by Donald Dewey
Louie Sad was born in Lebanon as the Maronite Christian Elias Saad. Brought to Brooklyn Heights as a child, he was transformed by neighbors and school companions (and later by others who had once gone to school) into the Syrian Moslem Louie Sad who must have had an ethnic in with Ali Baba, Omar Sharif, and the swarthy brothers who supplied the beer kegs for the annual Arab street festival on Atlantic Avenue. Louie seldom disabused people of their preconceptions and misconceptions. A shy man waiting to hear something funny and with a raspy, hyena-like laugh at the ready to reward it, he often conveyed a sense of being on their territory, with their ignorance about nationalities and religions part of a small but necessary admission tax. Even on the corruption of his name, he smiled to me once and for good that “Elias sounds Greek and I’m no Greek.”
Which was one of the few things Louie wasn’t at one time or another. When he wasn’t whatever burnoused camel driver lived in the minds of others, he was qualifying for all the jobs listed in the Daily News want ads. There were several years in a ticket office where he came to appreciate which theatrical producers had discovered the magic formula for a hit and which ones left him trying to hustle twofers before the final curtain dropped. There was another period when he did something on Wall Street, though he always kept it vague about whether he was running Merrill Lynch or an elevator car in the Merrill Lynch building. What stood out for me was his job in a factory that made those big wheel pretzels that eliminated the need for any other meal on the day. Louie’s task at the plant was monitoring the infinitesimal dosage of lye dropped into every pretzel for preservation purposes. His tales of other monitors who got into distracting arguments about a previous night’s ballgame and had to be switched to other responsibilities because they had allowed too much salted acid to proceed down conveyor belts and out to street carts always provoked hilarity—and resolutions to stick to hot dogs from sidewalk peddlers.
When he wasn’t working or looking for work, Louie was satisfying his addiction to show business. There was the show business of the downtown Brooklyn movies he checked out as rigorously as the theater bookers, the show business of the television programs he asterisked in TV Guide for appointments, and the show business of the Broadway producers whose tickets he sold and (when it was twofer time) whose productions he personally reviewed in the spirit of attending a wake for someone he hadn’t known in life. But as much as in the celebrities he watched from a distance or read about when they were marrying, divorcing, or slugging photographers, he was also immersed in the closer show business of some neighborhood actor who had just played a corpse in a New York movie or of an electrician who was working backstage on the latest Shubert Alley musical. For Louie these tenants across the hall or fellow bar patrons were equal to famous actors and singers in their place in the glittery commotion he savored as a daily high. He could be as gratified by gossip about E.G. Marshall as about Barbra Streisand, and behaved as circumspectly as a CIA agent when he passed it along to another party.
Well into his fifties, Louie squeaked one of his hyena laughs at the idea of a show business career of his own, never having hatched grandiose ambitions from selling his theater tickets or from singing along late at night in piano bars. That too was their turf. But then Lorna came along. Lorna was a tall, stately brunette 15 years younger than Louie and with thick makeup bent on making it look 25. She might not have been royalty, but she never sat down without fanning her skirt to mark a wide boundary from her subjects, the way the queens played by Deborah Kerr in MGM movies once did. During the day Lorna worked as a secretary in the rectory of a Catholic church; afterwards and on weekends she took the voice lessons she had been taking since a teenager, clinging to the thought of being discovered one day by an agent or producer who would launch her professional career. Her only conspicuous public performing over the years had been with her church choir on Sundays, when parishioners never had to raise their eyes to know Lorna was in the loft. Once she released her educated soprano, not only the other choir members, but the priest on the altar knew better than to intrude upon a star turn. The rituals could be observed any time; as the filled pews (and substantial basket collections) demonstrated every week, Lorna reduced the sermons to a bill filler. Mahalia Jackson would have understood.
Having all but converted to Roman Catholicism to hear Lorna, Louie needed little incentive to talk up her talents with anyone who had ever ridden in the same subway car with an agent or producer. Since I had been in a couple of those subway cars, my wife and I were invited fairly regularly to go out with Louie and keep up Lorna’s spirits about eventually finding the maestro who would take her career in hand. In fact, Lorna didn’t need me or anyone else to keep up her spirits. She had already completed a thorough analysis of her hopes and requirements, concluding that she still had reason to get out of bed every morning with bigger dreams than alerting a priest to a telephone plea for the last rites.
In the hope category, there was Lorna’s endless list of singers, actors, composers, comedians, painters, and sculptors who hadn’t achieved their breakthrough until they were older than Louie. Anyone who had met Lorna and didn’t come away knowing that Giuseppe Verdi had composed Falstaff when he was 79 or that Richard Strauss had waited until his 80s to write his most beautiful Lieder hadn’t been paying attention. What did any of that have to do with the actual singing of Verdi or Strauss? Lorna was amazed you had to ask. What she was even more baffled by, though, was questioning the one and only restriction she had put on her eventual stardom—that she could not stay away from Brooklyn Heights for any length of time, leaving her widowed mother to fend for herself. When had her father died? Twenty years ago. Was her mother ill? No, she smoked too much but was in the best of health and still worked for Con Edison. So what was the problem? See, that was why the question puzzled her. The problem should have been obvious.
Louie tried his best to pretend it was, too—and then to move on to the less obvious as fast as he could. If Lorna had a warehouse of stories about artists breaking through at 75, he had another deposit of them about mothers who blunted the yearnings of their children, mothers who had always wanted their children to succeed in show business, and mothers who didn’t like being used as excuses for the behavior of their children. He was particularly careful holding forth on this last group, of course, voicing his own bewilderment when Lorna suspected he was referring to her. Nothing of the kind, he reassured her, then went on to entangle himself in a Louie Sad Rule about the map miles that would amount to abandoning a parent and the distance that fell short of that crime. More than once, this prompted debates about whether, say, a one-week engagement in Philadelphia was practically farther from Brooklyn than, say, a two-night stand in St. Louis. Mostly, these discussions wound down to two important points of agreement: that it depended on whether a train, plane, or automobile was moving Lorna back and forth and that it wasn’t worth getting upset about anyway until she received an invitation to go to either place.
Off by himself, however, Louie was getting upset with these futile calculations, and confided to me that he had taken a step toward acting as Lorna’s agent. Instead of grabbing a sandwich on his lunch hours at the pretzel factory, he began canvassing nearby community halls and theaters to see what it would cost to mount an evening of Lorna and her songs. The numbers that came back to him were not encouraging, they were certainly nothing he could afford, and that was without even approaching a performing palace like BAM to get an estimate. “There’s more involved than the rental of the space,” he moaned. “You’d have to pay at least a piano player. Then there’s the lighting guy and the sound guy and probably a couple of ushers. And you can’t do a thing like this without a program. You know how much these printers want for just a single piece of paper? It doesn‘t have to be colored paper, either. Just the plain white.”
There was good and bad in Lorna finding out about Louie’s lunch hour soundings. The good was in their relationship, which advanced to her hanging on to his arm and pecking his cheek in public, announcing that she believed in him as much as he did in her, whatever the calendar or her makeup said. The bad was in her nudges about why he hadn’t tried this or that place for her recital—an admission she had been going through the Yellow Pages on her own and a veiled accusation of negligence he sought to correct as soon as another lunch hour bell rang. Somewhere in the middle was the reluctant decision to look for a hall further afield than Brooklyn Heights, all the way out to Park Slope and Sunset Park, if necessary. And when you came right down to it, wasn’t even Bay Ridge at the far end of Brooklyn closer than both Philadelphia and St. Louis?
Louie soldiered on in his search until it seemed everyone in Brooklyn knew that finding a recital hall for Lorna had become as improbable as talking the Dodgers back from Los Angeles. Then one evening, while waiting at a restaurant bar for Lorna, he ran into an actor who had been hired as a ringer for one of the Lighthouse for the Blind’s occasional presentations of popular musicals. Although the Lighthouse prided itself on giving leads to blind actors, singers, and dancers (the raison d‘etre for the undertaking), it also dropped in a sighted ringer or two—usually as members of the chorus or walk-ons who had some barking dialogue moment—to serve as guides for intricate stage movements. But in the case of the Guys and Dolls then in rehearsal, the actor informed Louie, the whole production was in jeopardy because the blind singer cast for the role of Adelaide had been forced to quit and no replacement could be found. Against Lighthouse intentions, the director was desperate enough to take on a singer-actress who could see.
Louie told the actor not to worry and to alert the director his new Adelaide would be giving him a call in the morning. He had a harder time persuading Lorna not to worry. Yes, she was familiar with the Guys and Dolls score, and yes, she considered herself capable of learning dance steps, and God knew, she had memorized enough opera roles to handle lines. But she had never planned on performing with a cast of blind people. To Louie’s objection that few people ever had, Lorna retreated to the more worn excuses of her schedule at the rectory, the awkwardness of replacing somebody in the middle of rehearsals, and her preference for bel canto to popular musicals. As Louie would insist later, it was Lorna’s own acute ear that finally heard all these evasive notes and led her to agreeing to see the director.
Lorna’s reverberating audition rendition of “Adelaide’s Lament” swept away any lingering reservations by the director about taking on a sighted person. As soon as that was settled, the elated Louie started rounding up more commitments for attendance than he ever had for Rogers and Hammerstein from his ticket office. His joke was that he was twisting more arms at his factory than his co-workers were twisting pretzels. As for Lorna, she developed new worries—not about performing with blind co-stars, but about what she detected as the waning strength of her voice during rehearsals because of trying to keep up with the firm baritone of the actor playing Nathan Detroit. It took a concerted effort by Louie and growingly irritated parish priests to convince her she would worry a lot less if she didn’t spend just about every minute of every day—at home, at work, in restaurants—singing “Adelaide’s Lament” to whatever walls were around her.
There might have been bigger opening nights for a Lighthouse show, but nobody remembered when. When Louie wasn’t glowing over the numerous familiar faces he greeted at the entrance, he was beaming over the scores of arrivals who hadn’t required his personal urging to spend their evening with Lorna. His enthusiasm dipped only when Bessie, Lorna’s mother, swaggered up. Most of Bessie’s long, straight gray hair draped down to cover her face; the rest of it made for a façade of bangs copied from beauty parlor photos; all of it was endangered by her tic of constantly tugging at the ends with a Lucky Strike between her yellowed fingers. Bessie might not have actually sipped anything stronger than tea for decades, but she carried herself as if shaking off a leg cramp after rising from a bar stool. “This your idea?” She greeted Louie with a Lucky Strike voice that made his rasp sound like a trill. “You break my Lorna’s heart, I’ll break something of yours.”
Louie tried to think that was funny, and kept his eyes on her as she negotiated the front door with a final siss at having to toss away her half-smoked cigarette. “She doesn’t like me much,” he said.
By the time the imposing-sized orchestra from local schools went into the overture, a couple of hundred people had filled the folding chairs rowed before a high stage. The fact that most of them were relatives and friends of the performers didn’t dilute the objectivity of their attention so much as strengthen the formality of what was being presented to them from the elaborate sets. Whatever the professional or physical limitations of the players, the traditional gulf between entertainers and audience was quickly in place. Halfway into the first scene, there was little patronizing of the blind in the air. The songs and dances were succeeding or failing only on their execution, and the script didn’t call for any pratfalls.
Bessie didn’t hear any of the sour notes or flubbed lines because she had made sure to plant herself on an aisle seat from which she could get outside for a cigarette break whenever Lorna went offstage. She seemed to have committed the score to memory as scrupulously as any cast member because she timed her returns perfectly to Lorna’s entrances. When a house manager standing in the back suggested she stop coming and going and disturbing the rest of the audience, Bessie separated herself from the play’s Salvation Army characters with her gravelly roar to “go screw yourself.”
But the main reason Bessie didn’t hear any of the sour notes was that Lorna, for one, didn’t hit any. Just as in the choir loft every Sunday, she swooped down on the golden oldies and shook them with such vibrant force that they didn’t dare not gleam again. When she told Nathan Detroit to “Take Back Your Mink,” he had to be forgiven for thinking it was an order to reanimate the animals that had gone into the coat. The one juncture at which the peculiar sponsor of the evening came to the fore was during a dance when Lorna was outfitted in more beads than solid cloth and she flaunted long legs that had no need of makeup. Behind the smile that had been on his face since her opening number, Louie cast suspicious glances around to reassure himself much of the audience couldn’t see what he wasn’t all that eager about anyone besides himself seeing. He might have been more certain of it if her drum-aided bumps and wiggles didn’t bring loud, hoarse laughter from Bessie at the end of his row.
The repeated surges of applause at the end of the show only confirmed what had been evident for a couple of hours: Nobody had missed anything by not spending the evening across the river in some Times Square theater. Back to his shepherding role, Louie led more than a dozen people to a restaurant where he had reserved three tables. The one touch too much was in having transparently indifferent but rehearsed waiters clap as Lorna entered, but it didn’t bother her and she immediately kissed her agent-producer for his part in her triumph. Only Bessie blew smoke on the moment as she peered out from her hair in wonder that she hadn’t been brought to a better place.
The food and wine went on for hours. Lorna volunteered a couple of choruses for nearby diners who wanted to know what was being celebrated, Bessie volunteered a couple of hacking coughs when the pretzel salter next to her asked if she was related to Lorna. Louie didn’t have to wait for somebody to say something funny to laugh since just about everyone did. And then, over the sixth or seventh toast, Lorna stood up to thank everyone for being part of “the happiest night I’ll ever have singing.” Louie jumped up to top her, to predict there would be many more such evenings, but she cut him off with a long kiss, this time on the lips. He didn’t know if he was more flummoxed by the kiss or the tears in her eyes. “Sit down, Louie,” Bessie croaked from across the table. “You’re rockin’ the boat.”
Bessie liked herself for the reference to another of the show’s tunes, and several people at the table laughed with her. Louie turned pale as Lorna sat down away from him. He knew he was rocking the boat, too. It still wasn’t his turf.
Donald Dewey has published 37 books of fiction, nonfiction, and drama for such houses as Little, Brown, HarperCollins, and St. Martin's Press. His latest books, both published in 2014, are the biography Lee J. Cobb: Characters of an Actor and the novel The Bolivian Sailor.