November 3, 2010 § Leave a comment

from the archives of Robin Hirsch, Minister of Culture, we present an ongoing historical pre-blog

It’s noon.  José-Luis calls down to the office and says, “There’s an old friend at the bar who wants to surprise you.”  I come up.  At the bar is an old man, bald, with a fringe of white hair.  He’s on a cane.  I haven’t a clue.  As he limps towards me, his face hoves more clearly into view. “Hello, Robin,” he smiles.  “Gary!”

More than fifty years ago, we had been members of the same Jewish youth group in London.  It was called the Phoenix and the name was carefully chosen.  It was the youth group of a congregation founded just before the war by German Jews who had fled Hitler.  It was the hope of the founders after the war, after the Holocaust, that out of the ashes a new generation might rise to carry their wan flame into the future.

Gary’s parents had emigrated to America when he was fourteen, so his membership in the Phoenix was brief.  But he had played Shylock in our production of the trial scene from The Merchant of Venice, so when he left it was a palpable loss.  He had real talent even then.  Years later he trained as an actor at the Yale School of Drama.  He returned to England to play in Cyrano at the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park the same summer that I came to America.  We passed in mid Atlantic, he on the SS United States going east, I on the Queen Elizabeth going west.

He had a successful career in England—at the RSC, at the National, in the West End.  A couple of times he came to New York to star on Broadway—with Alan Howard in Good, with Jim Dale in Joe Egg.  He even stayed with us during one of those runs.  I had seen him several times since.

But his appearance today is a jolt.

He has on his arm an attractive middle aged woman.  “This is Helen,” he says.

“Gary, what are you doing here?  Are you in a play?  And what’s wrong with your leg?”

“No, we’re in New York because we both had time off.  We came down to the Village because I wanted to show Helen the café.  What luck that you’re here.”

“And your leg?”

“I just had an operation.  It’s not as serious as it looks.”

Helen, it turned out, was a TV producer.  They had met when she was producing a show for David Frost.  Gary had become quite famous in a TV series called The Vicar of Dibley and Helen wanted him to come on the Frost show as a guest.  He turned her down.

“He’s quite shy, you know,” Helen said.  “In contrast to me.”

“She has a knack,” Gary said, “of going into a room anywhere in the world—Sydney, for example—and saying, I have to sit over there, next to that person, and as often as not there turns out to be a connection.  You’re a little like that, aren’t you?”

I explained that I had to meet my wife and that we were going to be out of town till Sunday, but I’d love to have them for dinner if they were free on Sunday evening.

Accordingly that Sunday night we sit down outside at O6, the farthest table to the right as you look out of the café.  We eat, we laugh, Gary and I reminisce.  Helen seems interested in everything, our shared youth, the shadow of our dark history, the café.  She comes downstairs to listen to a little jazz; Gary can’t make it because of his knee.

Dinner progresses at a leisurely pace.  Conversation is easy and fluid.  It’s one of those clear autumn nights, still warm enough for the doors to be open.  Every table outside is filled.  The usual complement of people passes by and says hello.

Suddenly at 10:30 there is a huge hullabaloo at the end of the street.  A firetruck is trying to make the turn, but it’s very tight.  Sirens are screaming, people are shouting, a car that is blocking traffic is moved.  Two firetrucks pull up outside the café and dozens of firemen in helmets and bulging uniforms jump out, brandishing pickaxes.  I am immediately terrified that they are going to smash our glass doors and lay waste to the café.  I jump up to find the captain.  “Ladies and gentlemen, the cabaret,” I say to the startled customers and run up to the lead truck.  “Excuse me, what’s going on?  Is it our building?”  The sense of urgency seems to have abated.   I turn round and look at the truck head on.  It’s my turn to be taken aback.  “Gary, Helen, come here.”

Painted on the front of the truck in immaculate gold letters is its name: “The Phoenix: Risen from Ashes.”

The next day I get an e-mail from my sister in London saying the Phoenix is having a reunion in two weeks.  Is there any way I can make it?

I had been the chairman for three years, from the age of fourteen to the age of seventeen.  It was at the Phoenix that I first learned the importance of community, a lesson which I took with me into the theatre and eventually the café.

How could I not go?

It was heartwarming, intense, deeply moving.

There were people I still knew, people I vaguely remembered, people I hadn’t seen or thought about in fifty years.

But they all had one thing in common.  Every single one of them looked as old as Gary.

October 2010


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