JOHN LEE BEATTY, PORTRAIT OF THE DESIGNER AS A YOUNG MAN: A LOST INTERVIEW
Part 4: “Nails Rammed Into My Fingernails”
As told to Samuel L. Leiter
This is the fourth installment in my previously unpublished 1980 interview with designer John Lee Beatty, which is being serialized in Theater Pizzazz. Please see Part 1 for an introduction to the interview, which I’ve adapted as a narrative, and why it’s first being published 40 years after it occurred.
After Yale, to my surprise, I had no great difficulty getting into the professional theatre. I mean I worked my ass off, I worked very, very hard, and a lot of the work was incredible physical strain. I don’t think I’ll ever be the same physically.
The year before I went to Yale, I did summer stock and while I was at Yale I did summer stock for two more years. I would kill myself. Do six, eight, ten shows in stock, one after the other, stay up all night. I had incredible discipline about that sort of thing. Nails rammed into my fingernails, and I’d be on my hands and knees on the floor of the shop looking for one more screw to put up the light fixture, 15 minutes before curtain.
Anyhow, when I got out of Yale, I, in my innocence, took the union exam. I loved scene painting and had a wonderful teacher in Arnold Abramson, who runs Nolan Studios. I took the scene painting exam and I took the set design exam. And I passed both of them. Miraculously. It’s a big accomplishment not only to pass the first time through but to do both, which nobody else did that year but I didn’t think of that as anything special. And now I go back and I look at my union exam and I only wish I could do as well as I did then.
Then, when I came to the city, a fluke thing happened. I guess it’s a fluke. Sometimes fate smiles upon us. I needed a job, of course. A friend of mine from school had gotten a job assisting Douglas Schmidt, the Broadway designer, an excellent designer, and a wonderful human being, and still a great friend of mine. This guy got himself a real expensive apartment. And he couldn’t afford to work for Doug. Doug was paying like $160 a week. Conservative fellow that I am, I’d gotten a cheaper apartment, so I could take the job. He said, “John, you should call him and ask him if you could interview for the job.” I was very scared but I called and said who I was and that I needed a job.
I went over with my portfolio and I rang the wrong doorbell, all those things people do, and showed him my portfolio. He hired me on the spot. And all I thought was, “Oh, that’s nice.” It was like Bernadette Peters in Dames at Sea, you know, I just got off the bus with a Tootsie Roll in my hand for my last dinner. I went to work for Doug immediately and I stayed working for almost a year and a half, and off and on after that.
My job was to go out and look for props, stay in the office and answer the phone, go with him to meetings, and look efficient, go up on ladders for him, do a little drafting for him (though my drafting was horrible). I helped build models, I did a lot of paint work.
He was doing a big musical, the Andrews Sisters musical called Over Here! . I did a lot of the painter’s elevations for him because they were done very painstakingly. They were all airbrushed. He told me, “We’re going to do airbrush now.” I sat down, a typical situation with me. I didn’t know how to do it but I’d be damned if I’d let that stop me. It was a little difficult at first but I got better at it.
I was earning $160 [$967.23 in 2020] but Doug was immediately embarrassed and raised it to $180, and after that he raised it to $200 and then to $220 or something. At that point in my career, and still, I must say, I didn’t think the money was very important. I was doing what I should be doing and wanted to do. I thought the money was fine. Once, for three weeks, before Christmas he couldn’t pay me; the general manager wouldn’t pay him, not that he was being mean.
I remember literally having 69 cents in my pocket and needing a penny more. I had to borrow a penny more, which was comically humiliating, so I could buy two subway tokens, which were 35 cents at the time. I was living pretty frugally. I didn’t go out to eat or anything a lot. He treated me very well and he let me go off and do other things eventually.
(To be continued.)