Metairie Cemetary, New Orleans by T.M. Holder, 2007

REMEMBERING WARDELL QUEZERQUE 

12 MAR 20: Today would be the 90th birthday of my much-missed friend, legendary New Orleans jazz and R&B composer/ arranger/producer Wardell Quezergue, the “Creole Beethoven” and one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met—with grateful thanks to his mentor and my dear pal Penny Stallings who took fine care of him in his waning years.

I could sit for hours listening to Wardell’s tales of the early primitive recording techniques at the old Rampart Studios or discovering Fats Domino, Ernie K-Doe, the Neville Brothers, and many other greats. His was a life that defies description. Without Wardell, there would never have been some of our most enduring standards, among them “Barefootin’,” “Chapel of Love,” “Iko Iko,” “Misty Blue,” and “Mr. Big Stuff.”

Blind, diabetic, broke after being robbed, as so many of his contemporaries were, of any royalties, Wardell spent Hurricane Katrina floating down Canal Street on his living room couch before Mac Rebennack (Dr. John), REM’s Mike Mills, and others produced a series of benefit concerts on his behalf. In 2010, shortly before he passed at age 81, Wardell was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame and was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Music from Loyola University, presented to him at that year’s Jazz Fest.

At dinner the night before he was scheduled to sit for a video interview about his career at Antoinette K-Doe’s Mother-in-Law Lounge that would be played onstage when he accepted his honor at Jazz Fest, Wardell confessed to Penny and me how nervous he was to tape it. “I have no idea what I’m gonna say,” he lamented. I told him just tell a fraction of the stories he’d told me over the years, like about recording at Rampart with all the musicians crowded in the middle of the room around one single hanging microphone and the incredible music they created. “But that’s just the thing, Travis,” he said. “See, I remember the tunes and I remember every note... I just don’t remember the names of any of the folks who made ‘em.”

So, look closely at this treasure which hangs in my office from Wardell’s 2006 benefit at Preservation Hall. Sometime after the event, Jordan Hirsch from Sweet Home New Orleans, the incredible organization which helped all the displaced musicians after The Storm, gave us a stack of these leftover posters from the event and immediately Penny's friend Susanna Styron got the idea that, if signed by Wardell, we could hawk them at Jazz Fest to benefit SHNO.

In the dead of dinnertime (Wardell loved his raw oysters so Penny accommodated him often), Suzanna and her daughter Lila Larson scoured NOLA for a Sharpie he could use to autograph them. After leading the sightless Wardell’s hand to a place to sign the posters, he set in to sign them all.

See the little black scrawl to the right of Wardell’s face? That was it. His signature. None of us had the heart to tell him it was too small to be readable.

My last "date" with Wardell, 2010 

ZOE CALDWELL: SHIMMERING IN THE LIGHT

Here’s my one memory of the late Zoe Caldwell (1933-2020) that I cherish and have often shared with my students.

When Caldwell opened in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum in Master Class  before it went off to Broadway, my frequent “plus one” for theatre back then was someone in a wheelchair, so we were always seated in the section halfway back on audience right that can accommodate a person in a chair.

Often, since the Taper is a thrust, the view was not the best. Near the end of Master Class, as Audra McDonald’s character was berating Maria Callas as a hasbeen who was teaching because she had lost her voice, Caldwell was positioned with her back to us.

I felt so frustrated not to be able to see the emotion on her face as the scene unfolded, but her Callas was wearing the loosely fitting black satin blouse seen in this photo and suddenly, as I watched, the back of her blouse began to tremulously, almost imperceptibly shimmer, the result of the delicate, subtle, full-body emotional range only a great, great actor such as Caldwell was able to conjure.

It was magical—and I was absolutely overwhelmed by emotion myself as I realized that I was one of only about 20 people able to see that blouse stir on its own, perhaps that one time only and possibly never again. It filled me with a renewal of the unique wonders of live theatre I have spent my life worshipping, a place where the spontaneity of the moment can never totally be duplicated.

I will be forever grateful to Zoe Caldwell for that one defining moment in my life which, once again and better than ever before, instantly renewed and reinvigorating my passion for theatre above all the other artforms I revere.

LEON KATZ (1919 - 2017) 

Speaking / performing at the LEON KATZ MEMORIAL CELEBRATION, Kirk Douglas Theatre, LA, 12 JUN 17

INTRODUCTION:

Leon’s brilliant and highly-acclaimed play Beds debuted in 2000 at the Stella Adler Theatre in Hollywood directed by Leon and Debra DeLiso and featuring Irene Roseen as Alice B. Toklas, Jeremy Lawrence as Oskar Kokoschka, and Travis Michael Holder in his award-winning turn as the dying Oscar Wilde “composing a letter in the air” to his absent lover Lord Alfred Douglas. Here is Travis recreating a passage from Beds:

I am Tireseas!

No. No, no, no. Not Tireseas…

I am… I am…

No! No lamentations!

At the moment, dear Bosie,

I am struck with another fantasy.

One you deplored

and one which we both destroyed:

Oscar: Husband and Father.

Bourgeois malgre lui!

And one day,

with adoring wife and adorable sons,

The superbly respectable quartet!

Shopping! In the better part of Piccadilly Circus…

I, on the verge of entering Swan and Edgar,

the door ajar and wife and sons already through its portals

but I not yet quite inside the shop’s dark enclosures,

Glance back, for an instant, at the brilliant sky and busy street,

And catch, in that glance,

the painted boys on the pavement

Shocking passersby with their costumes and their airs…

And something…

Both horror and… affinity, I suppose…

Clutched at my heart like ice

And dwelt there, unrelentingly,

until ice turned to fire.

For I knew that in knowing them I knew myself.

I knew their paint was under my features

and their clothing a thin layer beneath my own.

And…terrified…

My imagination rushed…

To be among them.

 

Travis’ testimonial:

"The Oscar Wilde section of Beds, which consisted of an hour-long monologue ending in Wilde’s death during a very Katzian, very lengthy onstage orgasm, was excerpted from Leon’s full-length still unproduced solo play Dear Bosie. About four years ago, several days after waxing nostalgic about the experience of playing the role with Leon, he called to say, 'You must play Oscar again' and told me, if I was interested in doing the whole entire Dear Bosie, he was offering me the rights to present it. I reminded him that, although I’d love to revisit his fascinating take on Oscar, I'd played the role in 2000. I was then 53 or 54. Four years ago, I was 66--20 year older than Wilde was when he died in 1900 at age 46. Leon roared, 'Damn it! How frustrating! This whole age thing always gets in the way, doesn't it?'

"Not that it did much for Leon, who once told me many of his ancestors lived to be 100 and he intended to beat them. Well, despite his health and tubes in his nose, the guy almost made it, didn’t he? Maybe he would have made it to 100 and past if the inauguration of our 45th President, three days before he died, had turned out differently.

"I’d met Leon the year before he first asked me to do Beds through Maria Gobetti and Tom Ormeny when he was serving as dramaturg for Tom’s play Life on the Line, which provided another chance for me to die onstage—though less euphorically. Leon and I became instant friends and there are so many memories, especially watching the transformation on my students’ faces when I would ask Leon to come speak to them in my class studying 20th century playwrights to kids whose knowledge of theatrical history begins with Will Farrell and ending with Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson.

"But the most vivid memories I hold dear are less academic. Like, driving with him in the pouring rain—anybody ever ride with Leon behind the wheel, the only person who could ever park halfway up a curb and not worry about the ticket? So, during a major storm, I accompanied him to a special effects warehouse in Chatsworth to check out lifesize dolls that Jeremy Lawrence as Oskar Kokoschka would abuse physically and sexually each night in Beds. My most vivid memories of that strange day—besides the drive—were how seriously Leon checked out each doll for durability and… well… anatomical access, and how the proprietor of the shop, from his reaction, surely thought Leon was not at all really interested in producing a play.

"But here’s the story I tell about Leon the most: About 10 years ago, Leon came to see me in Glengarry Glen Ross. As we shared a meal afterwards, he flattered me profusely, finally telling me my take on Shelley 'The Machine' Levine was one of the best performances he’d ever seen. Of course, I was sufficiently stunned and hopefully accepted his compliment graciously, as his unending and passionate support for my career, which has hardly been on par with, say, anyone knighted by the British Empire, had been such a game-changer for me and my sagging confidence—especially after becoming the only geriatric juvenile with an ass the size of an outdoor movie screen in the business.

"But, yes, soon the gin-and-tonic started to kick in and I started to whine—the same kind of whining that one hears during a break at any Hollywood scene study workshop. I began to grumble about how ephemeral acting for the stage is, saying that two years from then he'd remember I was good as poor ol’ Shelley but he would not remember exactly why, unlike the formaldehyde-bottled nature of a performance captured on film, something I am still to conquer in these, my own quickly dwindling twilight years.

"As an example, I told him when I was about eight, rehearsing for my first play in New York, everyone around me, including people like Paul Muni and Melvyn Douglas, kept talking about how great Laurette Taylor had been as Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie but she had died when I was two months old so I never got to see just how good she had been. Leon pondered for a moment, then leaned across the table and said, 'Travis, let me put your mind at rest. Laurette wasn't that good. Now, Nazimova as Hedda Gabler in 1926... like yours, that was a performance I'll never forget.'

No one, no one ever in the world, could put someone in their place as slyly and elegantly as Leon Katz.

UTA HAGEN: 1919 - 2004 

ENTERTAINMENT TODAY, 1/30/04

Uta Hagen, one of the most respected theatre actresses of our time and surely the most important acting teacher of the 20th century, died at age 84 on Jan. 14, 2004. She had been in grave health since suffering a stroke late in 2001, soon after the close of her last performance here at the Geffen Playhouse opposite David Hyde Pierce in Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, which she was excited planning at the time to bring to Broadway the following season.

As an actress, Hagen was best known as the original Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on Broadway in 1960, a feat she repeated in a benefit reading opposite Jonathan Pryce at the Ahmanson in 2000. After 40 years, she was still sharp, sexy, scary and magnificent in the defining role which won her a well-deserved second Tony Award. She was awarded her first as Georgie in The Country Girl in 1951 and received a third, for Lifetime Achievement, in 1999. She was awarded the National Medal of the Arts in 2002.

Of course, Hagen will first be remembered for her revered classes at HB Studio, the renowned acting school she found with her late husband Herbert Bergdof in 1947. She published her first definitive textbook on the art, Respect for Acting, in 1973 and its eventual update, A Challenge for the Actor, in 1991. Never one to flinch at marketing herself, when asked to autograph her first book after the publication of the second, Hagen would inscribe: “Throw this book away. Uta Hagen”

I first saw Hagen as Blanche in Streetcar Named Desire in Chicago as a very young child and was immediately galvanized by her. While in New York appearing in a play soon after, I was given a golden opportunity through my mother, a fellow victim of Sen. McCarthy’s infamous blacklisting. Hagen agreed to let me sit in on—not take, because of my young age—her classes at HB. I wasn’t to talk, wasn’t to work, wasn’t to offer comment. Just listen and stay quiet, which I did twice a week without fail.

Hagen gave a series of master classes at the Howard Fine Studio in 1997 and I attended a seminar at Paramount Studios, where she sat with her ever-present cigarette in one hand and her beloved dog on her lap, pontificating like the grand diva she was on the art and the business of acting. After the event, I waited dutifully in a long line while she signed books and autographs. Finally my turn, I said, “Miss Hagen, I don’t know if you’ll remember me. I’m Travis Holder and I used to audit your classes at HB when I was a kid in Birdie and you have been the most important person in my career ever since.” She squinted through her cigarette smoke and focused curiously on me. “T-R-A-V-I-S?” she asked. “Yes,” I replied eagerly, pleased to be remembered by such a great lady. She looked down at a stack of notecards on hand for bookless admirers, wrote “Best wishes, Uta Hagen” on one and handed it back to me without so much as another look in my direction.

When I wrote about the incident in this column soon after—along with a suitably devotional account of her seminar—I received a package back from Hagen in New York, which included two signed photos, one from her 1972 film The Other and the other a recent headshot, as well as several more signed notecards. That was it.

While she was here in 2001 in Six Dance Lessons, I was asked by producer Bob Guenette of LAMEC to play opposite my friend Stephen Nichols in an Equity production of The Zoo Story, which was tentatively set for the Ivar Theatre. When Stephen told me Bob had asked his old friend Hagen to direct while she was in town, my heart raced. Unfortunately, the production was soon abandoned due to Guenette’s illness, but I had been invited to meet Hagen after a performance at the Geffen. The occasion was her 82nd birthday and after the show, she said to me in her dressing room, “God, I’m too wired to go to sleep… want to go have a drink?”

We sat alone in the lobby of the Beverly Hilton and sucked down our share of margaritas that night. I was in theatrical heaven. She discussed her frustrations with herself in the show, where she still struggled for lines. She said she knew the words backwards and forwards in the shower, but when she got onstage, they disappeared. “It’s not because I don’t know them,” she said, “it’s because I am still trying to figure out why I’m saying them.” She told me nothing was harder for her than at that point in the process, especially after so few rehearsals. Until the words were organic, her thoughts were clouded with creation and the dialogue suffered.

We also discussed something I found fascinating that night: preparation as an actor. I joked about a mutual friend with whom I had recently worked, who arrived at the theatre each night three hours early and would only speak in her character’s accent or answer within her world. “That kind of work does nothing for spontaneity, which is the key to a great performance” Hagan said. “All I need is 30 seconds to say to myself, what time is it, how cold is it, what my problems are, then I hit the stage running. Too much preparation anchors your work in cement. If you don’t surprise yourself, you have nowhere to go.”   

Hagen told the Orange County Register in 2001: “I could play 10 performances a week forever and thrive on it. I'm never bored. People who get bored don't know their craft. There's always something new to be gleaned from every performance. After two years of playing The Cherry Orchard, you know what I did on closing night? I cried.”

The world has lost an artist of unparalleled stature, one of the greatest, most courageous, most unique, and most groundbreaking talents of our time.