(Or: How I Embarrassed Myself In Front Of 5,000 People)
‘Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act.’ Truman Capote
The wasteful death of Philip Seymour Hoffman caused me take my CAPOTE DVD and watch again Hoffman’s great performance. Like Capote, so much talent cut short through human frailty.
And watching that DVD reminded me of my experience working a Capote reading in Northrop Auditorium at the U of Minnesota. Quite a show! It opened with a ‘comedy act’ worthy of Laurel and Hardy. An act for which I take full responsibility.
Capote was hot. Not only was his IN COLD BLOOD riding high on the Best Seller List, he was proclaiming that he ‘invented’ the ‘nonfiction novel’. He was taking almost as many bows for his ‘invention’ as the professor in the English Department who managed to get Capote booked for a symposium at the University of Minnesota.
Northrop Auditorium seated almost 5,000 and every seat was filled, along with as many people as could stand along the walls. The English Department not only oversold the house, they neglected to print seat assignments on them. Hence, it was a scramble for seats. The only time I had ever seen the Auditorium that full was a noon hour talk by Paul Newman, who was there speaking out against the Viet Nam War.
I was backstage manager; and because it was a ‘school’ event, I only had my student crew working. Lew Reeves, the Concerts and Lectures assistant, who normally would have been backstage to dealing with the talent, was busy in his office trying to dissuade the Fire Marshall not to order an evacuation of all the standees in the auditorium. An act that might cause a riot, which was a popular sport on campuses those days.
The professor had wanted a Q&A session after Capote’s reading, but Capote called the shots. Payment in advance. The show would start on time. He would read something of his own choosing. It would be a book reading, not a book signing. At the end he would then walk offstage and disappear.
At ten to, Capote was waiting to go on. Mr. English Department, as Capote called him, was standing next to the Voice of God mic waiting to introduce the star. English Department went up to Capote and explained that he would make an introductory announcement just before Capote walked on stage.
‘Sir,’ Capote said in a voice a few octaves deeper than usual, ‘I AM TRUMAN CAPOTE! I do not need an in-tro-duction, Sir!’ English Department slinked deeper offstage.
Jerry, the head instigator on the student crew, offered Capote a stick of gum. Capote ignored him.
When Paul Newman had made his appearance he walked on stage chewing gum. About half way through, he took out the gum and placed it carefully on the shelf inside the podium. When the speech was finished and Newman was giving a press conference backstage, a girl out of the audience worked her way to lip of the stage and told one of my student crew, who were all standing onstage seeing to it no one came up, that she would give him five dollars if he would get her the gum that Newman had been chewing. Sold! Immediately, every crew member was chewing gum. They took turns going into the lobby, sidling up a girls and selling ‘Paul Newman’s gum’. When they ran out of gum, Jerry went to the book store next door and bought more. That weekend they had a keg party to end all keg parties.
Jerry then offered Truman the entire pack of gum, suggesting it would help if Capote’s mouth got dry during the reading. The gentleman that had accompanied Capote, and whom Capote merely introduced him as Old Friend, placed his hand on Jerry’s shoulder and asked him to please leave Truman alone.
At Jerry’s mention of dry mouth, I looked to the little table beside the podium. The water pitcher, glass, and tray, that I had told Jerry to bring out ten minutes before, was not there. It was sitting offstage by the rail. I knew if I told Jerry I didn’t like his trick to get Capote to chew some gum, Jerry would just deny it and say it just an honest mistake, he just forgot to bring out the water. It was easier to grab the tray and bring it out myself. Mistake #1!
I had just walked into sight of the audience when someone shouted, ‘Truman! Truman! We want Truman!’ Others joined in the chant and began to stomp their feet. Whether it was the unexpected noise of the audience or my anger at Jerry, or maybe I was just clumsy, whatever, I tripped and lurched forward. I managed to stay on my feet and not lose the three pieces, but the pitcher had tipped and most of the water was on the stage floor. The chant turned to loud laughter. I stomped off into the wings.
Capote stood expressionless, his arms folded across his chest. Old Friend was shaking his head. English Department had moved closer to the exit. My crew, fearful for their jobs, were all coughing, fighting to keep from laughing. The only one laughing was Bill Normington, the heat and vent man in charge of the temperature in the house that evening. Laughing and pointing his finger at me.
Bill, when he worked a show, always wore a suit with a loud tie, and his work shoes. He was tall with big shoulders and a Navy boot camp buzz haircut. When he was wearing his work clothes, he looked competent. When he was dressed in a suit, he looked comical.
I refilled the pitcher and started to bring it out. Normington was still laughing, still pointing his finger at me. I shoved the tray at him. ‘Here, smart ass,’ I said, ‘You take it out!’ Mistake #2!
Bill got a hand as soon as the audience saw him carrying the tray. He quickly took a little bow, and then proceeded to the podium. Legs shaking, feet moving erratically, tray moving toward disaster, a perfect imitation of a drunken waiter. And the crowd loved it, clapping, laughing, encouraging Normington who milked it for all it was worth. He finally reached the little table and set down the tray. Naturally the audience burst into laughter and applause, and naturally the ham took a bow, and kept taking bows as he went off stage.
My crew were howling, slapping hands with Bill. English Department had his hand on the exit door handle. Old Friend was shaking his head. Capote had not moved a muscle during the act. I was taking deep breathes and trying to keep my composure. I heard Jerry tell Normington to do an encore.
‘Don’t even think about it!’ I said. Then I pointed a finger at Jerry. ‘Get a mop and bucket and wipe up that water!’ Mistake #3!
Instead of just going out and mopping up, Jerry, with his right hand, wrapped the onstage edge of the open main around his body, stretched the mop out with his left hand, and slooowly pulled the mop through the puddle. The audience, who could only see the movement of the curtain and one arm moving a mop, clapped and hooted and howled. The crew and Normington were shouting and laughing. English Department went out the door. Old Friend turned his back to the stage. Capote, as before, did not move a muscle.
‘Enough!’ I shouted to Jerry.
‘It’s all yours, Mr. Capote,’ I said waving my hand toward the podium.
Capote finally moved. He placed his hands on his hips, turned to me, and said, in a voice that sounded like he was imitating Johnny Carson imitating Truman Capote, ‘Well! You don’t really expect me to follow that act, do you?’
He did though. Walked out to the podium to a standing ovation. Most of the audience, myself included, had anticipated a reading from IN COLD BLOOD. We were surprised but not disappointed.
Instead he read his new short story, A THANKSGIVING VISITOR, which he prefaced by saying he knew the audience remembered Buddy and Sook whom he introduced to the world in A CHRISTMAS MEMORY. (‘The world, no less,’ whispered Old Friend, who had moved next to me in the wing. ‘Oh, the ego!’) ‘This is a continuance of their story,’ said Truman.
When he read the narrative and other voices, it was such a pleasure; but when he read the words of Soot, the elderly cousin and surrogate grandmother of young Buddy, it was a work of art. Years later, I made a point to watch Geraldine Page playing Soot in the two televised short stories. She won Emmys for both performances, and rightly so; but even Page’s great portrayal, in my opinion, could not match Truman reading the words of ‘my friend’.
And with the final words, ‘the chrysanthemums that burned, that growled and roared against a greenly lowering dusk,’ he closed his script and walked off stage, the only noise was the sound of his shoes on the floor. And as Capote disappeared off stage, the audience rose as one entity and gave out the biggest applause of the evening. But Truman only heard muffled noise as he and Old Friend followed me to the basement garage to my car as per the plan. With Truman bending down in the passenger seat and Old Friend in back, I drove out, fooling everybody who flocked to the stage door hoping to get a book signed. We were well on our way to the limo that waited about a mile away, when Lew Reeves announced over the Voice of God mic, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen. Truman has left the building!’ to the disappointment of the audience. No encore! No signings! But each person left with a very special memory of a very special night.
During the short trip, Capote referred to me by my name instead of something like Mr. Stagehand or New Friend. I felt honored at first; but when he placed his hand on my thigh, I realized he was just hitting on me. I pushed his hand away, twice. The third time, Old Friend came to my rescue. ‘Truman! Behave!’ And he slapped the back of Capote’s head.
Capote kept trying to persuade me to come up to his hotel room, even if it was after I finished my work in the theater. He promised me a signed copy of one of his books. I kept saying no. Finally, Old Friend, came to my rescue again. He handed Capote a book that I had in the backseat and ordered him to sign it.
It was a paperback, TWICE-TOLD TALES by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Capote laughed, saying Hawthorne was one of his favorite authors. ‘I’ve often thought I should have scarlet H’s embroidered on my shirts,’ he said as he signed the book.
‘Thank you, Mr. Don for the ride,’ he said as he got out of the car, ‘And thank you for the water,’ he added as he closed the car door.
That sonofagun! As he got into the limo, I realized that not once, during his entire time on stage, did he even so much as take a sip of that damn water.
I had met Capote when he was at the apex of his career. He was now acknowledged as an important American author. But he was also beginning his sad slow decline into being just a celebrity. Serious writing, for the most part just unfinished attempts and rumors, replaced by alcohol, drugs, talk shows, and parties. He became a celebrity, but at what cost? His death report stated that he died of liver cancer augmented by multiple drug intoxication.
And now, Philip Seymour Hoffman, who had portrayed Capote in life, imitated him also in death. Two artists who gave so much enjoyment to others’ lives but had too little respect for their own .
‘I’m an alcoholic. I’m a drug addict. I’m a homosexual. I’m a genius. Of course I could be all four of these dubious things and still be a saint. But I shonuf ain’t no saint yet. Nawshuh. Truman Capote