Beyond the lights

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The Conservatory Garden in Central Park. 2:30 PM. Photo: JH.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017. Coolish, overcast, almost rainy day, yesterday in New York, with some rain following late in the evening and more predicted for the next few days. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll get a lot of rain.

I went down to the Players Club on 16 Gramercy Park South to lunch with my neighbor David Williams, who is a member. Weekdays I’m not so interested in traveling midday for lunch but this one I had to give in to because of the location. Gramercy Park is far from old fashioned but its architectural style continues to dominate the age in which much of it was built – the mid-to-late 19th century. Just walking into the block (or blocks) surrounded the gated, beautifully maintained Park is good for your head. History, lastingness, beauty, even security are alluded to in the atmosphere. It’s quietly reassuring.

The Players Club facing Gramercy Park.

The Players was built as a private mansion in 1847. It was acquired in the early 1880s by the actor Edwin Booth, brother of the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth. Brother Edwin had been the star of the stock companies that traveled America and entertained its citizens. He owned a very successful theater here in Manhattan. But his crazy brother’s murderous act against our President brought brother Edwin very great dishonor as well as public embarrassment despite his complete innocence. He bought no. 16 with the idea of turning it into a club for actors and their friends, a place where they could go and enjoy the atmosphere and company of those who shared similar interests in theatre and the arts.

Descending the staircase at The Players Club.

Edwin hired Stanford White to make the alterations to convert it into a club house. White also added the front portico and moved the entrance door to the left under the portico. The membership from its inception, down through the decades reads like a history of American theatre: Mark Twain, Lionel Barrymore, Eugene O’Neill, James Cagney, Eli Wallach, Alfred Lunt,Edward Albee among the hundreds of celebrities. When the club decided to admit women, Helen Hayes was its first female member. Among those women who followed her were Carol Burnett, Angela Lansbury, Rue McClanahan and Judy Collins.

Today, the club continues to have a broad membership who often come to lunch or dine and to entertain their friends, as well as to attend events. The man at the desk of the main entrance told me that the dining room draws a crowd every night for dinner. The rooms provide an atmosphere of stability and familiar comforts, far away from the city’s clamor and yet right in the center of it.

The unveiling of the statue of Edwin Booth as Hamlet in Gramercy Park, 1913.

David Williams thought it would be a good place to lunch since he wanted to tell me about his project which is a documentary on the life and work of Rhoda Levine, a director of stage, television and opera, as well as a choreographer. Now in her early 80s, Rhoda is one of those figures in show business whose prominence is found not so much in lights but in the substance and structure of the magic beyond the lights.

Rhoda in her youth.

A New York girl who came of age in the early 1950s, she started out after college studying with Martha Graham. From dance she graduated into choreography and directing, in a life of artistic accomplishments including authoring 9 classic children’s books (“charmingly off-center”) illustrated by her good friend the late Edward Gorey.

As a director of opera, she directed the first performance of the opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis, which was found hidden in the wall of the Nazi concentration camp, Theresienstadt, written by a man who would perish at Auschwitz.  She directed the first performance of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bessin Nelson Mandela’s South Africa.

She’s directed the premieres or seminal productions of a classical opera repertoire but also many of the modern era’s most provocative productions including Lulu; From the House of the Dead; The Good Soldier Schweik; Of Mice and Men; Lizzie Borden; Little Women; and The Life and Times of Malcolm X. This I learned from David Williams as I am not well versed in the opera world which is full of well-informed aficionados and fans.

David Williams’ film documentary Directing Rhoda: The Arts of Living will explore the extraordinary life and work of the lady. In her sixty years behind the scenes of the world’s most innovative theaters, and later in the classrooms of the leading performing arts universities in the U.S., she has had a lasting and profound impact on the history of theatre and opera worldwide.

Rhoda Levine reminiscences about her early work with stage and film director Luchino Visconti during production for a new documentary, Directing Rhoda: The Arts of Living. Photos: Dan Nelken
Filming Rhoda Levine during her class, Acting for Opera and Theater, at Manhattan School of Music.

After our delicious lunch in the Club barroom (turkey and bacon and cheese and lettuce and tomato club & fries), David showed me the trailer he’s made for the film which is still in progress, which he lent me to share. June 15th is Rhoda Levine’s 85th birthday and he’s holding a celebreation for her and to support a “dynamic and inspiring new documentary on her life.”


Meanwhile, back out on the rainy street after a very interesting lunch in an historical New York building, JH sent me a video from Paris that was made to raise awareness about the dangers of being a careless pedestrian, which results in 4,500 victims each year in Ile-de-France.

A message for anybody that will listen in Union Square.

Careless pedestrians are a dime a dozen these days. Cell phone habituees or no, nobody’s “looking.” Just look at the message above in Union Square. In Paris someone designed an interactive digital billboard near a busy pelican crossing. Equipped with a movement detector, speaker, and camera, the smart billboard makes the sound of squealing tires whenever a pedestrian attempted to cross against a red light.

The horrified faces of the disobedient pedestrians were projected directly onto the billboard. Their faces were then featured on the road safety billboards, and their photographs shown alongside the caption: “Don’t look death in the face. Check the lights and cross safely.”

It will crack you up. It did me. Weren’t we fools, you can think, but this is what it looks like in reality outside ourselves.

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