Years ago, my seasoned and yet surprisingly humble actor-husband wrote a book. A theatrical memoir, it spans his 50+ years in the hay day of NY theatre, covering his experiences from his first Broadway show, in 1951, as a young Capulet servant in Romeo and Juliet, starring Olivia DeHavilland, through the burgeoning off Broadway years of Circle in the Square, through his last outing on Broadway in 1991 as Béjart in La Bête, a play by David Hirson, set in the 17th Century France, written in rhymed couplets. He also wrote about his LA stage work and television and film work as well.
He began writing the memoir about the time we adopted our son, Chris, age of two, hoping that one day Chris could read all about his life and know more about his father. I’m not sure he anticipated publishing the book, but as it developed, we realized that the book would be interesting to theatre folks as well as civilians.
Jimmie, in spite of being an actor, is essentially an introvert, but a natural story teller, too. After 50+ years of being smack dab in the middle of the American Theatre, he has some good ones to tell. In New York, early in our marriage, Jimmie had a dear friend, Sylvan, stock broker by day, cantor in his local temple on Saturdays, and occasionally a voice teacher. Jimmie went to his singing lessons bringing along our German Shepherd, Jasper; they meandered through Central Park to Sylvan’s apartment on West 55th St., overlooking the now City Center Theatre. Sylvan was Jimmie’s number one fan; he loved to hear his stories and frequently urged Jimmie to record his experiences as a book. The resulting memoir, entitled “A View From The Wings,” is dedicated “In Loving Memory to Sylvan Epstein.”
Aside from sharing a photocopied, spiral bound version of the book with close friends and family after it was finished, over the past 16 years or so, we haven’t taken steps to publish the book. But recently we’ve discussed writing additional material to cover the intervening years.
Jimmie was diligent with the writing when he began the memoir, and found segments of the day where he sat at the dining room table and wrote, long hand, in a series of spiral notebooks. He often took his writing to the park, where he spent time on the bench, glancing up to watch Chris playing. He enjoyed the process, and he would share the freshly minted passages with me at the end of the day; I marveled at his facility, his natural voice on paper. Everyone who has read the book has enjoyed it, describing not being able to put it down, reveling in his “View from the Wings.”
As Jimmie approaches 90, our desire to publish the book has increased.With a long 15 year gap between the events depicted in the book and now, I have become the nagging wife/editor/technology coordinator encouraging Jimmie to continue with his story to present day before publishing. I want to know how he reflects on his life – has his practice changed? Grown? Weakened? How has he persevered over the now 70+ years of his acting career? While he hasn’t been as busy as he was in his 60s and 70s, he has still been fortunate to work on stage and in television sitcoms as an octagenarian. That’s pretty impressive. There are about three remaining segments still to be written.
20 years after he put the book down as finished, the physical writing has slowed due to arthritis. Jimmie is willing to write these chapters, but lacks the digital stamina. So I thought I’d help. Recently I downloaded Dragon® software to my computer, and planned that Jimmie would dictate the new passages directly into the computer. The day I downloaded it, I configured it for my voice as Jimmie napped, then taught the software how to recognize his voice. Then I made my first mistake. Showing him the software, I realized that it didn’t punctuate the words as they scrolled out onto the page. Fundamentally lazy, I encouraged Jimmie to insert the punctuation by saying comma and period where it was needed.
Instant and stultifying overload. Jimmie’s face crumbled and I realized that the process of dictating text, so second-nature to me and anyone else using it for texting, was incredibly unfamiliar to him.
So a few more weeks passed, and my friend David called. We had shared the earlier draft of the book with him, and since then, he has been supportively nudging me to get the book self-published. He offered to have us share the book with a friend of his who “places” manuscripts. I explained that we were grappling with how to get the last three chapters written. He suggested that I sit with Jimmie and interview him, getting him to talk into the recording feature on my phone. This, I thought, combined with the Dragon® software in my computer, would get us going. So today we sat down for the first time with our outline in hand and the computer open to a fresh, snowy page, the Dragon® microphone leering from the upright corner of the screen.
We determined 11:00AM on a Saturday morning was a civilized time to start and I prepared for my best Maury Povich interview with my husband. I did a test, hitting the record buttons on the computer and phone at the same time, then spoke slowly and clearly. By the time Jimmie sat down, I thought
What could go wrong?
We began by discussing a possible new framing device for the book. He looked about as nervous as he had on our wedding morning, which I said to him. He was quickly re-reading segments of the spiral bound book and trying to figure out how to insert discrete new paragraphs into the existing text. I explained what we were doing would require a radical editing of the book and we should just get the new ideas down first. We began the interview, and like some recording technician working on reel to reel tape, I started to get panicky when Jimmie took long pauses to think about his answer.
Relax, Els, it’s all digital. We’re not wasting tape.
Dragon® is relatively accurate, but we had some funny moments like when we were discussing Jimmie’s first day on the set of Parks and Recreation, and I asked him how Amy Pohler was to work with. He must have mumbled his answer, “warm and welcoming” and the Dragon® software wrote “Repairing drywall.” I clapped my hand over my mouth and Jimmie made me show him what was making me laugh. Amy Pohler might have appreciated that moment, too.
Then Dragon® just randomly began robotically droning back everything we had written so far, errors and all. Jimmie said,
Who’s that talking?
That’s what you were saying. Sort of.
Dragon® ate two pages of error-filled dictation just for the hell of it. I looked down, noted that everything was blue, then it was gone, leaving the eerie isolated word, “Mom” on the page. Fortunately, I had the phone recording all the time, and putting a finger up in the air to tell Jimmie to hold, I started a new document to record, then later went back and transcribed from the machine, the old fashioned way.
We talked for about an hour, then I transcribed what we had discussed. Jimmie said it was very helpful. We got nothing down on paper that will ultimately be useful for the book, but found a language of working together on writing, a normally solo occupation, and found the segue starting point for the new chapters in the process.
Not bad for the first day of writing with my best friend!