April 11, 1932 – Earlier this year, when Joel Grey came out of the closet at 82 years old, most of my friends were like, duh? With a 50+ year obsession with the star of Cabaret, you think that I might have noticed earlier.
6 decades into his celebrated career, Grey continues to work. In 2012, he was seen on Broadway he appeared in Cole Porter‘s Anything Goes & he directed the first Broadway production of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, taking home another Tony for his awards shelf.
I am not certain how I came to latch onto Grey. 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, TV, Nightclubs, Commercials; actor/singer/dancers/entertainers: Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Liza, Fred Astaire, Noel Coward. I became fascinated with Grey in the mid-1960s. I wanted to model my career on his, & strangely… I wanted to kiss him.
I look back today, & I am actually 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, & while visiting the grandparents in rural Illinois, I insisted that they drive 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 want the grandparents to take me to see the musical; I wanted them to drop me off several blocks away & I would enter on my own. I would see the show solo (so very cosmopolitan) & not have to share my Joel Grey moment with the rubes. I loved seeing the musical about the life of George M. Cohen & 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, & I have done a little acting, singing & dancing myself. I am “day jobbing” 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 have sat regulars Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Kotto & Meg Ryan, but I am not at all prepared when I have to face my childhood idol, Joel Grey, when he & guest enter 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 & Oscar for the same role) & his guest, that we have a bit of a wait, & while trying not to offend the others in line, I will do everything I can to get them a table very soon. I consider kicking the lingering, tea drinking lesbians out of the joint. 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 & push their way up to me & 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, & then inquire: “Hey, aren’t you that guy in Singles?”
Yes indeed, boys & girls, I was recognized for my own acting work in front of the man whose photos, reviews, programs & ticket stubs filled this little homosexual 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 & I believe he is in that film. He is such a nice young man… & so smart & talented. He is really going to go places.”
Stephen: (a bit bodacious) “… & that would be Jennifer Grey, star of Dirty Dancing? & yes, Campbell Scott is quite talented & a real sweetheart.”
Then it happens, I have held off for so long & now sickeningly, I gush. I tell this great performer about the experience of seeing George M! all by myself at 11 years old, about the scrapbook, & even the crush. I explain how Cabaret changed my life. I have met & worked with my share celebrities & important actors by this point in my life, & I have never behaved like this. & I am on the job! What was wrong with me? It was as if my circuit board overloaded.
Grey: (laughing & 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 tears off a corner of the waiting list from the clip board, borrows my pen, & takes a moment to write something down. I pray it is not a complaint to the owners about my blathering. Even after all his decades in show biz, am I the gayest thing he has ever encountered? Grey smiles & tucks the paper into my jacket pocket.
On my first chance, I read his note: “Thanks for being such a big fan for so many years. Love, Joel Grey”. I go in the walk-in fridge & cry. I cry for the little 11 year gay boy who would have never believed it possible. I still have that note. It is in a cigar box with Merle Oberon’s place card, swiped 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, & the first love letter from the man who would eventually become my Husband.
Joel Grey was born Joel David Katz & he celebrates his 83rd birthday today. I know he must be happy to be an out & proud gay man.