November 9, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
I returned to see the current hit Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly! on Sunday night. One reason was that having already seen Bette Midler, it was always my intention to see how Donna Murphy was interpreting the role, having now performed it every Tuesday night for the past six months, as well as for the few weeks of vacation that Midler had scheduled as part of her unique Broadway contract. I chose to attend this added performance to the company’s usual work-week due to its being a fund raiser for the Actors Fund, the 125-year-old charity which I’m proud to support in every way I can. On its website, the Actors Fund describes its mission as one that “fosters stability and resiliency, and provides a safety net for performing arts and entertainment professionals over their lifespan.” This can be as complex as helping artists who have fallen on hard times and are having trouble paying their medical bills, to something as simple as allowing for someone temporarily unable to purchase a new pair of shoes. I personally know of people who have taken advantage of the latter, which is taken as seriously today as it was in the old days when actors literally “pounded the pavement” in search of work, wearing out their soles (if not their souls, which is an entirely different matter that the aid of a few dollars could never cure).
I was first introduced to the Actors Fund when I was a young kid going to the theatre. Every year, around Thanksgiving and through Christmas (same as today), there would be a pitch at every show on Broadway to raise much-needed dollars. Things were subtler then, and a flyer inserted in the Playbill with a then-current Broadway star serving as a spokesperson, was as far as things went in terms of being “pushy.” I certainly don’t recall speeches made by any cast members at the finish of the curtain call urging everyone to give generously, which is how its done now. And there certainly weren’t any extra incentives, such as when for certain pledged amounts, a signed Playbill or poster — or even Hugh Jackman’s sweaty T-shirt off his back — are now offered to audiences in exchange for donations.
Can’t you just hear Hepburn’s voice in her opening line: “To be asked to give is a bore!” Note there is no space for payment by credit card. This was 1969, folks. Cash or check was the only way to pay for stuff. And it was called the “Bread Basket Drive,” because when you left the theatre, the ushers would be there with bread baskets to collect the money. Today, they hold pails. Not sure why that changed, except that a pail can probably hold a lot more. And yes, in order to take a photo of that flyer for this article, all I had to do was open the Playbill that was handed to me at Coco — which I’ve diligently saved — and there it was. I did the same for the one below by going to my Two By Two program, which I easily recalled offered Danny Kaye as the honorary chair for the 1970–71 drive.
The only other face I can put to these flyers from these Golden Years is Neil Simon, then my mind goes blank. I believe they stopped utilizing an honorary chair a long time ago. The current Chairman of the Board is the Tony Award winning actor Brian Stokes Mitchell, and it is not a ceremonial role by any means. Stokes (as all who know him, call him) has dedicated close to the last twenty years to the Actors Fund, and he does so not only at his pleasure, but with the same drive and persistence he gives on stage when he’s in a show. With the complicated nature of health insurance these days, Stokes and the Actors Fund are committed to cutting through the brush to find a clearing in the woods for those in need. It’s a ton of work and they get the job done.
In addition to the performance of Hello, Dolly! this past weekend, I attended the Actors Fund benefit for Dear Evan Hansen in June and one for A Doll’s House, Part Two as well. If you give to the organization, you will find yourself receiving emails that notify you of these kind of events, which is very rewarding. There’s also the extra-added bonus of sometimes being seated next to an actor currently on Broadway, as these performances are almost always on Sunday evenings, in order so that those performing in their own shows are given the chance to see something they would otherwise miss). You also can be secure in your heart that the price you paid for your ticket is going to help people. It’s a very good feeling.
Information about the Actors Fund can be found at their website. Go visit, give generously, and if you’re seeing a Broadway show in these next few weeks, enjoy the curtain call speeches and the comradery that the holiday season always brings to New York City. It really is the most wonderful time of year.
Oh, and how was Donna Murphy in Hello, Dolly? So good she and the entire company deserve its own column. More on that another time.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now available at Amazon.com. Please email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.