May 07, 2006

Memories enter stage right as Guthrie curtain falls
Actors and others reminisce about the Guthrie -- great performances, love, comedy -- in the face of the old theater's impending demolition.

By Rohan Preston and Neal Justin, Star Tribune

When a church is no longer used as a holy place, there is a de-sanctification ritual to return it to the secular realm. But what does one do to mark the end of a building that houses something that many also revere -- a theater?

Today's closing performance of "Hamlet" marks the last time that a play will be enacted on the stage of the Guthrie Theater on Vineland Place. The date is, for many, a sad bookend; the Guthrie opened with "Hamlet" on May 7, 1963.

This summer, the building, which is owned by Walker Art Center, will be demolished. A garden will take its place.

"I hope to God that it's a Shakespearean garden," said Ellen Geer, who was in that first "Hamlet" as the title character's doomed love interest, Ophelia.

Geer and her father, Will Geer, planted and tended for two years a garden in front of the Guthrie with flowers mentioned in Shakespeare's plays. "There were 24 mentioned in 'Midsummer' alone," she said.

But the question lingers: How do folks mark the passing of a building that served as the catalyst for the nation's regional-theater movement? They mourn it with their memories. Here are a few:

Barbara Bryne, who first appeared at the Guthrie in 1970: "In 'Arsenic and Old Lace,' I was playing one of the aunts. Virginia Payne, who had played Ma Perkins for years on radio, was the other aunt. Peter Goetz was playing our nephew. We were in the middle of a performance when suddenly there was a commotion. There was a little old gentleman and a little old lady who, to my horror, were coming on stage. The little old gentleman mounted the stage and tapped Peter on the shoulder and said, 'Young man, can you show us the way to our seats?' An usher appeared from nowhere and spirited them away. We had a very hard time keeping a straight face after that, but the audience didn't seem to notice that it wasn't part of the play."

Joan Van Ark began her career at the Guthrie before going on to star in TV's "Knots Landing": "Zoe Caldwell smelled so good. It was some sort of Revlon fragrance. She taught me that every actor has to have their own smell that is distinctly their own."

Zoe Caldwell, 72, who was in the first two seasons of the Guthrie before going on to win four Tony Awards, most recently for "Master Class" in 1995: "[Tyrone] Guthrie used to bless theaters like you bless the fleet. At the opening, he had a priest, a minister, a rabbi. I'm sure today he would have an imam. The whole company stood around the perimeter of the stage, with the most glorious voices. And we did a whole psalm. 'Give thanks unto the Lord for his glory endureth forever.' It was so dear, because everyone was so proud to be there and wondering if we were worthy to be there."

Granville (Sonny) Van Dusen: "I took a guy who had never been to the theater to see the third or fourth production, 'Three Sisters.' He had no interest, he was a man's man, but I told him that this was special. We had the best seats in the house. Bob Pastene played the Colonel and at one point he sat down, dead front, thrust stage. He sat with his neck twisted with one of the girls draped across his lap and he gave this speech about his life. And as he spoke, he wept. He didn't cry; it just happened. I had never seen a performance like that. It was so simple. I pulled myself out of the moment and thought, man, what does my friend think about seeing a man cry in front of him? I looked over, and my friend was just weeping."

Actor Sally Wingert, who has performed at the Guthrie for over two decades: "There are times as an actor when you're watching something and the world of the play is so well articulated that you want to be in that world. Garland Wright's 'Seagull' was like that. It had a scene going on downstage, where he had set up a dinner table with candles and a complete dinner that went on. It was so evocative, so beautiful, that I remember thinking that this world is exactly what I want to be in."

Actor Natalie Moore, who had been a child performer in "A Christmas Carol," became smitten in 2000 with her future husband, Bard Goodrich, on the "Carol" set. Goodrich now appears regularly on the soap "Guiding Light": "I was understudying Belle. He was playing Young Ebenezer, so I was always there for his scenes. One day, he had to take off his sweater and his shirt came up a bit and I looked at [fellow actor] Jim Licht-scheidl and said, 'Ooh.' I knew it then. So, we started hanging out, meeting for drinks. He proposed to me in New York in 2001, and we live in Brooklyn now. I'm due with our baby on May 17. I'm an actor now because of going to the Guthrie. Otherwise, I don't know what I'd be doing, although I would probably have a steady salary."

State Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, who has been on and off the Guthrie board over the past 15 years: "I worked at the Guthrie as a kid, as an usher and as a stagehand. Back then, the ushers were all guys; first women came in 1972. The biggest name I seated was probably [actor] Sybil Thorndike, someone I had learned about in high school. She was the mother-in-law of [actor] Douglas Campbell. I knew that [George Bernard] Shaw had written 'St. Joan' for her. The seat was off aisle five, fifth row. I was on top of the world. I saw a ton of concerts there, too. I ushered the Grateful Dead concert. I remember Jon Cranney, who was a member of the acting company, walking in and saying, 'I can't believe this is happening on the Guthrie stage.' It was."

Choreographer Marcela Lorca, who has worked at the Guthrie for 15 years: "A space has a charge of its own. Oh, my God, there's so much energy in the old space, so much vitality, so many ghosts. Its corners are full of energy, and we can't take that with us. We'll have to create all of that. And we will."

Ken Ruta, who has been directed by every artistic director at the Guthrie: "I still remember one of the great experiences, in an early dress rehearsal of 'Henry V.' We were doing the big battle scene, all of us in the aisles, with armies and cannon on stage, and smoke going. Guthrie stopped us and he started to talk. And I don't think he meant to give this speech, but it began with the Greek ideas of morality, life and death, war. He got into the queen of England. This went on for over an hour, with all of us just standing there listening to this with rapt attention. His soul was pouring out. One of the secretaries finally started transcribing it. The man had an immense soul; despite the fact that he was always tearing the Catholic church apart, he was the most religious of them. The comet shot very high with Guthrie, very high."

Van Dusen: "We were doing 'House of Atreus' and it was either opening night or the last night of previews. Big night. We were in the middle of doing this four-hour production, when [Tyrone Guthrie] stopped the performance. He came up on the stage with tennis shoes, no socks and a tuxedo and he went [claps his hands], 'So sorry, ladies and gentlemen.' And he starts grabbing actors, moving them around and saying, 'That's where you should be, darling.' Then he walked back into the crowd and said, 'All right, let's begin again.' And the audience applauded."

Joe Dowling, artistic director: "I have two favorite memories. The opening night of 'Cherry Orchard,' my first show at the Guthrie. Helen Carey, who starred in it, persuaded me to stand onstage at the end during the curtain call. At that moment, with all those actors, there was a real sense of deep connection that I would never forget. The other is the night that Hume Cronyn was there, when he spoke those lines from 'Richard III.' Here was this incredible actor, standing on stage, delivering his magic. It was amazing. I remember saying to him afterwards, 'You've got to stay alive until we open the new theater.' He said, 'Damn it, I will.' But sadly, he died three weeks later."