What to do when it pours an hour before your outdoor benefit? Get towels! And get everything inside. When it stops 20 minutes later? Back outside. So it was for Bonnie Comley and Stewart Lane’s private dinner for 30 in support of Bay Street Theater. “It was miraculous how quickly these guys were able to pull it in and back out,” Bonnie told me. “The wait staff might have dried off by now.”
The evening was one of the theater’s mini fundraising dinners in lieu of past summer galas on Long Wharf. The couple has hosted parties for Bay Street before. Now, Stew is on the board.
“At 5:30, the rain was coming down so hard that I was trying to figure out where to move furniture to fit these people in my living room,” said Bonnie, ever the problem solving producer. (Her level head did not go unnoticed. “You were great to work for,” the caterers told her. “Most people would have been hysterical.”)
Dinner for 30? No biggie. Bonnie and Stew have a slew of Tony’s for all the plays they have shepherded. There’s the streaming Broadway HD channel that was her vision and their creation, and some “tony” coffee table books he’s authored. Bonnie’s president of the Drama League. Stew’s also on the Actors Fund Housing and Development committee, and the Board of Advisors of the American Theatre Wing.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of Bay Street,” Stewart told me. “But, now I can get involved in the management.” He’s already been on its stage. “Six years ago, I dusted off my equity card to perform in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with Peter Scolari.” “He got more laughs than I did,” comedic actress Jackie Hoffman quipped at the time.
The Sag Harbor theater is the only venue out here that stages full out productions with (three week) runs. In August, there’ll be Ragtime. Stew is the only board member who actually owns a Broadway house: the Palace, with the Nederlanders.
His love for theater and New York City runs so deep, “Mr. Broadway” is Stew’s brand. The thrill began when he was young and never gets old. “When I was ten, my best friend invited me to see his father in a show.” Lane recalls. “I had no idea who his father was. But I can still feel the excitement of getting dressed up, driving in from the Island to see my first Broadway show and approaching the New York skyline.
“Then, there was a program! The ticket didn’t just say ‘Admit One,’ but actually named the show! The curtain went up on Little Me, written by Cy Coleman and Neal Simon, and starring Ricky’s father … Sid Caesar. I was enthralled with the laughter and the idea of storytelling in real time with real people. We went backstage afterwards and there was Sid holding court with his friends. His dressing room was a home away from home, with a refrigerator, TV and a cot. At that moment, I knew this was what I wanted to do with my life. After that, it was drama lessons, theater clubs and a BFA from BU.
“I toured with Van Johnson in summer stock, did commercials, dinner theater, film, joined Equity and SAG-AFTRA — the whole nine yards.
“I was working for the Nederlanders, holding down two jobs: as an Assistant House Manager at the Books Atkinson Theater during Same Time Next Year and as a Jr Executive at the Rapid-American Corporation. They had picked up the mortgage on the Palace Theater. In 1979, I arranged to purchase half of the theater.”
The lure of the greasepaint happened early for Bay Street Artistic Director Scott Schwartz, as well. In fact, it happened at Bay Street. When he saw Blue Light there in 1994, with Mercedes Ruehl, directed by Sidney Lumet, he, too, felt the calling. Now, he was giving an award to Ruehl and Harris Yulin. After hearing him rave about her performance, and more, Mercedes answered, “I listened to the beautiful things you said and I thought is that me you’re talking about? … It’s tremendously thrilling to have affected someone that way. That’s why we do what we do.”
Yulin deflected to Ruehl as well. They’re longtime friends who often do Love Letters together at charity events. When they introduce her, he said, it’s as an Academy Award, Golden Globe and Tony winner. Even though he’s done more than 100 movies and TV shows, Yulin quipped, “When they introduce me, they say, ‘He’s not a bad guy.’”
“That’s okay,” she retorted, “at least they spelled your name right!” Seems with the last minute downpour and flooding in Sag Harbor, someone took the wrong trophy, with her name spelled Ruhl. “It’s okay,” she graciously added. “It’s the original German spelling.”
During dinner, Steve Kroft kept Stew amused with tales from the journalist’s days at 60 Minutes. Kroft and author/wife Jennet Conant are longtime supporters of their East End community.
Other guests included playwright and composer Madeline Myers, actress Julia Motyka, American opera singer, Cristina Fontanelli; “American Masters” producer Susan Lacy, Halsted Welles; actor Paul McIsaac, Ricki Roer; Board of Trustees Chair Steve Todrys, and board member Wendy Hashmall. The evening’s events were led by Executive Director Tracy Mitchell, and Artistic Director Scott Schwartz.
And since this was a thee-ah-ter benefit, someone got up and performed. (We still remember the time Tommy Tune and Lesley Uggams each took the mic at one of Stew’s birthday bashes.) Madeline Myers, the playwright/composer of Double Helix, and Julia Motyka performed some songs from this musical about the race to secure the discovery of DNA in the 1950s and the young woman, hitherto ignored, whose photograph revealed the double helix structure.
Hamptons Aristocrat provided the catering and staff that performed with such alacrity. Stew, ever the discerning foodie, supervised the menu, which included lemongrass coulis, poached lobster and couscous, and tamarind glazed black sea bass with lime and butter blanched farm greens. “Pair a good meal with a good bottle of wine and I’m your friend for life,” he likes to joke.
Off season, Bay Street pairs great literary plays with teaching tools and busses in kids for a program called “Literature Live!” Past performances have included MacBeth, Moby Dick, The Diary of Anne Frank and A Raisin in the Sun.
A week earlier, the weather was a lot kinder to Susan and Hunter Cushing, who hosted a Dogs on the Dunes party, to honor the American Humane’s Pups4Patriots program and the Hero Dogs who work alongside American servicemen and women.
The animal welfare organization had just flown in one such Hero Dog from Korea in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Akim — a German Shepherd, retired at age 11 — flew into the arms of former battle buddy Senior Airmen Jenna. “No one is going to care as much about him as me,” she had said when trying to get him.
“Akim served our country in Seoul during some very tough times, for many years,” Robin Ganzert, American Humane President and CEO, told me. “He went through anaphylactic shock from a bee sting that left him with permanent damage, but he continued to work as an IED and explosives detection dog. Every time one of those dogs shows up, 150-200 lives — mothers, fathers, sons and daughters — are saved.”
Now, Hakim will enjoy a well deserved retirement. Jenna’s made the ultimate golden years bucket list for him: traveling, fishing and swimming.
Maybe they, too, could get a trip to the Hamptons, where American Humane is working on building the same big presence as they have in Palm Beach. To do so, Ganzert brought staff, rented a house and got to work on a week’s worth of events.
They capped it off by honoring Board Member Jean Shafiroff at a cocktail party at Wolffer Estate Vineyards. Jean became an ambassador and spokesperson for their 2020 drive to feed animal victims of the economic downturn, which raised a million dollars.
There was also a dinner at Clarissa to celebrate Topher Brophy’s book, Dog Dad. Kobi Halperin and Fivestory sponsored their shopping event at Sip and Shop. “And one night,” Robin added, “my three wonderful children hosted and sponsored a birthday party for me.”
Of course, Robin’s kids were there. Who wouldn’t want to miss a peak week in the Hamptons?
Photographs by Rob Rich (Bay Street); Jill Nelson/Annie Watt (American Humane)