The face of the incredible invisible girl, Ruby!

DSC_0056I have a little girl who is a little bit untamed and honestly I like it that way. She has an odd mix of freedom accompanied by a wicked sense of familial spirit. If you imagined a child who grew up in the trees in a loving pack, with with her braids tossing about as she dances happily in the sun that child would be my Ruby; but instead of trees she is growing up in a Dutch Colonial dancing happily to whatever tune she is moved by at the moment, real or imagined.

Ruby is seven years old and fights to not be completely dominated over by an older sister & brother who’s needs often seem bigger than life itself. Depending on the day she is video worthy with her ten year old brother or partaking in elaborate Barbie sessions with her eleven year old sister. She’ll never pass up a bike journey, although prefers it include another of her siblings. She loves for me to pick her up and hold her in my arms, an act that is not so easy given her solid frame and height, but something I will do until my body can no longer bear the load. Her preferred lounge ware is a pair of leggings and maybe a bracelet, but that’s it… no shirt required for comfort. She is stubborn to the point that it seems she will never conform to the usual standard practice of dress and diet, but I’m not sure she should. Don’t get me wrong, I would give my left knuckle if Ruby would get dressed without a fight in the morning, brush her teeth and go to the bathroom without an escort but this reality is it is part of her whole package.

Ruby enters a wonderful world of secret passage ways whenever she wants. She’ll make elaborate gifts with letters for her teachers and then never deliver them, but never wants them revealed from their packaging. She will disappear under a cover to play on the i-pad but its not just to be alone, she enters another time, another zone that allows her to block off fire breathing dragons that take the form of her sister Olivia or slip by unnoticed with a heard of Rhinos charging across the jungle floor or as we lovingly refer to him as Cooper. She lives a life under the cloak of that quilt that unfolds without apology or abandon. She pulls her mom and I aside in the most private way but causes a public uproar if we need to depart this covenant. She wants no attention but refuses to go unnoticed. The colors of her spirit are amorphous; the pink of a young girl mixed with rogue mixes of deep purples and bursts of orange. You never know what Ruby you’ll encounter but trust me they are all pure Ruby.

We play our game of twister with Ruby. Manipulating our plans to try to make her feel special but not noticed. We really have no idea where this labyrinth will end. She gives us no clues and almost taunts us with the idea that we may figure her out one day. She has no noticeable agenda but is full of powerful mysteries that God gave her at birth. Mysteries that we watch with equal part horror and love. Her name is Ruby Jones and she truly is one of a kind.

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Andre, the train giant

IMG_2946My ten-year-old son Cooper comes with a host of puzzles and a load of obsessions. Somedays we deal with these puzzles better than other days but trust me when I say everyday you deal with them, there are no days off. Now, the other side of that statement; trust me when I say I wouldn’t want a day off from Cooper.

One of Cooper’s “obsessions” is New Jersey Transit. Not just trains but the mighty transit system that runs through our town and many other towns in the great state of New Jersey. Each of the systems many corridors of travel hold exploration possibilities for Cooper. He knows the stations and wether they come with a gap at boarding or have gates that come down to stop pedestrian & automotive traffic. He knows the engines and has definite opinions about the various passenger car options. This goes way beyond the next station stop is… Over the last few years I have taken Cooper on many a train ride to destinations that provide nothing more than a train ride back to Maplewood. #LifewithCooper is the hashtag I established to accompany several of our journeys.

During our travels Cooper has made an acquaintance with several of the conductors. Many of them provide him with seat checks and a friendly nod.  There are a few who have a fondness for Cooper’s fascination with the transit and have gotten to know him by name. I know this because I hear them say, “hi Cooper, where’s your mom?” That’s me “Cooper’s Mom.” Then, about 6 months ago Cooper met a conductor on the Dover line that gave him a job. Cooper was sitting in the front of the train near the engine but before the engine is a door lead to an open space. I was sitting in a seat on the bottom of the train where I could hear what was going on but giving Cooper his “space”. This conductor saw Cooper staring at the engine and had a brief exchange about what kind of an engine it was and why it was such a good engine, then he told Cooper to not let anyone go through that door because it was dangerous. Cooper dutifully performed this task until we got to our stop. We got off the train and the conductor told Cooper “thanks for helpin’ man. good job.” The next week Cooper wanted to take the same trip to see his friend who had given him a job. We did and again this Conductor took a genuine interest in Cooper. I introduced myself and quietly explained that Cooper wanted to take this train so he could see him. That was the day Andre came into our train travel life, we would take an early train to Dover so we could accompany Andre to Maplewood several times over the next few months. Andre introduced Cooper to his engineer, Art, taught Cooper about “zone-numbers” and had him study the zone chart, he taught him about greeting customers and cutting tickets. He even showed him the button configuration for opening doors. Super nice guy with boys of his own who seemed to love his job, he even gave Cooper a little bag of treats the Saturday after Halloween. Then in mid November, just before Cooper’s birthday, we got on the morning train and transferred  at a different station just to mix things up. The train pulled in and we ran to the front of the train, where the Conductor is, and it wasn’t Andre. Coop asked the man right away where Andre was and the man responded that, “he doesn’t work this train anymore.” I headed back to find a familiar face and one of the ticket collectors came up and said he knew we were looking for Andre but he had been “bumped.” This is a apparently a process where Transit employees with more seniority can take over certain schedules. Cooper was gutted and honestly so was I. We took to some other train lines after and found Engineer Art, but no Andre. Then on New Years Eve I agreed to take Cooper on a long journey to Montclair State University train station which involved going to Broad Street Station and transferring to the correct train line. As usual when we boarded the train Cooper asked the conductor if he knew Andre and he said yes and thought maybe Andre was at Penn already, if he was working that day. Needless to say we went all the way into Penn to search for Andre before heading to Montclair U. Cooper took my phone into the crew room at Pennsylvania Station and started showing pictures of Andre but it didn’t appear he was working that day. We continued on our journey and on the way back home I got a phone message from ANDRE! I had forgotten I had given him my number in case he wanted to arrange tickets to take his wife to see the show I was working on at the time. The conductor from earlier in the day had run into Andre and told him Cooper was looking for him. Cooper was elated and Andre and I texted back in forth about his train schedule because he wanted to see Cooper because he had something for him.

After a healthy back and forth and discovering we were not going to catch him on the train over the holiday I asked Andre if he would like to stop by our house to see Cooper and bring his boys with him to play. Andre, who lives in a neighboring town, did come over. This gentle giant was decked out in civilian clothes right down to his Lebron James Soldier 6 tennis shoes and you would think Cooper saw the president walking up to the house. After an introduction to all the children and a show-and-tell of Cooper’s trains, Andre presented Cooper with a present of a real NJ Transit conductor’s hat that he got with that year’s uniform allotment. Cooper was understandably excited and proud to have the very hat he had admired many-o-times on our train journeys, but I can honestly say that the time that Andre spent with Cooper and the genuine interest he took in him will always leave the most indelible mark on my very special boy.

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Social Media Crack-Down

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A new year, welcome to 2015.

I thought a lot about making resolutions and most typical resolutions are just plain unrealistic for me. I just enjoy food and alcohol much more than I enjoy exercise & learning languages. I am probably not going to write as much as I would like to and I fall asleep really fast at night so reading more before bed is out of the question. So I have decided to clear out the social clutter in order to make room for social quality, by that I mean the social media. I have never kept track of the hours I’ve spent trolling through news feeds or assessing who “likes” what that I post, but trust me when I say its too many hours and fills up my already maxed out brain. So I have suspended my social media services to try to break to “habit” of checking my phone for that little red notification circle that could be a request to play Candy Crush or could be somebody reaching out to validate my latest status. I don’t suspect this will last forever since I do enjoy the shenanigans of my family but I have to re-set myself.

So part one is easy, de-activate and remove the apps from my mobile devices. Then I am faced with the harder part, “social quality”. Making a call or sending an e-mail to see if I can make plans to see friends. This is a difficulty for me to be sure, since I am drawn to being social introvert. I’ll need to read the paper so I can choose my news instead of my news feed choosing what is important for me to see. I work in the theatre so “trends” are always swirling around, I just need to bother listening to what is being said, although I’m afraid the cast of the new show I’m doing, Fish In The Dark, is much less likely to be on the cutting edge of Trending than the kids at Motown. Its all pretty exciting and does give me additional opportunities to fulfill the odd resolution, but I think I’ll keep those ideas to myself and see how this un-plugging goes first.

Notes, notes, notes… always notes

UnknownOne part of my job as a Production Stage Manager is to help maintain the artistic integrity of the show on behalf of the creative team. While doing this job I have to make decisions on whether to address certain  notes. You would think “what’s the decision”, it’s my job so I should go in pursuit of everything, be your best and see that the show is it’s best! But sometimes, in my job, my best decision is not to go down that slippery slope that shoots off in a million creative avenues. Giving actors notes, that go beyond the technical realm, requires you to know what is intended  by the director in a specific moment of the show and being able to help an actor find the right way to express that intention that best suits their approach to the material. Confused? You don’t know the half of it. Then you have to factor in who, said actor, is playing opposite of because inevitably the reason a particular moment has slid away from its center is because the two or more people in the scene have forgotten why something was originally constructed. Then there is the audience, the life blood of Broadway, they may be responding incredibly well to something they love that has absolutely nothing to do with that moment that you are trying to address. Never underestimate the power of an audience’s reaction…an odd laugh has crushed hours of sensitive direction and crippled sentences so carefully constructed that Mr Shakespeare himself would be in envy. I have known amazing actors to resist playing to the most base laugh through an entire preview period only to spiral rapidly after TONY nominations are announced. So even the most carefully thought out suggestion of a note can go on an endless adventure down a rabbit hole and strike you right between the, “well the stage manager told me to do that” eyes.

Please allow me to breakdown the creative process using the beautiful and often dysfunctional family tree. You have the roots of our sapling; the play, the music, a sensitive opus. The story itself wielded by the pen of the Playwright (or in the case of a musical, the Book Writer, Composer & Lyricist). You have got the trunk of our tree; the creative team lead by the Director who devises the best possible way to tell the tale and is aided by a slew of other creatives such as: the Designers, Choreographer, Musical Director, Orchestrators & Dramaturge. This trunk is often formed, nurtured and fed by the Producer(s). The branches both thick and strong and branching off into beautiful spindly shapes are the Actors, Singers, Dancers. It is the creative spark of all these parts that creates the beautiful, colorful, wispy leaves that people, our patrons, come and admire.

So, back to my point about sometimes a note is better left alone… not every branch tolerates being cut back without sprouting back out in the completely wrong direction and then you get yourself in a position where you need the help of your trunk to make sense of the pruning… This is all only in play if a very cold frost doesn’t come along sending your tree into a sudden autumn.

 

Acceptance

This blog strikes close to home. While our son Cooper is “high functioning”, a diagnosis we are grateful for, we have been through the diner wars and The Mapleleaf Diner in our home town has not only been a safe space as a training ground for Cooper but he has also become a favorite diner there. We are far from out of the woods, just this last week while Cooper and I, accompanied by his sisters, went on a regular train trip Cooper became agitated by his lack of ability to control the situation and expressed himself too loud & a train customer decided to scold him as he disembarked the train. It took several hours to pull Cooper back together that day and the next train trip will be a tense one for me since I was never able to pinpoint his agitation that day.
I am grateful people are growing in their understanding of this disease, but I am even more grateful for people, including my friend Claire who wrote this original blog, to the people advocating for this puzzling disease.

A Project for Kindness

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When I began this blog nearly two years ago, it was with the intention of spreading kindness and sharing good news stories.  That has changed a bit, but I still like to share things I read about or see – I have been using my “Random Kindness Tour” button on my site, where I share videos or stories I find on the internet.  I have added a lot of them there.  Once in awhile though, something is shared with me that I want others to see and spread as well.

Today, a friend from college shared this link.  She has an autistic daughter and she is her biggest advocate.  I have learned so much about autism from her.  My nephew is “on the autism spectrum” as well.  This “What Would You Do?” story sheds some light onto the daily struggles families dealing with autism go through on a…

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Bi-polar-coaster… not a free ride

I am not a mental health professional. I am not a professional writer who has done extensive research on my subjects. I am a mother of three who, with my partner, is doing my best to raise our brood. My daughter Olivia suffers with Bi-Polar disorder. It’s a real disease for all of you skeptics out there who think it’s nothing some firm Midwestern parenting couldn’t handle. In fact several times over the last year my little girl has been in such a manic state that it could not be controlled, even by this skeptic who believes that there’s nothing good Midwestern parenting can’t handle. Let me tell you a little bit about Olivia, she was born eleven years ago to a mother who suffers from this same disease but choose to self-medicate before, during and after childbirth. I understand the desire to self medicate when your options for psychiatric care are outrageously costly private care or overburdened state run facilities. So, my angel came to us under what some may consider less than desirable circumstances. When she was an infant I would look deep in her eyes and I would see a hundred years of living deep in those beautiful dark brown eyes. Olivia is a well mannered, intelligent girl (albeit sufficiently lacking in common sense) with a wonderful imagination, a few good friends and a good sense of humor. Her only draw back is the rage that rips through her entire body and has done so from the ripe old age of three years of age. This rage presents itself at home mostly and would caused this little girl to loose all control scratching herself bloody and hating herself and being alive. Once again I took on the parenting deficient role and tried my level headed best to get her to “control herself”. Fortunately, I have Doreen as a partner, who started dealing with the medical end of this right away. In my defense I did take her to a few alternative healers who seemed to be interested in dealing with her allergies, which were and continue to be extensive, but they weren’t able to hone in on my baby’s wiring. So fast forward several years to a fourth grader who’s disease starts presenting itself in school. The at home behavior now includes voices telling her what to do (often resulting on inflicting pain on her two siblings) and raging and school refusal that has resulted in home schooling and her attendance in an outpatient program that provides daily counseling, group therapy and med management. It was quite a year that involved several trips to the emergency room to seek help from crisis counselors and finding what combination of meds would help us keep ahead of this disease. The disease was relentless in Olivia’s pre-teen body and with natural pre-pubecent chemistry changes. The future looked impossible and scary.

Just last week Olivia turned eleven years old. She took cupcakes in for her 5th grade classmates, last night she had a sleep over with a few close friends. She has an amazing group of teachers that are working with us to see that she gets the most out of Fifth grade in order to prep her for middle school. Doreen continues to be a driving force in keeping her treatment in order. We no longer look at the long ball with Olivia, we look to the day to day and thank God that we can do that when so many people have lost precious people young and old to this disease and so many undetected mental illnesses. My daily lack of understanding about what is best for my angel is overwhelming, but I know one thing for sure, I am devoted to seeing her taken care of one day at a time.

Leaving Home

images UnknownI feel like a ten year old kid packing up one pair of underwear, toys and Cap’n Crunch and running away from home. But I’m not, its nearly four decades after my tenth birthday, I packed several pair of underpants, I’m not running and I haven’t had Cap’n Crunch since big fatties left my life lo those many years ago. The feeling isn’t remarkably different however, I hit that driveway with my well packed suitcase and a destination planned and then the wave of loneliness grabs hold.

Recently the show I work on, Motown, The Musical opened it’s National Tour and I got to be a part of it. Working with the creative team and the road company in beautiful Chi-town to put it all together. It was an amazing opportunity and experience but it takes this Mid-Western girl out of her home body comfort zone. Now the tour is officially touring making a big first jump to San Francisco and I am on an airplane to do my part to help blend all of these creative efforts together. Work that you strive for in my profession so you soak up every minute and invest yourself in the work. I know, it’s a pretty cool job right? I come to it from being the dutiful assistant for years so I am trying to roll all of those past experiences into this one moment in time because who knows when it will come along again. In our business you go where the work is so it could be Production Supervisor or Substitute Assistant you never really know. 

Here’s the thing, that feeling of loneliness is because I have so much to be home for; my kids and my partner and my furry children, aka pets, depend on our routines to round out the mornings. Doreen and I are the absolute worst at long distance communication, hell we get so busy we often go the entire day without a phone call. I feel fractured and separate from my family knowing that I am missing the regular every day things: Cooper getting out of his morning bath and draping his warm towel wrapped body over me. I mean he’s a sizable kid so you miss that pressure on a full bladder in the morning. Trying to wake up Olivia by playing with her ears and nose and singing bad musical theatre tunes (yep, I’m that mom). Shouting at Ruby in concert with Doreen, “get dressed now Ruby” or “Ruby brush your teeth”, “breakfast before candy!” I work a lot of hours in NYC but I go home every night and I wake up with that love every morning.  

I guess I had this same feeling of loneliness as a kid, the idea of not having my Mom and my siblings was unbearable and so I never got far past Wirthlin’s woods, but now I know that I will return to my beautifully chaotic life at home when my work is done in San Francisco. Come to think of it maybe I never made it past Wirthlin’s woods because I didn’t know I had the opportunity for adventure while still having everything waiting at home! 

Being a black man, what I’ll never know…

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I worry about my son. Will he ever get to know his gifts in a world that feels fear in an elevator with a black man?

He’s autistic, he sees the world through a different filter, but do you think for even a hot minute that the woman clutching her purse is going to consider that when he walks past uber focused on achieving his goal?

“Please” and “thank you” drilled from day one. Will it help when he is the one walking down the street at night after a crime has been committed?

How do I strengthen this beautiful soul?

He asks walking down the street if we can take the homeless man with us? He shouts out loud passing a man in a wheel chair with a sign that reads “I need help.” “Help him!” How? I’ve got to help you. I think.

I worry about my daughter who has standards of beauty that start from the outside in. I worry about her value in a world who may never see her beyond her illness. She is so fragile as she she’s friends unwittingly betray her on the street corner gathered celebrating their sameness. How will I give her the strength to understand pride when I’ll never truly understand what it is like to have a societal limitation because of race and mental illness.

I worry about my baby who marches to her own drummer and is beloved for her leadership by her teachers in her primary years but may well be viewed as an anarchist by a society unwilling to listen to different ideas from their own.

I have a strong resolve to love, guide and protect my children as they grow into adults but I need to believe that as my children grow our society can grow. Grow and stretch your minds to realize the differences, yes the vast differences, between the man with dark skin or the woman who’s beauty is foreign to you. Grow to understand those differences are what make up the whole. We cannot be leaders without followers and we should not have followers that we don’t try to understand. Diversity  should be what we strive for not what is a mandate from a quota. 

Life Insurance: the exam.

 

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This morning a man came to our house at 6:30 AM in the morning to do our medical exams so we could qualify for life insurance. He was a quirky guy, very big yet soft spoken wearing a mustard color canvas uniform, not the traditional scrubs. Doreen crawled out of the bed first and conducted her exam in pajamas and a robe. I decided to leash up my boobs and put on my clothes from the night before. I mean we were entertaining a gentleman caller after all. The perfect early risers.

We were put through the usual questions sitting at the dining room table: Do you smoke, drink… how much (obligatory lie), family history, personal health inquiries, blood pressure and a quick blood test. We can’t leave out the always humiliating pee in a cup. I listened to Doreen’s inquisition and her attempt at humor with the not so funny fella while I prepped a pot-o-Joe. Then it was my turn and for some reason I got a few extra questions after I revealed my weight,”do you exercise?” “Yes.” I say with great pride. “What do you do?” he asks, not seeming to believe me. “I run on an elliptical about five days a week, sit ups, push ups, light free weights, mostly cardio based” and then he poked my thigh with his pencil and said, “do you have (something indecipherable in my morning stupor).” “Excuse me?” I say. He waves his pencil, “artificial arms or legs, do you have any?” “nope, all mine.” Then, without missing a beat, he looks into our kitchen and mentions that something looks good. Doreen takes a stab at what he was pointing at, “oh the peanuts?”. “No, those” he pointed again. “Oh, the cashews, would you like some?” Doreen ever the hostess at now 6:45 AM quickly pulled out a bowl to put some nuts in and he stopped her and asked if she had plastic, so he could take them with him. Doreen loaded up a baggie of cashews. He then asked briefly about what we were going to do today and packed up our specimens, grabbed his cashews and off he went.

Life insurance, what a weird thing to begin with. I’m going to give you money for 30 years so in case I die in those thirty years you can give my survivors some cash to dispose of me. Okay, but do I get a discount on disposal if I am missing limbs? Less to deal with? Hopefully, I’ll never know.

Elaine Stritch: One interesting broad

I am not sentimental when it comes to my work. I have been star struck twice: once meeting Lauren Bacall (who I would meet again several years later and even receive a call from…awkward) and meeting the great Angela Lansbury, who I had the pleasure of later working with on the revival of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘A Little Night Music‘. A Little Night Music was work that came with a wealth of legends; Stephen Sondheim, Trevor Nunn, The great Angela Landsbury, Bernadette Peters and of course the classic, Ms Elaine Stritch. Working with Elaine was to have a triumphant tale to wield at many a cocktail party. Like driving up in a Rolls Royce with a VW engine. Broadway royalty with a mid western core.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t want to work with her. Her reputation for Stage Manager abuse arrived long before she did and I had just worked with Angela who was the classiest woman in show business. However, Elaine and Bernadette pulled our little revival out of the dumpster so three kids and a bump to PSM are you kidding me, “I always wanted to work with Stritch!”

I did not take over as the PSM for ALNM until Stritch and Bernadette had gone into the show. I got to watch the reigning PSM, Ira Mont, get shouted after all the time. Berated for his timing as Frid, the butler, who was not available to be at our re-mounting rehearsal. Sent all over town in search of the perfect non-alchohlic beer and an english muffin with egg and cheese. Breakfast of champions at 2:00 in the afternoon. I am here to tell you that getting an english muffin at two o’clock in the afternoon was no easy feat in Manhattan. I watched the associate director, the talented Seth Sklar-Heyn and Ira try every tactic in the nursery school hand book to control our little octogenarian. I was finally sent in the front line on my day off to run lines with Elaine. I arrived at the Hotel Carlyle right on time prepared for the worse and ended up having an amazing time complete with being sent home with a bag of stolen jars of jam from the Carlyle to take home to my kids. Elaine made a point of telling me how her Mom and Dad would always come back from their trip into NYC with these small jars of jam and how she loved them. I was set, she liked me what could possibly go wrong?

Shortly after Stitch & Bernadette went in Ira left the show to do a play that he booked upon our closing notice being posted and damn Seth went off to tend to the Billy Elliot garden. I was there in the basement bunker of the Walter Kerr with the smell of fear pulsing from every pour. It was as bad as you can imagine. New leading man for Bernadette, New other leading man for Bernadette and a new butler for Elaine. We muddled through and Bernadette embraced her new co-stars, the handsome and talented Stephen Buntrock as FREDRICK and the craft master Bradley Dean as Carl Magnus. These two men made friends of all with their talent including huge kudos from Steve regarding Bradley’s rendition of ‘In Praise Of Women’ . Okay breath Julia, clearly it’s going to be fine… maybe Elaine has mellowed. Nope! I was given the nick name “Jonesy” and was on call as soon as Elaine arrived, which was overwhelmingly early. Most of her requests had little or nothing to do with me but I was her most familiar conduit in the early hours at the theatre.

Diet Quinine with just a tablespoon of gin to kill the flavor of the quinine… that’s how we rolled! Notes from Stephen Sondheim that he would e-mail were received with shouts of “Jonesy, you don’t know Steve how I know Steve…” I would come up with some witty retort like, “you’re right Elaine, I don’t, but I’m going to give you the note anyway.” She would throw me out and later send someone to fetch me so I could then listen to the most fascinating stories about how “Judy wouldn’t leave until four in the morning. We all knew she was going to go early.” Come on, who talks about Judy Garland this way. Or she would read me a funny note from Woody Allen ribbing Elaine Kaufman of the NYC restaurant Elaine’s. She would scream at me in her undergarments that she wanted her regular hair person back or she wasn’t getting dressed so I did in fact have to ask a fellow SM to loan me their hair person (previously our hair person) to come calm our girl down. So many conversations half dressed or from the toilet, too many to count. Elaine went up terribly on her lines during her first several weeks at ‘ALNM’ so the shows ASM, Mary MacLeod, would stay close by in the wings during the danger points. Once during the song ‘Liaisons’ Elaine went up badly and yelled “Mary” looking for a prompt. Mary, the steadfast soldier, was right there with the words but all I could think about were all of those Musical Theatre Queens that thought Elaine was giving them a shout out, “Mary.”

The stories are endless from every Stage Manager who ever worked with Stritch and without even knowing them I can tell you they are true! Every wonderful tale added texture to our lives. I would say Rest In Peace Elaine but there are two things that I believe our givens, Elaine Stritch will never be completely at peace, there will always be something and a good catholic girl like Elaine (please note: she was a catholic values prude in her own way), God will give her whatever she wants.

Elaine all I can say is, once I join you in heaven I sure do hope you already have a stage manager! Broadway already misses you… and I guess I do too.