Cary Grant was born 110 years ago today.
Starting in the mid-1980s, Grant toured in a one-man question-and-answer show, “A Conversation with Cary Grant,” in which he spent ninety minutes or so answering questions from audience members. Several other movie stars and celebrities have since taken on similar productions in which they and their fans bask in an accepted and reflected adoration—Gregory Peck, for one—but Grant was the first. The show was an extended, and deserved, curtain call from beginning to end.
One cool feature to Grant’s tour was that it visited theaters in which he had performed during his vaudeville years in the 1920s. Thus it was that in April 1985 I found myself sitting in the balcony of the small (1500 seat) Ulster Performing Arts Center (UPAC) in Kingston, NY, a stage on which he had performed. I was 16 and a movie nerd and Cary Grant was my idol.
Some of the evening is cemented in my memory. Judith Crist, the film reviewer for TV Guide, came on stage to introduce an introduction, the moment in 1970 in which Grant was awarded an honorary Oscar by Frank Sinatra. The movie screen dropped and we watched Sinatra introduce a well-edited reel of Grant’s “greatest” film moments that the Academy had compiled: five minutes of his seemingly endless supply of double-takes and reactions and several minutes of him being slapped by various leading ladies—a bit of good-natured ribbing by the Academy.
At the end of the clip, as Sinatra introduced, “Mr. Cary Grant,” the lights came on in our theater, and walking out stride by stride with his own oversize image on the screen was Mr. Cary Grant himself. It was a great stage moment. The greatest movie star of all time was magically walking off a screen and into our theater and our evening.
The stage was bare except for a stool, and he leaned against it, said hello and asked that the lights be brought up in the house so he could see us. “I’m here to answer some questions, but if you don’t have any we can dance and that would be fine.” From that moment on there was nothing he could do or say that we were not going to find delightful.
We did not wind up dancing, as we indeed had questions. He spoke of Mae West, in whose movies he had started to become a star, with great fondness. Hitchcock, too. There was seemingly not a single movie-making experience that he did not love being a part of. He described comic timing as something one was born with but added that there were techniques one could use. He admiringly cited George Burns’ ever-present cigar as an example of a perfect timing tool. A woman named Judy came to the microphone and asked him to say her name three times.
It is strange that any accounts of Cary Grant’s end-of-life American tour are anecdotal, like mine. Had no television network requested permission to record some of these sessions for a two-hour special? Wouldn’t PBS have made a fortune during membership drives with such a show? Or had Cary Grant simply nixed any such request, proposal, or offer to keep the evenings pure, purely theatrical moments between a star and audience?
One brief, three-minute, audio recording from one of these Cary Grant “conversations” has been circulating on the internet for the last couple years. Even though it is not from my evening with Cary Grant, it captures a couple aspects and moments that are very close to what I remember: the audible delight of the audience, Grant’s theory about the origin of “Judy Judy Judy,” and a man asking him to reveal some flaws, any flaws, because “it would help me a lot” with women.
By the end of the conversation I attended in Kingston, NY, Grant had sung a snippet from a song dating from vaudeville (would that I could remember it! Any hypnotists out there?) and happily introduced us to his wife, Barbara. And then it was over. No curtain calls. No need for any, as the entire evening served as a curtain call for his great career.
My friend and I got in our car and started to drive into the now-magical night. In the cramped parking lot next to us was a limousine with the back still illuminated. There was Cary Grant seated next to Barbara, a broad grin on his suntanned face, still taking it in.