NEW YORK -- Several interrelated themes dominated the 35th induction ceremonies of the Theater Hall of Fame, held Monday night at Broadway's Gershwin Theater.
Costume designer William Ivey Long, left, and actor John Lithgow point to their names on wall at Theater Hall of Fame induction.
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The ceremonies take place in the Gershwin's upper rotunda, where the high walls are encrusted with members' names in gold -- large groups to begin with, but recently, just eight inductees each year. So presenters and inductees stand surrounded with the gilded names of their famed heroes and colleagues, while looking out on an audience of about 150 family members, friends and co-workers. All this inevitably stimulates thoughts of history and of the large, interconnected theater community.
As inductee Sada Thompson, 76, said, "I'm very glad I didn't wear my glasses tonight, because I'd be waving at people all evening." What distinguishes the Hall of Fame, she said, is that many disciplines are honored together. This year's class happened to include three actors and a director, director-choreographer, set designer, costume designer and playwright.
Inevitably, the inductees found many points of connection with each other as well as with the names on the walls. Thompson began by recalling her time in Pittsburgh, at what was then Carnegie Tech, where her good friend, Harry Dumais, introduced her to one of the pioneers of American Shakespeare festivals, Arthur Lithgow, who had a small son named John.
Among the group of inductees, John Lithgow beamed.
In presenting Thompson, the very busy director Jack O'Brien ("Hairspray," "Henry IV," "Invention of Love") remembered that she began her New York career in an off-Broadway "Tartuffe" directed by CMU's Bill Ball. Summarizing her career as an actor's actor and especially drawing on the many times she had acted for him, he called her acting "indelible," which he defined as meaning, "you cannot imagine anyone else doing it that way, or ever again."
The ceremonies were called to order by one of the great ladies of Broadway, Marian Seldes, who introduced the emcee, columnist Liz Smith, who noted that, like the Hall of Fame, she was celebrating 35 years -- as a columnist -- having written, she said, in seven of New York's formerly nine newspapers.
Smith introduced each presenter, at one point wise-cracking, "The presenters are so wonderful, sometimes the inductees can't measure up." She told two jokes, one that can't go into the newspaper but one, told frequently by Helen Hayes, that can. Two older women were considering going to a play at the Helen Hayes Theatre which one woman had heard was somewhat raw. "Oh it has to be all right," said the other; "Helen Hayes is in it."
Director and filmmaker Arthur Penn inducted his old friend, playwright and scholar William Gibson ("The Miracle Worker," "Two for the Seesaw"). "We worked together many times," Penn said, "often successfully. A couple of times we tanked -- but who knows better than you [the audience] that Broadway is a mean street?" Now 91, Gibson was too frail to travel, but Penn reported "he has as keen a mind as I know," and he lamented America's failure to provide "our great playwrights with a haven and a home" such as a national theater.
Four-time Tony winner Zoe Caldwell presented the Hall's Founders Award to Donald R. Seawell, 93, founder and chair of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts , who for many years was a leading Broadway lawyer and producer associated with Noel Coward, the Lunts and Tallulah Bankhead. "Have you ever read Donald Seawell's bio?" marveled Caldwell, implying that it would be a long evening's work. "I always wondered why he didn't run for president, but he wouldn't have had enough time."
Looking at the names on the walls around him, Seawell said he figured that "over the past 60 years or so, I think I've worked with all of them -- except Edwin Booth, and I barely missed him." He expressed gratitude "to my late wife, [actor] Eugenia Rawls, who got me into this fabulous thing called show business."
The announcement that day of the death of playwright Wendy Wasserstein, 55, intensified the tempus fugit theme of some remarks.
Actor Dorothy Loudon, who died at 70 in 2003, was inducted by her long-time friend and agent, Lionel Larner. "I never really 'sold' Dorothy," he said. "She sold herself. But I did make her deals, because she would have acted for free." Growing up in New Hampshire, he said, Loudon "wanted to be two people -- Eleanor Powell and Fats Waller." He said her greatest pleasure was seeing her caricature on the wall at Sardi's. But once she looked up at the Hall of Fame names at the Gershwin and said, "That's the wall I really want to be on."
Dynamo director-choreographer Susan Stroman inducted costume designer William Ivey Long, 58. She noted that he "does his research and then he listens: he listens to the set designer, the director and even the actors." Among Long's designs for 50 Broadway shows, she focused on his sexy lace body suit for "Nine," his "sparkle hose" for "Crazy for You" and the costumes that justified the lyric in "The Producers" that goes, "beautiful girls wearing nothing but pearls." As for "Contact," all she told him was "I need a girl in a yellow dress," and he came up with "a yellow that says, 'proceed with caution.' "
Long received his beribboned medallion with glee, marvelling at his name in gold. "I was the little nerd who never lettered," he said. "There was nothing in my future of Hall of Fameness!" He praised the craftsmen who make Broadway possible: "There is so much talent for making clothes that tell stories. And everything is still made by hand." He ended, "Aren't we lucky we live in a world where Wendy Wasserstein told her stories?"
Costume designer Jane Greenwood, herself inducted into the Hall in 2003, inducted her late husband, set designer Ben Edwards, who died at 83 in 1999. His sets earned 12 Tony nominations.
Seawell returned to the dais for what he called his second honor of the evening, to induct his old friend and colleague, British director Sir Peter Hall, 75. Hall couldn't be present because, having just finished directing a play in Los Angeles, he was already at work on his next one in London. "If he has 15 minutes between plays, he thinks it's a vacation," Seawell said.
Hall's career began in his 20s, when he directed the English-language premiere of "Waiting for Godot." He went on to lead England's two greatest theater companies, the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre. Seawell called him "the most prodigious director we have," responsible for more than 350 major productions.
In a letter of thanks, Hall paid a pointed compliment to American actors and their "unparalleled" work on Shakespeare.
Seldes returned to present director-choreographer Graciela Daniele, born 66 years ago in Argentina. She cited Daniele's famous mentors and collaborators -- Michael Bennett, Bob Fosee, Agnes
DeMille, Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham -- and her husband, lighting designer and Hall member Jules Fisher, "who does with light what Graciela does with people."
Daniele described being a young ballerina in Paris when she saw "West Side Story," "and of course it changed my life." The theater "is my work place, my country, my religion. And there I am!" she said, pointing at her name on the wall of "Mt. Olympus."
O'Brien then returned to present Lithgow, 60. He noted his many Broadway shows, movies, TV work and even successes as an author and lecturer. "God help us, he even sings and dances, and I saw him in drag in a ballet -- no one is safe!"
"I'm delighted by this medal," Lithgow said. "I didn't know there was going to be a medal with a bright blue ribbon." Of the honor, he joked, "I just left 'Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,' so I'm just another out of work actor, so this comes at a good time."
What Lithgow most admires about the Hall, he said, is that inductees arrive in a group: "The Hall creates a new ensemble." He said he owed everything to his father, who died in 2004, and his eyes misted as he concluded, "it gives me such pleasure that his name, Lithgow, is up on that wall."
The evening started with a reception amid the display cases of Hall of Fame memorabilia in the Gershwin's middle lobby. It concluded with a dinner for inductees and friends at the Essex House.
The Hall of Fame is produced by Terry Hodge Taylor. Selections are made by an electorate of about 400, comprised of members of the American Theatre Critics Association and the Hall of Fame and selected other theater figures and historians. The minimum criteria for nomination are five major theater credits spread over at least 25 years.
Post-Gazette theater editor Christopher Rawson is a member of the Hall of Fame executive committee. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1666.