Sidebar: Art Carney Saved My Life

5 Nov

Today in 1918 Art Carney was born.

artcarneyIn the frigid February of 1999, I was in a small production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in a Boston suburb. The director had assembled four people: a loud, brash woman who would later turn up drunk to the show’s final preview; an overbearing passive-aggressive guy, a nice young Christian woman who was sweet in her way but also clearly only gradually discovered what she had gotten herself into; and me, at the time more of a milquetoast than I am now and certainly just as confrontation-averse as I remain. So, in a sense, good job, Director. And in a sense, what were you thinking, Director?

Opening weekend, I believe. George had been leaping from Act I to Act III to Act II and back during his speeches, which was not uncommon. In one of the scenes where the ladies are away and Nick is left with George for a bit, I saw it. The beads of sweat on his temple. I remember reading of Phil Silvers talking about Paul Ford going up on his lines during Bilko episodes, how beads of sweat would form on his temple and he’d get a glazed look…and I thought of that.

Phil_Silvers_Paul_Ford_Bilko_racing_pigeons_1958I should note here my childhood (and continuing) love of classic television comedy. I was raised in the cable era, so it wasn’t just Andy Griffith & Gilligan on local channels; it was Dick Van Dyke, it was Lucy, it was I Married Joan, “America’s Favorite Comedy Show, Starring America’s Queen of Comedy, Joan Davis.”

It was The Honeymooners.

Honeymooners02I did a paper and accompanying speech in Eighth Grade English on The Honeymooners. I dressed as Ed Norton for Hallowe’en the year before. I was a member of RALPH, the Royal Association for the Longevity and Preservation of the Honeymooners. I was a loser.

So George is temple-sweating like Paul Ford and says the deathless line that I’m SURE Albee would have included had he occurred to him, “I’m going to go see how the girls are doing.” And he left the stage, I assume to check a script in the wings.

Leaving me on the stage. Alone.

Before I had the chance to have a heart attack, I remembered Art Carney.

In a famous Honeymooners anecdote, once Gleason and Meadows made an exit through the “bedroom door” of the set. There was perhaps some miscommunication about a cue, but they didn’t return. For a long time. Leaving Art Carney on set. On live national television.

No one came in.

So he started rummaging through their icebox. For some reason there was an orange in there. Which he started to peel. Hilariously, in his cuff-shooting Nortonish way, by all reports.

Two minutes are a blip in our lives, usually. It’s not even a whole pop song, except maybe the Everly Brothers’ “Walk Right Back,” a thing of beauty and brevity.

But on a stage, especially alone, especially unexpectedly alone, it is an eternity; -it’s the long silent freakout part near the end of 2001 with those long-held frames of Dave’s terrified face.

2001Keir 01Unless you remember Art Carney.

I walked to the desk/sideboard. I was going to freshen my drink, and I saw some envelopes. Would Nick look at George & Martha’s private correspondence at this point?

I never got to find out. I didn’t get to do my two-minute metaphorical orange peeling. George found his line (I have no idea what it might have been) in the offstage script. On we went.

He apologized at some point before we closed, but not that night. He was kind of difficult.

In retrospect, I kind of regret my foiled improv scene; in the moment, I was just pleased that no urine left my body.

I have never known onstage fear since 1999. For which I thank Art Carney.

Happy birthday.

Art_Carney_Photo

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