A star caught me as I was falling. He didn't have to do it. But he did it just the same. I never really thanked him. And when the news of his death reached out across the years to find me, I wept like the girl I was when I knew him in 1973.
It was hard that summer. The life of an apprentice actress on the star circuit has no glamour: 16 hours a day, seven days a week, often lost in the prop room or hidden offstage among the folds of dark curtains while others stepped out into light.
"Hide and ego-seek," some call it. The hiding I understood all too well. The ego had flown long before the first star ever appeared.
Apprentice actress is merely a glitzy term for slave labor. You're promised you'll get on stage somewhere, sometime, but in the meantime you do anything the producer, director, or actors need you to do.
I was the person responsible for making sure all the items required throughout the run of the show were found, refurbished, and in place for each actor to use.
The pace was grueling; no time for star-gazing. Celebrities came and went like subways – in for a week to rehearse, "on the boards" the next week, and then gone just as suddenly as they appeared.
After awhile, nobody cared how famous someone was or who had just appeared in a smash television sitcom. They all became a blur with irrational demands and gargantuan egos.
And then Gene Kelly arrived. He was there for a pre-Broadway tryout of his new musical, "Take Me Along."
The afternoon of his arrival found me wandering half-lost through the Ohio hills, searching for a winery. The prop list called for a 50-gallon cask that the shop boys could mount on casters. It needed to be strong enough for Gene Kelly to dance on while chorus girls made it turn.
The vintners weren't happy about the loan. Good wine was wasted as they emptied the cask. But the promise of free tickets made up for the deep-purple stain in the grass.
Unfortunately, when I finally made it back to the theater, every ticket for every performance was sold. "A record breaker," the box-office ladies said. "Over 16,000!"
I made an apologetic phone call to the vintners. They still loaned us the prop, but I'd broken my promise to them, and I felt terrible.
That was the proverbial straw that started me thinking about packing my bags. I knew I had to finish the Gene Kelly run, but after that, I decided I would head home. Whatever it takes to survive in the professional theater, I knew I didn't have it. And I decided I never wanted to get it.
On opening night, Mr. Kelly had a 10-minute wait before his entrance, and he walked over to where I was standing in the wings.
"Could you please help me?" he asked. "I have a problem seeing when I come off stage, and I'm on and off so many times. Would it be too much trouble to meet me where I exit and then take me to where I enter again?"
"Of course, sir," I said. "Whatever you need."
And that's how I got to know one of the best-loved dancers of our time.
Every evening about an hour before curtain, Mr. Kelly came into the wings to warm up. There was one other apprentice working the show, and we always made sure our chores were finished so we could secretly watch him.
He caught us doing it early in the run and asked us if we'd like a tap lesson. He taught us one of his own combinations and then said, "I'll check you at intermission. If you've got this one down, I'll teach you another."
And he did, every performance. Step. Hop. Flap. Hop. Flap. Flap. Flap. Ball change!
During one performance, Mr. Kelly asked me why I always looked so sad. I told him I was just tired. He didn't believe me and probed further. I ended up pouring out all the fear and bitterness I felt, and how I planned to leave the company right after his show closed.
"Don't let them bother you," he told me. "The ones who are the most insecure are the ones who are the meanest. True talent seems to show itself most often in kindness."
He urged me to finish the season.
I took his advice.
I made it through the summer with calmness and confidence, and actually found myself enjoying my work. The cruelty didn't go away, but my reaction to it did.
And over the years, his words have come winging back to me when someone is being ugly or confrontational.
In his last performance, Mr. Kelly and I were standing in the wing waiting for his encores. The wine cask that was never used stood forlornly near us. I told him the story of how gracious the vintners were to loan it to us and how sorry I was they missed his show.
"Quick!" he said. "Run and get me a marker from the autograph table."
And on the top of the wine cask in a very neat hand he wrote, "Thanks for helping to make 'Take Me Along' the success that it is. Much love, Gene Kelly."
He didn't have to do it. But he did.
True talent shows itself most often in kindness.