Longing for Lansbury
Angela Lansbury’s fan base crossed generations on family trees around the globe. Her vast talent branched out in my directions, each budding with professional splendor rarely witnessed in one human being. In theatre, on film, television, and albums she mastered comedy, tragedy, musicals, camp, and drama, running the gamut of characters, accents, and emotions from “A” to “Z.”
I first caught sight of her in Vincent Minelli’s marvelous MGM extravaganza, The Harvey Girls. A remarkable sight, the tall, leggy amazon, as glamorous as a Parisian fashion model plopped down in the wild west, cavorted across the screen with tremendous aplomb. Even when she wrestled with the magnificent Just Garland, she electrified the screen. I was hooked!
Impatient to sample her Ms. Dennis, I ripped the cellophane off the cast album of Jerry Herman’s Mame before my brother could fire up the Magnavox record player. I spent countless afternoons singing along with her, mimicking the high-kicking choreography pictured on the albums insert. A Hyacinth Macaw among a flock of pigeons, Angela Lansbury was a Godsend to this provincial gay youth aching for an icon to hitch his star to.
Though I witnessed firsthand her incalculable charm as a leading lady on Broadway, I only met her once after her unforgettable performance as Ms. Lovett in Sweeny Todd. Squished in the middle of the buzzing swarm of her devoted fans at the stage of the Uris Theatre (now the Gershwin), I swooned when someone from behind shoved before the legend. My eyes wide and my tongue tied, I, a nineteen-year-old theatre student, stood clutching my Playbill to my chest.
Out of thin air, a pen miraculously appeared in her well-manicured fingers (Forgive me, but she was a sorcerer). “And who shall I address this to,” she asked, her face inches from mine.
“J-J-J.E.R.,” I stubbled. Snatching the program from my paws, the grand lioness signed her signature. I marveled at the Dramatic swoop of her capital letters, the arched glide of the cursive lower-cased ones, and the luscious loops of her elegant “L” in Lansbury.
A breeze swept down the alleyway and the scent of her perfume wafted under my nose. “Halston!” I screeched like a game show contestant.
To my chagrin, my voice echoed down the Great White Way. Traffic ground to a stop. Ann Miller, existing the Mark Hellinger Theatre after a performance of the effervescent Sugar Babies froze in mid-tap, her mile-high leaguered wig sliding carelessly over one ear. The Angela zealots gasped in unison and my knees knocked SOS, the morse code for help.
“Correct!” Ms. Lansbury scrunched her shoulders together and laughed. Warm, gracious, and brilliantly kind, she’d rescued me from one of the most humiliating moments of my life. That’s a star.
She wasn’t dining at Sardi’s the night I was there. I didn’t discover her radiant presence at the Café Carlyle the night an ex treated me for my birthday. I never ran into her at Saks Fifth Avenue or Bergdorf Goodman. But she’s always with me, in my heart and in my head. She’s forever my Auntie Mame, the finest of dames, the one who inspired me to “Open a new window every day.”