The lady with a flashlight may be the future Beverly Sills
New York — "I thought so -- everybody is something else around here," Charlott said with a Cheshire cat grin. As the sun was easing down over the East River and the world of entertainment was coming to light around the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Charlott munched another bite of her rare hamburger with ketchup. We had had to coddle the waitress at Jimmy Armstrong's Saloon to obtain that ketchup. We also struggled to get Charlott's coffee, for the waitress said she was exhausted from working until 2 a.m. that same morning in a new restaurant called Maestro.
"But what do you do?"m Charlott had asked the young woman whose circles under her eyes nearly matched the blackboard on the wall where the menu was scrawled in chalk. Charlott just knewm this lithe-limbed and heavy-haired waitress must be "something else."
"I'm a dancer," she admitted.
"I thought so . . ." Charlott had said.
Charlott Thyssen should know for she is "something else" herself. Once she was a witch when she posed for a greeting card. On another day she was a pioneer woman for the cover of a Ballantine paperback book. Earlier this year she played a part in the new Sylvester Stallone movie called "Hawk," in which she was shoved by the star when she tried to enter a clothes shop.
"What is Charlott Thyssen really?" is perhaps as existential a question as the statement that she is "something else." The mother of two grown women, Charlott lives in Queens where she arrived in 1950 from Europe. Because she was a dancer in Europe she opened a school in Queens, but when her children moved away and she found she was too old to dance for a living, she decided to try acting.
Now she has a personal manager who handles her various jobs which range from movies, shows, commercials and soap operas to advertisements for dog food. Because her income fluctuates, Charlott's bread-and-butter job is ushering at the New York State Theater in the magnificent Lincoln Center, the home of the Metropolitan Opera, and the New York City Opera and Ballet.
The round, puritanical, white collars of Charlott's ushering colleagues are a disguise for musicians, composers, dancers, opera singers, jewelers, artists, authors and night club performers -- people who can't make a living on their art yet (or perhaps ever), people who feed the lifeblood of this most creative performing city in the world, people whose existence is partly a grubbing to eat and pay rent, but mostly an aspiring for the soaring elements of art.
Waitressing pays more, but the ushering jobs (which bring $13.16 per performance) are desirable to people who want their days free for other work.
Melanie Burrows needs her days to shop for her jewelry materials and she finds it best to craft jewelry by daylight. In her loft, which she shares with three other people in the city's garment district, Melanie fires her cloisonne jewels in a trinkel kiln. Last year she sold pendants at the Ballet Shop on Broadway and at the Ballet Guild in the State Theater for $90 each.
Above her usher's collar Melanie wore only small earrings, aquamarines she had set in delicate gold. The studs echoed the huge spotlights which are the trademark of the State Theater, also nicknamed the "Jewel Box." Columnar clusters of the spotlight outside the theater and single spots sprinkled inside around the balconies seem like the world's largest rhinestones, glittering in operatic overstatement.
Trained at Pratt Institute and Kulicke and Starke School for Jewelry Design, Melanie has ushered at this theater for six years.
"It's a pleasant job," she said. Her only mishap in six years was seating Actor Tony Randall in the wrong row one night.
The most desirable place to usher is the first ring where celebrities usually sit.
Beverly Sills's red hair could be easily spotted in the first ring the night I was in the theater. Mis Sills may have been solicitous that night about Glenys Fowles who was singing (beautifully) in the opera "Manon" despite an announcement that she had laryngitis.
"Manon" is Pangia Mari's favore opera because the heroine dislays a gamut of emotions as she grows from "a raw child to an elegant woman who is so hungry to live that she eats up everything in her way. Although Manon becomes jaded and gives up in the end, you have to make her lovable," said Pangia.
Pangia (whose Greek name is pronounced pan-ya) is a lyric soprano with 15 1/2 years of voice training and experience (including mowing the lawn for outdoor performances) in the five-year-old opera company founded by her uncle in Cooperstown, New York.
She sat, with her friend and fellow usher Connie DiGiovanni, outside the first ring and beneath the gargantuan, soap-white "Two French Nudes," copied from a two-foot high papier-mache sculpture by Elli Nadelman.
Pangia discussed the duck which was carried on stage in the first act of "Manon." He was crying, she said. Just a little tear in the corner of his eye. And the rabbits always quiver wit fright. But the dogs love being on stage. Pangia had been sitting on stage herself in a nun's habit during the busy courtyard scene of the first act.
"This is one of the warmest house I've ever been around," Pangia said. "It becomes very family-ish; but also it is like a small town where you want to get away sometimes."
Pangia gives herself five years with the hope she may join the opera's chorus , take on summer work and, some day, go into opera directing. "The most important thing is for me to grow," she said.
Pangia swung her hand toward Connie who was sewing together the segments of a royal blue sweater she had knitted. "Look: two lyric sopranos and we're not supposed to be friends," Pangia smiled.
"When I was nine or ten I was singing like Connie Francis," Connie said. One day my father brought home a record of Jeanette McDonald singing the Indian Love Call," and Connie's classical training began.
At 14, she was in a Broadway show but it lasted only three weeks, killed by the reviews of Dorothy Kilgallen, Connie decided. Three years ago she was in "The King and I" until a decision was made to have the cast be all Oriental on Broadway.
Connie began ushering "way back" in 1966 at the Beaumont theater. "I thought it would be good for me to expose myself to serving people. The first night I was so afraid, can you believe? My flashlight was shaking."
Connie switched to the State Theater two years ago and now is thinking about auditioning for the chorus in the opera company.
Sucan Tammay has frothy, dark hair unless she pins it up where, even then, it tries to escape. Susan says the ballet at the State Theater, where she has ushered for five years, stimulates her artistically, especially when she designs costumes.
But Susan's passion is painting. She currently has works in the Zoma Gallery and also has completed 80 pages for a book on myths of Ireland. She claims the Irish culture is based on a feminine idea; her paintings for the book trace the myth of the goddess in Celtic literature. The Popsicle-orange eyebrows and flyaway hair of her painted goddess reflect Susan's venturing into the "more fantastic."
"The world is losing the romantic aspect of life," she said.
She analyzes feminine cultures (Ireland, France, Italy) which accommodate surroundings and are close to the earth, and the masculine cultures (Germany, the US) which want to control and change.
Susan says the ushering job is useful for its few and late hours. "But it is a semi-creative environment; you can kid yourself that you are working in a creative world when really this is on the fringe. That's a danger," she added.
Jeanie Columbo, who is perky on the surface and serious beneath, has pinned on her usher's collar a large white button which reads: "Another actor earning a living in a mundane job."
"I keep trying to make [show director] Hal Prince read my button," Jeanie bubbled. She steered him to his seat once and then sent him to flyer about one of her songs from her night club act, called "Some Day Hal Prince Will Come." He wasn't moved, she said.
Jeanie took up ushering after a year teaching nursery school because she wanted her days free to pursue her acting career.
"I was in [the movie] 'Manhattan,'" she said. "They used my back in one scene."
On another occasion, Jeanie's agent called to ask if she would like to be a stand-in for Angie Dickinson in a movie. Sure, Jeanie said. Then her agent said it was for a nude scene. "I turned it down," Jeanie grinned.
Naturally, not all ushers are "creative" in the artistically accepted sense. I was chatting with Margy Curtain, head of the 41 ushers at the State Theater, in her little office behind a large brass door.
Margy interrupted our conversation about the aloofness of most ballerinas to phone the theater's engineers. "People on the second ring are complaining they are cold; could you fix that?" she asked.
Margy's first ushering job was in 1948 on Broadway in "Kiss Me Kate"; she came to State Theater in 1967. For her and for about half of the women here, ushering is a second job. Margy works in a bank during the day.
Some of these ushers filtered into Margy's office as their shifts rotated. One woman reported that she had to tell an opera patron that she must turn off the tape recorder she had placed on the step to capture the opera score.
Another usher sat on a chair in Margy's office and pulled out her knitting which resembled an abstract hanging found only in a avant-garde art galleries. Little strings protruded erratically from the body of the knitting which was to be a pillow cover.
"What kind of yarn is that?" I asked.
"Program strings," the woman said peering through her 1950 vintage eyeglasses. "The programs come in bunches wrapped in string which we save and tie together."
Now, that is certainly something else, even if it's not Charlott's "something else."
"Last year we were making potholders," Margy added. Up the marble stairs Mozart's Don Giovanni slid into its last arias.