20 July 2014

Ed Dixon’s ‘Georgie’

George Rose (upper right) with the cast of the film
of Pirates of Penzance: Angela Lansbury, Linda Ronstadt,
Rex Smith, and Kevin Kline.

Ed Dixon was 20 when he first met George Rose. He’d never met anybody quite like him. Probably nobody has. An acclaimed character actor, a born raconteur, and an authentic eccentric, George captivated Ed from the start, and their friendship lasted a quarter-century. But George died in 1988, and, because he worked primarily in theater, many people never knew his consummate artistry — and nobody knew him the way Ed did. Now Ed has created a remarkable tribute to his friend, a one-man play entitled Georgie. I attended a private reading on Saturday, and I’m eager to see the play produced.

We discover George gradually, as Ed did. The young actor watches the older actor onstage, marvels at his talent — and soon falls under the spell of his conversation, as George regaled Ed with brilliant theatrical anecdotes that were like catnip to a kid from Oklahoma. With stories (and impressions) of the most distinguished actors of his time — with all of whom he’d worked — George provided Ed with a direct connection to the great theatrical traditions of the 20th century.

Even better, those stories were hilarious, and as Ed recreates them, he delivers impressions not only of George but also of Olivier, Gielgud, and Hepburn (to name only a few). At times one gets the agreeable sensation that one is witnessing hybrids, Ed’s own mimicry merging somehow with George’s. It’s easy to understand the power of George’s charm. We’re drawn in, just as Ed was.

Ed Dixon

In time, their relationship evolved: Ed pursued his career in theater (and opera), becoming a character actor who would go on to play all of George’s best-known roles. In George’s eyes, Ed grew to be less and less an acolyte, more a peer. George even sought out Ed for voice lessons, and Ed had the gratifying experience of hearing George use some of his jokes in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

But George was a complex fellow, and perhaps the first suggestion of his strangeness came when Ed visited his apartment, encountering for the first time the mountain lions that George kept as pets. George was an animal activist before anybody used the term; he rescued all sorts of exotic creatures and (somehow) brought them to live with him in the city. George feasted with panthers — and in the Wildean sense, too. Though he was openly homosexual, George never made a pass at Ed (a damned cute guy), because in truth Ed was too old for him. George had a penchant for very young boys, a fact he concealed until 1988.

George had built a vacation home in the Dominican Republic, adopted a 12-year-old, and frequented a brothel where other boys could be had. As soon as he got to the town of Sosúa, Ed realized what was going on. “It’s the culture,” George explained, but Ed bolted. Days later, George was beaten and murdered by his adopted son and his relatives. In Ed’s telling, George’s death is a tragedy, Aristotelian to its core — yet even an actor like George Rose could derive no satisfaction from that.

It’s taken years for Ed to “see George clearly,” as he puts it, but it takes him just one evening before we see George clearly, too: a great talent, a true friend, whose memory should be neither shunned nor prettified because of his flaws or his fate — but embraced whole. As I watched Georgie, I saw beyond the play, to my own friendships, and I hoped that I will leave behind people like Ed who care enough to remember me so well.

George Rose in Drood.

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