July 17, 2014
WHAT I LEARNED FROM EMMY AND TONY -WINNING LEGEND ELAINE STRITCH BY RON ROECKER
"Elaine Stritch was a name that I had heard here and there for years growing up but if I were asked what she looked like, I would have crumbled. Then I started hearing about "Elaine Stritch at Liberty" -- a one-woman tour de force about the tumultuous career and fiery spirit of Broadway legend Elaine Stritch -- as performed by one woman Elaine Stritch. So, I bought two tickets and took a friend to go see this woman that I sorta recalled.
At the time she was doing "At Liberty" (an incredibly successful run on Broadway then a national tour of it) -- garnering some of the best reviews of her storied career -- she was 77 years old. The curtain opened and out came this fiery, feisty woman in a silk cream blouse over black stage tights and black dance shoes. The outfit would have looked age-inappropriate on anyone -- except Elaine Stritch: She had a great pair of gams for a woman half her age, an energy that could flood a stadium and charisma that hypnotized everyone who happened to just catch a glance at the 77 year old powerhouse.
She was a legend who always acted like one of the ensemble regardless of where her name was billed -- perhaps some of this was out of fear or lack of confidence or an inner-awareness that she wasn't as pretty as everyone else, she couldn't sing as beautiful or technical as everyone else and life just wasn't handed to her as easily as it appeared to be to every one else. But there was one thing that she was better at than any of her contemporaries -- being Elaine Stritch. And every character she played, every role she ever performed, you always felt like you saw a part of Elaine Stritch -- I don't mean that she couldn't embody a character and her acting was always the same "Jennifer Aniston in Every Movie" acting style -- but that she brought such an honesty to every role that you felt like you were gaining some insight into the character and the character that was playing her.
I want to say that "At Liberty" had no set or props -- I think I'm correct in saying that ...it was Elaine Stricth standing in front of you on the stage -- the place she called home...and when she would move onto a new topic she would pivot and clap toward the back of the backstage -- that's all and you were then transported to a very different place than she had just presented to y ou.
An admitted alcoholic (who still drank one martini every day -- no more/no less -- at 3 p.m. until she died), one of the most shocking unveilings by Stritch was when she went to an audition with three (maybe 4) martinis under her belt. She immediately decided she hated the head writer or creator of the show "I could barely see what they looked like." Playing scene after scene for this audition which was to be the TV Pilot of a new half hour comedy show, she changed almost every line word by word just to spite the head writer/creator under the pretense of being a free spirit/improv-trained actress. Despite being a shoe-in for one of the four ground-breaking roles prior to the audition, Stritch was passed over and Betty White, Rue McClanahan, Bea Arthur and Estelle Getty would become some of the richest and most popular super stars in the history of television -- at an age where your choices of roles were usually either the sassy grandma or the crotchety grandma.
Ten years after "At Liberty" Tina Fey cast Stritch as Alec Baldwin's horrendous and hysterical one-line-zinger-throwing mother on "30 Rock" and she stole scene after scene -- even picking up a well-deserved Emmy award along the way!
I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Stritch at a fundraiser a couple of years ago...she seemed distracted and a little confused about what all was going on, which broke my heart to see. I wanted to meet that feisty, fiery character I had been reading about-- the one who could act out a song til you broke down in hysterics and the one who, if you were paying close enough attention, would have been able to give you some insights into who she was or what she was doing -- a quick wink that said, "Keep up, kid, I'm the puppet master on this stage regardless of what any of it might look like."
And right as I got out of my own head and looked back at this feeble, brittle woman whose capacities were being diminished merely by the facts of life, something caught my eye and I looked right into those eyes that seemed more filmy than before but more buoyant as well. "Keep up kid..."
And before I knew it, I was laughing out loud, soaking in this over the top yet subdued performance by someone who had spent way too much time at boring industry events and fundraisers that simply funded the egos of dimwits. I looked right through her and what I hope she heard me saying was that she quite possibly was the coolest damn Broadway legend I would ever have the honor of almost being punked by again.
Stritchy, thanks for showing us how to handle life when it gets really hard especially at our own hand. Cheers, and here's to the ladies who lunch... aren't they a gas?!"
With respect and admiration,