A Summer Morning

note: I told this story on stage at Under St. Mark’s in NYC last November, and an even shorter version at The People’s Improv Theater. This is the expanded version. This is the first time I’ve put it online.

It was a beautiful summer morning. What was it that got me to go inside a little shop filled with a mix of antiques and junk? I don’t know, but there I was. Once inside the only way through the place was to proceed single file around the perimeter.

There were two ladies ahead of me. I would guess they were in their seventies. The one in front had a cane and she was using it mostly as a pointer, chatting with the lady between us who had a long silver ponytail.

As we got toward the back of the shop we could see, on the floor, in a corner, in a matte and frame, a photograph and an autographed note from Tallulah Bankhead.

Silver said, “Oh look, Tallulah Bankhead!” Then she turned to me and said, “Bruce Villanch does a bit about Tallulah Bankhead in his show.”

I said, “I know. I saw the show last night.”

As it happened Bruce Villanch was playing two nights in this village. It was the year two-thousand and he was doing a show called “Almost Famous” essentially about his first decade writing for the Oscars (a.k.a. The Academy Awards). All those jokes Billy Crystal told, he wrote. He wrote for other shows too and was on Hollywood Squares.

Tallulah Bankhead was born in 1901. She came to New York City as a teenager to be an actress. When talkies came, Hollywood called. The technology was new and the first couple of movies she made were flops. She went back to New York. But Alfred Hitchcock called. He had different ideas about how to direct and the movie she made with him, Lifeboat, was a success.

About Tallulah Hitchcock said, “When I noticed Tallulah didn’t wear underwear, I didn’t know whether to call the wardrobe department or the hairdresser.”

Then Silver said, “I gave him that story.”

I considered this for a moment. It was plausible, I thought.

Silver said, “But I have another.”

I said not a word. And Silver proceeded to tell me the other story.

This is the story Silver gave me:

I was nineteen years old. I was a stagehand at summer theater in Connecticut and we had Tallulah in a play. Hedda Hopper came to town and wanted to have lunch with Tallulah. Tallulah didn’t like Hedda Hopper and didn’t want to go, but the director talked her into it.

Aside: If you don’t know why Tallulah didn’t like Hedda Hopper, see the movie, or find the script for the movie, Trumbo.

Silver, being nineteen, was naive to the politics of the situation. She made a painting of Hedda Hopper as a gift for Tallulah. Silver loved Tallulah, but she was shy, a bit starstruck perhaps, and didn’t know how to approach Tallulah. So she asked the director.

On the set for this play was a picture frame. In the play, Tallulah’s character throws something at the wall and the frame falls to the floor. The audience couldn’t see what was in the frame, so there was nothing in it. The director asked if it would be all right to put the painting in the frame and surprise Tallulah. Silver agreed.

That night Tallulah saw the painting for the first time. When the play was over, Tallulah went back out to the stage. picked up the painting and brought it backstage. She demanded to know who painted it. Silver timidly raised her hand. “I did”, she said.

Tallulah softened. “You’re an artist. I’m an artist too. I did a painting of the wisteria on my front porch. I sent it to Alfred Hitchcock. He sent me a note; it said, “Thanks for the grapes.”

The signage in front of the venue that summer.
The signage in front of the venue that summer.

I enjoyed Bruce’s show. He made his entrance in a sequined t-shirt and big glasses. His first line was, “Hi, I’m Linda Tripp,” by which he meant that he was going to rat out on everybody. The bit about Talullah Bankhead he left until the end. The bit was a branch from the same tree trunk – the summer theater. The way Bruce told the story was in first person, as if he had experienced Talullah Bankhead at summer theater himself. Bruce Villanch is older than I am, but research tells me that if Bruce Villanch had been in a theater when Talullah Bankhead performed he was in diapers and probably carried in by his mother (in other words I don’t mean Depends).

The Tallulah bit that Bruce told suited him perfectly; the branch Silver gave me suited me perfectly: When I was very young I was a stagehand at a theater where Cookie Mueller performed the lead role in The Life of Lady Godiva.