She died at the age of 89, in her hometown of Birmingham, Michigan, on July 17th, 2014, after retiring there a year earlier from New York City. Seventeen of her friends, family, and show business colleagues shared their often-emotional memories of her during this packed two-hour memorial tribute.
“Mama-Fucking-Mia!” was the only Broadway show that wouldn’t let her in for free, when she would arrive at a theater box office, ten minutes before curtain, and announce, “I’m Elaine Stritch. I want to see the show!” Recalled Nathan Lane. They first met and became friends while appearing in a production of “The Show Off, improbably at The Actor’s Studio,” that never opened. “They made us honorary members so we would leave the building!” “Whatever they’re paying you it’s not enough!” she snapped, after seeing him in The Addams Family. He was as usual very funny but was so overcome by emotion during his lengthy statements, that he had to stop and collect himself several times. His were the first and most powerful remarks of the event.
“She was my girlfriend,” said Bernadette Peters, in describing their relationship, which became close in 2010, during their run together as replacements in the revival of A Little Night Music. She performed “Civilization” from Angel in The Wings. “She referred to dying as leaving the building. She tried very hard not to leave the building… She exited on her own terms…Weeks before she died, she stopped eating and drinking…”
“She was a brilliant actress who appeared in musicals,” said Hal Prince. Clips of her that were shown from the celebrated 1996 revival of A Delicate Balance (a Hirschfeld caricature from that was the image projected above the stage before the show began) and from Woody Allen’s 1987 drama, September, supported his laudatory observation.
He directed her iconic performance as Joanne in 1970’s Company. “No one since has touched her version of ‘The Ladies Who Lunch.'” He gently debunked her story in At Liberty, that he called her to offer her the part after he read brash remarks in a New York Times interview, where she remarked about directors not being intelligent. He speculated about her frazzled rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch,” during the original cast recording session that was filmed as a documentary. “Wouldn’t it be something if she planned the whole damned thing!” “You were a real character, like they used to make…”
“Elaine Stritch was my guardian angel…” said Betty Buckley as she described their friendship and Stritch’s mentorship of her. She did a soft shoe as she jauntily sang, “I Never Know When,” from Goldilocks, a 1958 Broadway musical that starred Stritch.
“We were both groundhogs,” said Liz Smith as each of their birthdays was on February 2. They had known each other since 1953. “She was better than Merman,” about Stritch’s touring in Call Me Madam. About her reputation for being difficult, “As she got older, she got less nice to idiots.”
Christine Ebersole sang one of her signature songs from her own cabaret act, the comic and joyous “That’s Him,” from One Touch of Venus.
Alec Baldwin and Cherry Jones were shown on video praising her. “You should do Coward…but first you’d have to lose 20 to 25 pounds!” She said to her 30 Rock co-star, Baldwin. “She was a conduit to the golden age of theater,” said Jones.
“I was hoping she was dead,” quoted Michael Feinstein, as an example of Stritch’s dry humor. After a concert of his, she was joking about his mother after meeting his father and being smitten by him. He then powerfully sang, “50 Percent,” from the musical Ballroom. Laura Benanti came out and recalled how she and Stritch met and became friends during a workshop of a musical. Then she and Feinstein performed a lively, “You’re just in Love,” from Call Me Madam.
“I don’t sing and I can’t dance, and this is my first time on Broadway,” deadpanned, Joseph Rosenthal, Stritch’s attorney for the past 15 years. “She was an unforgettable character.” He became very emotional in recounting her giving “large bills” to homeless people she encountered. Once, the two were walking up Madison Avenue, they were approached by a middle-aged down and out man. “If I give you money you’re just going to drink it up. Right?” “Yes.” She then took him into a fancy restaurant and told the manager to feed him in the kitchen and give her the check. Since it was on public record, he offered details of her will. She left “generous” bequests to all her caregivers. A scholarship fund was established at the Stella Adler Studio. The Actors Fund and The Juvenile Diabetes Foundation each received $500,000.
In the 1960’s at an NYC unemployment office, remembered Holland Taylor, she saw a blonde woman in a chic creamsicle outfit, with the tallest legs. “ELAINE STRITCH!” called out a caseworker. Years later the two became good friends, going out to dinner and to the theater. Instead of carrying her diabetes medications in a tote bag, Stritch had a collection of shopping bags acquired from upscale stores she used, and that she selected based on what she was wearing. “Orange Hermes goes well with navy…” “I’m happy to say that in all years together as friends, we never had…lunch…”
The torch was seemingly passed to a new generation as Lena Hall appeared dressed in a facsimile of Stritch’s trademark outfit. Wearing a white shirt, black tights, heels, and a hat, she performed a commanding, “Broadway Baby.”
Stritch’s cast mate from the A Little Night Music revival, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka gave a long, at times emotional chronicle of their close relationship. She gave him a Cartier watch that belonged to John Bay, her beloved and long predeceased husband, and later absentmindedly asked where it was. Her nickname for him was “Later,” the title of a song he sang in the show. Serendipitously, he was in Chicago the day of her funeral and saw that her tombstone that is inscribed, “Elaine Stritch 1925 – 2014 ‘Later…'”
“She was my best friend…I don’t know why but I became her project…She saved my life,” explained Julie Keyes, who met Stritch at a Sag Harbor Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. They formed a very close relationship that was shown in the recent documentary, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.
“Elaine Stritch was my aunt!” joyfully declared her nephew, Chris Bolton. Having worked months on his speech, he was recently hit by laryngitis. His enthusiasm propelled him to give a charming reflection. He spoke of the excitement of coming to New York City as a young man to see all her performances and praised her successful struggles against diabetes and alcohol.
Appropriately the last speaker was the event’s music director, Rob Bowman. “I feel like the luckiest guy in the world!” For fourteen years, from their first encounter during the unsuccessful workshop of a musical until her retirement, they worked intensely together on a number of projects. These included her triumph in At Liberty, her cabaret shows at The Carlyle Hotel, and various concerts. He marveled at her stamina and work ethic, that it was all for the audience. Motioning to the crowded audience, “She would have loved this. She lived for YOU…”
“The Ladies Who Lunch,” sung by her in a moody, dark, performance video, in close up, from 1970, was the finale.
The event was “constructed” by director George C. Wolfe. That description is a cute reference to his work on her monumental solo show, Elaine Stritch: At Liberty. As much as his staging adeptly showcased all of the eloquent speakers, it still lacked a certain degree of energy and pizzazz. That was because she was not there.
Everybody, Rise! A Celebration of Elaine Stritch (November 17th, 2014)
Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 West 45th Street, in Manhattan
Running time: two hours with no intermission