Richard Jay-Alexander Chats With Theatre Legend Albert Poland About His Book STAGES, Judy Garland, The Biz and More
Getting on the phone with Albert Poland totally swept me away and into the world we love for a glorious 45 minutes. I've known Albert for the majority of my career and he is an extraordinary individual with an equally extraordinary career. When he speaks there is a distinct cadence in his voice that is similarly splashed all over the pages of his book, STAGES a theater memoir. The book is utterly fantastic and a must-read this summer, as I know many of you will have some extra time in which to get lost in some very special times, places, productions, events and a very important chunk of theatre history that I can guarantee you'll enjoy.
I will admit to you that my first comment to Albert was that I was disappointed I wasn't mentioned in the book. Of course, I was kidding .... sort of. He and I first met when I began working with Cameron Mackintosh and they shared a small office on the 4th floor of 226 West 47th Street, where CMI would later grow our office on the 9th floor of the same building. I would go into that little room and sit at a desk, across from Albert, to either call Cameron or TELEX him. Yes, you read that correctly. This was before even THERMAL FAXES and COMPUTERS.
STAGES came out on September 25th of last year and has been very well received and selling so well and consistently, that Albert shared with me that we can expect an Audio Book version in the not-too-distant future, coming from Tantor Media. My dream would be that HE does the narration, but Albert thinks a professional voice will be chosen, not him. I attended a party to celebrate the release of the book in November of last year. It was a WHO'S WHO in that Penthouse of the Sardi Building, that I didn't even know existed. Albert signed books for everyone there and all the hugging and kissing and reunions were a marvel to watch. It was hosted by The Shubert Organization's Philip J. Smith and Bob Wankel and I felt truly honored to be there.
Albert and I talked about the process of doing the book and when asked when he started it (after all his laughter subsided - I have the tape to prove it) ... his answer was, "In the '80s!" with all the snap, crackle and pop that is Albert. Notes and stories stayed where they were and he didn't think anyone would care to hear about his life and career, "I mean, who will give a shit? Who do you think you are?" ... until he retired. Making his home just north of New York, he now had the time and began to write and it flowed, putting together the bits and pieces he had written through the years. He originally thought he would just write it for himself. Then, along the way, he reached out for some opinions, editorial help, advice and shared some chapters with individuals, one of whom remembered wearing something other than was described in the book! I won't name NAMES. What surprised him most was how much he loved writing it. You could just hear it in his voice. He relied on his memory, could reference Google for any necessary corroboration and was not shy about calling people to get it right.
Albert loved Michael Riedel's book, RAZZLE DAZZLE The Battle for Broadway, and was among the first people Michael interviewed. Michael (who wrote the foreword for Albert's book) had advice for Albert, "The most important things are the cover, the table of contents and the index." Well, Albert got all three right! The index, alone, will make you salivate, but I warn you not to fall prey to start reading about what you're looking for and take the ride, not unlike Bob Avian's book, DANCING MAN. When Albert's book came out, Michael Riedel wrote in The New York Post that everyone in the theatre business was reading his book. It's true and even Sardi's had it in the glass case as you walk up to the 2nd floor. Now, THAT is Show Business. Albert, needless to say was thrilled. He also did a reading at La Mama and word was that he SLAYED IT, reading from the chapter about FUTZ. You'll put that all together when you acquire the book. I can actually HEAR YOU as you're reading this, "What's FUTZ?" Only ONE tiny reason you have get this book.
Albert wanted to have an intimate book about the process and he succeeded. He told me he cut a lot and got his best advice from his friend Tania Grossinger. She was a true Village bohemian (living at 1 Christopher Street). They had lunch together and she said to him, "Look, I love the book, but you don't have to tell us everything you know." Albert thought that was great advice. He went home and continued explaining to me that "anything that slowed down the motion, the forward motion of the book, is gone." He wanted to keep it moving. I was thrilled to know that THAT is WHY "I" wasn't in the book. I guess I just slowed it down! He paid particular attention to the last 3rd of the book. He also cut a chapter about being the press agent for a tour of The Beach Boys and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He took the job when he had nothing else to do. I couldn't believe my ears and nearly went crazy when he told me that, but guess what? He promised me he would give us that chapter, in the future, to feature here on BroadwayWorld. You're welcome!
And surprises just kept popping up in our conversation. For example, he told me he wrote a play, before he first thought of writing a book in the '80s. It was called NORMAL. I hungrily asked, "Where is it?" His answer (Albert style), "Probably locked in Milton Goldman's drawer." Sadly (for us), he doesn't have a copy of it and claimed, "You know, it's one of those things that scattered in the wind." Are you getting a "sense" of Albert yet? "There are pages here and there. It was bound at Studio Duplicating." I also loved his affection for the experience of ONE MO' TIME at The Village Gate ("3 and ½ years as family") and his memories of buying his first fax machine from AT&T for (are you ready?) .... $5,000.00!
STAGES is fascinating and I first read it in 1 and ½ sittings at exactly the same time that American Masters was airing their story of the career of Raul Julia on PBS. Well ... it all just came together for me. That time period in theatre was SO EXCITING. You see, I was around for most of that and many of Albert's achievements. And, as we commiserated during our chat, Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway were THRIVING.
Mr. Poland has been a producer, a general manager and everything in between because, back then, you took what came along. You will even learn about his puppet shows and starting the original Judy Garland Fan Club while in High School. I know, right? It was through his following the career of Judy Garland that this 19 year old from Big Rapids, Michigan, could get on a plane to that magical world that was waiting for him in New York City.
This book, that you can easily order on Amazon.com, is like riding a wave. My heart was actually beating very fast during certain portions and it made me run to my bookshelf and my albums and CDS to read and listen to things and bring it all, again, to vivid life. Albert's life is full of friendships and stories and a truth and resilience that shine. There's no gratuitous name-dropping or self-indulgence here. Very unusual for this type of book. He worked with so many famous people that it is dizzying and witnessed many a social and cultural change, from the '60s straight into the 21st Century. His work and observations about Howard Ashman and Sam Shepard are touching.
There are books that stay on your shelf forever. This will be one of those. I know that sounds grand, but I think it to be true. It's an indispensable look at our world and how things actually happened in what seems like almost another time.
As we head into PRIDE Weekend in New York City (the last Sunday in June), I had to bring up Judy Garland. Albert, of course, started her Official Fan Club. This is surreal to me. I asked about the truth of any connection of Judy's death and the Stonewall riots (which comes up every year during PRIDE). Albert said, "You know, I don't know is the honest answer. It's so funny ... Vito Russo and I used to pass each other and yell to each other, 'We've got to get together and talk about Judy and Stonewall' because he wanted to know what I thought and I wanted to know what he thought." Again, I hungrily ask, "Did you ever get together?" Albert stated, "We did not." And this exchange happened many times between them over the years.
The Judy Garland Fan Club put out 4 Journals a year. It was called The Garland Gazette. One of their main goals was to write letters and get campaigns going to get magazines to write big stories about Judy. Everyone in the club was gay and Albert didn't realize this until their first convention at NY's Palace Theatre in 1956 and then, again, in Detroit, in 1957. The group would go to Judy concerts and go backstage and meet with Judy, who was so gracious with them. The Fan Club was started in 1955 and it began to dawn on Albert that "Gay people were beginning to wield political power" which is what happened at Stonewall. Albert was not at Stonewall on that fateful night, but read about it the next day in The New York Times. Albert handed over The Judy Garland Fan Club to someone else a year after starting it, finding it overwhelming, and remained in touch with Garland, going to see her at Jilly's when he had the rights to THE THREEPENNY OPERA and wanted her to play Jenny. Albert took my breath away when I asked, "Of course, you were devastated when she passed away?" He said, "Not really. I was relieved." And he had beautiful words to say right after that moment. I was quite moved.
I asked Albert for a final thought about the book. He said this: "I hope I have provided an intimate, amusing, close-up look at what a career in the theatre is really like. That was my goal. And I will tell you, I am 100% happy with the book. Every aspect of it. And, I mean, how often can anyone say that? I know it's long, but I love it."
My final thought: "I love it, too, Albert."
The legendary theatre figure was kind enough to share some special photos with us that are not in the book. Here they are. I could go on and on, but you'll have your own journey as you read STAGES, a theater memoir by Albert Poland. This is not your average "Life In The Theatre" book. To purchase the book, click here.
With the legendary Bricktop on the occasion of escorting her to the celebration of the launch of Jean-Claude Baker's "TeleFrance" cable show at the Regency, 1980. She is charming Jean-Pierre Aumont. Later she performed some memorable duets with Stephane Grappelli playing his jazz violin
With Ellen Stewart, my opening night guest for THE GRAPES OF WRATH, 1990
Randall Arney, Steppenwolf Artistic Director with Gerald Schoenfeld, Chairman and Bernard B. Jacobs, President of The Shubert Organization, producers of THE GRAPES OF WRATH onstage at the Cort after the show captured the Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Director
Bette Davis arriving for STEEL MAGNOLIAS at the Lucille Lortel. By the end of the performance there were 500 people waiting behind police barricades on Christopher Street. She said "Oh, good. I'll sing 'I've Written a Letter to Daddy.'"
Elaine Steinbeck at a rally with Cesar Chavez and the cast of the Tony Award-winning Steppenwolf production of John Steinbeck's THE GRAPES OF WRATH, 1990.
With David Mamet at the Sardi's opening night party for the Tony-winning 2005 revival of GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS
With the Cast of ONE MO' TIME at the 1500th Performance Celebration at the Village Gate, 1982
With Cameron Mackintosh at the Actor's Fund Tribute in his honor, 1999
With Philip J. Smith, Chairman, and Robert E. Wankel, President of The Shubert Organization at the launch party Shubert gave for STAGES in the J.J. Shubert Penthouse in the Sardi Building, 2019
With Hugh Jackman in his dressing room at the Imperial during the run of his Tony-winning performance in THE BOY FROM OZ, 2004