Friday, April 5, 2013

Goodbye, Roger Ebert,——————— Au Revoir, Elaine Stritch

Two legends move on and signal the end of an era

Roger Ebert (1942 - 2013)*
     Roger Ebert (1942 – 2013) died Thursday after a long, heroic battle against cancer.  He was a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, whose criticism was informed by his background as a screenwriter on various movies in the ‘60s, including a couple of Russ Meyers’ wild, sort of feminist, sort of soft core porn fantasy epics.  He was passionate about movies and more encouraging to new filmmakers and receptive to the failed efforts of others than almost any other major critic. 

Siskel & Ebert...& Dexter
     He was most widely known for his collaboration with Gene Siskel (he was The Chicago Tribune’s reviewer while Ebert wrote for The Chicago Sun-Times) from the 1970s until
Siskel’s death in 1999.  For many of us in the hinterlands, Sneak Previews and then At The Movies were a lifeline to the wealth of movies that played on the coasts or in major cities, but rarely traveled inland.  Those TV shows were as essential to understanding where a contemporary popular art form was going as leafing through The New Yorker for Pauline Kael’s latest.  

Roger with Wife Chaz
     After Siskel’s death, the heart went out of the show, though it continued, while Ebert cemented his reputation as the brains.  He wrote voraciously, even after his illness decimated him physically.  He wrote over 300 reviews last year alone.  He also was the friend who advised Oprah to go into syndication.  His courage (and his wife’s devotion to his passion) in continuing to write and to be seen, especially with his disfigurement, signaled his intention to remain a player in a game he loved.  


Elaine Stritch Greeting Friends at the Café Carlyle**
     Elaine Stritch has not died, but she retired from performing earlier this week even as she left a loophole by saying she’d return to New York in the future.  She’s 88 and moving back to Michigan to be closer to her nieces and nephews.   Cardinal Samuel Stritch was her late uncle. Stritch, Stritchie, the Great Elaine put the Broad in Broadway.  She rarely had top billing, but the moment she stepped into the spotlight, the audience was well aware of who the star was.  

Her Typical Pose***
     Her outsize personality, wild – true and mostly accurate – stories, and personal style endeared her to fans, though not always to other performers.  Producers were sometimes wary of her issues – alcoholism for decades, and then diabetes – but she was a consummate professional who – if she could stand – played.  Many greats such as Ethel Merman, Noël Coward, Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim, Edward Albee, and Woody Allen showed their respect and admiration by working with her numerous times.  She started in the 1940s, just as the musical revue was turning into the fully integrated musical comedy through to the concept musical, major revivals, and then the one-person show.

Two's Company
     She was married to John Bay and lived in England in the 1970s when we lived there.  I’ll always remember Two’s Company, the TV series she starred in with Donald Sinden for five seasons.  It played in a graveyard slot on Sunday evenings and she did it between West End engagements and Sinden did it between classical parts for the Royal Shakespeare Company.  It wasn’t supposed to do much, but it became a major hit because it showed an American bestselling author living in London and her capricious relationship with her English butler that was based upon a series of one-upmanship games.  An American version flopped because it moved it to New York and added kids.  Two’s Company never went soft or romantic and the subtext that brassy New York was taking over London culture was a metaphor for the New Free World Order of the ‘70s.  

     Neil and I lucked out seeing her twice onstage.  The first time was in Albee’s A Delicate Balance where she was part of an incredible cast that included Rosemary Harris, George Grizzard, Mary Beth Hurt, and Elizabeth Wilson.  We’d stopped by the theatre the day before and the box office manager confirmed “they all play.”  She was hilarious and moving as an over the hill party girl intertwined in a love/hate relationship with her sister.  She still had great legs and could move spectacularly.  We didn’t go back for autographs because we were on a tight schedule for dinner and an evening show and A Delicate Balance is nearly three hours.  

Our Autographed Copy of Elaine Stritch at Liberty
     The second time we saw her was in the apotheosis of the one person/memoir show Elaine Stritch: At Liberty eleven years ago.  Because of a parade, we fast walked about thirty blocks from the Whitney Biennial to the theatre.  Half-exhausted and sweaty, we were treated to the history of American commercial theatre as seen by Stritch and it was amazing.  We saw a couple of recent CCM grads at the intermission and were charmed that she was relevant for them as well.  After the show, we decided we had to get her autograph because we weren’t sure we’d see her again.  There was a short line and we were ushered backstage by an assistant.  

Elaine Stritch Backstage
     During the show, we’d seen how twenty or thirty years dropped away when she entered the light, but how they weighed on her as she was almost off the stage.  Backstage, she was changed and in her requisite Sunday church hat and enormous, round, black glasses.  I told her how much we’d enjoyed her in this show and in the Albee production.  She replied, “Yup, that was a good one,” before signing my program.  Then she looked up at Neil and barked, “Don’t you want one?”  It was simultaneously startling, funny, and a star move.  

     The next day we told Julie about the show and how sad that she was a widow.  Julie’s reply, as a proud native New Yorker was “So what?  She’s had a helluva career.”  That she has!

Photo Credits:
*Buena Vista Television/AP Photo
**New York Times Photo
***Michelle Siu, The Canadian Press

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