June Havoc: Still Dancing
Connors, Thomas, American Theatre
One day I woke up and said to myself, 'My God, Havoc, you're an old lady. And you're not even an old lady, you're old old.' "A veteran of vaudeville, Broadway, film and television, actor June Havoc delights in her 81 years and the good fortune that has brought her this far. "Life spins so rapidly," she muses, "but because I didn't have the physical and emotional problems that come with aging, I didn't feel the pressure of it. The pressure of aging is when you can't get a job, when you can't get up and dance. I could always get up and dance. I've been lucky enough to work all my life."
She means that. Literally. At two, Havoc was a pint-size Pavlova, pirouetting from fraternal lodges to vaudeville houses. Eight decades later, in Mayo Simon's The Old Lady's Guide to Survival (opening this month at New York's Lamb's Theatre), she plays a woman spinning through life at a considerably slower speed. Still, Havoc's fresh face and strong, clear voice conspire against her. If it weren't for the way she waddles recent fall - it would be tough to see her as an "old lady" at all. During the Chicago run of the show, produced by the Wisdom Bridge Theatre, a matinee-goer remarked to a companion at intermission, "I remember June Havoc from 50 years ago. She still has the same pretty face. It's uncanny."
Vaudeville was skill
A sweetly comic tale of mutual dependence, The Old Lady's Guide charts the push-me-pull-you relationship between Havoc's finicky Netty and Shirl Bernheim's fun-loving Shprintzy, two seniors who, in the end, aren't such an odd couple after all. As Netty loses her eyesight, her invincible, just-so attitude begins to falter. But instead of simply showing us someone falling to pieces, Havoc produces a picture of a woman excoriated, the very tissue of her character revealed. Havoc's Netty - first stunned, then strengthened by her battles with her disappearing sight - vibrates captivatingly between rigor and vulnerability.
The dark side of growing old is but one aspect of the play. Squeezed in the banquette of a trendy trattoria, resting her leg on the seat cushion, Havoc notes, "It's a very affirmative play, very bright. It's about finding something. It's about discovery - when Netty discovers she can actually depend on someone, ask someone for help." She characterizes Netty as a widow whose "protective husband probably never even taught her to drive." Havoc spears the ice in her Bloody Mary. "I never had that. I always took care of myself and everyone around me. Sometimes it was terribly hard, but it was what one does."
Such no-nonsense sentiments seem appropriate for an 81-year-old individual with Havoc's resume. At seven, she was "Dainty June, the Darling of Vaudeville," pulling in $1,500 a week as a headliner on the Keith-Orpheum circuit. A few years later, no longer dainty and pushing puberty, she found herself working one of the most bizarre manifestations of Depression-era show business, the dance'til-you-drop marathons. In 1941, she made a splash on Broadway in Pal Joey and followed that success with roles in Cole Porter's Mexican Hayride and Tyrone Guthrie's revival of Dinner at Eight. Back and forth to Hollywood, Havoc made 44 films, including Gentlemen's Agreement with Gregory Peck. In the 1960s, she toured the world with Helen Hayes in the APA production of The Skin of Our Teeth, earned a Tony nomination directing her own play, Marathon '33, starring Julie Harris, and appeared on television in Chekhov's The Bear with Sir Michael Redgrave and in Anna Christie opposite Richard Burton.
As "Moonlight Sonata" wafts from the restaurant sound system, Havoc sinks back, recalling her early days with great fondness. "Vaudeville was a world unto itself. It was dignified. There were signs backstage saying, 'No Damns, No Mention of Any Deity,' and 'Ladies Will All Wear Silk Tights. …