Thursday, May 25, 2017

Energy. Ambition. Love. Grace. - Part IV GRACE

In celebration of Cherie Mason: an exemplar of the Opera House mission to use the performing arts to create excellence in all the ways we perform our lives. 
Part IV of a 4-part series on the life and distinguished career of Cherie Mason, based on a 2016 interview with Judith Jerome, founding co-artistic director of Opera House Arts.


And then the Stonington Opera House reopened in 2000. It was at a Christmas party that Cherie Mason met the Ohags, as we called ourselves, four women who had rebuilt the Stonington Opera House. “We were just chitchatting. When did you come to the island?—the usual chitchat. And then said I was a member of SAG—and somebody almost dropped their glass! I said yes, SAG and AFTRA. And they said—Oh if only we had known! We just did a play and a series of Radio Shows—and you would have been in them! So, that was the beginning of my life at the Opera House. Which has been wonderful.”

In 2008, to our great fortune, Cherie joined the board of directors of Opera House Arts because, she said, “That’s where the decisions are made; that’s how you get to know an organization.” And then in 2011, at the age of 84, she became a member of Actor’s Equity Association, the last of the three unions available to her as a performing artist. A string of initials trail her name: PhD, SAG-AFTRA, AEA. “The theater has always been in my bones. But I think I’ve become—I don’t know, now that I’ve become Equity, I’ve gotten some kind of a new infusion. I’m really disappointed if I’m not in a show, or I’m not cast in something during a season. I really want to work. I want to use the muscle. And I didn’t always feel that way. But as I did more and more pieces at the Opera House, that became more and more part of the fabric of my life. At times it’s made me discontent with living here and not being near New York, or near a place where I can see theater all the time.”

The first big show Cherie was in at the Opera House was Shelley Berc and Anita Stewart’s documentary play, Women and the Sea. The great Mary Grace Canfield, who is best known for playing ‘Ralph Monroe’ on the television show Green Acres, was also in the play and when I ask Cherie what she most remembers from Women and the Sea she says: “Mary Grace Canfield said to me during one of the rehearsals: ‘Get yourself to New York and get an agent!’ Which just made my heart—what a wonderful thing to say!”

In Elizabeth Rex she wore an Elizabethan costume that weighed twenty-five pounds. In July. No air conditioning in the Historical Society’s new barn. “I think that show is the apex of what has been done at the Opera House, in terms of acting, in terms of the location, with straw on the floor, and the audience on benches, like I imagine it was for the Globe. It gives me goose pimples just now, thinking of it. A friend on the board of the ART in Boston said it was the finest thing he’s ever seen anywhere. In any city, any theater. He was just spellbound. I felt that way, too. And I loved my part—I was part of it, but not too much.

The Ghosts in Ten Real Star Acts, with Jeff Brink and Larry Estey
We talk and laugh away the afternoon, randomly remembering other shows: “As It Is is Heaven—I wept every night on that last line, talking to the girl who went astray. It was so moving. So well-written. . . . The Julia Wars were fun, too, of course, with Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy. I had this glass of scotch—it was Pepsi-cola, or something. Smoking. I loved doing that . . . And I broke myself up every night in Ten Real Star Acts! with my entrance, coming in behind Esther who had her hands tied behind her back. I wanted a different hat, though. The only one they had in the wardrobe department was that little bonnet—I didn’t think that was funny enough. I wanted a big, broad-brimmed hat, with a scarf tied around it—like the ladies wore in automobiles! I thought that would be so funny . . . SMATWAFS I tap danced on to the stage. And I was flirting outrageously with Danny Hadley. That play was written by Nancy Hodermarsky. It was just topnotch. Dee and Phil Miller got so into it . . . I wore a peignoir in Portrait of a Madonna . . . And, well, I’m the poster girl in R & J & Z, aren’t I? 
Zombie Lady Capulet
I remember Linda [Nelson] saying, ‘Cherie, I’ve got the best picture of you—but I can’t use it; it’s too gruesome.’ And then she did use it! That has to be a moment that is rare in acting—when you walk out on an empty stage, you’re the only person on the stage, and you’re doing this thing that you know is just going to stun people! It’s such a power play. The gasps! And then all the people teasing me. And then of course that photo became Ken’s and my Christmas card . . .Duck Variations: Well you can’t do any better than that. I just adored that thing we did together. It just seemed to work, didn’t it? . . . I loved the music in The Last Ferryman. Paul wrote the piece for me because I couldn’t sing—so I sang/talked. And then when I did my bit with the children, when I fell, and came back in with two black eyes and my arm in a sling—Pam Getto’s son Luke’s eyes just popped. I had to not look at him because it just broke me up. In Much Ado About Nothing I wore my hair down for the first time, to try and look a little younger. That was quite a nice part I had: doing the maid.”

Cherie and Aryeh Lappin in rehearsal
 In true Elizabethan fashion most of the women’s roles in this production were played by men. I ask Cherie if she remembers the first time Aryeh Lappin, who played Hero, the ingénue, had to take all his clothes off behind a screen that momentarily concealed the two of them. Cherie doesn’t remember—but I do. Mostly actors dispense with modesty, but Aryeh, who was maybe 25 at the time, was a little shy about getting naked with Cherie, and checked in, to see if it was all right. Cherie said yes, very sweetly: “I like it. It isn’t often I get to see a naked young man these days.”

“Did I really say that?! That’s really funny. Oh I’m proud of myself if I said that.
That’s where I’m Anni’s daughter, right?”

Really, all those turns in Anni’s daughter’s career are not so anomalous. Cherie was always performing her heartfelt self, with such splendid, glorious arrogance, made of energy, ambition, love, and grace. When we perform we put our bodies, our live selves out there on the line. We fill ourselves with the glorious energy of play. It’s always an offering. How lucky the Opera House has been that one of Cherie’s turns brought her here. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

Energy. Ambition. Love. Grace. - PART III LOVE

In celebration of Cherie Mason: an exemplar of the Opera House mission to use the performing arts to create excellence in all the ways we perform our lives

Part III of a 4-part series on the life and distinguished career of Cherie Mason, based on a 2016 interview with Judith Jerome, founding co-artistic director of Opera House Arts.


Cherie and Ken Mason had met at the Ludgin Agency. Just look at the two of them; how could they not fall in love and marry? That they were married ad execs (and both also artists) posed no career problems in the beginning. But then Ken made a decision as seemingly contrary to his advertising career as Cherie’s had seemed to her theater dreams when she went into advertising. He joined Quaker Oats, in a non-advertising position, and in a very short time became the first non-family president and CEO of the company. Then there was a conflict of interest. At McCann Erickson Cherie was on the General Mills account—a competitor of Quaker Oats. Ad campaigns for new programs and products were top secret, so she, not unhappily, stepped down from her job.

Cherie doesn’t say that she was tired or disillusioned with advertising, but surely the field didn’t glow with the same edge of newness that it had once had. “So I said, now I’m going to go full circle, back to where I started. And since we don’t need the money, necessarily, I’m going to see if I can get a job acting.” In advertising Cherie regularly held auditions for commercials and hired actors, so the agents in Chicago all knew her. “I asked one of the top ones—am I crazy? Tell me if you think I shouldn’t do this—but I’d really like to take a fling. She said, ‘Cherie—you’ll be great’. So—I did it!”

Cherie got work at once, in both radio and television, and shortly got her SAG-AFTRA card. She did voiceovers, and lip-synching, including a series of 'the beautiful girl in the bathtub' commercials. [Perhaps this was the Calgon woman—‘Calgon, take me away?’ Cherie can’t remember now.] “And I did a lot of animated work. I love doing animals and funny voices. I love comedy. In fact, I really think of myself as a comedian.” Like her old heroes, Paul Lynd, Cloris Leachman, and Charlotte Rae. Indeed, even in the most serious role, Cherie can subtly, suddenly, elicit a welcome burst of audience laughter.

She also did a great deal of work for Public Television in Chicago, WTTW, fundraising and otherwise. That’s when she got her first contact lenses. It was the beginning of the use of cue cards, and her glasses reflected the studio lights. 

The only live theater she did in those years was a play for the National Theater of the Deaf. “The one speaking part was to be played by the wonderful comedienne, Nanette Fabray.” Fabray herself had a hearing impairment and did a lot of work with the deaf, including narrating NTD’s first show, an “NBC Experiment in Television,” titled The Cube. But for this later play, Fabray fell ill. The producers called Cherie, who took it on with relish.

But Cherie couldn’t have just this one line of work. “With the extreme energy that I was born with, I had to have something in-between. So I became a representative for Defenders of Wildlife.” Here her use of performance and persuasion took a new turn, which involved a great deal of public speaking. “Oh yes. Oh my. Speaking to the bear hunters of Wisconsin at their annual meeting,” for example. “I gave my talk about how the bears were more valuable to them live than dead, for tourist reasons—and I was absolutely shunned at the coffee break. No one would stand near me. But this was par for the course. Later a man brushed by me, and said, ‘You make a lot sense, lady.’ It made the whole trip worthwhile.

“One of the great problems in wildlife protection is the use of the steel jaw leghold trap; it’s not used as widely as it once was because the wearing of fur is not as important as it once was. But I was on my way to a speaking engagement in Springfield, Illinois—and at the Chicago airport something jammed the conveyor belt, and it stopped suddenly. All the alarm bells went off.” The box in which Cherie had packed the demo traps broke open and steel jaw leghold traps spilled out all over. “And they came from everywhere, the police. And here I am with my traps. And so—I held the traps up. There was a woman who happened to be standing near in a fur coat, and I pulled her into it: Lady, this is where you fur coat comes from. Well, they hauled me away, made me stop. But not until I got a few good words in.”

On Pine Island 
Meantime,“Ken was finishing a book he was working on, and he wanted ‘time to think,’ as he always said. I could do wildlife work from wherever I was. And we were both tired. We had worked very hard all our lives, and we wanted to go now and do something that we just wanted to do. Looking back on it, it was probably foolish and intemperate: We moved to an isolated island in a lake in Minnesota, about 30 miles south of the Canadian border, with no electricity, nothing.” They had bought Pine Island some years before, as a vacation retreat, but now they moved on to the island fulltime. Transport to the mainland in in summer was by boat and in winter was by snowmobile. “We brought three enormous rafts over, with everything we owned—so when we had this unexpected fire, we lost everything—that was a lesson in life.” [And another story for another time.]

 Not wanting to be too sensible or temperate on this next move, Cherie and Ken settled on a bridged island: Deer Isle in Maine, in 1982. Cherie continued wildlife work. It had become “a very significant part of my life. I grew to really love that work. Horribly hard work. And I’ve continued it to this day; it is primary in my life.” I both hope I will and hope I won’t get Cherie when I phone, because her answering machine message changes regularly and alerts us to new environmental challenges. “Did you know?” they always begin, in that absolutely affirmative voice that has been winning people over for decades.

In Maine Cherie sat on the boards of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife for 5 years, and on the Maine chapter of The Nature Conservancy. It was she who initiated, later with the support of the Sierra Club, the successful efforts to establish the Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge in Wells, ME, winning a $900,000 federal grant to preserve the wetland. Over the years she gave talks on Rachel Carson all over the state. Between times she wrote two revered books for young people: Wild Fox and Everybody’s Somebody’s Lunch, and recorded an audio version of Wild Fox.

Locally, Cherie, with Dud Hendrik and Lloyd Capin founded Island Heritage Trust, now in its 30th year. She worked on the Conservation Commission, and for fourteen years had a regular radio show on WERU. In the beginning it was called “The Environmental Notebook,” but as consciousness of environmental issues built, she shifted her focus to where she felt there was the most need, and changed the name of the show to “The Wildlife Journal.”

Cherie’s environmental work was honored in 1993 when she was awarded the Tambrands Environmental Women of Action award in Washington DC. And in 1999 Unity College presented Cherie Lee Mason an honorary doctorate of humane letters.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Energy. Ambition. Love. Grace. - Part II: Ambition

Energy. Ambition. Love. Grace. PART II: AMBITION

In celebration of Cherie Mason: an exemplar of the Opera House mission to use the performing arts to create excellence in all the way we perform our lives.

Part II of a 4-part series on the life and distinguished career of Cherie Mason, based on a 2016 interview with Judith Jerome, founding co-artistic director of Opera House Arts.

Cherie ended up in a rooming house in Lewiston, Montana. “It was a little tiny sheepherding town. Right smack in the center of the state. In fact the true geographic center of that state was in the kitchen sink of a lady I got to know there. She was proud of that.

“I worked like mad. I had five different shows. I had a news show. I had a woman’s talk show; I invited mothers to bring their babies, and little ones, and I let them be on the radio. They liked that a lot. And I obviously had a show in which I did readings, like poems or short stories. “I would say: Oh hello, welcome to Cherie’s Partyline! That was the name of one of the shows. And then with a little extra energy I’d bring a snack to the engineer, who was on all night. I’d take him a sandwich or something.
“It was a brave thing to do for a woman alone, and in an area that felt to me practically uncharted—I mean I didn’t even really know where I was.” She’d just gotten on the bus and gone, walking through doors as they opened for her.

Cherie hadn’t been in Montana a year when Anni called again. The Dean of the School of Journalism at Northwestern was trying to reach her. Cherie had minored in journalism and had written several well-regarded papers on advertising, as part of her coursework. Anni said: “This is a job with an advertising agency. It’s not radio.” A small Detroit company, with an even smaller budget, had applied to the university, looking for graduates who might be willing to train, to learn the ropes of copywriting. The Dean said to Anni, “If Cherie’s still around, I think she should look into this.” And Cherie said, “Whatever it is, I want it.”

“So I took the bus again from Montana to Detroit, Michigan—it was Christmas—to interview in this little tiny advertising agency: W.B. Doner. I mean they had a couple of regional accounts, but nothing much. I didn’t know what a copy writer was, but I could figure it out pretty fast. So I said yes, yes, I’ll take the job.”

Back in Montana the manager at the radio station was furious. “Because of course I’d drummed up a lot of business—because I sold time, too [ads on the radio]. I’d run around to all the little shops and sell time. I was a ball of fire.” As if we didn’t know. But sweet as it was in Montana, it was not her place. “So I said, I’m sorry, but I’ve got to get back to the Midwest where I live.

“I got on a train this time, not a bus. With a few pennies in my pocket, and a bad cold. I can remember that morning I left on the train.” It was February. “I think it was five in the morning and Montana at five in the morning is something to see. I was standing, waiting for the bus to come—it was late, of course—and it was freezing, freezing!—and I said, I am on my way to Detroit! On my way to a new job!”

Who would have expected this turn of events? But it was the 1950s; advertising was coming into its own and was full of itself. Like the tech world today, it was the place where energetic, ambitious people made their mark. The move to Doner was propitious and perfectly timed, and it would launch Cherie on the path that would use her remarkable energy for the next decade and more.

“I was at Doner for 3 or 4 years. And I really did learn the ropes, the advertising ropes from them. The agency was small, but they had high standards, and if you had the energy and the interest you could do a lot of different jobs. If the agency had something that needed to be done—why would I go home at night and just read a book? I’d rather stay around and talk to the people in the art department. I was mad about everybody in the art department, how they made the ads, the drawings. And then of course there was a broadcast section of the agency.” Cherie wasn’t doing the broadcasts herself, but her job was to write commercials for the radio. In that sense, “it wasn’t much different than being in Montana.” Her focus was from the beginning on the spoken word. “I never fancied myself a print writer. I just didn’t go that direction. And for some reason at ad agencies they divided the departments. If you were a print writer you were a print writer. If you were a broadcast writer you were a broadcast writer.

“I always had ambition—do more, make more money. I became attractive to agencies in Detroit and Chicago, who were always looking for people who were bright and creative and inventive. Several approached me and wanted to hire me, but for some time I didn’t feel like leaving Doner. I was afraid to leave a paid job, one that was secure, for some pipe dream.

“But then I got an offer from Don Nathanson with Weiss and Geller, in Chicago, and they had the Toni account, you know, the Toni Home Permanents? And that was a big account. And they were looking for a woman writer. So I did a couple of scripts for them, and they hired me. And that was a big breakthrough.

“Then Weiss and Geller went belly up and everybody lost their jobs. But we were taken up, most of us, by another small agency,” run by Earl Ludgin (who happened to be Ken Mason’s step-uncle). I went there with a lot of experience and just worked and worked—they had some very important accounts. And then McCann Erickson got on the wire—and now we’re into the big time. Because McCann Erickson had offices all over the world. And they had an office in Chicago. And they wanted me.”

On a photo shoot for Helene Curtis

It was a big decision. “I thought it would be too demanding, and I didn’t know if I was up to it. But I did it, I went, and it was successful. I became the first woman vice president in that office, ever. And so then I was on everybody’s list. I was getting a lot of requests.” She was, in fact, Vice President of Copy, and then, together with the VP of Art, was named Creative Director at the agency.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Energy. Ambition. Love. Grace. PART I: ENERGY

In celebration of Cherie Mason: an exemplar of the Opera House mission to use the performing arts to create excellence in all the way we perform our lives.

Part I of a 4-part series on the life and distinguished career of Cherie Mason, based on a 2016 interview with Judith Jerome, founding co-artistic director of Opera House Arts.

“When my mother put me to bed at night, she would open the door after a little while and say, ‘Cherie, are you sleeping? What are you doing?’ And I would say—‘I’m having a play.’ I remember those words distinctly: ‘I’m having a play.’ And I was, as I went to sleep, having a play. . . And doing all the parts.”

Our first burst of laughter fills Cherie’s dining room. It’s an afternoon of laughter and tea, the tape recorder running. Cherie Mason delivers a line with impeccable timing—and  knows herself well.

She dramatized storybooks, and would “drag my little neighbor children in. I had a book on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and so I picked seven poor little children, my buddies, for each of the dwarves—and I of course was going to play the lead. After a few minutes they were very bored with this idea and didn’t want any part of it. And I just stamped my foot and said, ‘We are going to rehearse this tomorrow and you’d better show up.’ Well they didn’t show up. So that became a problem. I don’t know how that ended . . .

I, Judith speaking now, had plays, too; also circuses. I dreamed a real trapeze, hung in the sky. Mary McGuire told us years ago how she and her sister and their friends would for weeks after seeing a traveling show at the Opera House perform and re-perform it. From where does such wonderful personal arrogance in a child arise? Eschewing expertise, embodying amateurishness, in the sense of working from love and ownership—to take something into your body and know you can do it? To put up the posters and invite the neighborhood and charge the nickel? How does a life in theater begin? And what are the paths it takes? In Cherie Lee’s case they were multiple. Mimicry is basic to how we learn the world, but what is the impulse behind performance?

“As a child I lived in Milwaukee, WI, and that was certainly not a mecca for theater. But I vividly remember my first experience. The musical, Oklahoma, came to Milwaukee and my mother allowed me to buy a ticket—we never had a lot of money, but she was so good. I was in peanut heaven! I was so swept away by that musical that [at the end] I was frozen in my seat, and people all around me were leaving. I couldn’t move. And I didn’t move until they were turning the lights out on the stage, and the house was going dark. And then finally I got up. And I’m not sure I ever got over that—and I’m not sure that I have ever had more of a reaction to anything in my adult life. I thought, oh, wouldn’t that be wonderful, to be on that stage! But it never occurred to me that I ever could be.”

Anni Lee (nee Wernitznig) was Cherie’s unstoppable, slightly outrageous, mother. Who was she to be able to lay the groundwork to support this daughter’s energy, ambition, and grace? Anni, too, had her moment in theater. The Pabst Blue Ribbon company “had an auditorium right near the center of town, and my mother in her early days—she was one of the first women to bleach her hair; she was really a flapper, I’m afraid. One of those. She was in a swing once in a stage production of the Pabst Theater. She was swinging and singing on stage. She was VERY proud of that, and was quick to tell everyone that she had been on the stage. So I inherited the stage—and inherited the bragging!”

Anni raised Cherie on her own, and theater was not a regular part of their lives; the ticket to Oklahoma was a one-time treat. But Anni had the fancy that Cherie should be a ballet dancer, so she enrolled her in lessons. “A Russian lady taught the ballet classes. She had a long Russian name, and taught in a beautiful rehearsal hall, surrounded by mirrors—it was quite elegant!—but you had to do your homework!  You had to learn a tour jete and all these things—but where was I going to do it?! We lived in this crummy little apartment building, with narrow halls—I think they were about 4’ across. Well, I practiced in the hallway. I would pray to God that no one opened a door—in the middle of a tour jete—as I was flying by! Fortunately no one ever did.” But it was embarrassing, somehow, practicing in the hallway. “Also, it just didn’t seem like the way I was supposed to go.” She informed Anni. “I think that was the same week I dropped a watermelon in the elevator.”

After she graduated from high school Cherie lived at home and for the first year attended Marquette University. “But then I couldn’t stand it, and I decided that I just had to go to Northwestern University [in Chicago], because that’s where all the theater was. Northwestern had a wonderful speech department. Paul Lynd and Charlotte Rae (also from Milwaukee) were graduates. And Cloris Leachman. These were all just icons to me. So I applied for a scholarship to Northwestern, and I got it! I lived with a family and did their cooking, and took care of their children.” And carried a full load at Northwestern. The trouble with being a theater student is that productions in non-conservatory programs are outside coursework—you have to do them in your spare time, and Cherie didn’t have any spare time. “So it was a mixed blessing—to have all that in front of me but not be able to participate.”

 Nor did a direct road to theater open up to her after graduation. When she transferred to Northwestern it was with the idea that her credentials from such a prestigious program, plus the contacts she made there, would provide an automatic entre. But it didn’t turn out to be so—and her financial situation required that she earn a decent salary at once. She had been doing radio and voice work in school, in the Speech department. She found an ad in Broadcast magazine. “Radio stations that were looking for help took out ads there. And that was how I got my first job!” But not right away. Anni called from Milwaukee and said, “You’ve got a letter here, somebody from a radio station in Texas.” “And I said, well open it! And it said, ‘Come and talk to us!’ In Texas! I thought how am I going to do this. But of course Anni encouraged me. So I got on a bus and went down to Texas, to Austin, and I remember sleeping in the basement of the YWCA. We all had little cots, and that’s how I could afford to make the trip. Well, they were happy to see me, but they said, ‘We didn’t promise you anything, and we just don’t have anything right now.’ So now I’m stuck down there. And I don’t have any money. And my mother gets another message, and this one is from Montana: a 250 watter [the minimum wattage to get a radio station on the air at that time], in the heart of the Judith Mountains, in Montana. This was a legitimate job offer for $32.50/week.” Cherie took the job and got to Montana by sleeping on a Greyhound bus, loaded with cowboys. The cowboys called her ma’am and invited her to meals, “and I’d say, oh yes, thank you, yes.” With her disarming grace. “And if I was afraid of any impropriety—I’d sit up in front with the driver; there was always a seat opposite him—so that’s how I made my way from Austin to Montana.

“I didn’t even go home. I was afraid the job would be filled. I thought if I don’t get there in time they’ll give it to someone else. So, anyway, that was the beginning!