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For this stage-struck undergraduate, Yale and New Haven offered a smorgasbord of goodies: four years of events that added up to an amazing education. Consider movies: The Elm City boasted such palaces as the Poli, the Paramount, the Roger Sherman, and their sister houses, the College and the Bijou, all with weekly double features. How about the Lincoln, that mini-shooting gallery of a theater, in which one could enjoy such treasures as Reefer Madness or Ecstasy, in which Hedy LaMarr bared everything (gasp, gasp!) from the waist up?
One could go to a different double featurepractically every night. We weren’t playing hooky; we were studying. What more proof of that than to encounter, in the line waiting to get into the Poli to see the new Alfred Hitchcock, that erudite Britisher, the dean of the Drama School himself, Allardyce Nicoll? If he were such a film fan, didn’t that make the movies our homework?
It helped to know people, especially if one’s father was a friend of Lee Shubert, who controlled that downtown try-out legitimate theater. Who could ask for anything more than to be presented with a >Shubert season pass? Nirvana! Those four Shubert years provided a theatrical experience beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.
Shows came and went each week, in pre-Broadway try-outs. Was it some happy accident that my Yale career coincided with the opening of what we now refer to as Broadway’s golden era of musical comedy? We trooped down to the Shubert to applaud the birthings of Rodgers and Hart’s annual show, of the newest Irving Berlin, of Dietz and Schwartz, Hammerstein and Kern, and the works of our own revered fellow Eli, the one and only Cole Porter. We not only got to applaud and cheer such future classics as The Boys From Syracuse, Pal Joey, DuBarry Was a Lady, and Leave It To Me, in which a young Mary Martin, doing a mock striptease (with Gene Kelly as one of her chorus men, yet!) tore down the house with “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” More important, we also had a weekly seminar at the Shubert which could have been dubbed Flops I and II, and Shambles (Advanced Disasters).
I remember one such doozy, entitled, ever so optimistically, All In Fun. A total disaster of a musical revue which stumbled and staggered on and on until midnight, and only ended when one of its hapless stars, Phil Baker, stepped wearily out in front of the curtain to address us Shubert regulars. “Folks,” he sighed, “we’re dead tired, and it’s late, and we haven’t got a finale rehearsed, so would you please do us a favor and just go home?”
That sort of pragmatic flop-sweat wasn’t available at the Yale Drama School, where our faculty prepared one for success. We undergraduates gravitated to the Yale Dramat, and there we stepped into the aura of a brilliant Drama School dropout, Burt Shevelove, a lyricist and director possessed of a ready wit and the guts of a burglar. Years before he joined with Larry Gelbart to write A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum—adapted loosely from a Dramat show we called When In Rome—Burt decided to do a Dramat production of Clifford Odets’s Waiting For Lefty, that violent proletarian drama involving its cast in a gritty agitprop piece which dealt with a strike of taxicab drivers. Burt cheerfully cast the play with Andover, Exeter, Hotchkiss, and Groton alums. “Wear your oldest clothes for the dress!” he instructed. When the hopeful cabdrivers arrived for the dress parade the next night, Burt glared at one ex-preppy. “I said old clothes!” he yelled. “You’re wearing a cashmere sweater!” “But Burt, look—” said the hapless one. “It has a hole in the sleeve.”
At the Dramat, we decided to mount a production of Timon of Athens, to please Professor William Lyon Phelps; it was one of the three Shakespearean plays he'd never seen. For publicity, I arranged an exhibit of Shakespeariana in the Harkness Library. When I went to discuss it with the legendary Chauncey Brewster Tinker, he offered me a laundry list of precious rarities from his collection. “Excuse me,” I said, “but would you have a First Folio?”
Tinker glared at me. “We have three,” he said.
Alas, poor 1941-ers. We spent four years at Yale without cellular phones, without digital sound and CD players, computers, anti-lock brakes and airbags, giant screen color TVs, SST Concordes, space shuttles, open heart surgery, radioactive isotope implants, scuba equipment, self-cleaning ovens, smog and oil spills But we never missed what we didn’t know about. We were, in Burt’s own lyric,
In Europe, Hitler was advancing on the Maginot Line, and was destroying Jews, gypsies, and Communists. But we were safe in New Haven, in what was—although we didn’t know it—the next-to-closing of a wonderful era.
Who can forget that morning when Professor Walter Prichard Eaton, who taught play-writing, ushered us tyros into a lecture room, and said, “We have some guests who are here at the Shubert, and I’ve persuaded them to come talk.” He brought on Robert E. Sherwood, S.N. Behrman, Maxwell Anderson, and Elmer Rice—four of the most important American playwrights of our time, who spoke to us for two hours, one-on-one, and answered all our questions, whether serious or inane!
That’s what I call an education.
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