The Boothbay Playhouse

The Boothbay Playhouse

The Boothbay Playhouse

As August’s dry heat envelops me and I long for some relief, I wander into my garden.  A sudden breeze kicks up, soft whispers of summers gone by.  I’m back on an old wooden bench in front of a grey, weathered cottage where foghorns call me out to sea, and lobstermen pull up their nets as seagulls gather for scraps.  My mind drifts, like it does every summer, to how my parents met. 

“When I was nineteen, I went to a place as familiar as my own skin, a place I had visited in memories so many times around the dinner table that I knew it by heart.  The director at the Boothbay Playhouse, the same theater where my mom and dad had met twenty-five years ago, called and offered me a summer internship and I grabbed it without hesitation.  I flew to Maine and took a taxi far from the city, deep into the Boothbay Harbor woods.  As we turned into the driveway of the Playhouse, my heart skipped a beat and, in that instant, I knew how my mother felt. 

In my mind’s eye, I could see my father, in the old yellow robe, on a ladder painting the weathered garage door.  My mother’s mind in mine, her excitement raised in goosebumps on my skin.  A featured actress… a summer rehearsing one show in the day, performing a second at night.  Anticipation pounded in our nineteen-year-old hearts in unison and just why was that handyman on the ladder staring so hard at her as she swung her Barbizon perfect legs out of her parents’ car and into the beginning of the rest of her life?

That day was my beginning, too, not as a featured actress, not even close to finding my husband, but my first day in Boothbay Harbor, the town I would call my summer home in years to come.  I suppose I needed to relive their romance, to find the true magic that spun around the three of us kids at the dinner table as Dad recounted the playhouse days he and Mom had courted, when he had acted as leading man to her leading lady, really kissing his lovely ingénue with all the passion an actor could give.  Years sweetly remembered as the best years of their lives before television and film gave them their fate.”

When my parents came to see me on stage that summer in my first leading role, they fell in love with Boothbay Harbor all over again.  Renting at first, then purchasing a cottage on Southport Island, they gave their children and grandchildren many happy summers.  Twenty-two years have gone by and both my parents have passed on, as has the Boothbay Playhouse, leaving its rich legacy. 

-Excerpt from the Foreword to Any Way I Can; 50 Years in Show Business by John Gay and Jennifer Gay Summers, BearManor Media, 2009

 

 

 

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Written in the Stars

Written in the Stars

Written in the Stars

Today marks what would have been my mother and father’s 72nd anniversary.  Talk about a love story!  They met acting in summer stock at the Boothbay Playhouse in Maine.  As Dad put it in his memoir, Any Way I Can; 50 Years in Show Business:

“My third summer at the Playhouse required the usual mundane chores before the season began.  One morning, while painting a garage door on a ladder in my ragged old yellow terry cloth robe, a car appeared in the driveway.  Out of it stepped a knockout blonde ingénue, Barbara Meyer.  Her parents had driven her up from New Jersey to be certain it was a safe environment for their daughter.  Having already seen her black and white publicity photo hung on a wagon wheel in the lobby, I eagerly awaited her arrival.  She glanced briefly at me and assumed I was a maintenance worker.”

Together they starred in many plays that summer and the next, and married on May 7, 1949.  But Ozzie, my mother’s father, and his friends had some reservations: 

“In the men’s room at the reception, one of Ozzie’s friends actually came up alongside me at the urinal and asked, ‘How do you intend to support Barbara?’  It really floored me.  Together, Bobbie and I had saved a few hundred dollars.  I don’t remember what I muttered in response, but I thought the question on this night, on this occasion, at this place, was insensitive.  The truth is all of her family’s friends were concerned that Bobbie was marrying an actor.  The poor girl.  God, what a terrible thing to have happened.”

After cutting their honeymoon short for my mother’s appearance on a television show, John and Bobbie continued to audition and cross their fingers.  It wasn’t long before their dreams came true: 

“Harvey Marlowe, the man who saw our audition in New York, called to say WOR, Channel 9, had signed us to do a domestic comedy in the fall.  They wanted a fifteen minute show, five nights a week.  ‘Who will write them?’ I asked.

‘You will.’

Fifteen minutes?  Five nights a week?  All we had was the ten minute audition sketch.  Impossible.  And I’m not really a writer.  I called Harvey Marlowe immediately.

‘We’re thrilled with the offer.’”

After a few years on television with many scripts under his belt, Dad started getting writing jobs, which replaced acting as a means of support.  Eventually, a lucrative Hollywood offer brought my parents out to California.  Dad wrote the film, “Run Silent, Run Deep,” and his career turned into solid gold.  Mom left acting to have me, then my brother, Larry, and then my sister, Liz.  But as soon as we were all off to college, she went back to the stage, performing at the Nine O’Clock Players children’s theater in Hollywood. 

Through it all, Mom and Dad held on to each other as soulmates.  They believed their stars were meant to collide.  On their anniversary, I step out into the clear, dark night and feel their love for each other illuminate the sky.

 

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The other night, I thought it would be fun to take Run Silent, Run Deep, the movie my father adapted back in 1958, and watch it on our vintage Philco T.V.  I loved the way the tiny screen amplified the tight space in the submarine, making it all the more real.  This was the movie that launched my father into a successful Hollywood career, a timeless story of men in battle, which would be shown on television more than any other film he wrote. 

During the shooting, Dad had a memorable visit to the sub, in San Diego, where the action took place.  After serving in the Coast Guard, he knew about the dangers submarine sailors faced.  What he wasn’t prepared for was the captain’s sense of humor.  In the following scene from Any Way I Can; 50 Years in Show Business, his memoir we wrote together, Dad tells the story of when Hollywood was “taken for a ride.”

 

“Safely submerged, we set out to sea in maneuvers that had to match mock encounters with other Navy craft in which dummy torpedoes would be used.  By lunchtime, Wise and I were still bushed from lack of sleep and asked the captain if we could just sack out for twenty minutes.  He was glad to oblige and let us use his own quarters with double tiered bunks. 

I had only just closed my eyes when the sub gave an alarming shudder, a groan, another shudder, and started to sway back and forth.  ‘Uh-oooga!  Uh-oooga!’ came on the loudspeaker.  And then utter silence.  No engine sound.

Wise and I sprang to our feet.  Two crew members entered the captain’s quarters and the air-tight hatches were sealed behind them immediately.  Silence.  They stood on guard, still silent, hands behind their backs, at attention. 

‘What’s going on?’

No answer.  No response.  The silence was both deafening and alarming.  They stood there like statues.  And they remained that way for what seemed like an hour.  Then a voice came over on a loud speaker.  ‘Secure from collision drill!  Secure from collision drill!’

A grinning captain greeted us when the hatches were opened.  It was obvious that he enjoyed his little stunt enormously, taking Hollywood for a ride.  The first shudder was all ahead full to all reverse.  Second shudder was firing off a dummy torpedo.  How did it feel?  We offered weak smiles.  ‘Oh, yes.  Terrific stunt.  Great.’”

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One of our first stops was the Salishan Coastal Lodge, where my family had spent many fun hours.  As my husband and I walked from the lobby into the old, familiar restaurant, I thought I saw the same booth, just over there, in the center.  I pictured my father sitting with Paul Newman, who directed and starred, and co-star Henry Fonda, next to Paul’s wife, Joanne Woodward, with their friend, the director, George Roy Hill.  Closing my eyes, I traveled back in time and heard my father tell me the story I’d loved so much from his memoir:

“…Paul, Joanne, Fonda, Hill, and I were having lunch.  Paul, as usual, sat with his back to the room so as not to be recognized.  A woman spotted him, however, and approached us with a menu in hand.  She wanted Paul’s signature for her daughter, Nancy.  Paul explained that we were having lunch now, but if she notified the studio, they would send her an autographed photo with her daughter’s name on it.  With that, he thought, she’d go away.  As she started to leave, miffed, she suddenly recognized Fonda. 

“Mr. Fonda!  I didn’t see you there!  Would you please sign this menu for my daughter, Nancy?”

Henry turned on the charm.  “I’d love to.”  He took the menu from her, wrote down something, and then handed it to Hill, who grinned a huge wide grin before handing it to Joanne.  She, too, smiled and shook her head, handing it to me.  I couldn’t quite believe what I saw and gave it to Paul who burst out laughing before handing it back to the woman.  The note said, “Dear Nancy.  Paul Newman is a shit.”  It was signed, Henry Fonda.  The woman walked off without even looking at it.  What a nice surprise for her daughter.”

“Would you like a table?”  The restaurant host shook me back to the present.  I pointed at the booth in the center. 

“That one,” I said, giving my husband a wink. 

“Are you sure?” the host said.  “It’s a big one.”

I could feel Dad laughing, a slight whisper of air moving past my shoulder.  “Yes, that’s the one.”

  

 

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Side by Side…

Side by Side…

Side by Side…

It took some convincing.  “Who the hell wants to hear about my life,” he grumbled.  Who the hell wouldn’t? I thought.  With credits that spanned fourteen feature films and 39 television movies and miniseries…

In 1998, my father and I started on a decade long journey, chronicling his life.  It took some convincing.  “Who the hell wants to hear about my life,” he grumbled.  Who the hell wouldn’t? I thought.  With credits that spanned fourteen feature films and 39 television movies and miniseries, there were more than enough stories to fill out a book. 

Dad’s best friend, the Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Frank Gilroy, weighed in.  “Come on, John, you’ve worked with stars like Paul Newman, Henry Fonda, Bette Davis, and Gregory Peck.  I love your stories!”  

And so we began.  Every Saturday, I traveled to his house, recording his memories from daily journals onto eighty-eight cassette tapes.  Then, I transcribed them into 400 pages.  Once again, he grumbled.  “I don’t do prose.” 

“Just write, Dad.  We’ll figure it out.”

 

All we had were Saturdays, so our weekly ritual continued.  He wrote, I rewrote, and we edited together. My husband and I welcomed a child into our lives and I left teaching, taking on an internship at a magazine.  Eventually, I saw my essays appear in magazines and anthologies.  Enough to believe I could write a book with the man I’d put on a pedestal.  And Dad learned he could write prose with his snappy style, sparing the words, and punching up the dialogue. 

Many Saturdays later, our manuscript was complete.  Dad was 80 years old now, driving to my house to accommodate my heavier working load.  I typed “The End” not because I needed to, just because it was.  We high-fived and let out a whoop of joy.  Then, we looked at each other.  It was that exquisitely triumphant and painful moment in time when our lives, so intertwined for a decade, would have to separate again.  Through my tears, I watched as he strode down my front steps to his car, hand clutching his briefcase, glittering JTG initials winking back.  I wanted to stop him, to bring him back into my office and start our book all over again.  I blew him a kiss goodbye.  

Dad passed away at 92.  I still see him in his office, sitting at his desk, his lively, blue eyes regarding my own.  “Ready, Jennifer?”

“Ready, Dad,” I say, every morning now as I delve into my own memoir.  That memory of us, side by side, inspires me every day.

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