Posted by: M. J. Arcangelini | April 24, 2010

MARLENE DIETRICH @ THE FRONT ROW CLEVELAND, OHIO – Friday, May 2, 1975

When I saw that Marlene Dietrich was going to be appearing in Cleveland I knew I had to go see her; at her age I might never get another chance. Of course I wondered whether, given her age which was 74, the concert might be no more than an opportunity to pay homage to a legendary star; would she really still be able to put across her songs effectively; could she still sing?  At that time I was living with Jack and Karen and Karin’s daughter, Kathy on W. 117th St.  So I immediately set to talking them into going with me.  Jack was not really interested, but Karen was enthusiastic about it.  So with Jack staying home with Kathy, Karen and I were free to go to the concert.

All dressed to see Dietrich - photo by Jack Belter

This wasn’t just anybody we were going to go see – it was MARLENE DIETRICH.  I knew her movies from television of course, some of them like “Touch of Evil” and “Witness for the Prosecution” were among my favorite films; then there were “Blue Angel,” “Destry Rides Again,” “Morocco” and “Blond Venus.” But what I was really excited about was the chance to hear her sing one of my favorite songs, “Falling In Love Again,” in person, not on a record or in a movie.  I felt that Dietrich deserved something special, so Karen and I talked it over and we decided to go formal.  She searched the local thrift stores for just the right gown and I rented a tuxedo, the first time I’d ever worn one.

Karen, Kathy & Joe - photo by Jack Belter

Dietrich was appearing at The Front Row; a relatively new theater I had never been to before.  They tended to book the kind of performers that parents and old folks liked: the kind of singers who played Las Vegas.  We were never going to see the Grateful Dead, Arlo Guthrie or Pink Floyd at The Front Row. It was simply not the kind of place I’d ever imagined I would go, but for Dietrich I’d go anywhere.  It turned out to be a pretty good venue, a theater-in-the-round with a stage which rotated very slowly; the room was relatively small so there really were no bad seats and we were in row “L” which was pretty good.  Short of an intimate smoky nightclub, it was as close to a perfect venue for experiencing a living legend as we were going to get; ideal for worshiping at the altar of pop deification. And what was Dietrich if not a high goddess of the pop cosmology?

I do not remember much about London Lee, the comic who was the opening act. His was the thankless task of allowing people to show up late and still not to miss a minute of Dietrich.  During the intermission break between his set and Dietrich’s, Karen and I went out to the lobby to hang out and show off our spiffy duds. There we were able to purchase the unlikely combination of hotdogs and champagne, served in plastic glasses, which somehow felt just right.  Looking around we saw that the audience attire ranged from denim overalls and T-shirts to suits and conservative dresses; there were even a few others like ourselves in formal gowns and tuxedos.  We were hippies and businessmen, hawks and doves; fans of all ages – it felt good to have that range of people in the theater. It was a testament to Dietrich’s talent and charisma that for this one evening at least, we could all get along and share the same experience.  Like the hot dogs and champagne, we all seemed to fit oddly together even though we appeared so different.

Front cover of the Playbill for the concert.

We filed back into the theater, took our seats and the house lights dimmed. The small orchestra began playing a muzak-y version of “Falling In Love Again.”  Our anticipation and excitement were about to burst the bounds of decorum when, finally, there she was, walking out as smooth as a ship crossing the horizon.  She eased her way to the center of the round stage then stood there, arms at her sides, her head bowed, while our applause and cheers swirled around her like warm summer breezes.

She wore a tight fitting, full-length white gown that showed off her remarkable figure to full advantage.  The gown was covered with sparkling sequins which caught the light almost like a mirror ball, dazzling the eye.  The dress was slit from the hem to a spot high on her left thigh and through that slit one long, perfectly proportioned leg emerged punctuated by a white high heel shoe.  She was in amazing physical shape for a woman of 74 years.  Hell, she was in amazing shape for any adult age.

From the moment she walked on stage she had us and we, who wanted so to be had by her, gloried in her presence.

She briefly greeted the audience, then the band started up the first song and they were off.  I need not have worried about whether she was still capable of performing – she was magnificent. The husky voice, even smokier and drier than the recordings I was accustomed to, was a well-aged instrument which she wielded with the utmost skill and timing; the show never lost momentum. In my diary I wrote simply: “she was marvelous – absolutely marvelous.”

She sang all her most famous songs, “Lola,” “Lili Marlene,” “See What The Boys In The Back Room Will Have,” the small orchestra gently supporting her with unobtrusive arrangements prepared by Burt Bacharach, who was then at the height of his 1970’s popularity.  When the orchestra struck up “Falling In Love Again,” the real thing not the muzak-y entrance version, and she began to sing my favorite of her songs, I was transfixed and transported to that music heaven which I have spent so much energy seeking in front of stages from Newport, Rhode Island to San Francisco, California; it was an aural orgasm.

With practiced subtlety her hands would occasionally form some simple gesture, sometimes reaching out as though urging her voice further; but otherwise she stood very still as she sang and never left the spot where she had first alighted.  There was minimal banter between songs, an occasional introduction, a reference to an old movie where the song was first heard or a brief story about her experiences entertaining soldiers during WWII. She was far from gregarious and could never be accused of verbosity. I suppose all of this could have been chalked up to her advanced age.  Surely, when she was younger, she was much more animated.  I think of the performances I have seen in films: in “Destry Rides Again,” “Blue Angel” and “Morocco” she played saloon or nightclub singers who moved with a feline sensuality, though no more nor less graceful than what we saw on stage that night.  Maybe the bones had grown stiff, the muscles tired; maybe age had taken more of a toll than she wanted to let on.  But I prefer to think that she had simply refined her stage presence over the years until the slightest gesture was able to encompass great meaning and emotion.

This was truly theater as religion, as ritual, as though we had all studied the Hymnal and Breviary of pop music and knew exactly what response to offer with each cue from our priestess, our goddess, Dietrich. And she knew all the cues and when to give them. She was an actress and she knew how to play this part with every cell in her body.

My diary indicates she “got 7 or 8 (i lost count) standing ovations” and did several encores. When she reached her 2nd or 3rd encore she acknowledged the applause and cries for more, then, quieting us all down, she explained: “Mr. Bacharach has only done so many arrangements for us and we have played them all.  What would you have us do?  Shall we do one of the songs again?”  This suggestion was greeted with more applause and cheers. “Which song do you want to hear again?” she asked. Now folks were calling out songs titles left and right.   Personally, I wanted to hear “Falling In Love Again” and again and again. She listened until she picked up the one name called out most often.

Again she motioned us into silence and said that she would do “Lili Marlene” again.  Among the quite expressions of contentment that decision elicited, there was a single loud voice calling out: “In deutsch! In deutsch!” Dietrich searched the audience for the gentleman who was asking for the song to be sung in German.  Finding him, she said: “This is a song I sang to entertain the Allied troops during World War II; I did not learn it ‘in deutsch,’ they would not have appreciated that.”  At this everyone laughed and Dietrich smiled her enigmatic smile.  The orchestra struck up “Lily Marlene” one more time and we all sat, enthralled, savoring what we knew was going to be her final song; our last moments with her.

When “Lili Marlene” was over the orchestra slid right back into that Muzak arrangement of “Falling In Love Again,” which we knew meant she was finally leaving.  Waving to us all as the slowly rotating stage eased to a halt, she gracefully disappeared into the darkness beyond the stage lights.

Every one of us were on our feet, cheering, clapping and calling out for more; even though we knew there would be no more.  Our time with Dietrich had come to an end and with her voice still in the air like incense finding its smoky way into our memories, the house lights came up and we left the theater.

Even though Dietrich lived to be 90, I believe this was her last tour and I am very grateful to have been able to be there. It was a truly magic evening the mere memory of which has retained its power to enthrall me for 35 years and counting.

A singer wouldn’t move me in quite this way again until 2005 when John and I saw Marianne Faithful at the Fillmore in San Francisco. She had that same feeling that Dietrich had of having earned every eccentricity which powered her voice beyond the expected; of having earned the adulation of her audience.

Karen and I practically floated out to the parking lot.  Once on the road home we realized we really weren’t ready for this evening to end yet, so we decided to go get a pizza.  We went to a pizza shop in Brooklyn where I had worked as a delivery boy in 1972.  The people I worked for had sold it since then and nobody there knew me now.  When the middle-aged waitress was taking our order she asked, what we thought was, an odd question: “So, which high school are you kids from?”

High school?  I was 22 years old and Karen was several years older than I was and we thought we were ancient; we couldn’t figure out why she would ask us a question like that until she nodded her head toward the rest of the dining room which was half full of couples, teenagers, dressed just as we were, in formal gowns and tuxedos.  That was when we realized that it was May and it must have been senior prom night for some of the local high schools. The waitress, naturally enough when we came walking in with formal wear, simply presumed that we were out on a prom date.

We laughed.  Karen thanked her for presuming that she was a high school student. We then explained where we had been and why we were dressed the way we were.  The waitress was old enough to know who Marlene Dietrich was and seemed to understand our decision to go formal.

Since neither of us had attended our own high school proms, we found her presumption most amusing and had a little fun pretending to be out for prom night ourselves.  There was an almost giddy aftereffect from the show and this roleplaying at being the kind of high school kids we had never actually been, was a perfect way to work it off.

The pizza was good and by the time we’d finished it and a couple of beers we were finally ready for the magical night to end.

Epilogue: Humboldt County, CA – Saturday, December 30, 1995

20 years later (although it seems even longer than that), at the 1995-96 Billy Club New Year’s gathering at Heartwood Institute near Island Mountain in southern Humboldt County, at the Little-or-No-Talent Show, the first act after intermission had been billed as a special appearance by an extra special guest in an attempt to build mystery and anticipation. It worked, we were all wondering what they were up to.

After a florid but still mysterious introduction the special guest performer walked out from behind a curtain constructed of colorful parachutes, and it was… Marlene Dietrich; we recognized her immediately.  Of course, it wasn’t the real Dietrich; she was long dead by this time.  It was a drag performer in a floor length gold lamé gown, elbow length white gloves, blond wig and attitude to spare.  She proceeded to sing “Falling in Love Again” and the audience went wild, especially me.  She brought tears to my eyes as I remembered watching the legend herself 20 years earlier.

Who ever this was, and though I knew nearly everyone there I could not figure it out, she had the right movements, the proper phrasing and the husky sound down pat, re-awakening for this short time on stage the thrill of being in the presence of Dietrich. Drag performers don’t always get the respect they truly deserve.  When it is done right, there is real magic in what they do. This Dietrich was done right.

William as Dietrich at the 1995-96 Billy Club New Year's Gathering Talent Show.

Once the short set was over and she had gone backstage, I raced back there to find out who it was.  There I found Dietrich, shaking a little, still nervous, still in makeup and blond wig being congratulated on a fine performance. It turned out to be my friend, William Stewart.  I thanked him for the wonderful performance but I had trouble believing it was really him until the makeup started to come off, so fully had he inhabited the role; he even sacrificed the beard and mustache I had never before seen him without.

When I wrote to ask his permission to use the photo of him which accompanies this story, William wrote back: “I caught [Dietrich] in NYC in 1967 and again in 1968 (I just dug out the old playbills to check the dates), when she was still in perfect control of the public persona. I was one of the ‘prancing young men in tight trousers, not yet born when she made her classic films, that tossed flowers and mobbed the stage door after the show’ (I remember the phrase from some review or other)–what a memory!”

Yes. What memories, indeed!

April, 17 – April 24, 2010
Sebastopol, CA

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Responses

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this description of seeing and
    hearing Marlene Dietrich live in Cleveland, 1975.

    Having been born in 1938, and possessing some recollection of WWII, and having read extensively about Marlene Dietrich, I consider her a woman before her time and a one of a kind performer.

    One of my favorite songs by Ms. D. is “This World of
    Ours” . . . Many thanks

    • Thank you. It is always good to know that someone is reading these stories. I don ‘t remember if Dietrich did “This World of Ours” when I saw her. A friend told me that she was “falling off the stage, etc.’ during the 1975 tour – but that is certainly not how I remember it, and I wrote nothing like that in my diary at the time; he didn’t see that tour and I did. Well, thank you again for your kind words.
      – Joe

  2. Dear Friend,Thankyou for taking me on such an uplifting and emotional walk down memory lane. Once again you have managed to pull me into your story and blown me away by your God given talent of pen. I,ll always be your biggest fan and love you the most.

  3. Thank you for sharing your memories, which help to mitigate the criticism documented in biographies and reviews about Marlene’s last year of touring. I’m always searching for the stories of people who saw Marlene perform, and I’m grateful that I could imagine myself in your place while reading this.


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