Saturday, July 26, 2014

Fourth Saturday's Loneliest Liberal: In memoriam Elaine Stritch

Wishing to be her

By James Knudsen

Lost in the media frenzy following the loss of Malaysian Airlines, Flight 17, was the news that the world of theatre had lost one of its true greats. Elaine Stritch died July 17, 2014 at her home in Birmingham, Michigan. She was 89.
    Of all the 1000’s of live performances Stritch gave – plays, revues, cabarets, and of course musicals, I only saw her once. It was at the Hollywood Bowl in 2005 where Ms. Stritch along with many others were celebrating the 75th birthday of Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim. It was quite a line-up. Angela Lansbury, known to Sondheim fans for her portrayal of Mrs. Lovett in the show Sweeney Todd, joined her former co-star Len Cariou to perform the song “A Little Priest.” Barbara Cook joined Josh Groban on the song “Move On” from Sunday in the Park With George. Little did I know that the quintessential Grobanite would be a part of my life five years later. And Audra McDonald performed a medley of “What Can You Lose” from the movie Dick Tracy and “Not a Day Goes By” from the musical Merrily We Roll Along. In the years since, I’ve recalled McDonald’s performance to people and said that she single-handedly raised the show several notches that night through sheer force of her performance.

But Stritch was someone very special to Sondheim fans. She was best remembered for originating the role of Joanne in the 1970 musical Company and putting her stamp – her brand – on the song, “The Ladies Who Lunch.” Having made her way onto the stage that July evening in ’05, she launched into her rendition of “Broadway Baby.” The song is from the musical Follies, which looks at the lives of a group of former showgirls and their spouses upon their return to the now defunct and decrepit theatre where they performed in their youth. The words are those of an ingenue. But, the song is sung by a woman in her sixties. That July night Stritch was 80. Still, on that night, she was the bright-eyed, naïve, hopeful looking for her big break. And then in an instant she was the Broadway legend showing you every scar, every disappointment, every triumph now years in the past. How does one do that with one word?
I’m just a
Broadway Baby.
Walking off my tired feet.
Pounding Forty-Second Street
To be in a show.
Oh, how she would flex her knees, digging into the opening lines of the verse and then, like it was a prayer, “Oh.”
    “Please, just one more show.”
    “Oh, God, this life is gonna kill me, but it’s all I know.”
    “Ooooh, bet he’s sorry he broke up with me now.”
    It’s remarkable the things you can hear in one word, when it’s sung by Elaine Stritch.
    As I watched and listened, I realized that she was telling us, the audience, the world, the universe, that up there on that stage was the only place she really felt at home. And that’s not an exaggeration. From 2005 until last year, when she relocated to Michigan, she lived at the Carlyle Hotel and for a time performed downstairs at the Cafe Carlyle. What a great commute. And what a show business stereotype, yet completely honest. Apt words for her one-woman show.

In 2001, at the age of 76, she embarked on her autobiographical show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty. She performed in a man’s white dress shirt, pumps, and tights. Whatever her costume failed to reveal, the show filled in. She spared no one, least of all herself. Her decades-long struggle with alcohol received special attention. But, instead of the usual, “Oh, what a horrible person I was when I drank,” she owned her past foibles. She celebrated them. Heck, at one point she bragged about being the one person to out-drink Judy Garland. It was Garland who finally said, “Good night,” at eight in the morning.

In looking at the clips of her that are now available via the internet, an image kept appearing: Elaine Stritch, defiant. A performance in front of an audience usually began with her standing perfectly still, staring at the audience with the look of a predator – or its prey – waiting for the applause to die down. And then, at some point during a song, there it would be, defiance. Her hands, gnarled with age, would clench into fists and shake with rage, fury, desperation, and joy. Demanding that we listen. Defying us not to.

“Yeah, You wish You were me”
[More images of Elaine Stritch]

Copyright © 2014 by James Knudsen


  1. Bravo James. The best obit of the many. For a memorable lady of the theater, who gave me much pleasure over the years.

  2. thank you james, and i was there also at the Hollywood Bowl and we saw her at the Carlyle (always wishing Mr Bobby Short could be there again also) i have a painting that might be an homage. to ms s..we shall see

  3. What a wonderful review! I know the name Elaine Stritch, but don't remember ever hearing her sing. She acted in movies, too, didn't she? 

    1. Patsy, I find in IMDb quite a long list (76) of movies Ms. Stritch appeared in as an actress.

    2. Here's the first half of the list (as much of it as will fit):

      2014 River of Fundament

      2007-2012 30 Rock (TV Series)
      Colleen Donaghy
      - My Whole Life Is Thunder (2012) ... Colleen Donaghy
      - Meet the Woggels! (2012) ... Colleen Donaghy
      - Christmas Attack Zone (2010) ... Colleen Donaghy
      - The Moms (2010) ... Colleen Donaghy
      - The Natural Order (2009) ... Colleen Donaghy

      2012 ParaNorman
      Grandma (voice)

      2005 Romance & Cigarettes
      Nick's Mother

      2005 Monster-in-Law

      2004/I Paradise (TV Movie)

      2003 Life's a Bitch (TV Series)

      1997-2001 3rd Rock from the Sun (TV Series)
      Martha Albright
      - My Mother, My Dick (2001) ... Martha Albright
      - Dick-In-Law (1997) ... Martha Albright

      2000 Autumn in New York

      2000 Small Time Crooks
      Chi Chi Potter

      2000 Screwed
      Miss Crock

      2000 EGG, the Arts Show (TV Series)
      - Kiss and Tell
      - A Day at the Met ... Narrator

      1998 Oz (TV Series)
      Judge Grace Lema
      - Losing Your Appeal (1998) ... Judge Grace Lema

      1998 An Unexpected Life (TV Movie)
      Lucinda Sadwich

      1998 Soul Man (TV Series)
      Mrs. Foster
      - Grabbed by an Angel (1998) ... Mrs. Foster

      1998 Krippendorf's Tribe
      Irene Hargrove

      1997 Out to Sea
      Mavis LaBreche

      1992-1997 Law & Order (TV Series)
      Lanie Stieglitz
      - Working Mom (1997) ... Lanie Stieglitz
      - Point of View (1992) ... Lanie Stieglitz

      1995 Bless This House (TV Series)
      - Misery on 34th Street (1995) ... Sheila

      1991 Chance of a Lifetime (TV Movie)

      1991 An Inconvenient Woman (TV Movie)

      1990 The Secret Life of Archie's Wife (TV Movie)
      Rowena Sharphorn

      1990 Steel Magnolias (TV Movie)
      Ouiser Boudreaux

      1990 Cadillac Man

      1990 Sparks: The Price of Passion (TV Movie)
      Marti Sparks

      1989-1990 The Cosby Show (TV Series)
      Mrs. McGee
      - Mr. Sandman (1990) ... Mrs. McGee
      - Cliff la Dolce (1989) ... Mrs. McGee
      - Shall We Dance? (1989) ... Mrs. McGee

      1990 Head of the Class (TV Series)
      Mrs. Hartman
      - From Hair to Eternity: Part 2 (1990) ... Mrs. Hartman
      - From Hair to Eternity: Part 1 (1990) ... Mrs. Hartman

      1990 American Playhouse (TV Series)
      Older Marianne
      - Sensibility and Sense (1990) ... Older Marianne

      1988 Tattingers (TV Series)
      - Rest in Peas (1988) ... Franny

      1988 Cocoon: The Return
      Ruby Feinberg

      1987 September

      1986-1987 The Ellen Burstyn Show (TV Series)
      Sydney Brewer
      - I'm Dancing Faster Than I Can (1987) ... Sydney Brewer
      - Writes of Passage (1987) ... Sydney Brewer
      - The Box (1987) ... Sydney Brewer
      - Writer, Wronger (1987) ... Sydney Brewer
      - Molly Sings the Blues (1987) ... Sydney Brewer
      Show all 13 episodes

      1986 Stranded (TV Movie)

      1983 Trapper John, M.D. (TV Series)
      Dr. Mary Gerrard
      - Supernurse (1983) ... Dr. Mary Gerrard

      1981 Christmas Spirits (TV Movie)
      Julia Myerson

      1980/II Nobody's Perfect (TV Series)
      Bill Hooper

    3. And the second:

      1979-1980 Tales of the Unexpected (TV Series)
      Pamela Beauchamp / Mary Pearl
      - My Lady Love, My Dove (1980) ... Pamela Beauchamp
      - William and Mary (1979) ... Mary Pearl

      1975-1979 Two's Company (TV Series)
      Dorothy McNab
      - The Friendly Aristocrats (1979) ... Dorothy McNab
      - The Rolls-Royce (1979) ... Dorothy McNab
      - The Silence (1979) ... Dorothy McNab
      - The Visiting Scots (1979) ... Dorothy McNab
      - The Salesman (1979) ... Dorothy McNab
      Show all 29 episodes

      1979 Jackanory (TV Series)
      - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1979) ... Reader

      1977 Providence
      Helen Wiener

      1975 Shades of Greene (TV Series)
      - Two Gentle People (1975) ... Patience

      1975 The Spiral Staircase

      1974 The President's Last Tape (TV Movie)
      Nicky's Mother

      1974 Funny Ha-Ha (TV Series)
      On-screen participant
      - Don't Blame Us! (1974) ... On-screen participant

      1974 Dial M for Murder (TV Series)
      - If You Knew Susie (1974) ... Geneva

      1973 Pollyanna (TV Series)
      Aunt Polly
      - Episode #1.6 (1973) ... Aunt Polly
      - Episode #1.5 (1973) ... Aunt Polly
      - Episode #1.4 (1973) ... Aunt Polly
      - Episode #1.3 (1973) ... Aunt Polly
      - Episode #1.2 (1973) ... Aunt Polly

      1971 The Powder Room (TV Movie)

      1970 Pigeons
      Tough Lady

      1968 One Life to Live (TV Series)
      Wilma Bern #2 (1993)

      1967 Too Many Thieves
      Miss G

      1965-1966 The Trials of O'Brien (TV Series)
      Miss G
      - The Greatest Game: Part 1 (1966) ... Miss G
      - A Gaggle of Girls (1965) ... Miss G
      - Bargain Day on the Street of Regret (1965) ... Miss G
      - Over Defense Is Out (1965) ... Miss G

      1965 Who Killed Teddy Bear
      Marian Freeman

      1963 The Doctors and the Nurses (TV Series)
      Irma Downey
      - The Witch of the East Wing (1963) ... Irma Downey

      1960-1961 My Sister Eileen (TV Series)
      Ruth Sherwood
      - The Perfect Secretary (1961) ... Ruth Sherwood
      - Marty's Best Friend (1961) ... Ruth Sherwood
      - Barefoot and Unashamed (1961) ... Ruth Sherwood
      - About Clark Carter (1961) ... Ruth Sherwood
      - Ruth, the Starmaker (1961) ... Ruth Sherwood
      Show all 27 episodes

      1960 Alcoa Theatre (TV Series)
      Ruth Sherwood
      - You Should Meet My Sister (1960) ... Ruth Sherwood

      1960 Art Carney Special (TV Series)
      - Full Moon Over Brooklyn (1960)
      - Three in One (1960)

      1960 Wagon Train (TV Series)
      Tracy Sadler
      - The Tracy Sadler Story (1960) ... Tracy Sadler

      1959 Kiss Her Goodbye
      Marge Carson

      1959 Adventures in Paradise (TV Series)
      Ethel Forester
      - Haunted (1959) ... Ethel Forester

      1959 True Story (TV Series)
      Lois Kirby
      - Episode dated 22 August 1959 (1959) ... Lois Kirby

      1958 The Perfect Furlough
      Liz Baker

      1958 Studio One in Hollywood (TV Series)
      - The Left-Handed Welcome (1958) ... Shirley

      1958 Climax! (TV Series)
      Kristie Crane
      - The Disappearance of Daphne (1958) ... Kristie Crane

      1958 The DuPont Show of the Month (TV Series)
      Aunt Bertha
      - The Red Mill (1958) ... Aunt Bertha

      1957 A Farewell to Arms
      Helen Ferguson

      1957 The Alcoa Hour (TV Series)
      - He's for Me (1957) ... Laura

      1956 Three Violent People
      Ruby LaSalle

      1956 The Edge of Night (TV Series)
      Mrs. DeGroot (1984)

      1956 The Scarlet Hour
      Phyllis Rycker

      1955 Matinee Theatre (TV Series)
      - Coming of Age (1955)

      1955 Appointment with Adventure (TV Series)
      - Escape from Vienna (1955)

      1953-1955 Goodyear Playhouse (TV Series)
      Guest Star
      - Beloved Stranger (1955) ... Guest Star
      - Here's Father (1954)
      - Nothing to Sneeze At (1953)

      1954 The Motorola Television Hour (TV Series)
      Hazel Beck
      - The Family Man (1954) ... Hazel Beck

      1953 Kraft Theatre (TV Series)
      - A Cup of Kindness (1953)

      1951 Cavalcade of Stars (TV Series)
      Trixie Norton
      - The New Television Set (1951) ... Trixie Norton

      1948 The Growing Paynes (TV Series)
      Laraine Payne (1949)

  4. Thank you, James!! Theatrical shows and musicals, movies, songs - Elaine Stritch did them all, and for many, many years. James Knudsen lovingly remembers.