“...they would rather be outlaws a year in Sherwood Forest than President of the United States forever.” Tom Sawyer , Mark Twain
Last Saturday night, we had a few special guests in the theater. Whispers from stages past.
Ty, who plays Avrahm the Innkeeper, received the first whisper, as he was getting ready for the show that night. "I was in my study, and all of a sudden, on the other side of the room, I heard a crash, and something fell to the ground. It was a book that Bob Larotta had given me as a gift during the last time we did Fiddler. I honestly hadn't looked at it in a few years." He paused. "I took it to be a sign."
Like any long-lasting theater group, Fiddler on the Roof is a show that the Eldredge Players have done before. Three times before, as a matter of fact. That's what happens when you've been around for 65 years. And, performing on the exact same stage as the previous productions.
It creates opportunities for a lot of whispers to show up. Previous jokes, fond memories. Cast members who were cast as Tzeitel, years ago, now appearing as Golde. Daughters become Mamas, Sons become Papas.
As a result, I guess it was inevitable that Bob Larotta, who was the last actor to play Tevye and was beloved by the group, would make an appearance.
I didn't personally know him, but from all the stories that I've heard, I feel, as if I do. He was a big man, larger than life, full of good humor. A man that had a love of practical jokes and loved nothing more than to crack his fellow actors up onstage.
He passed away about a year after he appeared in Fiddler. Suffered a heart attack while on vacation. I know his widow well...one of my favorite people, as a matter of fact. Every time she speaks his name I can feel the love that she has for him. To this day.
Actors are filled with strange superstitions. Wearing certain clothing a particular way, keeping good luck charms in their pockets during a performance. Not saying certain words, like "Good luck" or Macbeth."
We felt his presence that Saturday night. A shiver across the shoulder blades. A sense of being watched. But instead of scaring the long-timers, it had a different effect. My friend Bobby, who had played a Russian in that production (same as he did in this production), put it best. "I was standing off in the wings, watching everyone sing Anatevka onstage, and all of a sudden, I realized that there were two other people on that stage, too. Bob Larotta and Larry Mish, the other Tevyes that I worked with. And suddenly, I couldn't help it, there were tears in my eyes and I was crying like a baby."
After the show was over, I learned exactly why Bob Larotta had chosen to pay us a visit that night. As I was stood in the lobby, trading small talk and exchanging congratulations on another great performance, I felt a presence by my side.
Turned around. There was my friend Judi Larotta, Bob's wife. Unannounced, she had chosen to come to this performance. She hadn't said anything to anyone, she sat in the back of the theater, unnoticed.
She gave me a quick hug. "Can't talk long," she said, "I didn't realize how much this show was going to affect me. It was wonderful. Thank you."
And with that, she was gone. A brief, five second exchange. Just a shadow in the crowd.
She wasn't alone that night, though.
This will be the last theater story I'll tell, I think, before I close that particular book for a while. Other stories to tell, not enough time to tell them...but this play's only a pleasant memory now, anyway.
Just like the ghosts of our past.