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Artists and Aliens

by B.A. Nilsson on March 29, 2012 · 1 comment

Shirley MacLaine
Proctors, March 23

MacLaine in Frank Tashlin's Artists and Models

If, like me, you’re an insomniac, and/or you enjoy the early antemeridian hours, you’ve tuned in to the radio program Coast to Coast AM. Which means you’ve heard the callers, the people phoning in from hither and yon with tales of sightings, abductions, hauntings, black ops, conspiracies, crystals and much, much more.

What distinguishes Shirley MacLaine from the bulk of those callers is her total lack of toxicity. After witnessing her performance at Proctors Theater last Friday, I’m prepared to give her far more benefit of the doubt than I accord the typical late-night caller. She is passionate in her beliefs, and, at 77, has a beautiful vitality that seems ageless.

Her sincere desire to share her wisdom and answer the questions of others caused those late-night callers to throng into the theater, eager to talk when the microphones were opened in the second half of the show. “But what’s your question?” an increasingly impatient (but still charming) MacLaine took to asking as those sad life stories poured forth. At one point she even took an audience vote as to whether a particular (and particularly nerve-numbing) questioner should continue. The audience said no.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Shirley MacLaine’s solo show recalled the visit paid to this theater by Cary Grant in 1984, in which the actor showed a film montage and followed it with a Q&A, many of the “A’s” smoothly easing into set pieces.

MacLaine entered with a refreshing absence of preamble and ordered the audience to sit back down. “It’s so great to see people here my age,” she said, then lavishly complimented the theater. With the confession, “I’m too old to sing and dance any more,” she settled into a plush blue club chair and commenced a slide show highlighting her youth and career.

A slide show with attitude. “My mother was interested in acting,” she noted, adding wryly, “That’s what she did in real life.”

Her big Broadway break came when she went on for Carol Haney in The Pajama Game. She showed a photo of her young self at a picnic at Jones Beach (near the legendary George Abbott), taken the day of the incident—“which I returned from to find Bob Fosse, Hal Prince and Jerry Robbins waiting for me at the stage door. I’d been told that Carol never missed a show, so I’d never rehearsed the numbers.”

Terrified lest she should drop a trademark Fosse hat in the busy “Steam Heat” sequence, she went a ahead and did just that, marking her Main Stem debut with an ad-lib: “Oh, shit!”

The movies, of course, are most familiar, from her debut in The Trouble With Harry to a just-filmed appearance in Downton Abbey. Each of the stills and, later, video sequences prompted a nice piece of behind-the-scenes gossip, such as dealing with the easily threatened Jerry Lewis (Artists and Models), putting up with Dean and Frank (who visited the set of The Children’s Hour) and learning about Laurence Olivier’s onanophobia (Being There).

We met her friends, both in show-biz (“That’s Sidney Poitier. I put a move on him and he walked away”) and politics, the latter reflecting her dedication to humanitarian causes—which, naturally, tilts to the liberal end of that spectrum.

We could have used a break in the proceedings before the questions started, but I suspect the growing lateness helped to keep the crowd from piling on too much. MacLaine introduced the subject of her interest in things spiritual in the first half (“OK Here’s where I talk about my stuff”), and that was all the questioners wished to pursue.

With two predictable preambles. First was the on-behalf-of-everyone-here speech (“I know I speak for us all when I say . . . ”), second, the life story (“I’ve been learning to live in the now with help of my energy healer . . . ”). Many simply sought validation for their own pursuits, which, once the purpose became clear, MacLaine was generous in delivering.

Not without the crackling with that characterized the evening. Nervous questioner: “What’s going to make you, you know, crack up? What really makes you laugh?” MacLaine: “Your question.”

Through it all, we got what I suspect is a very good sense of the out-of-the-limelight Shirley MacLaine, a woman who is witty, intelligent, devoted to her beliefs and causes, totally dedicated to Teddy, the easygoing dog who joined her onstage. She makes the unbelievable sound plausible, and it’s not often such things crack the armor of my cynical mind.

We know she has a sense of humor about herself. She made a cameo in Albert Brooks’ 1991 movie Defending Your Life, in which she plays the onscreen guide at the afterlife’s Past Lives Pavilion, where you can view your earlier incarnations before moving to your next. Based on the sincerity of her Proctors presentation, I’m beginning to think that Brooks got it right.


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