“FAME” – The Real Story Behind the Scenes…

FAME 2009 the movie failed to live up to the original FAME of 1980, and the TV show that followed, but I figure it’s time to reprint my PARADE article in 1982 on the real-life “Fame School” — the High School of Performing Arts in New York City.
Parade Magazine - Aug 22, 1982
FAME – The Real Story
PARADE – August 22, 1982
By Hank Whittemore

“I want to live forever . . . Baby, remember my name!”

Those words are from the theme song of the movie Fame. They sum up Hollywood’s version of what drives the students at the prestigious School of Performing Arts in New York City, which inspired the film and the TV series that followed it.  In both, talented young actors, singers. dancers and musicians are portrayed as having little else on their minds except seeing their names in lights.

In reality, though they may arrive as freshmen with stars in their eyes and “remember my name” in their ears, that ego trip ends when they walk through the door. The message turns out to be entirely different.  The six hundred students at “P.A.” – as they affectionately call their unique public high school – regard celebrity as an elusive, fleeting and even unworthy goal.

Their talk spills over with words like achievement, commitment, integrity, quality, respect, work.  One word that almost never comes up is fame.

“The TV series doesn’t truthfully portray what kind of people we are,” says Oliver Barreiro, a junior in the drama department. “They make it seem as if everything is a playground. with singing and dancing on top of cars.”

“They don’t show the commitment needed to work in this school,” adds Caren Messing, another acting student. “They’re very result-oriented.  All you see are these musical numbers, with kids performing all the time. But we deal with the process and the practice.”

The film did capture the highly competitive audition process required for admission – out of about 4500 annual applicants, only 200 new students are accepted – and the school’s balanced racial mix.  “This is a school where black kids, white kids, Puerto Rican kids, yellow kids and all the others come together to be liberated,” says Jerry Eskow, chairman of the drama department. “In a real sense, they are all breaking out of their individual
ghettos.”

Erica Gimpel

One of the graduates this year is Erica Gimpel, who took time off to play the leading role of Coco Hernandez in the Fame TV series. In a press release, MGM Television speaks of Coco’s “consuming hunger for success.”  She “knows she’s bound for stardom and fame,” it adds. “It’s just a matter of when it will happen. Her choice is tomorrow … or sooner!”

The real Miss Gimpel is a serious acting student – not a dancer like Coco – and she could hardly wait to get back from Hollywood to continue her work at P.A.  There she is treated as an equal, not as a celebrity. “Erica came back to school to find the reality,” Eskow says.  He adds that, like her classmates who regularly watch her on Fame, “she understands the difference and feels just as strongly about work as they do.”

Erica Gimpel

For Gene Anthony Ray, who played the role of Leroy Jobnson – a streetwise, resentful black dancer – in both movie and series, the difference between Hollywood and reality is perhaps more ironic. Ray had been a Performing Arts student, but he left the school without completing its program.  In the screen version, however, Leroy is kept on and even treated as a special case.

“Now, that’s really unrealistic,” says Corinth Booker, a young black student and, like Leroy, a dancer. “And on the series, nobody wants to get on Leroy’s bad side because he’s so talented.  Here, there’s just no kind of favoritism like that. Leroy gets away with being very stubborn and selfish, and he argues with teachers – like, ‘Are you telling me what I should do?’  That’s not the way it is.”

Gene Anthony Ray died of a stroke at age 41 in 2003

As head of the P.A. dance department, Lydia Joel resembles a strict but caring aunt. Her lecture to freshman dancers comes right to the point “This is an absolutely undemocratic situation you face. You have no rights here. Your only right is to come to class and be wonderful. You can’t protest, you can’t be absent, you can only work. If you are aspiring to work on the professional level, there is only quality, quality, quality.  And we will help you be wonderful.”

“Dancing is an extraordinary human endeavor,” Joel tells her students.  “We can try to find flexible bodies, vitality, response to instruction and the potential for achievement, but what we really can’t judge is your motivation. It’s like a little flame that burns inside of you.  And no matter how much you want to be a big star, it won’t work if that fire doesn’t burn strongly enough to give you the patience and dedication you need. You must give your entire self in an act of faith.  If you have any sort of resentment or lack of clarity, you will find heartbreak.  But if you manage to live through four years of this
demand upon your inner self, your life will be literally changed.”

The original FAME poster - 1980

The students say that Hollywood’s depiction of competitiveness among them is unrealistic.  “It seems like everyone is scratching their eyes out to beat each other out,” Oliver Barreiro says, “but that is just the opposite of how it works here. We don’t talk about each other behind our backs. We work together, all striving for the same thing.”

In a city loaded with crime, drugs and other problems involving teenagers, P.A. students insist that drug usage is far less here than at other high schools. “They have real respect for their bodies,” says Fred Wile, P.A.’s guidance counselor.  “Just as you can’t be twenty pounds overweight and function as a dancer, you certainly can’t play Beethoven while you’re stoned on drugs.”

Long before Fame the movie brought Performing Arts into the national limelight, the school was known among professionals as the alma mater of such stars as Al Pacino, Lisa Minnelli, Ben Vereen, Melissa Manchester and the late Freddie Prinze. And to most of its illustrious graduates, the school is something very special. “I tell my freshmen students to go out and interview an actor or director,” Jerry Eskow says, “to find out what they feel is important.  And even the biggest stars will talk to a kid from Performing Arts.”

The FAME Television Show

Dustin Hoffman, Eskow recalls, was approached one time by a fourteen-year-old girl from the  drama department. “Could you give me an interview?” she asked.

“No time,” Hoffman said.

“I’m from the School of Performing Arts.”

“Oh!  Well, listen,” Hoffman replied, “I can’t do it now, but why don’t you come to my home tomorrow morning?”

When she arrived, Hoffman was still asleep, but he roused himself for the interview.  The girl couldn’t get her tape recorder to work and started to cry. Hoffman helped her with the machine and even conducted the first half of the interview by asking himself questions until she overcame her shyness.

Another student approached George C. Scott at a time when the actor was refusing to talk to the press.  As Scott emerged from a lobby in Lincoln Center, the young man tried to get his attention.

“What the hell do you want?” Scott roared in his familiar gruff voice.

“I’m from the School of Performing Arts.”

“Come on,” Scott barked, grabbing the student by the arm and marching him across the street to a drugstore.  “Sit down,” he said, ordered coffee for them both and launched into a forty-minute interview as if it were the most important thing in the world.

Which, of course, it often is. The youngsters are being asked to look deep within themselves and come up by age seventeen with answers to the questions:  “Do I have what it takes?  Should I make this my whole life?”

“Talent is all around us,” Eskow says, “but the trick is to identify it and then help the students to see themselves as talented entities rather than as street kids.”

“Most schools see a student as an empty vessel to fill with knowledge,” he explains.  “We believe that these kids are the reverse. You go to a medical school and come out a doctor.  Here, the actor or dancer or musician already exists, and our job is to peel away the layers preventing that professional from emerging.”

At 6 a.m. on weekdays, dance student Corinth Booker wakes up in Harlem, does his chores, takes his little sister to a babysitter’s apartment and then rides the crowded subway down to the very different world of Performing Arts. He attends his classes, goes through muscle-numbing practice sessions, takes more dance classes on the side and works as a busboy three nights a week.  He has his chance, yet he knows time is already running out.

“They want these young dancers out there,” says student Terri Hall. “It’s like, if you’re twenty, you’re old! I mean, at sixteen, I’m halfway over.  I’m really so unsure about what want now.  If I went to college, I wouldn’t major in dance because the level isn’t high enough.  Should I stay in New York when I graduate?  On the Fame series, you never see any of the characters going through these changes.”

Henry Rinehart, also sixteen, says he has lost his adolescence by having had to make his own way in the city while studying acting at P.A. His parents are separated, so he lives at another student’s apartment and copes on his own. “I’m supposed to be a teenager growing up.” he reflects, “but I look at myself and find that I’ve already done it.”

The reality, Henry says, is learning about failure:  “They tell us, ‘If you’re going to fail, do it here and go all the way.  Fail big!’  Because you learn so much from having to pick yourself up and go on.  In deciding whether to continue as performers, we’re really experiencing how to face life.”

Nina LoMonaco, seventeen, is another part of the reality, practicing her French horn on the staircase, blowing it so loudly that the paint starts chipping and falling down all around her.  While other young people are off having a good time, she studies and practices hour after hour.  She says she often wonders: “My God, am I making the biggest mistake of my life?  What am I doing this for?”

Should Nina skip regular college and try to become one of the best musicians in the country?  “I can understand people getting discouraged,” she says, “but that’s fine because it’ll mean less competition for me.  I’m going to reach as high as I can, and if I don’t make it, that’s my problem.  But I have to take this chance.  Now.”

Is the punishing life of a dancer the only way Corinth Booker can break out of Harlem and the urban jungle?  How will Henry Rinehart know, really, if he has what it takes to be a professional actor?  Does Terri Hall honestly want the life of a dancer to the exclusion of so much else?

In the real world, these youngsters are at the edge of adolescence, looking out at an unclear future. Yet they have to make decisions about leaping into it. They’re seeking an answer – some sort of message that will make them decide one way or another.

For Lydia Joel, the answer comes every day.  As we sit in the tiny office from which she runs the dance department, the pounding of a practice piano underscores the sound of dancers practicing in a studio two floors above. In another room, a student orchestra plays.  Down the hall, some acting students rehearse a scene from Euripides.

“These kids are beautiful in the right sense of the word,” Lydia Joel says. “The sounds of this school are the sounds of involvement.”

Then she picks up a postcard from a former dance student:  “I would like to thank you for recommending me. I did very well at the audition and in made it to the last 15 out of 300 girls.  But nothing came of it. Well, maybe next time.  I’m not going to give up. I love it too much.”

She puts down the postcard.  She sighs.  “One very beautiful girl who was doing quite well came to me last year and told me she’d decided to become a nurse instead of a dancer.  The flame inside her burned toward nursing. But here,” she points to the postcard, “the flame is toward the dance as a way of life.  That’s how it burns.”

Flame – not fame – is the message.

///////////

Fame TV Show Cast:
Debbie Allen .…………. Lydia Grant
Gene Anthony Ray ………. Leroy Johnson
Carlo Imperato ………… Danny Amatullo
Albert Hague ………….. Mr. Benjamin Shorofsky
Ann Nelson ……………. Mrs. Gertrude Berg
Carol Mayo Jenkins …….. Elizabeth Sherwood (1982-1986)
Billy Hufsey ………….. Christopher Donlon (1983-1987)
Valerie Landsburg ……… Doris Rene Schwartz (1982-1985)
Bronwyn Thomas ………… Michelle (1982-1985)
Cynthia Gibb ………….. Holly Laird (1983-1986)
Jesse Borrego …………. Jesse V. Valesquez (1984-1987)
Nia Peeples …………… Nicole Chapman (1984-1987)
Lee Curreri …………… Bruno Martelli (1982-1984)
Morgan Stevens ………… David Reardon (1982-1984)
Ken Swofford ………….. Quentin Morloch (1983-1985)
Loretta Chandler ………. Dusty Tyler (1985-1987)
Graham Jarvis …………. Mr. Bob Dyrenforth (1985-1987)
Dick Miller …………… Mr. Lou Mackie (1985-1987)
Lori Singer …………… Julie Miller (1982-1983)
Erica Gimpel .………Coco Hernandez (1982-1983)
Dave Shelley ………….. Caruso (1983-1984)
Janet Jackson …………. Cleo Hewitt (1984-1985)
Page Hannah …………… Kate Riley (1985-1986)
Olivia Barash …………. Maxie (1986-1987)
Michael Cerveris ………. Ian Ware (1986-1987)
Eric Pierpoint ………… Jack (1986-1987)
Carrie Hamilton ……….. Reggie Higgins (1986-1987)
Elisa Heinsohn ………… Jillian Beckett (1986-1987)
P.R. Paul …………….. Montgomery MacNeil (1982)

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My Brother Jim & I – A Story About Bowling … and Much More

Here is one of my all-time favorites among the articles I wrote for PARADE from the mid-1970’s until the mid-1990’s.  There’s no need for me to explain up front; I think it speaks for itself:

Two brothers renew a family bond and make a discovery
A POCKETFUL OF DREAMS
PARADE – September 15, 1985

My brother Jim and I have seen ourselves through many good and bad times by going out to the alleys. When one of us feels high or low, the other might say, “Let’s go rolling.” Pretty soon we’re bowling as if our lives depended on getting strikes or spares.

To explain, first I should mention Grosso’s Alleys. This was a worn-out, ancient bowling establishment in my hometown of Larchmont. N.Y. I used to go there with my grade-school friends on weekends. Jim was still too young to bowl, but he knew that I went there often. He knew I went rolling even in the summertime, when other kids were outside at the beach or playing ball. He figured there must be something special and even magical about the place.

Grosso’s Alleys was up a flight of old wooden stairs, above a row of stores. To me, it was a second home. I thought of Mr. and Mrs. Grosso as another set of grandparents. It was still the ‘50s, and in those days the alleys had no computers or pin-setting machines, so we had to keep score and have the pins set by hand. When my friends and I bowled, we acted as  pin boys for each other.

Pin Boys - We used to get a quarter per game!

We became acquainted there with the men who made a living by setting pins. They earned a quarter a game. When all twelve alleys were filled with league bowlers, Mr. and Mrs. Grosso often allowed us kids to work as pin-setters too. That was my first real job. It felt good to be sweating down in the alley pits with the grown men and to be making my own money – which I usually spent on more bowling.

In the fifth grade, I rolled a 207, thanks to an older boy who taught me how to throw a pretty fair hook.  One Saturday morning, my Dad and I won a father-son tournament.  It gave us a new feeling of closeness. We brought home a trophy in the form of a bowling pin crudely painted red, blue and yellow to resemble a doll.

My brother took that weird-looking trophy into his hands. He stared at it with an expression of awe. I knew right then that before long he, too, would be rolling.

Now, there's a nice hook for you -- spinning its way off the edge of the gutter before heading for the pocket!

By the time I was in high school. Grosso’s Alleys was designated a fire hazard and closed down.  Meanwhile, a new, modern bowling establishment was built nearby. Lots of us would go there to roll and play the pinball machines and hang around with the girls. In fact, it was at the new alleys that I met my steady girlfriend, whom I eventually married.

I was on the varsity bowling team. The five of us wore glossy orange shirts with our school initials printed in black. Each week, we went to a new set of alleys to roll against a team from a different high school. There were no cheerleaders, no spectators. It definitely wasn’t a glamour sport.

One of the great feelings you can have -- rolling into the pocket for a perfect strike!

At the same time, off somewhere by himself, Jim was rolling and perfecting his game. He was catching up with me. When I went away to college, he wrote to say that he’d bowled a 253.  That, I had to admit, was a family record.

When I was back in town as a married man with a newspaper job, occasionally Jim would call and say, “Want to go rolling tonight?”  For us, bowling was a way of staying in touch. It gave us a lot of laughs. The time I flung a ball and ripped the seat of my pants up the middle, I thought he’d die.

It also gave us a chance to talk and express our visions of the future. He and his girlfriend were going to get married, Jim said, and then he and I both would have families. We would grow old together as brothers, fathers and uncles, watching our children and grandchildren share their lives and even bowl together. That was one of his dreams.

While rolling we competed, but not really against each other. What we were doing was “searching for the pocket.” We meant trying to find the exact spot to hit on the first throw, so all ten pins would go down for a strike.

We taught each other that finding the pocket is an elusive goal. If you try too hard you lose it. You have to throw the ball out toward the gutter, so it has room to curve back in.  You have to let go and not be afraid and trust your natural hook.  You can’t force the destiny of the ball by aiming directly into the pocket.

Sitting up in back there, you had to watch out for flying pins...

Even if you do find it once – getting a strike – the important thing is to do it again. And again.  And again.  Any triumph is only fleeting at best. It quickly recedes into the past, and you are faced with ten more pins all over. We decided that bowling, by itself, means very little. What counts is how you bring yourself to the game. What matters is not how good or bad your previous try was, but viewing each new roll as the first, last and only one.

We knew without saying it that the lonely concentration and persistence required by bowling has something to do with what’s required by life.

And, in fact, life took over.

My brother went off to the Navy and Subic Bay...

When the Vietnam War started building up, my brother joined the Navy. He went to the Philippine Islands and was stationed on the base at Subic Bay. We wrote back and forth all the time, and the tone of his letters grew increasingly bitter.

He was always under the threat of being shipped over to “Nam,” but what made him angry was the thought that he’d been abandoned by people at home. He imagined that all of his friends in the States were growing their hair long, using drugs and protesting against the war.  He was several thousand miles away, trapped in his uniform. He felt misunderstood and cut off.

My brother's not in this picture, but I'm sure he sat at one of those tables with a very similar bunch of guys ...

Jim wasn’t alone in that feeling.  Just about every week, one of the guys in his barracks would receive a painful “Dear John” letter from a girlfriend, telling of her decision to break off the romance. In the minds of the guys in the barracks, all the girls back home were wearing beads and becoming hippies; and. in their worst midnight fantasies, all were sporting T-shirts either denouncing the military or advertising free love.

My brother tried to cheer up his buddies by holding a ‘Dear John” contest. The winner would be the guy who received a letter using the most original excuse for dumping him: “Dear John. I’ll al ways love you, but I’ve become a different person, and you wouldn’t know me anymore, so…”

The standings in that contest kept fluctuating with the incoming tides of mail. No one, however, could top the experience of the guy who received a copy of his hometown newspaper and discovered a photograph of his fiancée in a bridal gown, taken after her wedding to someone else.

Eventually Jim, too, got a “Dear John” letter.  It was from that girl he had planned to marry. He’d felt it was coming.  Now he went into a rage and took action – for himself and for his Navy pals.

Subic Bay

What he did was form a bowling team. He took four volunteers from the barracks and told them, “I don’t care what it takes – we’re going to beat every team on the base!”

None of his recruits was a great roller. A few had never even bowled before. It didn’t matter. My brother channeled all his fury and pain into this bunch of fledglings. He took his nervous, skeptical players onto the alleys and drilled them in practice. He cajoled and inspired them. Once, to make them see that anything was possible, he lobbed the ball over to an adjacent alley and made a strike for another bowler. His amazed teammates roared with delight. For a while, they even forgot the girls back home.

Jim and his four colleagues entered formal competition on the base. With the concentration and persistence that bowling requires, he rolled up terrific scores. His fellow players continually surprised themselves, week after week, spurred on by a wild cheering section made up of the other guys from their barracks. In the Navy on the Philippines, bowling had been turned into a glamour sport.

Subic Bay Naval Station

Jim’s team got into the finals. In the championship match, they went up against five officers whose scoring average – not to mention rank – was much higher.  It started off as a lopsided contest, but in the end my brother and his motley band of bowlers prevailed. Their barracks mates erupted onto the alley as if the World Series had just been won.

In his letter to me, Jim described the triumph and added, “Wish you’d been here.”

After returning home, Jim looked back on his experience in the Navy with mixed emotions.  He had used bowling to help him and his friends survive the long period away from home, but he also found it hard to forget the feeling of having been abandoned by people in the States.

And he couldn’t really get over that “Dear John” letter he’d received from his girlfriend. He did get married, to someone else, but the marriage ended in divorce.

My brother Jim Whittemore (the handsome guy at left) became a great success in the real estate business in Westchester County -- here in an earlier stage of his career, with former partner Emmy Lou Sleeper at right

By now, we were leading very different lives. He was in real estate, I was an author. We still got together and talked a lot and shared our feelings, but we lived in separate worlds. And we didn’t bowl.

By the fall of 1982, my marriage of nearly 20 years was over.  I joined my brother in the ranks of divorced men and found myself in a daze and feeling low. I couldn’t start up my life again. When Jim invited me into his home, I accepted with a shrug. He gave me a room upstairs and left me alone. He asked no questions. He watched me mope around and heard me blame myself for being a failure.

Several weeks of this went by. On a Saturday, Jim announced that we were going to a sporting goods store. When I asked why, he said nothing and drove to town. Inside the store, I followed him to the counter.

“We want to buy a couple of bowling balls,” he told the sales clerk. “With ball bags.  And we need some bowling shoes.”

“This is crazy,” I told him as the balls were fitted to the size of our hands, “The last thing I want to do is bowl. I hate that stupid game.”

A few days later, we were on the alleys. This was the first time in our lives that we had our own equipment. We took our new bowling balls out of our new bowling bags and put on our new bowling shoes. We started to roll.

My younger brother, who used to look with awe at my trophy from Grosso’s Alleys, beat me soundly game after game, showing no mercy. I kicked the ball- return rack.  I sent my new ball flying so hard that it slammed into the pin-setting machine. I snarled at a kid, just because he was staring at me. Through it all, Jim pretended not to notice and just kept knocking down more pins.

After that, we bowled each week with the same results – until, at some point, all my frustration seemed so useless that I finally let go and relaxed.  I created a mental picture of the ball’s journey into the pocket, but otherwise I forgot my tension and simply rolled as if each new shot were the first, last and only one. Soon my game progressed, and I started catching up with him – the way, long ago, he’d caught up with me.

One day, up in his guest room, without realizing why, I began packing my bags. I walked down the stairs and announced to Jim that I would be going off on my own. He didn’t seem surprised.  I thanked him for the room and explained that I’d stopped living in the past and that it was time to get on with the rest of my life.

As we stood facing each other at the front door, I knew he was thinking about those old dreams of the future and about how the future, which was here, hadn’t become exactly what either of us had envisioned. He blinked tears from his eyes.

“I guess,” he said, “were still searching for the pocket.”

“We’ll never stop,” I said. “And we’ll find it, too.”

We stared at each other until, slowly, he forced a smile.

“Listen,” my brother said as I turned to go, “if you don’t mind, I’ll keep your ball right here in my closet, and whenever you stop by, if we feel in the mood, we’ll – ”

“Of course,” I said.

We hugged.

Of course, Jim – we’ll go rolling.

Sean Griffin of Seattle – The Actor’s Actor!

When the rave reviews appeared earlier this year for Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer at Seattle Repertory Theater, I was not surprised to read that among the actors on stage “the real show-stealer, stumbling about, spitting out curses in his charming brogue,” was my old friend Sean Griffin, whom I had met for the first time during our college days at the University of Notre Dame.

Sean Griffin (left) in "The Seafarer" at Seattle Rep - Feb/March 2009

To put it simply, he is one of the best actors of his generation.  The man is an actor’s actor, a guy who loves to work, and he’s continued to work for nearly four decades. Sean has appeared on Broadway and on the most prestigious regional stages across the country, in countless roles, and he’s played dozens of parts on film and television, not to mention commercials and voice-overs.

Back in the 1980’s I had the good fortune to be able to write an article about Sean that appeared in PARADE magazine; and I’d like to share it with you here:

SO YOU WANT TO BE AN ACTOR
By Hank Whittemore
PARADE – June 7, 1987

“I was born in Limerick, Ireland, where we spoke only Gaelic in school. In 1956, when I was thirteen, my family took the boat over to the United States. Then we took the train out to Indiana and rented a small house in South Bend. My father became a night watchman in a ball-bearing factory.

“It was difficult being in a new country. The only Irish kid in school, and I still had a heavy brogue. I was picked on because I was different, an outsider. Had to learn to defend myself.

“I worked my way through high school. Cleaned floors, washed blackboards, sold soft drinks at lunchtime. Studied hard, got good grades. Won a four-year business scholarship to the University of Notre Dame, there in South Bend.

“My picture got in the paper.  A story about the night watchman’s son getting a great scholarship, which was the only way he could go to college. At the high school, some of the guys came after me. They were angry at ‘this foreigner come taking stuff that should be ours.’  Pinned me to the ground with a baseball bat across my neck.”

Sean Griffin and I met in 1961 at Notre Dame, where we were acting in plays at the University Theater.  His brogue still limited his range of roles.  He played, I recall, the court jester in Hamlet and a crewman in Billy Budd.  He was not regarded as a leading man.

Yet I could sense, even then, a curious blend of fire and poetry in his soul. I did not know then that he was still struggling to break free of the stereotype as a “foreigner” and to find his own identity.

The way Sean expressed his real feelings was by appearing in front of an audience, disguised as someone else. Only then, playing a role in a world of illusion, would he begin to expose the stormy emotions inside him.

“One of the things I love about theater,” he once told me, “is coming out onto the empty stage after a show.  It’s a strange, lonely feeling.  But a good one.

“Acting has to be a very lonely profession.  You can be onstage with live other people, but you’re still alone in some way.  It’s as if you’re stripped naked.  It’s frightening, but at the same time you get this feeling of exhilaration.”

Sean and! became friends.  One time I asked if he wanted to be a professional actor.  Sean laughed.  “Are you crazy?” he replied.  “Do you know what kind of life that would be?”

Nearly twenty years later, I was walking by a Broadway theater in New York City one night, when a large photograph of the cast caught my attention. There, among the other actors, was the familiar face of Sean Griffin.  My God, I thought, has Sean been an actor all these years?  He’s on Broadway!

The stage door opened and Sean and I stood facing each other for the first time in two decades.

Sean Griffin

He was basically unchanged, although his brogue was gone. I was startled to learn that he had appeared on Broadway three other times. And that he had acted in popular TV shows such as Starsky and Hutch, Barnaby Jones, Columbo and a string of daytime soap operas.

“From the beginning,” he said,  “I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.  I just kept working and learning.  Just tried to get better at what I was doing.”

As Sean spoke, he revealed how tough it had been to survive as an actor. He had waited on tables, made the rounds of casting agents and auditions, faced rejection over and over. And yet, because of his past, the idea of quitting never occurred to him.

“I was married for seven years,” he told me, “but all the ups and downs took their toll on my family life.  Rehearsing, traveling, often gone for months. Marriage is difficult enough, but when you’re separated so much…”

A few years ago, Sean decided to return to regional theaters, where he has appeared in one play after another. “The important thing for me is to be working,” he explained one night.  “Eighty-five per cent of the actors in New York and Hollywood are unemployed.  The top people make millions but, on average, an actor’s yearly income is $4000.  Maybe less.”

Sean has steadily earned his living by living steadily out of a suitcase, making at best about $14,000 a year.  In 1985, he toured with Cyrano de Bergerac to 47 towns and cities.  That fall, Sean performed in South Bend, where his parents still live.  I flew out there and joined him.

We visited the Notre Dame Theater Department, where Sean – their “returning hero”- told the students:  “If you don’t have the drive, forget it. You need a bit of healthy insanity. If you don’t have that, do something else.”

I joined Sean at his parents’ house for a family meal.  Amid the good-natured irreverence and laughter, I began to realize that here was the real secret inside Sean.  Here was his wellspring of love and warmth and support.

Cyrano is about an uncomely man who is mocked and scorned. But inside, this is no ordinary man. He has, within him, that “bit of healthy insanity” and, by the end of the play, he also embodies the highest ideals of love, courage, integrity and the magnificent possibilities of the human spirit.

Sean played LeBret, the only man who understands Cyrano.  At one point, he was left alone onstage, standing midway up a giant staircase.  His gaze swept the South Bend audience until he seemed to be staring directly at his father and mother, sending them a silent message:

“I’ve gone a long way, to come back on my own terms. Thank you for understanding. I’m home up here. This is who I am.”

===============

Sean Griffin (Photo by Wendy Hickok)

Sean lives in Seattle (where he’s also a recognized artist as a painter!) with his wonderful wife Bernadine (Bernie) C. Griffin, who is currently Director of Theater Advancement and Development at the historic 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle (and, so I hear, soon to be the new Managing Director).

Here’s from of another rave review of Sean in The Seafarer:

“You could feel it. Sometimes the audience just want a play to end so they can get out of there.  Last night the audience wanted the play to end for an entirely different reason.  They wanted to applaud the hell out of Sean G Griffin.  The rest of the cast were pretty good too but Griffin as irascible old codger, Richard Harkin, dominated the stage from start to finish … Prost Amerika has reviewed many shows at the Rep but can honestly say that Griffin’s portrayal of Richard Harkin was the most dominating single performance we have seen here.”

Keep up the great work, Sean!

(Photo by Wendy Hickok)

The Heroes Among Us – And the Meaning of Courage – On the Anniversary of Pearl Harbor

The upcoming anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 reminded me of an essay I wrote for PARADE in final month of 1979, as the decade of the Seventies was ending and we were still trying to recover from Vietnam. The essay was based on my attendance at a gathering of recipients of the Medal of Honor and it revolved around the meaning of courage.  I think its message holds just as true today, as we look back on a shocking, tragic event of American history that occurred sixty-eight years ago, when our country was suddenly catapulted into World War Two:

An Essay by Hank Whittemore – PARADE – January 1980

Have Americans lost their courage? That question is often heard these days, along with the cynical observation that we’ve grown too soft to produce heroes.

Last November, I decided to attend the Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s biennial reunion in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Perhaps a good place to learn about courage would be among those who had demonstrated it in battle.

First I consulted the government’s list of the 3306 recipients of the Medal since it was first awarded during the Civil War. Under each name a citation tells what the man did to deserve his honor. You can open any page and find a story to match your worst nightmare. It is impossible to read these accounts of courage and not be overwhelmed.

Many of the Medals had been given posthumously. One soldier had “saved the lives of his men at the sacrifice of his life by throwing himself directly on the mine as it exploded.” That’s a typical description, not the exception. For those who remained alive, personal survival was an afterthought, an accident of fate.

“The Medal of Honor is the highest military award for bravery that can be given to any individual in the United States,” I read. “The deed of the person must be proved by incontestable evidence of at least two eyewitnesses; it must be so outstanding that it clearly distinguishes his gallantry from lesser forms of bravery; it must involve the risk of his life, and it must be the type of deed which, if he had not done it, would not subject him to any justified criticism.”

There are 275 Medal-holders still living among us: 10 from World War I, 144 from World War 11,38 from Korea and 83 from Vietnam. Of these, about 160 would be on hand at the Tulsa reunion.

At the meeting place in a downtown hotel, the “national media” were conspicuously absent.  There were no hordes of reporters, no TV crews shoving their way into the reception hall.  The local press was there, but most of the country would never learn that the event was taking place. Those who had exhibited the highest form of military courage while serving America were reaching out to each other in virtual anonymity.

Attack on Pearl Harbor - Dec 7, 1941

Many of the men had brought their wives. They were dressed informally, with sports jackets and ties, and each man wore his Medal draped from its ribbon around his neck. They had name tags on their lapels. At first glance, you might have mistaken the group for a collection of ordinary businessmen. They greeted each other with handshakes, smiles, occasional embraces.

And soon you could feel that there was much more in the room, a more powerful emotion beneath the surface. Wandering around as a stranger, I saw two men who had each lost an arm.  I saw a man who had lost one of his legs. Others were limping.  Several had scars from burns.  Nearly all, I learned, were carrying wounds of one kind or another.

At some point it struck me. The world may forget these men and what they have done, but as long as any are still alive, they will not forget each other – because they know what courage is; because each man knows that the others understand what he went through; because of a common bond, transcending generations and races and all other differences; because they share a secret that is almost impossible for them to express to anyone else.

If I could learn that secret, I thought, maybe then I would have answers for those who worry about our courage. And so I joined the Medal-holders as they took bus tours, attended banquets, listened to speeches. I spoke to dozens of them, in small groups and individually – trying to learn the secret.

Each man openly admitted that he had been afraid. His courage had required an awareness of danger, not blindness to what was at stake. His act was not rash, but deliberate.  What counted was how he had controlled or handled his fear. He had “respected the situation” and then risen to it.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall - Washington, D.C.

But along with fear, I noticed, there had been anger. A man had gotten mad as hell at the course of events and said, in effect, “I won’t submit to that! I won’t let it happen!  Maybe this is the way things are supposed to be, but I’m going to change it!” And so, rather than give in to torture, he had slit his wrists. Or jumped on top of a deadly grenade.  Or stood up and fired at the enemy in the face of almost certain death.  And by his action, he had made all the difference.

Underneath the fear and the anger, however, there had been a dedication to others.  This sort of courage – perhaps courage itself – is not selfish.  It regards comrades’ lives as more valuable than one’s own. It means being willing to crawl back into a flaming helicopter to save the pilot, diving down to a submarine to rescue those who are trapped; instead of fleeing for safety, racing out to treat the wounded and helpless and dragging them away from the bullets.

Courage, I found, is not the result of a contest. You don’t “win” the Medal of Honor.  You have a certain amount of training and experience, but then comes an event that calls for spontaneous action. You either respond in a certain way or you don’t.  You cannot predict, ever, what you will do.  Not a single Medal- holder was aware, beforehand, that he really had the “guts” to be a hero.

And that is part of the secret:  These men, holders of the highest award for courage we’ve got, are just like the rest of us. Among them at the reunion were a college professor, a furrier, a police chief, a real estate salesman. They had come from steel mills, farms, assembly lines and executive suites.

The important fact was not their differences from us, but their sameness. As a group, they represent the diversity, and the ordinariness, of the whole nation.  They reflect the actual and potential courage that exists throughout American life.  They are a national treasure, symbolizing our capacity for valor. By taking a good look at them, it is possible to see ourselves.

For each of the Medal-holders there had been no script to follow. Before they acted, they had been just as “normal” as you or I. If a situation calling for courage arises, will we respond as heroes or will we shrink away to save ourselves?

There is no certain answer.  Which, I believe, is also part of the secret.  Heroism is an individual matter that cannot be “seen” in the absence of a test.  You cannot find it by looking at your neighbors or in a mirror. It is something that happens at the moment. Until then, no one has the right to judge who among us does or does not have courage.

These lessons, I believe, apply to courage in all its forms, not just military. For everyone, crises arise throughout life that test courage – in our jobs, in the family, in relationships with friends and with strangers.

What saddened me at the Medal of Honor reunion was the feeling on the part of the recipients that their courage has so little meaning for the rest of us. “The Medal has a different significance these days,” a Vietnam veteran said. “If I had received it during World War II, I’d be treated differently. I came home as a soldier in scorn, so to speak.  Today, most kids don’t even know that the Medal exists, much less what it means.”

Isn’t it time we distinguished between the traumatic Vietnam experience and those who fought in that controversial conflict?  Isn’t it time we re-learned the Medal’s meaning, for ourselves and future generations?  Surely another war isn’t necessary in order to know that we haven’t lost our courage.

The men who gathered in Tulsa have put away their Medals until the next reunion. They go about their lives with that secret they share. They know what courage is – and so should we.

“The Judge Can Drop Dead!” – The Story of Mike Quill, Labor Leader

My first book (of eleven) was a biography of labor leader Mike Quill, the feisty head of the Transport Workers Union of America who led a twelve-day strike of all bus and subway workers in New York City in January of 1966.

My first book - A Biography of Labor Leader Mike Quill (1905-1966) of the Transport Workers Union of America

The book, published in 1968, was entitled THE MAN WHO RAN THE SUBWAYS – THE STORY OF MIKE QUILL, but I had wanted to call it THE JUDGE CAN DROP DEAD because that’s what Quill said when reporters asked him about the judge’s orders to stop the strike or go to jail:

“The judge can drop dead in his black robes, and we would not call off the strike.  Personally, I don’t care if I rot in jail!”

In fact he died soon afterward, of congestive heart failure, on January 28, 1966, at age sixty.  I had decided to start looking into Quill’s life with the notion of writing a book only a week before, having become fascinated by his character in the midst of that tumultuous strike, and upon his death I continued to pursue it.  During the early months of  research I worked for a living as City Hall Reporter for the Reporter Dispatch in White Plains, NY, then as Public Information Officer for that city’s Urban Renewal Project, and then as News Director of WVOX Radio in New Rochelle, NY.  I kept gathering material whenever possible in various Westchester County libraries including the New York Public Library on 42nd Street in Manhattan.

Michael J. Quill addresses a throng of workers outside the IRT Subway’s 59th Street powerhouse in 1935.

Bertha Himber, a kindly woman who worked in the office at the White Plains Urban Renewal Agency, offered to tell her daughter Jane about my project, which, frankly, appeared to have no chance of ever becoming a published book.  Jane worked in the Audio Visual Department of Holt, Rinehart and Winston in New York.  She passed along the idea of a Quill biography to the editorial staff; and soon Charlotte L. Mayerson, Senior Editor, called to say that she loved the idea and would work with me to develop it.

The process was long and difficult, but with Ms. Mayerson’s help I received a contract and found myself going out to conduct interviews and eventually flying to Ireland to interview Quill’s relatives and friends.  The book was published with the initials of my name (“L.H.” for Louis Henry), because they said “Hank” was too informal.  (The result is that five books of mine have “L.H.” and six have “Hank” — so that most libraries operate under the assumption that “L.H.” and “Hank” are two separate authors.  So it goes!)

Here’s my Prologue for the book:

Few people, if any, got the best of Mike Quill. He was a poor man’s version of James Bond, Charles de Gaulle and Casey Stengel, all in one. A pumpkin-shaped elf, he haunted the sub way tunnels of New York and transit systems around the country, wooing his fellow workers to a radical vision.

A Blake Hampton caricature of Mike Quill

For more than thirty years, he was both their royalty and their fool. The slave of an impish humor, he stood in the center of the storm he created and thoroughly enjoyed himself. He seemed to swallow new ideas as easily as a turnstile swallows tokens, and to change direction as often as the Times Square shuttle. To the general public, he assumed the proportions of a loose-lipped braggart, a brawling advocate of violence whom the papers called the “master of the half-truth, the advance deal, and occasionally, the Big Lie.” Most people thought he would just as soon have shut down New York’s subway system as draw breath, and Quill did nothing to discourage the image. He interwove legend and fact as they came to his tongue until he became, in his own words, “an elder statesman of public monsters.”

No book can do justice to the full flavor of Mike Quill with out a built-in recording of the rolling Irish brogue and the lilting speech that could quickly win an audience of angry workers to cheers and laughter. Behind the brogue was a brain, how ever, and Quill’s brain needed no Gallup poll to tell him that he was distinctly in the public’s disfavor. “I’ll begin to worry,” he chuckled, “the day the papers say something nice about me.” He never had to worry for long.

Quill was bad news, and for that reason he was on the front pages almost as often as the weather. He scorned respectability, partly because it was not newsworthy. It was dull, and Quill could never have been dull even if he had tried—and there is little evidence that he ever tried. The advent of black-and-white television made Mike Quill a figure to reckon with, although by that time he was already known as the Abbey Theatre’s gift to the American labor movement. He became a household picture and to many a housewife his homely face seemed to light up the screen. “There’s Barry Fitzgerald,” she would say with a trace of ‘affection. “Let’s listen to his lilt.” There was the big blackthorn stick and the deep blue eyes twinkling behind black, horn-rimmed glasses; and the moon face barely concealed his amusement, as his listeners took in the blarney, the tough wit, and the outrageous pyramid of illogic from this amiable rogue.

The best and the worst was said about Mike Quill. Carl Sandburg once described him as an “impossible-ist.” New Yorkers generally knew him as “the man you love to hate.” City Hall reporters referred to “the high cost of Quillism.” The transit workers of the city hated and loved him, and among friends there was a strange kind of reverence that is usually reserved for a saint.

At the end, Mike Quill did the unthinkable. He brought New York, the nation’s greatest city, to the brink of chaos and went to the grave in a swirl of public bitterness. Still, friend and foe could reach a consensus about this turbulent, irrepressible Irishman who worried all his life that the fire would go out of him: Michael J. Quill was one of the most controversial men in America’s labor history. As Mayor John Lindsay said at Quill’s death, his passing marked the end of an era.

My adventure into Quill’s life included an eye-opening education in how the Communist Party USA helped in 1934 to get the New York transport workers’ union on its feet (before he eventually kicked the Party out in 1948); and I’ll get around to that episode  another time…

“Julia & Paul” – My Lunch with Julia Child and her husband Paul

Before starting this running Memoir I had put up the following article on Hank Whittemore’s Shakespeare Blog — clearly an inappropriate place for it.  The article, which I wrote for PARADE magazine in 1982, was about my lunch with Julia Child (formerly Julia Carolyn Williams) and her husband Paul Cushing Child at their home in Santa Barbara, CA.

PARADE - Feb 28, 1982

I was sent there by editor Walter Anderson to interview Julia as she was about to become food editor of the magazine; and to my surprise, when I walked in, she called me (with that unmistakable voice) into the kitchen while she made lunch for us.  What a treat!

So I’ve taken the liberty of placing the same article here, where it actually belongs.  I hope you like the piece, which I’ve reproduced below in addition to including an image of it:

JULIA AND PAUL

Julia Child stands in her kitchen in Santa Barbara, CA, a dish towel hooked around her apron string, vigorously chopping vegetables and grinding herbs as her husband, Paul, looks on fondly. A Sunday-afternoon meal of soup au pistou becomes a celebration of their life together — a love story that would be difficult to make more perfect.

They and their guests move out to the dining room table by a window overlooking the ocean. The Mediterranean vegetable soup is served with hot French bread and white wine. Glasses are held by the stems so that when they are clinked together in a toast, they sound like musical chimes.

“L.e carillon de l’amitié,” Julia exclaims.

“The bells of friendship,” Paul echoes.

There is warmth and camaraderie and exuberance in the air. It comes from Julia’s spontaneous merriment, from Paul’s quiet appreciation, from their shared passion for fine food and for each other. On this day, Paul is moved to express his deep feelings about the famous woman to whom he has been married for 35 years.

“We met in Ceylon during World War II,” he begins, explaining that they both had been sent to the China-Burma-India theater as members of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services. He was a painter making maps for the OSS.  A confirmed bachelor of 41, he had lived in Paris during the expatriate era of the 1920s, learning to love the French language and cuisine.

“I wasn’t going to marry anybody.” Paul says, “but when we met, 1 liked her right away.”

At that time, she was Julia McWilliams, 31, originally from Pasadena, CA. She had joined the OSS hoping to become a spy, winding up instead as a tile clerk. At Smith College, she had majored in history and earned a reputation as a prankster. Now she was an aspiring novelist who had made her living as a public-relations writer. And so far, she had never tasted French food or done any serious cooking.

“She had certain qualities that appealed to me very much,” Paul continues.

“Brains, that’s one. And crazy humor, a lot of it. Guts. Ability. And she was interested in food, as I was.”

“Food didn’t bring us together,” Julia interrupts with a laugh. “I liked you.”

“I loved to look at her. I thought she was beautiful.”

“Eye of the beholder,” Julia quips.

“I liked the way she talks, and—”

“We thought the same way—”

“—and the sound of her voice. I liked that she was tough and worked like mad and never gave upon things. And I was automatically drawn to her outgoingness and sympathy for human beings. I could live in a cave, but she likes people, and I respond to that.”

“I wasn’t ready to marry anyone until I met Paul,” says Julia. “He brought out my nesting instincts. He was interested in food and—”

“She’s a wolf, by nature. Always hungry.”

“—and he was sophisticated. I wouldn’t have done nuttin’ without him.”

“It was a kind of human chemistry.” Paul continues. “We met and started a new fizzz going off. When we were sent to China, we told each other: ‘If we can get through this war and survive, we must get married. And then we must do everything together that we possibly can.’”

Julia nods at him across the table. “That’s the nice thing about a good marriage,” she says.

“And we’ve done it.”

A few years after their marriage in 1946, Paul was assigned to the American Embassy in Paris. With her first taste of French food, Julia was hooked. It was an “intoxicating revelation,” which made her plunge with fervor into the art of French cooking. And she has never looked back.

As a coauthor of the two volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child helped to create the most thorough teaching books on the subject in English and her television appearances have done much to make French cooking a part of our culture.

Paul, who calls her “Julie” once in a while, says that the public and private “Julies” are the same. “She speaks the truth,” he says. “She’s not showing off. No phoniness. She’s just her self. And this is so when she’s writing or talking. Julie is always Julia.”

“It’s a great deal of fun as a career,” she says, adding that the “profession of gastronomy” should not be disparaged. “I think a country is only really civilized when it can take food as an art form. A meal doesn’t have to be like a painting by Raphael, but it should be a serious and beautiful thing, no matter how simple. And it’s a wonderful time to talk, the way we are now. What nicer way for a family to get together and communicate?  Which is what life is all about, really.”

Paul and Julia Child have been breaking bread together for a long time, and yet their enthusiasm for that communication has never dwindled. After Paul resigned from foreign service in 1961, they settled in Cambridge, MA.  A third home is in the south of France. While his wife has continued to expand her involvement in cooking and teaching, he has produced exquisite works as a painter, sculptor, photographer and cabinetmaker.

“We both need long, quiet, agonizing periods by ourselves,” Julia says, “so it works out very nicely. We always have something to do. So I think we are very fortunate in having interests that coincided. If we’d had children, we wouldn’t have had the life we have. They just never came. By now, we’d be grandparents, and that would be nice, but we’re not unfulfilled.”

Paul gazes at her and smiles. No more words are needed.

By Hank Whittemore

PS – I thoroughly enjoyed the movie Julie & Julia with Meryl Streep (Julia) and Amy Adams (Julie), along with Stanley Tucci as Paul; in fact, after seeing it I dug into my files to find the PARADE article.