April 11, 1932 – I purchased his brand new memoir Master Of Ceremonies on the day it was published seven weeks ago and then devoured it, reading it in just two sittings. That is how important Joel Grey is to me.
Despite having read everything about Grey since discovering him 50 years ago while listening to the Original Broadway Cast album of Cabaret, last year, when Grey came out of the closet at 82 years old, most of my friends were like, duh? After all those decades with an obsession with the star, you think that I might have noticed earlier. I usually have first-rate gaydar. Grey:
“I don’t like labels, but if you have to put a label on it, I’m a gay man.”
Six decades into his celebrated career, Grey continues to work. In 2012, he was seen on Broadway he appeared in Cole Porter‘s Anything Goes and he directed the first Broadway production of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, taking home another Tony Award for his awards shelf.
I am not certain why or how I came to latch onto Grey when I was a youth. The heart wants what the heart wants. From an early age, I have been drawn to those all-purpose show biz journeymen stars of screen, stage, concerts, television, nightclubs, commercials; those great actor/singer/dancers/entertainers: Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Liza, Fred Astaire, Noel Coward. I wanted to model my own career on Grey’s, and strangely… I wanted to kiss him.
I look back today, and I am a bit embarrassed that I had a Joel Grey scrapbook. What sort of weird little gay child was does such a thing? I was 11 years old, and while visiting the grandparents in rural Illinois, I insisted that they drive me 80 miles to St. Louis to see Grey & Bernadette Peters in George M! at the outdoor Municipal Opera. I need you to understand, I didn’t have the grandparents just take me to see the musical; I had them drop me off several blocks away so I could enter on my own. I wanted to see the show solo (so very cosmopolitan) and not have to share my Joel Grey moment with the rubes. I loved seeing this musical about the life of George M. Cohen, and I was zany-over the moon for Grey’s performance: singing, dancing, acting. The thrill lingered for months.
The scene shifts to Seattle, in 1991. I am fully adult, in my late 30s, and I have done a little acting, singing & dancing myself. I was working my “day job” as a maitre d’ at a popular, upscale vegetarian eatery. I’m not easily impressed by celebrity. In the year of having this job, I had sat regulars Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Kotto, Tom Hulce and Meg Ryan, but I was not at all prepared when I came to face with my childhood idol, Joel Grey, when he and a guest entered the cafe.
I gently explain to the Oscar, Tony, BAFTA, Golden Globe winner (he is one of only handful of actors to win a Tony and Oscar for playing the same role) that we have a bit of a wait, but I will do everything I can to get them a table very soon. I considered kicking the lingering, tea drinking lesbians out of the joint to get their table. While standing at the host podium a few inches away from the object of my childhood obsession, a small group of 20 something veg-heads enter and push their way up to me and my waiting list. I keep thinking: “No! Please! Don’t bother Joel Grey! He is MY guest”. When the group reaches me, they shriek, giggle, point, not at Grey, but at me, and then they inquire: “Hey, aren’t you that guy in Singles?”
Yes indeed, kids, I was recognized for my own acting work in front of the actor whose photos, reviews, programs and ticket stubs filled this little gay theatre nerd’s scrapbook.
Joel Grey: “You are really in the film Singles?”
Stephen: (sheepish, yet sexy, with genuine humility) “Yes, Mr. Grey. Cameron Crowe was really fun to work with. It was a great shoot.”
Grey: “My daughter is a friend of Campbell Scott and I believe he is in that film. He is such a nice young man… and so smart and talented. He is really going to go places.”
Stephen: (a bit bodacious) “… and that would be Jennifer Grey, star of Dirty Dancing? Yes, Campbell Scott is quite talented and a real sweetheart.”
Then it happens, I have held off for so long and now sickeningly, I gush. I tell Grey about the experience of seeing George M! all by myself at 11 years old, about the scrapbook, and even about the crush. I explain how Cabaret changed my life. I had met and worked with my share celebrities and important actors by this point in my life, but I had never behaved like this. I was on the job! What was wrong with me? It was as if my circuit board overloaded.
Grey (laughing and smiling): “Well Mr. Singles, you are just something else!”
Stephen (crossing Grey’s name off the waiting list): “Your table is ready, Mr. Grey. This way, please.”
Grey ripped off a corner of the waiting list from my clip board, borrowed my pen, and wrote something down. I prayed it was not a complaint to the management. Even after all his decades in show biz, was I the gayest thing he had ever encountered? Grey smiled and tucked the piece of paper into my jacket pocket.
At my first chance, I read his note: “Thanks for being such a big fan for so many years. Love, Joel Grey”. I went into the walk-in fridge and cried. I cried for the little 11 year gay boy who would have never believed it possible to meet his idol. I still have that note. It is in a cigar box with Merle Oberon’s place card from MGM’s 50th Anniversary Ball, my ticket stub from the 1974 Academy Awards, my call sheet from Drugstore Cowboy, a postcard from my father postmarked from Rutledge, Georgia, and the first love note from the man who would eventually become my Husband.
Joel Grey was born Joel David Katz and his story is very interesting. Get a copy of Master Of Ceremonies. It is a terrific read. It is also unflinchingly honest. The book reveals that Grey’s journey from child actor to teenage nightclub phenomenon to established Broadway star had many twists and turns and rough roads. His personal life was filled with conflict and complications that I would never had guessed.
“There was so much early input about the horror of homosexuality. I remember hearing the sound of my family talking about ‘fagelehs’, Yiddish for little birds, and hearing all the other words, like ‘faggot.’ I remember I heard very early in my life about men being entrapped. I thought, this is bad. And we didn’t know any gay people, except a pianist that my father hired. They loved him, but he was marked.”
I do know that Grey is happy to be an out and proud gay man at last.