When Elaine Stritch wanted to see a Broadway play, she never bought a ticket. Instead, she’d march up to the box office 10 minutes before the show and introduce herself. “Don’t be silly — after all I’ve done, I’m not paying for a ticket,” she told her friend Nathan Lane, who wanted to know if the tactic ever failed.
Only once. “Mamma f—king Mia,” Stritch told him.
Through laughter and tears, Stritch was remembered on Broadway on Monday afternoon at the Al Hirschfeld Theater. The two-hour tribute was appropriately called “Everybody, Rise!,” and ended with a vintage clip of Stritch belting her chestnut ballad “The Ladies Who Lunch” (from Stephen Sondheim’s “Company”) that had the audience on their feet.
Stritch, who died in July at 89, was buried at a small Chicago memorial service next to her husband John Bay. She didn’t want a big somber funeral, which is why her friends orchestrated an upbeat and festive memorial service in New York that included musical numbers, speeches and clips from her standout performances.
Nathan Lane, who choked back tears, opened the event with a monologue that sounded more like a roast than an eulogy. “She grew up in Detroit and came to Manhattan to train at the New School, which was at that time actually new,” Lane said.
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“I have so many memories of her and they all keep playing in my head like an awards show montage,” Lane said. “Elaine on ‘Waiting for Godot’: ‘Oh Nathan, that play isn’t funny — it’s one long f–king night in the theater. Elaine after seeing ‘The Addams Family’ — ‘Whatever they are paying you, it’s not enough.’”
Lane said that Stritch came to his 50th birthday and complained that the orchestra was too loud and wanted to know when she would go on. “By the way, her birthday present to me was a beautiful baby picture of her.”
New York gossip columnist Liz Smith said she first met Stritch in 1953 and they both shared a birthday on Feb. 2. “Until her death, we never had a cross word,” Smith said. “We never had a serious word either.”
Smith then set the record straight on Stritch’s love life. “Elaine wasn’t gay,” she said. “She was a sucker for every guy she met.” That included Marlon Brando, who once “kissed her face off.” When he wanted to take it further, “she called me on the phone — ‘It’s an emergency,’” Smith said. She then recalled acting as Stritch’s secretary on the 1956 production of “A Farewell to Arms,” where Stritch immediately developed a crush on Rock Hudson, even signing her name “Miss Hudson.”
Holland Taylor talked about their friendship — adding, in a line that got huge applause, that in 30 years they were never ladies who lunched. She said that Stritch used to carry designer shopping bags from Bergdorf Goodman and Chanel loaded with her medical equipment for diabetes.
Her lawyer, Joseph Rosenthal, took to the podium to reveal that Stritch had left $500,000 in her will to the Actors Fund, and Stritch’s nephew, Chris Bolton, talked about seeing his aunt onstage over the years. “What a life,” Bolton said. “What a gift.”
There were also musical numbers from Bernadette Peters, Betty Buckley, Christine Ebersole, Lena Hall and Michael Feinstein, who brought the house down with a rendition of “Fifty Percent.”
The show closed with a speech from her longtime musical director Rob Bowman. “Her love affair (was) for the audience,” Bowman said. “She lived for you.”
“Everybody, Rise! A Celebration of Elaine Stritch” was directed by George C. Wolfe and executive produced by Chiemi Karasawa (“Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me”) and Carol Fineman.