Back in my greener days as an actor, I was living in New York, and had found a part-time job at the now-defunct Applause Books store on W. 71. I had talked my way into the job quite easily, and I knew it would be a great place to meet actors and anyone else connected to theatre.
The bookstore was my first link to theatre history. The internet was not yet the presence that we know it today. I still had to reserve a computer at the library in midtown to just check my email for 30 minutes.
Applause had a fair amount of crazy actors who not only worked there – the clientele were just as varied and crazy, too. The regulars were people who primarily came in to chat. Not so much to buy a book; this place was a community-neighborhood-theatre-geek hangout. I remember lots of faces but the names have faded. I helped a lot of people find books. I borrowed books. I kept books. Eventually, after moving to Brooklyn, the travel time was too much to handle, and the owner found a way to fire me, as he took a dislike to me.
However, there are some bright memories that remain: helping Kim Catrell find dialogue training tapes (yes, tapes). Play readings in the performance space; talking to people whom I’d imagined had a huge part in Broadway shows, or were directors, producers, you name it.
And frequent visits from Adolph Green. If you’re not a Broadway buff, his name may not have any impact on you. However, if you’ve heard of “Bells Are Ringing” or “On The Town,” and you were face-to-face with this guy, your heart would’ve stopped, too. This guy was a direct link to Broadway’s Golden Age.
I remember how he would parade into the doorway of the store, announcing himself. He was funny, boisterous, friendly, and always had a smile on his face. Some of my coworkers had warned me about him, describing him as a neighborhood character who just liked to come around every once in a while to laugh and tell glorious stories:
“Oh, wait until ol’ Adolph comes in and talks your ear off!” they’d taunt.
I remember telling myself I had no idea who he was, when I first met him. Even more so, I had no idea of who Betty Comden was, when he spoke of her.
Not until I had to deliver a book to her apartment, personally.
It wasn’t unusual that someone would call in and put a book on hold. But it wasn’t too frequent when we had a request to deliver a book to a customer. Such was the case with Betty Comden. Again, most of my co-workers referred to her as ‘Betty.’ One day I was asked to take a book over to Betty – since she lived nearby.
When I rang her doorbell, the door slowly opened, and a great, marvelous, expressive face peered through. So, I said hello and gave her the book, and she asked me to wait for a moment.
She came back, opened the door further. I remember my first impression was how regal she seemed. She handed me a $1 bill for tip.
“Thank you very much.”
The door closes. I stood there half-laughing to myself, and also wondered what had just happened. I knew I had just encountered someone important, but it wasn’t until I got back to the bookstore, where my co-workers first laughed at this story, but gave me the background behind her.
A broadway legend. That’s all I could think about for days and weeks after.
Here’s a pretty great interview with the both of them from 1996.