Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Broadway Flea Market and Auction Raises $403,929 for BC/EFA

I was so glad to learn that Sunday’s 23rd annual Broadway Flea Market and Grand Auction raised $403,929 for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, in spite of the rain which forced us from Shubert Alley to inside at Roseland Ballroom.

I was at the Episcopal Actors’ Guild table with Tom Miller from 2 to 4 in the afternoon and had a blast. We were selling and giving away a variety of theatre memorabilia and were so busy I missed most of the bold face names. I was happy I got to see Mary-Mitchell Campbell at the ASTEP (Artists Striving to End Poverty) tables. So glad she’ll be back on Broadway in the spring as musical director of The Addams Family musical.

"Changing venues from outdoors in Shubert Alley to indoors at Roseland over 24 hours was both necessary and extremely crazy, but ultimately a success, making a day that surely would have been canceled, truly unforgettable,” BC/EFA executive director Tom Viola said in a statement. “My hat is off to the intrepid BC/EFA staff and extraordinary volunteers, as well as to the entire theatrical community for their good will and extraordinary generosity of spirit. But next year, please: Let the Sunshine In!"

Since its founding in 1987, the flea market and auction have raised more than $8,161,752 for BC/EFA. For further information visit www.BCEFA.org.

Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS is the nation's largest industry-based, nonprofit AIDS fundraising and grant-making organization, which provides services for people with AIDS, HIV or HIV-related illnesses.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Patrice Djerejian

I met Patrice Djerejian, a gifted contralto who performs widely in the United States and Europe, at this year’s Broadway Blessing. She sang “I Sing for You,” one of her original songs, while Project Dance members performed. After the service she gave me two of her CDs, I Sing for You and Love Lost and Found, and thus she continues to bless my life.

The first features 13 love songs offered in a slow, reflective, intimate way that makes me feel I am still listening to her live. She’s included one of my all-time favorite songs, “The Way You Look Tonight,” a seldom recorded Broadway number, “Unusual Way” from Nine and other classics -- I like the blending of “Little Things Mean A Lot” with Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” as a backdrop -- as well as four original pieces for which she penned the lyrics and did the arrangements.

Much to my surprise, I liked Love Lost and Found even more. It’s enough to make an opera lover out of me. I play it over and over, appreciating Patrice’s rich offering of Handel’s arias and Italian solo cantatas along with the beauty of Sir Philip Ledger and the English Chamber Orchestra. This is a treasure.

For more information about this magnificent singer, visit www.patricedjerejian.com.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

St. Vincent de Paul

Today is the feast day of St. Vincent de Paul, one of my heroes. Wanted to share with you two of my favorite quotes of his:

“You will find that Charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the bowl of soup and the full basket. Keep your gentleness and your smile. It is not enough to give us soup and bread. This the rich can do. You are the servant of the poor, always smiling and good humored. They are your masters, terribly sensitive and exacting you will see. It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give them.”

“If God is the center of your life, no words will be needed. Your mere presence will touch their hearts.”

Friday, September 25, 2009

Frederick Douglass Now

Anyone expecting a straightforward biographical narrative of a historical figure might be disappointed with this show. However, anyone in search of a provocative evening with a stellar performer should head to the Irish Arts Center to see Roger Guenveur Smith’s Frederick Douglass Now.

I was amazed at Smith’s seemingly effortless ability to switch tones and genres in a heartbeat, going from hip-hop, to impassioned oratory to humor, never losing focus during the 50-minute intermissionless performance. He is not only the actor, but is the playwright as well and it is clear he owns this work. As my friend Casey and I were leaving the opening night party Wednesday I told him I hope Smith receives a Drama Desk nomination for best solo performance. The next day I sent an e-mail message to a friend on the nominating committee to make sure he knew about this show and its worthiness.

On a bare stage with an American flag backdrop, Smith uses Douglass’ writings from the 19th century and meshes them with current references to illustrate how much and how little have changed in terms of race relations.

“I am a fugitive slave
“I live underneath the Hollywood freeway or the
“Brooklyn Bridge somewhere under the rainbow my
“coalition kept warm by blazing barrels of trash
“scraps from the cane fields and the fast food
“establishments. . . ,” he begins in rap cadence and continues for several minutes. He returns to this form again and again, but he also delivers the abolitionist’s speeches, breaking occasionally for humor -- I loved his stopping to take a cell phone call from Harriet Tubman.

The modern references don’t hide the core truth of Douglass as a fugitive slave turned statesman, whose quest for an America free of racism, sexism and economic deprivation is still all too relevant.

Smith's nationally acclaimed performance, most recently presented at the Kennedy Center, was originally commissioned by La Mama.  His interest in Douglass dates back to his studies at Occidental College and Yale University where he served as research assistant at the Frederick Douglass Papers.

In an Irish Echo op-ed column, reprinted in the program, Irish Arts Center executive director Aidan Connolly reflects on the importance of artists in shaping public opinion. “The 2008 election made history, but it did not change it,” he writes. “Still, it signified a seismic shift in our culture, and while the ground continues to move beneath us, we have an opportunity to reexamine our old assumptions, forge new connections, and create a new narrative, a new path. Artists can lead this effort, and some already are, in a way that also sheds light on the path to Irish America’s future.

“Percy Shelley called poets ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ and ‘the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.’ Like an activist who runs for office not to win, but to advance a cause not yet popular, artists can pave the way for a future we know is right and good, but from which history and habit sometimes holds us back.”

Frederick Douglass Now is running in rotation with The Cambria, which I saw and loved in the spring during its sold-out, one-week only engagement. They are presented by the Irish Arts Center in association with the Classical Theatre of Harlem and run through Sunday, Oct. 25.

The Irish Arts Center is at 553 W. 51st St., between 10th and 11th Avenues. Tickets can be purchased by calling SmartTix at 212-868-4444 or at www.smarttix.com. For more information, visit www.irishartscenter.org 

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ute Lemper

Ute Lemper’s dynamic new CD, Between Yesterday and Tomorrow, is a departure for the German-born singer, who is internationally known for her interpretations of Berlin cabaret songs, works of Kurt Weill and French chanson. This recording is unique among her 17 or so albums because she composed all of the songs as “a poetic journey through the world and through my life.”

With her dramatic voice ranging from husky to lilting, she performs 11 songs that are part story and part stream of consciousness, evoking faces, events, visions and personal philosophy.

“I turned around my own axis and life, cities and years passed by . . . like a movie,” she says in press notes. “Close ups on to people’s faces, places of poetry or doom and close ups into my own heart.”

Some songs are simple and personal, dealing with love and motherhood, others, such as “Ghosts of Berlin,” are more cinematic, dealing with her memories of a divided city during the Cold War. Those images “are so concretely frozen in my mind that it was already a poem only to be written down into music and words.”

Still others are even darker. “Nevada” is about nuclear bombs exploding in the desert in the 1950s and 60s and “September Mourn” about a day that started joyfully and excitedly getting her three children ready for their first day back at school and ended in unbelievable death and destruction. “The abuse in our souls and our minds was deep . . . the song still shivers and resonates in our subconscious,” she writes.

Her versatility and range can really be heard on “Nomad,” inspired by a journey she took through the Middle East. Using a 12th century Arabic poem about the highest purpose of religion, faith and love, the song includes the Arabic prolog and Hebrew epilog. Lemper calls it “a poem for humanity and tolerance.”

Lemper is backed by vibrant musical accompaniment -- Vana Gierig on piano, Mark Lambert on guitar, Todd Turkisher on drums and percussion, Don Falzone and Mo Pleasure on bass. They do much to help evoke the mood of the songs, whether breezy, exotic, sultry or wistful.

The complete song list is:

1. The Greatest Ride
2. Stranger Friend
3. Blood and Feathers
4. Luna
5. Ghosts of Berlin
6. La Memoire et laMer
7. Wings of Desire
8. Nomad
9. Here Is Love
10. Nevada
11. September Mourn

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A poem for autumn

O world, I cannot hold thee
close enough!

Thy winds,
thy wide grey skies!

Thy mists that roll and rise!

Thy woods, this autumn day,
that ache and sag

And all but cry with colour!
That gaunt crag

To crush! To lift the lean of
that black bluff!

World, World, I cannot get
thee close enough!

Long have I known a glory
in it all,

But never knew I this;

Here such a passion is

As stretcheth me apart.
Lord, I do fear

Thou’st made the world too
beautiful this year.

My soul is all but out of me,
let fall

No burning leaf; prithee,
let no bird call.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Monday, September 21, 2009

All Creation Sings: Praying the Psalms with St. Elizabeth Seton

The Psalms are among my favorite writings in all of the printed word. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is among my favorites of all saints. How nice then that Sisters of Charity Regina Bechtle and Margaret Egan have put them together in this lovely 64-page volume.

All Creation Sings: Praying the Psalms with St. Elizabeth Seton will be a welcome addition for anyone’s individual devotions, as well as for retreat house libraries. The glorious color photos -- of oceans and flowers, skylines and shorelines, butterflies and other charming creatures -- on every page are meditations in themselves. This book would make a beautiful gift.

I love its simplicity. Just one short verse on each page, followed by one of the gorgeous photos and a quote from Mother Seton. They are comforting, uplifting, prayer and joyful, just like the Psalms. One example: “May our God respond to you in your darkest times. May you always feel his supportive, loving presence coming from the highest heavens.” Ps. 20: 1-2. Then a photo of the ocean at sunrise and, from Mother Seton, “Keep in mind that not the least thing can happen to you without the will of God with regard to you.” At the end of the volume are several pages for personal reflection.

Mother Seton was a convert to Roman Catholicism from the Episcopal tradition. She founded the American Sisters of Charity, which was the first sisterhood native to the United States. A wife, mother, widow, sole parent, educator, social minister and spiritual leader, she was the first person born in the United States to become a canonized saint, on Sept. 14, 1975. She was born on Aug. 28, 1774 in New York City and died Jan. 4, 1821 in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where she founded her order and started what would become the Catholic elementary school system in America.

As an associate member of the Sisters of Charity of New York I am one of her spiritual daughters. Associates don’t take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as vowed sisters do, but we strive to live the charism of the order, which is charity, in our daily lives.

All Creation Sings is $10, plus $3 for handling. Checks should be made payable to the Sisters of Charity, New York and sent to Seton Book Order, Sisters of Charity Center, 6301 Riverdale Ave., Bronx, NY 10471-1093. For more information, contact Sr. Regina at rbechtle@scny.org.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Reflections on Broadway Blessing 2009

I’m still feeling the glow of Monday night’s Broadway Blessing, and am grateful to all who took part, all who worked behind the scenes, who supported us financially and all 450 or so people who came to the Cathedral for this annual event, now in its 13th year. My baby became a teenager!

I was especially touched by Lynn Redgrave. I had not met her before Monday night but she’s such a warm person I quickly felt comfortable with her. She arrived early, which as the producer I always do, so we had some time to chat just the two of us. At first I had a hard time trying not to stare because I was awed by her beauty. By the end of the evening I understood what this attraction was -- she’s not just physically lovely, she’s lit from within. She really radiates.

I asked her how Liam and the boys were doing and she sighed and said: “They’re taking it one day at a time.” Later, during her theatre reflections she asked everyone to pray for her “beloved niece Natasha Richardson.” I’m sure Natasha received many prayers that night.

Lynn shared more personal information in her talk, mentioning her breast cancer and how she never knows if it will one day shorten her life. With gratitude now she stands in the wings before each performance and thanks God for the chance to be there.

At the hardest time, while undergoing chemotherapy and radiation, she continued performing in Talking Heads, a delightful Off-Broadway show that was a series of monologues, something that is demanding under the best of circumstances. In addition to dealing with the pain and fatigue of treatment, she was worried she’d have “chemo brain” and forget her lines. Three things sustained her -- her faith and her church, her work, and the theatre.

Theatre, of course, was something she was born into. She shared with us how her father, Sir Michael Redgrave, had loved Broadway musicals and whenever he went to New York he always brought back to England the score to the current hit shows. He would play the piano and the children -- Vanessa, Corin and Lynn -- would join him in singing. Such a great image!

She ended her talk by reciting the prayer that sustains her, Psalm 23. I have never heard this most popular of Psalms presented so triumphantly. Her voice sang out at the end: “you have anointed my head with oil; and my cup is running over. Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” I wish I had a recording of it to play every morning, but luckily I can still hear her voice in my head, with its tone of utter faith in God’s providence.

It was so good of her to be with us. She had just flown in from Toronto and was scheduled this week to begin rehearsals for Nightingale, her new Off-Broadway play that is a fictional meditation on the life of her maternal grandmother, Beatrice Kempson. Surely she had many things to do, but she gave us her time and full attention.

I was deeply touched by her generous spirit again after the service. People were flocking around her and I went over to free her so she could get some refreshments at our reception for performers. As I got closer, I was moved by what the people were saying. They were cancer survivors lined up to tell her their stories. They weren't dazzled by her celebrity, they were drawn to her humanity. And she listen intently to each person and asked them questions about how they were doing. Such a special person. Please keep her in your prayers.

As always, Broadway Blessing was blessed with Rabbi Jill Hausman of The Actors’ Temple whose beautiful voice filled the Cathedral with Hebrew prayer and chant. Also making a return appearance was Broadway veteran J. Mark McVey, who sang for us many years ago. This year he performed “A Chance for Me” from the new musical Amazing Grace: The True Story by Christopher Smith. Mark has been workshopping the role of Capt. John Newton, father of the man who wrote one of the world’s most famous songs, “Amazing Grace.” Chris joined Mark for a scene of dialogue in which the father regrets sending his son into the slave trade, wishing he could have a second chance. Accompanying them was my dear friend Phil Hall who had been part of Broadway Blessing two years ago when he presented a song from his poignant work Matthew Passion.

Another good friend took part this year for the first time. Gifted actor Casey Groves performed a scene from Aldyth Morris’ compelling one-man play Damien about the 19th century Belgian-born priest who ministered to the lepers on the Hawaiian island of Molokai before dying of leprosy at the age of 49. Father Damien will be canonized next month by the Roman Catholic Church.

Singer/songwriter Carol Hall was another newcomer to Broadway Blessing this year, lighting up the Cathedral with her song “Circle of Friends” from her fabulous CD Hallways.

The Broadway Blessing Choir, under the direction of Cathedral music director Bruce Neswick, also filled the space with joy, singing medleys from South Pacific and West Side Story.

As always, Rabbi Jill and Tom Miller, Cathedral canon for liturgy and the arts, lit a candle and offered prayers of blessing for the new theatre season. And once again our beloved Project Dance performed, this time with soloist Patrice Djerejian singing “I Sing for You.”

The Rev. Mitties DeChamplain from St. Clement’s Episcopal Church offered a closing prayer, talking about growing up in a theatre family and how the theatre still sustains her. It doesn’t help her forget her problems, she said, but it helps her see them in perspective. Just as tragedy and comedy are both part of theatre, so problems and blessing are all part of life. She described theatre as “God haunted” and I like that very much.

Many others helped to make Broadway Blessing such a great event, but I have to give special high praise to our stage manager, Mike Roche. A gifted actor himself, Mike was volunteering for the second year to help production manager Ken Williams. This year, though, Ken was out with double pneumonia and Mike was left to do Ken’s job as well. With his calm competence he kept the 75-minute show running seamlessly, as if working Cathedral productions were his full-time job. Many, many thanks, Mike.

And now I look ahead to next year. Hope to see you Sept. 13, 2010 at the Cathedral!

(Thanks to Lauren Yarger for sending this photo of me, Lynn and Karen A. Lehman, executive director of the Episcopal Actors' Guild.)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Denzel Washington -- Where It Starts

There's always someone behind every success. For this Hollywood star, there were many.

I always did like Denzel Washington, but after reading his essay in Guideposts magazine I like him even more.

One of my favorite verses of the Bible says, "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it." Powerful words, aren't they? They remind me of how important it is to give children a firm foundation. Show me a successful individual and I'll show you someone who had real positive influences in his or her life. I don't care what you do for a living—if you do it well I'm sure there was someone cheering you on or showing the way. A mentor. I've had that push in my life, going back as far as I can remember. Here's how mentors can make a difference. Here's what they did for me.

Start dreaming.

The first push outside my own home came at the Boys Club in Mount Vernon, New York. I spent a lot of time there as a kid. My parents couldn't always be home when I was done with school. They were too busy working. My mother worked in beauty salons. My father was a preacher. He had a couple of churches—one in Virginia, the other in New York. In addition to that, he always had at least two full-time jobs.

From the time I was six, the Boys Club was my whole world. I learned how to play ball there and how to focus and set my mind on a goal. I learned about consequences and the difference between right and wrong. At the heart of the place was a force of nature named Billy Thomas. He made each of us feel like we were something special.

I was so impressed with him that I started to imitate him. I would walk like Billy and try to shoot a foul shot like Billy. I would try to sit like him and treat others with respect like he did. I even practiced signing my name like Billy. There was a real flourish to his handwriting and I used to copy it so much I can still see it in the way I sign my own name today.

One of Billy's great innovations was to hang college pennants from the walls of the club's main hall—one for each school his "kids" went on to attend. The deal was, when you graduated from high school and went away to college, you had to send Billy a pennant, and he'd put it up proudly on the wall for the rest of us to see. Boston University, Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Marquette. Schools I'd never even heard of. I used to look at these names and think, “Man, anything is possible!”

Gus Williams, a great ballplayer from my neighborhood, was a couple years ahead of me. He went out to USC on a basketball scholarship and I can still remember standing out in that hallway, looking up at his USC pennant, thinking, “If Gus can make it, then I can make it too.” I'd never been anywhere—didn't even know where California was—but if a guy from Mount Vernon could get a scholarship to a great school, why couldn't I?

Get to work.

On Third Street in Mount Vernon there was a barber shop called the Modernistic, run by a man named Jack Coleman. I started working there at the age of 11 or 12 because I wanted to make some money. Jack Coleman took me on as a kindness to my mother, I'm sure, but I thought it was the best job in the world. I was Mr. Coleman's clean-up guy, but the real money came in tips from customers. They'd step out of Mr. Coleman's chair and I'd be on them with a whisk broom, brushing off their collar, saying, "Man, you look good. Is there anything I can do for you?" There were rewards all day long, especially if you were respectful and solicitous.

I also got to see how hard Mr. Coleman worked to make his business run. He wasn't just the head barber. He was like the Modernistic's master of ceremonies, presiding over a wonderfully eccentric parade of souls. He was a strong individual and true to his word. The shop used to close at six-thirty so the barbers could get home to their families. I'll never forget what he said once when someone walked in there at six-thirty-five. "Am I late?" he'd asked. "No, you're early. You're first," Mr. Coleman said. "You're the first one up tomorrow morning!"

See a whole new world.

For high school I got a modest scholarship to a prep school called Oakland Academy in upstate New York. There were only about six of us inner-city kids—kids who might be labeled "troubled youth." Truth was, we weren't troubled so much as we were caught between school and the streets. I never knew how my mother managed it, scraping by to meet the tuition balance. Years later I was shown the old accounts ledger from Oakland, and there next to her name were the oddest numbers: sixteen dollars, thirty-seven dollars, one hundred nine dollars. I looked at those figures and saw my mother, breaking her back to lift me up, one small payment at a time.

At Oakland I had an English teacher named Mr. Underwood. He always had us start the day by reading The New York Times. In the beginning I'd just thumb through the sports pages, but over time I started to read some of the other sections. That opened up a whole world to me. I started caring about what was going on outside my own small protected environment. Vietnam was winding down, Watergate was ramping up, people were struggling to make ends meet—and I was soaking it all in through the morning paper.

Look for guidance.

I ended up staying close to home when it came time for college. I went to Fordham University in the Bronx. At first I thought I wanted to be a doctor, then a lawyer…then maybe a journalist. Midway through my junior year I was asked to leave Fordham for a while until I figured out what I wanted to do—which is a nice way of saying I was on academic probation. But before I left I took this public-speaking class. I'd heard it would be an easy B.

I don't even remember the name of the old guy who taught that class. I just remember his legs were always wrapped in Ace bandages that would come unraveled. He might have looked scattered, but his mind wasn't. What he really loved was Shakespeare. One day he asked me to do a scene from Hamlet. I was terrified. I didn't think I could do it, but he must have seen something in me that I didn't see in myself. At the end I was ready to race out of that classroom as fast as I could. I promised I'd never to do something like that again.

But that summer I was a counselor at camp and I performed on stage with my kids. We did skits, and I started to really like being onstage. Maybe this was something I could do. After a performance a man came up to me and said, "Have you ever thought about being an actor?"

"Well, you know," I said, playing it cool, "took a class in college. Played Hamlet."

Believe in yourself.

My second go-round at Fordham I switched to the school's midtown campus where they had a real drama program, and I became passionate about acting. Bob Stone, my English teacher, was involved in the theater program and knew his stuff. He'd been on Broadway with stars like Paul Robeson and Jose Ferrer and had accomplished a lot. I told him I was serious about becoming an actor and he encouraged me. More than that, he believed in me. After I appeared in a student production of Othello he wrote a letter of recommendation for me to grad school. What he basically said was, "If you don't have the talent to nurture this young man, then don't accept him." I must've read that letter a hundred times. Each time I thought, “Wow! If he thinks I'm that good then I'm going to have to live up to those words”. He put a fire under me. For years I kept that letter in my pocket—still have it. Whenever things became tough, I read it. There were times I wondered if I'd ever catch my first break, but Bob's words kept me going. I kept telling myself, “It'll all work out; something big is coming.” Yes, I worked hard, I made some sacrifices until I finally made it. Yes, you could say I had some luck.

But I also had tremendous help along the way. That was a huge blessing from God. Behind every great success there's someone and often more than one person. A parent, teacher, coach, role model. It starts somewhere. As the Bible says, "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it." There's no reason it can't start with you.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Problem solving

“Once we truly know that life is difficult -- once we truly understand and accept it -- then life is no longer difficult. . . Life is a series of problems. Do we want to moan about them or solve them? . . . Discipline is the basic set of tools we require to solve life’s problems. . . With total discipline we can solve all problems. . . . it is in this whole process of meeting and solving problems that life has its meaning. . . Problems call forth our courage and our wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and our wisdom.”
-- M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled

Friday, September 11, 2009


Sometimes the characters that actors play have more meaning than they themselves realize.

This essay by Henry Winkler appeared in Guideposts magazine.

For years I played one of television's most popular characters, The Fonz—Arthur Fonzarelli, also known as Fonzie—that supercool guy on the hit series “Happy Days” who came on like Marion Brando in “The Wild One” but was really a street-sweet guy with a heart of gold.

Fonzie rode a motorcycle, and slicking-back his hair with a flick of his comb, set teenagers in the audience shrieking. Kids all around the country greeted each other with The Fonz's familiar, "Hey... ay... AY!"

In fact, Fonzie became such a part of American life that the black leather jacket he wore on the show is now displayed as part of the permanent collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Over the years “Happy Days” and all its characters and cast became like a real family to me. And yet, sometimes there were doubts in my mind about Fonzie. I was trained as a classical actor at Yale Drama School, and I'd always meant to be a "serious" actor—doing drama, not comedy. And there were times when interviewers asked me if I felt I was "compromising myself" by playing a character like The Fonz.

Well, I'd answer that every acting job is important if it's conveying a worthwhile message and you adapt the part to your own talents and tastes. That it took every bit of my training and skill to make the character of Fonzie come alive on the home screen—and that it was more demanding to play comedy and bring it off successfully. I meant every word of what I said, but occasionally I too would wonder: Was playing the character of Fonzie doing anybody any good?

I'd been raised in the Jewish faith and still felt a real peace and closeness to God when I worshiped in a synagogue. Was I doing what I was really meant to do? Was I using my God-given talents in the best possible way?

I'm chairman of an annual event called the Special Arts Festival that's held at the Music Center in Los Angeles. It's sort of a special olympics of the arts, where children with mental and physical handicaps come to perform in their own amateur theatrics, to show their talents, and exhibit their artwork.

The walls are filled with paintings done by the boys and girls, music rings out as they play instruments and sing songs. It's an exciting time for everyone as the kids have a chance to display what they can do and become aware of the special contributions they can make.

Children are there from all backgrounds and all walks of life, and as I walk through the crowds, I do a lot of hugging. I hold the hand of a little girl in a wheelchair. I joke with a young boy without a leg.

Several years ago there was such a racket that it's amazing I heard the voice at all. "Fonzie," someone said. A small, shy voice in all the hubbub. "Fonzie!"

A little girl with large brown eyes and dark curls looked up at me. She was perhaps five years old—just staring at me. She didn't say another word. She wouldn't answer my questions. I just figured she was simply one of those shy ones that you see occasionally.

I told the little girl how glad I was to see her, then stood up and looked into the face of the woman who must have been her mother. But why were the woman's eyes shiny with tears?

The crowd closed around us and l went on.

And then one day I got a letter—from the mother of the little girl. She told me all about her daughter—I'll call her Claire. Claire was autistic.

Autistic children are locked in a world of their own and rarely speak or communicate with others. For reasons doctors and psychologists still don't understand, autistic children are so totally self-absorbed that they don't seem to realize that anyone else exists at all.

In the entire five years of her life, Claire had not spoken a single word. Until she called out... "Fonzie!" Somehow the character of Fonzie had broken through to her, enabling her in that one mysterious moment to make a connection. With life.

The next year Claire was at the festival again, and I eagerly went to see her. This time her voice was firm and clear. "Hi, Fonzie," she said.

"Claire's teachers say she now has a vocabulary of over 50 words," her mother told me. "They can't believe what's happened."

Just at that moment Claire tugged at my hand. "My sister," she said, pointing out the young girl standing close to us. "Hug her, too."

Sometimes we wonder if we're doing our best for God. We're not sure if we're doing what we should with the gifts He gave us. That little girl showed me that we simply have to do whatever comes our way to the best of our abilities. And trust that God will find His way to touch someone else with them.

And what is that trust called? It's called faith.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Remembering Walter Cronkite

It’s not surprising that the country’s top broadcast journalists would have shown up today for the Walter Cronkite memorial at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. The real testament to “the most trusted man in America” is that a former president, Bill Clinton, and the current president, Barack Obama, took time out to honor someone who was neither a head of state nor a beloved movie star. They were recognizing a journalist, and that made me so proud of our profession.

But Walter Cronkite was no ordinary journalist. As Clinton said in his remarks, the proof of how respected he was is that Obama, on one of the most important days “of his young presidency” -- he is set to deliver an address tonight to a joint session of Congress on his health care plan -- would fly to New York this morning to offer his praise.

The program opened with “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band playing “Stars and Stripes,” Cronkite’s favorite march, and one for which he holds the distinction of being one of only two civilians to conduct it, the other being John Philip Sousa.

Sean McManus, president of CBS News and Sports, remembered Cronkite calling him on his first day on the job to say, “Hello, boss.” “The thought that I could somehow be Walter Cronkite’s boss was the height of absurdity,” he said. He spoke of Cronkite’s sense of humor, as many of the following speakers would as well, and his “warmth and compassion” that “were almost indescribable.”

Another who received a Cronkite welcoming call on his first day was Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of the CBS Corporation. “I thought, ‘Man, you have a cool job.’ He was a true gent. He allowed us to see his grief, his pride and sometimes his outrage.”

Clinton took the podium accompanied by a standing ovation and talked about watching TV news while growing up in Arkansas. “I have to confess my mother favored Huntley and Brinkley,” he said. But that changed after they spent the day of Nov. 22, 1963 watching CBS’s coverage of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. “After that we lived with Walter Cronkite. That’s all we knew.”

Then he shared an even more personal story. As president, he had gotten to know the then-retired Cronkite through social functions. “I just wound up being crazy about the guy. I thought he was one of the most interesting men I ever saw.” But it was during “a very tumultuous summer in our lives” -- when Clinton was facing impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky affair -- that he really came to appreciate the veteran newsman.

Clinton had gone to Martha’s Vineyard with Hillary and Chelsea. Cronkite, who had a home there, called and invite the Clintons to go sailing with him and his beloved wife, Betsy.

“He did something for my family that was so simple,” but was a gesture with profound impact. Clinton said that in making the invitation Cronkite had said the president might be followed by photographers, but not to worry. Clinton joked that he definitely hadn’t been concerned. “At that time I could have done with a picture with Walter Cronkite.” That comment brought a roar of laughter from the he crowd.

“He was a good man,” Clinton said in conclusion. “That’s just the way it was. I’m here to say ‘thank you’ to a profoundly good human being.”

Next up was a short, gray-haired man with a guitar. “It’s hard to follow Bill Clinton,” he said. “I’m Jimmy Buffett. Walter was my sailing buddy and I’ll always cherish that.” He then sang his classic song, “Son of a Sailor.”

Through all of this, a large black and white photo of Cronkite smiled down from over top of the stage. The testimonials proved he was larger than life in death just as he had been in life.

Following Cronkite’s death at 92 on July 17, many writers described his passing as the end of an era, but “he deserved his own era,” Sir Howard Stringer, former president of CBS News and Corporation, said. He gave three reasons why Cronkite inspired so much respect. First, his personality, with “his wicked sense of humor and lack of pretension.” Second, his self-awareness -- he knew his job but did it without ego. Third, his leadership skills.

“He cared, but he didn’t pander,” Stringer said. “He was the maestro of the newsroom. The biography of broadcast news is surely Walter Cronkite.”

Newsman and columnist Nick Clooney said he became friends with Cronkite late in life. “I never saw him pessimistic, even at his great age,” he said. “He still believed in it all. It was not important that we trusted Walter. What was important was that Walter trusted us.”

He recalled a touching story about a dinner he had had with Cronkite this past March at a time when it was hard for Cronkite to get around. Cronkite was his usual lively self though, Clooney said, sitting with his back to the other diners in the crowded restaurant. When they were leaving, Cronkite walked on ahead and Clooney saw the reaction as people recognized the distinguished guest. “They didn’t applaud, but one by one they stood up because this is what you do when a gentleman is leaving the room.”

Tom Brokaw hailed Cronkite as “the godfather” who showed generations that followed how the profession should be practiced. “He had a romantic idea of what it was to be a journalist.” He also loved being out and about in New York City, Brokaw said, often ending his night with breakfast at the Copa Cabana.

Singer and pianist Michael Feinstein offered his praise in a song, “And That’s the Way It Is,” for which he wrote the music and William Schermerhorn wrote the lyrics. “’To anchor in a quiet cove/ As the sun turns sky to red;/ And toast the passing day/ With friends and song./ It doesn’t get much better!’/ That’s what the captain said./ ‘The seas will teach you things/ Your whole life long.’/ . . . You were the one who told our stories/ And now it’s time for us to say good night./ We’ll keep sailing around the bend/ And that’s the way it is, old friend.”

One of the funniest tributes was from “60 Minutes” commentator Andy Rooney who was in the audience but spoke on videotape, saying that he and Cronkite has been friends since 1944. Rooney got a kick out of how much Cronkite enjoyed all the awards he received after retiring. “He was the only man I knew who wore out three tuxedos accepting awards,” Rooney joked. He also told two stories centered around Cronkite’s hearing problems. In one case a stranger in a store walked up to Cronkite and asked him about someone and Cronkite, wanting to be polite, said, yes, he knew him, but not well. The stranger continued his questioning, wanting to know what Cronkite thought of the man and Cronkite was once again vague. Outside the store Betsy started to laugh and asked her husband if he had understood the name the man kept mentioning. Cronkite said he hadn’t. “It was Jesus Christ,” Betsy said.

That anecdote drew a great laugh from those present, as did the next story in which Cronkite was sailing his beloved boat and saw someone waving at him. He waved back and continued forward before getting stuck in the riverbed. Why didn’t you stop, he was asked, when the man told you it was low water. “I thought he was saying ‘hello, Walter,’” Cronkite replied.

Bob Schieffer, “Face the Nation” anchor, had his own great Cronkite story, one that showed Cronkite as the determined journalist he was. It was in 1976 when a fatal strain of flu was sweeping the country. The government was setting up vaccination programs, but the shots were making many people sick. People wanted to know if then-president Gerald Ford was going to get vaccinated. Barbara Walters, then a host of the “Today Show,” had lined up an exclusive with the president and told his staff if they allowed anyone to scoop her they would be killed. That’s how Schieffer told it. Well, Cronkite knew Walters had the exclusive, but he wasn’t deterred. He found out Ford was going to be in New York the afternoon before Walters’ interview was to run. He asked for time with the president, but was told no way. He then asked if he could just say hello to Ford. The president’s staff thought that sounded harmless and gave their approval. Then Cronkite said he wanted to bring a camera crew and was told he definitely could not. Cronkite persisted, saying he thought Ford would enjoy a record of their meeting. After hesitating, the president’s people finally said yes. Cronkite showed up with a microphone in his left hand, shook Ford’s hand and said, “So Mr. President, are you going to get your flu shot?” Ford assured him he would and that evening Cronkite beat Walters by leading his newscast with the announcement that in an exclusive interview President Ford had told him he would be vaccinated. It was his “nine second” scoop. One can only imagine how Walters fumed over that one.

Before Obama took the stand to loud cheers and a standing ovation, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Sextet, under the direction of Wynton Marsalis, performed and then flowed out into the theatre, serenading us up one aisle and down the other, with the audience clapping along. It was spectacular.

Then it was time for another of my heroes, President Obama (at the podium under the Cronkite photo). It was thrilling to be so close to him and hear and see him live. He said he didn’t know Cronkite personally but that he had “benefitted as a citizen from his dogged pursuit of the truth. Walter wasn’t afraid to rattle the high and mighty. He was a voice of certainty in a world that was growing ever more uncertain. He didn’t believe in dumbing down. He trusted us. Through all the events that defined the 20th century, Walter Cronkite was there.

“Walter Cronkite invited the nation to believe in him and he never betrayed that trust. We are grateful to him for altering and illuminating our time.”

In closing, the Marine Band performed “God of Our Fathers” and “God Bless America.” Needless to say, I was in tears.

Others who spoke during the 2 1/2-hour memorial, beautifully put together by CBS, included Katie Couric, astronaut Buzz Aldrin and Cronkite’s son, Chip. Outside on the plaza after the event more bold face names -- Diane and Charlie, Barbara, Phil and Marlo (another of my heroes) and many others who need only first names mingled.

I feel so fortunate that CBS gave me an excellent orchestra seat so I could be part of this amazing tribute. I had explained to them that Mr. Cronkite had written the introduction to my first book, Journalism Stories from the Real World. He had been there for me and now I wanted to be there for him.

It was a powerful tribute to a powerful man who wore his power lightly. I am honored that our names will be forever linked together on the cover of my book, and that I got to know this special man.

And that’s the way it will always be.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The ABCs of scripture

A Awake, awake; put on thy strength. . . . (Isaiah 52:1)

B Be ye kind. . . . (Ephesians 4:32)

C Create in me a clean heart, O God. . . . (Psalm 51:10)

D Do all to the glory of God. (I Corinthians 10:31)

E Every perfect gift is from above. . . . (James 1:17)

F Fear not: for I am with thee. . . . (Isaiah 43:5)

G Give us this day our daily bread. (Matthew 6:11)

H Hear my prayer, O God. . . . (Psalm 54:2)

I In the beginning God created. . . . (Genesis 1:1)

J Jesus himself drew near. . . . (Luke 24:15)

K Keep thy tongue from evil. . . . (Psalm 34:13)

L Let us love one another. . . . (I John 4:7)

M Mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. . . . (Psalm 23:6)

N Now is the day of salvation. (II Corinthians 6:2)

O O sing unto the Lord a new song. . . . (Psalm 98:1)

P Pray without ceasing. (I Thessalonians 5:17)

Q Quicken me, O Lord. . . . (Psalm 143:11)

R Rejoice in the Lord your God. . . . (Joel 2:23)

S Seek ye first the kingdom of God. . . . (Matthew 6:33)

T Trust in the Lord. . . . (Proverbs 3:5)

U Unto thee, O God, do we give thanks. . . . (Psalm 75:1)

V The very hairs of your head are all numbered. (Matthew 10:30)

W We are labourers together with God. . . . (I Corinthians 3:9)

X Exercise thyself . . . unto godliness. (I Timothy 4:7)

Y Yield yourselves unto the Lord. . . . (II Chronicles 30:8)

Z Zion heard, and was glad. . . . (Psalm 97:8)

By Evelyn Bence

Friday, September 4, 2009

Happy Labor Day weekend!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

“The only difference between a rut and a grave are the dimensions.”
-- Ellen Glasgow

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


As of January, Diane Sawyer will be ABC's new anchor for the evening news. I'm thrilled that two of the three network anchors will be women -- even if I can't watch because I don't have television (and have no desire for it).

Daring to Dream Big!
How Diane Sawyer learned to accomplish even her biggest dreams

Many of us, I think, can look back and recall certain specific moments in our lives that take on greater importance the longer we live. "The past has a different pattern," T.S. Eliot wrote, when viewed from each of our changing perspectives.

For me, one of those moments occurred when I was 17 years old. I was a high school senior in Louisville, Kentucky, representing my state in the 1963 America's Junior Miss competition in Mobile, Alabama. Along with the other young contestants, I was doing my best to hold up under the grueling week-long schedule of interviews, agonies over hair that curled or wouldn't, photo sessions, nervous jitters and rehearsals. In the midst of it all, there was one person who stood at the center—at least my psychological center—someone I viewed as an island in an ocean of anxiety.

She was one of the judges. A well- known writer. A woman whose sea-gray eyes fixed on you with laser penetration, whose words were always deliberate. She felt the right words could make all the difference. Her name was Catherine Marshall.

From the first moment I met Catherine Marshall, I was aware that she was holding me—indeed all of us—to a more exacting standard. While other pageant judges asked questions about favorite hobbies and social pitfalls, she sought to challenge. She felt even 17-year-old girls—perhaps especially 17-year-old girls—should be made to examine their ambitions and relate them to their values.

During the rehearsal on the last day of the pageant, the afternoon before it would all end, several of us were waiting backstage when a pageant official said Catherine Marshall wanted to speak with us. We gathered around. Most of us were expecting a last-minute pep talk or the ritual good luck wish. or at most an exhortation to be good citizens, but we were surprised.

She fixed her eyes upon us. "You have set goals for yourselves. I have heard some of them. But I don't think you have set them high enough. You have talent and intelligence and a chance. I think you should take those goals and expand them. Think of the most you could do with your lives. Make what you do matter. Above all, dream big."

It was not so much an instruction as a dare. I felt stunned, like a small animal fixed on bright lights. This woman I admired so much was disappointed in us—not by what we were but by how little we aspired to be.

I won the America's Junior Miss contest that year. In the fall I entered Wellesley College, where my sister. Linda, was beginning her junior year. I graduated in 1967 with a B.A. degree in English and a complete lack of inspiration about what I should do with it.

I went to my father, a lawyer and later a judge in Louisville's Jefferson County Court. "But what is it that you enjoy doing most?" he asked.

"Writing," I replied slowly. "I like the power of the word. And working with people. And being in touch with what's happening in the world."

He thought for a moment. "Did you ever consider television?"

I hadn't.

At that time there were few if any women journalists on television in our part of the country. The idea of being a pioneer in the field sounded like dreaming big. So that's how I came to get up my nerve, put on my very best Mary Tyler Moore girl journalist outfit, and go out to convince the news director at Louisville's WLKY-TV to let me have a chance.

He gave it to me—and for the next two and a half years, I worked as a combination weather and news reporter.
Eventually, though, I began to feel restless. I'd lie awake at night feeling that something wasn't right. I'd wait for the revelation, the sign pointing in the direction of the Big Dream. What I didn't realize is what Catherine Marshall undoubtedly knew all along—that the dream is not the destination but the journey.

I was still working at WLKY when, in 1969, my father was killed in an auto crash. His death—coupled with my urge to make a change—spurred me in the search for a different job and also seemed to kindle my interest in the world of government, law and politics. I racked my brain. I put out feelers. And then one of my father's associates said, "What about Washington?"

Several months later, in the autumn of 1970, I said goodbye to my mother and Linda and to the good folks at WLKY, and boarded a plane for Washington, D.C.

Now, I know this may sound incredibly naive, but when the plane landed at National Airport, I got off with a very firm idea of where I wanted to work. At the White House. True, in the eyes of official Washington I might be right off the equivalent of the turnip truck, but working in the White House was exactly what I had in mind!

Thanks to a few kind words of recommendation from a friend of my father's, I was able to obtain an interview with Ron Ziegler, the White House press secretary, and I was hired.

Those were heady days. The Press Office, located in the West Wing of the White House, was the hub for information flowing between the White House and the media. I worked hard and I worked long and loved every part of it.
Then came Watergate.

In the summer of 1974 the President resigned. Immediately I was appointed to his transition team in San Clemente, California.

My assignment on the West Coast was supposed to last only six months. But a few days after my arrival the President made a request that I was totally unprepared for. He asked me to consider staying on in San Clemente—along with several other writers and aides—to assist him in researching and writing his memoirs. I had to make a choice, and a choice that I knew would have consequences.

"Career suicide." mumbled some of my friends.

But I had worked for this man and he had been good to me. Now he was asking me for something that I was in a position to give. I have never regretted the decision. I stayed.

One day in the long exile, Catherine Marshall and her husband, Leonard LeSourd, called to say they were nearby. They came for a visit, and once again I felt the searching gaze and, implicit in it, the words. "What is next?" Again I came to appreciate the immense power of someone who is unafraid to hold other people to a standard. And again I realized the way a single uncompromising question can force reexamination of a life.

Today, after three years as co-anchor on the CBS Morning News, I'm co-editor of CBS's 60 Minutes television newsmagazine. We work at a breakneck pace with long hours and constant travel thrown in. I keep a suitcase packed at all times so that I can be ready to fly out on assignment at a moment's notice.

My New York apartment, which I see far too little of these days, has become my refuge, the place where I'm free to pad about in jeans and a sweatshirt—no makeup, no contact lenses, no hairspray. Sometimes I unwind by playing the piano. Or I relax by doing something simple but satisfying—baking a pan of muffins or cleaning out an old junk drawer.

These are the times of silent reassessment.

When I go out into the world again—and who knows where I'll be flying next?—I can almost hear a wonderful woman prodding me with her fiery challenge to stretch further and, no matter how big the dream, to dream a little bigger still.

God, she seems to be saying, can forgive failure, but not failing to try.

This essay by Diane Sawyer appeared in Guideposts Magazine.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


Genesius will be a joy for any lover of the theatre. Billed as “a new musical about the little theatre that could, did and still does,” this spirited new offering goes beyond the let’s-put-on-a-show backstage guts and glory story to tell at its center the true-life story of Jane Simmon Miller, a visionary who co-founded a theatre company for young people in a small town in Pennsylvania, transforming the lives of dozens of showbiz wannabes.

Miller, well portrayed by Beth Glover (in photo at right), was inspired to form her own company in Reading, PA, in 1971, along with Michael O’Flaherty, who wrote the music and lyrics for this show about their efforts.

Through bargaining, finagling and scheming, Miller takes over an abandoned storefront in a run-down part of town and scrapes together the materials to build a theatre space. If anyone tries to oppose her, she tells them she’s doing it for the arts, culture, civilization, and if that doesn’t work, she throws in grandly -- “and for the kids.”

She names her company Genesius in honor of the saint who is considered the patron of actors. When asked if she is religious, she replies: “No, I just think it’s a hoot that the Catholic Church has a saint that was an actor.” (Anyone wishing to see an icon of this early Christian martyr can go to St. Malachy’s/The Actors Chapel on West 49th Street where it is displayed in the back of the church.)

Glover is backed by an energetic and able cast of mostly 20-somethings who sing O’Flaherty’s upbeat songs with passion and, thank God, without belting. I especially liked Tyler Bell as Joey, a teenaged member of the company who also serves as a narrator of the show. In the second act an older Joey is well played by Ryan Mikita.

Also featured are Paul Carlin, Danny Gardner, Andrew Hodge, Benjamin Howes, Melisa Klausner, Ardis Barrow, Emilie Battle, Cameron Bautsch, Johannah Giron, Lannon Killea, Rebecca Leigh, Lauren Lukacek, Meagan MacLeod, Nick Mannix, and Dane Reis. 

L.J. Fecho’s book is often quite funny, but can also be poignant. Miller comes off as a real person, and the young performers’ journeys are engaging. I would, though, like to see the show tightened a bit. The backstage antics began to drag for me after awhile in the first act.

The show is directed and choreographed by William Sanders, with musical direction by Greg Brown, Ian Schugel and James Stenborg.  Rod Snyder designed the simple set.

As we were leaving after the show, I experienced a theatre first -- everyone was given a St. Genesius medal. It was like being back in Catholic school -- without the misery.

Genesius is at TADA! Theater, 15 W. 28th St., NYC (between Broadway and Fifth Avenue).  Tickets are $18 and available at www.smarttix.com, 212-868-4444. It runs through Sept. 13.

For more information, visit www.genesiustheatre.org.