As recalled by stage and screen legend Carole Cook, “We called it ‘the plague’. They called it ‘the gay disease’. There wasn’t even a name.” The time was 1984. We would come to know the disease as AIDS. But in 1984, all anyone knew was that gay men were becoming ill and sadly, dying. What Michael Kerns and James Carroll knew was that someone had to do something to help ease the suffering and with that Southland Theatre Artists Goodwill Event was born. Calling on former Dramalogue scribe and theatre director David Galligan, the group began what is now a 30 year tradition of putting on a benefit with proceeds to benefit those afflicted with AIDS and their families in the Southern California area. Carole Cook, now in her 28th year of performing in the S.T.A.G.E. event, recalls the journey vividly.
“We charged, I swear to God, ten bucks and we’d say, ‘Could you come to this show we’re doing?’ And people would say, ‘What’s it for?’. We’d tell them. Most people didn’t even know what we were talking about.” So grass roots were the early years that “we brought our own coffee. We cleaned the bathrooms ourselves. The performers cleaned the bathrooms. . .We sold the programs. I don’t even think we had programs to start. We did our own hair and make-up. There were no frills at all.”
Choosing a different theme each year, typically showcasing composers such as Leonard Bernstein, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Lerner and Loewe, S.T.A.G.E. called on the best and the brightest talents in stage and screen to bring the production to life. After a few years, behind the scenes artisans started to volunteer their time and talent for the event. One of the first was Russell Smith, Carole Cook’s hairdresser for 42nd Street. “He was a terrific guy. He later on got AIDS and died of AIDS. But he said to me one day, he was being a smart ass, he said, ‘Carole, I’ve seen the show. You women need help with your hair. You are beauty violations. [laughing] So, I’ll volunteer.’ And he brought 3 or 4 friends. Then somebody started with the make-up. Then somebody started with costumes and gradually it became bigger and bigger but it started out so small.”
Small was an understatement. But even as AIDS became a global issue and legends like Elizabeth Taylor and Elton John created organizations and raised millions of dollars, S.T.A.G.E. kept plugging away to service the “men, women and children” affected by AIDS in Southern California. As Cook reflects, in the early days, “We’d pay their rent. At that time there was no support group. There was nowhere to go to get any help. About 25 of us went in together, we formed our own little thing, and I remember so clearly, we would get the names of people as things happened, we would all of us - my husband, myself and everyone of them - would put money in a pot and as people began to be ill, we pooled our money once a month. Everybody put in “X” amount of money and we paid for their rent, we paid for their animals, and got them food when they needed food.” She is quick to note, however, that it’s because of foundations like AMFAR that much needed research dollars flooded in. “Because of the research, that’s why people live longer today than they did.”
Joining in the festivities this year is TCM host and movie historian Robert Osborne. With a theme of S.T.A.G.E. Goes to the Movies, there is no one more perfect to host the May 10th event. According to Osborne, “David Galligan has been a great friend of mine for years and I’ve really enjoyed the idea - the fact that he’s put these shows together for 30 years. . . David is such a creative director. He’s got such great ideas and he’s really good at what he does. . .So when he some time ago said, ‘Look, we’re gonna have our 30th anniversary and we’re doing stuff about movies, this would be a great one to come and do.’ I thought, well, I’ve got to go out and do it no matter what. . . I’m very pleased to be invited and pleased to do it.”
For Osborne, not only is the benefit for a good cause, “It’s gonna be great fun.” And for him part of that fun is shining a light on some huge talents who may be forgotten or may not have a chance to shine as much in their golden years, much like TCM does. “[S.T.A.G.E. Goes to the Movies] has got some wonderfully talented people. For me it’s always kind of heartbreaking, the fact that you go and you see these great people with these great voices and you realize that we just don’t have a theater or a show business thing for most of them to be able to exercise that talent. We don’t have a Broadway anymore that will use these people or we don’t have a vaudeville circuit or we don’t have cabaret shows like we used to or radio, things like that where people who sang wonderfully could sing all the time.”
And talk about a line-up! In addition to Osborne and Cook, Rona Barrett, Debby Boone, Betty Buckley, Jason Gould, Mary Jo Catlett, Jimmy Darren, David Engel, Lainie Kazan, Pat Marshall, Donna McKechnie, Helen Reddy, Rex Reed and Patricia Morison are just a few of the all legends who will be appearing.
As part of his hosting duties, Osborne is “gonna come out and talk a little about movie music because that’s what this is about, and introduce various people and try to tell some stories that are relevant to all of that. I’ll be introducing Rona Barrett and I want to talk about her a bit and how important she was to the reporting about Hollywood at that time. So much of this is about an era that doesn’t exist anymore. Some people, I think, maybe don’t have a great reference on Mitzi Gaynor and/or Donna McKechnie and all that. People have short memories. And Pat Marshall who was in one of my all-time favorite musicals Good News, and she was terrific in it, she had come from Broadway. That was the only movie she made and then she married Larry Gelbart, the great writer, and retired. But she was a great Broadway name, a great Broadway discovery in the 40's. So to have her around [is terrific]. Also, Jason Gould. I saw him with his mother when Barbra Streisand did her big return to Brooklyn last year. He was sensational! He’s a great singer. I’m just jumping in on some of those people to introduce them."
Jimmy Darren, who has appeared with Carole Cook at S.T.A.G.E. benefits in the San Francisco area is excited to be joining the troupe this year in Los Angeles. “I’ll be singing two songs from Gidget” while film clips play behind his performance. Rona Barrett is making her first appearance with S.T.A.G.E. presenting a cavalcade of movie costumes. Returning S.T.A.G.E. veteran Mary Jo Catlett will also be singing, this time a Doris Day song and playing a “magician’s assistant.” Carole Cook will be taking us back in time as clips from her performances in films like The Incredible Mr. Limpett, American Gigolo and Sixteen Candles play on a screen while she “talks about when I was a kid. I’ll tell those stories. But I’m gonna talk about the funny things that happened with me watching movies when I was a kid. I just thought that I could walk up on the screen and go INTO the movie.”
And don’t think for a minute that Robert Osborne isn’t excited for some of the performers this year starting with “Richard Chamberlain. I think that’s going to be fun to have him there. He’s always been singing. He did, certainly, My Fair Lady on Broadway. Who else? I love Mary Jo Catlett. I love David Engel; whatever he does, he’s just so talented. I am a big fan of Lainie Kazan and also Donna McKechnie is part of it.” Rumor has it that McKechnie will be dancing with Fred Astaire. But the one performer Osborne is most excited to see? “Patricia Morison who is like 95 or 96 now. She looks fabulous. Still sings wonderfully. And the fact that she is the original star of Kiss Me Kate on Broadway and then made a lot of movies in the 30's, and the fact she’s still out there doing it, the fact she wants to do it, still does it well, I think that’s really exciting because we’re really losing, as you know, so many people from that really grand era. And they’re unlike anybody else.”
Despite all the anticipated fun, frolic and entertainment, we can’t forget the cause that is bringing all these people together, volunteering their time and talent - raising critical funds for AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA).
Still fresh in her memory like it was yesterday, Cook recalls one of the performers with her in 42nd Street. “The first time one of the kids got sick and, as a matter of fact he was a kid who came from money, his mother and father disowned him. I remember thinking, ‘My gosh. I’ll probably never know another person with this disease’ because I thought it was so rare. Well, after that, it went downhill. We lost a whole generation of people in the arts - dancing, singing, writing - we lost a generation of multi-talented people. . . Many of them died. And then, when somebody died, their partner usually got sick and died, too. There were couples wiped out. That seemed to make it so much worse. One of the partners would be well for awhile and take care of the other one and then he’d get sick. It was just a terrible time.
“I know everybody has their charities so kind of what I call ‘AIDS fatigue’ has set in because people go on to - and I hate to say it - but other diseases. But AIDS is rampant now. We just think of here. It’s rampant all over the world. Africa is decimated. . . .Families are wiped out. Children, little children. So the more we do, the more it’s helpful for the world. . .You can’t be complacent.”
S.T.A.G.E. Goes to the Movies takes place on May 10, 2014, from 7:30 to 10:30 at the Saban Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills, California 90211. For more information or to purchase tickets go to www.stagela.com.