Nothing makes you feel your age like being the only person in the room to understand an allusion in a 40-year-old play. We are gathered for the read-through of an upcoming production of Woody Allen's 1966 comedy, Don't Drink the Water. We come to the entrance of Walter Hollander, the character I am playing. "We're Americans," he yells (he is being chased into the American Embassy by a Communist mob), and to prove it he screams out some familiar bits of Americana, American icons presumably familiar to all. He mentions Willy Mays; no problem. He mentions Hershey Bars, also no problem. Then, out pops the last of his icons, Kate Smith.
Kate Smith? It seems that every face in the room is looking askance. Kate Smith?
Now while I have very vivid memories of this very large woman – the one I always picture when the fat lady has to sing before it's over – most famous for her rendition of "God Bless America," I am almost certain that I am the only one with such memories. And while I probably have a good 20 years on the oldest of group, never mind the youngest, not all of them are kids. You would think at least some of them would remember the woman. What is it the poet says about snow and yesteryear?
Some years ago – another example – I was playing the drunken ex-professor, Dr. Lyman, in William Inge's Bus Stop, and I remember the young girl, a college student at the time, who was playing Elma, the counter waitress, asking the director about a name Inge alluded to in one of her lines. Elma tells Cherie, the "chanteuse," that Bo, the cowboy who has scooped her out of the dance club, "looks a little like Burt Lancaster." She wanted to know who Burt Lancaster was.
Burt Lancaster? If there are those in the 21st century who need a footnote for Burt Lancaster, what can Kate Smith hope for?
And if Kate Smith can't manage to escape Lethe, what about What's My Line, The Ed Sullivan Show, Mr. Anthony, Sergeant York, Edsels, Walter Lippman, "a foggy day in London town," Chock Full O'Nuts, John Birch, and Zippos? All of these came up during the read-through, and all evoked the ubiquitous blank stare on just about every face in the room, except one.