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To: Website fans and browsers

From: Patricia Koyce Wanniski

Re: “Ghost Light” by Frank Rich

Ever since my long-ago MediaGuide days, editor-in-chief Jude and I have had a long-standing disagreement about the op-ed columnists of The New York Times. Jude and I just seem to prefer different writers, with the exception of Anthony Lewis, whom we’ve often found to be informative and persuasive as well as provocative.

When Frank Rich joined the page several years back, I thought once more that we’d have to agree to disagree. Jude was optimistic; I was dubious. After all, Frank Rich was a theater critic. What would a theater critic have to say about the world at large?

In addition, I’ve never thought much of the Times’ arts staff, since they have always seemed to take particular pleasure in deriding any production which the audience seems to enjoy, as well as praising anything weird or outlandish as high culture.

What a pleasant surprise to find Mr. Rich’s columns both interesting and insightful, on a very consistent basis. Jude struck up an e-mail friendship, and when they finally met several months ago, swapped respective books. Mr. Rich’s effort is “Ghost Light: A Memoir.” Again, I was dubious; I wasn’t sure at all that the memoir of a theater critic would be anything but a compendium of old thoughts on even older plays. Oh, me, of little faith.

“Ghost Light” is startlingly evocative, not only of the atmosphere of the theater itself, but of growing up during the 1950s and 1960s in Washington, D.C., and of Frank Rich’s unique experiences. “To be an American kid in the fifties was to live in a sparkling, hopeful world where ignorance really was bliss.”

His oldest memories are of his father’s record player; his introduction to the theater comes through “South Pacific,” the album which his mother played again and again. “If Mom and Dad shared anything besides Sunday-night festivities, our home in Somerset, and their children, it was a love of music.” We find later this is pretty much all they shared; his pain as his parents divorce is palpable, a little boy lost in a world where nothing is secure any longer. His fear is evident as he copes as a youngster with his increasingly abusive stepfather, with whom he develops, eventually, an ambivalent relationship at best.

He listens to Broadway show albums until the grooves wear thin, finding solace and magic in re-imagining the shows he’s seen and inventing the ones he hasn’t. When his mother and stepfather arrange for trips to Broadway, it’s a delight to watch him collect Playbills, sometimes from city trash cans, where less enlightened souls have deposited them.

Particularly moving to me were his stories of being a klutz at camp; I hated camp with a passion for much the same reason. Eventually he finds his niche at Indian Hill, a camp for those interested in stagecraft, where he’s no longer odd man out.

The book ends with the tales of his first real loves, one a young lady named Emily, the other the National Theatre, where Rich had his first job. Both leave an indelible imprint on young Frank, the National in particular, as it is through the National job that Rich meets Clayton Coots, an impresario who takes him by the hand and brings him even further into the world of the theater. I never knew what it felt like to be a little boy or a young man, never having been one; now I do, kind of, so compelling are his vignettes of his life and times.

“Ghost Light” is quite a fun read. The book’s clever title comes from a theater tradition that a single light is left on center stage to prevent a ghost from moving in while the theater is empty. It is a motif for his life, as Rich’s complicated world comes to revolve around this ghost light of the theater. There is such a sense of joy that runs through the book, although
his story isn’t a particularly happy one. The tome ends when Rich is a mere lad of 18 – but he does add an epilogue of sorts to close the book on his extended family.

It is Rich’s gift that he is able to step back, as he does with his excellent columns in the Times, and write his life’s first act. It reminds us, all the world’s a stage.


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