Always A Goodbye

That I had to use a calculator to figure out how long ago Howard died is surely testament to my lack of basic computational skills. It is also testament to the power of time. I go from, “it was just yesterday” to “it was so very long ago” a few times a day over matters as pedestrian as buying milk and as singular as personal loss.

Don Hahn’s new documentary is, if not in the can, damn near the can. It’s been an extraordinary three years watching Don research the film, answering his questions, pulling out photos and home movies, suggesting other people he might want to interview.

Don and his producer, Lori Korngiebel found some long-forgotten talks – one at the 92nd Street Y and one during a round robin interview session publicizing Mermaid. They also discovered a tape of a phone call between John Musker, Ron Clements and Howard shortly before Howard died. It just about did me in when I first heard it. Not because of what Howard says but how he sounds.

I recently had the opportunity to see the film at a private screening – the first time I’d seen it with any kind of audience. It wasn’t quite finished but close enough. Don Hahn reminded me of Howard at previews of his shows, pacing in the back and looking slightly nauseated. Unlike Howard, Don was not gnawing at a pencil or chewing a piece of paper (a habit since childhood) but other than that I couldn’t help thinking back to so many previews and opening nights – good and bad ones.

The opening night of Rosewater at the WPA was memorable – to me at least – because of dessert. I had bought a large cake to celebrate both the show and Howard’s birthday. I was relatively young and very broke but had stretched my budget for what I believed was a clever idea – the top was decorated with a giant 100-dollar bill created with lots and lots of green icing to symbolize Eliot Rosewater’s vast wealth. I don’t know if Eliot had cats but I had two – and one of them sat on the cake box right before I left for the theater, reducing my clever little joke to a large pea green smudge atop an enormous sheet cake. I myself was reduced to telling everyone – and really who cared but me – about my disastrous bakery moment.

The first night of Little Shop at the Orpheum was also memorable. All went well until Orin’s dentist chair was supposed to slide onto the stage. The music vamped – no chair. Vamped again – still no chair. We were all getting restless and concerned until Howard walked onto the stage carrying a wooden chair and doing that stagehand thing where he’s kind of, “I’m here but not here,” placing the chair center stage and just as invisibly, walking back into the wings.

Opening night of Smile was memorable in an entirely different way. Howard knew that the reviews wouldn’t be good – the show’s publicist had gotten advance word – but we hadn’t. He did say he wanted to read the reviews with Bill, no one else, so the two went to Ron’s and my apartment, which was close to the venue for the opening night party, while Ron and I corralled Mom to opening night festivities (which were quite festive until the Times verdict was announced).

After reading the reviews I had a feeling that I’ve only had a few other times in my life. It’s a very quick and very strong denial. As if you’re in a dream and simply need to wake up to start the day fresh, that the bad news can somehow all turn into an unfortunate mistake and erased if you can just go back five or ten minutes in time and start again.

It’s the feeling I had in the taxi on the way home after Howard told us he was HIV positive. “He can’t die,” I told Ron. “He can’t die.” I wasn’t a kid but I was young enough, scared enough, shocked enough to somehow believe that if I kept saying that, we could all go back to the time before.

Three years later, on March 14, 1991, I knew that Howard was going to die. We all did. We were prepared. Until the actual moment came and all the counseling, guidance and preparation failed me utterly. It was morning, we’d just gotten the call that it was over and were in another taxi, this one going to St. Vincent’s. “Hurry if you want to say goodbye” the nurse had said on the phone. “I’ll keep the door closed and try to keep them from taking him away until you get here.”

We had said goodbye many times by then but in the taxi there came the feeling again. If we simply go back and not step forward we could stop it all from happening.

I just wanted one more moment to say goodbye.

Howard with urchins.jpg