The ‘Yentl’ Premiere: Wednesday, November 16th, 1983
1983 can be called the year of the limo. Everything we went to we went there in a limo. It’s not that we were living large as they say but it was a fun way to get around town. Now, I’m not talking about going grocery shopping or running other sundry errands, I’m talking about public appearance events. We used to have the best champagne parties riding around the city. I don’t have many rules, I forgive everything, never say never, but one thing I live by is this: the only place to drink champagne is in a limousine.
We took one to Shirley Bassey at Carnegie Hall, to the premiere of the restored ‘A Star is Born’ at Radio City Music Hall, Bette Midler, also at Radio City that year, ‘La Cage’ at the Palace Theatre for John’s 23 birthday in August – we were always stepping in and out of limos. I beg to differ with myself. For Diana Ross in Central Park I took the subway.
Just a word about ‘La Cage’ now that I mention it. I was in charge of planning John’s 23rd Birthday Party and I figured a theater party was the only way to go. I had only been in my new apartment for a week and honestly did not know how people felt about traveling to Jackson Heights for a chips and dipper. (I had not yet discovered Brie.) I decided we would take in a show and then grab a cup of coffee – whatever that meant.
Michael Mayer and I were torn between buying tickets for Angela Lansbury’s revival of ‘Mame’ or hopping on the ‘La Cage’ bandwagon. We settled on ‘La Cage’. We got great seats in the orchestra, hired the limo, chilled the champagne and off we went. Alex, Jimmy Connors and I would be picked up first in Queens, and then we’d swing up to Riverdale and get John, then back into Manhattan and pick up Michael Mayer at the Dyansen Gallery in SoHo. How we did this on the paychecks we were earning I’ll never know.
As we were snaking up the long curvy Manhattan College Parkway to John’s familial abode Jimmy Connors said, “Oh what a cute dog” and Alex and I turned to look out the window. Oh, my God. It was my mother. Alex and I hit the floor for what reason I do not know as we had upgraded and went for the smoked-glass look. But I just didn’t want to have to explain to my mother what I was doing back in the neighborhood, in a limo, not having made plans to come up for dinner, “who are those two?” and so on.
Sometimes when you are trying to be an adult you don’t want to deal with any adults and I guess that sentence only makes sense if you are 23, with your first apartment, with snazzy Selsun Blue walls riding around in limos on a hotel operator’s salary. When I moved from 20th Street to Jackson Heights I told my mother I wasn’t going to give her my telephone number, just yet. “What if something happens to you?” she asked. Well, then, someone will have to call you, won’t they, as you having my number won’t help you. I had talked to these people, my family, for 23 years, and I just wanted some quiet time. I should have gotten on a tanker and floated around the Pacific or whatnot. It had been ten years since my father’s death, which seemed like a lifetime, but now seems like a long blink of the eye, and I wanted to see if I could stand on my own on my two long legs. I did give her my number six months later and she put it right to use…”So and so just died and they are cleaning out the apartment and I got you two new tables and I’m driving them out there or I’m sending your brother.” When I first told her I was moving away from home into the city, she had no reaction. I think she asked “Why?” I told her that if I didn’t leave then I might never leave. She had no response to that. Years later my sister told me that she cried for a month after I left.
She left Ireland on a boat at the age of 18 and came to New York to an aunt and uncle and immediately went to work. So her striking out on her own was necessitated by poverty (the abundance of) and opportunity (the promise of). Nothing was forcing me away from home, it’s not like I was moving to New York because I already lived here. So I just had to leave. And as tough as her times might have been in the city when she first got here she enjoyed her independence and freedom and going to dances (dancing all night) and working hard (all day). She often tells the story of her first day housekeeping when she was told to clean the toilet. “I’d never seen one, much less cleaned one.” But clean it she did. And she never let one of us kids do the laundry or scrub the bathroom. And she’d never let anyone say a bad word about New York in her presence. “Then go back to where you came from” would be her response. Maybe I left because I wanted to do my own laundry.
Maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to see a show after spotting my mother. I really don’t love the theater anyway. I guess I take it for granted having lived here my entire life. I could name on one hand the things I’ve seen that I’ll remember my entire life (‘Chicago’ and ‘Absurd Person Singular’ to name two). I watch something and never seem to get caught up in it. I’m always aware that they are play-acting. I’m always thinking, “They should cut that joke, they should move that song, why is she standing there when she should be over here, who cast him anyway?” On the other hand, movies, no matter how bad they are, always have me saying a prayer of thanks to Thomas Edison for getting the entire thing started.
So I didn’t like ‘La Cage’. None of us did really. It was an exciting night, this was the biggest show coming into town that season, we were there two nights before the opening, and the audience was all buzzy in that New York sort of way. Everyone was up for a hit but it just wasn’t. The movie was a million times funnier and I thought the entire thing looked “obvious”. The production numbers looked like spoofs of the ‘Crazy Quilt’ production numbers in ‘Funny Lady’. When that one guy flipped his collar the second time Michael Mayer and I looked at each other and yawned. What a waste of our heard earned cash money. Better to stay home and watch ‘Lucy Mame’ on television. However, we managed to have a great time and that’s all that matters. I love attending the theater more than I love watching it. I always try to get seats in the orchestra (or at least back then in my younger days) in front of the over hang so that I could turn around and wave to the people upstairs as if I knew someone. And with the four of us dashing bachelors waving at the dashing bachelors in the mezzanine (you couldn’t get a ticket to this) well, let’s say we put on a nice show of our own.
Okay, enough chatter about boys dressing up like girls, let’s talk about a girl dressing up like a boy. Pardon me, back to ‘Yentl’, the premiere.
Naturally we hired a limo, bought even more expensive champagne (we weren’t going to pop chilled Andre on this night) and we were ready to pull out all the stops. Michael had instructed me that I was getting ready at his house so have the car pick us up there. (Honestly, some days I didn’t have the price of a subway token, how did we come to hire so many limos that year?). Alex would also meet us there after he left work, get dressed and then the three of us would go up pick up John. The great thing about having a friend who still lived in Riverdale is that you could use up your three-hour minimum limo time in legitimate fashion. I love the West Side Highway and Henry Hudson Parkway from the inside of a limo. Its just dusk, the river looks majestic. Splendid.
I show up at Michael Mayer’s fabulous apartment with all my gear. He had told me to bring a robe and I did. It wasn’t exactly a robe; it was a butcher’s coat that I wore sometimes at work when it got chilly. K.T. Kendricks (Kaya Tawana), the midnight shift operator who broke me in bequeathed it to me when she left. Big pockets, very roomy, perfect thing to drape yourself in for hair and makeup.
Michael Mayer had the most incredible bathrooms. This one was all white tile and chrome (I guess) and very chic, slick, and modern. On the wall were two framed autographed pictures from Joan Crawford. “Hello to Michael Mayer. Sincerely, Joan Crawford.” He had a separate bath and a “steam shower” like one you would see at a gym. All these nozzles and drains and handles. Fabulous.
I took my shower. Michael had laid out all these expensive shampoos, conditioners, sponges, soaps, facial masks, skin revitalizers, pre-shaving lotions, shaving lotions, post-shaving lotions, balms, and gels. I didn’t know which to use first. I think I asked him “Don’t you have any real soap?” He explained each and every one of them to me, and the benefits they have on my skin and hair.
I didn’t use half the stuff. But I took my shower, threw on my robe and said, “Okay, I’m ready. Your turn.”
“Oh, honey. You’re not ready.”
He sat me in a hard-backed chair and went to work. He told that this was the most important night of my life, and Barbra’s life, and like it or not he was going to fix me up. Now, I may be many things but one thing I am not is fancy, and I believe fresh air and lots of rest is all you need to look your best.
Michael cut off any further protest and said, “And you know, this is what Barbra goes through for her fans. You wouldn’t want her to think you just schlepped into the theater from a diner, do you?”
Okay. You win. You don’t win fare. But you win.
And besides, I didn’t want him starting any more fires.
He started on my eyebrows, tweezing and plucking like I was a marked for quick sale chicken. Then he put stuff on my face. Then he wiped that off and put other stuff on my face. Then that was wiped off and more stuff was put on my face. And that was wiped and some other stuff was put on my face. I felt like a windshield in a snowstorm. I don’t like being touched and I don’t like glamour stuff. The only thing that touches my face after a shower is a towel.
He tapped me on the shoulder and told me to go get dressed so that he could do my hair. Which he did. Then he re-did it, put some stuff in it, and finally was happy enough that he stopped. He once told me one of his favorite pastimes was watching the live displays at Eva Gabor wig counters, watching the stylists comb out these “little nothings of wigs” into very glamorous coiffure. He must have picked up a few tips along the way.
Finally, the process was finished and he told me I could look at myself in the mirror. One of his walls in the living room was all mirrored, so I guess I should say he told me to look at the wall. I didn’t recognize myself. I mean, it was me, but it wasn’t. You know how polished all those guys who work in department stores look? I definitely had a polished look. I don’t know if it was good or bad but it was polished. If I had bumped into Norman Maine he wouldn’t have recognize me. Michael had done a very good job.
Although I had never became a convert to glamour I have to admire Michael’s enthusiasm. Here I was, 23 year old, and this guy was trying to teach me everything it took him 33 years to learn. I don’t know that I would take the time or the effort to share anything I’ve ever learned with a 23 year old. I mean, I never thought of me being a kid and him being an adult but now looking back on it and looking at some 23 year olds I don’t know. He always told me that one day I would thank him and I guess I’m old enough now to realize what a great friend he was. I never appreciated why he was in such a rush to make me learn so much. Now that he’s gone I’m happy that he was such a tough teacher.
He sat me down and showed me a book. He wanted to have a little conversation with me before Alex arrived. He wanted to give me a little lesson in Jewish history. He explained to me how knowledge and learning were very important to his people because knowledge was the one thing that could never be taken away from them. Knowledge was power and people needed power in order to survive. He showed me this book, this great big book, bigger than a normal coffee table book, and it was full of pictures of books that had once belonged to Jewish people. Books on tables, books on shelves, books in baskets, books by the sides of the bed, I don’t recall one word of text, just pictures of books.
Michael told me that his father always told him that if he only had one dollar and was hungry he should use that dollar to buy a book and learn something. I wasn’t getting in, I was like “Gee Michael, this is great.” What was I going to say, “No, I don’t want to look at your books”? I honestly didn’t get it. A few hours later when the ‘Yentl’ began and the opening shot was of books in basket being in a cart of books I was overcome with emotion. I might not have gotten his leather couch when he died, I might not have had the money to go to the unveiling of his gravestone, but every time that movie starts, every time, I swear to god Michael Mayer is sitting next to me. He really made every effort to make this ‘Yentl’ thin an important time for me and I’ll always thank him. He did this unselfishly and without hesitation and he will always be a very dear friend. Dead, but dear.
So Alex arrives and, naturally, things took on a more fun tone. Alex and Michael whipped themselves together and the party started. Alex was beside himself. He worked in mid-town and came running into the apartment screaming, “This city is beside itself with ‘Yentl’ fever! You can’t find a cab, you can’t cross the streets! It’s ‘Yentl’ everywhere you go!”
He tried to hide his amazement had how good I looked (“What happened to you?”) and made me pose for a picture. This picture has gotten a lot of use – I have appeared on various talk shows (Faith Daniels, Joan Rivers, The Image Workshop on Lifetime) talking about weight loss (before, after, before again, lost again) and I always bring this picture. I’m the Doris Wilgus of weight loss, meaning I’d give interviews to elevator cameras if they had sound. Jeffrey Rindler once pointed out, “Thank God Barbra made ‘Yentl’, kid, so you could have a ‘thin’ picture.”
The limo arrived and we piled in and headed up to Riverdale to pick up John. He had opted not to go with the traditional black-tie look. He spent weeks putting together his outfit. A red dinner jacket with black leather slacks and I think boots. We took the northern route as to not bump into my mother. John, surprise, was on time. I think were invite up to join his father and girlfriend, Gloria, from some coffee and cake. Here we are, four guys on our way to the premiere of Barbra’s directorial debut and Papa Hanrahan and Gloria are watching ‘Live at Five’, having their coffee and Entemmen’s Coffee Walnut Danish Ring. As much as we didn’t know world, they didn’t know about ours.
John looked fabulous in his red dinner jacket. He wanted to go for a different look and steal some of the attention away from me, no doubt. He did look quite sharp. He had gotten a different haircut for the occasion. I don’t know, he kept calling it an “a-symmetrical cut”, like the front was on an angle or something. I had no idea what he was talking about it. He wasn’t used to having his hair in such an a-symmetrical fashion and he was curious to see that the wind would do to it. I told him it all looked the same to me, but, oh no, didn’t I see how it was more off the face than usual?
Alex was a basket case. When he gets nervous he bites his knuckles. No, not bites. Chews. He was raw by the time we pulled up to the theater. We made the driver circle the block one or twice because we weren’t feeling the crowed that was waiting. The traffic was nuts. The excitement in the air was electric. We finally decided to get out of the car.
Alex jumped out to find a Band-Aid brand bandage for his knuckles. Michael turned to me and said; “It’s your show honey, smile” and he left the car. John was fixing his jewelry and his a-symmetrical hair-do trying to wait me out. I was not getting out of the car before him. I think he might have said, “Well, should I follow you out?”
Now, a sitting limo in front of premiere makes the crows a little anxious. John stepped out and I asked him to close the door. I heard a Klezmer band playing in the background. I don’t know what a Klezmer band is but YIVO said one would be there and they were. I heard a rustling of applause as John walked into the theater. Was it the red dinner jacket? Was it the new a-symmetrical hair-do? I’m not sure.
I sat for a moment – seconds, not minutes – trying to be reflective. The first limousine ride I ever took was the morning my father was buried. Since than I had made every limousine ride as happy an experience as I could. I thought of that cold December night in 1976 when I met Pauline Herman and her daughter Ann (relatives of Barbra) outside the Ziegfeld Theatre before the New York screening of ‘A Star is Born’. I was a fat, ugly teenager hanging around the theater just to show my support for Barbra, befriended me, gave me an extra ticket and proved herself to be a very lovely person. Now, seven years later, I was walking back into the same theater, thin and all dolled up, but just as confused as ever.
An usher rom the theater opened the car door. I was not ready, but when are we ever ready? I stopped out onto the sidewalk and looked straight ahead. People behind the barricades started to applaud lightly and snapping pictures. I guess the theory being take everyone’s picture in case they turn out to be somebody. Someone shouted out “That’s Glenn Frey!” and then there was more applause and more flashbulbs. I looked straight ahead and kept walking – now when I say kept walking I mean, what – six feet, seven feet from the curb to the entrance of the Ziegfeld. One time when I was coat checking at the Jockey Club in New York Lee Radziwill do the same thing, keep walking and slide your head slight in the direction of the people taking pictures. Now I heard people shouting “Glenn, Glenn, look over here!” But I kept walking.
Michael Mayer was standing for me at the tops of those few steps where they take your ticket at the bottom of the escalator. I headed straight for him. As he took my arm to guide me toward the escalator the lady from YIVO appeared out of nowhere.
“We need to talk to you about your tickets,” she said to Michael.
Michael blocked her from me and said, “We have no comment!”
I heard someone else asking, “Who’s that?”
“That’s Glenn Frey.”
Who is Glenn Frey?
At the top of the escalator I spied John by the bust of Fanny Brice chatting with Cicely Tyson and Miles Davis, Jr. Do you know in all these years I keep forgetting to ask him what they were chatting about? Alex was in the bathroom, crawling under all the stalls trying to find enough tissues to stop the bleeding. He was taped up like a boxer by the time the film started, but I didn’t mind, as this did not impact the loudness of applause.
Marlo Thomas came running up to me.
“Where’s the hospitality suite?”
Then she snapped at me.
“Don’t you know where the hospitality suite is?”
I walked away from her. Some people are just so nasty without their kites.
We settled into our seats. The lights dimmed and the movie started. John’s asymmetrical forehead glowed in the half-light. I stared at the image of the books in the basket as it filled the screen and said, “Oh, wow.” When Barbra Streisand appeared for the first time the audience burst into long and loud applause. It was then that I stopped breathing. I wanted to run away and hide. I wanted to watch the movie in private. I wanted to yell out, “Stop! I’m not ready!” I felt like I was on a 747 racing down a runway but somebody left the doors open and I forgot to fasten my seat belt. I thought I would die. I didn’t breath again until Yentl was her way to Yeshiva. Everybody in the theater was too quiet. There was no indication of how the movie was going over. When she’s being asked where she’s from and finally says, “Now we live in Riga” you could feel the laughs and applause just vibrating through the theater. I felt it in my legs, in my arms, in my entire body.
I nodded to myself and thought, “Good for you Barbra. They love the movie.