Surveying a bash director Otto Preminger was tossing in honor of the entire Congress to salute his cast for the Washington filming of "Advise and Consent," actor Charles Laughton gaped in stupefaction. Senators and representatives were glad-handing everyone as though they were close friends or relatives.
Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey astouncoded Laughton the most. As the circles gathered round the gregarious gentleman from Minnesota, he would reach out a hand and ask: "How is your niece, Mary Jane, getting along?" or "Is your mother-in-law, Mrs. Compton, feeling better?" or "Did your brother Sam get that New York job?"
"My God," said Laughton, who'd spent a lifetime acting," those guys are on all the time!" As Laughton recognized, politics and acting are not so far apart. But acting performances are over a few hours. Political performances continue around the clock.
Not surprisingly, previous experience in theater, films or TV is part of many a congressional background. Rose Robison Cowen, who once headed the Children's Theater and School of Washington, got curious about this in her current work with ATA, the American Theater Association, and sent a questionaire to all members of the Congress. More than a hundred responded; not at all a bad average.
Nor is it surprising that Humpphrey, a champion of the arts these past 30 years, poured characteristic zeal into his reply.
"As a young man growing up on the plains of South Dakota," he wrote two weeks ago, "I was fortunate to have parents with a great interest in and love for literature, music and theater, even though the opportunity to enjoy them was quite limited. Thus, I developed an early appreciation of the arts and humanities and, as a senator and vice president, effective support for them has been one of my primary concerns."
Remarking on "the comparative recent history of the formal support by the federal government for the arts," Humphrey continued:
"There will always be those who see the arts as unnecessary frills, as superfluous to the needs of society. But they are fewer now and fewer still among the coming generation who quest for more than material well-being."
Forthright and curiously fitting was the response of Elizabeth Holtzman (D-N.Y.). Holtzman had this to say:
"My own theatrical 'career' began and ended in elementary school, but I remember very well how much pleasure it gave me.
"Even very young children learn through the theater something about themselves, about others and about working with others toward a common goal."
"Few young people grow up to be professionals in the theater but I suspect that everybody who has ever been involved in 'putting a play' will never forget the fun and hard work and excitement and satisfaction. It is an enriching experience.
Congress has often attracted professional actors. Before he was a representative from Connecticut, John Davis Lodge had been a Broadway star in Lillian Hellman's "Watch on the Rhine" and in the movies he'd had biling with Marlene Dietrich in "The Scarlet Empress" and with Shirley Temple in "The Little Colonel."
Helen Gahagan Douglas, who will celebrate her 77th birthday on Nov. 25, was a New Jersey girl who starred on Broadway in "Young Woodley," "Trelawney of the Wells" and "Tonight or Never." She later did opera in Europe, and her Hollywood career included one film that pops up on TV occasionally, H. Rider Hagard's "She." Douglas represented California in the 79th to the 81st Congress, and time, in its own way, has avenged her defeat by Richard M. Nixon in a Senate bid.
Before going to Congress, Clare Booth Luce had been a child actress known as "Joyce Fair," understudy to Mary Pickford in a Belasco production. As a playwright she had huge hits wihe "The Women," "Kiss the Boys Goodbye" and "Margin for Error" and while in Congress even appeared as Shaw's "Candida" at Westport.
No, theater people are not new to Congress. What is new is a voting concern that others be exposed to theater's freedom of imagination.
For most current members, high school and college proved the only acting experience.
Florida's Richard Stone, as a state senator, introduced the bill that created his state's first agency for the creative arts, which he subsequently headed.
New York's Rep. Lester L. Wolff had a brief Broadway acting career before entering radio and TV, for which he beacame producer of "Showcase" and "The Wendy Barrie Show."
Indiana Rep. David L. Cornwell got the bug at Phillips Andover, ran a summer theater for three years in Michigan ("disbanded because of costs") and was paid for his appearances with the Phoenix Music Theater Guild as well as for commercials and film work in Arizona. He noted his awareness of theatrical costs.
Ohio's Tennyson Guyer, a college president's son, has had wide theater experience. He's appeared in religious dramas, been director and writer and even did puppet plays on religious themes.
"For our community theater, I was the murderer in 'Dial M for Murder,'" recalled Rep. Charles Wilson of Texas. His wife, Jerry, had a professional career with the Margo Jones Theater in Dallas, and has continued her activity in community theater.
Illinois Rep. Robert McClory trained for the law but at one period acted and danced with the Chicago Civic Opera.
Rep. Ronald A. Sarasin of Massachusetts was a professional actor for a Connecticut summer theater. Virginia Rep. G. William Whitehurst was a news analyst for a Norfolk TV station.
Hawaii Sen. Park Matsunaga won the Theater Guild diction award while acting at the University of Hawaii, served as vice president and director of the Honolulu Community Theater and has staged children's plays on Kauai.
Rep. Mary Rose Oakar of Ohio acted professionally at Cleveland's famed Karamu and in New York and daringly confesses that "theater is my first love."
These responses and others reflect why the arts have been getting increased federal attention. Familiarity lends enchantment.