Ian McKellen Writings

1992 | For Curt Dawson (5 December 1941 - 13 January 1985)

From "Broadway Day & Night" by Ken Marsolais, Roger McFarlane and Tom Viola, 1992 by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and Sue Katz & Associates Inc.

In 1961, just out of Cambridge University and waiting for my first professional acting job, I found myself in an amateur production with recent graduates from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.  Also in the cast was Curt Dawson.  Curt was from Kansas, although the RADA had almost erased any aural evidence.  To look at, though, he was perfectly all-American.  Tall, healthy, golden hair, big, big smile: ex-army pants and sneakers.

One evening in London, he introduced me to three great Americans: Ethel Merman, Stephen Sondheim and Sara Lee.  He had presented me with an apple pie from a packet and, having won my heart, then serenaded me with an original cast recording of Gypsy.  "Everything's Coming Up Roses" was Curt's favorite refrain.  He made Broadway, which produced such glories, seem like the center of the theatre world.  London's West End, by contrast, was still in the lull between Ivor Novello and Andrew Lloyd Webber, dependent on American musical imports, just as British cinema has always relied on Hollywood.

Yet, like so many Americans who study drama in England, Curt longed to settle in Shakespeare's country, where the classics are alive and well and waiting to be performed.  After he went home to work and I had started acting in regional repertory companies, our letters exchanged envy of each other's theatre culture.

In 1967, I waltzed into Times Square for the first time and saw a man urinating against the statue of George M. Cohan.  Some critic.  Those days, Broadway was a dirty, gutsy thoroughfare: no posh hotels then, although the original Lindy's still served blissful cheesecake.  Eighth Avenue was out-of-bounds, except to gypsies rushing across to the newly opened Joe Allen restaurant, where Joel Grey ate and they played Cabaret songs nonstop.

If you're interested in what else played on Broadway at that time, check out The Season, where William Goldman analyzes them all, hits and misses.  He gives little space to the Russian play The Promise, which was why I was there.  Indeed no one in New York cared much for us (Eileen Atkins, Ian McShane, and me), despite the worldwide success of the play.  On opening night at Henry Miller's Theatre, our audience was picketed by local Equity members chanting that only American actors should be allowed on Broadway.  Their wish was soon granted; twenty-three performances later, we closed.  The New York Times's critic, then an Englishman, had not been overgenerous to his countrymen.  I felt like George M.'s statue.

Before I flew home, I met up again with Curt.  He had done a few hit parts on Broadway and a few better parts off Broadway.  He had done the classics out of town, but he made his money in the soaps.  He still romanced about working in London.  I warned him that there might be pickets there, too.

In 1981, I was back on Broadway in a hit.  Others will have recorded how thrilling that sort of thing can be.  Yet through the 80s there were so many changes.  Henry Miller's was a porno-movie house.  They (who?) had destroyed three intimate theatres to make way for one monstrous auditorium and a hotel in Times Square.  Cats was purring and the British musical invasion was under way.

On January 13, 1985, Curt died, the first friend I knew with AIDS.  I wanted him to be in this book. — Ian McKellen, 1992

More Writings

Ian McKellen's Home Page

Bookmark and Share