Club and Edwin Booth
“I refuse to
join any club that would have me as a member.”
Counter to Groucho’s
catch-22 line of self-deprecation, I have embraced the opportunity
to join The Players club. In fact, they had me at
their home page!
That reimagined classic logo suggesting a
history in the performance arts… overlaid on that plush
burgundy stairway… leading to…
… “A Certain Club?” A coded
suggestion of secrecy, ala Skull and Bones?
Rather, I would guess it to imply, a place
for those of discerning tastes and a flare for theatrics.
Though I dare not ask for clarification, lest it reveal any
“uncertainty.” Lest it expose me as an interloper
who really doesn’t belong.
To enter the club for the first time, is to experience a sense
of time travel. I imagine sitting there in that Chesterfield
chair… the fireplace ablaze … a snifter of brandy
in one hand…a good cigar in the other…discussing
Cole Porter’s latest smash hit. Perhaps, “Anything
Goes.” (“I haven’t seen Coley around here
of late, have you?”).
might have worn my Harris Tweed. And maybe after a guttural
laugh at a bawdy joke, I’d retreat to the billiards
room downstairs or the library upstairs. Where I might have
encountered Professor Plum with Candlestick and an alibi.
Yes, that’s it. An alternative universe. I’m caught
inside of a game of Clue.
All cute fantasies aside, I have in fact entered
a townhouse purchased in 1847 by Edwin Booth (yes, the brother
of that guy; more on that shortly), one of the most
famous Shakespearean actors of the 19th century. He retained
an upper floor as living quarters even after he turned over
the remainder of the place to The Players; a private
club he conceived of and opened on New Year’s Eve in
“We do not mingle
enough with minds that influence the world. We should
measure ourselves through personal contact with outsiders…I
want my club to be a place where actors are away from
the glamour of the theater.”
Opening night, was reportedly “before
a gathering of men from the theater, fine arts and letters,
journalism and commerce….” (A fly on the wall
might have overheard, “Hey, how about Cleveland winning
the popular vote but losing to Harrison in the Electoral College.
I’ll be darned”).
As with such clubs in New York City, and up
until the late 1980’s, it was a bastion of male privilege.
The grand dame of the theater Helen Hayes, was the first woman
admitted to The Players on April 23rd, Shakespeare’s
birthday, in 1989. A large portrait of her prominently hangs
in the club’s main dining room. Indeed, it is one of
the many paintings of a rather eclectic array of celebrities,
current and past, including in this carpet-bombing sortie
of name dropping...
The majesty of presence that was Edwin Booth,
still permeates the club though he has been gone 125 years.
So much so, that when you walk up those burgundy steps, you
can find the room that is preserved as it was on the day he
died in 1893. His slippers still lie beside the deathbed.
To most people outside the club, or those
not versed in theater history, Edwin Booth is little more
than a footnote. One that might be added in concert with his
infamous brother John Wilkes Booth, when recounting Lincoln’s
assassination. And right there is a bit of irony, in that
Edwin Booth saved the life of the President’s son Robert,
just a year earlier at a train station in New Jersey.
In his day, some theater critics considered
Edwin to be the best actor ever. His career had begun
in touring with his father Junius Brutus Booth, when his first
break is said to have come while appearing in Richard III
his illustrious career, he toured the U.S. and Europe, and
was known mostly for his portrayals of Hamlet. A bronze statue
of Booth as Hamlet stands across the street in Gramercy Park;
a private park with access available to club members.
few oddities associated with Booth as Hamlet that I found
interesting, start with the human skull on display in his
room. We are told it was willed to him by a man who was condemned
to the gallows, who Booth tried unsuccessfully to have spared.
gift by the ill-fated man, was intended to be used by Booth
in the graveyard scene in Hamlet. Was there ever a more personal
connection to … “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him,
He once held the record for 100 performances
in the role till another theatrical legend John Barrymore,
stopped at 101 (an egocentric act of “one-upmanship”
for which I would not have admitted him to the club years
Not quite as dramatic, so to speak, but quite
impressive, is that Booth’s last performance as the young Dane, was as a 58-year old in 1891 the Brooklyn
Academy of Music, just two years prior to his death.
Finally, so what about his relationship to
his brother? He had two brothers actually, and we are told
that he was closer to John. And this interaction with him,
is noteworthy in one case in particular.
“He appeared with his two brothers,
John Wilkes and Junius Brutus Booth Jr., in Julius Caesar
in 1864. John Wilkes played Marc Anthony, Edwin played
Brutus and Junius played Cassius.
It was a benefit performance, and the
only time that the three brothers appeared together on
the same stage. The funds were used to erect a statue
of William Shakespeare that still stands in Central Park.”
And as to his reaction to the assassination,
he issued a public statement which ran in various newspapers,
that read in part:
Given our world of texting and tweeting, his
eloquence verily leaps off the page.
As a member within the “newest class
of 15 Players,” which includes a Scientist, School Administrator,
Nurse, Real Estate Executive, Venture Capitalist, Executive
Recruiter, Pharmaceutical Executive and a PhD Candidate, along
with the usual suspects in arts and entertainment, I imagine
that this is the sort of mix Edwin Booth had in mind at the
Along with a message of welcoming by the club’s
president, we are urged to “raise a glass” when
our paths cross at the club’s Grill. Which I hope to
do, along with a long-time member, a great-great-great nephew
of Edwin Booth. Which will be… great.
Deciphering a Haiku
Sprung from the Game of Ball
If it’s this month,
and it is, T.S. Eliot’s terse assertion cannot help
but come to mind; at least this particular mind: “April
is the cruellest month.” Which kicks off his knee-slapper
of a poem “The Waste Land,” and lies within this
opening thought that usually goes unquoted in its entirety:
“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead of the land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.”
That the month of April could be perceived
so harshly, is on the surface so counterintuitive. Most would
claim that it is January and February that really suck. And
in fact did, in a Gallop poll taken a decade ago (no joke).
Which is why poetry is such a mystery to so many. And in regard
to months and poetry, some might turn to Groucho again:
“My favorite poem is the one that
starts 'Thirty days hath September'
because it actually tells you something.”
Meanings or intent in verse can be hard to
decipher, as they deal heavily in metaphor, simile, allusions,
while often shunning the literal. Which in the main, is the
domain of prose, as I see it. And with poetry being so highly
condensed in its verbiage, that can lead to further ambiguity.
Something I once sought to illustrate to students at the Hillside
School in Pasadena, a place which caters to kids “disengaged
from learning,” according to its mission statement.
I was a guest from the Independent Writer’s of Southern
and to illustrate my point, I held these up side by side:
The “disengaged” got the analogy
and turned in fabulous poems in a homework assignment. (One
boy even wanted the golf ball, though for what purpose I dare
not test). But I digress.
In a knowingly ironic counterpoint to Eliot’s
dour take on April, the Academy of American Poets first designated
it as National Poetry Month in 1996. But for me— before
I ever knew my iamb from my pentameter—April was always
about the grand return of America’s Pastime. And more
than any other sport, baseball has stirred the imagination
of artists, writers and poets since its birth. And why not.
This “certain game of ball” as Walt Whitman put
it, seems so transcendent to those of us who love it so.
Like spring and baseball, I too return. This time reprising
a haiku sprung from this beloved game of ball. Which speaks
(if only in a whisper), to some greater life reality? While
unintentionally suggesting some of Eliot’s dull roots
Did I mention that this baseball haiku of
mine was published in an anthology, Line
Drives: 100 Contemporary Baseball Poems, in
which I felt honored to appear alongside noted literary figures
such as Charles Bukowski, Richard Brautigan, Pulitzer
Prize winner Yusef Komunyakaa and the late great Major
League relief pitcher Dan Quisenberry, who wrote a book of
baseball poetry on the side? Of course I did (Baseball
and Spring and Poetic Things APRIL,
For the uninitiated, and as explained in various
sources, a haiku is not merely a very short poem. But one
that is… “recording the essence of a moment
keenly perceived in which Nature is linked to human nature.
It is one of the world’s oldest regularly written forms
of poetry, and Basho (1644-1694) is recognized as its foremost
In its classic form… “It consists
of a 5-7-5 syllable format within its three lines. The first
line seeking to draw us in. The second providing more information,
sometimes in the form of an image. With the third line offering
an answer to a question of the first two, while providing
more depth of meaning and insight through its implications.”
It takes some work on the part of the reader…
“who must share in the creative process, being willing
to associate and pick up on the echoes implicit in the words.”
Which is what the editors of “Line Drives” were
willing to do in the book’s introduction, to the tune
of 400 words of speculation on my 13-word haiku.
First, the haiku. Then their “play-by-play”
commentary, which at times is humorous without seemingly intending
to be, reproduced exactly as it appeared on the page. Though
I have emboldened some of their thoughts as they get “closer
to home,” for those who may want to skip the esoterica
of baseball that precedes.
men stand waiting
clouds that gather.
asks for time.
has been called in this game that is subject to no clock,
but why and by whom? Does it matter? The nine men are
presumably the players on the field, but this is not necessarily
so; perhaps only the grouping of nine men outdoors somewhere
suggested to the poet a baseball team. Even if they are
players, which ones? The catcher might be standing if
time has been called, but then where is the batter, and
why isn’t the number of waiting men at least ten?
And why aren’t the base coaches and umpires also
waiting? Because they are the ones conferring while the
players wait? If one imagines a less formal game, then
who is being asked to call time? If the nine men include
the man at bat, perhaps it is he who has called time,
tired of waiting for the pitcher to stop fidgeting. And
perhaps the pitcher fidgets because a runner at first
(but now we would have at least eleven men) is not standing
there like someone waiting for a bus but edging off base:
perhaps that is why each line moves a bit further toward
a righthand margin. And perhaps this runner (maybe he’s
the one calling time?) is causing the pitcher to consider
another throw in his direction or to contemplate changing
his pitch selection.
having pondered these matters, we haven’t even considered
line two yet, those gathering storm clouds. Is time being
called by the pitcher because he’s ahead after six
and the storm will buy him a win, or has the batter called
time because his team is hopelessly behind, the game not
yet official, and a storm that day’s only salvation?
Or are we to take those men, those clouds, that
desire to stop time less literally, more existentially?
Is the poem metaphysically portentous? But if so, of what
imminent event beyond a possible storm do these clouds
foretell? Does the poem tell us how we all stand helpless
before approaching disaster, of how we all sometimes wish
to stop time, arrest change? Is this why Vazzano’s
small vignette arrests us, causes us to linger for how
many minutes over a poem that takes perhaps five seconds
to read? But even so, why tell this poem in the form of
a haiku? Is this game taking place in Japan, or has the
form been chosen because the poem is in fact the koan
we found it, for now, to be?”
Quote of the Month
Perhaps as a counterpoint
to T.S. Eliot’s April and the previous haiku…
I love words. As should be
evident by now. And wordplay, even more. Which is why I have
entitled this piece as I have.
Paronomasia is another word for pun. A pun,
as we know, is “a form of word play that exploits multiple
meanings of a term, or of similar-sounding words, for an intended
humorous or rhetorical effect.”
What we might not know, or be able to put
into words, is that “these ambiguities can arise from
intentional use of homophonic (that’s homophonic),
homographic, metonymic or figurative language.”
For those of us who might seek validation
for our excessive punning, I suppose we can point to Shakespeare
who incorporated over 3,000 puns in his plays (Word Up!
by Rob Kyff). Though you’d need to be a scholar on Elizabethan
word meanings and their pronunciations, to ferret them all
the modern idiom, we might be interested to know that the
O.Henry Pun-Off World Championship, will once again
be held in Austin Texas this May (which is rather ostentatious
to my dismay). Wonder what the Bard would think of our contemporary
plays on words?
Though I might have taken any fun out of what
is to follow (“I’ve fallen into didacticism and
I can’t get up!”), I’ll still pass along
a list of three dozen puns that have been sent to me recently
by a friend of fifty years, who shall remain nameless. (Bob
Rattner). Thus, funnel any ensuing groans in his direction.
He’s on Facebook. Along with a billion of us others
(who in light of recent developments might be reconsidering).
Without further ado, and much ado about nothing…
was the person who sent ten puns to friends, with the hope
that at least one of the puns would make them laugh. No
pun in ten did.
who stole a calendar got twelve months.
the smog lifts in Los Angeles, U.C.L.A.
and a manicurist married. They fought tooth and nail.
is a dead giveaway.
you've seen one shopping center you've seen a mall.
were summoned to a daycare center where a three-year-old
was resisting a rest.
you hear about the fellow whose entire left side was cut
off? He's all right now.
can't stand alone; it's just two tired.
a clock is hungry it goes back four seconds.
guy who fell onto an upholstery machine is now fully recovered.
a photographic memory which was never developed.
she saw her first strands of grey hair she thought she'd
is a jab well done.
fattest knight at King Arthur's round table was Sir Cumference.
He acquired his size from too much pi.
I saw an eye doctor on an Alaskan island, but it turned
out to be an optical Aleutian.
was only a whiskey maker, but he loved her still.
band pistol was confiscated from algebra class, because
it was a weapon of math disruption.
how much you push the envelope, it'll still be stationery.
silk worms had a race. They ended up in a tie.
has been found in the nudist camp wall. The police are looking
flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
is a non-prophet organization. (In memory of George Carlin)
hats were hanging on a hat rack in the hallway. One hat
said to the other: 'You stay here; I'll go on a head.'
why the baseball kept getting bigger. Then it hit me.
on the lawn at a drug rehab center said: 'Keep off the Grass.'
dwarf fortune-teller who escaped from prison was a small
medium at large.
soldier who survived mustard gas and pepper spray is now
a seasoned veteran.
poet writes inverse.
cannibals ate a missionary, they got a taste of religion.
boards an airplane, carrying two dead raccoons. The flight
attendant looks at him and says, 'I'm sorry, sir, only one
carrion allowed per passenger.'
fish swim into a concrete wall. One turns to the other and
Eskimos sitting in a kayak were chilly, so they lit a fire
in the craft. Unsurprisingly, it sank proving once again
that you can't have your kayak and heat it too.
batteries were given out free of charge.
hydrogen atoms meet. One says, 'I've lost my electron.'
The other says 'Are you sure?' The first replies, 'Yes,
I'm positive. '
you hear about the Buddhist who refused Novocain during
a root canal? His goal: transcend dental medication.
"More of your conversation
would infect my brain." (The Comedy of Errors)
"They have a plentiful lack of wit." (Hamlet)
"You are not worth another word, else I'd call you knave."
(All’s Well That Ends Well)
“As you from crimes would
Let your indulgence set me free.” (The Tempest)