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A Player on the Stage


FIRST PERSON
A Player on the Stage
By Alan Steinberg, B.A. '68
Editor's Note: In this new feature, professional writers from the ranks of our alumni offer a personal take on the campus life they remember.
Last spring, Stalag 17 was revived on a Chicago stage. When a review noted, "This World War II prisoner-of-war saga reveals the humor amid utter desperation," I recalled that 30 years ago Ronnie Silver demanded, "Stress the humor!" when he directed us in that play at UB. And last October, when Dracula sucked blood again in the Chicago Children's Theatre, I flashed to the April 18, 1967, Spectrum photo of me as the count in a coffin to publicize Silver's second effort, Bram Stoker's Dracula. Strange, but I also remember not blinking for 45 minutes in that coffin, even when my housemate, Steve Friedman (B.A. '67, now a Delta Airlines captain), leaned over and derided, "Oh look. Here's my moron roommate."

Wow. Both my college plays alive again, the same year. Twin touchstones of my passionate passage from the UB drama stage to real life. A sure sign to reminisce. Thus:


Stalag 17 scenes: Bill Herskowitz as Stosh, Manny Rechthand as Marko and Alan Steinberg as Reed.

(Click to view larger image.)
Photo courtesy of Alan Steinberg

January 1967. As I slothed through Samuel Johnson in 18th-Century Lit., Peter Riegert nudged me awake. "Psst, Al. What're you doin' after class?" I said, "Nothin'. Same as now." Peter urged, "Come to the Fillmore Room and try out for that play. Become a player on the stage." He'd already been cast as barracks leader Hoffy in the all-student, Sigma Alpha Mu­supported Stalag 17, set for February 9-12. The codirectors, whimsical "SAMMY," or Sigma Alpha Mu, brothers Steve Sunshine and Ron Silver, were still auditioning, and Peter thought I was a "natural" for a role. "You're childish and rude," he mocked. "You'll fit right in."

So we sauntered into the Millard Fillmore Room at Norton Student Union, hunting glory and praise. At one end of the cavernous ballroom, a bearded kid sat behind a stack of blue scripts. I remembered that Stalag 17 had also been a movie in the '50s, starring heartthrob William Holden as the shrewd, cynically heroic Sefton, so I decided I was a natural for Sefton. Peter introduced me to the bearded Silver, a fiercely frontal New Yorker, like me. "Okay, Steinberg," Silver chafed. "Which part?" I said, "Sefton. I want the lead." Ronnie studied me like a cop, handed me a script, and pointed to Sefton's lines. I read until he interrupted: "Forget it. You're not Sefton." Peter said I did impressions and Ronnie said show him, so I did caricatures of Cagney, Durante and W. C. Fields. Silver concluded I was a natural for Reed, a swaggering Hollywood actor who whined and needled and performed obnoxious spoofs of Cagney, Durante and Fields. That's cool, I figured. I'm in. I'm a player on the stage.

The bad news was that we had only three weeks to rehearse a three-act play with 15 characters. Almost all of us were amateurs. Silver and Sunshine considered it a challenge. We considered it suicide. But they prepared us like pros. Instead of cheap, photocopied scripts, they provided Broadway playbooks from the Author's League of America. They mustered fraternity money to construct an eerily authentic barracks and to purchase genuine World War II uniforms, which helped us feel like bunkmates in an actual prisoner-of-war camp. I'm convinced that's one reason why a bunch of callow novices synthesized into a surprisingly artful ensemble, night after night.

Not content with mere externals, Ronnie and Steve secured the technical aid of Vincent Muffoletto, a Buffalonian and former American prisoner in the real Stalag 17. Muffoletto stressed the lack of food and warmth, and he especially emphasized how the American prisoners manifested their hopes for freedom through humor. So those became the guideposts for Silver and Sunshine. For example, on my first entrance, a winter's day in camp – although it was 70 degrees on stage – Ronnie had me walk in shivering, and he had Dunbar (Barry Gutterman) rubbing his hands. They were not satisfied to entertain; they wanted us to make the audience feel like they were prisoners, too.


Stalag 17 scenes: Bill Herskowitz as Stosh, Manny Rechthand as Marko and Alan Steinberg as Reed.

(Click to view larger image.)
Photo courtesy of Alan Steinberg

We succeeded – people said later that we looked hungry and cold on stage, and that the barracks set was convincing. Word spread; we sold out Norton Conference Theatre all four nights. And we grew so adept at conveying the humor that Bill Herskowitz ("Stosh," a typical Brooklyn loudmouth), Manny Rechthand ("Marko," the goofy camp gossip), and I invented a five-minute scene involving invisible props, my Jerry Lewis impression and a farcical game of pantomime baseball. We didn't forewarn anyone, including Ronnie. Although he granted us an occasional ad-lib, he wouldn't have approved a risky, five-minute sortie. (In a play, five minutes of stage time is treacherously long. It could be chaos, like an hour watching Soupy Sales converse with White Fang. Or just squirmingly inept.) We were unbowed. We unleashed the scene on the next-to-last night, praying it would fly. It soared; we got belly laughs and a rousing standing O. Afterward Ronnie was irate, but said grudgingly, "Leave it in." It was a bigger hit in the finale. Even Ronnie chortled offstage. We knew he was secretly proud: I taught them everything they know.

When I recall that play, I miss the thrill of bonding with strangers and creating something beyond our individual scopes. Over the years, I've seen a few of the guys, but none of us have stayed close. Interesting aside, though: We didn't know how gifted we really were. Robbie Lieberman ("Sefton") went on to be a director of commercials and movies, like Table for Five with Jon Voight. Steve Sunshine worked on the original Sesame Street, coproduced the TV sitcom Webster and cowrote the movie Return of the Pink Panther. Peter Riegert developed into a successful character actor (M*A*S*H, Ellis Island, Animal House, Local Hero, Nixon, currently on Broadway in David Mamet's The Old Neighborhood). Ron Silver acted in TV commercials (he was the kid chiding Mr. Whipple, "Please don't squeeze the Charmin!"), played Gary in the TV series Rhoda and became a Broadway, TV and movie mainstay (Hurly Burly; Hill Street Blues; Silkwood; Enemies, A Love Story; Judge Dredd; and, last year, Chicago Hope).


From left: Steve Sunshine, Dennis Edwards, unidentified production staffer, and Peter Madison survey the rented satin-interior coffin holding Alan Steinberg as Dracula.

(Click to view larger image.)
Photo courtesy of Alan Steinberg

In April '67, Silver and Sunshine cast me as Count Dracula in their "high camp" version of the classic play. No one else from Stalag participated, so I was on my own in the first lead of my two-play career. We went all out for fun. For instance: (1) A week before the play opened, I emerged at noon in makeup, fangs and cape atop the Lockwood Library steps, and lurched down silently to the Union to lie in a coffin. In Norton plaza, the lunchtime crowd sneered and hissed, in the spirit. Then a crackpot kid yanked a United Nations flagpole from its base and actually tried to run me through. Someone stopped him and Dracula spared his life. (2) The crew constructed a tunnel from the Millard Fillmore Room door to the makeshift stage inside, through which customers were escorted to their seats by female ushers dressed as nurses, dripping "blood" from nose and mouth. (3) Sunshine operated a strobe light throughout the play – hitting the actors late, as though the lighting guy was drunk – which he flickered rapidly during scene changes, like a 1920s silent film. (4) An organist played lugubrious tunes as the actors cavorted on a shadowy stage like inmates of a psychiatric ward. (5) Silver played the role of Renfield, Dracula's lunatic, fly-eating toady, and was even more scary than I was. (6) I ad-libbed extensively and got to repeatedly French-kiss lovely Susan Kaplan ("Lucy," Dracula's intended), which annoyed Silver because Susan, who was his girlfriend, said she enjoyed it. The play was another success, but the last I ever did.

My involvement with those unforgettable people and plays lingers with me today. And linked to those memories is an experience even more poignant: Between those two plays, I fell in love for the first time – with an ethereal Syracuse beauty named Cheryl. So, entwined in my memories of the plays are two sweet moments of helpless first young love: (1) Cheryl was so confused with her own new feelings that when she rushed to return my Stalag script for a rehearsal one day, she walked right into the scenery. She said that that was when she realized she loved me, too. (2) Just before the opening show of Dracula, I found on my bed a black paper cut-out of the count with a note on his cape, embellished by Cheryl with red droplets, that said, "Good luck darling. With you all the way."

Unfortunately, the associations I made in the plays didn't last ... although I did have dinner twice with Peter, and Ron Silver optioned my first screenplay. I never saw Cheryl again. But hey, everyone, if you're reading this: You're still with me in my Buffalo heart. And Cheryl: I still have that wonderful Dracula sketch and all your letters and notes. And wow ... thanks for the memories.

Alan Steinberg, B.A. '68, is an author living in Chicago.

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