HELLO AMERICA—When many of you read that I had been featured in the Broadway play, “The Desk Set” which starred Oscar-winning star Shirley Booth, who is remembered for her hit series “Hazel,” they begged me to hear about my relationship with the great lady. Like many of the stars or those in filmdom or theatre-power, we had our ups and downs. Miss Booth wasn’t a very easy lady to know or understand. She was a star and made everyone around her know it. However, because I was 18 years old, rather independent and determined I would control my own journey in becoming recognized in the industry, eventually Miss Booth and I declared war on stage which fortunately resulted to my creative advantage, something she was not very happy about.
I must admit that appearing in a play with Shirley Booth was quite a growing experience for an actor. When possible, I would stand in the wings observing every move she made in making her character believable. She could move the audience to laughter or tears with a simple movement of her finger or foot. She was in complete control of her physical instrument. However, offstage the actress was decidedly a different person. She seldom mingled with any of the cast with the exception of an old friend Frank Milan who was also her leading man in the production. She appeared to be on her guard with all those around her. To me, she seemed quite lonely, hungry for an honest relationship.
The cast never felt the actress was a part of the company team. It was all about Shirley, an iconic American Theatre, and film star. Without a doubt, she was magic in front of an audience of fans, but kept her distance from those who worked with her when the curtain dropped. I can’t say that I was fond of her, but there was little doubt that she was fascinating. Her very presence on stage was overwhelming. Her presence facing the fourth wall of devoted fans were totally under her spell. Unfortunately, Shirley and I had one major confrontation which might have ended my theatrical career before it even began.
There was a party scene which involved Shirley singing while my character “Kenny” played the piano. She insisted on singing “I’m in the Mood for Love,” but I didn’t know how to play it. Harry Ellerbe, the director, refused to have the sheet music on the piano. So I suggested she sing “Somebody Loves Me” instead. Shirley was livid. She made it clear that she would not change the song and that was that. When it was time for the scene, I played “Somebody Loves Me” and Shirley sang very loudly, “I’m in the Mood for Love.”
The audience reaction was staggering, they laughed and applauded thunderously. Most of them gave the scene a standing ovation. However, Shirley pretended it had never happened. She rushed to her dressing room and slammed the door. Before leaving the theater, the stage director approached me in my dressing room to tell me the scene should be played exactly the way it was done that night I was bowled over. The audience reaction to the party scene continued. Luck was again on my side.