Remembering Mimi

There was a funny commercial I remember from childhood. It was for C&C Cola. A red headed lady was talking about a taste test with Coke and Pepsi, but every time she tried to say, “Coke and Pepsi,” a car horn would beep. Until the end, when she rushed it in before the horn.

I met this lady in 1993, when we both were cast in a season of summer stock in Kentucky. At my audition, the producer (a real Kentucky Colonel) stopped me in the middle of my monologue to say that he wanted to hire me, but before I said yes, he wanted me to go home and think about it overnight. If I decided to take the job, I should call him the next day.

It was good advice. I did think about it, called the next day to say yes, and was told to come sign the contract. When I got there, a familiar looking red headed lady was just finishing doing that. The colonel left the room for a minute, and Mimi turned to me and said, “So, this sounds like it’s going to be fun, huh?”

We had no idea.

That was the most wonderful summer. We bonded, the group of us in the cast, and as we often said, Mimi was the glue. The rest of us were staying in fairly rustic barrack style log cabins, but Mimi’s room had been equipped with air conditioning, a television, a toaster oven, and a phone line. This was before cell phones, it was a novelty to see Mimi roaming around talking into her cordless phone.

The season included a comedy called Beau Jest, in which Mimi played a Jewish mother, and I played an actor who was hired to be Jewish. (Not a stretch for either of us.) Much of the action took place around the Seder table, and since none of us had much experience with that, Mimi took over and taught us the prayers from the Haggadah, how to arrange the Seder plate, and even managed to find a Kosher bakery in Lexington to provide fresh Challah!

We had to make the bread last, so Mimi would shout, “Stop eating!”

Well, we couldn’t stop eating. Nor laughing. Those scenes around the dinner table felt so real, because we had become a family that summer.

I began knocking on Mimi’s door at night, a habit that continued when we got back to NYC. When I would visit the several apartments Mimi had within a couple blocks of Broadway on the Upper West Side, the doorman would buzz me straight through. Sometimes, he would pick up the intercom and tell Mimi, “Your son is here.”

That would make us laugh, because I look nothing like her son Jeffrey, nor does it make any sense that a Jewish woman would give her son a name meaning “Bearer of Christ.”

Actually, Mimi’s daughter Karen and I went to the same drama school in Manhattan, although we did not know each other then. Big city, small world.

Over the years, Mimi and I worked together in different creative roles. I directed her in a couple of plays, read the stage directions for the initial read-throughs of her musical Dressing Room, and was called upon to paint or build furniture when she’d moved to a new apartment.

There was one piece in particular. Mimi bought a stained glass window at a flea market. It had been turned into a light box, and Mimi asked me to build a fireplace mantel around it. I loved the idea. We decided to paint it an antique white, and used furniture polish to age it, enhancing the details in the molding. It came out pretty good. Every time Mimi threw one of her festive parties, I would glance over at the fireplace light and be secretly proud.

At the time, I had a separate resume for set design, so Mimi hired me to do the set for Dressing Room, which was based on her colorful experiences backstage when she was in Grandma Sylvia’s Funeral, at the same theatre. Soho Playhouse.

(About that, I had also been cast in that show, as an understudy for a vampire type guy who was the son of the funeral director. Or something. He only had a few lines. I went to one performance before turning down the job. This must have been before Mimi was cast, or I would have taken it.)

For Dressing Room, I went with a hyper realistic set. I’d seen my share of cramped makeshift dressing rooms in tiny NYC theatres, and wanted to create a space that would help the performers forget they were onstage instead of backstage. It brought me the only good review in the NY Times I’ve ever gotten. They liked my set.

Working on these projects also introduced me to some of Mimi’s glittering circle of talented friends. For instance, at the first rehearsal of the one-woman show Mimi asked me to direct for a backer’s showcase, she told me a pal would be stopping by to pick up the guitar he’d left behind. This guy was writing the songs for Dressing Room, so Mimi got him to write one for our show as well. The door opened, and there stood a man I would stay friends with, and work with on other projects in other theatres, for over twenty years.

That one-woman show came at a time when I had just returned from an extremely unhappy summer at a regional theatre, and really needed something fun to focus on. Mimi had written the script, so she was off book day one, which meant we could jump right in and explore. Not only was it a pleasure, but it gave me the chance to learn more about her life from before we met.

Mimi had a lot of great stories, and I enjoyed hearing them. After reading her autobiography years later, I pointed out that she hadn’t included the day she met Harrison Ford while wearing her bright red sheared mink coat. She laughed at having forgotten that, but also at my remembering.

My favorite moment with Mimi, though, happened in the second show we did that summer in Kentucky, Arsenic and Old Lace. I was playing Mortimer Brewster, and Mimi was playing my Aunt Abby. In one very funny scene, she explained that there was a dead body in the window seat. His name was Mr. Hoskins. When I peeked inside, there was a body alright, but it was not Mr. Hoskins.

Mimi walked over to look for herself.

“Oh, dear. Who can that be?”

The dialogue was extremely well constructed. Every line got a laugh, and the laughs came stacked one upon the other. With each performance, those laughs got longer. You see, even though Mimi had a background in musicals, whereas I started performing as a clown, we both understood comedy the same way. We knew the same tricks. How to do a take. How to milk a laugh. We had the same timing. There is a great deal of pleasure in being onstage with someone who gets exactly what you are doing, and is doing it too.

So we knew where the laughs would come, and did our best to make sure they came bigger each performance. Then, one night:

“Oh, dear. Who can that be?”

The audience started laughing… and did not stop.

Mimi I were holding the moment. It’s a thing actors do to extend a laugh. Right after you say the laugh line, you basically freeze, giving the audience a chance to run an instant replay. Reminding them of what you just did to make them laugh.

Usually, a laugh will start to crest, which is when you come in with the next line, but that didn’t happen. They just kept laughing, and laughing. Some of the actors backstage came to the wings to see what had gotten such a big laugh, and saw us just standing there, not doing anything. Why was the audience still laughing?

It’s hard to gage how long a laugh actually is while you’re onstage. Time tends to warp, but I do know it was the longest laugh I’ve ever gotten. It had to have been more than a minute. Maybe two.

When you’re acting, there are several thoughts going through your head all at once. Yes, you are listening to the other actors, but you are also being careful to find your light. You have a heightened awareness of the audience (the reason so many actors prefer performing onstage to on screen.) You might be thinking about the conversation you were having backstage just before hearing your cue to enter. You might be craving chocolate ice cream. Or, you might arrive at the risky conclusion that the show is going really well, and by gosh, you and the redhead are pretty darn funny.

Mimi was already there.

I looked down at the dead body that was not Mr. Hoskins, but it was too late. We were both struggling not to laugh, which the audience of course could tell, and what was already an enormous laugh reached a whole new level. What happened next was absolutely thrilling, and it was the moment that I believe cemented the affection we shared.

One of the actors watching from the wings said later on, “Yeah, I saw that in community theatre once.” He was angry that we had broken character, and thought we were unprofessional. Yes, we did break character and I suppose it was unprofessional, but he wasn’t on that stage with us. He wasn’t being held several feet above the boards, in an exchange of pure joy between audience and performer. How could he possibly understand?

That exchange, that communion, went beyond the script. Beyond the characters we were playing. It was between me, Mimi, and the people being held several feet above their seats in the house. That’s what live theatre can do. It can lift you out of the circumstances of the present and, for a moment or a minute or a timeless warp, give you joy.

When the laugh finally began to subside, I went back two lines and gave Mimi her cue again.

“Oh, dear. Who can that be?”

We got right back into the show and brought the audience with us and at the end of that scene, the applause was thunderous. They saw the skill it took to pull that off, appreciated the glimpse into our true selves, and most of all, they were telling us what we had already guessed.

How very much fun it was all going to be.

 

 

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About anunperfectactor

Actor performer storyteller.
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2 Responses to Remembering Mimi

  1. Sheri Smith says:

    That was awesome Christopher. Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. matthew gandolfo says:

    Such a beautiful remembrance. I had forgotten all about eating the drumstick and the guitar and Mimi’s Harrison Ford story. It was a very good time.

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