IN LATE SUMMER of 2002 I finally reached a benchmark in my newly relaunched performing career—the Walnut Street Theatre had called me in to audition.
The Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia is the America’s oldest theater and has the largest subscription base of any theater in the world.
I’ve known about the theater all my life and dreamed about playing on the stage where Edwin Booth played the Scottish Play, and Brando screamed “Stella!!” eight shows a week during Streetcar’s out-of-town try-out.
Used to be, if you had a play you wanted to get to Broadway, it had to come through Philly first, and coming through Philly usually meant coming through by way of The Walnut.
So many of the greats have played that staged, and I couldn’t wait to temporarily take up the same space once temporarily taken up by so many legends.
I had been cast as the Nazi, Admiral von Schreiber, in “The Sound of Music,” the second show of a five-show season which ran all of November, December, and into the second week of January.
It was a great gig, and a fantastic show in which to make my debut at one of my dream theaters.
Admiral von Schreiber is the guy who, just as everything is about to turn out perfectly for the Captain, Maria, and the brood, comes in and throws a wet blanket on the whole situation by personally summoning Captain von Trapp to take his new post in the Nazi Navy.
I’m happy to report to you that I was particularly creeptastic and tried my best in every performance to live up to the honor of the history of the house that has, in many ways since, become a sort of home for me over the years.
In addition to my role as the Nazi Admiral, I was tasked with understudying the role of Franz, the butler, usually played by a wonderful character actor from Philly named, Lee Golden.
By this point in his career, Lee was beginning to slow down some. The lengthy run of a Walnut production can take its toll on the most fit and healthy of any of us, and I was told from the beginning to take special care to be prepared at a moment’s notice…just in case.
Toward the end of our nine-week run, I could tell Lee was looking a bit tired. Soon enough, it became clear that I would need to take over his role, at least for a while.
On a Sunday afternoon, following a matinee performance before having the next day off, I was told Lee would be out for a few days and perhaps even the entire week.
Before we left the theater that particular Sunday to go home for some much needed rest, Lee stopped by my dressing room.
“Hi, Lee! How you feeling?” I asked.
I knew he wasn’t feeling well, but I wasn’t sure what to say.
At that point in my career, I had never missed a performance of a play I was in, nor had I gone on as an understudy before.
There were several “first times in my career” things going on, seemingly all at once.
“I feel like shit, to be honest,” he said. “But I know you’re going to be great. I’m not worried a bit.”
And then he handed me a folded piece of paper.
I had seen that very paper before.
One of the benchmarks of a rehearsal process in almost any theater is the “designer run.”
This is when the production gets to the point, relatively early in the rehearsal process, where the cast performs a full run-through of the show in the rehearsal room for the producer, the designers, and the crew.
Often, it can be the first time for the entire cast to go through the whole show from beginning to end together.
Memorizing your lines is only part of what needs to be learned by heart in a production like “The Sound of Music.” Entrances and exits for a character actor can be confusing; you need a map of your ins and outs—your “track.”
It was during this designer run that I noticed Lee while he was waiting offstage for his entrances. Every time he exited a scene, he would reach in his pocket and pull out a meticulously folded paper.
He had made his own map of his entrances and exits, a “key” of sorts for his track.
Now, in my dressing room before leaving for what ended up being a full week of eight performances, Lee was bequeathing me his performance lifeline.
“I thought you might be able to use this,” he said. “I always make one for every show I’m in. It helps me keep my head straight, especially when I’m listening backstage. Being a character actor can get confusing. That’s why I always try to be prepared.”
“Thank you, so much!” I said. “You just get better. I’ll keep Franz warm for you, I promise.”
“Break a leg,” he said, closing my dressing room door as he headed out into the Sunday evening.
Left alone, I unfolded the paper to reveal everything I needed to know about how to navigate the business end of playing Franz, the butler.
Lee had typed everything out on a good old fashioned, ribboned typewriter, highlighting certain important parts and scribbling notes where he needed them, and where he thought I might need a reminder or two.
It was, at once, the kindest thing a fellow actor had ever done for me by bequeathing me this tool, and the beginning of a part of the acting process I have never gone without in any show I’ve done in the eighteen years since.
I gratefully accepted Lee Golden’s generous gift of his “track map” and have kept it to this day as a reminder that kindness is most often found in the seemingly little things.
I’m sure I would’ve gotten by just fine had he not given his notes to me to use, but in doing so, he made a permanent impact on my life and an indelible imprint on my heart.
It’s among the fondest memories of my professional career.
How can I make someone else’s life easier?
It’s a question Lee Golden asked himself regarding his understudy some eighteen years ago, and one that absolutely changed my life for the better.
Here’s to a fond memory, Lee Golden! Thank you for shaping my life in a way you probably never even knew.
I wish you peace.