Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Night Performance in Boston 1941

Christmas, for actors and actresses, is sometimes a celebration fit in between performances. In December 1941, when Pearl Harbor earlier in the month had already established that this would be the first wartime Christmas, Ruth Gordon played the Majestic Theatre in Boston.

From her “My Side - The Autobiography of Ruth Gordon” (Harper & Row, NY, 1976), Ruth Gordon captures a moment.

“Two days of dress rehearsals and open Christmas night…I hurried out onto Avery Street, deep in slush. No empty taxi, a cold rain beating down, dress rehearsal at two-thirty. I rushed along Tremont Street. No need to dodge the puddles; my feet and legs were soaked. I could feel the cold water squish. Only a few blocks, cross Boylston, then up the alley to the Majestic stage door. Just beyond it and across the alley is the stage door to the Colonial. Had Hazel Dawn ever had to run through rain and slush? I was perspiring from having hurried so. What if I took cold? What if tomorrow my voice was ragged? Or gone altogether? All those lines, all those words, all those changes and cuts and additions!”

Opening Christmas night, peace on earth, and anxiety backstage. Always, for the actor, putting one’s career on the line with every show.

“Backstage was taut with excitement, nerves, good wishes. Actors are great. None of us thought the show would make it, but the good wishes didn’t sound like that. One last sip of water, one last trip to the ladies, one last pat of the powder puff, last prayer to God, then wait in the wings. Deep breath. Cue, open the door On! A burst of applause, the first line.”

The play, which she does not name, got bad notices. As Miss Gordon wrote to Orson Welles afterward, “The Mayor of Boston gave me the key to the city, the pubic gave me the gate.”

The second week of performances was cancelled. They took the show on to Philadelphia. In five months, it was back to Broadway for Ruth Gorden in May 1942 with “The Strings, My Lord, Are False.” Directed by Elia Kazan, it ran 15 performances. The same play? Or another opening, another flop? One hopes her shoes dried out from the icy slush of Tremont Street by then.

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