Remembering Anne Pitoniak

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Today was the memorial service for Anne Pitoniak, and it was a beautiful one, at the Music Box. If you’re unfamiliar with her, please read this, but I’ll assume you are.

Annie died in April and I have not blogged about her because she was special to me in a way that I felt would make it somehow disrespectful if I did. I first met her on April 9, 1983. I was exactly one month shy of 15.

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Something that you should know about me is that I don’t come from a theatrical family — very much the opposite. My father was a sign painter for 40 years and my mother was a secretary (they are now retired). My father certainly didn’t know much about the theatre, and while my mother grew up seeing shows, we didn’t have the money to go, so we didn’t go. When I was in 5th grade, I met a kid named David Stefanou, and we got on like the proverbial house on fire. I was rather a lonely kid, too smart for my own good (imagine that) and not exactly athletic, so I was more or less the outcast. David was rather the oddball, too, but his parents had been actors, so he was growing up immersed in all things Broadway, which meant that very soon I wanted to do the same. My parents financial position, then precarious, wasn’t necessarily changing because I wanted desperately to see, you know, 42nd Street (at a $35 top), but eventually my Mom took me to see my first Broadway show, Ain’t Misbehavin, on December 9, 1981. For some reason, I always thought it was December 7, the 40th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, something that I felt was rather symbolic. But I just checked my ticket stub and it was December 9.

My next show was a year later, on December 29, 1982: Agnes of God. Unlike Ain’t Misbehavin’, for which the tickets has been purchased as a twofer (are those things still around?), the tickets for Agnes of God were purchased through TDF. I think they cost $9; I remember David and I went together, as opposed to my mother and I. I should add that I am an only child and in those days Manhattan was as bad and terrifying as everything you might imagine, to say nothing of the subway, so persuading my mother to let me go into “the city” with David to see the play was a big victory. Now, I ask you: What kid sees Agnes of God for his first play?

Next, in March 1983, came A Chorus Line — I think David and I waited on TKTS — and then a few days later, Mom got another offering for a play called ‘night, Mother. You have to realize that, with all due respect to Kathy Bates, who played the daughter, she was not what we would think of as “Kathy Bates” at that time. Indeed, the names Marsha Norman and Tom Moore and Anne Pitoniak were unfamiliar to me, and I remember how David and I did not remotely know what to expect as we sat in the third to last row of the rear mezzanine at the Golden Theatre. And again I ask you: What kid sees ‘night, Mother for his second Broadway play?

It would be silly for me to describe what that matinee was like. Honestly, I had no sense at all, really, of what theatre could do. I can remember watching the play, watching these actresses hurling words and hurt against each other — this mother character desperately trying to stop her daughter from committing suicide. For 80 minutes the back and forth continued, and on and on, these horrifyingly stalemated emotions, the idea slowly sinking into my head that this poor mother would not be fated to win this battle; that it was, too, a battle already quite lost for the daughter. The sounds of the pots and pans being sent, with a violent and shocking wave of the older actress’s arm, across the width of the Golden stage; the gunshot exploding from behind a door; the cries, the shock, the resignation, the fade out, the anguished and weeping silence in the dark. And applause, too, and David and I sitting there, utterly unable to move. I wish I could say I was exaggerating, but honestly we did not move. We just sat there.

More than the theatre bug had bitten us — especially me. And when we finally pulled ourselves together and left, there was no question we wanted to get autographs. You know, I say all kinds of things about those ding-dong All That Chat posters, and I imagine those people are many of the same people that stand in front of stage doors, which is something I haven’t done in 20 years or more. But once I was very much one of them. To reach the Golden Theatre’s stage door, you have to walk down a long corridor — it’s between the Golden and the Milford Plaza — and back then you could easily access it; there weren’t doors and buzzers and security and so forth. The same alley also features, to this day, the stage doors of the Majestic and the Royale (now the Jacobs). Kathy Bates came out first, and she was carrying a little dog. Her autograph is the first one in my book. And then we waited for quite some time. Finally the stage door opened, and a man with sky blue eyes asked us if we were waiting for “Ms. Pitoniak.” (I’ll never forget the way he said “Ms.”) We responded in the affirmative, and soon the door opened again, and there she was. I wonder what it must have been like for her — two fans of 15 and 14, when here she was, age 61 and making her Broadway debut in a play about suicide. She asked us our names and we had a lovely chat and then she asked, unsolicited, if we would like to tour the set. Well, you could have just picked our jaws up off the floor.

Two weeks later, we were invited to attend another Saturday matinee (comps on Annie, of course), and then go backstage again for the tour. It was the first time I stood on a Broadway stage. We were advised not to run around and touch things, but also advised that everything on the stage was “practical” — I think Annie said, “Everything works.” We had another long chat, and that was the start of a beautiful friendship. During the rest of the run of ‘night, Mother, I went backstage a lot — I became friendly with the doorman, Mel Richards, and was completely enraptured with the idea of a life in the theatre. I found every excuse to come to Manhattan — interviewing James F. Ingalls, the lighting designer of the play, for my school paper, for example — and saw the play and heard it again and again. Annie and I had lunch or coffee or just had a chat, and if she couldn’t see me, always left a note — I remember once she found the listings for all the Jacobs in the Queens phone book and called my home. I still have all her letters and notes through the years.

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I have so many memories of that time. I remember the 1983 Pulitzer prizes being announced on a Tuesday, April 18, 1983; the next day, a Wednesday matinee day, I was there and I vividly remember seeing the commotion and the look on Marsha Norman’s face and the astonishment and the excitement. One time, I decided to pay a visit to the Golden and I hadn’t let Annie know in advance that I was coming. She turned out to be on vacation or some such, but Kathy was in, and as I had gotten to know her a little bit too, I thought I’d say hello. Now, there was another doorman at the Golden, a rather tall fellow who had what I would charitably categorize as a hearing problem. He asked for my name and I told him, “Leonard Jacobs.” He promptly went upstairs and knocked on Kathy’s dressing room door and said, “Bernard Jacobs is here to see you.” Then he came downstairs and said I could go up. God help me. Poor Kathy answered the door with what looked like a mudpack on her face — thinking I was Bernard Jacobs, the head of the Shubert Organization — and then, realizing it was that 15-year-old friend of Annie’s, said in her kindest and, I should add, subtlest drawl, “Oh, honey, could you come back later?” It’s all true, I swear.

So many memories…I remember when Annie told me that her grandson, Angus, was born. I remember my parents and I seeing a play somewhere and how we all, beforehand, paid Annie a visit — no one has ever been kinder and more gracious than she was to my parents that day. In 1991, when I was having a play of mine being read in the back of an East Village bar/restaurant, I invited all the people I knew in the professional theatre at that time, including Annie, but I certainly didn’t expect her to attend — after all, she was off doing Steel Magnolias or TV or film or a reading somewhere. But, to my everlasting gratitude, there she was. Later, I interviewed her for various publications and we always had terrific lunches in the West Village or at a great Indian restaurant just down the block from her apartment on West 95th Street. The last time I saw Annie, a few years ago, her arthritis was bad. She told me what she liked about our friendship was that it was low maintenance — we could go a year without seeing each other and then pick up where we left off and what a pleasure that was and how she treasured that fact. I did, too. Yet that didn’t mean she anything but unstintingly supportive: When I was young and wanted just to write plays, like that play in that bar/restaurant, she was there, cheering me on, offering advice, always smartly, delicately asking all the right questions. When I wanted to direct (I ended up directing 40 plays from 1990 to 1999) she came when she could or else sent a note, and sometimes even a check. When I went seriously into journalism, she dealt beautifully with the idea of me as a critic. She embodied pure love.

Anne Pitoniak gave me many gifts. One gift was to demystify the theatre while at the same time introducing it to me in a special, intimate and personal way, letting its magic cast a spell over my 15-year-old self, all wide-eyed and naive and hopelessly in love with the stage. She gave me the gift of friendship, of course, and a mix of maternal and professional love that she conveyed with effortlessness with only her eyes. She gave me the eternal gift of kindness — the first kindness ever shown to me by anyone in the theatre. I am eternally and deeply grateful for the 24 years I knew her.

Last thing. I have been feeling guilty since she died because I did not know she was ill; sitting at the memorial service today, beside my friend Judith Hawking, and near Marian Seldes and Jack O’Brien and a stone’s throw from Kathy Bates and Marsha Norman, I felt almost as if I shouldn’t be there. After all, who remembers that 15-year-old kid when there’s family there, artists that Annie worked with, all the lives she blessed with her touch. But then I remembered many of the things Annie said to me over the years — and that comment about the friendship we had. The theater may subsist on venom and ridiculousness, on petty feuds and egos, but for Annie it was none of those things. It was about truth and honesty, about goodness and giving, about joy and work, about soul and salvation, about foundation and family. So in the end, I sat there content with my memories and secure in them. Annie knew how much she meant to me, I know that.

  • nick

    Thanks Leonard for that remembrance. You inform some of us non-natives about how theatre in New York, including Broadway, can be experienced from a young age with all the same riches of community that smaller cities possess.

  • kit

    There’s a lot to say about this beautiful elegy to Ms. Pitoniak but I am just going to point out that it is as eloquent a story about the universality of the theater – what the theater should really be about – as I have ever read.
    Christopher Carter Sanderson

  • Jen

    and meanwhile Mr. Birkenhead thinks the theatre is ineffectual and dead….stick THIS in it, pallie!

  • Paul

    beautiful. just beautiful.

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