A Broadway Christmas Eve Memory

“Marathon ’33” opened on Broadway on December 22, 1963. Produced by Actors Studio and written and directed by June Havoc (with input from Lee Strasberg), the play was about Ms. Havoc’s survival in a dance marathon after shedding her Baby June persona (cue first act curtain of “Gypsy”).

Despite John Chapman’s rave in the NY Daily News for the play (“I urge you to see it”) and for leading lady Julie Harris (“her finest performance to date”), “Marathon” ran only 48 performances. Cast member Doris Roberts (famous years later as Ray Romano’s acerbic mother) recently opined that the realistically downbeat play had been decades ahead of its time, but that’s another story.

I appeared in the original company of “Marathon ’33” as one of two bodyguards to a shady character who was extorting the marathon management. (The other bodyguard was played by Jim Rado, who went on to co-write Hair.)

On December 23 I suggested to stage manager Martin Fried that it might be fun to surprise Julie Harris during her solo curtain call the next night, Christmas Eve, with an on-stage visit from Santa Claus, which would be me, in my Santa suit.

Marty said he’d consider it and to bring in the costume. The next day he gave it the nod. “Julie’s a good sport,” he said. “I’m sure she’ll be okay with it.

Photo: Backstage at ANTA (now August Wilson) Theatre in 1964. Inscription: Backstage at Victoria Theatre, Newark, NJ on April 14, 2001. (Photo: Paul Barry)

Backstage at the ANTA Theatre on West 52nd Street (now the August Wilson) in January 1964. Inscription: Backstage at the Victoria Theatre, Newark, NJ on April 14, 2001. (Photo: Paul Barry)

That evening I skipped the company curtain call, quick-changed into the Santa suit, wig and and beard and entered just as Julie’s applause was dying down. She looked up, obviously startled, as laughter and applause ramped back up.

I sat on a chair that had appeared from somewhere and motioned Julie onto my lap. “Have you been a good girl all year?” I asked her. With a conspiratorial sidelong smile to the audience, she assured me that she had, indeed, behaved herself. I remember well her words as we exited into the wings. “What a delightful surprise,” she said. “Thank you, dear.”

That could be the whole story, but it’s not.

A few days later, Stage Manager Fried overheard me telling the story to someone. He took me aside “You really think I’d let you surprise the reigning First Lady of the American Stage during her curtain call?” He chuckled. “It could cost me my job…and surely yours,” he said. He had run the idea by Ms. Harris, who had agreed after determining who it would be. (You’d get that in if it were your story.) She had also, Marty told me, suggested that the chair be placed on stage.

What a pleasure it was to learn, when we talked backstage at “The Belle of Amherst” years later, that she remembered the incident. So now, Julie, for that and other remembrances, a much belated “Thank you, dear.

[Julie Harris died on August 24, 2013 at age 87]

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