For Sheldon on the Day of the Tonys

Patrick Dennis had an Auntie Mame.
I have an Uncle Charlie.

Thats how I began my first book, self-published when I was sixteen, a fiftieth birthday gift to Charlie. Its still online somewhere and there are lots of typos in it.

The Auntie Mame analogy remains true, and Charlies next big gift from me will be a play. In five years or ten, when Im famous enough have Mario Cantone play him.

Im 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 Charlies play Ive been inspired to write. And its not about Charlie. Not entirely. Its about his Charlie, if that makes sense.

Charlie had an Auntie Mame, too.
Sheldon.

 

Photo by Janice Kushner

Photo by Janice Kushner

February 1983

Charlie sits in a classy gay bar, the kind that no longer exist in Cleveland, unconvinced that hes 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, Im Charlie Haddad, a friend of Lou Giannetts.

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 1987a 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 decadesA Long Days 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 Sheldons insistence because you can get premium seats at regular rates and you can get into any sold-out showeven Hamiltonif you wait long enough.

Except Wicked. They couldnt get into Wicked.

From Sheldon, Charlie learned everything, saw everything, everything

Tennessee Williams, ONeill, Albee, Pinter, even Wagners 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.

 

Lesson #2

Liza can do anything, but Judy could do everything.

 

Lesson #3

Im 15 years old, and I ask, Sheldon, what do you think of Dreamgirls not being nominated for Best Picture?

I think its the best decision anyone couldve 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, cant act to save her life, and when that girl was screaming, And I am telling you Im not going, all I could think was, Please!  Go!’”

 

Lesson #4

Im 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 dont 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 didnt I write it down? Why didnt 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 didnt see it together, but when I saw it I remembered Sheldons numerous lessons on the life of Tennessee Williams.

And when Amanda said, Promise me youre 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 dont want to talk about that. Lets 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 wasnt that he never made a film or wrote a great play.

His greatest regret was that he couldnt 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 Ive known for 40 years. Thats my family And the other thing the arts. The arts are not something that interests me. Its not entertainment. They are sustaining. Thats my nourishment. From Wagner to Bob Dillion, from Faulkner to Bette Davis. Its not something I do to pass the time. Its everything. AND MY FRIENDS! And thats 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 Ive ever known. I have 33 years of memories to keep me laughing until I die.

And I said, “I hope thats 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 ONeills 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.

 Im 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

September

November

And these few precious days

Id spend with you

These precious days

Id spend with you.

Laura and Me

Everyone who takes Beginning Acting at Ohio Wesleyan University is assigned a scene from The Glass Menagerie. I was given the scene between Tom and his mother, Amanda, the morning after their confrontation. Four years earlier, in a summer theatre workshop, I had performed the preceding confrontation. I knew the play and the circumstances, so when my professor said to reread it anyway, I went on Facebook instead.

The first time I read it I was fifteen and focused almost exclusively on Tom. He was the showy role I wanted to play. I barely paid attention to his sister, Laura. In fact, the day after I’d opted not to reread the play for Beginning Acting, I asked a question in class about Laura’s use of the word “cripple” that all but proved I hadn’t done my homework.

By the time we presented our first showings, I still hadn’t reread the play. I did a serviceable job with my scene, but when Kristen and Ian, two of my closest friends, started to perform Laura’s scene with Jim from the second act, I was knocked out.

Kristen and Ian did a beautiful job. I believed they were those characters, I believed they were falling for each other, and for the first time I was really hearing the text of that scene.

I’d thought I identified with only Tom. Laura is shy and I’m not shy, so how could I possibly identify with her? But in this scene, to which I’d never paid close attention, Laura opens up about her self-consciousness. She has an unspecified leg defect. I have cerebral palsy. She talks about things I’d never talked about, yet I had thought those things and felt those things.

Reminiscing about high school with Jim, a boy she has had a crush on for years, she says, “I had that brace on my leg—it clumped so loud!” I’ve worn leg braces all life. They don’t clump like Laura’s, but my walker is certainly loud enough to bring me unwanted attention.

“Everybody was seated before I came in,” Laura says. “I had to walk in front of all those people. My seat was in the back row. I had to go clumping all the way up the aisle with everyone watching!” I feel this way every time I arrive late to class, which is often. I wish my walker had a mute button.

That afternoon in 008, the basement rehearsal room of Ohio Wesleyan’s Chappelear Drama Center, I cried quietly watching Kristen and Ian. Then I went home and reread the play, as I should have two weeks earlier, and began to understand the heartbreak of the entire piece.

Watching John Tiffany’s masterful Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie with my parents, I kept thinking of my Beginning Acting class, my friends Ian and Kristen, and the moment I realized how deeply I connected with Laura.

I could not stop crying. 

My mom tried to quiet me down. “It’s okay,” she said, holding my hand. 

Laura and Jim started dancing and I was inconsolable.

Very few men have danced with me.

Very few people have danced with me in such a way that makes me forget I can’t really dance. A few have succeeded, and afterward I’ve thanked them. I don’t know if they’ve understood the depth of my gratitude.

As Jim, Brian J. Smith was everything I wish for in a man, in a dance partner. He didn’t just see beyond the disability; he acknowledged and embraced it but minimized its significance.

As Laura, Celia Kennan-Bolger embodied my inner demons, yet for an instant when she was dancing, those demons vanished from her beautiful face.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Photo by Joan Marcus

After they dance, Jim tells Laura she is pretty. Then Jim kisses Laura. And then Jim is gone.

When Tom leaves at the end of the play, Laura is left with her mother, alone.

“Blow out your candles, Laura ... And so goodbye,” Tom says.

Waiting for a table at a restaurant after the show, my mom asked, “Were you crying because she reminds you of yourself?”

“That’s part of it, yes,” I said.

“You’ll find someone,” Mom said. “It will happen.”

“I keep trying, but I just end up chasing after guys who aren’t interested in me.”

"Don’t chase after any guy,” Dad said. “You’re too important for that."

At the end of Act I, Amanda tells Laura to make a wish on the moon, for happiness and good fortune.

On the flight home to Cleveland, just as the sun finished setting, I saw a little silver slipper of a moon in the sky, and I made a wish too.