Review and photograph by Susan Brink
They came slowly into the theater, leaning into each other, dressed in their finest, recalling a time when people dressed for the theater. They came in their new age finery, with a look of both gravitas and excitement, and they came from as far away as Quebec City, a look of joy on their faces. They really were here, at Proctors in Schenectady.
The Main Stage was set with a very small table and a very large blue club chair. The audience had taken their seats amidst pre-show chatter, when the air became electric – people leaped to their feet applauding, some eyes misting, Miss Shirley MacLaine had quietly taken the stage. The ovation built as she took in her audience, moving with the grace of a dancer and evoking old Hollywood glamour.
Billed as a “Montage of Memorable Film Moments with Private Revelations about her Extraordinary Life, Career & Spiritual Journey,” complete with a question-and-answer session with the audience, she began by complimenting the beauty of Proctors’ theater and congratulating the community that worked hard to restore and support it. Having put the room at ease, she took to the chair and spent the next hour and a half telling tales from a career that has spanned 60 years.
Starting with a photo taken when she was two years old, she led us through her childhood in Virginia – her father was a PhD. from Johns Hopkins (she inherited her curiosity from him) and her mother, a Canadian and an actress (“we never knew what she was thinking, but she was always acting”) – and of growing up with baby brother Warren Beatty.
A photo of a group on the beach, taken when she was 18 – just hours before she went to her job in the chorus – led to the famous Broadway story of her going on, unrehearsed, for the injured lead of “The Pajama Game.” Shirley was a smashing success and became a star, overnight.
This, in turn, led to Hollywood and stories of Bette Davis drinking champagne from her shoe and Alfred Hitchcock directing her by using Cockney rhyming slang. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and the rest of the Rat Pack came in for more tales, with mobster Sam Giancana thrown in for good measure. She meandered into tales of JFK and her political years – she led the California Delegation at the 1968 Democratic Convention – which segued into her exploration of UFOs and other matters of spiritual awareness.
She made suggestions, too – that we take our children to dancing school to learn music and discipline; that we respect our elders; that we should have an animal to keep us close to nature and in touch with our emotions; and to take Tai Chi to “let the body move you, keeping you spontaneous and unstuck.”
At this point, her dog Terry, the subject of one of her books, came onstage and cozied up in the blue chair, signaling that the time had come for the Q&A segment of the evening.
As people lined up to the microphones placed in the aisles, Shirley MacLaine was gracious and patient, trying to decipher exactly what question, if any, was being asked. Mostly, people just wanted to thank her for having the courage to speak up on issues they cared about and for inspiring them by sharing her world wide travels and explorations of spiritual matters. She spoke of not having regrets and with that, having fulfilled the evening as billed, she left the stage to thunderous applause.