Bip Attends A Dinner Party
By Day Dobbert
“Come…come,” he urged, waving us to him. My husband and I hesitated, alone at the stage door of the Chicago theater where the great French mime, Marcel Marceau, had just performed. A dauntingly long passageway led to his dressing room, but Marceau had heard us and stepped out of his inner sanctum, disheveled state notwithstanding; he was still in baggy clown pants, but bare-chested, white face half on, half off. “Come talk with me. Tell me who you are.”
He put us completely at ease. We were grad students at the University of Chicago, but had seen him in Paris, Geneva, then New York City. It was 1955, Marceau’s first U.S. tour. “My U.S. performances…how do they compare to those you’ve seen in Europe?” He truly wanted to know—but critique the Master! We could only stammer our praise. Mustering my French, I said,“Vous êtes sans pareil.”
Marcel Marceau, the “Poet Laureate of Silence,” eventually performed the world over. I saw him many times, lastly in Guadalajara, his classics more than once but always with fresh eyes: “In the Park,” “Walking Against the Wind,” “The Mask Maker;” the Bip sketches: “Bip Plays David and Goliath,” “Bip Hunts Butterflies,” “Bip Dreams he’s Don Juan.” Marceau described Bip, his alter-ego as “alone in a fragile world filled with injustice and beauty, a silent witness to the lives of all.” A former French Minister lauded Marceau’s ability to communicate with everyone, beyond the barriers of language. The U.N. would choose him as a Good Will Ambassador. France named him a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.
Fifteen years later in Los Angeles, through mutual friend Elwyn Ambrose, children’s filmmaker and puppeteer, an enduring connection with Marcel was forged. A wood block print, a gift from the artist, Marcel himself, animates one of my living room walls. Bip, in battered top hat, carnation dangling from his mouth, floats Chagall-like amongst suns and moons. Below him Marcel’s white face emerges, partially obscured by clouds; a single eye fixes on the viewer.
In L.A. Elwyn and I attended the U.S. premiere of Marcel’s eloquent The Creation of the World. Like his Youth, Maturity, Old Age and Death it epitomized the artist’s genius for employing symbolism and metamorphosis to condense time and space. In “Creation,” the history of human existence unfolds in the briefest of visual moments. A priest once asked Marcel, “Are you religious?” Marcel replied, “I don’t practice really, but when I enact “Creation” God enters me…the best of man coming from the cosmic world, maybe from the godly world. But it’s important to go deep into the roots of ourselves….there, in the silence there’s music.”
We had accepted Marcel’s invitation to the reception which followed his opening—a glitzy, hotel penthouse affair. Beverly Hills show-biz is not my style—nor my wardrobe’s, so I sought refuge next to a frail, elderly woman sitting apart from the crowd. I didn’t catch her name but we began to chat. Once a concert pianist, she’d given it up in deference to her husband. “Two artists in one family is one too many,” she declared. She reminisced modestly how she and her husband, recognizing Marcel’s talent early on, had been anonymous patrons. “But don’t tell him” she said. “He never knew.” Marcel, slipping away from the crush, joined us and made proper introductions. She was Mrs. Stanley Laurel, widow of the great comedian of Laurel and Hardy fame.
One day Marcel phoned saying, “No more receptions, Day, I never know half the people who come. May I entertain a few friends of yours and mine at your place? I want to escape the Bel Air Hotel.” Hostess nerves set in immediately. He called daily, adding more names to his list, yet another the afternoon of our gathering. “Just one more? he cajoled. You’ll love her. Elsa Lanchester?” Could I say no!
Our guests arrived, not glitterati headlined in the tabloids, but luminaries all the same, casting their own mellow glow. Wine and conversation flowed. Marcel, in high spirits, remarked, “Day calls me a ‘chatterbox.’ I’ve told her that if you start a mime talking he’ll never stop,” a line he loved. Furthermore, he was multi-lingual and a mimic. He’d recently toured Russia, and though he spoke no Russian he convulsed us with gibberish that for all the world sounded like the language of the land.
Ray Bradbury, celebrated creator of science fiction, and I exchanged confidences. “I have this ‘flying-an-airplane fantasy’ I sheepishly revealed, “and I don’t even drive an automobile.” Ray grinned. “I don’t either.” “Shhh,” I cautioned, “neither does Marcel.” Scott Carpenter, pioneer astronaut, picked up on our talk of flying machines—and cars. “You know where I got this?” He pointed to a conspicuous facial scar. Marcel jumped in, laughing. “Not in orbit.” He’d heard Scott’s confession earlier. “He was 16,” said Marcel, “had a little accident ‘joy riding.’ ” Scott, also an aquanaut, had narrated English versions of Bruno Vailati’s underwater films; Bruno, Italian documentarian and oceanographer, was my boss and great friend.
The John Colliers were a hit. I’d introduced John’s fanciful stories to Marcel and a film adaptation featuring Marcel and his troupe was in the works. That said, John had an additional collaboration in mind. “Listen, all of you, Harriet and I want you at our place next time. Bruno’s going to evaluate my pasta; I make my own.”
Elsa, not merely a superb actress, lived up to her reputation as a lover of felines. Barely through the door, she spied my two minxes and burst out with, “You’ve got cats!” Marcel was right, I did love her. Mrs. Stanley Laurel was there, of course. Rob Wolders, the Dutch actor, later Audrey Hepburn’s companion until her death, charmed everyone. Urbane, Oxford educated Ted Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Suess, talked children’s books with Marcel who’d written three himself. Neighbor Chris Andrews, Julie’s kid brother, arrived with his banjo…and others—gracious, gifted. There were connections and conviviality everywhere, Marcel the catalyst; his levity and lack of pretension was contagious.
I’d prepared most of the food in advance, my sauce for the main course, a last minute culinary ‘challenge,’ was under control and I was about to serve when the telephone rang. A gushing voice, totally unknown to me, came on the line. “I understand you’re having a party for Marcel Marceau. May my friends and I join you?”
Unbelievable! I gritted my teeth. “It is a dinner party and really…” “Oh,” she went on, undeterred, “then why don’t you’ll just come on over to my house afterwards.” Marcel took one look at my face, appropriated the phone and dispatched the lady in less than a minute. I never did learn who that character was or how she tracked me down.
After dinner, in a rare lull in the conversation, Elwyn called out, “Marcel, about your music…accompanying ‘Creation?’ ” “Wait,” I interjected. I knew what was coming, and, inspired, pulled out Mozart’s piano concerto #21 and set the old LP going. Never could I have anticipated what would follow. As the first notes resonated, Marcel, in a single, lithe movement, leapt to his feet, and with a solemnity oblivious of setting, began to enact The Creation of the World—by candlelight and the glow of my fireplace. A hush fell….
Then came a horrendous sound—a grating, grinding, fingernails-on-a-blackboard sound. The ancient record was cracked, the needle stuck in a groove, and round and round the same note played. Heroically Marcel attempted to continue, but with rueful smile and Gallic shrug subsided into his chair. My mortification palpable, Marcel leapt up again, embraced me, and began to laugh. My chagrin dissolved, we all laughed, poured more wine and talked late into the night.
The final curtain fell on Marcel Marceau on September 22, 2007, the date that year coinciding with Yom Kippur. His father had died at Auschwitz and before the young Marcel began his dramatic studies in Paris he worked tirelessly with the French Resistance. He spirited children across the border into neutral Switzerland and forged documents to help others escape the camps. He later joined the Free French forces, then fought alongside U.S. troops under General George Patton. It was typical of Marcel that I learned this, not from him but from his brother, Alain. Marcel would never have spoken of past good works; he lived in the center of the moment.
Marcel Marceau was laid to rest in Paris, in Père Lachaise Cemetery with other greats—Chopin, Molière, Oscar Wilde, rocker Jim Morrison. Atop his coffin lay Bip’s battered top hat and a single red carnation. Before the rabbi’s eulogy and the reading of the Mourner’s Kaddish and other prayers, Hebrew and French, music played—Mozart’s piano Concerto #21.
(Ed. Note: As has often been noted, some of the most interesting people in the world can be found right here at Lakeside—and Day Dobbert is one of them.)