Mitch's Muszings

Actor/writer/director Mitch McGuire shares his thoughts so the public will get to know him. He hopes to please you most of the time, and never be boring. Also some history on his old theatre company, Manhattan Punch Line Theatre, Inc.

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Location: New York, NY, United States

actor, writer, producer, director, father, grandfather, husband.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

red Devil Battery Sign, Tennessee, Anthony Quinn, Clair Bloom, etc

Red Devil Battery Sign, Tennessee Williams; Anthony Quinn; Claire Bloom, Katy Jurado and Company By Mitchell McGuire In 1974 I was working part time at the now defunct Grossinger’s Bakery on Columbus Avenue in Manhattan. I was, as they say, between jobs in theatre, but really, this was a job and I was paid good American money to deliver bakery products to wealthy people, who sometimes gave me tips! On Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays I worked in the bakery itself, behind the counter with Mrs. Grossinger, who was a sweet old Jewish lady who wore a tight sweater with crumbs along the top of her large breasts. I found the job in a “real job” book Actors Equity kept which allowed members to seek work outside of theater when they were unemployed.

I was recently unemployed after having done the Sunshine Boys with Eddie Bracken in Arizona. It was the second play I’d done with Mr. Bracken and I had become almost part of the family since I was dating his daughter, artist, Carolyn Bracken. After I landed this job Eddie said to me, “I have great respect for you having taken this job at your age.” I took that as sort of a left handed compliment. I surmised that only a star like him could see it in that way. He could afford to wait for his next gig, having some money, an agent and a career. I was not in his position, but don’t get me wrong…I loved Eddie…in fact I was in love with his whole family…they were so unlike any family I was familiar with. They were happy! They hung out together; they played games together and enjoyed their home life. They certainly were not like my original family, the Fighting McGuire’s!

Well, the Bracken Family were my main event at this time…after work I often visited them in Weehawken where they lived with a beautiful view of the Manhattan Skyline, right across from the West 50’s. On weekends, after work, I would drive to see them and bring them our (the bakery’s) delicious crumb cake. They loved it and so did I. Somehow I did not gain weight during that job. I was trying to be a good boy and watched what I ate so as not to get fat and lose my leading man image I had of myself at the time.

Somewhere along the way, I got an audition for Red Devil Battery Sign, a new Broadway bound play by the great Tennessee Williams, directed by the then hot director, Ed Sherin. I’d gone to the open call at Equity and Mr. Sherin was there, surprisingly enough…having been an actor himself, he later told me, unlike most other directors, he actually attended the open calls! What a classy guy. So I got a call and met with Doris Abrahams, a producer, and she told me I had the job as understudy to the actor playing Anthony Quinn’s son, played by Steve McAddy, but I had to agree to be a second assistant stage manager, a position I had never done. But I heartily agreed to do it, of course. The cast? Anthony Quinn, Clair Bloom, Kathy Jurado! Wow! Tennessee Williams who would be at rehearsals! Wow-Wow! I thought I’d died and gone to heaven!

I was so excited I called Carolyn Bracken to tell her the good news. I heard her shout the news out to the family, and then Carolyn started laughing. Why? “Mom said, ‘Does that mean no more Crumb Cake?’” Then I laughed hard. How could you not like people like that?

The show was already in rehearsal above a store in a dance studio on Broadway in the 80’s. They had already been rehearsing when I got there. I was let in and asked to sit down and watch rehearsals which were going on rather intensely on the floor of the dance studio with Mr. Quinn and Ms. Bloom were curled up on the floor, whispering their parts quietly to each other….Folding chairs were lined up, in four rows, with various people watching. I sat down in the second row, but I couldn’t hear anything! Ed Sherin was leaning from his seat in the front row and getting as close as he could to the two stars without actually getting on the floor himself. I was dumbfounded. What was going on? Were they rehearsing it like a film where you are quietly intimate because you are miked up? It was the first of a number of puzzling things going on in this rehearsal period, and continued on when we got to Boston a month or so later. I had read the script the night before and thought it was a strange piece, but I wanted to believe it would be great after these fabulous people got their fabulous hands on it. As the day rolled on I was to meet my direct boss, the stage manager, Marnel Summer. A hell of a guy that I came to admire throughout the run without reservation. He was a miracle man in my eyes; someone who worked later than anyone else, knew everything about theatre technically and in every other way. And was a study in patience…patience for the human foibles that rained down on his head where the buck always stopped. Only now did I discover that he was an actor as well.

Me? I was depressed which surprised me. I hadn’t thought about what it would be like watching other actors working while I sat and did pretty much nothing during rehearsal. My depression carried on throughout the run…I moped. But I kept my ears open and put my memory to work remembering all the funny and not so funny things that I knew would happen during this sort of high-energy, high-expectation, high cost operation. I was not disappointed. The whispering rehearsals continued but I got familiar with the actors and the stage managers during breaks, etc. On the second day of rehearsals…well, MY second day, Tennessee turned up…with a boy of about 25. He sat in the last row of the folding seats that were placed near where Quinn and Bloom were whispering…er …rehearsing. Mr. Williams promptly got up from his seat and approached me and said in his southern twang, “Could ah have a piece of papah?” Could you?! Oh, You bet, Mr. Williams, Sir!!! I was a little overeager to please. Anyway he then retreated to the 4th row of the folding chairs but then his…friend came up to me and HE wanted a piece of paper! Well, I thought, who is writing this play, huh? I kept that thought to myself however. The rehearsal continued but then Tennessee and the boy started to laugh!? At what I was wondering? Could they actually hear anything back there or were they having fun because they could not hear so why not entertain themselves? Seemed possible to me and they indeed did continue to laugh.

The next day, rehearsals continued. During other scenes, Anthony Quinn, who was then in his 60’s, would do sit-ups on his slant board. His mouth tended to droop when not speaking so to me he looked old, but during the run he seemed to rise to the occasion. Not when he wasn’t speaking….I guess he’d done so many films that when others talked he relaxed and thought about his next line, not worrying since the “camera” was not on him! But he generated some power onstage nevertheless. One particular day, the stage manager handed me a message for Mr. Quinn, so I went up to him and, wanting to impress him with my grasp of Espanol, “A message para ti Senor Quinn!” “That’s the trouble with you Gringo’s”,.he snapped, I never addressed my mother in the familiar ‘ti’ but always; her whole life, in the respectful, ‘usted!’” “ ”Oh, para usted, Senor Quinn!” says I. Quinn was a scary guy despite his advancing age.

I was later told that there was a kick-off party that happened the first night of rehearsal (without me darn it) and at that party a group of men including Quinn were discussing the great Mexican actress, Katy Jurado, with whom Quinn had worked and had an acquaintance. The discussion was all complementary until one actor who was to play the bartender in the play said, as a joke, “Yeah, she’s pretty good…for a Mexican!” Quinn, turned on him and punched his lights out and had him fired. I was careful how I approached Senor Quinn after hearing that story.

During the ongoing rehearsals I could hear a band playing Mexican Mariachi music across the hall. Someone told me that was the practicing Mariachi band that Quinn’s character was supposed to be the leader of. This band also had to be onstage during scenes and Ed Sherin put aside one day to rehearse them. One day! The band members, most of them pit musicians, had to, at one point, walk in slow motion across the stage portraying ghostly Mariachi players. They had some…no… a lot, of trouble doing that task or pretty much anything else except how to play their instruments. Soon Ed Sherin was screaming at them, “Can’t you walk?!!!” After hours of utter frustration he turned to me, and said, “Take these guys into the other room and teach them the scenes and what they have to do!” Now I knew my future in this production was going to be a bumpy road. On another day, Ed Sherin was rehearsing with Katy Jurado. At one point she said her lines, which were “We live in Crestview by the dump heap.” Katie, having been living full time in Mexico recently and doing films there, had trouble saying words in English without her strong Mexican accent, so she pronounced the line, “We leave in Cres-biew by the dump hee-op.” Ed was trying to help her by screaming in her face over and over saying Heap! Heap!!, to which Ms Jurado would dutifully shout, Hee-op, hee-op. So they hired a dialect coach for Katie, but it really didn’t help. Later, when I studied Spanish for awhile, I realized all one had to say to Katie was, pronounce it like it is a Spanish phrase and say, “hip”, and it would sound the way Ed needed to hear it, “heap” Alas it was never said by her in a way that sounded any different from the way he had in rehearsals, but that was the least of the problems with the play.

I actually knew Katie Jurado from some years before while I was working as a desk clerk at the Beverly Carlton Hotel in Beverly Hills. She checked in one afternoon telling me that she just left her then husband, tough guy, Ernest Borgnine, and she warned me that he would be trying to get to her. That she under no circumstances would talk with him and I should know that he does dialects and could try and fool us into putting his call through. I assured her that I would be on the lookout, and I was, and Borgnnine never did get through to her. Come to think of it, I don’t think he even tried.

But Ms. Jurado loved it when I reminded her of the incident and told the rest of the cast about how I protected her. She seemed quite fond of me after that.

Soon, too soon, we found ourselves in Boston at the enormous Shubert Theatre. Claire and Quinn realized quickly that if they were to be heard in the large old theatre space they would have to stop whispering lines to each other, and oddly enough, Mr. Quinn had no trouble projecting, but Claire always sounded like she was shouting to be heard; almost screaming. It was not good.

I had seen her in a West End production of “Streetcar…” in London and had no problem hearing her, but the enormity of this theatre must have knocked her off her game. I’d gotten to know Ms. Bloom a little since she was married to Hilly Elkins, the producer, of Oh Calcutta while I was in the show. So I took and chance and reminded her that I was in the show and she pretended to know me. After chatting with her awhile, I asked her about Hilly and does it bother her that Hilly sees her holding hands with Anthony Quinn? She said, “Fuck him!” Well, okay I thought, I guess that marriage is over, and it was. Having known Hilly to be a not-nice man, who regularly tried to cheat his performers (including me) out of money they were entitled to, I was not unhappy for him.

(Years later I filed a grievance with AFTRA against his company for non payment of dough for the video version of Oh Calcutta, and we got a check after about two years for $9,000, divided between 10 actors. It was signed the day he died....)

Meanwhile I was having my challenges with the musicians, trying to get them to act with some skill. In an early scene Quinn’s character, King, the band leader, was having a fight with someone stage right. The band were standing on the bandstand, looking around at each other and chatting about wedding gigs they had coming and similar current conversations. I told them they had to look at what was happening onstage and that their boss, King, was having a fight! “So you gotta watch!” They did their best but it never really seemed to matter to them. We rehearsed the ghostly walk and realized that only a few of the band members could actually walk across the stage in slow motion while strumming dream-like cardboard instruments. So we cut down the twenty band members to four guys who could do it with some believability. But forget about the costume changes and getting them to know where their next cue was and the new costumes that had to be put on. I had to make sure they had on the correct costume, push them onstage, run downstairs while they did their ghostly walk, and rush to the other side and up the stairs to meet them when they strolled off stage, and whisper to them to put this schmatta on and go over here and enter….NOW!. It was exhausting. I know if the show had run longer they would eventually “get it” but for now, I was left showing them everything and whispering instructions backstage and shoving them out there.

All of this was hard for me to take. I was feeling like an estranged actor whom all the other actors, I thought, considered of me as just a stage manager, and not even the first, but the second assistant stage manager. I was alienated from my actor friends who were not really friends like I wanted them to be, they were over there, talking to each other, and I was over here, moping. Plus when rehearsals were over for them, the work for the stage managers and the director and the stars were just starting. We’d have meetings…every night! Late into the evening, yet! The meetings would go on and on….they were trying to save the show, and I was certainly in favor of that but still….I was unhappy. Now when I look back it all seems to shimmer with the rosy glow of memory. But then…no, not then.

One night, we were in one of those meetings and Ed Sherin wanted to work on a scene with Anthony and Claire. Quinn said, "We are supposed to have dinner with David Merrick but….” He looked at me and then said, “Call David Merrick at the Ritz Carlton, and tell him we’re going to be a little late and ask him to order our dinners from Room Service!” “Okay,” says I, “What do you want to eat?” They gave me their order and I quietly wondered why he didn’t tell me to call Room Service? Why do I have to call Merrick and have him slam the phone down and say, “Whadda ya think I am, a waiter!?” “Oh well,” I thought, “I better do as I am told…” You learn these things when you become a small functionary in a large Broadway effort. “Hello,” said Mr. Merrick, in his most bossy tone….I was tentative, but I told him what Quinn said, you know, “Could you order dinner for them from Room Service?” I held the phone a bit away from my ear to protect it from the shouting that I was sure would ensue, but he hesitated a little, as if he too wondered what to do, and then he said, “Okay, what do they want?” I said, “Two steaks, medium rare, baked potatoes, sour cream on the side, etc…” He took the whole order! I kind of celebrated on my having turned David Merrick into a waiter for one night. Just like all those unemployed actors. Ha!

On one particular night during the brief run we heard that we were all invited after the performance to go to a Greek nightclub nearby as guests of Anthony Quinn, whom they wanted to salute. So we, all 75 of us, went after the show to this Greek club that was two stories and had two story speakers that were blasting Greek music and was packed to the rafters with customers who all seemed to know that Quinn was there! They sat us at a huge long table on the ground floor right in front of their stage with the gigantic speakers on either side. While the music played on we ate like kings and queens, and had all the Oozo we wanted. We noticed that Quinn was seated next to a woman whom we found out, was his wife visiting from Rome. Way down at the other end of the enormous long table sat Clair Bloom, sitting where the “techies” sat, obviously wanting to stay out of Quinn's wife's gaze. This appartehtly did not set well with “Tony” Quinn, who suddenly shouted out for all to hear, “Hey Clair, come on down here!” So she got up tentatively and walked the length of the table sat across from Quinn and his wife from Rome. We all got a kick out of that, all except Claire of course. When Quinn finished eating he decided to go up on stage and thank everyone. He got up to the stage and picked up a mike as the music finally died. He said, "Thank you!" and then said, “As you know, I’m Greek!” The audience roared approval, but Katie Jurado suddenly jumped up from her chair, grabbed the mike out of Quinn’s hand and said, “He ease not a Greek! He ease Mexican and we are berry proud of heem, and he’s a leetle Irish too, but he ease not a Greek!” Then she sat down. Quinn did not miss a beat and said, “Well that’s true, but in my heart I am a Greek!!!” The place went wild and the dance music from the film Zorba started and Quinn did his Greek dance thing….it was really quite thrilling and the crowd was jubilant.

In the rehearsal the next day Quinn said, “I hope I didn’t make a fool of myself last night.” Before anyone else could answer I jumped in and said emphatically, “No, you were great!” And except for forcing Claire to sit opposite the woman who was married to her lover, he was. The reviews came in the next day and it was not nice. I can’t find the review so all I can tell you is that they hated it and said so.

That afternoon a meeting was called and we assemble in the lower lobby of the Shubert, near where the bathrooms are located, which came to seem appropriate. It was announced that the show was going to post the closing notice but Sherin wanted us to know that he was still trying to save it. Re-writes would come in, etc. Quinn spoke up and said he never reads reviews and advised us to do the same. “It only ruins your performance!” he said, or words to that effect. Then another person started talking and while that was occurring, Quinn got up from his seat and whispered into the ear of the attractive blond woman who was Claire Bloom’s understudy. I asked the woman later what Quinn had said, and she informed me that, “He wanted to know if I had the review so he could read it.” I laughed at the time, but it led to an unfortunate event.

Claire, who had been in good health all along and seemed so, even on the morning of that meeting, called in sick at about 11AM and said she could not go on! Now we must remember that there were NO understudy rehearsals at all! This was a panic event in the theatre. The understudy was notified and the cast was assembled and rehearsed for a couple of hours, and she went on and was, well, flawless, in terms of lines, which was incredible to me. Her star appeal was missing and there was a kind of underwater flavor to her acting, as it does when the actor is searching her memory for the next line, but the show went on. Now I can’t swear that Claire was just getting even for this woman causing Claire to be jealous, but that is certainly what everyone else in the cast thought.

A day later rehearsals were called to work on a scene that Sherin thought needed a rewrite and had asked Williams, who had fled to New York as soon as the bad reviews came in and closing notice was posted. Williams agreed to rewrite the scene and would be sending it by plane to Boston. In the scene as it was, King (Quinn) had passed out in a drug store (he had a brain tumor, you see.) and King had called Claire and while he was on the phone, passed out. She wanted to go to him, but the only person who knew where King was, was the Conga Drum player from the orchestra, who, it had been established, wanted to get into her panties. We waited patiently for the rewrites while the actors sat around on stage too, waiting for the "improved" scene. It arrived, not soon, but it arrived. Clair got her copy and the Conga Drummer got his, and they scene called for them to be in a Taxi on the way to the drug store where King lay unconscious. They started reading it aloud and we were all stunned. It read, in part: Drummer: Get in the cab, bitch! Pedro! (he is shouting to an unseen driver) Bueno, (to Claire) In! Quick! I have gotten the address for you in Crestview! (He thrusts her violently forward: Sound of a car door slamming.) (Lights flickering, represent the rapid motion of the cab.) Claire: Driver, stop, stop! I am the wife of the Red Devil Battery Man! I am being abducted! Let me out, out I said, out, I will pay you… Drummer: (Overlapping) He’s already been paid better than you can pay him! OK, Pedro, stop! Now head, I want head, give me head! You like that, you want that, give it! Claire: You disgusting….can’t you see that I have my teeth in my mouth, you disgusting- Drummer: Yeah, then open your legs! OPEN! LEGS! (She screams as he forces her legs to open. Lights dim.) Then I take you to your drugstore in Crestview… (Blackout)

Reading this now, it doesn’t strike me as shocking as it seemed at the time….at any rate, Sherin decided the new scene was not ready for prime time, and we went ahead and did the play without the new scene, and used the existing one instead. Soon our two weeks run was over and the run ended on a Sunday. As the cast was standing around backstage I ran into Anthony Quinn who was standing stage right looking sour. He saw me and said, “Are you ready to go on?” I was shocked and said, “No, I haven’t even had a rehearsal, why?” “Aw, I hate that Steve McAddy!” The final show went on without me as Quinn’s son, and that was fine by me.

The play closed and everyone went their separate ways, as they always do at the end of a love affair or a play production. I eventually broke up with Carolyn; not because of anything she'd said or done, but because I had to take care of my inner angst due to my previous failed marriage(s) and I holed up in my apartment and tried to find some sense of self in all this past turmoil. Eventually I met my current wife and had two more beautiful children, Katie and Brendan.

Years later, as I was taking my then young children to a park on the far East Side of Manhattan, I saw Anthony Quinn with a young woman whom he introduced as his wife. I found out later that she was someone who worked for him, and he married her after getting divorced from his wife in Rome. This child-bride glowered at me, but Quinn was interested in talking to me and I to him. I told him many, but not all, of the stories I now tell you, and he was delighted and we had some good laughs together. When I finally left he asked me how he could get a hold of me, and I gave him my phone number on a matchbook cover. I never heard from him, and he passed away sometime after that. Over the years I came to appreciate the effort, sweat and tears that went into the play, but nothing could top my personal experience during Red Devil Battery Sign.



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