Stritch, B’way ring ‘Liberty’ bell

Screen Trade: William Goldman

NEW YORK — The high point of my life happened at Chicago’s Wrigley Field in 1943, when I saw the already legendary but very old Bronko Nagurski come off the bench and lead my team, the Bears, toward the championship.

I have written that scene, more than any other, in novels, non-fiction — you name it –and I suppose the reason I loved the movie “Hearts in Atlantis” so much was because I finally got to include that story in my screenplay. Few of us know about Nagurski today, but he was, with no one else even close, the greatest football playerof all time.

When I wrote about him what I suppose I was doing was this: keeping that great man alive.

Which brings me to one of the theatrical triumphs of the decade: It may be dumb to say this when the decade’s just begun, but I will bet that when it’s done, people will still be talking about “At Liberty,” the show that Elaine Stritch is bringing to Broadway on Feb. 6 for a ridiculously limited 80 performances.

Why is she so lazy, doing just five performances a week?

A couple of reasons. First, you have to allow for the fact that it is a one-woman show, and being alone onstage for two and a half hours, singing and hoofing and reminiscing, I suppose can be tiring. Then you have to throw this into the mix: She’s 76 years old.

I have seen two other legendary single acts, Gielgud’s “Ages of Man” and Holbrook’s “Mark Twain Tonight.” And I treasure them, but fair is fair — Johnny G had Bill backing him up, Hal had Sam. Stritch has nobody but Stritch.

And who is that?

Well, she never won a Tony. She never was a star — the musicals she had the lead in failed — and when she was in hits, it was always as support. Her movie career never amounted to what it should have; she blew the audition for “Golden Girls” and there went her television annuity.

When you’d hear about her in the city it often had to do with her drinking: She was drunk a lot, could be trouble, the last one at parties, sitting by the piano, singing lovelorn songs, always needing a drink or two before she could make it out onto the stage.

Do you sense a self-destructive pattern here? Well, she sure does, and that’s what her show really is: a very funny, very sad recounting of the screw-ups of her life.

But no matter how often she erred, Broadway was there to save her. She would belt down a few, go audition, get cast, be brilliant.

She understudied Merman when Merman was in her 40s and Stritch not 25. She acted for Mr. Abbott, sang Hart — ‘Walter Lippman wasn’t brilliant today, will Saroyan ever write a great play?’ — and stop!

Do you know what I’m talking about ? Or who? What did that mean about Saroyan? Can you explain it? I’m not going to, but we are closing in on what makes the Stritch show so great.

Ethel Merman? Probably you knew that she was the greatest musical comedy star in the history of the American theater. And that George Abbott was the longest-lived and most successful stage director. And that Larry Hart was one of our treasured lyricists, the one who partnered with Rodgers before Hammerstein.

Do you know who Rodgers and Hammerstein were? Certainly you should and probably you do, but I’ll bet your kids don’t know and, worse, don’t care. And neither do most TV execs and movie honchos.

We live in this awful 24-hour world in which Britney is on our magazine covers when we all know in five years she has a great shot at “Hollywood Squares.” Maybe not. Madonna beat the odds. Sinatra was Britney once, got knocked down, scrambled back up and had a run that seemed like forever.

Stritch never had that career, and the booze haunted her. But she came to New York at a time when a million other talented neurotic kids came here, dreaming of somehow breaking through in this most wondrous of cities.

I never met her, never knew about her life until “At Liberty.” But what she is doing, miraculously at 76, is this: keeping that great time alive. The songs, the stories, how the weather was. She can walk out onstage now, no booze, letting us share not just her life, but that whole world when Broadway was where you wanted to be and sometimes, if you got lucky, there was magic.

Referring to how she missed so much in her drunken haze, she says, “It almost all happened without me.”

But it didn’t. She’s still here, and she’ll get her Tony, only maybe half a century too late.

Sometimes there’s God so quickly…