Mr. Theater

by Joseph Eastburn

Ellis Rabb, the great American actor, director, and producer died January 11, 1998. He was sixty-seven. I remember when I read about it, I was immediately flooded with memories of the relatively few hours I’d spent in his effervescent company. I wanted to understand the parts of his life I had not known—the whirlwind years when he started APA, the Association of Producing Artists, and with Rosemary Harris, the actress to whom he was married for seven years, toured regional houses and in the 1960s mounted productions on Broadway in what Mel Gussow said in The New York Times was the American version of a national theater. And the first rep company on Broadway since Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theater in the 1930s. Ellis had told me a little about his later years on Broadway, his many seasons at the Old Globe; I particularly wished I’d seen his hilarious turn as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, which he apparently delivered in a basso profundo.

While I had mentors and great teachers, Ellis was the only real friend I had in the theater.

We met by chance one day in the mid-1980s in New York City. I had arranged to meet a friend at Charlie’s, the venerable Theater District eatery on 45th Street, but my friend went to Charlie O’s on 44th instead. After an hour of writing play ideas on a napkin, I exited Charlie’s and almost ran into Ellis. He literally passed a few inches away from me. It would have been hard to miss his angular profile and Ichabod Crane body. It had just started to rain. The first time I’d seen a photograph of him, in the mid-1970s, I was a young actor sitting in my rented room in a professor’s house in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, dreaming of moving to New York as I pored over a book of theater profiles. I turned a page and there was Ellis at the Old Globe, playing Prospero, holding a stave, wearing a robe, looking mythic and, at the same time, utterly vulnerable. And that face.

As he walked down 45th Street in the rain, swaying a little, I don’t know what possessed me, but I followed him. He walked a block or two to Orso Restaurant on 46th Street, and I saw him take a table by himself in the corner. I told the maître d’ to tell Mr. Rabb that a young playwright (I was thirty-four) was waiting for him at the bar. Ellis, all 6 foot 4 of him, came wandering over with his vodka and said, dryly, “I suppose you’re the young playwright?”

I said yes, and told him I had written a play he might like and gave a brief synopsis.

“What’s the title?”

Heart’s Desire.

Ellis looked surprised and said, “My first play was called Heart’s Desire.”

From that moment, our friendship was sealed. The following week, he invited me over to his high-rise apartment across from Lincoln Center, although I wouldn’t find out until much later why. He asked me to bring the play, served us both vodka with a lemon wedge, asked me about myself, and started telling stories. When I left, he said he would read the play. Luckily, there was a part for him in it. That character was based on Nevett Bartow, my first piano teacher and choir master, who was a composer, family friend, and theatrical colleague of my father, who, when Nevett died of cancer, was crushed and told me, “I’ve lost him.”

I’m feeling the same way about Ellis.

We got together for many lunches and dinners to work on the play (for which he eventually hosted a reading with wonderful actors), but most of the time, Ellis talked about life, the theater, and of course, himself. I called him “Mr. Theater” when I told friends and family about my adventures with the flamboyant actor/director.

After the APA had merged with the Phoenix Theatre, for their last show in 1969, Ellis mounted a production of Hamlet with himself in the title role. He was quoted in The Times as saying, “If you want to destroy your career as actor, director, and producer, all in the same night, direct yourself in Hamlet for your own company.” But he’d conceived a brilliant shock opening: when the curtain rose, all the characters who eventually die in the play (which is every major and several minor characters) were lying dead on the stage. The lights came up for a moment, captured the image, and blinked out. Pause. Lights up on the beginning of the play.

One night, after a performance of Shaw’s Heartbreak House at Circle in the Square Theatre, I found myself in a limo with Ellis, Rex Harrison, and Rosemary Harris, headed to The Russian Tea Room during a snowstorm! For a kid from New Jersey, I was over the moon. I survived one embarrassing moment when I turned around in the limo and asked Rosemary if I’d seen her in The Belle of Amherst. She smiled graciously and said no, that was Julie Harris. Mortified, I whispered “Sorry,” and for some reason, we became friends. Once we arrived at the restaurant, over smoked salmon and champagne, Rosemary and Rex got into a heated discussion about whether George Bernard Shaw liked women or, in fact, did not. As Ellis egged them on, Rosemary got quite heated and Rex kept trying to mollify her by explaining that Shaw was socialist. As the limo dropped Rex off at his apartment, he turned to me and said, “I love the idea of your play.” How many playwrights in the world can say they’ve had that experience?

Ellis asked me to assist him on the PBS/Showtime live television production of You Can’t Take It With You at the Royale Theater on Broadway. The first meeting at the theater, I recall Ellis asking the producers and the television director if they wanted to say anything. When they said no, Ellis walked up on the stage of the Royale and we all took seats. He talked extemporaneously for over an hour about the play, his history with it, and his delight with the amazing cast of this revival, which included Jason Robards, Colleen Dewhurst, and George Rose. He controlled the atmosphere completely, and yet you were never aware of it; instead, you had a good time and felt that he was just being Ellis. His art was invisible. The first day of rehearsals was eye-opening. I saw for the first time what the job of a director really was, as I watched him cajole and play with his stars, making hundreds of staging decisions every hour.

Once, sitting across the street in Charlie’s after rehearsal with a cast member, Nicolas Surovy, Ellis was approached by one of the most successful producers on Broadway, who pitched him a play. As the producer stood beside the table, Ellis faced forward with complete indifference. When the producer left, Ellis told a long story about an associate who had worked with the producer, thought he was cheap and called him, behind his back, “a cheese-paring cunt.” Hearing one of the most powerful producers on the Street dished this way was scary but exhilarating.

During rehearsals, as Ellis’s assistant, I would sit in the first few rows to watch rehearsal, and Jason Robards would glare at me. On opening night, Ellis delivered his welcome speech to the live audience of friends and colleagues and ended by inviting cast member Maureen Anderman onstage with her newborn baby. The entire audience said, “Ohhhh!” Afterward, he walked offstage to thunderous applause, thrust the speech into my hand, and said, “Send that to the Smithsonian.” At the time, I was living in a small studio apartment in the Village. That night I ended up staying up late with a young woman I’d met at a club, and I left the speech on my desk. When I showed up at the theater the next evening, Ellis was standing outside Mr. Robards’ dressing room. He said, “Where’s the speech?”

Stunned, I admitted it was still sitting on my desk in the East Village. As Jason looked disgusted, I offered to jump in a cab, but Ellis went down into the TV truck and reconstituted it. I had a few more run-ins with Mr. Robards. Trying to impress this theater titan, and wanting to make conversation once, I recalled how great he was playing the alcoholic actor with Shirley Knight in the television production of a famous play—that I could only remember had the word “country” in the title. So, I turned to him and said confidently, “You were so great in A Month in the Country.” (Which, I found out later, is a Russian masterpiece by Turgenev). He snarled at me and said, “I was never in that play.” At the time, we were sitting at a table at The Ginger Man on 64th Street. Victor Garber was at the table and tried to protect me by inviting me to scrunch over next to him and help him eat his giant salad. As if I could hide while sitting across from Jason Robards! During the next few tense minutes, Ellis, who was delighted by the tiff, figured out I’d meant The Country Girl by Clifford Odets. After that, Mr. Robards started to like me, begrudgingly. After he starred (again) in a revival of The Iceman Cometh, I ventured backstage and we had a friendly conversation.

I was afraid that all these high-powered New York theater people thought I was assisting Ellis (and hanging around with him) because we were sleeping together. What other reason could there be? He basically adopted me for a couple of years. And spending time with a larger-than-life theatrical personality, like my father, was in my DNA. Ellis also said he preferred palling around with straight men. He liked their energy. I remember him once telling me the best sex he ever had was with a cop. Only once in conversation did he let slip that my play was not the real reason he’d started to work with me. I guess I knew that. He never came out and said he was attracted to me, but that was the subtext of our relationship. Once he cooked pork chops and invited me over to watch The African Queen on television, saying it reminded him of our relationship. He said he could play the Hepburn part to my Bogie. Once when he introduced me to the wonderfully wicked Carrie Nye and a young woman—who I remember as her niece, and who I ended up spending a night with—Ellis said later, a little annoyed, “Are you going to fuck your way through the whole family?”

Once when I shared a cab with Carrie Nye and we talked about some major directorial job that Ellis had turned down, I asked her why he would do that. Carrie had worked with Ellis for many years, was one of his best friends, and was Southern, as was Ellis, which allowed her natural bluntness to come out. She snapped, “Because Ellis is stupid.” Obviously, he was not stupid. But I sensed he wanted to do things his own way and didn’t really give a damn. After all, he had been a major force in the American theater for decades.

Through the tiny room off the kitchen in Ellis’s apartment on the 27th floor above Central Park drifted an array of theater luminaries, all of whom will have their own Ellis tales. At his parties, everyone tried to squeeze into that one room. Director Gerald Gutierrez told me a moving story about Ellis (who endured six cataract operations, and whose father actually went blind). Ellis had asked Gerry to sit with him during auditions for a play he was directing, to tell him what the actors looked like because Ellis couldn’t see them.

Again, in The Ginger Man, where Ellis dined literally every day, Gutierrez looked across the table at me and said, “I can’t believe how Waspy you are.” I didn’t have an answer for this. How could I say that, next to them, I felt dull and lifeless? That summer, I finally got cast as an Equity guest artist in two musicals at Theatre-By-The-Sea in Matunuck, Rhode Island. When I got back to New York, Ellis and Gerry teased me about my “recent triumph at Matunuck.” Ellis told a story about how when APA was touring in the early days, they had played that same theatre. When a group of cast members had laid down a bed of coals on the beach and were baking lobsters under some sort of cover, Rosemary Harris kept asking if the lobsters had been put into boiling water (which kills them instantly) before being placed on the hot coals. The cast members assured her they had, but she didn’t believe them and made them lift the cover. Of course, the lobsters were still alive, crawling around, and it turned into a major fracas.

When I went backstage to see Rosemary after the 1985 revival of Hay Fever, she was always gracious—a cross between den mother and monarch. We talked about how Coward had written the play when he was twenty-five! When we ran into Ellis in one of those narrow backstage Broadway hallways, she said, “Joseph’s here.” (Everyone called me “Joe.”) Spending time with them was like actually living in a Noel Coward play. Obviously, they were in a different stratosphere from the actors and playwrights I associated with. Once after a performance of Pack of Lies, Rosemary shared a beer with cast members and friends at McHale’s on 8th Avenue, and opened up to me about how angry she was at her costar, Patrick McGoohan, saying she wanted to “crack him across the face.” Later she mailed me a card of apology. No apology was necessary. Having this queen of the stage confide in me was intoxicating.

Ellis used to tell me he saw a psychotherapist in the same building on 64th Street, whose office, like Ellis’s apartment, overlooked Central Park. When Ellis talked about being a homosexual, the therapist would invite him to look out over the park and notice how many different kinds of trees there were. Ellis would recount this, as if reminding himself that it was okay. His lover at the time was a much younger musician and composer named John. Once, sitting on the banquette in that tiny room off the kitchen, Ellis played for me several of John’s classical compositions on a cassette deck. Sometime later, I wrote this poem:


The panels of light
lifted their reflections
across the park. The
way the early sun
hits the South walls
of the buildings…
they seem for a moment
to be giant stands of ice
in some future age.

There in your window
as his music plays with
the same light that
glances off your profile,
you let me watch you, over
coffee, travel a sadness so
deep that the unuttered
grief in your face emerges
as its own music. Perhaps
it was nothing, but I watch
your expressions edge their
way across the cold angular
shapes in the distance, and
I am drawn in, fused with
the mystery of your soul,
at home with a warmth
complete…on all the levels
that can love.

When I showed the poem to my then girlfriend, Erin, she said accusingly, “It’s a love poem.” I suppose it is. Coincidentally, a friend of mine told me he was close with a costumer and he’d gotten ahold of the actual coat Ellis had worn in the Broadway production of The Royal Family, for which he’d won the Tony and Drama Desk Awards. It was the stage fur that Ellis’s character hurled off his shoulders when he made his grand entrance (it supposedly stayed on the floor for the rest of the scene). By then, my friend was moving to Los Angeles and needed money; he said if I bought his stereo, he would throw in the coat. When I gave it to Ellis, he looked stunned and said, “Who did you fuck to get this?” Then he disappeared for several minutes, came back wearing it, started crying, and said no one had ever give him a fur coat. While there was rampant antifur sentiment in the ’80s, no one would blink if a personality of Ellis’s stature showed up wearing a fur. So, he wore it that night to the opening of the Gutierrez-directed Terra Nova, reenacting his stage entrance several times in the lobby of the American Place Theatre.

Later, when Ellis asked me to read for a small part in his revival of Light Up the Sky (in one of the gigantic rooms at 890 Broadway), he jumped up from behind the audition table and took a stroll with me around the space until he thought I was calm enough to read. He had an incredible generosity of spirit. I didn’t get the part.

That production opened to poor notices at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, where I now live. In 1987, I got what became my last acting job, A Study in Scarlet, at Williamstown Theatre Festival. That summer I ran into Richard Woods, an actor who’d been in Ellis’s revival of You Can’t Take It With You. He told me that he’d heard, secondhand, that because the actors didn’t quite mesh with the rickety 1940s script by Moss Hart, Ellis withdrew and “closed himself off from the cast.” I heard gossip elsewhere that Nancy Marchand, best known for playing Tony Soprano’s mother, gave everyone in the company little opening-night gifts in black wrapping paper.

Ellis’s and my paths crossed briefly the following summer at Williamstown. Ironically, Heart’s Desire was being read that summer on the second stage. Ellis was directing a revival of Coward’s Tonight at 8:30. I watched the dress rehearsal while Ellis paced in the back of the theater, looking worried. In the dark, his mother, Mary Carolyn, would hand me caramels from a plastic Baggie. I had the feeling she kept the candy to give to Ellis the same way she might have when he was a young boy—that same boy who, in his own words, knew at fourteen that he was “just different.”

A turning point had come some years before when Ellis was rehearsing his own adaptation of The Loves of Anatol at Circle in the Square. I had been working as a lunch waiter in the private dining room of a French bank at Rockefeller Center. One morning, I opened the paper and saw a review. I called Ellis from the kitchen. It was the day before he left New York to return to Memphis, the day his production opened to a merciless attack in The Times. My girlfriend and I used to get out the cocktail shaker and read aloud theater critic Frank Rich’s reviews with horror and glee. Ellis just fled, returning to Memphis and hiring someone later to pack up his apartment. I had the feeling that the review made him think his career was over, and he ran for cover.

Ellis briefly moved back to New York in the early ’90s to work on a play. When I walked into his new apartment, closer to the Theater District, his assistant was an actor (that I knew) who was twenty years younger than I. It was like seeing an earlier hologram of myself. I had to smile at this passing of the torch. During lunch, I asked Ellis what he’d been up to. He said he was “banging on the typewriter,” an expression he used to explain his writing process, the same way he described Clap Your Hands, his play about Peter Pan undergoing a midlife crisis, which was staged at the Old Globe.

His last production was The Glass Menagerie—at SUNY Purchase, under the Phoenix Theatre banner—starring Carrie Nye. In 1993, when my first novel was published, I called Ellis to tell him I was sending him a copy. That was the last time we spoke. Finally, one holiday season, when my daughter was three years old, he sent her a giant illustrated children’s book of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, with an elaborately sentimental card, making reference to the friendship he had with her father. I wrote back, thanking him, but regret not calling him then, or the many times before when he had come into my mind. He died a few weeks later. We forget, until it’s too late, to thank the people who have literally changed our lives. Ellis Rabb gave me a glimpse into a sublime world that I would never have otherwise known.

I only wish he could read this, to know how much I thank him now.

JOSEPH EASTBURN lived fourteen years in New York City, where his parents met on stage at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 1941. Working as an actor/singer, he appeared in over thirty productions, including “A Study in Scarlet” with Alec Baldwin at the Williamstown Theatre Festival—where two of his plays were also workshopped, including “Heart’s Desire”, featured three Tony Award-winning actors, Patricia Elliott, George Grizzard, and Donna Murphy. He earned a master’s degree in Professional Writing from USC, where he taught off and on for ten years. His writing has appeared in The Apalachee Review, Crack the Spine, Forge, Reed Magazine, Sliver of Stone, Slow Trains, The Sun Magazine, Tower Journal, Sand Hill Review, and Hobo Pancakes. His first novel, Kiss Them Good-Bye, was published by Morrow in 1993, and brought back in paper and eBook in January, 2016. His new book, A Craving, was a Third Place Winner in the Operation Thriller Writing Competition.