BWW Exclusive: Richard Jay-Alexander Remembers Polly Bergen with Memories & Never Before Seen Personal Photos
Today at Broadway's American Airlines Theatre - family, friends, industry professionals and fans will gather to pay tribute and honor the memory of the late, great Polly Bergen. (For Photos, click here).
Because I could not be there today, I reached out to Rob Diamond at BroadwayWorld and asked if I could pay tribute and share my highest respect and love for this extraordinary woman, via the site. Happily, he said yes.
Polly Bergen had an extraordinary career and story, which spanned Hollywood, Las Vegas, Broadway and anything and everything in between.
She was an award winning actress, a Columbia recording artist, a business woman and a 'no-holds-barred' classy dame.
But she came into my life in what turned out to be one of the greatest THIRD ACTS any artist could ever hope for.
The heroes of this story, for me, are Jan McCormack (her Manager) and Judy Katz (her Press Agent). And what a story it is.
For those of you who don't know Bergen's career, I encourage you to Google her and knock yourself out for a few days. When you're done with that, get on to YouTube and click away, as you watch and listen in awe.
When Polly passed away in September, I was very sad. Many of the people that I had met around her or worked with her, reached out and we exchanged e-mails and spoke on the phone with the usual feelings that accompany a loss like this one. Then I pulled out a VHS tape of the show we had done at FEINSTEIN'S at the Regency, in 2000, and I "lost it." I also couldn't believe I had actually worked with this legendary talent and became friends with such an extraordinary woman. There was no one like her.
But, I'm getting ahead of myself and this story has a wonderful cast of characters.
I'm in New York and I receive a phone call from Judy Katz. Judy and I were very close, as she is Bernadette Peters' publicist and Bernadette and I had done concert work and recorded albums together, enjoying great success. Judy was involved in everything we did together. So, Judy asks, "Would you be willing to have lunch with Polly Bergen and her manager, Jan McCormack and me? Polly is set to play FEINSTEIN'S and they would like to meet you." My response was, "Polly Bergen? Is she still alive?" I know .... Terrible, rude, uninformed, but , in hindsight, funny.
Polly Bergen had dropped out of "the business" for 30 years and I hadn't heard her name or read about her in recent memory. She had also quit smoking, and, with Jan's encouragement, was thinking about returning to New York for a singing engagement.
I will never forget that lunch. It was in midtown and in walked Polly Bergen, now aged 70. I could not believe how gorgeous she was. Truly handsome beauty ... with the coiffed hair and those dazzling eyes. I was floored. The usual chit-chat, warm-up niceties ensue and Judy, Jan and I are chatting away and Polly says, "I'm thinking about doing an act of love songs." Without hesitation, I respond, "Why? Are you in love?" I know ...... crazy, but I said it. I could see in her face that she wanted to smack me, but she said, "Oh, you're a wise-ass." And I said, "And YOU are a beautiful broad and if you can still sing, I'm in." All tension broke and we were off to the races. Polly had a commanding speaking voice, but when she sang .... It was beyond comprehension - the colors, the information ..... Dear Lord!
The next day, I go to Polly's apartment and with Joseph Thalken, who became our Musical Director/Arranger, we sang. I couldn't believe the power and the legato strength she had for her age and I started getting really excited. She was terrified and worried about what to sing and we just took it one song at a time. What that act eventually became was A LIFE FORCE.
We simply told the truth, re-visited the career, without asking "Where the hell have you been?" The song list was amazing and she got stunning reviews. I remember Stephen Holden's every word, as well as Rex Reed's and Variety's glows.
Polly was back! Big-Time! Everyone came to see her and I met so many fantastic people during our time together. We did the show at Bay Street, out in the Hamptons and even got invited by Merv Griffin to play The Coconut Club in Los Angeles, where REAL HOLLYWOOD came in droves to see her.
The rest of the work just came tumbling in - more television, more Broadway and more movies. I was working with Barbra Streisand during this time and I told Barbra and Marty Erlichman that I was inviting Polly. They graciously took care of Polly & Jan's tickets and I will never forget that Barbra gave her a 'shout-out' and the audience went crazy. Polly was at one time married to Freddie Fields, a very well known agent, who handled Barbra at one point. Barbra talked to Polly from the stage, telling her she remembered going to a party at her home in Hollywood and couldn't believe how big the bathtub was. We all laughed. It was a pretty full-circle moment.
Everyone who met Polly, fell in love with her and became life-long committed friends. The ones who I knew best were John Erman, Rex Reed, Mark Sendroff, Judy Katz, James Gavin and, of course, her committed partner in crime, Jan McCormack, who was happier and prouder than any of us, as she sat back and watched Polly's Third Act.
Polly Bergen was a beautiful and talented broad (Damon Runyon language). She was a feminist, an activist and held no prisoners. She loved her life, she loved her work, she loved her family and lived every moment to the max.
I can't believe and am very grateful that our paths crossed. "Thanks for that call, Judy."
Photo by Joan Marcus
From This Author Richard Jay-Alexander