Patrick Dennis had an Auntie Mame.
I have an Uncle Charlie.
That’s how I began my first book, self-published when I was sixteen, a fiftieth birthday gift to Charlie. It’s still online somewhere and there are lots of typos in it.
The Auntie Mame analogy remains true, and Charlie’s next big gift from me will be a play. In five years or ten, when I’m famous enough have Mario Cantone play him.
I’m an autobiographical storyteller who sometimes pretends to be a playwright. My plays are built one story at a time. This is the first story of Charlie’s play I’ve been inspired to write. And it’s not about Charlie. Not entirely. It’s about his Charlie, if that makes sense.
Charlie had an Auntie Mame, too.
Charlie sits in a classy gay bar, the kind that no longer exist in Cleveland, unconvinced that he’s met the love of his life. Until he learns that the man across the table, Lou Giannetti, is best friends with Sheldon Wigod, Artistic Director of the New Mayfield Reparatory Cinema. The New Mayfield was a revival house that showed classic films like Sunset Boulevard, All About Eve, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in the days before VHS. Charlie loves film. Charlie wants to meet Sheldon. So in an instant, as if by association, Lou becomes Prince Charming.
Charlie and Lou have been together ever since.
A month later, Charlie attends a screening at the New Mayfrield by himself. Afterward he approaches Sheldon, shakes his hand and says, “Hello, I’m Charlie Haddad, a friend of Lou Giannett’s.”
When Charlie walks away, Sheldon thinks to himself, “Who gives a fuck?”
But a friendship starts. Dinners every Friday, just Charlie and Sheldon. Long talks about life and art. Not lovers, no, but deep, intimate friends. 1983 was a monumental year for Charlie. He met his life partner, Lou, and his best friend, Sheldon. At 24 years old. The same age I am now.
Charlie explains the dynamic as this: “Lou was the grown up. He was raised in a poor household. He was never extravagant. I was the spoiled child. I never wanted for anything. And Sheldon was a spoiled child. So we understood each other.”
Sheldon is a professor. Teaching is his natural instinct. Charlie and Sheldon listen to operas together. Discuss. Analyze. Watch films. See plays. Hundreds and hundreds of plays. They travel the world. New York, Germany, London, Venice
New York, New York, New York.
Always New York.
Sheldon had been going for years. Years. Ever since he got out of the army in the fifties. He saw Ethel Merman in Gypsy. He saw the original production of Hair. He saw Lauren Bacall in Applause, which only matters because it was based on All About Eve. And I’d like to imagine that he saw Judy at Carnegie Hall. Take that leap of faith with me, okay?
Much like I was anxious to go to New York with Charlie as a teenager, Charlie wanted to go to New York with Sheldon. And he waited. And waited.
And then, their first trip together in 1987—a birthday lunch for Sheldon at the Four Seasons with $10 fresh raspberries, his favorite treat and a stock market crash, all in one afternoon.
Over the decades—A Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Vanessa Redgrave.
The revival of Chicago, three days before opening. Bebe Neuwirth rising from floor to greatness. All. That. Jazz.
Together they stood in countless cancellation lines at Sheldon’s insistence because you can get premium seats at regular rates and you can get into any sold-out show—even Hamilton—if you wait long enough.
Except Wicked. They couldn’t get into Wicked.
From Sheldon, Charlie learned everything, saw everything, everything
Tennessee Williams, O’Neill, Albee, Pinter, even Wagner’s Bayreuth festival in Germany. “He was a rabbi,” Charlie says, “and I was his rapt student.”
I met Sheldon in 2004. He was charming, lovely, and instantly curious about me. Another spoiled child. His rapt student was now the teacher. My teacher of all things related to the arts. Sheldon taught me too, or at least he tried.
Lesson # 1
“Streisand was fine in her early years,” he said. “But by the seventies she stopped singing the notes straight. Embellished everything.Her stardom went to her head. She stopped trusting the music itself. But Judy. Judy was a force of nature because she was always insecure. She never really believed in herself. Constant vulnerability and authenticity. Never a false note.”
“Liza can do anything, but Judy could do everything.”
I’m 15 years old, and I ask, “Sheldon, what do you think of Dreamgirls not being nominated for Best Picture?”
“I think it’s the best decision anyone could’ve ever made I hated that movie. I wanted to walk out. It was a pop-singing nightmare, not a musical. That girl Bouncy, or whatever her name is, can’t act to save her life, and when that girl was screaming, ‘And I am telling you I’m not going,’ all I could think was, ‘Please! Go!’”
I’m sitting next to Sheldon at a production of Nine again when I was 15. He whispers in my ear, “This show was originally called Too Much Pussy.”
I don’t remember all the lessons.
“Sheldon, please help me understand Suddenly Last Summer.”
“Sheldon, please help me understand A Delicate Balance.”
And he would, for an hour at a time on the phone. To pretend I remember would be an insult to his intelligence. Why didn’t I write it down? Why didn’t I write it down?
His last pilgrimage to New York was the winter of 2013, to see Cherry Jones as Amanda in The Glass Menagerie. We didn’t see it together, but when I saw it I remembered Sheldon’s numerous lessons on the life of Tennessee Williams.
And when Amanda said, “Promise me you’re never going to become a drunkard!”
I wept, knowing our dear Tom did not keep his promise.
A few months after I saw that production, in my junior year of college, I visited a school counselor for six weeks, to discuss my lack of academic productivity.
What we actually discussed was my overwhelming loneliness. One day the counselor said, “Ryan, many people spend the majority of their lives alone. What if that happens to you?”
“No. I don’t want to talk about that. Let’s talk about something else.”
Of course, I thought of Sheldon. Best friends with Charlie and Lou for most of his life but never able to find a partner of his own.
His greatest regret wasn’t that he never made a film or wrote a great play.
His greatest regret was that he couldn’t sustain a long-term romantic relationship.
“But generally, my life has been a happy one,” he said on his 80th birthday. “And the things that have sustained me are two things. The first thing is a family of friends. A Cleveland branch and a Detroit branch, People I’ve known for 40 years. That’s my family And the other thing – the arts. The arts are not something that interests me. It’s not entertainment. They are sustaining. That’s my nourishment. From Wagner to Bob Dillion, from Faulkner to Bette Davis. It’s not something I do to pass the time. It’s everything. AND MY FRIENDS! And that’s it. Everything else is shit.”
Sheldon died April 20, 2016. He was ill for the last year of his life, immobilized by a stroke. When I called Charlie to express my sympathies, he said, “He was the greatest raconteur I’ve ever known. I have 33 years of memories to keep me laughing until I die.”
And I said, “I hope that’s not for a while. I still have so much left to learn.”
Sheldon hoped to make it to New York one more time to see Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie. I take comfort in the fact that no one else saw it either.
The last time I saw Sheldon, he ordered a martini at a deli, as one does. I was getting ready for an audition when I returned to New York. “They want me to sing a Kurt Weill song. Do you have any suggestions?”
“Ryan, Kurt Weill is my absolute favorite. You should do the Walter Houston song, the one his daughter did on that terrible television show Smash.”
“I’m not too young for that?” I said.
“Who gives a fuck?” he said. “Sing it, Ryan. Sing it for me.”
Oh the days dwindle down
To a precious few
And these few precious days
I’d spend with you
These precious days
I’d spend with you.