My experience with Stritch was limited. I only saw her perform one time and that was during her last outing on Broadway, her one-woman show Elaine Stritch: At Liberty. She came out onto the stage and began with the opening joke, which went something like this:
"It's like the prostitute once said, it's not the work, it's the stairs."
After several false starts ultimately resulting in her walking off stage and the stage manager calling in the curtain, George C. Woolfe, the show's director, came out and explained that Ms. Stritch was having a bit of a problem with her blood sugar. She was a diabetic. Once she had recovered, she came back out on that stage and gave one hell of a show.
On the evening that Stritch got the Tony Award, she rambled a bit and ultimately went over the three minutes alloted to each winner. The orchestra played over her but still she wouldn't be silenced. Well ultimately they did stop her. I was in the press room across the street at the Rainbow Room. I was working for the Tony Awards website and we did interviews in the "Winners Circle" as we called it. The first room that Stritch came to after being played off stage was ours. As she entered the room I began to applaud her. She looked at me and in that raspy, throaty voice yelled "Awww knock it off." She was pissed.
Doing the interview that evening was my long-time friend and colleague, Robert Viagas. This past week Robert posted his memory of that evening on his Facebook page and I wanted to share it with you. My thanks to Robert for generously allowing me to do so.
I met Stritch several times over the years, but our most memorable encounter came the night she won the Tony for "Elaine Stritch: At Liberty." I was working for the Tonys that year, interviewing the winners as they came off stage. We were in our own separate room, called The Winners' Circle, which was adjacent to the main press room.
When the Tony presenter called Stritch's name she hobbled up to the podium and proceeded to give a rambling speech that went past the 90-second allotted limit. She kept talking, so the orchestra started to play her off. But Stritch was having none of it. She kept talking. And the band kept playing louder. And louder. Finally I believe the director sent someone out to escort Stritch off the stage.
Stritch was livid. And the first person she saw after what she considered a gross insult, was l'il old me.
She greeted me with a string of curses that peeled the wallpaper, set the carpet on fire and blew out the windows. My friends in the press room next door said they could hear her through the wall. She was very unhappy.
Thinking fast, I tried several strategies to calm her down, but this just poured more gasoline on the fire. Finally I hit on one that worked. The core of her complaint was that she had not had time to thank her director/playwright/producer properly. I told her that we were still on camera (on tape, to be specific) and that she still had an opportunity to state those thanks, and that it would be posted on the web.
This strategy worked! Though still weeping and shaking with anger, she composed herself and thanked Lahr and Wolfe and a few others, then dried her eyes, rose, and sailed out of the Winner's Circle with her chin high. We both had survived.
PS: As I was mopping my brow, I began to hear her in the neighboring press room. My tabloid brethren had goaded her about the insult and she had worked up a new head of steam and was damning the souls of everyone who ever worked for the Tonys.
It was a hoot.
Elaine Stritch was known for her need for love and attention and she felt she got short shrift. After all those years, who can blame her for being upset. In case you hadn't heard, Elaine passed away this past week at the age of 89. She was a one-of-a-kind dame who was as close to royalty as the American theatre-going audience was going to get. I knew that her passing was a huge event when last week Israel was launching an incursion into Gaza City and a passenger jet carrying 289 souls on board had been shot out of the sky over the Ukrain, but the only thing on my Facebook page for hours was about Stritchy. We will miss you Elaine. It is my honor to be able to say you yelled at me. Everybody rise!
Below is a terrific interview conducted by the New York Times with Ms. Stritch