On April 5, 2001, I ran into Polly Bergen. And by "ran into," I honestly mean more "tripped into." It was opening night of the Follies revival. I was wearing new heels and somehow I went from walking over to Follies' press agent Bob Fennell to falling into a light-colored cape Ms. Bergen was wearing. I was young, and so apologetic. After all, she had maybe a couple of inches on me, but it's not like Polly Bergen was a physical force. I almost took her down. She was polite and said not to worry. She was briefly concerned that I may have damaged the cape, but in general was amazingly gracious under the circumstance. I slunk away.
Polly Bergen passed away from natural causes September 20 at age 84. The League of American Theaters and producers opted not to dim the lights for her. The Broadway websites ran pieces, there was a nice New York Times obituary, and people posted warm remembrances on message boards. But she didn't really get a grand sendoff -- that will happen on Thursday when friends and fans gather at the American Airlines Theatre to attend a memorial for the star. A Tribute to Polly Bergen, produced by Rex Reed and Michael Alden with creative consultant Deborah Grace Winer, will include appearances by Christine Andreas, Harry Belafonte, Chris Colfer, Arlene Dahl, Raúl Esparza, Michael Feinstein, Mark Hamill, Gregory Harrison, Judith Ivey, Chris Matthews, Phyllis Newman, Kelli O'Hara, Liz Smith, John Waters and Treat Williams.
It is fitting that the tribute is taking place at Roundabout's American Airlines. I saw Polly in two Roundabout shows, Follies and Cabaret (neither of them at that theater, but still). I still to this day believe Polly should have won a Tony Award for her performance in Follies. This is no offense to Cady Huffman, but I thought Polly deserved the win. She was the victim of a backlash against that revival and also the unstoppable momentum of The Producers. But I think anyone who saw her thought she was great. After Follies, she came back to Broadway twice more, in Cabaret (replacing as Fraulein Schneider) and in the short-lived Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks. I also saw her perform her cabaret act. She was wonderful in everything I ever saw her in; no one could have saved Six Dance Lessons.
Perhaps Polly Bergen will be best remembered for her work outside of the legit stage. She earned an Emmy Award in 1958 for her portrayal of the alcoholic torch singer Helen Morgan on TV's Playhouse 90 anthology series. (Unfortunately someone else took the role on the big screen.) She received Emmy nominations for her roles in the acclaimed The Winds of War and War and Remembrance miniseries. She hosted her own TV variety series, appeared frequently on the game show To Tell the Truth and, in the last ten years, had recurring roles on Commander in Chief and Desperate Housewives (for which she received another Emmy nomination). I will always picture her as Mrs. Vernon-Williams in Waters' Cry-Baby, but I suppose Cape Fear might be her most famous film role. At some point, she had her own cosmetics line, and the print ads said: "I think a woman's skin should lie about her age." She also wrote beauty books and a memoir, which I've never read and I'm fairly sure is out of print.
Polly Bergen was a real class act. She had a grace about her, an intangible quality that not many possess. I am happy so many celebrities are coming out to pay tribute to her. It meant a lot to me to be in the theater as the community paid tribute to Elaine Stritch recently. I am sure I will be just as touched -- if not more so -- during this tribute. And everyone can try to get tickets! A limited number of seats will be made available to the general public on the day of the event on a first-come, first-served basis. Doors open at 2:30pm, so keep that in mind when deciding what time to get there at.
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