Thursday, July 7, 2011

Remembering Cyril Ritchard

Some friends and I were talking the other day about beloved idols of our youth. Elvis, Ricky Nelson, The Beatles, and the enduring Frank Sinatra all came up.

My husband Bob remembers that he saw Ricky Nelson as the cool guy he longed to be and Annette, blooming into puberty on "The Mickey Mouse Club" for a generation of enchanted young boys, as the perfect symbol of sweet sensuality.

When all of this was going on, I wasn't among the admirers of Elvis or Ricky. Instead, from the time I was nine years old, I was totally enamored with Cyril Ritchard, the 50-something Australian actor who played Captain Hook in Mary Martin's "Peter Pan". He was the villain, but I knew he was kidding. I knew in my heart that he was a good man pretending to be bad. He was about the same height and build as my father -- but, despite his campy villainy, he projected a winning combination of warmth, silliness, outrageous humor and dignity. I felt safe when I thought of him. And, in a home where, at times, I was very frightened of my raging, alcoholic father, I thought of him a lot.







I used to fantasize that he would somehow meet and marry my beloved Aunt Molly -- both were single, after all, he a recent widower, she never married -- and they would adopt me and my siblings and we would live happily and safely ever after.

I used to write him an occasional fan letter -- and he would always write back, in his own hand, on his personal stationery with his home address on Central Park West in New York or from his country home in Connecticut. I treasured the short, but kind letters that were so adult, yet non-condescending.

I used to cut out and save any articles I could find about him. He was in his most active period -- starring on Broadway, on television, directing Broadway shows and operas at the Met.  And yet there was never enough press on him to satisfy me.  Aunt Molly, a professional writer who found my love for Mr. Ritchard both touching and amusing, stepped in -- writing a series of phony press releases about him that used stills from old silent films.  I thought they were hilarious.

                                         Three of Aunt Molly's Mock Press Releases



                                                
                                              

My father laboriously copied them in his photo lab and we sent a bunch of them to my idol.  He replied with delight that they were "excruciatingly funny! I have put them in a very special section of my scrapbook and was showing them to my dear friend Walter Pidgeon last night.  He wishes someone would write something like that for him, too! Please extend my warmest thanks to your Aunt Molly! She is very clever, indeed!"

My heart leapt for joy!

I was even more excited when he came to Los Angeles with "Visit to a Small Planet" and invited me, my brother and my friend Mary Laing, to visit him in his dressing room after the matinee performance we attended. It was one of the happiest times of my childhood.

He greeted us enthusiastically, laughing when I shyly told him that I thought he was more handsome than Rock Hudson. "I can assure you, my dear, that no one has ever told me that before," he said, smiling. "But sit down and tell me about you. I want to know about all of you."

And so we sat and told him our likes and dislikes, our hopes and dreams. He asked questions and, most of all, he listened, his attention never wavering. We told him about our teachers and our pets and a myriad of details about our lives. I quietly told him that my father sometimes frightened me a lot. He took my hand.

We talked about faith and the power of God to heal the most painful wounds.  He said that his faith had saved him when his only child, a son, passed away shortly after birth and when his beloved wife died of cancer. He assured me that faith could be my greatest support and greatest joy, too, and that it was something we would always share. He hugged me as we said goodbye and I felt a wonderful sense of safety and love.

                                                        
                                                          

Afterwards, I called Aunt Molly, who was living and working in Ohio at that time, to tell her the news. "Oh," she said, her voice choked with emotion. "I'm so glad! I'm so happy for you that he is such a good man, such a kind soul. I'm so glad he didn't disappoint you."

He never did -- even though he never met and thus never married Aunt Molly. Even though he never adopted me.  Even though I never saw him in person again, the memory of his warmth and kindness, the interest he took in us, in me, when we visited was sustaining. The shared faith kept me hopeful through many dark times.

And I delighted in seeing his television performances and listening to him read "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" on boxed LP's Aunt Molly gave me for my 12th birthday -- records I treasure to this day. And I read articles about him with new understanding -- particularly when Sondra Lee, who had played Tiger Lily in the Broadway production and in all three television broadcasts of "Peter Pan" described him in one as "an absolutely delicious human being, the kindest person I have ever known."

Many years later, when he came to Los Angeles with the Broadway musical "Sugar", there was a free Actors Equity/Screen Actors Guild showing. A close friend of mine, actor Maurice Sherbanee, got tickets. But, at the last minute, I had to go on a business trip and couldn't attend. Maurice went by himself and phoned me later that night to say he was so glad I had missed the show. Cyril Ritchard had had a heart attack onstage, had gone into cardiac arrest and was revived by co-star Larry Kert who quickly administered CPR. "It was terrible," Maurice said. "He nearly died right there in front of everyone. I'm so glad you didn't have to see it." I sent Mr. Ritchard a note when he was recovering at home in Connecticut. He replied that the episode had been frightening but now he was feeling "wonderfully well and my day was brightened even more by your kind note."

Three years later, the outcome wasn't nearly as positive. Appearing in the National Company of "Side By Side, By Sondheim" in Chicago, he had another heart attack just offstage during a Thanksgiving performance. He was admitted to Northwestern Medical Center where he died on December 18, 1977 shortly after turning 80. I heard the news when I was in San Francisco working with Dr. Chuck Wibbelsman on our first book.  Knowing my long affection for Cyril Ritchard, √áhuck brought me the newspaper, then embraced me.

While I grieved the loss of this good man and unique talent, I rejoiced that he had died doing what he loved, still active, still delighting audiences.  And I still remember his inspired silliness, his kindness, his versatility as a director, his singular charm as an actor. He was an unconventional idol, to be sure, for a young tween -- but he brought immeasurable joy and hope to a young girl who needed that so much.

24 comments:

  1. What a touching tribute and what an interesting relationship to have had with this talented man. And I thoroughly enjoyed the clip -- isn't it marvelous what you can find on You Tube? I'm also fascinated by your friendship with Walter Pidgeon -- one of my favourite actors!

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  2. Kathy, I'm afraid I had never heard of Cyril Ritchard until reading this loving tribute to him, Thanks to your vivid description, I can now see why he means so much to you. What a truly lovely man.

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  3. What a beautiful tribute to a beautiful man. I only knew him as Captain Hook. It was so wonderful was how he responded to a fan letter. You won't find that today. What your Aunt came up with was perfect. Too bad they never met.
    He had to be a kind, caring man who graciously let you into his life. You placed your adoration well.
    Arkansas Patti

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  4. Thanks so much Broad, Perpetua and Patti! He was, indeed, lovely and a model of civility you don't often find in celebrities these days. Just to clarify, Broad, Cyril Ritchard and Walter Pidgeon were best of friends, having appeared in a show on Broadway together in 1925 and shared an apartment during that time. I never met Walter Pidgeon, but always liked and admired his acting!

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  5. This was a beautiful tribute. I also had never heard of Cyril Ritchard. I think I was most struck by your Aunt Molly's comment that she was happy that he did not disappoint.

    I also am so thankful you had your aunt in your life. She seems to have a played such an important role in your life.

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  6. Thanks, Sally! Yes, I am very grateful to have had Aunt Molly in my life -- as are my brother and sister. We called her our third and best parent. And we were blessed to have her many years longer than our parents, losing her in 2004. She was an award-winning poet, successful television writer and had a bread-and-butter job writing speeches for generals in the Strategic Air Command. She was my hero.

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  7. What a beautiful nostalgia piece! There are so many times and influences in our childhood that are there for the picking, if only we sat down and wrote about them. Funny how, in childhood, we daydream a different life for ourselves, with all the right parents and the right surroundings.

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  8. Cool story! How nice that Cyril Ritchard was friendly right back.

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  9. What a lovely post about a charming man (who I hadn't heard of either).

    This is a beautiful blog..I've just discovered it..had a quick glance but will be back to read more of your posts.

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  10. Thanks so much for your comments, Rosaria, Linda and Ayak! I agree that there is so much to mine from our childhoods in understanding major influences and, yes, daydreaming is such a part of childhood -- at least it was for me! Thanks and welcome, Ayak!

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  11. Kathy, I knew I liked you when I first read a comment you wrote on another blog. But know that I know you better, I REALLY like you and so relate to this! I had a couple of similar Broadway passions as a teen and in some ways, those never change!

    But what I love most about this is how it demonstrates the kindness, generosity of spirit and lack of bluster -- I was going to say lack of ego, but you have to have ego of some sort to be in that world of both fame and potential rejection. He COULD have had a secretary reply or simply ignored you. But instead, he took time and care with those replies and in doing so showed not only a part of him that might not be clear to others but also shared something authentic with you. I liked him a lot in Peter Pan (how many of those of us "of a certain age" jumped off our beds, trying desperately to fly?) For that matter, I adored that production of Peter Pan! But didn't know other details about his career. Simply terrific!

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  12. I still enjoy Ricky Nelson music too!

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  13. This is my first visit to your blog. I enjoyed reading this post so much. I pictured myself as a young girl writing to a famous actor and getting a response and then meeting and visiting with him...that must have been so exciting!
    It has been YEARS since I've seen the Peter Pan movie with Mary Martin. What a treat to see the video clip! I must admit, I never knew who played Captain Hook before now. Cyril Ritchard must have been a wonderful man. Thanks for sharing this story.
    I hope you have a good day.

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  14. Thanks, Jeanie and Connie! Yes, Broadway and theatre in general was a passion when I was a kid -- and, to an extent, to this day. It's amazing how much it means to a child, to anyone, when a celebrity takes time to be kind.
    Cyril Ritchard was exceptional in that way, just an uncommonly lovely man. I've done a lot of television in the connection with my books -- most of the major daytime talk shows -- and found even at this stage what a difference it makes when a host is nice off-camera as well as on. One very famous t.v. personality whom many people consider a wonderful person is not only dismissive of, but can be actually mean off-camera to non-celebrity guests. Most are not that way, of course. They are at least professionally polite. But Cyril Ritchard was one of a kind.

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    1. I thought I was the only one having this wonderful crush on Cyril Ritchard. I have a stack of letters from him during the course of his career starting with a Visit to a Small Planet. It was then that we corresponded each time I saw him. I went back stage several times and visited with him . He appeared at Valley Forge Musical Festival and I took my husband and childen to meet him and his wonderful poodle. His last letter was from Chicago where he died. Living close to NY, I never missed his shows. He will always be my favorite.

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    2. When I was a little girl performing at Muny Opera, I had the same great pleasure as you did of meeting him backstage. He came down the long steps in a fedora and black cape. He swept me into his arms and signed my autograph book. Many years later I worked with another actor who was a close friend of his as well. We both agreed Cyril Ritchard was a one of a kind gentleman FOREVER AND ALWAYS.

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  15. I deeply appreciated your story of your feelings about, and friendship with, Cyril Ritchard. I also have had a crush on him nearly all my life and it is so much fun to find someone who felt the same (indeed, as you say, no teen idol could come close). My parents had a copy of his record "Odd Songs and a Poem" from 1955. I was then a small child and, though it was directed at an adult audience, it was my favorite record album and I still have it! It is marvelous, so witty. I loved his "Peter and the Wolf" recording too. His TV performances, "Jack and the Beanstalk" and "Peter Pan" are two of my treasured early memories. I saw him on stage in "The Roar of the Greasepaint" when I was a teenager and found my ardor had not cooled. I am so touched that you reached out to him and even more moved by his warm response to you. Thank you so much for sharing this relationship with us.

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  16. Just came across your wonderful recollection as I was looking for biographies of Cyril. I, too, had a crush on him growing up. And when I found out that I shared a birthday with him AND Mary Martin, I knew I was lucky!! Because of our shared birthdays, I've always considered myself a cross between Captain Hook and Peter Pan!! LOL!! You are SO lucky to have communicated with him and met him!! And, like your aunt, I'm happy he was NOT a disappointment to you!! What a kind, caring, thoughtful man----no wonder so many of us had crushes on him!! We were all attracted to quality!! :-)

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  17. We are probably around the same age and I also had a crush on this older, dignified and delightful gentleman from the age of about 7 or 8. When I was in high school, I discovered he lived at the Dakota--steps away from my high school. He was actually listed in the phone directory and, one afternoon, I gathered up the courage to take my coins to the local library phone booth and call him. I was not sure what in the world I wanted to say--maybe just to connect with my idol. He sounded a bit perplexed as I stammered something (I cannot recall WHAT I said) before I admiitted I liked him and thanked him for being Captain Hook. Boy oh boy, do I envy you your correspondence and visit with him!.

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  18. I love reading your accounts of your childhood crushes and various encounters with this lovely man! Isn't it interesting that, even as children, we knew that underneath that campy villain was a very kind man? Thanks so much for sharing your feelings and experiences!

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  19. Wow, so many still remember Cyril Ritchard and many of us who wrote to him at 135 Central Park West (Phone number: Murray Hill 4545). He played at Starlight open air theatre in Kansas City in "Around the World in 80 Days" and was a delight also to my two younger sisters and the rest of the neighbor kids who played at "Peter Pan". Thanks. Great memories!

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  20. Wasn't he the absolute best?? I just read Sondra Lee's (Tiger Lily's) memoir (I've Slept With Everyone!") and she says that he was the dearest of souls and that all the kids in the cast just adored him -- along with all of us who saw him on t.v. Isn't it amazing, some 36 years after his death, he is so warmly remembered by all of us?

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  21. enjoyed your comments and stories about one of my favorites. a true tribute to a unique talent, being so remembered after so many years.

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  22. cyril ritchard remembered and loved during the week Chris Walken plays Capt Hook on NBC Peter Pan Live...Cyril is truly missed....

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