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Helen Hayes: 1900-1993 Essay

I met Helen Hayes in the late 1960s in New York City, when I was serving the APA-Phoenix Repertory company as its one and only assistant director.

The company’s fortunes were definitely on the rise in ’67 and ’68 when founder Ellis Rabb invited into its ranks such esteemed and memorable stars as Miss Hayes, Melvyn Douglas and Elaine Strich. Of these three, only Miss Hayes actually joined the company for any length of time, and when she arrived dutifully to assume her various roles in the rep, Ellis happened to be out of town. It fell to me to put her into the cast of You Can’t Take It with You as the Grand Duchess Olga Katrina. We were all completely intimidated and breathless at the image of the First Lady of the American Theatre, arriving to assume the character part of a woman who only appears in the last act, and then only for 15 minutes.

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It was difficult to think if Helen Hayes had ever played a part this small, and what might be the effect on the audience coming to see an ordinary matinee performance of this farce, only to read in the lobby: “At this performance, the role of the Grand Duchess Olga Katrina, usually played by Cavada Humphrey, will be played by Helen Hayes!”On the afternoon of the first rehearsal, the company assembled in the lower lobby of the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway, and waited patiently until Miss Hayes, escorted by T. Edward Hambleton, the Phoenix Theatre producer, arrived. Tiny, relentlessly erect, she bobbled and tipped like a meticulously dressed sparrow, stuttering, fumbling, all insecurity and apology. She was, of course, word-perfect in the part, and needed very little coaching, but even if she had needed it at that point, I felt about as useful as a fourth dresser.

At the conclusion of the rehearsal, she turned graciously to me and said, “Will that do, do you think?” “Oh, Miss Hayes,” I responded, “it was sensational.” “Sensational?” she sniffed, fixing me with that baleful Irish look she reserved for IRS men or their equivalents. “I swore after Anastasia that I’d never try that idiotic accent again. I can’t imagine that this is going to be anything but humiliating for all of you!”She was direct, no-nonsense and genuinely funny, with a streak of practical sensibility that made you immediately comfortable with her.

None of that “First Lady” stuff for Miss Hayes. She was a working actress in a tough profession, eager to learn, anxious to please, happy to be of help.And that voice! Warm, rich, evenly placed, with impeccable effortless American diction, tempered with a burnished “r” which was part Eastern Seaboard, part pure “theatah” diction. I can hear it still, barking out the blunt cadences of George Kelly’s Ma Fisher in The Show Off, a role she eventually toured for us, and one of the last major plays she did, before confessing that she had developed an allergy to “theatre dust” and could no longer tolerate backstage life.

I’m sure it was true, but only Miss Hayes would have found that unmistakable theatrical turn of phrase that differentiated a normal sinus condition from a romantic exile.Someone asked me recently how I thought she would be remembered, and I must admit, the idea gave me pause. When I speak now with young, aspiring actors, it seems to me that they don’t really know anyone that came before them. What do they know of Helen Hayes? What of Eva LeGallienne? What of Ina Claire?These giants of American theatre made their reputations by taking their work not to Broadway alone, or even into film and television, but by schlepping their tours to every major and even minor theatre town across the country.

It was not for nothing that Miss Hayes identified with Queen Victoria, one of her greatest roles, after whom subjects in the streets ran, calling to her at the end of her life, “Go it, Old Girl. You’ve done well!” The same can be said of this diminutive powerhouse of an actress, whose career was not dependent upon one or even two television series, or a couple of movies alone, but rather transcended eight decades of continual service to the American theatre.

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Helen Hayes: 1900-1993 Essay
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I met Helen Hayes in the late 1960s in New York City, when I was serving the APA-Phoenix Repertory company as its one and only assistant director. The company's fortunes were definitely on the rise in '67 and '68 when founder Ellis Rabb invited into its ranks such esteemed and memorable stars as Miss Hayes, Melvyn Douglas and Elaine Strich. Of these three, only Miss Hayes actually joined the company for any length of time, and when she arrived dutifully
2021-07-13 03:39:38
Helen Hayes: 1900-1993 Essay
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