June 05--Dressed from head to toe in elegant ecru, Broadway legend and all-around legendary broad Elaine Stritch is holding court at a table near the lobby of Birmingham's Townsend Hotel.
With the crisp command of a five-star general, the 88-year-old entertainer orders some soup as Music Hall president and artistic director Vince Paul fields a question about her.
How does one describe Stritch in just a few words? "A pro," says Paul. "And it's great to work with pros."
Stritch, who's originally from Detroit, recently moved back to her home state after spending most of her life in New York City. On Friday, she will be the special guest performer at the Cars & Stars gala at Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts.
The 2013 edition of the annual fund-raiser for Music Hall and performing arts education has a circus theme that includes stilt walkers, fire breathers, cast members from the late-'80s Off-Broadway spoof "Funny Feet" and aerial feats of daring by Detroit Flyhouse.
And Stritch, of course, a national treasure of American theater. She takes a few bites of soup, graciously explaining in her velvet-covered-gravel voice that she needs to eat because of her diabetes, before getting down to the business of talking about Cars & Stars and Music Hall.
Calling herself no believer in ghosts, she says that she has sensed something mystical at Music Hall that even her famous Manhattan cabaret home, the Cafe Carlyle, doesn't have.
"They don't have Fred Astaire looking at you from the audience. And you feel that that's what's going on at the Music Hall. You feel so many great people have appeared there, that it's almost 'Phantom of the Opera,' for God sakes," she says.
"I felt something in that Music Hall joint, big time."
Remembering life in Detroit
Interviewing Stritch is much like being treated to a small-scale one-woman show. It's what you'd expect from an entertainer who left Detroit at 17 to forge a career that's spanned the stage, movies and television and earned her a larger-than-life reputation as someone who can draw laughter and tears with her outrageous honesty.
Her career high points are many: her classic delivery of "Ladies Who Lunch" from Stephen Sondheim's musical "Company," her critical hit role in the Woody Allen drama "September," her triumphant one-woman show "Elaine Stritch at Liberty" that she launched in 2001 and most recently, her tough-talking turn as Alec Baldwin's mother on NBC's smart sitcom "30 Rock."
In April, Stritch did a week of farewell performances at the Cafe Carlyle as a prelude to her relocation to metro Detroit, where she has settled in Birmingham. The attendees included Tom Hanks, Tony Bennett, Liza Minnelli, Bernadette Peters, Martin Short and others, according to the New York Times, which said her departure from New York "could be another end-of-an-era milestone."
Does she have a lot of memories of growing up in the Motor City? "Oh, ho, ho, ho, ho. Are you crazy?" she says, delivering the answer like an epic version of "Duh!"
It was here that Stritch got her start as a showstopper in plays at her school, Academy of the Sacred Heart (then located in Detroit, now in Bloomfield Hills). "I played all the men at the convent," she says. "We didn't have any leading men. 'Elaine Stritch will play it!' Valentine Brown in 'Quality Street.' Oh boy! I was a matinee idol."
She also remembers wowing the nuns in a production of "Hansel and Gretel." "We were a big smash," she says. "The Reverend Mother loved it."
Stritch and her sisters had a comfortable childhood that included trips to the Fisher Theatre to see movies like "Phantom of the Opera." Her parents weren't lavish, she notes, "but everybody had ground round steak, they didn't have hamburger, if you know what I mean."
Her father climbed the corporate ladder to became an executive at BFGoodrich. Her homemaker mother, by the sound of her anecdotes, shared Stritch's bracing sense of humor.
"My mother used it call it the G.D.B.F. Goodrich rubber company," she says. "They had a lot of humor about it, so Daddy made all of the social appearances he had to. And he was a big shot. He was self-made, and he got to a pretty good stage in his life before he left the building, as I like to call it."
One of Stritch's most vivid memories is of coming back to Detroit as the star of the national production of "Call Me Madam." She understudied Ethel Merman in the role in the original 1950 musical.
"That's when my family first came to see me in a big production. My mother -- I have to do a reading exactly like her -- she came backstage, the first thing she ever said to me after seeing me perform was, 'My God, you can do this!' I loved hearing that from my mother, who was so critical and so demanding. She just said it flat like that, with humor and with a good-for-you kind of attitude."
In April, the documentary "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me" debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival. It's a candid behind-the-scenes look at Stritch as a performer (including footage of her at Music Hall's Jazz Cafe in 2011) and as a woman in her late 80s dealing with diabetes and, in one sequence, a frightening medical emergency. Variety wrote of the film that "even when she is at her weakest, her courage fills the room."
Stritch is frank when she talks about how her move back to Michigan is going. "It's much more difficult that I ever thought it would be," she says, describing the physical challenge of sorting through a lifetime of belongings and the emotional aspects of leaving close friends and the comforts of the Carlyle hotel, her former home.
"Anyway, you don't want to hear about that, because that's unpleasant. But I get through it. It's a devastatingly disturbing, scary disease. Now that's the last thing I'm going to say about it."
The conversation switches to pleasant topics like her affection for the Detroit Athletic Club ("It's a great place to stay," she raves), Barbara Walters' recent discussion of Stritch's legs on "The View" ("I'm not as aware of them as the construction workers on Madison Avenue," she quips) and the star-studded audiences for her farewell Cafe Carlyle week.
In late April, Wayne State University's Maggie Allesee Department of Theatre and Dance presented a conversation with Stritch at the Hilberry Theatre that drew many students. She wants to do more things like that in metro Detroit. She may be slowing down, but she still loves being in front of an audience.
"As a youngster, I wasn't old enough to understand any of those things about, 'I have a talent I'm grateful for.' I didn't know that until, I don't know, what time is it? A half an hour ago. It's true! I don't pat myself on the back enough. I don't. I've lived through 88 years behaving that way, but I'm going to work on it."
Stritch makes it clear that she isn't retiring, not yet. "I'm doing less, and I like to follow that with less is more, so probably I will be more famous," she says wryly. "By 100, I should really be a star. I finally made it!"
Cars & Stars featuring Elaine Stritch and the cast of 'Funny Feet'
7 p.m. Friday
Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts
350 Madison, Detroit
$150 supporter patron tickets (VIP patron sold out)
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