16 November 2010

"How I Got My Equity Card: George Spelvin"

[Equity News, the newsletter of Actors Equity Association, includes a regular column called “How I Got My Equity Card,” which is ordinarily a short autobiography of a prominent actor writing about how she or he started on a professional acting career. In the October/November 2007 issue, however, the union ran a light-hearted column by “George Spelvin.” Theater people will recognize this as the name actors use in programs when they don’t want to appear under their true professional names. 15 November has been designated as George Spelvin Day (I don’t know on whose authority), so I reprint the Equity News column for your edification—and amusement. ~Rick]

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The 15th of November is “George Spelvin Day.” In honor of this “unusual holiday,” this issue of Equity News is proud to pay tribute to one of the most versatile names of Broadway.

By George Spelvin
(as told to Equity member Don Stitt)

My first professional job was in 1886, in a little-remembered play called Karl the Peddler. It closed out of town. (Is it any wonder I am, therefore, associated with a pseudonym?) It was a non-Equity production, but I should point out that this was a full 27 years before Equity was founded, so please forgive a youth his theatrical indiscretions.)

I have had a few Broadway shows though (89, according to ibdb.com), and most of them were under the jurisdiction of AEA. A short list follows:

In 1906, a year that made San Francisco shake, rattle and roll, I appeared in the Broadway cast of Brewster's Millions, from the popular book by George Carr McCutcheon (which would subsequently be reinterpreted onscreen by Fatty Arbuckle and, much later, John Candy and Richard Pryor).

In 1909, I supplied “The Voice” for the Broadway cast of a play, A Fool There Was, (which was later recorded for posterity by Theda Bara, but without a voice).

In 1927, I was The Poor Debtor in the Broadway cast of a play based on Mr. Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers. (Oddly enough, at the same time there was a character named George Spelvin appearing in the Gershwins’ Strike Up the Band, just down the street. How strange!)

I assisted the great Bobby Clark and Gypsy Rose Lee with the famous “Gazooka” sketch in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936.

In 1949, I played A Betting Man in the original cast of High Button Shoes, where my director was George Abbott and my choreographer was Jerome Robbins. (Boy, what a couple of nit-pickers those two were.)

In 1958, I appeared in the Broadway cast of Jane Eyre. I played Colonel Dent. (But the critics left a Major Dent in our box office.)

I played Theophraste Renaudot in the 1973 musical, Cyrano, directed and choreographed by Michael Kidd (but none of us was doing any gymnastics after the reviews came out).

In ‘74, I played the role of John in Sherlock Holmes. Of course you know the books were by Arthur Conan Doyle, but did you remember the script was by Equity member William Gillette? (Elementary, my dear Watson!)

In 1976, I was in a position to aid and abet the great George C. Scott in Larry Gelbart’s Sly Fox, a reworking of Ben Jonson’s Volpone. (Richard Dreyfus didn’t require my assistance in the more recent revival. Pity. His loss.)

And I appeared in It Had to Be You in 1981. This was a two-hander (although, counting me, there were three in the cast) with Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna. Ms. Taylor’s character, Theda Blau, was named for the aforementioned Theda Bara, thus bringing my career full circle.

In recent years, I have been flattered that columnist Westbrook Pegler wrote under my name, and Christopher Durang named the title character of The Actor’s Nightmare after me. (But I was somewhat less charmed to note that the star of the, ahem, adult film, The Devil in Miss Jones, called herself Georgina Spelvin. If I knew her real name, I’d probably sue her.)

I haven’t appeared on the Broadway stage recently, but I am optimistic that someone on The Great White Way will have use of my services again sometime soon. After all, my resume is quite impressive. Until then, I’m happy to relax and enjoy the life of an older character actor. It’s one of the best things a person who’s 121 years old can do, isn’t it?

(Editor’s Note: George Spelvin is the traditional pseudonym used in theatre programs by actors who don’t want to be credited or whose names would otherwise appear twice because they are playing more than one role in a production. In some plays, this name has appeared in cast lists as the name of an actor portraying a character who is mentioned in the dialogue but never turns up onstage. By crediting the role to “George Spelvin,” the audience is not forewarned that the character never makes an entrance.)

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[George Spelvin’s last Broadway appearance was in 1981, as stated above, but Off-Broadway, he continued to appear: Dick Datchery in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1985), Amphitryon in Olympus on My Mind (1986), the voice of Time Coach in Runt of the Litter (2002).

[George Spelvin (occasionally in variations) is common in the United States, where women use either Georgette Spelvin or Georgina Spelvin for the same purpose. (Georgina Spelvin, as the article indicates, has fallen out of popularity among actresses since porn actress Michelle Graham (The Devil and Miss Jones, 1973) adopted it as a screen name.) The names have occasionally appeared in popular culture, such as the name of a character in Christopher Durang’s The Actor’s Nightmare, as we’ve heard. Similar fictitious names used in credits by performing artists include Alan (sometimes Allan or Allen) Smithee, the name used by film directors who don’t want to be associated after the fact with a film they made; Walter Plinge, the name used by actors in London theaters; and David Agnew, the name used by BBC writers who wished to remain anonymous.]

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