In 1976, I flew to New York as a cast member of the RSC’s Henry V, for a three-week run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
NYC had a ‘bad’ reputation back then, and we had been warned to avoid places such as Eighth Avenue around 42nd street. Nevertheless, we decided to stay at the then infamous Chelsea Hotel (which has just reopened after a renovation) on West 23rd Street.
We were there for 21 days. The height of decadence was a quick glimpse of the actor Michael J Pollard, stoned and quietly humming in the foyer one morning. Danger and thrills? Bugger all!
As we entered our watering hole attached to the hotel, El Quijote, we were greeted with the line ‘Here’s da bums from Brooklyn.’ We were quite the stars of the bar after the play had received glowing notices.
At the interval on the final day’s matinée, I was chatting to Trevor Peacock (playing Fluellen) in the backstage corridor used as a greenroom. Trevor suddenly shouted, ‘Dizzy!’ – and there indeed was Dizzy Gillespie on a coffee break prior to his evening concert. We took him on stage and chatted jazz and Shakespeare in heady combinations.
The bell for the second half had me rushing to the water fountain for a quick drink – and to bump heads with Rudolf Nureyev, visiting a Russian group on show in the same building. ‘Ah, Shakespeare’ and other such quick inanities passed between us before I jogged back to Agincourt to complete the rout of the French.
My memory was refreshed on their deaths, as they died on the same day, 6th January 1993. Private Eye’s resident poet, E J Thribb, aged 17 and a half – the creation of Barry Fantoni – recorded their deaths in his In Memoriam poem:
So Farewell then … Dizzy Gillespie
Famous Jazz Trumpeter.
You were known for your Bulging Cheeks.
So were you.