Sunday, June 3, 2007

Starving Actor

I used to work on Auto Shows for General Motors. These shows would feature sets that would be shipped from town to town. An advance man would be sent out to supervise the assembly of the exhibit space and prepare the display for opening night.

My favorite was a white haired New Yorker named John. He was a lighting technician on Broadway starting in the mid-1950's. He lit Bells Are Ringing for Judy Holliday, one of my personal icons. And he had GREAT theater stories, both past and current. It was John that convinced me to see Angels In America on one of my Easter trips to Manhattan. He was a very friendly and gregarious guy.

It seems that in the late 1950's, John had just gotten married to a beautiful Rockette named Lynn. They had a small apartment in New York, and not unlike other Theatrical couples of the day, they had a starving actor living on their living room floor. John described him as a hilarious young comic actor who was struggling to find his big break, the one that would make him a household name. Unlike so many others, he did find his. A small part in Bye Bye Birdie led to a much better role in How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and a Tony Award. The actor found when he went to register his name that someone already had done so, and thus he was compelled to register his full name: Charles Nelson Reilly.

I had dinner with CNR in 1995. We were setting up the LA Auto Show. I picked up the telephone and an unmistakable voice asked for John. "Tell him it's Charles", he said. He needn't have, there was no doubt who it was. John invited me to join them at the Daily Grill. We were waiting in the lobby for him when an ancient brown Mercedes with CNR plates pulled up. Within moments, I realized that the wacky television persona was not a part, it was Charles. Dinner was like being on the set of Match Game, albeit with cocktails and warm bread.

The pattern was thus: John would tell a story, and Charles would edit. "Charles is from Hartford", John said. "You mean Paris", Charles interjected. "Paris sounds soooo much better".
And on it went- an evening spent with two old friends, one of whom happened to be an icon in the television of my childhood. And one of only two openly gay people this boy from Southern Lower Michigan had ready access to for many years. Charles and Paul Lynde were about the only role models I had. Which might, in fact, explain a lot.

Here's to you, Charles. Thanks for everything.

1 comment:

BigAssBelle said...

it's funny that i didn't really think about him being gay back in the day, though i was aware of it. it just seemed that he was marvelous and funny and different in a great way. big loss.