Audrey Herman 1920—1999
When my friend Jacquie Roland read a recent “Today’s Pic” caption which mentioned the death of Audrey Herman, founder of Baltimore’s Spotlighter’s Theater (see May 26 post), she was inspired to write another of her epic comments. Of course I recognized Jacquie’s piece for what it was, a neat personal essay about her experiences as a community theater actress which—in addition to cartoonist, clown, painter, writer, etc.,—is another of Jacquie’s creative incarnations. Her memoir appears below, illustrated with several of my “Zorba” rehearsal images. In the photograph above, also taken at that production, I simply asked Audrey to “play to the light,” resulting in a wonderful “drama queen” pose. Behind her hand is a fragment of one of the wallpapered corner “poles” mentioned by Jacquie in her essay.
Having moved away from Baltimore a long time ago, I was unaware of Audrey Herman’s passing. People like Audrey, and John Waters’ “Edie the Egg Lady” and “Divine,” still represent Baltimore for me. Audrey kept her theater going through thick and thin, and sometimes—the thin times—there would be more actors on stage than out front. Once, we went on for an audience of three, but I also remember people doing the damnedest things to get in to see a show. During the “Zorba” production, for instance, an older Greek gentleman came to see the play who didn’t speak much English. Tom Karras, our director, and Greek himself, went out front to explain—in Greek—that we had no seats left. “Ahh,” the old fellow said, and nodded. He went away and in a few minutes he was back, all smiles, carrying one of those plastic and chrome kitchen chairs from the fifties. Tom placed the chair as close as he could to the stage without it being in the actors way, but for the rest of that performance we all had to “cheat”—that is, fudge our moves—around it.
Audrey was phenomenal as the older woman in “Zorba.” I remember another thing about her—the PERFUME. In the small Spotlighter’s theater we didn’t need to see her coming—her scent preceded her. One evening, when told that a newspaper reporter wanted a backstage interview with photos, Audrey said “sure Hon.” Without checking her hair, or adding more lipstick, she just splashed on more perfume.
The Spotlighter’s was a real theater with real actors who gave their all—and without pay. We had our stars, and some were as accomplished as any you’d find on Broadway, and sometimes as temperamental. But if you had one of them in your show you knew you’d draw an audience for every performance. Joe Ciminio in “Zorba” or the “The Night of the Iguana,” his wife Audrey Ciminio in “The King and I,” Sharon Auerbach Weaver (pictured at right and below, rehearsing her featured song from Zorba) in any damned thing. More than a few went to bigger things in theater and film. Just three examples: Bess Armstrong worked in movies with actors like Alan Alda and Tom Selleck. Howard E. Rollins, Jr., starred in the films “Ragtime” and “A Soldier’s Story.” Josh Charles was in “Hair Spray,” “Dead Poets Society” and is currently working in a hit television show with Gabe Byrne. We always had two shows at a time at “Spots,” one in rehearsal and one running. The rehearsing show had the theater during the week and the latest production owned the weekend. Also on the weekend were auditions for upcoming shows (early afternoons only). Once or twice I was in a show, rehearsing for a show, and auditioning for another show—all in the same week. I also had a day job and worked as a freelance cartoonist on the side. For ten years I barely went home. When not rehearsing or performing, we all hung out in the local watering holes. A favorite spot in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon area was called “The Great American Melting Pot,” or “Gampy’s,” and we’d often share that space with local TV people. Like Oprah, for instance. During her years in Baltimore Oprah was a regular at Gampy’s after her evening TV weather spot. The casts of other shows would sometimes meet at the “Hippo,” a gay bar in Mount Vernon, or at a disco called “Girard’s,” which some claimed looked just like “Studio 54.” Once at Girard’s Oprah was a judge and I was her pick for the final costume parade. I was dressed as a naked transvestite dwarf wizard. (Don’t ask. Anyhow, I came in second.) Oprah even picked my music—”Da Ya Think I’m Sexy,” by Rod Stewart. Add to all that activity the cast parties, birthday, Christmas, Thanksgiving and Halloween parties, and dining in the Inner Harbor area of South Baltimore, it’s no wonder I got the idea the term “party animals” was coined for us.
When we weren’t hanging out, or visiting each others shows, we were cementing our relationships by attending everything theatrical that came to Baltimore (we had season tickets). Trips to New York to see the “pros” act, were somehow sandwiched in. When a Spotlighter’s show closed you felt as if some part of you was lost forever. And sometimes it was. We all performed at other theaters, but the “Spot’s” was home. We were like each others family. (Wait, a minute—did that make Audrey the MOM?!! That sexy lady of a certain age would have hated to think so.)
We say that Spotlighter’s is a theater “in the round.” That’s a misnomer. The stage is actually square, with square, weight-bearing pillars—we called them “poles”—at each corner. Those poles were an integral part of the theater not just because they held up the roof. We walked around them, stood beside them, made them part of the decor. They were wallpapered, sanded, painted and tiled. They were stained from years of actors grabbing them to keep from falling off the stage, and blood stained at times from actors tearing into them at full force during dark entrances and exits. In one play Joe Cimino ran into a pole during a fast exit but no one in the audience knew because the lights were out. When Joe burst through the curtains backstage, however, his face was covered in blood. He had a cut over his eyebrow, and it bled like a—well, let’s just say it bled a lot. But, as some dingbat once said, “the show must go on,” and it did.
Accidents happen, problems occur, but for whatever reason theater people seem more adaptable than most. They can also be more volatile. Joe Cimino, for instance. In “Zorba” he was one intense, focused actor—he WAS Zorba. For one scene in that production Tom Karras hired, out of his own pocket, a real belly dancer to tempt Joe’s character. She performed barefoot, and in the preceding scene, Zorba smashes an old style vinyl record. The prop record had been preset—carefully broken into three pieces—then glued back together. At the scene change I was one of two women singing to, and taunting Zorba. Part of our job was remove the three pieces of vinyl from the stage floor so the belly dancer could come on and safely do her moves. No problem, until one night Joe—so into the moment—smashes the record into not three but what seemed like a thousand pieces. We were in big trouble, with no way to clear the shards before the barefoot belly dancer’s cue. I turned to the other Zorba “taunter” and said, “whatever I do, go with it.” When our song began I twirled straight to Joe, grabbed him and suggestively slid down his front. I spent the rest of my impromptu and self-assigned, “star turn” singing and “tempting” and at the same time sweeping the entire stage with my glittery net gown. I rocked, rolled and writhed, and swept the shards off the apron. Tom didn’t know WHAT it was all about until he got backstage and the crew told him. (Until that point, he thought I had lost my mind.)
Once I saw a Broadway play starring Carol Channing and Christopher Reeve. Carol’s part made her out to be meticulous in her person and fanatically clean in her home. At some point, a piece of crumpled paper not in the script had fallen on the stage. Channing and Reeve spent the entire scene kicking it out of their way and walking around it, which only pulled focus and made the audience stare at it. Neither of them would “break character” long enough to get rid of the damned thing. They were too “professional.” Well, that ruined the play for me. At the Audery Herman’s Spotlighter’s, we’d have picked it up with our teeth, if need be. We’d have made Audrey “Mom” Herman proud.
Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.