Theater Party

Connie’s apartment was not the easiest place to find, but she had given
detailed instructions, even to drawing a little map on a paper napkin,
and after only a few wrong turnings, Peggy and Amy found themselves that
night at a low pink door set in a high brick wall on a winding street in
Greenwich Village. They pushed the button marked “Barnes-Lewis,” and
soon an answering buzz let them know that the door was unlocked.

Pushing it open, they entered, not a house, but a narrow alley between
two buildings. Along one wall was a bed of flowers and green borders,
and hidden among them were small floodlights which gave a gentle,
guiding glow. At its end, the alley opened into a little courtyard with
a small fountain and a statue of a nymph surrounded by canvas lawn
chairs. Fronting on it was an old, low, white-brick house, its door
opened wide. Connie came out to greet them.

“I see you didn’t have any trouble finding our hideaway,” she said. “I
must be a good map-maker.”

Tactfully refraining from telling her about the wrong turns, Peggy and
Amy agreed with her.

“What a wonderful place you have here!” Peggy said. “However did you
find it?”

“I didn’t find it,” Connie said. “I found Linda Lewis, my roommate,
which was a good deal easier. She was already living here, and when her
roommate got married, she asked me if I’d move in.”

“And how did she find it?” Amy asked.

“Same way,” Connie laughed. “These places get passed along from friend
to friend. You could hunt for apartments every day for a year and never
even see a place like this. You just have to know somebody, or be lucky.
I’d hate to show you the miserable place I lived in before I moved in
here.”

“Here” proved to be a spacious room with an extraordinarily high ceiling
and a fireplace with a tremendous copper hood. An open stairway mounted
up one wall to a landing, then turned a corner and went up again. The
only other room downstairs was a kitchen. Upstairs were two bedrooms and
a bath.

“That’s the whole house,” Connie explained. “It used to be a carriage
house for one of the big places on the street, before all the big places
were turned into apartments. Now come on in and meet everybody.”

Linda Lewis, Connie’s roommate, rose from the piano bench to greet the
girls. She had apparently been playing until the bell had announced
their arrival. Linda was a tall, slim, rather plain girl with a sweet
smile who was a music student at Juilliard, considered by most people to
be the best music school in the country. She greeted them shyly, and
returned to her place at the keyboard, where she began playing quietly,
as if to herself.

Pip rose from his seat on the raised hearth of the fireplace to greet
them and to introduce them to his companion, a striking woman in her
mid-thirties. “This is Mona Downs. She’s in the play, too.”

Before they had a chance to do more than say hello, Connie was
introducing them to the last person in the room, a handsome middle-aged
man with curly dark hair that had turned completely white at the
temples. His name was Thomas Galen, and he, too, was a member of the
cast.

“I suppose it’s terribly tactless of me,” Peggy said, “but I don’t mean
it that way at all. It’s just that I always thought that these
off-Broadway plays were done entirely by students or—or—very young
actors and actresses. I mean….”

Mona Downs laughed. “Don’t feel embarrassed to talk about our advanced
ages. We aren’t supposed to look like fresh young things!”

Tom Galen smiled in agreement. “We’re here because Randy needed some
actors for the more mature parts, and we were lucky enough to be picked.
The off-Broadway plays are a good showcase for experienced actors, too,
you know. Take me, for instance—I’ve been acting for a good many years
now, but I’ve never had any really good vehicles. I’ve made a living on
supporting roles and road shows, and I’ve even played some good leads in
stock, but somehow I’ve never quite hit it. Maybe I’m not good enough,
but on the other hand, I may just not have had the breaks. These
off-Broadway shows nowadays are seen by all the top critics in New York,
and if I do a good job, and if they like the play, I have a chance to go
on to a whole new kind of career. That’s why I’m here, and that’s why
Mona is here. Besides, you can’t do a believable show with just young
actors.”

“I see,” Peggy nodded. “And I hope you didn’t mind my mentioning it….”

But before Tom Galen or Mona Downs had a chance to reassure her again,
the buzzer rang, and they broke off.

“That must be Randy and Mal,” Connie said. “I’ll go get them.”

She pushed the button to unlock the gate, and opened the front door
expectantly. A few seconds later, Mal entered with a tall, grinning,
engaging-looking young man with flaming red hair. For a moment, everyone
seemed to be talking at once. Randy and Mal were apologizing for being
late; Connie was saying that they weren’t late at all; Pip was trying to
get Randy away to introduce him to Amy and Peggy; Mona and Tom were
asking him about the financing he had managed to get for the show, and
Linda was playing “Hail the Conquering Hero” in loud, solid chords.

When the initial excitement had died down and the last resounding notes
of the piano had quieted, Randy Brewster was introduced to Peggy and Amy
by an excited Connie.

“We’re having all the luck today!” she exclaimed. “You come up with the
backing for the play, and Pip discovers these two wonderful girls who
want to be beasts of burden for the show!”

“The two prettiest beasts in New York, I’m sure,” Randy said with a
smile, and Peggy was positive that she was blushing, though she tried
her hardest not to. “I’m grateful for your interest,” Randy continued,
“and I only hope that we have a chance to use your help.”

“Why, now that you’ve raised the money, isn’t it certain that the play
will be produced?” Peggy asked.

“We have a better chance today than we had yesterday,” Randy explained,
“but it’s far from a sure thing yet. You see, we have the central
problem now of trying to find a theater we can use. And I’m afraid
that’s going to prove to be a harder job than raising the money, or even
than writing the play in the first place.”

“Mal and Pip and Connie mentioned the problem of finding a theater a few
times today,” Peggy said, “but I didn’t know it was as serious as all
that. Why should there be such a shortage?”

“For a lot of reasons,” Randy answered. “And there’s a shortage even on
Broadway—maybe even a worse one. Forty years ago, there were more than
twice the number of theaters in New York than there are now, and every
year we lose a few more. One reason is the fire laws that make it
illegal to have a theater with anything built over it. In other words,
you can’t have a Broadway theater on the lower floors of an office
building; and with real-estate values as high as they are in Manhattan,
it just isn’t profitable to use up all the space a theater takes without
building high up as well. Off-Broadway rules are a little easier, but
the downtown theater has become so popular that everybody and his
brother wants to put on a play off-Broadway, and all the available
theaters are booked way in advance. Not only that, but dramatic groups
have rented almost all the places that can be converted to theaters, and
there don’t seem to be any left for us.” Then, breaking his serious
expression with a sudden grin, he said, “But don’t let it worry you. I’m
trusting to luck that we’ll find something.”

“I hope luck does it,” Peggy said doubtfully, “but I’d prefer to trust
in something a little more trustworthy!”

“If you have any ideas, I’ll be happy to hear them,” Randy said, “but
right now, we’d better get on with this evening’s meeting and reading.
I’ll talk to you over sandwiches and coffee afterward, if you like.”

Peggy delightedly accepted, then found herself a seat with Amy out of
the way to watch the proceedings.

First, Randy told the assembled group about the investment in the play,
and about his hopes for the small remaining amount they would need.
Then, having completed his report, he turned the evening over to Mallory
Seton, who immediately began the readings with an authority and
toughness that went well with his rugged face.

Peggy observed carefully how Mal would interrupt one or another of the
actors, acting out a line for him or her, or asking for a somewhat
different emphasis. Sometimes a small change in timing or inflection
would turn an ordinary line into an unexpectedly comic one, and Peggy
and Amy laughed aloud several times.

Randy followed with his master script, every so often stopping the
action to make a change in dialogue. “Sometimes a thing sounds fine when
you write it, but it just doesn’t read well,” he explained. “That’s one
of the main purposes of these early readings—to let me have a chance to
hear what I’ve written and see if it plays.”

Other changes were made at the suggestion of one or another of the cast,
who found a line unnatural to say, or somehow uncomfortable or out of
character. Randy listened to every suggestion, and took most of them,
but on one or two occasions he insisted that the actors accommodate
themselves to what he had written.

Peggy was fascinated by the whole process, and particularly appreciated
the air of good will with which changes in script, style of reading, and
interpretation of character were made. This was a company of willing,
hard-working friends, and they were already molding the play in a joint
effort. She was sure that they would be successful.

At last the readings for the evening were completed, and people started
to say good night. Randy brought Mal with him and said, “Why don’t you
come along for coffee and a sandwich with us? Peggy seems to have some
ideas about the theater problem.”

“Oh, no!” Peggy disclaimed. “Not really! I was just wondering if—”

“Let’s wonder over coffee,” Mal cut in. “Come on, Amy. Let them talk
about the theater, and we can talk about you!”

A few blocks’ walk brought the four of them to a coffee shop where,
seated around a tiny marble-topped table, they studied the menu. To
Peggy and Amy it was a revelation. There were over twenty kinds of
coffee offered, most of which they had never heard of, plus dozens of
exotic pastries and sandwiches. They finally settled, on Randy’s advice,
on _cappuccino_, which proved to be coffee flavored with cinnamon and
topped with a froth of milk, and which was perfectly delicious. With it,
they had an assortment of _amaretti_—hard, sweet Italian macaroons that
came wrapped in gaily decorated tissues, and cornetti—pastry horns
filled with some creamy whip.

“Now,” Randy said, when they were all served, “what did you have in mind
about a theater for us?”

“Well, nothing at the moment,” Peggy admitted, “but I’m against the idea
of just trusting to luck, the way you said you were going to do. It
seems to me that some hard looking would get better results.”

“I agree, and I have been looking,” Randy replied. “We have our names on
the waiting lists of every known off-Broadway theater in the city, and I
call regularly just to remind them that we’re serious about it.”

“Have you been looking around for a place that you might convert to a
theater, too?” Peggy asked.

“We gave up on that. We found that it would cost too much to do a decent
conversion, and not only that, but we’d be in the real-estate business
as well as the play-producing business, and we don’t want that.”

Peggy nodded thoughtfully. “I see. Well, how about all the theaters that
you said used to be in existence forty years ago? What’s happened to all
of them? Maybe some of them are just sitting around and not being used.”

“Oh, they’re being used!” Randy laughed. “They’re being used as movie
houses and television studios and ice-skating rinks and churches and
even supermarkets.”

“Have you looked at them all?” Peggy pursued.

“Well….” Randy said, “maybe not all, but….”

“Then that’s what I’m going to do for you first!” Peggy announced with
determination. “I’ll go look at them all, and maybe I can find some
usable place. At least, I’m willing to try.”

“But, Peggy,” Mal put in, “you don’t know anything about New York at
all! It’s not like Rockport, Wisconsin. It takes a lot of looking, and
you have to know where to look. How will you start?”

[Illustration: A few blocks’ walk brought the four of them to a coffee
shop….]

“I don’t know just yet,” Peggy answered, “but I’ll think of a way. I
used to help out as a reporter on my father’s newspaper, and I’m used to
digging up facts. If there’s an empty theater in New York City, I’ll bet
I know about it in a couple of weeks. If there isn’t one, I’ll know that
too, and at least that will save the rest of you all the trouble of
looking.”

Randy looked a little doubtful. “I’m sure that you mean what you say,
and I don’t doubt that you can get things done as well as any of us,
Peggy, but as Mal said, New York isn’t Rockport. And I don’t mean just
that it’s bigger. It’s not a—well, a _nice_ city in every part. And a
search like this can lead you into some pretty tough parts of town.”

“Oh, pooh!” Peggy said. “In the last two weeks, I’ll bet Amy and I have
walked around more of New York than either of you has in the last two
years! And that included some pretty tough-looking neighborhoods, and
nobody bothered us, and everybody was very nice. I think that’s a lot of
nonsense! Besides, we’re big girls, and we can take care of ourselves by
now.”

“We certainly can,” Amy agreed. “And I plan to go, too, just the way
I’ve dragged my aching feet after Peggy for two weeks now. That girl can
cover more territory in a morning than a Tennessee Walking Horse can
manage in a whole day!”

“Well, if you really want to try, it’s okay with me,” Randy said. “And
I’m grateful to you for wanting to. If you need any help along the way,
be sure to ask for it.”

“You can start by giving me a list of all the places you’ve gone to, so
I won’t waste my time, and I’ll take it from there.”

Randy promised to bring the list to the Academy the next day, at which
time, if it was okay with Peggy and Amy, he would like to join them for
lunch. Then their interest turned to other things, including more coffee
for the girls and another huge sandwich to be split between the boys.

By the time they had finished and walked to the Gramercy Arms, it was
nearly midnight. Peggy and Amy whispered quiet good nights on the
stairs, and hurried up to bed. Tomorrow was school again, and they
needed all the sleep they could get.

“Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers; a peck of pickled peppers
Peter Piper picked; if Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
where’s the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?”

“A perfect peck of pickled peppers, Peggy,” said Miss Linden, the
elocution instructor, “except that you picked them a trifle too quickly.
That’s the big temptation of tongue twisters; you always want to show
that you can rip them out at great speed without making a mistake. What
I want you to do this time is to say the same thing, but to concentrate
on a normal rate of delivery that will allow your voice to carry to the
rear of a hall without becoming blurred. Distance, you know, tends to
make sounds run together. Now, Peggy, if you don’t mind….”

More slowly this time, and concentrating on making her words reach the
back of some huge, imaginary hall, Peggy once more spoke the tongue
twister.

“Much better. Much better,” Miss Linden approved. “Now, John, will you
please read ‘round and round the rugged rock the ragged rascals ran,’
and try to read it as if it had a meaning, as if those ragged rascals
were at the end of their endurance, as if you were one of them, almost.
Make the words clear, project them, and at the same time give me a note
of urgency and a feeling of near-exhaustion.”

John, a handsome boy whom Peggy had already judged vain and stupid and
who, she suspected, had gone into acting on the strength of his
appearance, struggled with the assignment. Peggy tried to maintain an
interest in what he was doing, but her mind was on her coming lunch
meeting with Randy Brewster.

What on earth was she going to suggest? Why had she volunteered to
undertake the search for a theater with such confidence? It had been
bothering her since she had awakened this morning, and the more she
thought about it, the less likely it seemed that she would come up with
an idea worth pursuing. Still, there must be some angle that Randy and
Mal hadn’t thought of, some idea that would occur to her, with her
reporter’s training, that had escaped them. That all sounded very good,
she commented to herself, but what was the angle? Miss Linden’s tongue
twisters were child’s play compared to this puzzle.

Before her turn came to read again, it was time for the elocution class
to end and time to go, empty-headed, to meet Randy. Peggy had never in
her life felt so stupid, nor so embarrassed, for having made the boast
last night that she could find what they had missed.

Amy, sensing the reason for Peggy’s gloomy silence, didn’t question her
about it. Without a word, the two girls moved through the crowded
corridor to the elevators, rode downstairs, and stationed themselves at
the front door. Finally Peggy spoke.

“Oh, Amy, I hope he doesn’t think I’m a complete fool! I like him so
much, and I’ve made him take this special trip to bring me his list of
theaters, and if I don’t come up with an idea that makes sense, I won’t
blame him for thinking I’m a dope!”

“Are you trying to find a theater or a boy friend?” Amy asked with a sly
smile.

Blushing, Peggy stammered, “Why, Amy, I … I just met him last night
… the same as you … and … Oh dear! Here he comes now, and I look
like an embarrassed lobster!”

“Don’t worry,” Amy said with a laugh, “with his red hair and your red
face, you make a lovely couple!”

Before Peggy could answer, Randy had reached them and either did not
notice, or gallantly pretended not to notice Peggy’s confusion. He
greeted them with a smile, and gaily waved a large paper bag.

“I took the liberty of ordering for you, ladies,” he announced in the
manner of a musical-comedy headwaiter. “The caviar, _pâté de foie gras_,
and pheasant under glass are not of the best quality today, so I decided
instead to get ham on rye, pickles, and potato chips. I also have two
cartons of milk of a superior vintage. We dine on the terrace by the
lake.”

In the laughter, Peggy regained her self-possession, and the three of
them started for the park where, Randy told them, they would be joined
by Pip and Connie.

At the mention of Pip, Amy said, “I was wondering how, with a name like
Peter Piper, Pip ever got through that tongue-twister stuff. It must
have been terrible for him!”

“Ask him to do it for you sometime,” Randy replied. “He’s learned that
the best defense is a good offense, so long before he came to the
Academy he had that one perfected. He can do Peter Piper in any accent
or dialect you ask, and can even do it in a rapid-fire stutter! It’s
funny enough so that nobody ever kidded him about it. In fact, he’s got
it worked up into part of a first-rate comedy bit.”

On their arrival at the lawn by the lake, they found that Randy had
brought a large paper table-cloth and some oversized paper napkins for
the girls to sit on. As she helped set out the lunch, Peggy was
impressed by this extra display of thoughtfulness, and felt that she had
been right in thinking Randy Brewster was a special kind of person. She
had just finished setting the “table” when Connie and Pip joined them
and added their own lunches to the spread.

When they were all settled comfortably, Randy opened the conversation
with the question that Peggy had been fearing all morning. “Well, Peggy,
I brought the list of theaters we’ve seen, and now will you tell us what
you have in mind?”

[Illustration: When they were all settled comfortably….]

Much to her surprise, Peggy found herself answering as smoothly as if
she had known all along what she was going to do. “The first thing,” she
said, “is to make use of all the city records. Since a license is
required to operate a theater, there must be a list of all the places in
the city that have been licensed. I’m going to go to City Hall, find the
list, and copy the names and addresses of every theater that has been
opened in the last fifty or sixty years.”

“Are you sure the city will let you see the records?” Connie asked.

“Of course,” Peggy answered. “They have to. Anything in the city files
that doesn’t concern individuals is a matter of public record. I learned
that from my father. He always said that the city or town archives of
any place were the best reference books a reporter could want.”

“I think that makes good sense, Peggy,” Randy commented. “But it’s going
to be a long list. What are you going to do when you’ve got it?”

“I’m not sure,” Peggy admitted, “but I think the best thing to do would
be to cut the list down before I start to work with it.”

“I see,” Randy said. “That’s why you wanted the list of theaters we’ve
already visited, so you could eliminate them.”

“Right. The next thing to do, I think,” Peggy went on, with a dreamlike
feeling that she did not know at all what she was going to say next, “is
to look up theaters in the classified telephone book. All the ones that
are listed, I’ll eliminate from my list, on the theory that they’re
probably being used by somebody right now.”

“Peggy, you’re a smart girl,” Pip said admiringly.

“You sure are,” Connie echoed.

“I won’t dispute that,” Randy agreed, “but I’m still a little puzzled.
When you’ve eliminated all the theaters listed in the phone book from
the theaters listed by the license bureau, what will you have?”

“What I’ll have,” Peggy said triumphantly, “is a record of all the
places in New York that started out to be theaters and aren’t theaters
now!”

“Wonderful!” Amy said. “Then you and I will go to visit all the
addresses and see if any of the places aren’t being used, and if they’re
for rent!”

“It makes a lot of sense,” Randy admitted. “But you know, it’s going to
take a lot of work and a lot of walking. And disappointment, too. You
won’t be able to find even a trace of many of those theaters.”

“On the other hand,” Peggy answered, “we may be able to find a hidden
theater that nobody even knows is there! And wouldn’t that be grand?”

“I can see it all now,” Pip said in a hollow voice. “A huge, haunted
opera house of a theater, its hangings in tatters, its chandeliers
covered with dust and its stage peopled by the ghosts of players long
gone! There it sits, undiscovered, unknown, hiding behind a Chinese
restaurant just a block east of Broadway!”

“Don’t tease her, Pip,” Randy said. “I think Peggy has a good idea, and
it would be a pity to discourage her before she gives it a try. Maybe
she won’t find a theater, but at least this is the most sensible way
I’ve heard of yet to start looking for one.”

A little shamefaced, Pip said, “I didn’t mean to tease. You know me; I
always want to turn everything into a comedy routine. But, seriously, I
think this makes sense and, Peggy, if you need any help in tracking down
places, you can count on me!”

All the others chimed in their agreement, and Peggy thought proudly, and
with some surprise, that she had gotten herself out of a spot quite
well. At least Randy didn’t think she was a fool, and that was something
to be pleased about.

When lunch was finished, and the last crumbs had been fed to the ducks,
it was time to return to the Academy. Peggy said good-by to Randy and
went up to her afternoon’s work.

Only by dint of the most intense concentration on the study of
Elizabethan drama did Peggy keep her attention from the theater-hunting
problem. But the minute the class was ended, all other thoughts fled
from her mind. “Come on, Amy!” she said. “I’m heading for City Hall
right now!”

“I’m sorry, Peggy,” Amy said, “but you’ll have to count me out today. I
didn’t know that you’d have any plans, so I made a date to have a soda
with Mallory Seton. I’ll go with you tomorrow, though.”

“And you accused _me_ of looking for a boy friend instead of a theater!”
Peggy said with a grin. “If anybody around here should blush, I think
it’s you, Amy Shelby Preston!”

“Why, Ah don’t know what yo’ talkin’ about!” Amy said, in her best
Southern belle manner. “Mistah Seton asked me to join him, an’ Ah
scarcely thought it would be ladylike to refuse the gentleman!”

Then both girls dissolved into very unladylike giggles, and Peggy made a
dash for the elevator. “See you tonight,” she called.