Sunday, November 1, 2015

204. People of New York

The marrying man

     Gino Filippino, a trim-looking 53-year-old who favors tailored designer suits, has an unusual occupation: when not selling real estate, in his capacity as a justice of the peace he arranges and performs civil weddings for out-of-towners, many of them foreigners, who want to achieve their nuptials not in some quiet church, but amid the bustle and brouhaha of Manhattan.  He and his staff handle the paperwork, flowers, cake, champagne, photographers, and musicians, if such are required, but above all he helps the couples pick the spot for the wedding.  He has married both gay and straight couples in Central Park, dodging power lawnmowers and the blaring noise of tree pruners at work, and on the Brooklyn Bridge amid the roar of traffic, in busy Grand Central Station, and at the Top of the Rock, the observation deck of Rockefeller Center, with its breathtaking 360-degree views of the city.

Night view from the Top of the Rock.  Okay for a wedding?
Daniel Schwen
     The unusual is his specialty.  He has bribed employees to let him do a quickie in the Waldorf Astoria and other fancy hostelries, and once even married two hippies from California in bed at the elegant Plaza Hotel.  While he has on occasion staged elaborate ceremonies on a yacht in the harbor, most of the weddings are what he calls “hitch-and-gos,” done in a matter of minutes and costing $500 and up.  Often he has to shoo homeless people away from the marriage sites, but at other times he recruits them as witnesses to sign marriage licenses.  And once he even had to read the vows for a bride who was too drunk to manage it herself.

Grand Central Station.  Would you like to be married here?

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Or here?  The Waldorf Astoria lobby, okay for quickies.
Alan Light
     How many weddings has he done?  Over 200 a year, and even 11 in a single day, most of them in Central Park.  But he himself isn’t married, though in New York State he could be, since same-sex marriages are now legal.  He lives with his partner on the Upper West Side and operates out of an office in Columbus Square.  “I’m the marrying man,” he explains, his purpose in life to give visiting couples the “New York moment” they desire – a unique experience they won't soon forget.

There’s no place like home

     Eleanor Murray, a plump, white-haired 93-year-old, has one claim to distinction: she has lived all her life in an unassuming five-floor walk-up at 531 West 135th Street in Manhattan.  “And I mean my whole life,” she told an interviewer; “I was born in the basement.”  Indeed she was, since her mother, a Hungarian immigrant, was the building’s super and lived in a basement apartment, rising daily at 4:00 a.m. to shovel coal into the boiler.  There she gave birth to Eleanor – in the apartment, not the boiler -- with the help of a midwife and then probably went right back to work.  Her family knew all the people in the building, “all good family people, no roomers.”

     By the age of 13 Eleanor, the fourth of five children, was helping to clean the building and shoveling coal herself.  Then, at 16, she and a sister moved into the two-bedroom apartment on the third floor where she still lives today.  The rent then was $31 a month; today, being rent-regulated, it is a mere $500, which gives her yet another reason to stay.  Not that she would move anyway.  “I never wanted to move, because I love the neighborhood and I’d never leave my church.”  Her church is the Church of the Annunciation on Convent Avenue, where she and her six children attended grammar school, and where she married her husband, John Murray, who managed a warehouse on the Hudson River waterfront, and who died in 2001.

     Much has happened over the years.  She remembers swimming across the Hudson to New Jersey with friends, and the time when a cosmetics factory went up in flames, and “the neighborhood smelled beautiful for months.”  She worked as a buyer at Bloomingdale’s department store, and attended Baruch College, but never graduated because she left to have children; later, she worked in the registrar’s office at City College.  In 1988 her mother, age 99, died on the very couch in her living room where she sat to be interviewed. 

     When she grew up, the neighborhood was all Irish working-class immigrants, but today they have disappeared, replaced by Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans, and others.  “I’m the last of my gang left, but I still love the people in the neighborhood.”  Robust and cheerful with a hearty laugh, on nice days she sits with friends on a bench on the Broadway median, ignoring the traffic roaring by on either side, and takes food to an incapacitated neighbor.  When she visits a daughter in New Jersey she doesn’t stay long, missing the noise and excitement of the city.  A committed New Yorker, she leans out her window and waves to the open-air tour buses passing by on 135th Street, shouting, “Welcome to New York!”  As for the future, she has no doubt: “I’m staying here till I die.”  And she laughs. 

A Broadway chorus boy

     Ted was a Broadway chorus boy, young, short, and blond, more “cute” than stunningly good-looking, whom I knew in the 1950s and 1960s, when I was a graduate student at Columbia and subsequently began teaching French.  We met in Ogunquit, Maine, where he was appearing in the musical Pajama Game, and reconnected in New York, where, through him and his friends, I got a glimpse into the life of Broadway chorus boys.

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Broadway theaters at night.  

     Their world was a world within a world, small, exciting, self-contained.  Ted lived in a cold-water flat in the West 40s, near the theaters, his agent, and the bars that the chorus kids frequented.  Cold-water flats, being what they were, were low-rent apartments, and as such got passed along from one struggling young actor or dancer to another; Ted’s had once been the home of the veteran stage and film actress Jo Van Fleet, whom I especially remember from her role in the movie East of Eden.  Ted’s apartment, as I dimly recall, was small and sparsely furnished, probably with running cold water in a sink; for baths and other bodily needs, he had to go down the hall to a communal facility.  But this was how the chorus kids lived; they were glad to get such a place and thought no more about it.  It was less a home than a base of operations; their real life was on the stage, whether in the city or on tour, and in the bars.

     Ted had been in a number of big-time Broadway musicals, including Guys and Dolls, as commemorated by a number of photos on his wall.  Among them was one showing him in a classical ballet pose with a female dancer, but it seemed all wrong for him, whereas Guys and Dolls and Pajama Game seemed right, and he knew it.  His life was a matter of waiting for phone calls from his agent about a possible part in a musical.  He had strange and hilarious stories to tell about try-outs and casting.  On one occasion he was told, “Sorry, Ted.  You’re just what we need, but we don’t want another blond in the chorus.”  So he went out and got a dark-haired wig, hurried  back, and tried out again.  They laughed and said, “Okay, okay, you’re hired.  But don’t wear that lousy wig; dye your hair.”  And to me he explained, “Sometimes you have to do their thinking for them.”

     “Don’t you ever just walk into a part and get hired immediately?” I asked.

     “Just once.  The male chorus in The Boyfriend is supposed to be English, but there’s one American.  When they saw me, they said, ‘We hope you can sing and dance.  You’re short and blond, just what we want for the American.’ ”  Ted could sing and dance; he got the role.

Ted's world, not mine.

     Ted had tales to tell about rehearsals as well, like the time they had the heaviest of the women dancers paired off with him, the smallest of the males.  When, at one point, the girls were supposed leap up on their partner’s shoulders, Ted’s partner slid right down to the floor, taking his pants with her.  “Embarrassing,” he told me.  “There I was only in my dance belt,” meaning the jock worn by male dancers.  But he was laughing as he told me.

     At Ogunquit, on the last night of the performance there, he invited me into his dressing room, where I saw him and two other dancers, seated in their underwear, busily applying makeup.  It was the last night of the tour, always a time of joyous celebration and hijinks, with jokes and banter flying about.  Ted planned to black out some of his teeth and then, during the performance, flash a gap-toothed smile at a friend onstage, hoping to break him up.  But one of the company’s staff, wise to the ways of dancers, made an announcement warning against such shenanigans.  “Remember,” he said, “you may want to work for these folks again.”  So Ted didn’t blacken his teeth.

     When there were few shows in the offing, dancers had a recourse to industrials, lavish spectacles with dancers used by big corporations, especially automakers, to introduce a new product.  Industrials went all over the country and they paid well, so dancers took them to bring in some cash, but their heart was in the theater.  I recall seeing an industrial on a friend’s TV set, with dancers dancing around glistening new limousines lit with bright lights.  Said my friend, who was in advertising and knowledgeable, “You wouldn’t believe what all of that costs!”  Why dancers were needed to introduce a new model of car, I never quite grasped, but the automakers presumably knew what they were doing.

     The social life of chorus boys was centered in a handful or more-or-less gay bars in the West 40s.  I went to one once with Ted.  The emphasis was less on cruising than socializing, and everybody seemed to know everybody.  The latest bit of gossip was about a young dancer who had just broken up with his lover, the show’s dance captain, who had then got his ex fired.  When the kid just fired showed up, all the others flocked around him to sympathize; the dance captain was vilified by one and all.  As Ted observed to me, mixing your private life with your career was risky; he never did.

     On another occasion a friend of Ted’s told him and some other dancers how he had got a part given up by a strikingly good-looking dancer.  “I knew I couldn’t match him in looks, so I decided to strut like a stud, as if to say, ‘Honeys, what I’ve got going for me is right down there between my legs.’ ”  All the other chorus kids agreed that, under the circumstances, this was the only thing to do.

     Dancers were always socializing; they weren’t ones for quiet times at home with a good book, or for reflection.  And when they went on tour, the socializing wasn’t diminished, for they were constantly being partied wherever they went.  Once Ted met Tennessee Williams, who had invited the chorus boys to a private party.  Williams scanned each as he arrived, and said to Ted, “Hmm, yes, you can stay.”  Thanks a lot, Ted thought to himself, I thought I’d already been invited.  But in Denver a wealthy young businessman was so taken with Ted that he offered to keep him in style.  Ted  politely declined the offer, which his admirer pressed repeatedly, sure that he could wear down Ted’s resistance.  But Ted knew that in the long run such a relationship led nowhere; he stuck to his guns, said no.

     Ted and I weren’t steady lovers, just on-and-off-again partners.  Weeks, even months might pass, and then, on the spur of the moment, I would phone him and we would get together. We were of different worlds – me an academic, a teacher, and him a dancer steeped in the small, rich world of Broadway chorus boys.  But at times he needed to come out of that world, even though he always went back into it.  “It’s always good to see you,” he told me more than once.  “Theater kids aren’t in the real world, they’re off in some fantasy world of their own.”  At first I shrugged his remark off, but when he repeated it several times, I realized that it was for real, he was in that world but not altogether of it, he needed to come out and get a breath of fresh air.  Seeing me was that breath of fresh air, and at the same time I could escape from my own world, the rich, small world of academics.

     Ted knew that you can’t be a chorus boy forever – a problem explored decades later in the musical A Chorus Line.  A few dancers end up teaching dance or becoming choreographers, but only a very few.  Ted’s plan was to transition into acting.  His acting teacher encouraged him, but his agent and others resisted; “Ted,” they said, “you’re a dancer.”  Which didn’t leave much room for transitioning.  Like all young actors in search of credits and experience, he took parts in what veteran actors laugh at and deride: children’s theater.  In one, I recall, he played a mad physicist.  I never saw him perform, but an acquaintance of mine did.  “It’s fascinating how dancers get into a role,” he told me.  “When I do it, I’m exploring the character’s emotions, finding out what the character feels.  But dancers do it through movements; they dance themselves into the role.” 

     But what chance did a dancer have of getting into acting in New York, when he was competing with a host of young actors doing the same?  Often as not, an aging dancer – and in that profession aging comes fast – goes back to his hometown, Pittsburgh or Cleveland or Denver, where family and friends are waiting, and a job in some mundane profession offers the security that theater can never provide.  More than once Ted told me, “You may get a phone call that can change your life.”  Now he was waiting, not for a call offering yet another job as a dancer, but for a call offering a serious role as an actor.  But as long as I knew him, that call never came.

     One day I finally suggested to Ted that we continue as friends minus sex, prompting his wistful reply, “I hate for things to change.”  Soon after that I met my partner Bob, and from then on Ted was out of my life.  With hindsight, I regret this; it wasn’t necessary.  I suspect that Ted finally went back to Pittsburgh or wherever and the inevitable mundane job.  Now that decades have passed, I wonder what became of him, but probably I’ll never know.  So it goes, with time.

     Epilogue:  The story of Ted has a surprise ending.  After writing the above, on the spur of the moment I googled him by both his real name and his stage name, expecting nothing, since he was only one of hundreds of young male dancers who have their moment of glory on Broadway and then disappear into the maw of oblivion.  But to my astonishment, several obits in New Jersey newspapers came up, announcing the death last spring of an 87-year-old man with the same two names, an inhabitant of Bayonne.  What a coincidence! I told myself, but soon became convinced that this was, indeed had to be, the Ted I knew.  This Ted was a Broadway chorus boy back when the Ted I knew was appearing in Broadway musicals and, when he retired from dancing, began working in wardrobe, and finally retired from that with honors after 45 years on Broadway.  So Ted found a way to stay in Broadway theater after he left dancing, and it wasn’t acting.  But the obit told me things I didn’t know:

·      He was the son of a Pennsylvania coal miner, so that his leap into a career in dancing  anticipated the story of the Broadway musical Billy Elliot.
·      He was a year older than me, whereas I had always thought he was two or three years younger.
·      He had been briefly in the military at the end of World War II.
·      After I knew him he married a dancer and by her had a daughter.

He was quoted as saying, “I had a wonderful life.  I have no regrets.  Always follow your dreams.” 

     My reaction to this news was astonishment, then sadness, then joy.  Astonishment for obvious reasons.  Sadness because I just missed discovering him in time to reconnect, talk old times, say hello and good-bye.  And joy because he solved the problem of what to do when he quit dancing: he followed his dream and stayed in the world of theater that he knew and loved.  To be backstage in wardrobe and not out there performing must have been an adjustment, but he managed.  He had a rich,  full life; I wish I could have shared a little of it in the years after I knew him almost a half century ago on Broadway.  Good-bye, Ted, and good luck!  Have a dance with the angels.

     Source note:  For information about Gino Filippone and Eleanor Murray, I am indebted to articles by Corey Kilgannon in the Metropolitan section of the Sunday New York Times of July 19 and September 27, 2015, respectively.

     The book:  The selection of posts from this blog is now available as an e-book on Kindle and Nook for $3.99.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

     Coming soon:  The Rich.  No, I don’t mean Donald Trump – not yet, at least.  I mean a young foreigner who arrived here in steerage speaking no English and became the richest man in America.  Also a slave trader, a Paris-inhabiting “pink and glass of fashion,” a ship captain named (I invent not) Preserved Fish, a “scribbling female,” the father of the modern department store, and the man who became known as Old Sixty Millions.  What did these nineteenth-century moneybags have in common that makes them different from the moneybags of today?  As for those  moneybags of today, I'll get around to them in time, including, no doubt, the Donald.

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder

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