I went to theater last night, something I always pledge to do more often and don’t follow through on. Thanks to my friend Tony Kornheiser and a very generous man named Bill Isaacson I was in the fifth row at The Eisenhower Theater to see Cate Blanchett in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
This isn’t a theater review but it was a remarkable night. Tennessee Williams was clearly a genius and Blanchett was simply amazing as Blanche DuBois. As I said to Tony walking out, “I don’t know how she does that every night. I’m drained WATCHING.”
This blog is for the most part about sports and sports has been the great passion in my life for as long as I can remember. But because both my parents were involved in the performing arts—my mom taught music history at Columbia and at George Washington; my dad was the first executive director of The Kennedy Center and later director of both The National Symphony Orchestra and The Washington Opera—I was exposed to the arts a lot as a kid.
Like most jock kids, I often whined about being dragged to a concert or the ballet or the opera. As I got older I realized how incredibly fortunate I was to grow up the way I did. I saw Marion Anderson’s farewell concert because my mother said, “this is history and you are NOT staying home to watch a ballgame.”
I not only saw Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev dance ‘Swan Lake,’ for the final time in New York I sat next to Nureyev at the post-performance dinner and listened to him telling stories about growing up as a dance prodigy in The Soviet Union. I once raced Leonard Bernstein down the aisle at Carnegie Hall (I think he let me win) and I remember hiding under the seat during the opening scene of “Sleeping Beauty,” because Carrobas (the evil witch) scared me to death.
I enjoyed the ballet, grew to like some opera (especially Russian opera which blows me away; you can keep most Wagner) and now enjoy concerts. But theater has always been something I truly love.
My first vivid memory of a night in the theater goes back to when I was 13. My father, to whom I will always be grateful not only for seeing to it that I was always in great seats but for MAKING me see certain things, insisted I had to go to the production of Hamlet that was at the old City Center in New York. I believe it was the Old Vic Company, which was managed by Sol Hurok, for whom my father worked at the time. I was too embarrassed to ask any of my friends to go with me, so I went alone on a Saturday night.
Richard Pascoe was Hamlet, I’ll never forget that. Vivian-Leigh Thompson, his wife, was Ophelia. The whole thing took my breath away. I still remember the tears running down my face the moment Horatio said, “Good night sweet prince,” and standing and screaming with the rest of the audience when it was over.
I went home and went to bed. My parents were out. At about 2 o’clock in the morning my dad came in and woke me up.
“Well, what did you think?” he asked.
“Dad, it was the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” I said. “The guy who played Hamlet was incredible.”
“Dick Pascoe,” my dad said. “Would you like to meet him? He’s in the living room.”
At that moment I can honestly say I wouldn’t have been any more excited if he had said Tom Seaver or Willis Reed were in the living room. I jumped out of my bed in my pajamas and padded into the living room. My parents had gone out to a post-performance dinner with the Pascoe’s.
When dad introduced me, I was blathering. “Greatest thing ever, amazing, brilliant. How did you make it look like your arm was bleeding in the last scene?”
“Red toothpaste I’ve got in my hand,” Pascoe said, showing me the move he made to slap it across his arm when he’s stabbed.
I still had not even LOOKED at Vivian Leigh-Thompson. My mother finally said, “John, you know Mrs. Pascoe was Ophelia tonight.”
“Yes,” I said finally turning to her. “You were fine.” Then I went back to telling Pascoe how incredible he had been. My dad always loved re-telling that story.
He also enjoyed the story about my first exposure to Russian opera. It was in Montreal when I was 11 and Hurok sent him up there to scout The Bolshoi Opera which was supposed to come to New York the next year. (It didn’t actually come to the U.S. until eight years later when my dad brought it to The Kennedy Center). We went to see, ‘Pique Dame,’—The Queen of Spades. In the second act, after the protagonist (who is no hero) has killed the Queen of Spades, he is being stalked by her ghost. He sings, she stalks. The stage is very dark. Finally, as the ghost came up behind him I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Watch out!” I screamed, jumping from my seat as dad pulled me back down.
“It’s not real John,” he said. It FELT real.
I’ve had a lot of memorable theater experiences. I got to see Richard Burton’s last performance in ‘Equus,’ in New York when he came on stage after the curtain and talked to the audience about how the theater had saved his life. “Nicholas Nickleby,” remains one of the most amazing days of my life (another performance my dad told me I HAD to see) an eight-and-a-half hour marathon that felt too SHORT. I swear to God.
Last night was right up there. ‘Streetcar,’ is, of course, brilliantly written. It is stunning how many of the lines Tennessee Williams wrote in 1951 still resonate today. I’ve read about what a tortured soul he was. He certainly knew how to create other tortured souls. When Blanchett walked aimlessly across the stage in the final scene seconds after saying, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” the place was so silent you were almost afraid to breathe. The instant the stage went dark, the entire audience was on its feet. I still remember how much my dad loved standing ovations—especially what he called the ‘no doubters,’ when there was no doubt the audience was going to stand and scream as soon as the performance was over.
So, thanks to Tony and thanks to Bill for last night. And thanks to my dad and my mom too.
On an entirely different subject: a poster asked on Tuesday how I felt about Jim Boeheim on the occasion of his 800th college coaching victory at Syracuse. I’ll give the short answer for now and write about him in more detail later in the season: I like Jim Boehim. We have had numerous battles through the years—I once wrote that if a hemorrhoid could talk it would sound like Jim Boeheim. It wasn’t actually my line but the guy who said it worked in TV and begged me NOT to give him credit for it. Actually, Jim dealt with that with a good deal of humor. “My friends are pissed off at you,” he said. “But it’s probably not a bad description.”
That tells you why I like him. He’s got a good sense of humor and he can laugh at himself. He wasn’t amused a few years later when I thought he was going to agree to bring Syracuse to play in the BB+T Classic (to play Maryland) and then told me there was no way he would play the game. “Coaches who play games like that become ex-coaches,” he said.
I went off on him, screaming about charity and that he wasn’t going to get fired if he lost one damn game to Maryland. That was in a message I left for him. When he called back the first thing he said was, “I’m angrier at you right now than I’ve ever been at anyone in my life.”
Then we really screamed at one another. After it was over, we made up. Jim has since played in the charity golf tournament I put on in Bruce Edwards’ name for ALS Research on a number of occasions. He’s a good guy and he’s won 800 games as a coach so I don’t think he needs any defending in that area.
I’m sure there will be reasons during the season to write more about Boeheim. There are some classic lines of his I remember but I will save them for another time. He’s no Tennessee Williams, but he’s quick and clever and, as someone who has always depended on the kindness of coaches, I have to both respect and like him a lot.