Seeing George W. Bush slip Michelle Obama what appeared to be a piece of candy at John McCain’s funeral recently reminded me of something that happened to me and some college mates in 1967.
That fall, over the Veterans’ Day weekend, my college theatre sponsored a bus trip to New York City. I had managed to save enough money from my job teaching swimming lessons in the summer and as a tech assistant in my college theatre to make the long weekend trip.
In 1966, Kliegl Brothers, a stage lighting company, had installed the lighting system at the new Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center. Coincidentally, Kliegl had also supplied the lighting system for the Kelly Theatre where I went to school, West Liberty State College (now West Liberty University), when the new Fine Arts Building was constructed in 1966. Representatives of the company had been to West Liberty several times to fine tune our system.
Before our bus departed for New York, Bob Alexander, our designer and tech director, had contacted Kleigl and arranged for the stage and lighting manager of the Met, Rudy Kuntner, to take our group on a tour of the incredible opera facility. I didn’t know it at the time, but Mr. Kuntner, born in Austria, had been quite the soccer player before beginning his work at the Metropolitan. He had played for several professional soccer clubs and notably on the 1928 U.S. Olympic Soccer Team. He had been inducted into the U. S. National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1963.
Our bus left Wheeling, West Virginia around 11:00 on Thursday evening and arrived in New York Friday morning. Our rooms wouldn’t be ready until later in the day, so we piled our luggage in a storage closet at the old Hotel Piccadilly on W. 45th Street (now the Marriott Times Square).
Where’s the adventure in staying at a Marriott, I ask you? At the Piccadilly, you never knew if the elevators would be running, if your wake-up call would come through, if the sprinkling system was really hooked up to a water source, or if the desk clerk would understand a word you were saying. Sometimes I think they just pretended to be foreign to avoid having to answer questions or make arrangements, but this was just the first of many stays at the Piccadilly, where you would have a small, but clean room and clean linens. You wouldn’t have much else except a great location near Times Square and the theatre district and reasonable (actually cheap) rates for NYC.
We had some breakfast at a Chock full o’Nuts coffee shop/diner and headed uptown to Lincoln Center. Mr. Kuntner met us in the lobby of the Met where he pointed out the huge (30’ x 36’) and haunting paintings by Marc Chagall in the lobby. Turning to us he
said, “Chagall painted the murals in his studio in Paris, and he came over with them to see them hung here. When the installation was finished, Chagall was so excited that he jumped up on the bar and signed his name there, on the wall!”
It was a great way to start an incredible tour. Mr. Kuntner seemed to have all the time in the world for us, as he took us over the top of the massive gold dome, high above the audience. He called an assistant on his walkie-talkie, and as we looked down from above the dome through lighting ports, the huge (everything is gigantic at the Met) crystal chandelier came on—just for us.
He took us into the lighting booth which sported controls just like the ones we had at our theatre. We had forty controls duplicated, so we could set up one lighting cue while another was being executed. The Met must have had 400 controls duplicated 20, 30, 40, I don’t know how many, times. It was a room full, and several people were required to run the cues for a production. I think most of us had our mouths wide open in that room. Knowing that everything is now computerized, I wonder how much equipment is still in that large booth, probably just a computer and one guy to run it.
Next Mr. Kuntner took us onto the massive stage where elephants had trod during Aida and showed us how the scenery was moved off and on on stage-size carts which ran on tracks. These moving “stages” could be slid onstage from upstage, stage right, and stage left. Mind boggling! From the stage level, we descended into what we thought was the basement. Here he showed us the elevators that were the size of the stage and that had entire sets already assembled on them. The elevators raised and lowered the numerous sets on stage left, stage right, and upstage which then were rolled onstage on those tracks. I don’t know if you can follow this, but believe me, it was IMPRESSIVE!
We weren’t finished. We now went down to the lower depths of the theatre where there were numerous dressing rooms for both principals and chorus members and where there were all kinds of shops—wig-making, armor-making, shoe and boot making, costume and small prop building, and one shop for some smaller set pieces. The scenery itself was constructed in a big shop out on Long Island somewhere and then trucked into town. There was a gigantic lighting storage area with rack after rack of lighting equipment that we lusted over. We were all breathless. It was a glorious tour.
At one point Mr. Kuntner said, “I love opera! It employs so many people.” I thought, “I love it, too. Bringing it all together at this magical place boggles my mind.” We stopped at the box office before leaving and learned that the production that evening would be Lohengrin by Richard Wagner. I didn’t know Lohengrin from lo mein, but I was dying to see it.
The production was sold out, but for $4 we could buy standing room only tickets. (Standing room tickets range from $25 to $30 today.) The box office lady was so nice that she took us back into the theatre where we hadn’t noticed the 4.5’ high, velvet-covered, padded stanchions behind the last row of seats. These high, padded railings were for the “standees” to prop themselves up on during the performance. Still under the spell of the tour, four of us plopped down our $4.
The curtain was at 8:00 p.m., and the four of us arrived about 7:15, so we had ample time to scope out the audience which was dressed much better than we were. Many men were in tuxes, and women sported dazzling, bejeweled gowns, plenty of jewelry, long gloves, and furs of minks and more exotic animals. We read through the program and learned that this production was conceived and directed by Wieland Wagner, the composer’s grandson and the great grandson of Franz Liszt. Sounded properly impressive.
Eventually the lights of the great chandelier began to fade as the chandelier was retracted up into the dome. We took our places at the high railings and leaned our elbows on the padded, burgundy velvet. The overture began, and soon the curtain, composed of hundreds of yards of gold velvet, began to rise.
All was well until the hero, Lohengrin, entered. Holy smoke! The tall singer, probably 6’2” or 3” in bare feet, was all in gold lamé from head to foot. His hair, a high pompadour, was gold. His “disco” boots with 2”-3” high chunky heels were gold. It was bizarre and a little off-putting. An audible snigger floated through the audience. The opera progressed, and people started to leave! People, who had spent good money, were walking out of this hallowed hall that I had just fallen in love with that day! It was my first opera, and audience members were leaving. The singing sounded fine to me, but I didn’t know what to listen for. I did think some of the staging and that gold costume were a bit bizarre.
Mercifully, intermission arrived. We did the usual intermission things—restroom, concession bar, wander around, and we sat on the stairs to rest up for Act II. When we returned to our standing room post, a small woman in her early seventies, I think, in a full-length mink coat and dripping (really!) in diamonds came up to us.
“All my friends have walked out,” she said, “and I have four seats beside me. Would you like to come sit with me for the rest of the opera? I just can’t make myself walk out on a Met production.”
Would we? Heavens, yes!!! And off we trotted behind her, like ducklings following their mama, down the aisle to the sixth row and then across the row to the center seats! What had those seats cost? We had hit the lottery! I got the honor of sitting beside her, but none of us could thank her enough for her thoughtfulness and kindness. Oh, it was so nice to be sitting in a comfortable seat watching this production up close!
The second-act curtain rose, and I’m sure the four of us were grinning from ear to ear in our amazing seats. “What the heck?” I thought. I settled in and tipped off my shoes. My feet had had quite a workout that day. Ahhh, that was more like it. Everything had come together to make concentrating on the opera easier and more enjoyable.
The program had had a complete synopsis of the plot of Lohengrin. In short, a mysterious, super knight is sent to this little German village to save a damsel from a murder conviction and to unite the squabbling townsfolk. Of course, subplots
abounded. The most famous piece of music from Lohengrin is “Here Comes the Bride,” but the other music is very impressive, too. Also, the term “swan song” supposedly came from this opera. Near the conclusion when a promise is broken, a swan-drawn boat arrives in Act III to take Lohengrin away.
Earlier in the day Mr. Kuntner had told us a story about tonight’s opera as we walked from one stop on our tour to
another. “Do you know the film, Broadway, and TV actor Walter Slezak?” he asked. Some of us nodded our heads. “Well, Walter Slezak’s father Leo was an opera singer. One time he was singing the role of Lohergrin in some European opera house. He sang his swan song, but the swan boat didn’t arrive. He looked down at the conductor in the pit, who gave a signal to the orchestra, to play the swan song again. They played, and Mr. Slezak re-sang the swan song, but again no swan boat. Mr. Slezak then stepped down to the front of the stage, looked at a pretend watch on his wrist, and asked the audience, “Pardon me, but can you tell me what time’s the next swan?”
We were enjoying Act II, while more people were leaving, when our hostess dug into the depths of the pockets of her full-length mink. She pulled out some cellophane-wrapped hard candy. With her face forward and her eyes riveted on the stage action, she made a little flipping motion with her index finger, indicating that I should pass candy down to my friends. We were all aware that the cellophane was going to make a crackling noise, so we followed her lead and always waited until the chorus chimed in with some soaring music to quickly unwrap a piece of candy and pop it into our mouths.
During the second intermission, our new friend lamented that the opera “really isn’t very good. Such crazy staging,” she said. She asked why we were in New York, what plans we had, what our college majors were, and we enjoyed each other’s company before settling in for Act III. More people had skedaddled during the intermission, and the audience now had large sections of empty seats. A few more people finally gave up
in this act and hustled up the aisles for the doors. (Maybe they had dinner reservations.) Our friend gave us more candy, perhaps thinking she was bribing us to stay with her, which we did most happily.
Finally, Lohengrin sang his swan song, and the swan arrived. However, it wasn’t a boat pulled by a swan. It was a huge “swan,” but it didn’t look like a swan at all. It looked exactly like a huge, bathtub, rubber ducky! Oh, my gosh! It was bright yellow with a big Donald Duck, orange beak! The audience howled. They laughed and laughed loudly. Some people rose from their seats and booed!
Our little coterie just sat there, stunned, frozen. We’d never been a part of anything like this in a theatre. We were from little West Virginia towns and didn’t know what to do when men in tuxes and women in sequins laughed and booed so raucously that the singers had to freeze in place. A quick look at our new friend made our decision for us. She had pulled a lovely hanky with a lace border from her purse and was dabbing her eyes. I patted her arm and gave her a little commiserating look. She tried to smile back, but we could see her heart was broken. Her beloved Metropolitan Opera had obviously laid a big egg on stage, a swan egg, I guess, and it was hard on her.
Eventually, the audience laughter died down to a titter, and the opera continued. The swan somehow disappeared, and the heroine’s brother emerged. Lohengrin exited, and the heroine died. Curtain. Finally!
We walked to the lobby with our mink-clad, candy woman and thanked her profusely for sharing her seats and candy with us. We hugged and walked outside to the beautiful plaza in front of the Met, flanked by David Geffen Hall and Koch Theater. She expertly hailed a cab, got in, and we all waved goodbye. It was a beautiful night, and we walked for a while, eventually finding a friendly bar where we talked and talked about our day over beers. Leaving the bar, we still had blocks to go, so we hailed a cab, and returned to the old Hotel Piccadilly to sleep a while before our next day’s adventures.
I don’t remember much about the rest of that trip. I do remember that I saw my first Broadway play that weekend, The Apple Tree, a clever comedy consisting of three one-act plays based on Mark Twain’s The Diaries of Adam and Eve, Frank R. Stockton’s The Lady or the Tiger?, and Jules Fiffer’s Passionella. But I remember most vividly my first evening at the Metropolitan Opera and the lady who gave us seats and candy—just like George W. Bush gave to Michelle Obama during John McCain’s funeral service.
N.B. It turns out that Mr. Bush was giving Mrs. Obama a cough drop. Close enough!