Stories from NYC & Beyond: Showstopping Tales from VillageCare

Below is a loosely edited transcript of the Life Story Club conversation and story share which was held on October 6, 2021 in the Activities Room of the VillageCare Home in Midtown, Manhattan

John: A very touching story happened to me a couple of days ago.

John Meyer has thick glasses, and is almost
always in suspenders. He is a playwright and a musician.

He published a book about a brief relationship he had with Judy Garland.
Judy Garland sang on one of the late-night shows back in the day and one of the songs was written by him.

These days he writes and performs songs at
VillageCare and is the go-to performer for people’s birthday celebrations at the center [VillageCare].

He has a lot of energy and is fun to be around. When other people at VillageCare hear that John is involved with Life Story Club, they want to join too.

John: We have, in our vicinity, a Salvation Army with an extensive collection of books, all lined up on five shelves. There must be 200 or 300 titles used, and you go and you choose three or four of them and you take them to the cash register and pay. And on this particular day, there was a lady in front of me, maybe 60, with gray hair. And she had tucked into her arm, two cookbooks on the foods of Spain. And one of them was a hardcover and one of them was a paperback.

And she got to the register in front of me, and the guy said, “Okay, the paperback is 59 cents. The hardcover is $4.” And her face fell.

She said, “Oh, I can just afford the little one.”

And she took out the 59 cents and placed it on the counter. And my heart went out to her.

And as she departed, I pulled the $4 out of my pocket and I bought the hardcover.

And I ran after her, I said, “Miss, miss, you really should have this. Obviously, you’re in love with Spanish food, you wanna learn how to cook it. So, please take this with my compliments.” She was so moved. And we walked out together, we had a little conversation.

And half a block down, I said, “Well, this is where I live: VillageCare.”

And she said, “Oh, okay. Well, thank you so much again.”

And she departed. A day went by and I got a call from downstairs, and they said, “There’s a package for you here, John. You gotta come to get it. The lady said it was perishable.”

And I went downstairs and she had left me an omelet that she had made, packed up in silver foil. And I was so touched. It was a Spanish omelet and it was just a very touching way to be repaid. And that’s my story.

Peter: That’s a wonderful story.

Linnea (the group facilitator from Life Story Club): I see. That’s a really great story. Thank you for starting us with that. Would you like to go next, Peter?

Peter: I don’t have a touching story like that.

John: Tell ‘em about seeing “Tomorrow, the World!”

Peter: Oh, “Tomorrow, the World!.”

When I was a kid living in New York during World War II, occasionally, I used to go to the theater with my father or my mother. And I ended up, around 1944, seeing a play called “Tomorrow, the World!” which was a big hit at the time. And I think it had Ralph Bellamy and Shirley Booth in it and had
various other people. And it was about a kid from Nazi Germany coming to live in an American home, and it had kids in it.

There was a kid who played the Nazis, and there was a little girl, there was a teenager, and a
younger girl. And I won’t go into the story of the play, but seeing two kids in it that were sort of my age or somewhere around my age…

John: …Gave you a revelation.

Peter: I said, “Gee, I’d like to do that.” You know? And so, after saying, “Gee, I’d like to do that.” It sort of hooked me on the theater.

I’d never thought about it before, and then I said, “That might be fun to do, or interesting to do, or exciting to do. Like, be somebody else, you know?”

And it had a beautiful set of a living room that you wanted to move into, you know, that kind of setting. So, that’s what started me off. And before that, I never even thought about it. Seeing younger
people in a play. And that’s something. It sounded like it would be interesting to do.

To be somebody else other than yourself. It’s sort of a variation of dressing up, which people do, you know, with costumes and things. And just to find and live a life that isn’t your own, even though it’s only through acting.

John: Was it Skippy Homeier?

Peter: It was Skippy Homeier, Ralph Bellamy, and Shirley Booth. I didn’t see Shirley Booth, I saw somebody by the name of Lois Wheeler because she was the understudy. And then there was a lady named Dorothy Sands and it’s who I later studied acting with, years later.

And I’ve forgotten who played the young girl. She grew up and became an actress. The show was a big hit at the time, though everybody’s forgotten. It was made into a movie. Anyway, that’s when I got hooked, regrettably sometimes.

Linnea: Thank you for sharing.

Peter: You’re very welcome.

Linnea: Susan, do you have a story in mind that you’d like to share?

Susan: When I was about 17, I asked for a book for Christmas and it was written by Helen Hayes. I saw an excerpt in the magazine and I admired her so much. And this story was about her life and falling in love with Charles MacArthur and having children. She lost her daughter to polio at 19 years old. I was so fascinated by her and her talent.

When I went to college, in Edinboro at 19, my mother called me and said, “You have to take a bus home. We have tickets to see Helen Hayes in a play at the Nixon theater,” which is now a parking lot. And she said, “We got tickets and you need to take the bus to Pittsburgh and we’ll meet you with dress clothes.” So, I did. And we went to the play. It was called “The Show-Off.”

My mother told me Helen had agreed to meet me at the end, so the whole time I was watching, I thought, “Her daughter died at 19 and I’m 19. I’ll bet that’s why she agreed to meet me.” Because I wanted to be an actress, that’s what my mother had told her. When I asked for the book and got it at Christmas, my mother inscribed in it, “Susan, that you would want and appreciate a book like this is a gift of joy to me.”

After the play, we went backstage and met her and she was exactly what I expected. She had her hands crossed on her stomach and looked way up at me because I was 5” 9’ then.

She spoke so eloquently and asked me about my aspirations, but I was totally tongue-tied. I couldn’t say a thing–nothing would come out. I felt so
stupid. And we forgot to bring the book to have her sign it. We regretted that.
Afterward, we were driving down the alley behind the theater and we saw her out walking her dog, and I just broke down crying. I was so moved by the whole experience and the fact that she would wanna meet me at 19 years old, and had lost her daughter. I always cherished that book.

Linnea: Did you get any advice that you remember from her?

Susan: No. The whole thing kinda went blank in my head because I was so starstruck. And I was just so moved and starstruck that I was
speechless.

And she said, “I understand you wanna be an
actress.” And I was like, “Yeah. Uh-huh.” And
afterward, I could have kicked myself. I just felt so stupid, but it was one of the highlights of my life.

John: That happened to me with Arthur Miller, the playwright of “Death of a Salesman.”
For some reason, we were standing on the steps waiting for taxis outside of a theater and there was Arthur Miller, a big guy.

And I was next to him and, in fact, I even said, “Hello.” But I was tongue-tied, the same way you were with Helen Hayes.

Susan: Really?
John: In Summer Stock, we did one of his plays called “All My Sons.” I should’ve asked him about that, you know?

Peter: Yeah.

John: I didn’t. I just stood there like a jerk.

Peter: I have a story that’s kind of funny like that. For some reason, I was at Sardi’s, I was at
somebody else’s opening night party, a friend of mine who had a small part in a play called “The Lincoln Mask.” Didn’t last very long but anyway, I had taken a lady friend of mine, I got free tickets for it. And I found myself at the party sitting next to Ethel Merman, the big E.

And of course, you know, you feel absolutely
intimidated. What do you say to Ethel Merman? So I finally mustered up the courage and said, “Ms. Merman, I hear you have a new record out or LP,” or whatever it was.

And she said, without looking at me, almost with a poke in the arm, “Yeah, 63-piece orchestra. You gotta get it.” And that was all that she ever said to me throughout the entire evening.

And then, when she got up to leave, I said,
“Goodbye,” you know, I just let it go with that. And she turned and said, “Now, remember 63-piece orchestra. You gotta get it.” And that’s all she ever said, but…and she was with somebody else. One thing you learn about sitting next to somebody, a star or somebody who’s famous, they’re not the slightest bit interested in you.

Susan: No.

John: But sometimes they can pretend.

Peter: Yeah, they can pretend. And I said, even the Queen of England, if you ever sat next to her she’d pretend.

John: Yeah, exactly.

Linnea: Dolores, would you like to share a story?

John: Tell me about how you were crazy about movie magazines.

Dolores: When I was like 10 or 12 years old I would wait every month for movie magazines. I would run down to the newsstand. Believe it or not, in those days a kid could go out by themselves. No one would bother you back then. Or if someone bothered you, you ran. I would wait for the
newsstand.

I would buy “Modern Screen,” “Photoplay,” and “Screen Stories.” They were only 10 cents. I would read all of them. I knew what the screen stories or the plots were for the movies. I would read all the gossip columns, and I would collect colored
pictures.

I remember a colored picture of Gene Tierney and Susan Hayward. They were so beautiful, so
sometimes I would cut out their pictures. Then I got interested in the movies, and I would go to movies every week or something like that.

You know, in those days, they had Saturday
matinees for the kids. Oh, the kids were annoying. If the movie was good, they would be quiet. If the movie was lousy, they’d be fighting and throwing things at each other.

John: Remember the matron? There was always a matron.

Dolores: Oh, the matron. What a floss that was, a real floss.

John: They used to have matrons patrolling the aisles for kid’s matinees, which would happen on Saturday at, like, 11:00 in the morning.

Peter: They always wore white and had flashlights.

John: They all had flashlights and they would tell you to shut up.

Dolores: It was such a floss.

Peter: Yes. “Get your feet off the seats.”

John: “Be quiet.” Dolores, what was the first movie you remember seeing?

Dolores: I think I was about six years old, I think. I was visiting my grandmother. I used to go to my grandmother’s during the summer and she didn’t understand movies that much. But it was, I think, a serial, you know? They used to show serials where they would continue it week after week after week.

And I was about 6 years old and I don’t remember the name, but it took place in the jungle and there was a gorilla. I didn’t know at the time it was
probably a man dressed as a gorilla.

I got so frightened. I went underneath my seat and my grandmother was laughing at me. That was, I think, my first movie, I don’t remember the name.
Something about jungles.

John: Maybe a Tarzan, huh?

Dolores: No, no. It was something else.
Maybe something called “Tim Tyler in the Jungle,” or something like that. I remember visiting my
grandmother again, and I don’t remember how old I was, but I remember I saw a Cecil B. DeMille
movie with John Wayne, and there was supposed to be a big squid. They were divers and this big squid or octopus surrounded them, and it was trying to kill them or something. I think it was called “Reap the Wild Wind.”. I think Susan Hayward was in it. That was one of my early movies. I saw it when I was about eight years old.

John: Yeah. “Reap the Wild Wind.”

Dolores: Something like that, yeah. It was a Cecil B. DeMille production, it was something elaborate, you know? With a big giant squid. And, at that time, I didn’t realize that squids are not that giant.

It [the movie theater] was a really dumpy place near my Grandmother’s place in Brooklyn. It was a couple of blocks away. And in my neighborhood, when I used to go to the matinees at a place called the Bijou.

A real dumpy place now that I think of it. You know, I’d actually go by myself and believe it or not,
nobody bothered me, you know? But I was tall for a 12-year-old. And so, I looked older, so they would let me in but nobody bothered me or anything like that.

Peter: Dolores is an Encyclopedia of Information.
She knows more than anybody.

Linnea: Alan, would you like to share?

Alan: I’ll just tell a short story about going to the movies. I’m from Guyana and the first movie I saw was “Samson and Delilah.” I was 12 years old. I
always remember that movie and the first time I went to a theater with my uncle.

John: The star was Victor Mature?

Alan: Victor Mature. And Hedy Lamarr was Delilah. And Samson’s strength was in his hair. His
mother told him, “Do not cut your hair, your locks. That is your strength, you will lose your strength if you cut it.” Samson was so strong that he lifted up the gate of Gaza, and threw it on the Philistines, killing thousands of them.

The leader of the Philistines knew well that
Samson was in love with Delilah so they said they would give her 30 pieces of silver to see where his strength comes from. She tried and tried. She tied his hands up with rope, but he ripped out of the rope, so that didn’t work.

Samson wasn’t to drink wine, and so Delilah gave him wine. The servant who prepared the wine threw a little something inside it to make him sleep. Then when Delilah gave Samson the wine now, he was out. Delilah then cut his locks–cut his hair off, taking away his strength. She tied him up again, saying, “Samson, the Philistine is upon you.” When the enemy came, she told them, “Don’t shed his blood. Don’t shed his blood.” So instead they got a hot knife and used it to take his sight.

At the temple, the Philistine were mocking and laughing at Samson. They had him captured and they put him between pillars and began
mocking him. Samson begged for his strength, saying, “God, let me die with my enemy.” And with that, Samson got his strength back.

He pushed and pushed and pushed the pillars that were on top of them, bringing down the entire temple and killing most of the Philistines. Samson died along with the enemy since that is what he asked God for.. A part of the movie is in the Bible, the Book of Judges.

Linnea: Were you hooked on movies after you saw this? You wanted to see more?

Alan: Yes, I went to the Plaza and to any other cinema I could get to. When I was a teenager, I would go see movies on my own. The plaza was a wooden building and I would watch the screen in the theater even before the movie would start.

Two archers were printed on either side of the screen with their bows. I had never seen anything like it. I used to walk thirty minutes to see these movies. That’s how long it took me to get to the Plaza from my home.

Alan: “Samson and Delilah.”

John: That’s right.

Peter: “Samson and Delilah.”

Linnea: Do you have another story, John?

John: I got 30 of them.

Dolores: We can go on and on.

John: My friend Barry, who was an actor, and I were watching TV one afternoon. He used to come over to my house and we would watch what was called the “Million Dollar Movie” every afternoon at 4:00, whatever. And they were having a Burt
Lancaster festival and after the festival, Burt
Lancaster appeared on an interview show that was hosted by Mike Wallace. Remember Mike
Wallace?

Peter: Yeah.

Dolores: Yeah.

John: And Mike Wallace prided himself on probing questions. And first of all, he asked Burt
Lancaster, he says, “How did you feel when the House Un-American Activities Committee quizzed you about your communist leanings?” And Burt Lancaster, who was there to promote a picture called the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” right?

Dolores: Mm-hmm.

John: This is 1962 and he said, “Well, it didn’t bother me. I didn’t answer their questions.” He says, “Now, can we talk about my picture?” Mike Wallace said, “In a minute, Burt.”

He says, “Now, there are many rumors. Whether they’re true or not, I don’t know.” He said, “About your possible homosexuality,” said Mike Wallace. He says, “How do you deal with those rumors?” Lancaster said, “Mike,” he says, “That is not
germane to this discussion and I think you’re
ridiculous, as a host, to ask me a question like that.”

He took off his lapel mic and he stormed out of the studio. Barry and I were astounded. Wow, what a move. I lived on 57th street at that time, we went downstairs, walked down to 5th Avenue and we went into the Plaza. And we were just walking around the Plaza lobby, and all of a sudden, two men came past us.

One of them was Burt Lancaster. And out of some impulse, I punched the air and I said, “Give ‘em hell Burt.” And the reaction was astounding.

He leaped across the car, but he must have taken a 6-feet leap and he’s a guy who’s 6’2, you know? He said, “How did it look? Did I come off arrogant?” He says, “Because it could have gone either way, you know? People think we, movie stars, are so overprivileged and arrogant.

I’ve tried to destroy that image, but tell me, it could have gone either way.” He was so nervous that his leaving the show was seen as arrogant. And I said to him, “Burt, you were absolutely correct.”

I said, “Mike Wallace, he thinks he’s this crusading
journalist asking all the probing questions and he’s really a gossip column figure. He’s Louella
Parsons, you know? So, don’t worry about it. You did exactly the right thing.” Lancaster, he just wiped the sweat off his brow.

He said, “Man, I’m so glad I ran into you.” He said, “You’ve really set my mind at ease.” And he walked off. And my friend Barry, who’s an actor said,
“Actors, actors, you see? We’re all so insecure.” And that was the anecdote.

Peter: You know, the HUAC was interviewing a writer named Kenneth Fearing.

John: Mystery writer.

Peter: Literary writer, yeah. And he wrote “The Big Clock” and he wrote poems, very wonderful poems, definitely. And I think he was a socialist or something very much on the left, and they brought him in front of the HUAC, House Un-American
Activities Committee. And they said, “Are you a communist?” And he said, “Not yet.” That’s all he said.

John: Great response.

Peter: Great response.

Dolores: I forget what Lillian Hellman. They asked her something. I forget what Lillian Hellman said. I forget what she said. Something like that.

John: She said, “I will not cut my conscience.”

Dolores: Yeah.

John: Yeah, Lillian Hellman.

Peter: Lillian Hellman, yeah. To suit the fashion or something like that, yeah.

Dolores: That was such a floss.

Linnea: Does anyone have another story that they’d like to share?

Dolores: Oh, God. There’s so many of them.

Peter: There was a wonderful joke about Helen Hayes. Can I tell that?

Linnea: Yes.

Peter: This is sort of a regular joke. Friends of hers came to see her on a show and they thought that was not one of her best performances, but they had to go back and see her. I don’t know if it’s true or not.

So, they went backstage and they said, “Well, what do we say?” You know, you go backstage and you didn’t like what they saw. So, she opened the door with this thing and they said, “Helen…Helen…
Helen…Helen…Helen….Oh, thank you.”

Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know but I love these stories, you know? What do you say to somebody when…because I’ve been in shows and people come back and, you know, why they come back at all and said…oh, something I was in. And they said nothing about what I did, just about, “I hated the play. I did this and this.” You wonder why they come back, you know?

Dolores: You don’t know what to say. I have a story almost like that. I didn’t see the play, but my friend did. She went to see “The World of Suzie Wong,” and at that time, a young William Shatner was in the play, a young William Shatner.

So, my friend decided to go backstage. She said it was a terrible performance, so I don’t know why they decided to go backstage. They didn’t like the
performance. So, he says to them, “How was I? How was I?” And so, my friend says, “Well, the sets were nice.” That was it.

John: She went home humming the scenery.

Dolores: Yeah.

John: Right.

Dolores: I remember when he was a young actor, you know?

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