…close your eyes and see it glisten, Barnaby.
During my boyhood, my parents belonged to an old conservative holiness denomination which eschewed–among many worldly influences–movie theaters. We did have an old black & white, fuzzy, three-channel television, but, for the most part, we lived in a black and white world. By age 12 I had never seen a single movie and for a variety of reasons, including lack of money, had also never seen a play. That was all about to change on a stage at Westminster College in Pennsylvania.
My mom worked at the student union of our local college and one evening, the ladies she worked with invited her to join them to see the play, Hello, Dolly! Mom came home enraptured and convinced my dad that we should all go back and watch it the next night. By the time we’d finished seeing the timeless story of Dolly Gallagher Levi Vandergelder unfold on the stage–played by an enchanting young actress named Louise Ammerman–my siblings and I had been transformed. The play was sold out, but they allowed children to sit on the aisle floors for free. So we returned to our free floor seats for the remaining three nights of the production, trying to learn the songs and dialogue and cultivating our first-ever celebrity crush on Ms. Ammerman. In the weeks and months ahead we recalled and quoted “Dolly” as often as we could, my sister perfected her impersonation of the “So Long Dearie” scene. And the greatest excitement of our young lives was seeing Louise Ammerman walking in town or on campus, whereupon we would get flustered, giggle, and try to get up the nerve to wave at her.
Sometime in the months after the play, the Barbra Streisand movie version came to our small town theater. Dad and Mom somehow reached a momentous decision: the Nichols family would, at long last, darken the doorway of a movie theater. The first movie we ever saw was also spectacularly expensive: the last of the old-time lavish Hollywood blockbuster musicals. When that extravaganza exploded onto the screen we were mesmerized, never having seen anything that big, bright, and colorful on a screen. The parade (which had up until that time, passed us by) was this larger-than-life recreation of 1890s New York, the booming orchestration filled the theater, the excitement pulsed through our impressionable young minds. If the play had imbued us with a love for Dolly’s story and for live theater, the movie version began a lifelong love affair with movies in general and for Barbra Streisand in particular. I got the soundtrack of it for my birthday and we kids spent our summer months trying use my parent’s old console stereo to blast the music out the windows, as best as one could in 1972. By summer’s end we knew every word and lyric by heart. (Counting that record I had one LP at the time.)
So many aspects of childhood have faded away in the decades since. My siblings live far away and gone are the carefree summer days when we would reenact the movie in the backyard. But the Hello Dolly thread in our DNA has remained strong. In those magical nights at Westminster we discovered the treasure of live performance. All four of us acted in all of our high school plays, My sister went on to major in theatre. Her husband, son, and I all direct high school plays. My sister and I each made it to Broadway last year to see Bette Midler storm the stage in the latest incarnation of Dolly Levi.
Which brings us to 2018 when I’m realizing my lifelong dream of directing Dolly. About four years ago I started watching a young freshman girl who had such a strong stage presence in the chorus, and she read so beautifully for Juliet when I was teaching Shakespeare. Could she be Dolly Levi? Could a school as tiny as the Academy put on a musical as grand as Dolly? I would need about a third of the student body to be in it and I would have to strong arm every English-speaking male (and a few English Language Learners) to be waiters and chorus members. Most of them, when asked, said “Sure, Dr. Nick!” When I had to have emergency open heart surgery last Thanksgiving I was afraid my Dolly dreams were down the drain, but I recuperated and spent the long days in bed dreaming and scheming of how to stage it. And last night, it burst to life on the Academy stage and Elise and the cast were brilliant! They made me laugh and cry for two hours even though I’ve seen the show 200 times in the past three months.
And one of the most magical parts of the experience? Guess who has been cheering me on all along in this endeavor? Louise Ammerman herself, whom I rediscovered 40-some years later on facebook, and explained, that unbeknownst to her, she had cast such a influential shadow on my life.
As I stood in the back of the auditorium last night, I was reminded anew of the transcendent power of storytelling, and of the powerful shared experience that an audience can have through the mystery of theatre. Tonight it transformed a disparate group of inexperienced high school students– including the soccer team who had never sung or danced before–into a company of players who made magic happen for themselves and for their audience and nearly a half century ago it opened the eyes of a small-town boy to the whole world outside of Yonkers.
Hello, Dolly, and Louise, and Barbra, and Bette….and Elise.
It’s so nice to have you back where you belong…