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"Let me tell you Bobby's best celebrity story," Wayne Salomon says.
Salomon and his devoted friend Bobby Miller are not only each other's best buddies; they are each other's biggest boosters, happier to talk up the other than themselves.
"1969," continues Salomon. "Tennessee Williams had a mental breakdown, and he was in Barnes Hospital. Bobby was an assured nineteen-year-old, full of himself. He went down to Barnes, found out where his room was and had a conversation with the hospitalized Tennessee Williams."
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Miller smiles at the distant memory then fills out the anecdote. "It wasn't quite like that," he clarifies. "I tried to visit Williams every day for about a week, but they wouldn't give me his room number. One day I made my usual attempt. As I approached the front desk, I saw Tennessee sitting alone in the day room. He was dressed in a flannel shirt, a cardigan sweater and baggy pants, and he looked quite healthy. There was a huge volume of T. S. Eliot on his lap, which he was ignoring because he was transfixed watching this rock group, the Animals, on The Mike Douglas Show.
"So I gently approached him, and he seemed delighted to have a visitor. He invited me to sit next to him. This was the week of the Vietnam Moratorium [in the fall of 1969] in Washington, D.C. Protesters were descending on the capital from all over America. He said, 'Why aren't you in Washington with the young people?' And I said, 'I would be, but I'm acting in a production of your play, Orpheus Descending,' which I was doing out at Lindenwood. I spent about a half-hour with him, and he couldn't have been nicer. He was not ill. In fact, he checked out a few days later. That is my best celebrity story."
Salomon has celebrity stories, too. He even has pre-celebrity stories. Like when he directed Godspell at John Burroughs School in 1989 and the student cast included such future stars as Sarah Clarke (24, the Twilight films), Heather Goldenhersh (Tony nominee for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Doubt) and Jon Hamm (Mad Men). But right now Salomon is recalling his own memories from high school. Back in 1964, when he was junior class president at Clayton, he met a brash freshman named Bobby Miller. Thanks to their shared love of theater, they formed an instant bond that remains intact.
"When Bobby was a senior," Salomon wryly recalls, "he played Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. Back then Bobby was a huge Method actor. So on the afternoon of opening night, he went home from class, fixed a bath and then sat in the bathtub for four hours..."
"In the dark," Miller interjects.
"In the dark, so that when he went back to school that night for the performance, he would be wrinkly." Salomon turns to his friend. "I don't think I ever asked you if it worked, or if the wrinkles went away by the time you got to school?"
"I had to hurry," Miller replies. "I kept trying to speed everybody up. 'Let's go!' Because my wrinkles were fading."
As the banter continues, a listener cannot help but wish that a local theater would persuade these two sixtysomethings to appear together in The Sunshine Boys. Just now, however, their focus is not on Neil Simon; they're talking up Nicky Silver. Miller and Salomon are about to begin rehearsals for a production of Silver's dark 2011 comedy, The Lyons. Miller recounts its genesis:
"So last year I get a call from Stellie [Siteman, Max & Louie Productions artistic director], and she says, 'Bobby, I just saw a show in New York, and you have to do it.' The Lyons. So I read the script, and it's hilarious. The father, Ben, could be another in my long line of cranky old Jews. Plus he doesn't get out of bed. This sounds ideal. I called her back. I said, 'Stellie, if you get Wayne Salomon to direct this, I'm in.' Stellie said, 'Wayne would be great, and so would...' I said, 'No, not so would. I'll do the play if Wayne directs it.'
"When you have a short rehearsal schedule, casting is everything," he continues. "I knew that with Wayne directing, the play would be impeccably cast. So Wayne read the play, and when he said yes, I suddenly realized that The Lyons will be the first time we have worked together in the theater in twenty-six years."
Flash back to 1987 and Salomon and Miller's last joint stage venture, acting in the Theatre Project Company's mounting of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. For ten years the two had worked together at TPC — sometimes as co-actors, other times with Salomon directing Miller — in Beckett, Chekhov, Mamet, Pinter, Shakespeare. They had taken pride in the company's rise to prominence and had despaired during its decline. TPC was more than a long-running gig; this feisty, hardscrabble ensemble had become part of their identities.
Theatre Project Company was the brainchild of general manager Christine Smith (a granddaughter of Luther Ely Smith, the St. Louis attorney who sparked the riverfront renewal that led to the design and construction of the Gateway Arch) and artistic director Fontaine Syer. Both Smith and Syer graduated from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and came to St. Louis with nothing more than a crazy idea — to create a resident professional theater company that would produce plays in an Off-Broadway manner.