event musings: the second time around: iva withers and standby charm

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When:  Wednesday, August 11, Interview at 6:45 p.m.
Where:  Showbiz Store & Cafe, 19 West 21st Street

Iva Withers, 93.  (image Marcus Yam / The New York Times)

The crowd of 60 plus is about three times the size originally expected, inspired by New York Times coverage of the event two days before.  Harvardwood, an arts-focused alumni group associated with Harvard University, originally established in Los Angeles and newly expanded into New York City, is hosting one of its regular get-togethers.  In the past, playwrights, actresses, and luminaries have consumed wine and chatted with event attendees interested in the arts.  Until last week, I watched these events on-line and via email reportage.  Last week I relocated my oft-moved derriere to this fine city, this metropolis, land of many adventures past and future.  And this Harvard alum, Harvardwood member of a year or so, attends her first event.  And a lovely, multi-dimensional event it is.

I arrive at 6:30, 15 minutes or so before “go time”,  and the tiny performance space at the back of the cafe is thronged.  I walk up through the babbling crowd, resolve to be content with our seats way in the back (thrilling to the turnout for our guest).  I say hello to our host Spence Porter, a first meeting of two long time cyberspace friends.  I wait for a pause in the quiet conversation Spence is having with a lanky tanned man with a tall head of hair seated in the front row by the wall who to me looks like and turns out to be (acknowledged in event opening comments) choreographer, hoofer, lover of old Broadway — Tommy Tune.  Back in my seat I observe a tiny (4’10” or so) woman already seated mid-way back in the crowd.  She gets up a few moments later, and walks around to a side entrance, assisted by a friend at her side.  It is Iva — the Times article has prepared me for her sweet visage.  As she passes by me I hear, sotto voice “I have to make an entrance”.

And it’s show time for the next hour or so.  Spence acknowledges all of us including Tommy Tune in the front row, who was alerted to the event by the Times coverage and has come to pay his respects.  As we all have come to pay our respects.  And tiny, articulate, graceful, full-of-beans, private, tenacious Iva Withers takes center stage.

There is some futzing with minor amplification for a time, but no one is mic-ed.  A woman is videotaping the adventure; our audience includes 10 rows of 6 or 7 seats apiece with a center aisle.  The object of our attention and soon our affection, Ms. Withers, proves the point that once upon a time performers were taught to project in small as well as immense spaces.  For most of this evening’s proceedings I cannot see tiny Iva through the sea of heads in front of me but I could hear every single word she utters, clear as a bell.

Foster Hirsch, professor of film at Brooklyn College, author of 16 books on film and theater on topics from film noir to the Actors Studio to Kurt Weill.

Interviewer Foster Hirsch, professor of film at Brooklyn College, asks a few well-chosen questions (he clearly knows his subject) and occasionally refocuses the thrust of the storytelling.  But truth be told, Iva tells stories with a familiar performer’s air — comfortable with the substance and delivering the goods like a pro.  Hirsch doesn’t need to extract stories from her; she could go on, articulately and entertainingly, all night long.  And it appears that she wanders into several subjects this Canadian-born woman has not discussed publicly much before (stories of the deaths of her brother and first love in the early years of World War II and her journey over to investigate their “missing in action” status on an oil tanker in early 1942, and stories of the death of her husband at their house in Croatia many years later).  This is woman of depth and resolve.

Iva tells stories of her youth in Canada, a number of stories of luck and opportunities (open calls and fateful meetings and standby adventures) and her love affair with Manhattan that started decades ago.  She still lives on West 55th Street. “The only city to live in,” she enthused.  “This most fabulous collection of human beings.”

Her favorite compliment ever — Charles Laughton of her Rouben Mamoulian-directed performance in Carousel (when she stood by for Jan Clayton as Julie Jordon and went on many times): “How the hell can you stand so still and do so much?”  She loved Clayton but John Raitt was another story.  John Raitt never spoke with her for over 600 performances on the road (feeling she was just a chorus girl despite the fact that she played the lead for all those performances).  These stories are told not with resentment but with a sense of truth.  This woman does not pull punches.

On her time going on for Carol Channing in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  Asked about going on for performers with such distinctive styles — do you reproduce or add touches?  She reflected that you don’t do a lot of adding but you also didn’t have to copy exactly.  You had to know the material exactly in order to play within the established lines.  “You could never replace Carol Channing” she noted, and yet she had “more fun doing Gentlemen Prefer Blondes than any other show”.  It was the material, and it was the fact that Anita Loos adapted some lines and lyrics to reflect that, at least for these replacement performances, there was a petite Lorelei Lee (Loos’s preference for the physicality of the character, according to Iva) rather than Channing’s distinctive gangly stance.

Backstage in London during the run of High Spirits (during which she stood by for Tammy Grimes as Elvira), Noel Coward came by one day, proclaiming, with great humor, “you’re in my dressing room!”.  She finished the High Spirits recollections with a story of high flying — quite literally.  There is a moment when Elvira is flown, on wires.  Iva appears to have loved that sensation, but was challenged during one performance by the “puller” who hadn’t adapted the gear (and his strength) from star Grimes’ dimensions to Iva’s more petite size.   When the flying moments came, Iva took off at a speed that surprised everyone.  About Beatrice Lillie, also in this cast, Iva has nothing but charming recollections.  She had no scenes with her but “she could just lift a finger and you’d laugh.”  Iva then went on to stories about her 1942 travels to London (on her Canadian British Commonwealth passport) on an oil tanker to investigate the “missing in action” status of her brother and her “friend”, a young love.  Both men were finally declared killed in the line of duty — Iva worked for much of that year in London and saw as much theatre as she could, including a performance of Bea Lillie that they discussed all those years later.

Her last show was Forty Carats, with experiences across the emotional spectrum.  She followed Julie Harris and June Allyson (“I went on for June a great deal”) and preceded Zsa Zsa Gabor in the role of Ann Stanley, as well as carried a minor role throughout her time with the production.  Another great compliment came to her from Zsa Zsa while she was watching a run through preparing to take on the role of Ann.  Zsa Zsa said to Iva after observing her in action: “I don’t know why they have me when they have you.”  Not one to wallow in self-congratulations, Iva peppered her talk with humor throughout, and followed this observation with a bit of humor.  When Iva was on stage in her minor role while Zsa Zsa was on as Ann, Iva quipped: “When you were on stage it wasn’t you and Zsa Zsa, it was you and Zsa Zsa and the diamonds.”  She loved Miss Gabor: “She had quite a soul, that lady.”  The low point of the run, and her stage career, came during her time with Forty Carats, when she was forced to fight for the performance pay she was due when she went on for the lead actress (June, or Zsa Zsa).  She walked out in 1970, “never to go on a stage again.”

She is a woman of great discipline.  She says “I took a dance class every day of my life”.  She always held herself to a strict performance day routine: never ate after 5pm and then ate little after the performance.  She credits her longevity and energy (and we would all add “wit and charm”) to this discipline honed in dance and performance, and to the fact that she was a child of the Great Depression.  Describing her constant effort to be employed, going from one job as standby to another (and sometimes overlapping): “Work to me is life.  A job is life.”

As the crowd disperses, some of us hang on, exchanging cards, finding connections, basking in the sweet glow of a sweet event.  As we all prepare finally to leave, Iva and Foster stand gently but firmly, as friends, holding hands behind Foster’s back, posing for a final picture together.  I remain charmed.

Iva, interviewer Foster Hirsch, behind-back hand holding while picture posing.  image credit: martha wade steketee.

© Martha Wade Steketee August 12, 2012)

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