Barbra Streisand is returning to her roots -- to give a concert for the first time in Brooklyn at the Barclays Center on October 11. Now as a psychologist I perceive my friendship with an introverted girl in 1959 as the beginning of her transformation into a dynamic woman.
Her friend, Susan (Dwaorkowitz) Lanell, from Erasmus High School in Brooklyn, brought Barbra to my apartment at 152 West 44th Street to watch us rehearse for acting class. It was months before she revealed her last name. She used Italian stage names.
On the way to her first acting class with Eli Rill, she made an irrelevant request. She asked us to look at a sweater she had put on "lay away." After assuring her it was beautiful, she bought it.
For her first assignment, Barbra was to perform a monologue. She played Medea. Since she was 17, Rill said, "That was pretty good, but don't you think you should play characters closer to your age?" That did not please her.
Next was an improvisation of a maid who had only 15 minutes to set the table before her employer returned.
A bare table stood center stage. Barbra raced stage left and returned with a tablecloth that she flung across the table. As it cascaded to the floor, she ran around the table stumbling into it. The class began to laugh, which infuriated Barbra. She picked up the tablecloth and slammed it down, eliciting more laughter. She galloped stage right and returned with china that she threw onto the table, smashing a cup. As the students roared, Barbra angrily sent silverware flying to the table. The class became hysterical with laughter. Although her improvisation ended in a flurry of applause, she was livid. Rill said, "You have a flair for comedy." After class she fumed, "Who does he think he is? I didn't come here to become a comedian. Musical comedy is the lowest form of entertainment!" She mocked me for watching The Dinah Shore Show, so I was amused on May 12, 1963, when Dinah Shore introduced Barbra as a "comedian" who could also sing.
I agreed to go with her to Alan Miller's class, another director from the Actor's Studio. But, I still wanted her to come to our Friday night parties with the students from Rill's class. Although she and Susan came for dinner, as the time for the party approached, Barbra panicked. She said, "I really can't. Next time I'll stay. I promise." Even though she was unable to socialize with the other students, I threatened to tie her to a chair. She was terrified so I had to let them go home.
Barbra liked my friend, Helene Aimee, a professional singer. Susan, Barbra and I went to her apartment at 39 East 63rd Street. Barbra asked Helene to record her singing, because she had never heard her own voice on tape. Helene played the piano and Barbra sang. Although Susan and I didn't think Barbra's singing was exceptional, Helene told her she had a "Sarah Vaughn quality" and should take singing lessons. Barbra laughed, "Oh, I just do it for myself. I would never sing in public."
Later, on leave from the Army, I asked Helene about Barbra's tape. She said I could have it, if I wanted to dig through a pile of unlabeled tapes. I declined. Years later, Helene was killed and the tape disappeared.
Barbra tolerated another student, Jack, because he could conduct a séance. We held hands around a table with a candle in the middle. As Jack performed his incantations electricity passed through me. The others felt it. While in deep concentration, my doorbell rang, causing us to scream. My roommate Arloha had forgotten her key. When she discovered the séance, she joined in. The candle went out. After screaming, we turned on the lights to see the wick of the candle had been pushed down into it in spite of no wind.
A frightened Susan, Barbra and I slept on the sofa bed -- with our clothes on. Afraid to fall asleep, Barbra sang every song she knew to stay awake. After an agonizing hour, I implored, "Will you shut up and go to sleep."
In Miller's class Barbra wanted to overcome her Brooklyn accent. I suggested she play the princess in The Swan. We could rehearse on the roof of her building in Flatbush to give her the sensation of being superior to those below.
Her mother, Diana, took me aside and said, "She's going to be a movie star." I gasped, "She is a very good actress."
As we did our scene in class, I was distracted by her crossed eyes -- one blue and one green. Miller praised Barbra but asked me what happened. I said I had a problem with concentration.
We would sit in the all-night cafeteria on Times Square to study the eccentric characters. Barbra became enraged over the gay boys who wore makeup. "Why don't they act like men?" she exclaimed. I replied, "I find them interesting since I never saw anyone like that in Rochester. You should be used to them." She snapped, "I'll never get used to them!" Ironically, gay boys would be her first audience and would make her a star.
On an Army leave I visited Susan and Barbra in their new Manhattan apartment. Barbra was an usherette at The Sound of Music starring Mary Martin at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre that opened on November 16, 1959. I teased her, "How do you like watching a musical comedy every night?" Her response was, "It's more like a movie with a lot of scene changes so it's not so bad."
In June 1960, Barbra entered a singing contest at a gay bar -- The Lion at 62 West 9th Street in Greenwich Village. The prize was $200. Her rendition of "A Sleeping Bee" so impressed the owner that she won the contest and a singing engagement. She became BARBRA, the offbeat new singer, who appealed to the gay community.
On September 9, she got an engagement at The Bon Soir at 46 West 8th Street. Gay patrons engaged in sexual behavior at the dark bar. Straight ones at the tables were unaware of it. Not being able to afford evening gowns, she performed in vintage clothing and nightgowns. Her performance caught the attention of David Merrick, who auditioned her for Miss Marmelstein in I Can Get It For You Wholesale. She was now on Broadway.
Stationed in Germany, I went to Rome to meet Susan. Unfortunately I felt abandoned by her on Christmas Eve, because her traveling companion took her to a party. Abruptly, I returned to Stuttgart to celebrate with my German friends.
After being discharged in 1962, I went to Los Angeles. Barbra was singing at The Blue Angel -- the top cabaret in New York. I called person-to-person between shows. When the operator asked for her, in the background, I heard her unmistakable voice bellow, "Who's calling?" Hearing my name, Barbra haughtily replied, "Miss Streisand is on stage performing and can't come to the phone." Stunned I mumbled, "Never mind, I'll call her later."
I wrote Barbra that I was surprised by her reaction, since I had never done anything to hurt her. Was she upset over the incident between Susan and me in Rome? I emphasized that I was calling her only to find out Susan's address. I never heard from Barbra.