattan. I loved the movie, and about halfway through I noticed that the couple in front of me were actors I had seen in plays and movies. Of course I enjoyed the movie even more, knowing I was a couple feet away from actors that I just adored watching in action. As the movie came to a close, I decided I needed to tell them how big a fan I am of both their work. The wife, multiple-Oscar nominee Joan Allen had teared up by the end of the movie, and seemed to dawdle, so naturally I had to dawdle as well so I could casually meet them and recognize them. As we both exited our rows of the theater, I gave that dumb-founded surprise look of recognition, said their names, and exclaimed, “You know, both of you are so marvelous. I teach school and I have taken classes of mine to see both your work! I took my U.S. History class to see The Crucible, with you Ms. Allen, and oh, Mr. Friedman, I took my seniors to see you in Ragtime. Extraordinary performances!” They thanked me, seemed touched, although I guess I did intrude on their reverie after the film, and then lamented, “And why you haven’t won many Oscars is beyond me! And, oh, your work as Tateh, deserved a Tony, Mr. Friedman.” They smiled, and I kind of hoped they might invite me over for tea and coffee. No invitation proffered, and no, I didn’t even follow them home!
Sissy Spacek This celebrity sighting is perhaps my dumbest moment with a celeb. It was spring break of 1993, and Casey Brown and I had driven to New York from Charlotte for the vacation. I was in FAO Schwartz, the famous toy store, and I had my radar on for celebs. I see someone who looks like the actress Sissy Spacek…hmmm….I follow her around, quite discreetly, then follow her up the escalator, and then over towards a cash register. At one point she turned right to me, and I say, with such poise and brilliance: “You are Sissy Spacek! Wow, you have so many freckles!” Argh!! I might have said, “You starred in one of my favorite movies, The Long Walk Home and I thought your performance was masterful.” No, I gawk at her freckles. She looked a little sorry for me, sighed, and went about her business.
Carol Channing This may be my ultimate celebrity encounter—or, well, at least one of my favorite stories about my mother too. When I was 12, Broadway icon Carol Channing came to Cincinnati in another tour of Hello, Dolly! and my mother decided the whole family should go see the show. We knew the score of the show actually, because every Wednesday, on cleaning day, my mother would turn up the Hi-Fi cast recording of Hello, Dolly! and dust away to the infectious Jerry Herman tunes. Well, all four Leistlers go to the show, and after the show ended, my mother asked me if I wanted to meet Carol Channing. I said “Sure!” and my father quietly said, “I’ll go and get the car.” My mother and I started to walk toward the stage door, and I saw a guard, but my mother just nodded, smiled, and kept going. The guard smiled back at the nice lady walking regally with a cane. No one stopped us! When we got backstage we figured out there was a party for a cast member from the tri-state area, and then we see Carol Channing, she of the saucer eyes and expansive smile, and my mother edged to the front of the line, and asked for an autograph and extolled her luminescent performance. Carol asked, “And who are you?” My mother said, “I’m
Mary.” Carol obliged, and my mother indicated it was time to go. On the way
out I said, “Mama, you lied to Carol
Channing.” She replied, “I did not.
I’m somebody’s Aunt Mary!”
Years later, in 1988, Hello, Dolly! became
the first musical I directed. Somehow, my mother contacted Carol Channing and
got her to call me and wish me well on my opening night! ”Dolly has always been very good to me,” Channing rasped. I thanked
her, told her I had seen her performance a dozen years earlier, and wasn’t sure
if any performer could equal her star power and magnitude. She hoped I would
break a leg!
Al Pacino This is one of those classic New York celeb moments—I was at a play, Ralph Fiennes in Hamlet, I think, and during the intermission I went to the Men’s Room, and at the urinal right next to mine was Al Pacino. He turned to me, nodded, and I gave that cool, man’s-man, nod back that tacitly says, “Hey, dude.” As we zipped up, I said with that New York ennui about everything we get to do, “I loved Looking for Richard—that was brilliant.” He said, “Thanks, man.” And we returned to our seats.
Well, now that I am waltzing down memory lane, I think I will turn “Dropped Names” into a bit of a series of blog entries. I have some more stories, so come back in a day or two, and here will be some of the names I “drop” in the next blog entry: Barbara Cook, Sarah Jessica Parker, Whoopi Goldberg, George Clooney, Fred Astaire, Jean Stapleton, Tina Fey, Barbara Walters, Elaine Stritch, Daniel Day Lewis, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Bernadette Peters, Dan Rather, and Susan Sarandon.