January 31, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
While riding the subway yesterday afternoon, I checked Facebook on my phone to discover that Rick McKay, theatre historian and documentarian of all-things Broadway, had died. A personal friend (and friend to so many), it came as a total shock. My son texted me within minutes of my finding out the news. People posted for the rest of the day about how they had recently spoken to him, or emailed with him, just as I had done right after the memorial in December that I attended for Barbara Cook, one of his oldest and dearest friends. He wrote, “I thought I saw you in the bathroom at one point talking to Allan Gruet, but it turned out not to be you.” Funnily enough, it WAS me talking to Allan Gruet in the bathroom … which we had a great laugh over. Now I can’t believe that Rick is gone forever. How could someone with so much energy, passion and devotion cease to exist in what feels like a split-second?
I first met Rick under ideal circumstances. It was in the spring of 2003, and I was living in Los Angeles, when I read an article in the L.A. Times that a documentary titled Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There, was playing in just one small theatre, diagonally across from CBS Television City in Hollywood (which really isn’t located in Hollywood, but that’s another story). It was in the middle of a weekday afternoon that I drove to the corner of Fairfax and Beverly Drive to a theatre that is now an abandoned eyesore, but on that important day, brought me as close to the Golden Age of Broadway as I had ever been. I sat through the documentary, not only enraptured in stories told by everyone from Edie Adams to Karen Ziemba, but by how with himself as producer, director, interviewer and production crew, this painstakingly long endeavor had been so fully and beautifully realized. I was now indebted to this Rick McKay, who I didn’t know, for capturing lightning in a bottle by way of this filmed slice of theatrical history.
As I left the theatre, from darkness to daylight, there was Rick standing in the lobby. No one was surrounding him, as the film played to probably less than a dozen people. I went right up to him and we began talking. More than ninety minutes later, I realized that I had probably gotten a parking ticket, but it was worth it to be able to hear the stories of how he had gotten everyone for the film, and the major lifting it took to get the rights necessary for music and film clips. With no exaggeration, it was a Herculean effort, which had taken five years from when he began in 1998. Realizing the third showing of the day was about to begin, I excused myself, then went back into the theatre to see the movie all over again.
And by the way, if you have never seen it, you must stream it or order it via Amazon or by any means available. If you are in love with the theatre, it’s as necessary to take in and appreciate as is the first day of Spring.
From that time on, Rick and I stayed friends. He invited me to a number of premieres of the film over time in different cities, which I attended. I helped him to get a few people for the film’s two sequels, Broadway: Beyond the Golden Age and Broadway: The Next Generation. We checked in from time to time to track the progress we were each achieving on various projects. He was a terrific supporter, and anyone who knew him can attest to his passion for the theatre and for preserving this most ephemeral of arts on film. He worked tirelessly, and more often that not, in what can only be described as a bare bones effort. He was a one-man band, who always reminded me of the image many of us carry with us upon first meeting Dick Van Dyke as Bert in Mary Poppins:
In going over our communications with one another, I was struck by the very last thing he wrote me, even though I suspect it might have been something he wrote as a mass email on New Years Day to his thousands of friends. So what? The sentiment was all there, and with Rick, it really was always about the sentiment. He wrote: “Here’s to us. Who’s like us? Damn few!”
So with a bow to another esteemed lyricist, here are words written for Louisa, the youngest Von Trapp family member, that I can easily imagine Rick might have sung on his flight up and out:
“I flit, I float, I fleetly flee… I fly. Goodbye.”