October 11, 2022: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
It's not hyperbole to say that when I saw Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's two-character musical I Do! I Do! that it changed my life forever. Based on the Tony Award winning Best Play The Fourposter, by Jan DeHartog, it was a sensationally entertaining vehicle for two mighty Broadway stars. And try as I might, I still can’t quite get a grip that it happened over a half-century ago (as one of its song titles eloquently states "Where Are the Snows of Yesterday?"). Of course, I've never stopped listening to the original cast recording, as perfectly produced an album as there's ever been, which has kept it startlingly fresh in my mind (pay particularly close attention to Philip J. Lang's brilliant orchestrations).
As first nights in the theatre go, mine wasn't an average-run-of-the-mill sort of thing by any stretch of the imagination. I cover it in the prologue to my book Up in the Cheap Seats, but for those who don't know it, here's the story once again in condensed form.
Five months before my eleventh birthday, my Aunt Helen gave me an early present by granting me the #1 item on my wish list: to take me to my first Broadway show. And it wasn't a random choice. She knew how much I was longing to see I Do! I Do!, as it starred my idol, Robert Preston. Ever since the age of five, after seeing him in the film of The Music Man at the Radio City Music Hall, he had become my favorite actor. Now here he was sharing a Broadway stage with only one other person, none other than Peter Pan herself, Mary Martin. Wow!
The air in the theatre that night was electric. I couldn’t escape a feeling that all eyes in the house were focused on me from the moment I sat down. It was as if everyone was murmuring, “Welcome to the theatre kid. Having a good time?” I was all alone in my seat in G112 of the orchestra, since Aunt Helen couldn’t get two seats together. She had graciously given me the better seat (don’t you just love her?).
Needless to say, the show seduced me completely, what with those two pros, a wonderful score, Gower Champion’s inventive staging and a full orchestra the likes of which you rarely hear anymore. At intermission, excited as I could be, I turned around to get the attention of my Aunt, only to find her pointing at me, emphatically. I didn’t know why until we met up in the lobby. “Don’t you know who’s sitting in front of you?” I said, “You mean the lady with the big hair?” And that’s when she let me know that I was seated directly behind Lady Bird Johnson, then First Lady of the United States. Apparently, I was surrounded by secret service. And all those eyes I thought were on me in G112, were for the woman seated in F112.
Switching seats with me before Act II started, Aunt Helen attempted to schmooze the secret service agents surrounding the First Lady into getting me backstage (again, don't you love her?). But with Lady Bird planning to meet her fellow Texan, the answer was no. The only glimpse I got of the star dressing room was a photo in the next evening’s New York Post of Lady Bird, Preston and Martin sharing a laugh together from its front page (I mean, it was news). I cut it out and hung it on my wall next to my ticket stub, where both hung for years, the clipping eventually turning a dull yellow with age.
My desire to meet Preston never went away, and one day the opportunity presented itself. On March 4, 1985 (my birthday, in fact), Preston was going to be inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame, and I knew I had to be there. This was the chance I was waiting for. I was not throwing away my shot.
So, what to do? Simple. I got dressed in a suit and tie and took the subway to 50th Street and the Gershwin Theatre. I summoned all my courage and approached the official-looking woman at the entrance, who had a list of the invitees on a clipboard. I walked up and said, “Hello, how are you?” and breezed right past her. Sometimes acting as if you belong is enough.
Preston was introduced by his Mack & Mabel co-star Bernadette Peters and made a wonderful speech, asking to be remembered for his flops as well as his hits. It was a very small, informal gathering and at its conclusion, people scattered. I finally found my opening. Preston was collecting his overcoat from a chair and I timidly approached him. I extended my hand with a million thoughts racing through my brain and said, “Mr. Preston — congratulations.” He said, “Why thank you,” shaking my hand. I’d seen him on stage and screen, but in person he seemed larger than life. Though he wasn’t tall, he had a huge head and that grin seemed to cover his whole face. He held my hand firmly and I completely froze. “Congratulations” was all I could say and then he was gone.
Flash forward to three years later, the night of March 21, 1987. I’m living in Los Angeles, and on that evening, I had attended a screening of the 1960 color broadcast of Peter Pan. As an extra added bonus, Mary Martin was there, live and in person, introducing it. It was an emotional night, but I had no idea what else was in store when I came home to my answering machine blinking with a dozen messages. Friends and family had been calling, all of them asking the same question: How was I dealing with the death of Robert Preston?
The answer, as it turned out, was not too well. Stunned and shocked, I cried. And for the next few hours, I didn’t know what to do with my grief except write down why Preston meant so much to me. In a very short amount of time, I wrote an appreciation of his work as an actor, the night with Lady Bird, finally meeting him, and other tie-ins that made for what I hoped was a moving piece.
Imagine my surprise. when after having submitted it to Playbill, it was published a few months later under the heading "A View from the Audience," a column that used to invite readers to share their favorite theatre memories. When a friend suggested I send the finished piece to Catherine, Preston's widow and wife of forty-seven years, I got her address, popped it in the mailbox on my corner on a Wednesday afternoon, and mailed it off to Santa Barbara.
On Friday, I went to my mailbox and there was a large padded envelope with the return address “Preston.” Due to its size, I knew it had to contain more than a written response. I opened it and read Mrs. Preston’s note first:
“Thank you for sending me your lovely piece in Playbill. I found it quite touching. I feel Robert understood your few words in their fullest sense. As one actor to another, the meaning was all there.”
I thought that was so sweet, only it couldn’t begin to match what she sent along with it.
“It occurred to me you should have a picture that has hung in Robert’s study for years — taken backstage the night you and Lady Bird saw ‘I Do.’ I hope you love being an actor. Be a good one. All my best wishes, Catherine Preston.”
This is what she sent me:
Mrs. Preston had gotten my note on Thursday, went into the study, took the photo out of the frame and mailed it out so I would have it the next day. Talk about an irresistible impulse! Her heartfelt generosity remains one of the most meaningful gifts anyone has ever sent my way. It's had a prominent place in every home wherever I've lived.
Saddened as I was by Preston’s death, by doing something positive with what I was feeling, I ended up being entrusted with something once having belonged to him — something he kept for his lifetime. It commemorates the first time I ever went to the theatre. It doesn’t get more personal than that.
My passion for all-things Broadway remains intact. I'm still the super-fan I was fifty- years ago when, as a ten-year-old, I was introduced to the wonders of live theatre. The story goes on.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, please follow me here on Scrollstack and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.