(In early 2010, Joyce E. Henry was a guest blogger on Stage Voices, recounting the early days of Circle in the Square. With Theodore Mann—and Henry—in our thoughts, those five entries will be reposted over the next week.)
RE-PRODUCING 'THE ICEMAN'
Joyce E. Henry, Ph.D.
The lobby was a long, narrow hall space down a flight of stairs, and what pretended to be a box office was a simple desk open to the world with tickets and cash in a drawer. The boy at the desk was the roommate of an old friend; as I greeted him, I noticed someone walk through the lobby, who stared somewhat curiously at me and then vanished.
“That’s Ted,” said the boy at the desk.
“Oh.” I had barely seen him. He’d come from somewhere so quietly and passed through so quickly I had no image remaining, but when the boy called out that I was there to see him, he suddenly materialized from a room, which seemed to run underneath the sidewalk (later, I recognized a dressing room).
“Let’s go upstairs to my office, “he said. “Follow me.” I pattered after him as he went through the lobby doors onto the street, with the familiar O’Neill head looming on the production sign above, through a side entrance, up a flight of broken-down stairs, down a long dimly lit corridor, and, finally, into his “office.”
The Circle in the Square building, probably dating from the 1870s, might have been an elegant brownstone, and the second floor rooms once bedrooms. But 80 years of service as a restaurant, speakeasy, nightclub, and now theatre, had effectively obscured any opulence it might have had. Ted’s office, a good-sized square room with a boarded-up fireplace, had two large windows overlooking the Square. The floor slanted, cracked, and rotted. Paint and plaster peeled off the walls. Suspended by a large cord from the once-elegant ceiling, hung a naked, glaring light bulb.
Ted’s desk was the only piece of furniture, littered with papers, scripts, ornaments, and dirt. When I became his assistant, I worked on one side of the desk, he on the other. At that first meeting he paced up and down, staring at me; he was of medium height, thinning black hair, enormous dark brown eyes—across the left cheek ran a scar. Ted handled the finances, and within a few moments he informed me that he wanted only one person in the box office, instead of the six or seven would-be actors who worked part-time selling tickets. There had been significant shortages of cash in the receipts—perhaps several thousand dollars a month—and to an off-Broadway house in the 1950s, that really meant the difference between an ongoing run and demise. The accountant, Al Shedler, had suggested that too many people had their hands in the till, and that one person should be responsible. Iceman was selling out; the boys—Ted, Jose, and Leigh—had just been given the rights to Long Day’s Journey—someone had to assume the day-to-day financial management of Iceman.
For some reason I took the job, although Ted was demanding a 60-hour week at the princely salary of $90.00 per week. And it was not long before I realized that at least some of the shortages were occasioned by the producers themselves, who frequently dipped into the cash for $10.00 or $20.00 without leaving a chit. Of course, it was also true that the previous occupants of the box office, often hard-pressed for money, resentful of the wages they were receiving, and tempted by what seemed like an easy fiddle had also skimmed a little here and there. At first I worked on the box office, but, as the months passed, I became assistant to Ted, bookkeeper, secretary, rental agent of Circle Studios upstairs, and, at one point when Long Day’s Journey went to Paris, the nervous General Manager of The Iceman Cometh.
The common perception is, I think, that all a show needs is good reviews and the rest is gravy. Not so. Jose was, of course, the creative artist, and Iceman received superb reviews. Without Ted, however, Iceman might not have survived for a two-year run despite all its accolades–and O’Neill might not have been catapulted back into a revered status. Even with good reviews–a show that closes after a month or two does not make a lasting impression—longevity was crucial. There were unions threatening all sorts of difficulties, creditors suing for bills of five years back, banks calling about overdrawn accounts. Iceman had an uncommonly large cast of nineteen, plus a stage manager, electrician, house manager, box-office people, ushers, a concession-stand person, a press agent, and three producers. With a 200-seat house, and tickets at $2.00, $3.00, and $4.00, we had to sell out to break even, and there was no endowment or foundation helping. Many a Friday I quietly counseled actors not to cash their checks until Monday, knowing the payroll could only be met with the receipts from Saturday’s and Sunday’s performances. Many a time, I sweet-talked creditors, begging an extension of a week or two on a bill.
There were payoffs to be made—
© 2010 by Joyce E. Henry. All rights reserved.
(A graduate of the Neighborhood Playhouse, Joyce E. Henry acted, off-Broadway and in regional theaters, managed a dozen off-Broadway shows, wrote A Matter of Conscience, a play about Fanny Kemble, directed the theater program at Ursinus College, and edited five books, including One on One: The Best Women’s Monologues for the 21st Century; One on One, The Best Men’s Monologues for the 21st Century; and Duo!: The Best Scenes for Two for the 21st Century—all from Applause Theatre and Cinema Books. Henry passed away in 2011.)
(Read Theodore Mann’s memoir, Journeys in the Night, also from Applause.)
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