"FAME," first the movie, now the TV fantasy on the career hopes of youngsters at a high school for performing arts, is bringing the old dreams back. The early dreams of those of us who could dance a little, or sing or make the class laugh. The intoxication of applause. And on days when the sky hangs heavy like a closed option, the old dreams pinch and rub. We begin to feel that not trying, not risking more, may have left some holes in our lives.
In real life, of course, the Big Success is far from certain no matter how talented you are. Five local artists tell what it's really like to court fame, up close, where the glue is hard behind the glitter.
Recalling New York
Moments ago, as the fiery Jenny in the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop's "Southern Gothic," Mary Anne Peterson raged against stiflin' convention. Now, during intermission in this amateur production (she's repeating the role this month at the Source), she sits smiling, her baby Claire tugging her long auburn hair. She laughs, a sound of bells. Her voice is full of color. "You know," she says, "an old friend of mine, an actor, just called from California. He was so excited. 'Look for me in the Mr. Coffee commercial,' he said. 'I'm the hands.' Poor guy, can you imagine? Fifteen years he's been struggling. He's pretty good too, and he's the hands in a Mr. Coffee ad!"
She sits back, cradling the baby. Her eyes shift scenes. It's a New York walk-up 10 years ago. "Gosh, I'll never forget those days. It was fun, but . . . I had a roommate, Noreen--she was really a dedicated actress, who was so poor she couldn't even afford to wash her sheets at the laundromat. We did them in the tub. And she could only afford plain yogurt. With berries cost more."
Peterson smiles a half-smile. The little walk-up, she says, stayed the same size--about half as big as her present living room--the whole five years she was there, but the rent kept going up. So pretty soon there were three aspiring actress roommates, all living out the same struggle. They took temp-secretary jobs when they could get them. Noreen sewed fancy costumes at night. They took the obligatory dance classes, singing classes, acting classes. Peterson's dad helped her with tuition. They brazened it out at cattle-call auditions, the only kind you heard about without an agent. At a cattle-call, Mary Anne says, you could waste half a day waiting for a two-minute chance to be seen and heard. Then from the dark theater, a bored voice would call out "thank you" and that was it.
But their dreams were still alive, and there were compensations. Every small victory was cause for rejoicing--the hit play you almost made it into, the parts in off-off-Broadway showcase productions that didn't pay, but where you hoped an agent might see you. And there were friends. Not much romance, she remembers, she was too busy for that, but lots of friends from different classes, fellow hopefuls who would sometimes run singing through the streets together from sheer exuberance.
Still the problems remained, like pebbles in a shoe, growing to stone size as the journey continued. Problem: a cheap answering service that took lousy messages. Peterson found out six months after she'd missed the message that the prestigious Theatre By the Sea, Rhode Island, had wanted her for summer stock. Problem: no agent. Agents didn't want you until you started making money, but it was nearly impossible to hook into money-making ventures without an agent. Problem: commercials. Unless you'd done a commercial--a good way for young actors to survive--no one thought you could. "At acting school"--Peterson was at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts--"they told us to fake our re'sume's, put down we'd done commercials. They said we could rewrite the fake entries when we had something real." Eyes down: "I could never do it."
As she sees it now, that was a big part of her problem in "making it" in New York. Peterson has talent, training and dedication. She lacks chutzpah. To illustrate the kind of brass needed in that overheated talent race, she tells an old Streisand audition story. "You've got a theater overflowing with kids, okay? Streisand bounces out on stage to sing her trial number. She climbs up on the stool with exaggerated 'business,' takes a huge wad of gum out of her mouth and sticks it under the rim. The official viewing party gasps, stares at this audacious bad-girl. She sings, leaves. An underling rushes to the stage to sanitize the stool. Surprise! There is no gum. Never was. But out of all those kids, they remembered Streisand."
Peterson decided to leave New York at 27, she says, when she realized that this period of struggle, of tries and near-successes, could go on indefinitely. "I didn't want to be there still, on that treadmill at 40."
The director sticks her head in the dressing room: "Places!" Mary Anne hands the baby back to her husband Steve. "I wouldn't trade my life now, of course, but I still feel the same way I did then. I love to perform. It's the greatest thrill in the world to assume another character."
On stage Dayle Berke is the big, brassy blond in the "Take Five" musical revue playing Tuesdays this month at Garvin's. She does all the comedy and "sleaze" songs. "Oh God, don't print that. I want to send this review to mother!"
In black satin with an orange feather boa, she camps it up as "Mama," a Sophie Tucker-like character from Bob Fosse's "Chicago." She snakes the boa across her outstretched arms, gives a backwards bump and shimmies around to face the crowd. Gravel voice, "Just you be good to Mama, and Mama'll be go-o-d to you." She is funny, raucous, outrageous--the eyes clown all by themselves--and yet, oddly, innocent. Maybe that's what makes a comedian.
"I can't sing a song straight, you know. I was in an opera company in high school, but doing all those numbers straight . . .? I always have to get crazy with it."
After acting, singing, dancing all through school, "being in everything," Berke played it straight for eight years through college and law school--she quit performing. "I was in college in the '60s, very committed to social goals, so I decided to go into public interest law." She is an FTC attorney, currently assigned to the House Select Committee on Aging, working on issues involving mail fraud. She finds her legislative work fulfilling, important. "I couldn't give it up."
But she can't give up performing either. "I got back on stage with a Hexagon show a few years ago, and I realized how much of myself I'd cut off by not performing. So I got back into plays, dance lessons. Last fall I had a great time as Adelaide, the eternal fiance', the comic female lead in the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop production of 'Guys and Dolls.' "
In fact, the "Take Five" company met in "Guys and Dolls." All had a great time. But when it was over, there they were, says Berke, "all revved up to do more singing and dancing and nowhere to go."
Then Bob Wenz, the group's real estate agent/crooner, got to talking to Henry Yaffe, better known as Mr. Henry. Yaffe was interested in a live show for his new Connecticut Avenue club.
The "Take Five" group, which also includes Ann Johnson, area singer, Frank Kelly, former Trappist monk, and Bill Akers, a church choir director, was formed. "My being a lawyer is nothing in this group," says Berke.
Through December, January and February they rehearsed. "Day and night." They spent money, "You can't believe how much even simple costumes cost, and feathers!" They chose music. "It has to be unique. Other people can't be using it." They bought music. "You can't use Xerox copies of music. It's illegal." They learned the act. "Harmonies and staging take time, and there were 13 numbers to stage for each 45-minute set. Two sets a night, that's 26 numbers in all." (They performed at Henry's through March and April.)
Berke is spearing into a diet salad. She wants to get spotlight thin. She sighs, "Do you know it takes a whole month just to rehearse one set? I mean, I'm having a great time, but I had no idea how much work this would be. And date . . . what's a date? I've got to be insane!"
For their labors--six months of work, their own money, countless hours rehearsing--the one night a week they do the show, they get "not as much as a downtown lawyer makes in a half-hour."
The old soft shoe won't pay the condo. "Thank God for a law degree," Berke says.
Dance to Success
In rehearsal, her form was perfect. The mahogany body moving like a precision instrument--leg bent in midair, following the hip around in a fluid arc. The queen of Sheba may have entranced Solomon thus.
But Bonnie Jones, the real woman, not the dancer, limps across the floor now to sit down. Fishes in her purse for a cigarette. "Lord, I think I did something to this ankle in ballet class this afternoon." Injury is a constant peril to dancers, apparently, as to anything that tries to fly.
Beatified in a cloud of smoke, her head slumped forward over the faded pink leotard, she explains, "Dancing is hard on the body. Ballet especially. Ballet will do you in early--especially the knees. Modern jazz is not so hard. Shirley MacLaine is still dancing and she's up in her forties. The old soft shoe, now that's the easiest and you can do that longest. Old George Burns can even come out and still tap around some." She does a shuffle like old George's.
Jones thinks about age sometimes, she says, because she is "older" for someone still trying to make it as a dancer. Late twenties old? The standard pattern for dancers is to train intensively in their teens, apprentice with a good company in their twenties and begin to emerge as soloists, if ever, in their late twenties, early thirties.
But Jones thinks new training techniques are pushing the clock back now. "I'm still gaining agility. I can do things now I couldn't even two or three years ago." She trains constantly--jazz, tap at Feet First in Bethesda, performs often. This spring she danced in choreographer Charlotte Floyd's recital. She also acts. This summer she is Freda, a distraught mother, in the Color Me Human Players show, "A Mother Is . . . ," which opens July 29 at the Martin Luther King Library. On July 30 and 31, it moves to the Chevy Chase Community Center.
But training is only one problem; there are others more pressing. Such as: Can you be a dancer and stay in Washington? "No, not really. Most of the dancers here, like the faculty at Joy of Motion or Slick Kicks, teach part-time and perform with the companies on contract." Just dancing wouldn't pay the phone bill.
Computer analyst Jones has a neat system worked out. From Tuesday through Thursday, she runs her consulting business. Friday through Monday, she works on dancing. A typical "dancing" day? "Let's see, yesterday someone called from a local repertory group to ask if I could choreograph their new show. I was delighted. I talked to my photographer Steve Neal about some new portfolio stills, and he said a local merchant may want me for some face and hair shots for a toiletries line he's introducing in his stores. Steve thinks I should model for him to get my face better known in town. Then I had a jazz class in the afternoon and a rehearsal that night." Not a schedule for the fainthearted.
Audition tapes are another concern for Jones now. For theater roles, she says, you only need to hand in a re'sume' and head shot, but Jones wants to break into commercials. "For any kind of media work you need a voice tape, and for dancing for TV or film you need video dance tapes." All expensive, time-consuming endeavors.
Classes, rehearsals, re'sume's, tapes, a double scarcity of parts for black performers. The burden is heavy. But Jones almost got her big break last winter. It was at the auditions for "The Orphans' Revenge," an old-fashioned melodrama which played last spring at Ford's. The call was for saloon girls. Two hundred showed up. Four could be chosen. Through several days of tryouts, the group finally ground down to six who had successfully negotiated dancing, singing and part-reading trials by fire. The weekend came and the "girls" were told to go home, they'd get a call. Jones didn't, possibly, she thinks, because she doesn't have an Actor's Equity card yet, a union requirement. The four women chosen were Equity players.
And that's another problem. Getting an Equity card, Jones says, is a Catch-22 situation. You can't get a card until you appear in an Equity production, but you can't appear in such a production without a card. The only solution is to be chosen, as she nearly was this time, for a union show and have the producers get you a card.
Not making it into "Orphans' " hurt. "I tried to be brave," Jones smiles, "but then I thought, 'No, I'm gonna suffer over this one.' I suffered for three days." But she recovered. "Nothing, as long as I still want to perform, will ever stop me in this business."
When You're Hot!
He stalks across stage like a young mule. The Adam's apple bobs uncertainly. The nose appears a fraction too long for the chin, and seemingly overgrown hands and feet stick out from the western costume like a scarecrow's. As Bo Decker, the young cowboy stumbling on love for the first time in last spring's Capitol Hill Arts Workshop's "Bus Stop," Bob Wieckowski is youth so callow it hurts.
"What does 'tender' mean?" he asks his older sidekick. "Well, why would a woman want a guy to be tender anyways?"
Bob is fun to watch on stage, able to project almost any attitude he chooses. And he's had wonderful luck getting roles lately. In the last year, he's also been Angie the Ox, crapshooter in CHAW's "Guys and Dolls," and a dancer in the Alexandria Port City Players' "Chicago."
His winning streak hardly seems fair to a fellow amateur thespian who rumbles, "Bob's not even that serious about theater. He's got a great job on the Hill--legislative aide to a terrific congressman, Don Edwards, Democrat from California. Edwards is working on some important civil rights stuff. And he was just accepted at Santa Clara Calif. law school, fer chrissakes."
But, then some guys just keep winning the toss. The Wieckowski case also illustrates how much fun play-acting can be when it's only fun--when it's not the single star in your firmament and you're not trying to make a living at it. Wieckowski is amused at the very idea. "God, if I were being paid for this, I'd be losing money."
The only problem that he's had so far is time. Dance classes and rehearsals often interfere with a night he wants to spend at the office. "I'm a maniac about my job, but I've seen a lot of people burn out on the Hill, too, so it's probably healthy to do other things." Has his social life suffered? "Somehow, the young ladies are quite understanding," he grins.
Probably that very lack of stress, Wieckowski's feeling that theater is just another tangy bite out of the apple of life, helps explain his current success. He laughs. "Talk about the seat of your pants. You should have seen me the night I went down to Alexandria to audition for 'Chicago.' A friend had called me about 3 that afternoon to say it was a great play, there were some good song and dance parts for men and I should try for it. My roommate plays piano, so I called him to meet me at home at 6 sharp after work. The audition's at 7:30. We paw through what little sheet music we have at home, and decide I can sing 'What I Did for Love' from 'Chorus Line.' My roommate plays it for the first time ever and I try to learn the words. He's still teaching me the song in the car as we drive to Alexandria. It was crazy, but I made it."
What makes him put in another set of long hours, after a tough day on the Hill, just so that he can perform? "I've thought about that, and I think I like to perform because I want people in my straight job, friends, I want them to love me. And I want to do something magic for them--to take them into this little fairy tale land, this play, and entertain them." Bob is looking blue-eyed and noble now. Entertaining people is noble. "You know, Washington audiences are tough. You've got people here grappling with really big problems. It isn't easy to get them to clear their minds, relax."
Another role is coming up for Wieckowski now. Port City is doing "West Side Story" July 23 to Aug. 14, and he wanted the Rif part, the leader of the Jets, bad. For the first time he felt the pressure. "This is a bigger part in a better production than I've ever tried for before," he said before auditions. "There'll be a lot of other aggressive young males there to grab at it. So, for the first time, I'm really working at it--reading the play, learning something from the score to sing."
He didn't get it. Instead he was chosen to play Chino, Maria's Puerto Rican boyfriend. He laughs. "Well, it wasn't lobster, but, you know, steak ain't bad."
Arts at Home
"Step two, three. Turn two, three." A dervish in a red headscarf and black pants tied at the ankles, Sally Crowell dips and turns, beating time with a tambourine. Corrects an errant pupil with a laugh. Then, breathless, to the class, "Very good, you've almost got it." That's her style, sunny and authoritative.
Her early afternoon class is over, but Crowell's day has only begun. Before she locks the doors at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, built in the shell of the old B.B. French school at Seventh and G streets SE, she will "talk to the mayor, review a grant proposal, teach some 4-year-olds tap dance and direct a play rehearsal." All in a day's work for the founder and president of CHAW, now a $110,000 operation, offering everything from pottery to piano to students from "3 to 80."
Crowell thrives on the activity.
She comes into the big, open reception area now--the one place with a good couch--armed with two cups of tea. She has agreed to talk about her early experiences trying to make it as a leading lady in New York and why she opted for teaching, promoting the arts instead. Originally Crowell wanted to be "a Gwen Verdon, Julie Harris. But I left because I wasn't willing to pay the price."
Crowell holds her big black scrapbook, full of news clips, old photographs of her from 5 or 6 and up, in dance costumes, in her lap. "I was only in New York about two years actually. And, at first, it really was magic. I shared an apartment on Riverside Drive with Fayne--isn't that a name??--a former Boston Conservatory classmate. The apartment was beautiful--French doors, flowing curtains. I found a job modeling coats in the garment district, which was wonderful because the money was good and it only took about four hours a day. And, after only three weeks, I had a show--'Anything Goes.' Hal Linden, TV's Barney Miller, was the male lead. Nice man. I used to baby-sit for him. And I left that show to go right into 'Nowhere to Go But Up.' Unfortunately, it folded after a couple of months."
This sounds like Cinderella-time, what was the problem? "Well here I was, this young, pretty 19-year-old kid out front with a good dancing role, being backed by people who'd been around 10 years and never had a break. There was a lot of nastiness, jealousy. And there really were stage managers who tried to make you think you had to pay sexually for parts. But mainly, I think, I just didn't like all the time-wasting maneuvering you had to do--taking an acting class, let's say, with someone just to meet them and work with them on the chance they might help you get into their next show." When she really had to finally decide--whether to leave New York on tour with "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" or come to Washington and get married--she chose marriage. He was a "guitar-playing poet" cum graduate student at American.
In the next few years, then, Crowell got her fine arts degree, starred as Blanche Dubois in a Howard University production of "Streetcar"--Crowell's being white caused some interpretive difficulties, but a local critic called her portrayal a "triumph." She had a baby, then a divorce.
"I'd gone home, to Connecticut, to take stock, when I got interested in community theater. I began to think the whole New York mystique was just an artificial construct, a commercial thing. After all, there's talent all over the place. Why shouldn't neighbor perform for neighbor? Why couldn't more people be part of the arts? I'd gotten interested in the regional theater concept in school and I started going to the meetings of a small community playhouse near my parents' home. I watched how money was raised, how they came to decisions. I thought it was a healthy, viable thing. I knew the process could work in Washington. I'd already been involved in several successful community projects here."
Today at CHAW, three paid staff and 12 teachers are bringing the arts to the community. "Art heals, it expands life. And there's no reason why it can't be an integral part of every community. That's the message I want to get across: New York is no special mecca."
Does she miss performing? "Well, there's a lot more immediate satisfaction in being up front and 'doing' it. It's more fun to create a role as an actress than to direct. But there are laughter some rewards in directing. When you see something finally click, like a love scene. Or someone moves an arm just so and you say, 'Omigod, that was right.' "
A 4-year-old skips through the room carrying her first pair of tap shoes. Crowell beams at her. "I wouldn't be happy only performing."