THE MOON, THE METS & MAME
July 20, 2019: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Fifty years ago today, Neil Armstrong became the first man to step foot on the moon. I remember as a twelve-year-old being glued to the TV alongside my whole family while we watched Walter Cronkite, the most trusted newsman in America, wipe away tears at the sight of it. Most anyone who was alive on the planet could tell you today in an instant where they were that night.
But that summer of ’69 was also about a lot of other things for me as a kid growing up in Great Neck, Long Island. The New York Mets, the worst team in baseball for the past seven of its eight seasons since joining the National League in 1962, were beginning a slow but steady ascent towards capturing the pennant. And believe me — it was as close to a miracle as the men landing on the moon. Just like the trip to the moon, it came about in about ten years for these “Amazin’ Mets,” who had never had a winning season, nor ever finished better than ninth out of the ten teams in the league. No one in my family was a Yankees fan, so we were all behind the beleaguered Mets. When they won the World Series, it truly was as if the tortoise out ran the hare and it made for an incredibly exciting end to summer.
But for me, I had something else to mark this summer of ’69 by. It was the first year of my going to Broadway shows all on my own, something I began doing at the beginning of the year in the dead of winter. It’s the subject of my memoir Up in the Cheap Seats, which nostalgically offers a trip down memory lane about the Broadway of my youth — which had as its backdrop in this first year an astronaut planting an American flag on the moon and Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Nolan Ryan pitching their hearts out.
The titles alone were sensational. I saw the original productions (if sometimes not with their original casts) of Cabaret, Hair, Mame, Man of La Mancha, Plaza Suite and Promises, Promises! Then there were the prices. I got to see Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Play It Again, Sam for $2.50 up in the last row of the Broadhurst Theatre. Now it’s $89 to sit in the last row of the Shubert Theatre to see To Kill a Mockingbird. Hardly seems fair, does it?
And how would a twelve-year-old today be able to afford that on his own? I was never given any allowance. Whatever it cost me to see these shows always came out of my own pocket with money I earned from a newspaper route. And guess what? Little kids don’t get to have paper routes anymore. So I consider myself doubly lucky. Triply, when you consider that my parents gave me permission to come into New York City by myself at that age, we’re talking about another miracle. The heart of Manhattan’s theatre district was nothing like the well-lit, Elmo-infused Times Square of today. As I like to say, for the four years I did this, when I saw 200 Broadway shows (fifty per season), I was only mugged once. 😊
The summer of ’69 was a hot and sticky one, but I didn’t care. In August, I bought tickets to see the musical Mame, which was in the third year of its Broadway run. By then Angela Lansbury had been long gone, and the fourth Mame was the famed MGM star (and tapper extraordinaire) Ann Miller. For the second act big number “That’s How Young I Feel,” a tap break was choreographed to allow her to strut her stuff. Simply wonderful.
After the show, as was my wont, I knocked on the stage door. For whatever reason, back then I was able to get backstage and visit the dressing rooms of most of the stars of the day, which was how I got to meet and hang with Julie Harris, Maureen Stapleton, Al Pacino and so many others.
But this time, I was told to wait outside the Winter Garden, and so I did. Then a crowd began to gather, which was very rare. This was fifty years ago, and stage doors didn’t draw anywhere near the number of people that you see waiting for a glimpse of a famous face like today. Finally when Ann Miller appeared, people cheered while she signed as many autographs as she could, slowly making her way to a waiting limo. I got mine — its smudged — and naturally I still have it.
Many years later, I was in Los Angeles where I was living at the time, and was invited to a barbecue at a friend’s house, where I was told a few of the old MGM stars would be in attendance. It turned out to be more than a few, as the guests included Roddy McDowell, Rosemary Clooney, Kathryn Grayson, Esther Williams… and Ann Miller.
I made it my business to meet Annie (as she asked me to call her), and it was a fantastic talk. I mentioned to her that I saw her as Mame, which got her to reminiscing about it all and how much fun she had playing it, which she did until it closed in January 1970. When I mentioned the size of the crowd at the stage door that afternoon, I asked her if it was like that all the time.
Wordlessly, she put her hand over her heart, and sagely nodded — expressing joy and love at the same time. I’ll never forget that gesture and the expression on her face as long as I live.
Men went to the moon that summer, truly memorable. The Amazin’ Mets went on to win the World Series, truly amazing. And Ann Miller tapped her way to glory as Mame, truly great.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here on Medium, and feel free to email me with comments or questions, at Ron@ronfassler.org.