Super huge hugs and thanks to Princess Farhana and her mom, Betsy Holland Gehman, for allowing me to reprint this story. It’s another witty chapter of Mama Gehman’s memoirs– a peek into the unglamorous side of showgirl life, 1949 New York. Enjoy.
WELCOME TO NEW YORK
You Won’t Be a Stranger For Long
By Betsy Holland Gehman
1. In the beginning
On my second day in New York in late August of 1949 I took my first solo flight on the Subway. My roommate Jill Kraft, born in New York, put me on the IRT train and left the rest to fate. She’d already instructed me to get off at the Times Square station and walk north to 43rd Street where I would have my first Broadway interview with Louis Schurr, the famous agent.
If he decided I showed any possibilities, Jill assured me, he’d send me on to meet some producer or casting director…or maybe I’d be sent straight over to audition for one of the many Broadway shows now holding auditions for the upcoming season. She also thought it important for me to know he was once upon a long time ago the agent of record for huge stars like Ethel Merman, Bert Lahr and Bob Hope — which only made me more nervous about my own qualifications for stardom. Jill explained all that to me as she rushed to get ready for her acting class with Stella Adler.
My trip from West 72nd Street down to 42nd took mere minutes. I climbed up a couple of flights of stairs and found myself on a traffic island in front of the famous New York Times Tower where the ball was dropped every New Year’s Eve. Traffic, heading in two directions, roared by while crowds of people waited for the lights to change so they could race across either Seventh Avenue on one side of this traffic island or Broadway on the other side.
With rain threatening and thick clouds overhead, I had no idea which way was east, west, north or south; nor which direction was uptown or downtown.
Then I spotted a policemen – a tall, good-looking young policeman.
“Pardon me, officer,” I said in my rarely-used perky ingenue voice. “Do you know where 43rd Street is?”
He responded with one of those legendary Irish smiles and looking down at me said with complete confidence, “Yes, I do.”
In the long silence that followed I waited for the man in blue to continue. My own suddenly less certain smile began to crumple; his smile was as fresh as the moment it was born. Maybe fresher.
Finally, as the light bulb slowly lit up over my head, I took a deep breath and said, “You’re going to make me ask that second question, aren’t you?”
Looking down at me and still smiling he said, “Yes, I am.”
I took a deep breath, and as slowly and as liltingly Irish I could make it, all but sang the question. “Sure and in which direction might I find this so-called 43rd Street — if indeed ye’d be so kindly!”
New York’s finest took me by the shoulders, turned me 90 degrees to the left, and pointed me in the right direction. I just stood there nodding my head, my back still to him. Behind me, I heard a great guffaw. This brief encounter had just made his day!
“Welcome to New York!” he said happily.
2. Later the same day
The agent’s office was less than a block away at 1501 Broadway — otherwise known as The Paramount Building. The Paramount Theatre dominated the entire front of the building with a five-story marquee in the French rococo style indicating that all who entered got to see a movie and a stage show. Big stars like Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington often played there – live – doing five shows a day. Don’t ask me who was playing that day; I was far too excited to notice. The entrance to the office portion of the building was inconspicuously tucked away just beyond the garish, glittering marquee.
Inside the surprisingly ordinary lobby, I found a uniformed, white-gloved attendant waiting in a brass-grilled elevator to Otis me up to the floor where the Schurr Agency was located. Once through the portal that might lead to my future, I proudly announced to the receptionist, “I have an appointment with Louis Schurr.”
Appointed hours for meetings with agents, I would learn, are as elastic as appointments with members of say … royalty…or the medical professions. They all seem to know the trick of over-booking. I found an empty chair and counted at least a dozen other Broadway hopefuls sitting and waiting — all avoiding eye contact. I hoped we weren’t all waiting for the same guy. I was left to ponder this for two hours, while even more supplicants crowded in to the already SRO waiting room.
When at long last I was ushered into the sanctum sanctorum, I found this tiny, ancient personage, with hair dyed a shockingly unlikely jet black, sitting in a huge fancy chair behind a desk the size of Rhode Island. He was shouting into the phone and didn’t even look up as the secretary announced my name. She gave me a little shove to start my engine and pointed to a straight-backed chair directly in front of the desk. As she exited, she slammed the door as a signal to her boss that he had company. He continued shouting into his phone. I remained standing midway between him and the door, too timid to sit down without being invited.
Suddenly Little Louis was shouting in his telephone voice, “You’re a singer, right?”
Unsure whether he was talking to me or to the deaf person at the other end of the phone, I just nodded my head.
“So sing!” he ordered, still holding the phone.
“Where’s the piano?” I asked hesitantly.
“No piano! No piano player!” he hollered. “Sing!”
At this particular moment, I could not remember the lyrics to a single song in the entire universe. And since I wasn’t blessed with perfect pitch, I could not possibly find the right key to start singing. Then I heard Jill’s voice saying this could be my big chance.
So I started singing a capella at full volume, when suddenly the phone rang. Again! In total disbelief, I watched the little ferret pick it up while casually waving at me to continue singing while he chatted away relentlessly.
Bravely – no, make that angrily – I kept on singing, pushing the decibel level higher and “sparkling” (which Marge Champion had long ago told me was her foolproof way to keep the audience focusing on her). It did not work on my audience of one; he just talked louder into the phone.
That’s when I decided to improvise gibberish lyrics, stringing together nonsense syllables that formed wordlike sounds with no meaning whatsoever. When he simply upped the noise ante and continued to out-shout me, I changed my line of attack and substituted a litany of four-letter words in place of the gibberish. I was hoping against hope that the shock of hearing “*%#@” “@#!?” and the like, sung in a strident girly voice, might be noticeable enough to catch his attention. He never stopped barking into the phone.
I kept singing this newly invented x-rated version of my favorite audition song as I inched my way backwards to the door until I felt the doorknob bumping into my backside. I made my escape just as I reached the last yodel of the refrain. Banging open his office door, I raced through the jam-packed reception room and out the door leading to the real world.
Once back on street level and the relative sanity of Times Square, I started walking along the sidewalk, trying to avoid collisions with all the people rushing somewhere or other so imperatively. As I shambled along, trying to quell the residual shaking caused by the recent peak humiliation of my life, I noticed a forty-ish man who was wearing dark glasses, carrying a red-tipped white cane in one hand and a tin cup sprouting two long yellow Ticonderoga pencils in the other, walking directly toward me very slowly, sweeping his cane as he moved.
Instantly I felt a ripple of shame for allowing myself to indulge in such unrestrained self-pity. If this blind man had the moxie to get up every day and face the callous, hard-bitten denizens of The Great White Way — I could do it, too! Nothing could stop me now, I thought.
Filled with gratitude, I began foraging for coins in my handbag to offer thanks to this brave man who had unknowingly helped set my priorities straight. Pedestrians kept rushing by as he and I drew alongside one another. I dropped a quarter and a half-dollar into his tin cup; they hit bottom with a surprisingly sharp clank.
My new mentor’s head snapped up and he said with a broad smile, “Welcome to New York…enjoy your visit!”