06 October 2009

Robert V. Straus

Same room, different show:
Another cast rehearses at the 890 Broadway studios.

On Valentine’s Day, 1986, Teresa Stratas announced her intention to join the cast of a new Broadway musical entitled Rags. She and I had talked a little about the show, and she’d played me a recording of the title number, so I didn’t feel totally out of bounds in dropping off a note at her apartment: “If you think there’s anything I might be able to do, I’d love to be a part of this.”

As it happened, the show did need a production assistant, and Teresa believed I was sufficiently qualified for the (unpaid!) position. But first, she told me, I’d have to pass inspection by the Production Supervisor, Robert V. Straus.

I nearly didn’t make the call to set up an appointment. Stricken with nerves, I rolled around the couch on which I’d been sleeping (I was technically homeless at the time) and toyed with the idea of forgetting about the job interview, the show, and indeed the entirety of show business — until, at some point, a little voice said, “You idiot! Teresa Stratas just went out of her way to help you, and you’re gonna do nothing?”

I met Bob Straus in his apartment on the Upper East Side, and we talked for about half an hour. At last, he looked me in the eye and said, “I wasn’t gonna hire you, because you’re a friend of the star, and that never works. But I’m gonna take a chance on you.”

And thus I embarked on the greatest adventure of my young life.

Not least of the benefits of my experience was the opportunity to know Bob himself. He passed away Sunday morning after a long illness.

A walking bear hug of a man, Bob was among the tenderest, most nurturing people I ever knew. His heart was surprisingly unsentimental, yet he wore it openly on his sleeve. He protected himself — a little — with a sarcastic, teasing sense of humor. But I don’t think anyone was ever fooled for long.

Like a frigate Bob navigated the shoals of Rags’ fractious producers and frazzled cast. When rehearsals began, we had one director; when the show opened, we had yet another, and in between, we had sometimes two directors and sometimes none. Bob steered us all through those stormy seas. (Did anybody ever bother to thank him for keeping the show running during the weeks of changing directors, scripts, and designers?)

Watching his outward calm under duress and his supreme command of detail, I realized that, no matter how hard I tried, I could never grow up to do what he did for a living. That was a hard lesson, in its way, and yet it liberated me: I could focus on my chores and explore the experience, without having to worry much about what happened after. (I was probably the only person in the company so blessed.) I scampered after that brilliantly talented cast, lapping up Madeline Lee Gilford’s stories and gamboling to Charles Strouse’s beautiful score. I made and lost friends and a lover. I lived Rags not as a job or a show but as a little lifetime. Nothing has ever been more exciting.

This stained-glass piece hung in the window
of Madeline Gilford’s bedroom.

All the while, it became increasingly apparent that backstage was not my rightful place. One afternoon, Bob instructed me to take something stage left, and I promptly set out toward stage right.

“Can’t you tell the difference between left and right?” he asked.

“Not always,” I admitted.

He thought for a minute before continuing: “And just what were you planning to do in theater?”

He taught me a lot of other lessons about commercial theater, including its potential value and importance. Let it be noted that, with few exceptions, Bob signed on to very few frivolous entertainments. He preferred shows like Rags and Band in Berlin (which he produced), where social relevance so often took the spotlight. Both those shows closed before their time. And so it was that under Bob’s wing, I learned the fundamental unfairness of commercial theater, too.

It didn’t hurt his career or his peace of mind that, when he came home from work, he found his wife, Marguerite, a public-school administrator. They formed a truly perfect union — and I’ve seldom seen anything to rival the contentment they found in each other’s company. Whenever Marguerite was around, Bob began to glow like a sunrise.

I had no Marguerite, and only limited organizational skills and less patience, and I couldn’t tell left from right. I couldn’t do what Bob Straus did, and I never again worked in theater. But I never doubted that his lessons would hold true in other lines of work, and in the embrace of his affection, I never felt safer or more free.


compostmoi said...

Oh Bill...what a lovely, literate and accurate portrait of that dear man...thanks for it....sad at his loss...happy to have some of the same memories you have of RAGS, the craziness of the human egos involved in it, and the beauty supplied by so many to make it special...including Bob......i send love to you , in his memory...xxev

Anonymous said...


You've captured him perfectly. A tough, sweet man who helped so many people. Thanks...

wissie said...

I lived part of the RAGS adventure vicariously and remember this vibrant and exciting time in your life. Bob sounds like an amazing man and you captured his spirit here eloquently. I feel as if I have known him...and wish that I had.

Audrey said...

I had not heard of his passing and thank you so much for your beautiful (as always) portrait of time and place, and the heart of a wonderful man. A