Miss Gish Recalls –
St. Louis and Sodas at the Busy Bee
By Mike Schau, Special to the Globe-Democrat
New York, I walked into Lillian Gish’s dressing room at the Longacre Theater where she is starring in Robert Anderson’s drama “I Never Sang for My Father.” It is a little corner of cheerfulness in an otherwise dark and gloomy backstage area.
The bulb-encircled make-up mirror, the array of cosmetic jars and the drawing of Snoopy hanging on the wall helped to brighten the small room, but I suspect the real glow came from the charm that Miss Gish radiates – the same charm that has endeared her to film and playgoers since the turn of the century.
At 72 Lillian Gish is still a beautiful woman. If the Gish Girl-loveliness that John Barrymore described as “superlatively exquisite and poignantly enchanting” is somewhat physically faded, the beauty of character and spirit is overwhelmingly present.
She talked of the play, but when I mentioned I was from St. Louis, her thoughts turned back to the days when she toured and later went to school and lived there.
“My sister Dorothy and I loved to play in St. Louis because of the ice cream sodas. We hit St. Louis many times where we were children touring in Belasco’s productions. There was a place near the theater – I can’t remember the name of the play much less the theater – were we got the best ice cream sodas in the world. Chocolate. Not the sweet chocolate. Bitter chocolate. It was called the Busy Bee Ice Cream Parlor. Mary Pickford toured with us in a few shows (she was known as Gladys Smith then) and the three of us came to know St. Louis for its ice cream.”
But there were less happy days in the city. “Things got rough and my father left us. We had an aunt in St. Louis and my mother, my sister and I moved in with her. We opened a confectionery in the city and Dorothy and I went to school and worked in the store. (The Misses Gish attended Ursuline Academy for a year. [1909-1910]) Somehow though we got back on our feet and back on the stage.”
There was a quiet knock at the dressing room door. Miss Gish opened it and was as surprised as I was to see Dame Edith Evans there. Miss Gish let out a little gasp of surprise and then more than 125 years of show business experience embraced. Dame Edith looked chipper and a little winded from the two-flight climb.
“I’m on my way home to London and I had to stop in to see you,” she explained. She seemed none the worse for having won the Academy Award presentations (she was nominated for her starring role in “The Whisperers”).
By their manner, it was obvious they were old friends. There was great praise for Miss Gish and the play, all of which was accepted with modesty. There was a pause in their delight at seeing one another to remember a mutual friend, Edna Ferber who had recently died. Dame Edith brought news of the passing of Fay Bainter which surprised everyone. There was another thoughtful silence and Miss Gish said something about the bright lights going out one by one. Then, a dinner date having been made, there were more embraces and the grand Dame Edith took her leave.
Miss Gish sat down and gave a sigh of relief. “If I had known she was in the audience tonight I would have been like this.” (She made a gesture describing extreme nervousness.) “I can usually tell who’s there during the show. That is the greatest actress in the theater today.”
She spoke more like an adoring fan than an old friend. “You know, when I was in London at the age of 16 I saw Edith in a bit part. She was unknown and I singled her out even then as a great actress.”
Cast of “I Never Sang for My Father” included Hal Holbrook, Teresa Wright, and Laurinda Barrett. Lois Wilson was Miss Gish’s understudy. In the 1970 film starring Gene Hackman had Holbrook’s role, actress Dorothy Stickney (1896-1998) had the role of Margaret Garrison, the role Lillian played in the Broadway production. Melvyn Douglas had the lead senior role in the film. It was Melvyn Douglas who presented Lillian with her honorary Academy Award in 1971.