HELLO AMERICA!—I must confess that it’s rather gratifying having so many of you so anxious to hear stories of my very insane days surviving in Tinsel-town! Hey! I confess it is also perfect therapy reminiscing about the good, bad and sometimes dangerous excursions into utter madness. While at the famed Ebony Showcase Theatre founded by iconic “Amos ‘n’ Andy” star Nick Stewart, I was privileged to meet star Ethel Waters.
She was quite impressed with our musical “Right Where You Are” and made sure the cast was aware of her acceptance of this original work. When I spotted her at the gathering, I was so in awe, I yelled, “Oh, my god…it’s Ethel Waters! She looked at me and laughed, replying, “Yes, honey, it’s me, ALL of me.”
Prior to meeting the actress, my image of her was purely based on her appearances on the screen or television. I was mesmerized by her performances in “Cabin in the Sky,” “Stage Door Canteen,” “Pinky” and the screen version of “Member of the Wedding.” When she performed “His Eye is on the Sparrow” in “Member…” I felt every emotional moment. She was an extraordinary performer, and in a way, she set the standard of quality and honesty for me, something I would spend the rest of my life attempting to achieve. Of course, I never imagined that one day, I would be sharing the stage with this great lady.
After our first few meetings, Ethel didn’t hesitate to approach me in a conversation. In truth, I believe she liked and enjoyed the chutzpah I displayed. This was evident when she insisted I call her “Mom”. She was controlling, bossy and yet, quite loving in a way that wasn’t offensive. Just like my mom and granny back in Morton, Pennsylvania. I enjoyed the “give and take” relationship we developed. However, I must admit I took full advantage of the “give” portion of our relationship on and off stage.
It was also a period when I was introduced to Mary Pickford by her adopted brother Sam Heileiger, a psychic. Of course, she was the First Lady of silent films, studio founder and Pickfair, her home where the royals of the world found themselves being introduced to industry big shots. She insisted that I meet band leader, Freddie Martin, known for his Coconut Grove performances down through the years. He was scheduled to produce a revival of “Finian’s Rainbow” at the Grove. Miss Pickford insisted we meet.
David Wayne who appeared in the original Broadway version was the scheduled star. There were two weeks of rehearsals – eight hours daily. Wayne was extremely easy to work with; he was very helpful and patient with everyone in the cast. The Grove had such a history behind it; no matter what was produced there, one always could count on a big Hollywood turnout. For us, the legendary Broadway star, Ella Logan who appeared in the original cast of “Finian” brought tears to David Wayne’s eyes at the cast party. I was glued to the arrival of such luminaries as Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Nelson, and Doris Day at the cast party.
The show itself made a lasting mark in my memory because of the opening night mishaps. On my first entrance, which involved several complicated dance movements, I stumbled and fell from the stage on top of a lady from Texas who yelled in her most southern drawl, “Damn! I never thought I’d get one in my soup!” Yes! A bit racist but hell, it was funny, and it brought down the house. On closing night, I received screams of laughter from the audience where I had never gotten previously.
In the rush of getting my costume on, I had neglected to put on my underwear as well. As a result, my private parts were in full view of everyone in the Grove. I didn’t realize what a spectacle it was until one of the guys in the orchestra pit, pointed to the unzipped area. In my attempt not to show how humiliated I was, I turned from the audience, zipped up and continued the scene. The audience gave me a standing ovation, or was it my zipper?” I never knew. There were a few people in the cast, believed that I had planned the whole thing, but I had not.
Ethel Waters also witnessed the “zipper” scene and afterwards approached me to appear with her in a revival of “Member of the Wedding,” but warned me, pointing her finger straight in my face saying, ’Listen boy, I’d love to have you with me in the revival of Member of the Wedding, but I will kick your ass if you try any funny stuff like you did in my play. I AM THE STAR and you had better remember that!” I looked at her – smiled quite lovingly and replied, “Of course, mom, I could never forget that.”