The Biggest Stage

There were no meals served at May Berriman’s Gramercy Arms, but the big
kitchen was considered common property, and anyone who wanted to was
allowed to prepare breakfast and dinner there. Lunches were eaten at
restaurants and counters.

Each of the girls had a wire basket labeled and filled with her own food
in the giant hotel-size refrigerator, and each was given shelf space for
other things. Since Peggy and Amy had not stocked up the night before,
the other girls invited them to share breakfast with them.

“We have a system,” Dot said. “Each of us cooks for all the others in
turn, but that’s only for breakfast. At dinnertime, you shift for
yourself. The dishes are done for us, thank Heaven, by Aniko, the
housemaid. We each contribute to a dishwashing fund every week to keep
Aniko happy. Since you’re both new, we’ll put you at the end of the
list, which gives you about a week to get used to us in the morning,
before having to cook for us.”

“She’s being optimistic,” Maggie called over her shoulder from her
position at the range. “It’s impossible to get used to us in the
morning. How do you like your eggs?”

They settled on scrambled, which was diplomatic, since they noticed that
Maggie was whipping up a bowl of them for the others. In short order,
they were seated around the long table, eagerly eating the eggs, bacon,
toast and fresh sliced tomatoes, and washing it down with good, hot
coffee.

Irene and Greta huddled together, looking over a copy of _Variety_ and
writing in small notebooks. Catching Peggy’s inquiring glance, Irene
explained, “It’s _Variety_, the bible of show business. We’re looking at
the casting notes. Every time a producer has a play and wants to see new
actors, he puts a notice in the casting call page. The notices tell you
what kind of people he’s looking for and when he’ll see them. We’re
looking—along with a thousand other actors—to see if there’s something
for us. I’ve got two that sound interesting, and Greta’s got one.”

“And do you just go up and say, ‘Here I am’?” Amy asked.

“That’s about all I do,” Irene admitted with a laugh, “because I just
answer the ads for Showgirl types and beautiful ingénue roles. I just
stand there and hope they like my face and figure.”

“I don’t see how they couldn’t,” Peggy said.

“Oh, it’s easy! I’m too tall for some, and too fashionable-looking for
others, or I should be blond, or they wanted an outdoor type, or I’m
just what they’re looking for, but so are twelve other girls who all
have more acting credits. It’s not easy.”

“It’s no easier for me,” Greta put in mournfully. “I’m an even more
definite physical type than Irene is, and to make matters worse, I have
to act for them. Most of the time, my round, red face and my blond
braids eliminate me at the start. If they don’t, I then have to go
through an audition reading. I’m just waiting for a casting notice that
asks for a new actress with a face like a Campbell’s Soup kid, and I’ll
rush right up and get the part!”

“If I ever meet any playwrights, I’ll put in a word for a part like
that,” Peggy said. “But by then, you’ll be famous, and the ‘new actress’
part would disqualify you.”

When breakfast was over, the girls scraped the dishes, put them in the
sink for Aniko, and went their separate ways.

Gaby was off first, for an early English class at a language school,
which would be followed by a full day at Columbia University studying
English literature, American history, economics, and a special course
called Literature of the Theater. With a small “_au revoir_,” which was
all she had said since her first quiet “_bon jour_,” she slipped out.

“Gaby’s a night person,” Dot explained. “You can hardly get a word out
of her until sunset. Then you’re lucky if you can keep her quiet for
five minutes!”

“How about you?” Peggy asked. “Are you a night person, or a morning
person?”

“I think I must be a twenty-four-hour person.” Dot laughed. “I work on
stage until eleven-fifteen, but it doesn’t keep me from getting up as if
I were on a farm. I have to, though. I have a busy day. We rehearse
three days a week, just to keep the chorus work tight, and I have
special rehearsals for my understudy part. It keeps me going nearly
every day from nine in the morning until after midnight, but I seem to
thrive on it.”

Greta left for her office, to put in a day of script editing (whatever
that is, Peggy thought), Irene went upstairs to “put herself together”
for a photo shooting to take place later in the morning, and Maggie went
off to a rehearsal studio to practice her stretches and scales. Amy and
Peggy sat alone in the kitchen.

“What shall we do?” Peggy asked. “I feel so useless having no program,
and we sure can’t spend the day sitting here in the kitchen.”

“Why don’t we go out for a walk, and learn something about the
neighborhood?” Amy suggested.

“Good! In fact, why don’t we find a sight-seeing bus and take a ride
around the city? My father said—”

“So did mine!” Amy interrupted.

“We get more alike every minute!” Peggy said, grinning. “Let’s go up,
put our things away, and go out to learn all about New York.”

Later that afternoon, sipping her first cup of Automat coffee, Peggy
slipped her shoes off under the table and sighed, “I certainly had a lot
to learn when I said we’d go out and learn all about New York! My feet
are killing me, and we haven’t even begun to see the city!”

“We saw a lot, though,” Amy replied thoughtfully. “We saw Chinatown and
Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side and Riverside Drive and Park
Avenue and Central Park and Sutton Place and….”

“And neither of us could find our way back to any one of them unless we
took a sight-seeing bus again!” Peggy said. “Why, we’ve hardly begun!
I’ve been checking off where we’ve been on my city map and guidebook,
and we haven’t seen anything but the sights the guides think are
picturesque! I saw loads of places that we just shot by that I’d love to
go back and explore when we have time; and the guidebook lists hundreds
of things that we didn’t even come near! Did you know that there are
Italian street festivals, and an Indian mosque, and a Spanish museum,
and shops that sell nothing but cheeses from every country in the world,
and an Armenian district, and a Greek one, and Russian restaurants, and
Japanese, and French and German and Turkish and Mexican and….” She ran
out of breath and stopped, eyes shining with excitement.

“My goodness!” Amy said. “You make it sound like a World’s Fair!”

“It is. It’s the biggest permanent World’s Fair anywhere, and we have a
chance to see it without anything to take our minds off it from now
until school starts!”

“Your energy just scares me,” Amy said in a make-believe little-girl
voice, accentuating her Southern drawl. “Ah’m afraid you’ll just have to
carry li’l ol’ me.”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to do the carrying,” Peggy retorted, “unless I
can get these shoes back on! I think all the walking we’ve done has made
my feet three sizes larger!”

Sensibly, they finished the day’s excursion with a Fifth Avenue bus ride
downtown.

The next few days until the Academy opened were a round of sight-seeing,
eating exotic foods in the restaurants of many lands that Peggy had only
started to enumerate, and shopping in the famous stores.

The shopping expeditions were among the most exciting things that Peggy
and Amy did. The huge stores, crammed with merchandise from all over the
world, were like nothing that they had ever seen before. Even the
afternoon that Peggy had spent window-shopping with her mother had
failed to prepare her for the size and complexity of these shops.
Everywhere were rows on rows of dresses, coats, skirts, blouses, robes,
and gowns. Counters and showcases displayed incredible arrays of
lingerie, purses, shoes, gloves, scarves, and other accessories. And
everywhere, at every time of day, the crowds of shoppers clustered as
thick as bees around a hive.

Beautifully dressed women in furs walked side by side with trim young
secretaries and vied with them for bargains at sales counters.
Embarrassed men sidled past lingerie departments in search of gifts for
their wives and sweethearts; short, stout women admired dresses designed
for tall, slim models; elderly ladies tried on hat after hat, each one
looking less suitable than the last; girls sprayed themselves with
perfume at the cosmetic counters, or stood and watched demonstrators at
work. One demonstrator who especially fascinated Peggy was a beautiful
girl with long blond hair, who was showing a new hairstyling spray. She
would spray it on, and with a few expert flips of a comb, create a
hairdo; then, combing it out again, she would quickly arrange it in a
different style. Each one took her only a minute or so to make perfect,
then, out it would come, more spray would be applied, and another
coiffure would be combed in. Peggy wondered how she wore it when it was
time to go home at night. Probably pulled back in a bun, she thought.

These shopping tours represented diversion as much as necessity, though
in the course of visiting all the stores, the girls did buy what they
needed. Peggy got several dresses, some skirts and sweaters, a new coat,
shoes, bag, and a hat. Also, on Amy’s advice, she bought some school
things that would be suitable for stage work, plus a leotard, tights and
ballet shoes that Mr. Macaulay’s secretary had told her she would need.

When neither girl could think of anything else that she needed to buy,
the temptation to revisit the stores just to see things was still great.

“We’d better not, though,” Peggy said sensibly. “I don’t think I’m
strong enough to resist temptation, and I’ve just about used up all my
clothing allowance. Let’s visit some museums next.”

“Oh dear,” Amy sighed. “I suppose it’s a good idea, all right, but I
just wish school would hurry up and start. I’m afraid I’m going to get
indigestion from swallowing all of New York in one big gulp!”

So did Peggy, but museums were on her “little list,” and museums it
would be. Besides, she knew that once school began, she would have
little time for anything else.

So the guidebook came out once more, together with the flat walking
shoes. But, though their time was spent in museums, their minds were in
the future, and their talk was of nothing but the Academy, which was due
to open in a few short days.

Peggy and Amy thought they had arrived early for opening day at the New
York Dramatic Academy, but when they entered the old building, they
found the long hallway filled to capacity with students waiting their
turn on the ancient elevators.

Some obviously new students milled around aimlessly, looking somewhat
lost and more than a little frightened. Peggy wondered if she and Amy
looked the same, and made a determined effort to appear at ease and
knowing. But her pose couldn’t have been very convincing, for a small,
thin boy with huge glasses and a shock of black hair came over to them
with a grin and said, “You’re new, aren’t you?”

“Why, yes,” Peggy answered. “Do we show it?”

“Oh, no, not at all,” he assured them earnestly. “You look just fine.
It’s just that I’ve been here two years, and I know everyone. I’m Pete
Piper, but everyone calls me Pip. I just thought I’d help lead you
through the maze, if you’d like.”

Peggy and Amy introduced themselves, and thanked Pip for his help.

“Oh, don’t thank me,” he said. “Everybody does it. Whenever we see new
students on the first day, the old-timers introduce themselves and offer
to help. It’s kind of a custom.”

Looking around, Peggy noticed that the “lost lambs” she had first seen
were by now in conversation with other, older students, and all of them
looked a good deal more relaxed.

“I think it’s a lovely custom,” Amy said. “It makes our Southern
Hospitality look right cold by comparison!”

By this time, it was their turn at the elevator doors, which suddenly
flew open with their usual wail of protest. Peggy, Amy, and Pip were
almost carried in, with no need to walk at all, by the mass of students
around them, and soon were packed as tight as berries in a basket.
Protesting loudly, the elevator slowly ascended.

Upstairs, the halls which had been nearly empty when Peggy had last seen
them were now swarming with students. The ones who seemed to know where
they were going swirled and eddied around others who looked around
doubtfully and hesitated to go anywhere.

Pip shook his head and said, “More waifs and strays up here, I see. I’ll
set you on your way, and then gather up a new crop. You just go right
into the little theater—ahead of you, through those doors—and take
seats. From there on, you’ll be told what to do and where to go. I’ll
see you around.”

He started off to gather a new group of first-term students, but before
he had taken more than three steps, he was back again. “Let’s have lunch
together with some of the others,” he said. “That okay with you?”

“We’d love to,” the girls chorused.

“Good. Meet you downstairs in front of the building at twelve. S’long!”

Feeling no longer lost, but already a part of their new school
community, Peggy and Amy proceeded into the little theater, found seats
near the front, and started to introduce themselves to the other new
students nearest them. The exchange of names, home towns, impressions,
and ambitions occupied the next fifteen minutes or more until the
dimming of the house lights and the illumination of the stage brought a
hush to the small auditorium.

The last few whispers died when Mr. Macaulay walked to stage center,
bowed formally to the right, the left and the center, and then
unexpectedly sat down on the apron of the stage with his legs dangling.

“The bows were your formal welcome to the Academy, and I hope they take
the place of a speech,” Mr. Macaulay began. “I hate speeches. From now
on, we’re going to be informal and friendly, because that’s the only
atmosphere in which people can get any work done. And you have a lot of
work to do. You will have physical work in which you will learn to walk,
to move, to dance a little, to stand up and to sit down. You may think
you already know how to do these things, but you probably don’t.

“You will have mental work,” he went on, “in which you will learn how to
read a play, how to understand the motivation of a character and his
relationship to the other characters. You will learn elocution, voice
projection, and a dozen other things that have to do with speaking
lines. You will learn the history of the theater, become familiar with
the classic plays, and learn something about stage design and
construction. In this last area, you will pick up the practical craft of
making flats, painting scenery, and wiring lighting—a type of pedestrian
work that has occupied the time of nearly every actor before he was
allowed to appear even in a walk-on role.

“And last, and perhaps most important,” Mr. Macaulay concluded, “you
will learn that the informality and friendliness of the theater must not
be mistaken for lack of discipline; in short, you will learn how to take
direction!”

Still seated on the edge of the stage, Mr. Macaulay called out his staff
of instructors one by one, introduced each to the students, and gave a
short history of each one’s background and qualifications for his or her
work. All were seasoned professionals, and were very impressive to the
students.

Mr. Macaulay also explained that leading performers from the Broadway
stage, movies, and television would make regular guest appearances at
the Academy, as would outstanding directors, choreographers, designers,
and playwrights. The size of the staff, in effect, was unlimited.

After this, the individual instructors spoke, each saying a few words
about his specialty and what he hoped to achieve in his course. Each
one, it seemed to Peggy, opened up whole new areas of knowledge for her,
until at the end she felt that she knew absolutely nothing at all, and
wondered how she could ever have thought of herself as an actress. This
was going to take a lot of work!

After the meeting, the rest of the morning was spent in the routine of
registration, getting class cards, finding out where the rooms were,
getting locker assignments and book lists and, bit by bit, eliminating
the first sense of confusion.

Peggy and Amy, happily, were registered in the same class, and went
together through the busy morning. Before they knew it, it was time for
lunch with Pip Piper and “some of the others.”

The others proved to be Connie Barnes, a cheerful comedienne who managed
to be wonderfully attractive without being in the least pretty, and a
dark, muscular, tough-looking young man with a face like either a
private detective or a gangster in a grade-B movie, who was introduced
by Pip as Mallory Seton.

Much to Peggy’s surprise, when he spoke it was not at all the tough, New
York sound she had expected, but a quiet, cultured English accent. “Call
me Mal,” he said. “Mallory’s rather a mouthful, isn’t it? At least, it
seems so here. At home, they used to call me ‘Mallory John’ all the
time, so as not to confuse me with my father, who is named ‘Mallory
Peter,’ but I can’t imagine anyone in America doing that. If I’d been
brought up here, I’d probably have been called ‘Bud.’”

Following Pip, the students walked around the corner to stop in front of
a narrow delicatessen store. The sign on the window said, “Tables in the
rear,” but Peggy could see from the crowd that clustered at the counter
that there would be no chance of getting one. And besides, the place
didn’t look wide enough to hold a table that would seat the five of
them.

“Oh dear,” she said, “I don’t think we’re going to be able to eat here,
there are so many of us. Perhaps if Amy and I went somewhere else, you
three would have a chance? We don’t want to make it difficult for you—”

“Don’t be silly,” Pip cut in. “We didn’t expect to get a table here.
You’re lucky if you can get a seat at the counter for one, much less a
table for more than one. We’re going to buy sandwiches here and take
them to the park.”

Whipping out a notebook, Pip started to take orders and money, with
frequent reference to the menu pasted to the delicatessen window. Then
he plunged into the place and, in less time than Peggy thought possible,
was back with a giant bag full of sandwiches and cold, bottled drinks.

It was only two blocks to the southern boundary of Central Park, and
once they had crossed Fifty-ninth Street and stepped into the
tree-shaded, winding footpath, the city seemed to disappear behind them
as if it had never been. At the foot of the first gentle hill, there was
a small lake bordered by a bench-lined path. There were some empty
benches, but Pip ignored them.

“If you don’t mind walking a little farther,” he said, “we have a
favorite spot on the opposite shore, where hardly anyone ever comes.”

The path brought them across a small arched footbridge, through a thick
copse, and out alongside a broad lawn which ran down to the lake’s
shore. It was here that they chose to eat, sitting on the grass.

“Now that we’re comfortably settled,” Mal said, “I have some great news
for you, but first I think we ought to tell Peggy and Amy what we’re
talking about, so they won’t feel left out of the conversation. Connie,
you tell them about the play.”

“Just a minute, Connie,” Pip interrupted. Then he turned to the
newcomers. “Do you know what the term ‘Off-Broadway’ means?”

“Why, yes, I think so,” Peggy replied. “It means you’re not using one of
the regular, big theaters, and you charge less admission, and—”

“More than that,” Pip broke in. “It’s generally an experimental
group—though that doesn’t mean necessarily that it’s amateur, and one
thing you can be sure of—it never has enough money. Everybody has to do
a little of everything. Now go on, Connie.”

“Well, the three of us are in that kind of group,” Connie started, “and
we’re trying to produce a play off-Broadway. We’ve been working at it
for about six months now, trying to raise the money and get a theater
and do all the rest of the work that goes into these things. The play is
called _Lullaby_, and it’s terrific, or it will be if it ever gets
produced. Mal’s going to direct it, and I’m already cast as the
comedienne, and Pip plays opposite me. There are a few more of us in it
too, of course, and there’s Randy Brewster, who wrote it and is
producing it. But I want to hear the great news before I talk any more.
What is it, Mal?”

“I don’t want it to be a shock,” Mal said, “so I’ll say it very slowly.
Randy has raised almost all the money we need, and he’ll have the rest
in a few days. It looks as if we’re actually going to get this on the
boards this season—if we can find a theater for it!”

“Wonderful!” Connie breathed.

“Wow!” Pip exploded.

“But where did he get the money? What happened? Do you know?” Connie
asked.

“You remember the reading we did at that Park Avenue penthouse a couple
of months ago?” Mal asked. “The one where all the people seemed so cold
and hostile, and we felt that we had made a miserable botch of it?”

“Don’t tell me!” Connie said.

“All right,” Mal said, his tough features composing themselves into a
broad grin, “I won’t.”

“It’s only an Americanism, Mal,” Pip said eagerly, “and it means ‘tell
me.’”

“Oh, I would never have guessed,” Mal said innocently. “Well, that was
the reading that did it. Actually, those penthouse people weren’t
hostile at all. It’s just what they consider good manners or something.
Anyway, several of them came through, and we have almost all we need to
put the play on. And Randy says that once you have most of the money, it
gives other investors confidence, and they come along, too.”

“How much do you need?” Peggy asked. “I shouldn’t think it would take so
very much to do an off-Broadway play.”

“Those were the good old days,” Pip said mournfully. “Nowadays you need
at least ten thousand dollars, which is still practically nothing
compared to what it costs to put a show on Broadway. You have to pay
high rent for theaters now, if you can find one at all, and you have to
spend money on costumes and sets, because the public expects more from
off-Broadway than they used to. And you have to pay your actors, or else
Equity, which is the actors’ union, won’t let you open. And you have to
advertise, and print tickets, and pay for lighting equipment and a
hundred other things. It all adds up to a lot of cash.”

“Will the backers have a chance of making money?” Amy asked.

“Well, it all depends on the type of theater we can find, and on the
critical reviews of the play,” Mal explained. “If the reviews are good,
and if the theater holds enough people, and if they keep coming for long
enough, there’s a chance. If any one of those factors is lacking, then
there isn’t a chance.”

“What’s the play about?” Peggy asked.

Connie frowned and said, “That’s kind of hard to answer. It’s a comedy,
but at the same time it’s a serious play. I mean it’s serious in what it
talks about, but funny in the way it says it. It’s mostly about a boy
genius—”

“That’s me!” Pip interrupted.

“—who feels that the only way to get along in the world is not to let
people know how smart he is, because people are jealous and suspicious
of people who are too smart. He meets a girl genius—that’s me—who has
come to the same conclusion. Both of them try to act like ordinary
people, and to adjust to the world, because everybody says it’s best to
conform and be just like everybody else—”

“And one of the main problems is that neither one of them wants to let
the other one know that he or she is any different,” Pip interrupted,
“and that leads to a lot of misunderstanding and—”

“And a lot of serious discussion under the comedy,” Mal said, “about
whether or not conformity is any good, and what to do with outstanding
people, and how they can be educated, and how to use them properly in
the world. It’s a really first-rate play.”

“It sounds wonderful!” Peggy said. “Has this Randy Brewster written any
other plays? Who is he?”

“Randy has written lots of others,” Mal answered, “but this is the first
one that looks as if it’s going to be produced. He’s a good playwright,
and I think he’s going to be a success. At least I hope so, because if
the play is well received, we all have a chance of success too.”

“What does he do besides write plays?” asked Amy.

“He’s a dancer and a singer,” Connie said. “He’s been working in night
clubs and on television, and he’s good, but he has a real talent as a
writer, and we all agree that he’s wasted as just another song-and-dance
man. If you want to see him, you can tune in to your television set on
Saturday night. He’s got a spot on the Road Show hour.”

“I haven’t got a television set,” Peggy answered, “though I guess I
could find one to watch, but I’d like to do more than look in on this
via TV. Is there anything I could do to help with the show?”

“Well….” Mal began doubtfully, “we’re almost all cast for it now, and
the few parts that are open aren’t exactly your type—”

“Oh, no!” Peggy said. “I didn’t mean to ask for a part! Why, I’m just
beginning here, and I don’t think I’d be good enough at all! No, I meant
that if you need an extra pair of hands to make costumes, or to paint
flats or to sell space in the theater program, I’m volunteering. I’ll
run errands, or—”

“Me, too!” Amy put in. “Can you use a pair of maids-of-all-work?”

“We sure can!” Connie said eagerly. “That’s the hardest kind of people
to find. I’m certainly glad that Pip thought to ask you two to lunch!”

Mal looked quite relieved to find that he was not to be put in the
position of having to refuse more actresses. Since word about the
project had first gotten out around the Academy, he had been besieged
with students who wanted to be in it, and the work of casting and at the
same time not hurting the feelings of friends had been pretty difficult.

As they strolled back to the Academy, Mal told the girls that there was
to be a meeting of the theater group that evening at Connie’s apartment,
and invited them to attend. “I know that everybody will be glad to meet
you, and you’ll get a chance to read the play and to find out what we’re
up against in trying to produce it.”

After leaving their new friends in the school corridor, Amy and Peggy
went off to their first elocution class, feeling as if they were really
a part of the Academy and the new life around them, and looking forward
eagerly to the meeting at Connie’s that night.