I was 8 years old when Ray Bolger came out on stage and stole the show in "Where's Charlie." Soon the audience was caught up, singing along to "Once in Love With Amy." Bolger, larger than life, improvised to his heart's content so that "Amy" could last anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes depending on his mood. Sandwiched between my parents, I could swear that Bolger and I made eye contact. It was my first Broadway show, and I didn't know then that magic was in the making, or my heart would be lost to theater forever.
I was fortunate to belong to a family who shared the same passion, and our devotion to it became a regular commitment. Such excursions were celebratory events. We would no sooner enter a theater in casual clothes than board an airline in jeans and sneakers. A week before, I would plan my wardrobe, choosing a suitable outfit for a particular show: festive, if it were a musical like "Annie Get Your Gun" or "Guys and Dolls," and a more sedate ensemble for serious plays like "All My Sons" and "The Member of the Wedding," where a young Julie Harris played a 12-year old tomboy.
I brought along my autograph book, and afterwards, waited by the stage door with anticipatory excitement. I envisioned becoming an actress myself, and on our way home, I pretended to be a "Broadway Baby" adored by all whom had the pleasure of seeing me perform. This fantasy was short-lived. Monday I was back to my usual routine of homework assignments and straightening up my room.
Throughout my childhood, our theater repertoire brought us to The Great White Way. The Martin Beck, Booth, Brookes Atkinson, Majestic, Lunt-Fontanne, The Ziegfeld, Morosco, Bijou, Belasco and Shubert were just a few of the landmarks that held me captive. I envisioned playing everyone's leading lady and being given standing ovations.
I fell in love hundreds of times over, first with Ray Bolger and moving on to Rex Harrison whipping Eliza Doolittle into shape in "My Fair Lady," to Robert Preston leading his marching band in "The Music Man." Years later, I returned to see revivals of those same shows, but once you see "Death of a Salesman" with Lee J.Cobb it's never quite the same. Gene Lockhart, Dustin Hoffman, Brian Donlevy and Phillip Seymour Hoffman gave masterful performances, but Cobb's Willy Lohman made us all weep.
It was an era of the great ladies: Helen Hayes, Beatrice Lilley, Judy Holliday, Kim Stanley, Gwen Verdon and Celeste Holm, Ethel Merman, Carol Channing and Ruth Gordon. Theater giants like Joseph Schildkraut, Zero Mostel, Sir John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Arthur Kennedy, and the three Pauls: Muni, Ford and Scofield took to the stage, leaving an unforgettable trail of memories long after the shows closed.
In summer, the air of Times Square pungent and thick, carrying along a myriad of aromas from neighboring restaurants, exhaust fumes from cars and buses that lined the streets from Columbus Circle to Broadway, and cigarette smoke curling around us. In winter, chestnuts popped open on a bed of hot coals, and the dank, musty odors emanating from underground manholes, linger still.
Fifteen minutes before showtime, I grasped my parents' hands as we walked toward our theater, I, bustling with excitement as we floated down the aisle preceded by an usherette in a black dress and white apron, Playbills in tow. Settling ourselves in our plush velvet seats, we surveyed the ceiling of bas-relief cherubs looking down upon us. The orchestra warmed up as people hustled to remove their coats, awaiting that pivotal moment when the lights dimmed and the curtain went up on another razzle-dazzle evening.
I embrace the theater of today as I did as a young girl -- when the marquees lit up the town, women's fur coats smelled of French perfume and going to the theater was my favorite adventure. After the show, still feeling emotionally intoxicated, we ended the night with hot chocolate at Rumplemeyer's or sandwiches at Reuben's.
The days of white cotton gloves and stylish hats are no longer, and the elegance is gone. Sardi's still holds the same allure, but not as much as when Melvyn Douglas, fresh from the stage of "Time Out for Ginger," turned around in his banquette and winked.
Broadway was a brief interlude that paved the way from childhood toward adulthood where the infatuation continued. No matter how burdened was I over some adolescent agony, the theater was always there to temper my anguished soul, carrying me through and indulging my senses. For a few hours, I was transported to another place, never realizing how the neon lights of Broadway would remain forever my refuge against some of the harsh realities I would eventually come to know in a new, uncertain century looming far off on the horizon.
Judith Marks-White is a Westport writer, and her "In Other Words" appears every other Friday. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.judithmarks-white.com