While on tour with Leonard Nimoy in VINCENT I discovered there’s a lot to like in art museums. A logical event since I was immersed in Van Gogh’s life and works. Every stop where we had time to kill I found an art museum. I don’t remember watching any TV or going to any movies during the tour, but I remember the art. I am partial to the Impressionists, I found I could get lost in the works of any genre.
We had a week in the Cleveland Playhouse, one of the best regional theaters. The Cleveland Art Museum on only a few blocks away and I visited it several times. It did not look like an art museum. It was one- story sprawling building set in a wooded location.
You couldn’t miss it because it had a large replica of Rodin’s The Thinker outside the building. It was too tall to fit inside. There was one thing it had, or didn’t have, that would set it apart from any other replicas of statue. There was a frisbee-size hole in it’s right buttocks, where someone had taped an M80 firecracker, lit the fuse and ran like hell.
At that time it also had two Van Gogh’s on exhibition, an Olive Garden painted in the asylum at Saint Remy and a wheat field painted in Arles. They hung on a wall in a small room of the museum. My first visit was midday following the opening of VINCENT the night before. Perfect time. Except for one other visitor, the galley was empty. Solitude heightens the appreciation of the arts, for me at least.
The other visitor was sitting on the center of the uncomfortable backless benchs that museums buy by the gross. There were two other benches, one on each side of the center, angled slightly giving the viewer a different view of the art. As soon as I came in, the man rose and plumped down on a side bench, leaving the center one for me without breaking his gaze at the works. He wasn’t faking his interest.
I observed him out the corner of my eye. He sat stooped-shouldered, letting his arms dangle loosely on his thighs and his head frozen in place as he stared at the paintings. He made no attempt to correct his posture. It wasn’t that he was overweight, it was that he was soft, dumpling- weight. He wore a dark gray suit, some sort of man-made ‘–lon’, the kind that doesn’t need dry cleaning or ironing. A Sears special, one suit coat, two pair of pants. I’d bet his wardrobe consisted of two sets of the same special, several off-white shirts and a rack of broad multicolored ties, the ones that camouflage soup stains. The uniform of a not-to-successful salesman. He was casting director’s vision of Willy Loman in DEATH OF A SALESMAN.
Having my people-watching over with, I joined him in staring at the Van Gogh’s.
There are three types of museum art admirers. The first are like Willy and myself. Concentrators. The second are usually art students with a pen and art pad. They sit and copy the painting. The third are the I-own-the-world people, who stand close in front of the work blocking everybody else’s view and sometimes has the audacity lean across the velvet rope barrier and touch it.
Two 40-ish women came into the small gallery. Dressed to the nines, proudly walking on high stilettos, their hairdos fresh and expensive. In those days we referred to them as yuppies. The women were the third type of gallery goers. They communicated in loud voices, predating today’s cel phone users, compelling others to listen even if they didn’t want to.
‘…never thought he was that good an actor. I thought he was limited to Dr. Spock in STAR WARS.’
‘You mean Dr. Spock in STAR TREK. And much more handsome without the ears. I am so glad you invited us to go with you last night. All these years living in Cleveland and we never went to the Playhouse.’
‘We have season tickets for every opening night of their productions. And thank you for inviting me to the museum. Seeing actual paintings of Van Gogh really makes the play special. We’ve never been here. I wish our husbands were with us.’
‘If your’s is anything like mine, time off from work cries for golf. I’m on the board of the museum and my husband is on the board of his golf club. But maybe combining the play with seeing some of the actual paintings…’
‘Maybe…Say, I am up to seeing that wonderful cafeteria in the museum?’
‘And the special of today is quiche, spinach quiche. Let’s …’
They walked out, and I marveled at how fast they could move in those heels. I went back to admiring the Van Goghs. Willy had never moved so much as his head during their visit. I imagined staring at rude patrons’ backs was something a true museum aficionado gets use to.
One thing I never got use to was working on a show on an empty stomach. I left, foregoing the museum’s special for the day, and went to a small Italian diner a few blocks away where I knew there was a hot dago sandwich with my name on it.
After stage checks I gave my museum review to our troupe. They all said they would like to go and see the museum, especially the Van Goghs. Dennis, the tour manager and AV tech, had his wife with him that week, but maybe they would go.
The Nimoys, Leonard and Sandy, had friends to hook up with and of course interviews, ‘Now please when I accepted your request to interview me I said I would discuss the play, VINCENT, the man Vincent, and his work. I will not tell you anything about the unreleased movie, STAR TREK’, was his standard disclaimer necessary in almost all them. Amazing how he could say it in such a gracious way even though the question irritated him. VINCENT was his much needed break from the months of shooting the movie. But maybe they would find time to go to the museum.
And if Sandy decided to go without her husband, Eric, the wardrobe man, would go with her just as he always did when she wanted to go shopping. Otherwise Eric would use his free time to watch TV.
I went up to the lighting booth early. It was back of the balcony just like the Guthrie’s, and to get to it I had to walk through the lobby where the audience was milling around, talking, sipping on their drinks, waiting for the house doors to open, just like at the Guthrie.
‘I thought that was you. I recognized your hat,’ a smiling ‘Willy Loman’ said as he came toward me. ‘I need your help,’ he said, holding out his ticket. ‘I don’t know how to find my seat.’
‘Nothing to worry about,’ I told him. ‘When the ushers open the doors, just ask one of them to show you your seat. Did you enjoy the Van Goghs today?
‘Oh, I enjoy them every time I come to Cleveland, that’s once a month. I enjoy all the art in the museum. There’s so much to see. I go to other museums when I make my rounds but Cleveland’s the biggest. I don’t watch TV much and sometimes I go to the movies, but looking at paintings is my favorite pastime on my route.’
‘Your route? Are you a salesman?’
‘No,’ he said quickly. ‘I am a sales rep. Salesmen work for a company. I work for myself. I handle all kinds of things, from soup to nuts,’ he laughed at his interjection, ‘picking just what I like from all different companies. What I think my customers would like to sell in their stores. Small stores, hardware, some grocery, mostly small towns around Lake Erie. East to Erie, west to Monroe, south to Columbus. I do have some small store customers in some of the big cities…’
I asked one little question and got an encyclopedia definition of a sales rep and a travelogue of northern Ohio. He was really a talker once he started. I told him I had to get up to the booth; but when I went to leave him, he grabbed my sleeve.
‘I am so glad I found someone I knew. I’ve never gone to live theater except a school play. Those two ladies talking about this one gave me the idea, and then I read the paper about it…’
I wanted to be polite but I wanted to get upstairs. ‘Well,’ I told him, ‘I bet you will like it and it’ll be something else to do on your route. There’s probably a lot of theaters where you can see plays.’
He let go of my sleeve. ‘There you go now. Good idea. I’ll look for you here when I come back next month and tell you about the plays I went to.’
I walked away. I wasn’t about to get into that I would be long gone from Cleveland by then. Try to explain that I was with VINCENT, not the Playhouse.
After I gave the okay, from my point of view of the house, to open the doors, I stood and watched the audience filter in. I didn’t see ‘Willyl’. I figured he probably bought a cheap seat under the balcony. Worse place to watch a play but I thought he would still enjoy it, slumped forward in his intense position .
I felt better than usual because of the day’s events. VINCENT was accomplishing more than just entertaining for a short time. It introduced people like the two women and ‘Willy’ to forms of the arts other than just what they were into. How many in the theater would go to a museum after seeing this play? And how many were in the audience because of their interest in great artwork ?
And, of course, how many were in the audience because it was a chance to see the beloved Mr. Spock, aka Leonard Nimoy in person?
‘Gosh, I never knew he was such a powerful actor.’
AND THAT’S A WRAP