Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! I must speak honestly and tell you the post I originally planned for today was not quite ready for publication. I’ve pre-empted that in favor of a piece I wrote for a class last semester. In April of this year, I went to New York to see one of Elaine Stritch’s final concert performances at the Cafe Carlyle. Interspersed with pictures from Elaine’s illustrious career, I am publishing my personal account, written back in April, of both my struggle to even see the performance and my elation upon meeting the divine Stritch herself.
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I first became aware of the talented Elaine Stritch on a car ride to Kennedy Space Center when my parents and I listened to the CD release of her 2002 one-woman show, Elaine Stritch: At Liberty. I was immediately captivated by her unique sense of humor, struggles with addiction, and the many anecdotes from her then sixty-year career. When I learned that the 88-year-old Stritch was giving a five-night only farewell concert before moving back to Michigan, I quickly resolved that this was a show that I did not want to miss. As a late birthday present, my parents were only too happy to pay for a weekend trip to the Big Apple to see Elaine. However, there was a big problem: every single show, in the lounge of the prestigious Carlyle Hotel, had sold out in twenty minutes. I had no ticket! Not to worry—there were eight “first come, first served” seats at the bar. So, following my Philosophy course on Thursday, April 4th, I took the bus to New York City, determined to be one of the lucky eight people allowed to sit at the bar for Elaine’s second-to-last performance on Friday, April 5th.
I arrived at the Carlyle around 2:00—four and a half hours before the bar opened. I was second in line. By 4:00, the first eight of us had arrived and we were delighting in our good fortunate and shared interest in Ms. Stritch. Fortunately for the ninth member of the line, an extra seat was added to the bar. So, at 6:30, we made our way into the tiny lounge, anxiously awaiting Elaine’s 8:45 performance. I was seated at the far end of the bar—next to the door where Elaine entered and exited from. About five minutes before she was set to begin, I heard her unmistakable growl from behind the door. “DARWIN!!!! Don’t make the introduction cutesie, you ass,” she bellowed to one of her many frazzled assistants. She was so close that I could smell her perfume. Finally, about ten minutes later, she made her grand entrance. Four months after falling and breaking her hip, Elaine now walks with a cane and had to be escorted up onto the stage. The crowd gave her a well-deserved standing ovation. Shortly after the show began, the man standing next to me whispered a request in my ear. Would I mind letting his friend, the elderly redheaded woman to his left, also with a cane, sit down? I naturally obliged; I didn’t mind standing. A few minutes later, the woman’s escort whispered to me, “That’s Robert Altman’s widow.”
Elaine began the show by thanking the crowd for coming and making her feel like a star for the first time in her 71-year career. Her loyal piano player, Rob Bowman, led her through an opening number, “How You Gonna Keep Them Down On The Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?” Slow and heartfelt as first, Stritch kicked it up to her usual tempo during the second refrain. After more chitchatting, Elaine gave us a taste of what she almost did as an introduction, in tribute to the newly elected Pope—“Down Argentina Way.” The crowd went wild. She only sang four other songs in the 75-minute concert. The first was the song she sang upon meting Stephen Sondheim, the composer who wrote her most triumphant role, Joanne in the 1970 musical, Company. The song was Rodgers and Hart’s, “He Was Too Good To Me.” Following that, she performed another Sondheim song, “Don’t Walk On The Grass,” and a parody of Cole Porter’s “You’re The Top,” entitled, “You’re The Pop,” that the composer himself sang to Elaine at a party in the 1950’s. Her closing number was an emotional rendition of the Sinatra standard, “All My Tomorrows.”
Though the old pro put across her songs with gusto and excitement, the highlight of the performance were the stories Elaine told in between songs. Her assistant passed around a bowl filled with sheets of paper. On each sheet were topics. As audience members called out their selections, Elaine would launch into an anecdote about some person she worked with or show she worked on. She started, however, with her favorite joke—when Jesus and St. Peter went golfing. But when audience member, Michael Riedel, a newspaper critic and talk show host, made the mistake of telling her that he’d already heard this one, Stritch went off the wall. “Why don’t you come up here and tell it then?” It wasn’t until later in the show that Elaine’s assistant told her that the heckler was, in fact, Michael Riedel.
This bit of drama did not hamper the audience’s enjoyment of the performance. Though a lot of anecdotes were told in her one-woman show of the decade prior, with a career as long and involved as Elaine Stritch’s, she was more than able to trot out some fresh ones. One of the most notable anecdotes told in the Friday evening performance involved Ethel Merman (whom Stritch understudied in Call Me Madam) at the premiere of the musical, Applause. When Lauren Bacall made her big entrance and uttered her first line, Merman let out a loud and brassy sigh: “OH, BROTHER!!!” Stritch also told of the difficulty in performing Sondheim (“It’s like being locked in the john at Julliard!”), an incident involving Mae West and the Queen of England, and the time a cabbie mistook her for Phyllis Diller.
When the final number was over, the applause was ceaseless. The entire room leapt to its feet. As she was escorted back through the crowd, she stopped and chatted with her various fans. One of whom was fellow performer, Mandy Patinkin, only too honored to be in her presence. Meanwhile, the elderly woman, Mrs. Altman, thanked me again for giving up my seat for her. Her escort asked me if I was a friend of Elaine’s. I laughed and told him about my long wait just to get a seat at the bar. “Would you like to meet her?” he asked. My eyes lit up and I quickly paid my overpriced bar bill. “Follow us out,” Mrs. Altman said to me.
I followed them through the door into the lobby. Altman’s escort, Scott Griffin, introduced me to Elaine: “Elaine, this young man, Jackson, is the last gentlemen in New York. He came here tonight from Boston and gave up his seat for Kathryn.” Elaine put her arms around me as she greeted her friend Kathryn, whom she hadn’t seen in a long while. Altman brought the conversation back around to me: “This young man stood up the entire show. A true gentlemen.” Stritch smiled and told me how glad she was that I came to see her show tonight. Dazed, I told her that I was also glad. As Griffin took a picture of the two of us, Elaine looked at Kathryn and once again complained about Riedel’s behavior. Darn—the flash was on. He took another picture, without flash. This time, Elaine did her trademark “throw the head back and laugh” bit. I told her what a pleasure it was to meet her and she thanked me. As they moved to the elevators up to her suite on the third floor, Kathryn and Scott both thanked me once again. And I thanked them too—genuinely. It was one of the happiest nights of my life. I saw a legend. I met a legend. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment with a once-in-a-lifetime performer.
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A fellow YouTube user posted a video link to Stritch’s complete one-woman show, Elaine Stritch: At Liberty (2002). I suggest interested parties take a watch at this unique woman talk about her fascinating career.
Come back next Wednesday for a new Wildcard post! And remember to return tomorrow for the next two episodes in our exciting Xena countdown!