Gaby Rodgers: Life Upon The Wicked Stage

August 12, 1999

Apart from the thunderbolt of infatuation, few things strike as hard as an obsession with the stage. The difference is that, unlike romance, a love of theater often lasts a lifetime.

Gaby Rodgers was an early starter. By the age of 4 she had a song and dance routine worked up, strutting her stuff with a top hat and cane, for which she demanded payment from her family in the form of a roll and butter.

Now, though she has had a lifetime as a stage and television actress and as a director, she isn't about to take up macrame. Six months ago she directed a staged reading in Hollywood with Preston Sturges Jr. in the cast and she will be doing another of a Bruce Jay Friedman play in the series of readings this summer at the Mulford Farm. In addition, she is completing a video series with the art critic Molly Barnes and working on a play about Heidegger and Hannah Arendt with the novelist Anne Roiphe.

Lucky Childhood

Ms. Rodgers was born in Frankfurt to an eminent Jewish family. Her father eventually founded the Rosenberg and Stiebel Gallery in New York, and her great-uncle was Edmund Husserl, who taught Heidegger and helped give rise to Gestalt psychology.

After moving to Switzerland when she was 4, the family went to live in Amsterdam just as the black clouds of Nazism were gathering.

"My mother told me that we used to play with Anne Frank. I didn't believe her - you know how mothers are - so I called my sister:

'Did we play with Anne Frank?'

'Yes we did.'

'That's amazing. What was she like?'

'She cheated at marbles.' "

The Rosenbergs were luckier than the Franks, escaping to England, where Mr. Rosenberg was interned, then to Cuba and Mexico and finally to New York City.

Golden Years

Although Ms. Rodgers appeared in three Broadway plays, steady employment came from the new medium of television.

"It was during the time they call the 'golden years' of television," she said. "It was live theater and there were sets all over the place - we'd rush from one to another, changing clothes as we went - I had a terror that one day I'd be caught bare-assed on camera."

"We had lots of work because at that time movie people didn't want to do TV, and there were good directors - Sidney Lumet, Arthur Penn. I did one play with Cyril Richard and I remember him clapping his hands 'Up, up, my dear! Not so many pregnant pauses!' - very anti-Method."

Role After Role

For 15 years she appeared in one production after another on "Philco Playhouse," "Suspense," and even "Captain Video." Theater was prestige but television made household names. One day a friend was walking down 14th Street and there in a window was a wedding gown with the tag "The Gaby Rodgers Dress."

On Broadway, she was in "Mr. Johnson" by Joyce Cary, a play with Fay Emerson and Jean-Pierre Aumont, and Ruth Getz's "Hidden River," with Robert Preston. She also stood in a few times for Anne Bancroft opposite Henry Fonda in "Two for the Seesaw."

"He was wonderful. He whispered instructions to me through the side of his mouth," said Ms. Rodgers, with one of her characteristic swooping laughs.

Hollywood Offer

She also worked as an understudy for Florence Eldridge in Lillian Hellman"s "Autumn Garden."

"Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett were always hanging around the set and one day she came over to me and said 'Gaby, I'd like to talk to you.' My heart went pitter patter - this might be my big moment. 'Gaby,' she said 'Where do you get your hair cut?'"

It was on the basis of her role on TV, however, in "The Apollo of Bellac" on "Omnibus" that David O. Selznick offered her a 10-year contract in Hollywood.

"He talked to me for eight hours about how I would become Gaby Rosenberg again and he would make me the first Jewish star. But I got very nervous. . ."

On Marriage

If that decision kept her away from the movies, it was her marriage to the songwriter Jerry Lieber that kept her away from Broadway for the next 15 years.

"They don't tell young women what it's like to marry an artist," she said. "I think I should give a course in high school."

The couple - who have two sons, Oliver and Jed, both of whom are also award-winning songwriters - started coming to the East End and before long Ms. Rodgers had got together with a bunch of friends, including Dwight Macdonald, Patsy Southgate, Larry Rivers, Mae Rosenberg, and Shirley King, to put on theater in each other's back yards.

Backyard Theater

"Our first play was Frank O'Hara's "Try, Try." Then we did a play of Patsy's with Jim Dine and Clarice Rivers and the neighbors complained because Jerry got a sound system and the police came. And then there was one about the first moon landing, where the rocket landed on Syd Solomon's roof and Clarice was a moon maiden. . . ."

Another event that has gone down in the annals of East End art history was when Ms. Rodgers gave eight millimeter cameras to all her artist friends and told them to go make a movie.

Film Festival

"That was such a summer of whispering and intrigue as everyone tried to find out what the others were doing. Bob Aurthur and Murray Schisgal made a film about a love triangle, and two other filmmakers found out about the plot and made an identical movie. We had great fun."

"Then we held our own film festival in the old V.F.W. hall. Syd made a lethal punch. . . ."

When her marriage broke up, Ms. Rodgers didn't want to return to acting. "Acting was being playful and seductive and naughty and young. So I became a director."

The many plays and staged readings she has directed over the years include a Bruce Jay Friedman play at the American Place Theater and a play by Adrienne Kennedy Black at Sam Shepard's Theater Genesis.

On the East End she directed "Sardines" by Mr. Friedman with Peter Boyle and Joe Pintauro's "The Raft of the Medusa" at LTV Studios.

"The cast was all locals who loved theater - a bartender, a carpenter, a hostess - there was such a good feeling."

The Bug Bit

Ms. Rodgers recalled that her father used to stir her imagination with stories about Berlin cabaret, but she thinks her theatrical bug started elsewhere. In fact, she can pinpoint the moment.

After a tumultuous early childhood in Europe, she had come with her family to United States and was enrolled at Mount Holyoke College. One night, working as an usher at a theater in nearby Springfield, Mass., she saw Marlon Brando as the poet Eugene Marchbanks in Shaw's "Candida."

"That was it," she said. "I was bitten - I signed on as an apprentice at the Provincetown Playhouse."

That turned out to be a baptism by fire, because her first major role, playing Laura in "The Glass Menagerie," opened with the author, Tennessee Williams, sitting in the front row.

The Barter Theater

Then came a remote chance to join the fabled Barter Theater in Virginia, which had been started during the Depression when performances were given in return for food, and which had given a start to many of America's greatest actors.

The chance of a position with the theater had drawn lines of young hopefuls, stretching around the block as they waited their turn for a one-minute audition with Shirley Booth ("Come Back Little Sheba").

"A friend said 'Come on, let's give it a try.' I did one minute of Juliet and won the award."

"We did a new play every week," Ms. Rodgers continued. "It was a lot of work, but that's how you learn."

Looking For More

Ms. Rodgers believes there isn't enough live theater here.

"There are readings - but that's like a head without a body. I wish Guild Hall were about theater again - there is so much talent in this area. So many people have tried to work with Guild Hall, to have it become the top regional theater it should be, but it never seems to happen."

As Ms. Rodgers warmed to her theme, she communicated her argument with total persuasion, not so much by her words as by her flashing eyes and expressive gestures.

She knows how to woo an audience.