“Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.” Philippians 4:8
I debated whether or not to tell you this story. I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging; that isn’t the point. It’s just one of those memorable experiences that is fun to share and that taught me a lesson.
I got an apprenticeship at The Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Cleveland, Ohio in 1979. This was the summer right after finishing my BA. It was a lousy summer to try to live through. I mean, just what sort of use do you suppose a union theatre makes of unpaid apprentices? In retrospect, the bad times fade, and the good parts are finally seen for just how good they were.
To start with, Tom Hanks was my boss. At least he was in charge of us apprentices and held an acting class for us every Saturday morning. He directed us in the apprentice review; a command performance by us for the Equity troupe. That’s what happens when you’re the newest-minted Equity actor, the low man. I remember him being a pretty good guy.
There were some others there that I still see today from time to time on both the small and large screens.
But now to the main event, as it were. Every year, Great Lakes does a benefit show; all of the actors and most of the apprentices do a series of scenes, monologues, etc. to raise some extra money to keep the theatre going. Think of it as a variety show of the classics.
As it happened, Meredith Baxter-Birney and David Birney were from the Cleveland area. Their schedule had them in town, so the artistic director had arranged for them to come and be part of the evening’s entertainment.
They did a number of different things, but what stood out was Romeo & Juliet’s balcony scene. It was the funniest thing I’d seen in some time. And, honestly, it’s supposed to be. Think; two hormone addled pubescent teens with all of the over-emotional, insecure baggage they can carry are trying to get it on…so to speak. Well, they just slayed it! Meredith did this interpretation that was something like a wide-eyed love zombie with a bad case of cupid-itis.
You just had to love her! Well, I did anyway. I was 22, fresh out of college. Do the math.
So later I’m at the cast party, and there she is. Right THERE! If you thought she was gorgeous on TV, I have some news for you. And it’s all good.
So I’m standing there across the room, debating whether I dare even breathe the same air in the same room with her. Am I seriously considering this? I want to chat up a world-famous starlet?!? I’m NOBODY! No, I’m an apprentice; LESS than nobody! What are they going to do to me? Fire me?
Wait a sec; they’re not paying me. Aw, what the hell… If I don’t, I ‘ll always kick myself. Deep breath and away we go.
She, of course is not standing there alone. Oh, no. There’s a small gaggle around her. I gamely stand in there, in line sort of, waiting for a chance.
Then a miracle happened! Everyone sort of parted to other areas, and it was just her and me. She looked at me with a smile and said, “Hi! I’m Meredith.”
Fortunately, I didn’t get an attack of the “hemina, hemina’s” and spoke pretty much like a normal human being.
“Hi. I’m Jeff. I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed the balcony scene with David. I’d never seen that take on it, and I just wanted to say thanks. It was fun.”
Now she’s a bit short, maybe up to my chin or a bit more. First there was the “party smile” when I walked up. And, by the way…nothing wrong with that. Then it started changing into this smaller, more real smile. A smile with eyes that couldn’t decide how much they were happy and how much they were sad. It was a look that suddenly showed some real emotion that I couldn’t quite figure out.
This famous starlet took both of my hands in hers, stepped up closer, looked up at me and said, “Really?? You thought so?” It came out almost as a plea; please tell me I really was good!
Suddenly, it was just two people, and I was the one to reassure the other.
We spent a few more moments talking about their interpretation of the scene, and then I figured it was time to go. I walked away cycling between hormone-induced giddiness and disbelief. I’m only an apprentice!! She had been so kind…to me!!
Fast forward to 1983. I once again had just finished a degree, my masters. Once again I was an apprentice at an Equity house; The Meadowbrook Theatre in Rochester Hills, MI. This one was much better; I was getting paid!
I made a good friend there. Priscilla Ann Morrill was a talented, delightful lady who could light up your day. She laughed well. She was wise. She hated her first name, so went by her initials; her friends called her Pam. Just like I did! She had a degree of self-control I couldn’t even begin to comprehend. And that’s a whole other story.
We were sitting backstage, passing time. I mentioned that I was at Great Lakes and met Meredith. Pam was suddenly very animated and wanted to hear what I thought of her. As it turned out, Pam had worked with Meredith a number of times and was close friends with her. Pam played her mother on several occasions, including appearances on Family Ties.
I told Pam about our exchange. Pam said that David (whom Meredith later divorced) didn’t treat her very well. Indeed, at the time of the show, the audience was being a bit passive, and he, in front of a 2000 seat theatre, told her to leave for a few and let him handle this.
“OH! That DAVID!” she said with all the scorn she could muster
Pam then told me how nervous she was for a live performance. Movies and television? No problem. All the takes you want, if there’s a mistake. Live theatre? One shot. You goof up, and there are no mulligans. Pam told me I likely made her night.
Meredith Baxter; great actress, beautiful, and a very kind, open person.
Me; a starving apprentice nobody, gave some comfort and hope to someone who lived in an entirely different dimension than I did. A dimension completely out of my reach. It never should have happened.
Except for…a kind word.
“…if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.”