Backstage at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway.
Present day. An evening performance of the Ethan Coen/Elaine May/Woody Allen play Relatively Speaking, and immediately afterward.
Marlo Thomas (Award-winning actress, author, producer, and activist); Marci Rich (The Midlife Second Wife); John Rich (The Midlife Second Husband)
A writer and blogger from Richmond, Virginia, learns that an essay she submitted to a contest sponsored on Facebook by Marlo Thomas was selected as a winner. Her prize? Two free tickets to see the actress perform on Broadway in a one-act comedy, George is Dead, written by Elaine May—part of a three-act play called Relatively Speaking. The writer and her husband embark on a whirlwind, 24-hour trip by train to New York City to see the play and, hopefully, meet the actress. Waiting backstage after the performance, the writer reflects on significant moments in her life in which either the actress or the actress’ late father, famed entertainer Danny Thomas, played an off-stage role.
Prologue: The Writer Remembers
It must have been 1960 or 1961. I was five or so. I remember because the dress I’m wearing in the photograph was my favorite dress when I was in kindergarten. The famous entertainer Danny Thomas had come to Cleveland, and I had my picture taken with him for a Cleveland-area newspaper. My father is also in the picture; he’s the one holding me, hoping that I’ll stop crying long enough for the man with the camera to get his picture.
I remember the evening well. My father, George Abookire, had been a regional volunteer for ALSAC, the fundraising organization that Danny Thomas had established to help him realize his dream: a hospital dedicated to children who were suffering from cancer. ALSAC had benefited from the work of volunteers such as my father, who helped raise money for what would become St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. A keynote ALSAC event was taking place at a ballroom in a Cleveland hotel, and the guest of honor was Danny Thomas himself.
I knew who Danny Thomas was; he was revered in our house for several reasons. To begin with, he was a first-generation American born to Lebanese parents, just like my father. Danny Thomas was born in Toledo, Ohio; my father was born just 90 miles east, in Elyria, Ohio. Danny Thomas had married a woman of Sicilian descent; so had my father. There is family lore, possibly apocryphal, that it was a first cousin of Danny’s, Ralph Jacobs (also from Toledo), who had married my father’s first cousin, Renée Mady of Windsor, Canada.
Even more important than these connections was the fact that Danny Thomas’ great success in the entertainment industry—in films, nightclubs, and as the star and producer of his own television shows—brought tremendous pride to the Lebanese community. At a time when minority ethnic and racial groups were not represented on television, Danny Thomas, a man of Lebanese heritage, brought a slice of our culture to millions of homes across America. The importance of this cannot be overstated. This meant everything to a little girl growing up in Elyria, Ohio, who looked different from everyone else because of her thick, dark curly hair; a nose that was decidedly not Anglo-Saxon; and an unpronounceable last name. Danny Thomas’ presence on television validated my ancestral identity. My parents and I adored Make Room for Daddy and watched it religiously; the episodes featuring Danny Williams’ Uncle Tonoose, played by Hans Conried, were especially beloved. Uncle Tonoose reminded me of my grandfather.
There was one small problem.
Like most children, I was highly impressionable, especially when it came to visual images. My first infant memory is of a male relative carrying me in my grandmother’s house; I glimpsed my reflection in the mirror hanging on the wall. So much of what I would later see on television as a child remains as vivid to me now as that first mirror image; they are imprints, effortlessly recalled. A nightmare that I had when I was still a baby forms my second memory. The eye logo employed by CBS turned menacing in my dream. I awoke crying in my crib, frightened and inconsolable.
And so I well remember the little girl who played Linda, Danny Thomas’ daughter in his television show. Like me, she had dark hair. Like me, she had a slightly mischievous spirit. And, like me, she could sometimes exasperate her father to distraction, eliciting a reaction from him that, like the CBS eye, suggested menace: a raised voice, a sprint across a room to chase the little imp.
I had been told that I would be meeting Danny Thomas that evening in Cleveland. And as the evening wore on, I remember growing tired and cranky. It was a school night, and the back of my legs itched from the rough velvet seats on which we’d been sitting for what seemed like hours, waiting for the star to make his entrance. These feelings, then, combined with the growing awareness that this man could very well begin yelling at me as he occasionally yelled at his television daughter, filled me with apprehension.
The room darkened, and a great spotlight appeared. Danny Thomas was entering the ballroom. My father grabbed my hand and ran with me over to the photo op.
“You’re going to have your picture taken with Danny Thomas,” he said, smiling. My reaction surprised him. I started to cry.
My poor father. Poor Danny Thomas. My father tried to comfort me, and Danny Thomas—no doubt disappointed by my tears—nevertheless rose to the occasion and posed, smiling, behind us.
Years later, reading the newspaper clipping, I learned something new. After the picture was taken, I apparently stopped crying, clambered into Danny Thomas’ arms, and gave him a kiss.
Strange phenomena, memories. I don’t remember doing that at all. But it was in the paper, so it must have happened.
To be continued …