Wednesday, October 24, 2018

At the Stage Door: Meeting Angela Lansbury

"Never meet your heroes, because they're sure to disappoint you." 

I've heard that many times over the course of my life, and I always took it to heart. Of course, that never really stopped me from meeting a few of them. I've been so very fortunate to meet many of the Broadway people I love and look up to. And I don't mean in passing at the stage door.  I mean one-on-one backstage.

Today's blog is about meeting my all time hero - though technically this isn't an "at the stage door" story. This is all about the evening I met Angela Lansbury backstage at the Music Box Theatre following a performance of the play Deuce.

It was the summer of 2007, and everyone was thrilled that, at long last, Ms. Lansbury was returning to Broadway for the first time since 1983. (As most of you know by now, that 1983 stint in Mame marked not only my first Broadway show, but the beginning of my fandom of this great actress.) That summer, she was a vibrant 81, and common thinking at the time was that this was likely going to be her farewell to the stage. Of course, since then, she's returned three more times - Tony nominated each time, winning one for Blithe Spirit. But I digress.

So, my very good friend took me to see Deuce for my birthday and to celebrate the star's return and possible farewell. My friend even suggested I take my souvenir program from Mame and we could wait after the show and maybe she's sign it. In hind sight, I should have known something was afoot - my friend has ZERO interest in waiting for autographs.

Marian Seldes and Angela Lansbury in Deuce
When the curtain call was over, and the house was clearing, my friend just sat there. Odd, I thought, so I asked if everything was okay. "I'm fine," she said, "but there's something I need to show you." "Okay..." And she handed me a printed email from someone I didn't recognize. "Just read it."

The gist was this: Angela Lansbury would love help celebrate Jeff's birthday. Please make your way to the stage door following the performance and give your names at the door; the doorman will call for you when she's ready." I started to cry. I mean, wouldn't you?

I was so nervous. As we waited, just inside the stage door, I whispered (as if this was a church or something), "Now I know why you suggested bringing the program." A young woman approached us. "Is this the birthday boy?" she smiled, looking me up and down. I think I mumbled something that indicated I was. "Well, Miss Lansbury is so excited to meet you and say 'Happy Birthday! Follow me!" My friend hung back. I turned to her, "YOU ARE NOT GOING TO MISS THIS!"

We went up a few steps. The stage was to our right; the dressing room to the left, just above stage level. The door opened and there she stood. "Please come in. I'm so glad you came to see me." She extended her hand and we shook. Her handshake was firm, her skin soft. She smiled. "Did you enjoy the show?" "Yes, of course!" "You know, it's a challenge. A lot of lines, and I play a character that isn't much like people expect from me." I nodded vigorously, my tongue tied, as I remember the collective gasp that came when she said the "c word."

She exchanged pleasantries with my friend and turned back to me. "May I ask why you wanted to meet me for your birthday?" I thought, "Oh my God. This is the chance of a lifetime, don't mess this up." "Well, the very first Broadway show I ever saw was Mame in 1983. It changed my life. YOU changed my life. Thanks to you and that show, I found my passion." She looked slightly taken aback. Uh-oh. Turns out she was just surprised.

"You saw that? We weren't on very long." "Yes, ma'am, I did." "Well, it is so wonderful to know that we made such an impact. Most people know me from TV these days..." She smiled, and looked at the program. "Would you like me to sign that for you?" "Please!"  She sat at her table and wrote, "Love, Angela Lansbury". She stood up, smiling, straightening her quilted robe. Looking me straight in the eye, "I'm so glad we met." "Oh, me, too." I blushed. "Be careful when you go out the door. It can be a little...busy."

We all shook hands again and said good bye. It all lasted about five minutes from start to finish, but what a five minutes! We were shown to the door. "She's not kidding about leaving - be careful!" the young woman said. No joke. We opened the door, and the crowd whooped and I remember being very conscious of flashes going off and being slightly disoriented. I will always remember that and feel respect for cast members that are faced with that every day. It took the crowd about 30 seconds to realize we weren't celebrities. It got quiet real fast. We still chuckle that somewhere about 50 people have pictures of two nobodies leaving the Music Box.

I remember meeting Angela Lansbury like it was yesterday, and I think of it often. She was everything I thought she'd be and more - gracious, warm and strong. And you know what was best of all? She treated us so genuinely - like we were the most important people she'd met that day. I'll always appreciate that. No wonder she's my hero. And I wasn't disappointed at all.

Previously on "At the Stage Door": Meeting Scott Bakula   Meeting the Cast of Pippin


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