October 17, 2008

An Elevator Named Desire

Note: It seems this is the month for memoirs. Inspired, and encouraged, by Grandmère Mimi, whom I teased somewhat by hinting at this story, I here record a tale from my early actor’s life, a tale I’ve told many times but commit to writing now for the first.

It was the late 1970s and I was living in what we affectionately called the Young Actors’ Home — Manhattan Plaza, a subsidized housing facility for creative artists, a portion of whom were so successful that they paid full market rent. Among those who did so was playwright Tennessee Williams, who lived on one of the upper floors. I say all this by way of setting the scene.

One late afternoon I was at home doing I can’t remember what, when the phone rang. It was the front desk, who handed the receiver to my good friend, Dennis O’Keefe, who was down in the lobby. Dennis and I had been in college together studying theater — although Dennis by this time had primarily become interested in a career as a playwright. I knew that that day, Dennis, who had been experiencing some strange neurological symptoms over the previous weeks, had gone in for an exam and a spinal tap. When I heard his voice on the phone I scarcely recognized it; he was moaning with pain. “Tobe — can you come down please and help me get up to my apartment. I can hardly walk. My head is going to explode.” So, I quickly went downstairs to the lobby; and there was Dennis, doubled over and moaning quietly as he leaned against the wall outside the elevators. I hustled him on board the next elevator — just the two of us — and pressed the button for the top floor, which is where Dennis lived. As the elevator boosted itself and then again when it slowed to a stop at the second floor, Dennis moaned in agony from the movement. At the second floor, where the health club and swimming pool were located, the door slid open. There stood a dapper little gentleman with a thin mustache, wearing a bathrobe, bathing cap, and flip-flops. It was Tennessee Williams. I was speechless, and Dennis was still moaning from the recent stop of the elevator. In spite of living in the same large building neither of us had crossed paths with the famous playwright prior to this.

Now, you have to picture what struck the eyes of the man considered by many to be one of our greatest (at that time) living playwrights. As the door slid open he beheld this short blonde juvenile (a technical term for an actor well into his 20s still playing teenagers) standing beside a very thin and very tall young man with a mop of long brown hair, bent over double and moaning miserably. Before Tennessee stepped onto the elevator I noticed a very slight hesitation and raising of the eyebrows.

He pressed the button for his floor — one floor below Dennis’s. This meant we were in for a long ride. As the doors closed and the elevator took off again, Dennis moaned deeply. But this was New York, and Tennessee was a Southern Gentleman, so neither he nor I said anything. The elevator was not a fast elevator. Moments passed as Tennessee and I studiously examined different portions of the wall and ceiling, and Dennis’s moans subsided somewhat.

When I could bear the tension no more, I turned to Mr. Williams, and with what I now realize was an almost perfect Jack Benny delivery, shrugged, and said, “Spinal tap.” As if this was the most normal sort of thing to happen in midtown.

Tennessee raised his eyebrows and gave a knowing “a ha” look, though I detected a certain amount of suspicion and doubt in and around his eyes. I just kept nodding and smiling, perhaps a bit more now like Woody Allen than Jack Benny. And the seconds ticked by. Finally the elevator reached his floor and the doors slid open. Mr. Williams stepped through, turned, and said, with some very real kindness — you know, the kind reserved for strangers — and a knowing nod — though what he knew I know not — “I hope your friend feels better soon.”

The doors slid closed. And with a swift succession of lurches and moans we reached Dennis’s floor. As we got off the elevator and approached his apartment, Dennis the aspiring playwright asked, “Was that Tennessee Williams?” I could not tell a lie. And Dennis moaned the deepest moan he had moaned that day.

Dennis and Tennessee are both gone now; but I hope they have found a comfortable spot in a café off the Elysian Fields in the heavenly New Orleans, enjoying the recollection of the time their paths crossed in an elevator in Manhattan.

Tobias Haller BSG


June Butler said...

What a delight! Not Dennis' pain, of course, but the display of southern gentlemanly aplomb by the great man.

And you, Tobias. How fortunate that you were able to draw upon your range of thespian skills in a tense moment - from Jack Benny to Woody Allen in the space of an elevator ride.

Thanks for telling the story. It's "out there" for posterity now.

Fran said...

Oh Tobias! What a story- brilliant in your retelling.

I can't imagine what that was like.

God rest their souls - may they know only joy now.

June Butler said...

A thought, Tobias. It's possible that that a manuscript by T. Williams lies undiscovered in an obscure place, a manuscript which describes that very scene in the elevator.