Geraldine Fitzgerald & Saint Patrick’s Day in Pittsburgh
Geraldine Fitzgerald, the red-headed beauty of films from long ago, was coming to Pittsburgh. I expected her to be demanding and petulant like most actresses. After all, she had been a movie star, of sorts. Why in the world would she be touring with a cabaret act at this point in her career? Even if she was touring prior to bringing this to Broadway, why in the hell would she do a performance in Pittsburgh? Do a one night stop over in Pittsburgh? No, this did not look good. This was such a non-event that the paper didn't even want me to cover it. St. Patrick's Day, in Pittsburgh, and Ms. Fitzgerald was coming in to sing an evening of Irish songs entitled "Streetsongs." This was sure to be a nightmare. I could feel it in my bones. This, however, would be the night I learned what it means to have real talent.
Nothing else was opening in the city so I would be free to hang out with my friends and catch what was sure to be a fiasco. Nora had to work with the interpreter and Ms. Fitzgerald during the one rehearsal there would be the afternoon of the performance. Angela would be stage manager for the show.
Ms. Fitzgerald and her "orchestra" arrived at the Pittsburgh Airport around midnight the night before. They took the limo directly to the hotel and told Angela they'd meet her in the theatre at 10:00. No midnight meals, no bizarre dietary requirements, no discussion of breakfast, no demands for transportation—this was very low maintenance for a performer. Something was wrong with this picture and I couldn't wait to see what it was.
Nora picked up Diane, the interpreter, and got to the theatre around 9:30. She wanted to make sure Diane had access to the lyrics of all the songs before the rehearsal began. Nora also needed to work out a location for Diane to stand where the deaf patrons could see her and Ms. Fitzgerald at the same time. This was always tricky stuff when working with stars. Personally I often felt that Diane was better than some of the actors. Diane would have a tight pool of light on her so that her mouth and hands were visible while she signed. Most performers wanted her to be as hidden as possible because they didn't want her to be a distraction to the hearing audience. Diane was never a distraction. They were just such crappy actors that the audience was searching for something to watch. Nora always had to do battle with the actors about this. That's really the reason I came. I'd never witnessed a first rehearsal with the star and the interpreter. Since the first rehearsal was going to be the only rehearsal I figured nerves would fray and fur would fly and wouldn't that make for an interesting afternoon?
At 10:00 sharp Angela appeared on stage with our star, Geraldine Fitzgerald, and her orchestra. The orchestra turned out to be three guys. Seems that was all she brought with her. There was no hair stylist and no dresser. This was very low budget. Nora and Diane were quietly discussing different locations for her to stand while I watched the entrance of the star. Angela came over to us while the musicians tuned up and Ms. Fitzgerald stood center stage and squinted into the lights. Angela was grinning, "You have got to meet her. She is the nicest, sweetest person ever to set foot on this stage. I don't care if she sounds like a frog, I'm gonna love everything she does." With that Angela turned and waved "Geraldine" over to meet us. Nora rolled her eyes.
Angela's new friend, Geraldine Fitzgerald, came to meet us. She was tiny, maybe five foot three, with grey hair streaked with white streaming past her shoulders. I don't think she weighted one hundred pounds. She reached out her hand to shake and for the first time in my life I saw what writers always describe as a "beatific smile." Her smile was...real, that's the only way to describe it. Her smile actually had wattage, it made me feel warm. I felt as if she had embraced me. The smile involved her eyes and that's what hit you next. She actually had emerald green eyes. It wasn't the color that stopped you as much as the life in them. It was as if they held this great peal of laughter just waiting to burst forth. And she looked you in the eye and held your hand as if she actually cared who you were.
Angela was on the head set so she introduced Michael up in the booth. He would be doing the lights and sound levels for tonight. Geraldine waved up to him and he "blinked" the lights. She asked Angela for the head set so she could talk to him about her lighting. As Angela passed it over I was thinking, "Okay, here we go. She'll have Michael up on a cherry picker all day re-focusing the lights." Geraldine asked Michael to bring up the lights on the center of the stage. Then she asked him to take out the cool light and bring up the warm light because she needed the lights to be kind to her. And that was all she needed. Her orchestra would be on a riser behind her and they would set the sound levels with Michael in a minute. She had maybe six light cues and four of them were during the last two numbers. She wanted the light brought into a spot for the last number and a fade for the curtain call. Done. Wow. Angela told me later about tech calls where lighting cues alone could last days. I know for a fact that Michael fell in love with Geraldine Fitzgerald there and then. I was sold on her but I was also convinced she was going to stink. Geraldine was just too normal a person.
Nora explained to her about the placement of the interpreter and what Diane would be doing during the songs. Geraldine was actually excited about working with an interpreter. She wanted Diane directly to her right and up on the second level. This would mean that the interpreter would be highly visible during the performance. Nora later explained to me that this was the strongest position on stage. Because we read from left to right we automatically rivet back to where Diane would be standing. Geraldine would actually be competing with Diane for the audience's attention. And she didn't care! Fitzgerald was actually more concerned about the deaf patrons' comfort than her own ego. Amazing. She went over the lyrics and the music with Diane because she didn't want to throw Diane any curves during the performance. The interpreter would actually be working twice as hard as Fitzgerald for she would have to mouth the words and sign them. They decided that the deaf audience would be seated on the second level, center. They would have a direct sight line which would enable them to see both Diane and Fitzgerald simultaneously. Then the rehearsal began. Fitzgerald took the center of the stage, began with some banter about Irish folk songs. She told Diane she'd keep to this dialogue so Diane would be able to sign it. Then she began to sing. I waited for the croaking of frogs. Fitzgerald let loose with this clear, strong, throaty voice that made you sit up straight. She sucked you right in to the story of each song. I could actually feel my heart swell. She broke your heart with tales of lost loves and boys gone to war. She made you laugh at typically goofy Irish humor. It was impossible to look away. She was funny and melancholy. She transformed herself into a young girl for the love songs and in seconds she became an aged mother singing of the loss of a son gone to war. I finally realized what was happening. She was an actress. Geraldine Fitzgerald was a story teller. She was an example of the Irish at their very best. Often she would look back to see if Diane was keeping up. Often she would sing watching Diane's hand movements, totally mesmerized. They were so perfectly in sync that it looked as if they'd worked together for years. Nora, seated beside me, leaned over and whispered, "What just happened here?"
I wanted that rehearsal to never end, but of course it did. Geraldine needed lunch and a nap before the show. She was, after all, well into her sixties. Geraldine wished that the deaf could hear the rhythms and beats of the Irish music. Diane assured her that she would sign in rhythm. Then the lights blinked and Michael opened the window to the lighting booth. It was always so easy to forget he was there because the technical stuff just seemed to happen seamlessly. Michael had an idea, if Ms. Fitzgerald was interested. He'd read that if a deaf person sat with both feet flat on the floor, and held a balloon between their knees while resting their hands on top of the balloon, that they would be able to "feel" the music. The air in the balloon would capture the vibrations. Did she want to try? Hell, yes, she did. We ordered pizza to be delivered to the theatre while Angela ran to the store and bought bags of balloons. We spent the afternoon eating pizza and blowing up balloons. Geraldine Fitzgerald never did get her nap because she and her musicians sat and ate and blew with us.
That evening's performance will always be one of the highlights of my life. It has become the watermark by which I judge all performances. All the deaf patrons sat on the second level directly in front of Fitzgerald and Diane. I helped give each a balloon while Diane explained to them how to hold it. The lights dimmed, faint strains of music began, and Fitzgerald entered the stage. Nora and I looked at each other. We needed to see if the other felt it. We could both feel the...electricity. The air around the stage crackled with it. We both knew at that moment that this was going to be something very special. And we weren't disappointed.
Geraldine Fitzgerald took the stage with her hair pinned up in a knot and a shawl around her shoulders. There appeared to be nothing very remarkable about her. She looked out at the audience and smiled. That's all it took. From that moment on, from the second her smile telegraphed her presence to the audience, the night belonged to her. Never before has an audience so openly loved a performer. It was actually palpable.
Fitzgerald held you to her heart and you never wanted to leave the comfort of that embrace. That night she channeled every great Irish story teller. She became the mouth piece for a nation of story tellers going back to time out of mind. She embodied every Irish lass that ever walked a cliff looking toward the sea for the glimpse of a ship. For 90 minutes we believed that she was the soul of Ireland. Then it was time for the last two numbers. Michael started to bring the lights in tighter. Fitzgerald started the opening notes of "O, Danny Boy." Strong and clear her voice rang out with the heart ache of every mother since the beginning of time. If it's done poorly, this is a song that brings grown men to their knees. Fitzgerald could make the angels cry. I snuck a peek at the audience. They were totally enraptured; you could not hear a breath being taken. I realized that I, too, had stopped breathing. Everyone, all 535 of them cried silently as Fitzgerald sang.
The song ended and Michael brought the spot on Fitzgerald in tighter. There were two pools of light on stage, one for Fitzgerald and one for Diane. And then it began. Geraldine Fitzgerald told of being in London during the bombings of World War II and how many memories this song held for her. Then she began "The White Cliffs of Dover." From the wings I had a clear view of Fitzgerald on stage and I saw her looking at the audience in surprise. Fitzgerald herself was stunned. The entire audience was swaying, shoulder to shoulder, three levels high, right to left, in rhythm to her voice, strangers no longer. This included the deaf. There was a second when she looked directly to where they were seated holding their balloons and I could hear the catch in her voice. Then she began the final verse. As if on cue, the entire audience stood, held hands, and sang the verse with her. Balloons fell around her like stars because the deaf too were standing, holding hands with everyone else. As she raised her face for the final notes I saw the glistening on her cheeks. As Fitzgerald had moved this audience, they in turn had touched her heart. She was not standing there as an actress. She stood before them as a woman with arms open wide and the audience returned her embrace. Nora turned to me and said, "Shit." We both laughed through our tears.
Blackout. Curtain call—One full minute of silence followed by thunderous, deafening applause, everyone still standing. Fitzgerald stood knee deep in white balloons looking every inch the Irish Queen on a snowy field. Ever gracious, Fitzgerald motioned toward the musicians and then toward Diane. Before she moved down stage for her final bow she waved toward the light booth to indicate her thanks to Michael. She bowed her head down, and when she looked upward I saw her cover her mouth to actually stop a sob. I followed her line of vision and witnessed what had touched her so profoundly. Since they can not hear applause, the deaf do not clap their hands. Instead they raise their arms and shake their hands to indicate their approval. Standing before her, Fitzgerald saw two hundred hands shaking wildly. As the last of the light faded on the stage I saw Fitzgerald raise her arms and shake her hands with all her might.
No one left the theatre that night, including Fitzgerald, doubting what they had just experienced. I have heard people describe religious experiences. I think that is what I felt that night. This was the first time I understood the concept of grace. I think I felt the presence of god and she was Irish. For one very special night we were all Irish. This large group of people, mostly strangers, was now forever connected; our souls were linked together by one tiny Irish lady who came to sing.