Posted On 23. März 2011 By In Kolumnen und Themen, Litmag With 718 Views

Melba’s Theatre-Letter from New York (I)

Melba LaRose ist seit den 1960ern im New Yorker Theaterraum unterwegs – als Schauspielerin, Produzentin, Autorin, Regisseurin, und als aufmerksame, leidenschaftliche Beobachterin von allem, das „ihr“ New Yorker Theater hervorbringt. Ab März 2010 wird sie regelmäßig für CULTurMAG darüber berichten!

For the Glamour & the Glory

– When I burst onto the NY theatre scene in the late ’60s, no one dreamed of being paid.  We worked off-off-Broadway, doing the most inventive, avant-garde and outrageous performances possible.  For „Glamour, Glory & Gold,“ the playwright and actor/actress Jackie Curtis raided his relatives‘ closets for ’30s panne velvet dresses, silk sailor pants, vintage 4″ heels, high heel tap shoes with grosgrain ribbons, and raccoon coats.  The show was presented in a basement in the West Village.  I was first cast as a chorus girl.  When the leading lady kept not showing up or arriving late for rehearsals because she couldn’t get away from her day job as a switchboard operator, the director fired her and put me in her place.  He plunked the script in my hands and said, Go home and learn this — we open in 3 days. Like Ruby Keeler in „42nd Street,“ I wanted to say, Who — me?![1]


Opening night (1967) was standing room only.  The next day, the New York Times (they used to attend OOB openings in those days) dubbed me the „Queen of off-off-Broadway“ and „Jean Harlow right down to the leaden voice and incipient pot belly.“  I could have done without the latter, but my supporting player Candy Darling said in her breathy voice, Oh no!  It’s wonderful.  They all had that — Harlow, Jeanne Eagels, Marilyn… As a transvestite, Candy was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.  The whole run was sold out for 6 months.  Stars came to see it — even ’50s movie star Gloria de Haven, who had her eye on my part!  Then, another showbiz publication dubbed me:  „The Darling of Roaring Camp.“  We were on the map and when the Times did a recap of the best of the season, „Glamour, Glory & Gold“ was at the top of the list.

I forgot to mention that on opening night, Jackie’s grandmother Slugger Ann and aunt were in the front row.  As I made my raucous entrance, they stood up and exclaimed, They’re wearing my f****ing clothes! Andy Warhol also came and gave us a quote:  For the first time, I wasn’t bored.  Jackie was a master of PR, so we made all the major press and top gossip columns.  The „producer“ in the basement studio charged $1 at the door and called it „club membership,“ much like Ellen Stewart was doing at LaMama.  Meanwhile, my day job was in an insurance company, Jackie worked at Slugger Ann’s (his grandmother’s bar), and Candy was serving ice cream at Rumpelmeyer’s.  We had no designers, did everything ourselves, and nobody got paid.  But we didn’t care, we were FAMOUS — at least below 14th Street.  I did a few more shows in that basement and we shared the space with the likes of Al Pacino, Jill Clayburgh, etc.  When „Glamour“ was revived in 1969, I turned it down.  Robert De Niro would have been my supporting player (it’s in my small book of Great Decisions I Have Made).

It’s important to note that we were all „Kennedy’s Children,“ as Robert Patrick made abundantly clear in his hit play of the same name. We lived in a world over which we had no control:  the ongoing war in Vietnam, the „draft“ (not volunteer army), brothers by blood or simply love who died so senselessly, the Establishment that looked the other way, and the assassination of the beloved John Kennedy.  Our escape was into Busby Berkeley and ’30s screwball comedy films and we all became „movie stars“ onstage and off (i.e., legends in our own minds).  Unfortunately, as time went by, more and more drugs and booze were required to keep these personas up and many of our „Factory“ friends OD’d accidentally or otherwise (e.g., Edie Sedgwick, Eric Emerson).  My beautiful Candy developed cancer and died in 1974 from the carcinogenic hormones of the period.  Jackie said, You’re never a true Warhol star till you’re dead — a chilling premonition of his tragic OD in 1985.  Jackie was one of the most brilliant and talented people I have ever met.  So many great creative minds from that time are gone.

When we started out, I don’t think there was such a thing as nonprofit theatre.  In fact, it would have seemed redundant!  So, it was unheard of to get donations of money, costumes, props, or anything else.  These days, I run the nonprofit NY Artists Unlimited, fully registered with federal and state government.  I am Artistic Director, Executive Director, playwright, director, actor, fundraiser and PR rep.  We don’t have much money, but we are able to fundraise and accept donations of goods, for which the donors get tax deductions.  We also get volunteers, interns, and consultants free through educational institutions and service organizations (funded by government, foundations, and individual donors).  Volunteers come from all parts of society and for various reasons:  to gain experience, to make a different, or simply to do good.  In these years of economic downturn, many of them are unemployed high level Wall Street workers, who want to keep busy, learn about nonprofit work, or perhaps make a job connection.[2]

We post notices for whatever interns we need on websites of universities, colleges, and high schools, which gets a tremendous response (the largest number in the summer).  Although some theatre companies can pay them $10/hour or a stipend of $100/week, we are unable to do so and try to make up for it by providing coffee, snacks, free theatre tix, and the occasional sandwich lunch.  They are not paid by their schools, unless they win a scholarship, and they have to pay for housing and expenses.  Some take part-time jobs in addition to their internships.  If they want credit, they have to pay the school, just as if taking a class with them.  We provide evaluations at the end of their term.  If they are international students, we fill out papers, so they can get study visas to come to us.  Interns have come from France, Germany, Scotland, and China.  I believe some foreign students are supported by their schools.  In NYC, if they come from government programs such as the Summer Youth Employment Program, they are paid minimum wage by the City ($7.25/hr.).  Many Chinese-American high school students have come to us from this program.

Through various service organizations, such as the Alliance for Resident Theatres/ New York (membership $150/yr. for budgets under $100,000), we get free business workshops, internship fairs, and consultants.  Over 400 theatre companies (off- and off-off-Broadway) belong to A.R.T./New York, a great organization.  We have also had consultants from the Arts & Business Council. There is a wonderful organization called Materials for the Arts, which has a warehouse full of free items for nonprofit arts and educational groups (furniture, props, bolts of fabric, curtains, office supplies & equipment, electronics, art supplies, paint, set pieces, and much more).  It is provided by the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, Department of Sanitation, and Department of Education.  Once you are approved (no charge), you make appointments to shop at the warehouse and take whatever you want.  Artistic Directors sometimes contact each other to share, and there is a Set Recycling Hotline.  Whenever we do have to purchase, there is no sales tax because of our NY State charitable status.

When we tour, we pay a small stipend to all involved ($30/performance in-town, $50 + per diem $20 out-of-town).  Out-of-town, housing, transportation and meals are provided by the host organization, local hotels, and/or our company.  The stipends are still more than actors would make doing off-off-Broadway showcases,[3] where non-union is unpaid and Equity members get subway fare (currently, $4.50 round-trip).  Our rehearsals (generally a month; perhaps 40 hours total) are scheduled around the actors‘ day or night jobs.  Equity showcases allow more rehearsals, but only 12 performances.  The press rarely attends because by the time a review gets printed, the show is closed.  There are probably 350 showcases on any given night, so competition is fierce.  What press does attend certainly can’t get to everything.  Under the Equity Showcase Code, your budget cannot be greater than $35,000, aside from actors‘ stipends, or producers must pay at the end.

Mind you, this is a walk on the wild side of off-off-Broadway, not off-Broadway, where the rules are quite different.  Off-Broadway actors get paid, but not enough to live on.[4] They often continue their day/ night jobs to supplement.  Producers generally don’t make money because expenses like advertising are identical to Broadway, but the houses are smaller and tickets cheaper, so there’s less income.  Sometimes, actors in our off-off-Broadway productions dream that one of our shows will transfer to off-Broadway.  But then I have to tell them, You do realize you would be replaced.  (Stunned silence.)  Off-Broadway audiences are not drawn because it’s a great show and fresh talent — they go for the movie/ TV star in it.  And ironically, that actor may be doing movies and TV to be able to afford doing off-Broadway!  As the playwright, I would probably continue.  As director, I would most assuredly be replaced with a „name“ as well.  Economics 1-2-3.

That leaves Broadway as the only possible moneymaker.  Actors are paid more, but many cannot afford a Manhattan apartment.  Besides, the show can close in one night and you don’t know when you’ll work again.  It’s a big gamble.  If it runs, it’s fantastic, but that’s a big IF.

So, why do we do it? — for the glamour and the glory, of course… but rarely for the gold.


[1] For my interview on Warholstars:
http://www.warholstars.org/andywarhol/interview/melba/melbalarose.html.

[2] The Mayor has a wonderful website for this:  www.nycservice.org, which is visited by students and the general public.  There is also www.Idealist.org for volunteers who truly want to make a difference (students & general).

[3] Off-off-Broadway Basic Showcase Code:
http://www.actorsequity.org/docs/codes/Basic_Showcase_09.pdf Rehearsal Conditions, see p. 9, section 12.  Budget:  Shall not exceed $35,000, exclusive of AEA stipends ($4.50/ day transportation).  No one can get paid more than the actors‘ subway fare, so good luck getting a stage manager! Performances:  Up to 12 within four consecutive weeks.  At least half of the total number must be presented on a weekday (M-F) and in no event may there be more than one two-performance day per week. Step Option:  4 additional performances may be added at a stipend of $10 per member plus minimum transportation ($4.50) per performance.  Seats:  Up to 99 seats (standing room prohibited).  Admission: Up to $18.00.  Subsidiary rights: If the show goes on to a higher level of contract, the new producer has to offer the roles to the original actors or buy them out.

[4] Off-Broadway Rulebook: http://www.actorsequity.org/docs/rulebooks/OB_Rulebook_09-12.pdf Salaries (p. 76, section 50).  Rehearsals (p. 64, section 54).

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