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Peter O'Toole

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Meeting Peter O'Toole

by Elizabeth,

September 24, 1999

Shortly after arriving in London to begin school, I picked up a London Theatre Guide and noticed that "Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell" was playing for two more days at the Old Vic. I'd read that it was the hit of the summer theatre season, and of course, since Peter O'Toole was the star, I wanted to see it. I called the box office but there was no answer. I called Ticketmaster, but they were sold out. I went to bed determined to try again.

This morning when I called the Box Office about 10am, a lady told me that both the remaining performances were completely sold out, but that if I wanted a ticket for standing room, I could come and queue at the box office door. Standing room tickets would go on sale at a quarter to twelve. I grabbed my backpack, my umbrella and my subway card and headed down to Waterloo.

It took me a little while to get oriented, but when I finally reached the theatre, I was ninth in line. After waiting about forty-five minutes, the box office opened and the woman at the ticket counter announced that there were twenty-five tickets for standing room available -- but that although you would be able to hear the entire show, the position of the tickets would only permit you to see at best 20-30% of the stage.

After a slight scandal in the queue involving two British girls who hadn't arrived until 11:30am but pushed their way up to the front and demanded "previously promised" tickets (they were refused), I bought my standing room ticket for 7.50 and thanked the nice old man from Wales who had talked with me while we were waiting in line and told me a little about the play and about Jeffrey Bernard himself.

When the woman at the Old Vic opened the door for the queue, she had put out a sign on the walk indicating that those queuing for returned tickets should line up to the right of the door. I didn't know what return tickets were exactly, but after the lady explained, I decided that seeing 20-30% of Peter O'Toole was one thing, but getting to see all of him would be an opportunity for which I would shoot myself in later years if I ever passed it up.

After learning that Wednesday's queue had begun forming at 3pm and that there had been only 5 tickets, I debated to myself about taking the subway back to my dorm to get my camera since I still had a little time. I decided a photograph wasn't worth the risk of not getting a real ticket.

I had promised to call my dad about 1pm, so I walked up to the National Film Theatre to check out the schedule and call home. I told Dad of my plans and he was jealous. I could hear over the phone how much he wanted to be there with me. On my way back to the Old Vic, I laid in a few supplies -- chips from a burger stand (which I didn't end up eating -- I'd forgotten how bad they are), and a bottle of water and an apple from a little grocery stand.

By the time I got back to the Old Vic my little excursion had cost me not one, but two places in line -- the man who beat me for the #1 spot in the queue was waiting for 2 tickets. I was now #3.

It was a quarter to one and I got myself settled. I moved the "queue here" sign forward a little and parked myself on a piece of cardboard in the doorway of the theatre. It had been raining all morning and my shoes and jean bottoms were soaked. Although the doorway was covered, I was still getting a lot of spray from the passing cars, so I opened my umbrella and laid it on its side as a barrier.

I tried but gave up on my "chips," cleaned and ate my apple, and then began to read my course guide for school. After about an hour, I realized how dirty I was getting, and tied the hood of my jacket on tight in an effort to at least keep my hair clean. I also switched books, from the course guide to the equally dry A History of the World in the 20th Century by J.A.S. Grenville. In the remaining six hours, I only got 40 pages read, if that tells you anything.

About 2:30, another gentleman arrived to wait behind me, followed by others, and three hours later when his girlfriend came to change places with him so he could get a bite to eat, she also offered to save my place in line for me while I went across the street to a pub to use the toilet. (I will be forever grateful.) About that time, it stopped raining.

After rejoining the queue, I read a little more, but then began to get anxious. What if there weren't enough returns? Although I still had my standing room ticket, after eight hours, it was no longer good enough. I wanted all of Peter O'Toole.

As it turned out, I was lucky. At 7:30pm, one of the ticket ladies came and brought the first three of us in. We had tickets. And not just any tickets either -- stall tickets. I didn't really know what that meant, but it was supposed to be good. And even better, for some reason, although it was a 32.50 seat, I only had to pay 25 for it -- and the ticket lady promised to resell my standing room ticket for me! Whoopee!

On my way up the stairs to find the toilet and clean myself up (my hood had only done limited good), I marveled at the pictures of the great Shakespearean legends on the wall -- Olivier, Burton; Peter O'Toole was there twice. My heart started to beat a little faster.

When the usher finally led me to my seat, I was overjoyed. Not only was I in the stalls (down front), I was smack in the middle -- row K, seat 15. A huge smile spread across my face as I took off my jacket and sat down. I felt a little under-dressed in my Nikes, jeans and long-sleeved T-shirt, my hair all a mess, not to mention my face -- but I didn't care really, and I knew Mr. O'Toole wouldn't either. I spent 3 on a program and read it until the house lights dimmed.

When the curtain went up, the stage was dark with the exception of one spot light focused on a woman who gave a brief opening monologue. Then all the lights went out and furniture began to movie on the stage. "Shit!" said a familiar voice. "Fuck!" the voice said a few seconds later. I knew now I was not in for one of the wholesome classic movie performances I had been used to up to this point. Suddenly a match was lit on stage, illuminating a white head attached to a disorderly body crawling on the floor. Then all the lights went up -- he'd found the switch -- and there he was: older than I'd seen him before (obviously), taller than I'd expected, looking very much the part of the drunkard he was playing. As he opened his mouth and began to speak, I noticed how very bright pink the inside of his mouth was -- something I'd noticed before in his movies. I was awestruck that Peter O'Toole himself, whose talent I had admired in more than a dozen films, was live, in the flesh, and acting in front of me.

Though there were times the British humor was a little over my head, I enjoyed the play very much. And when it was over, and Mr. O'Toole came out to take his bow, I was the first person in the theatre to jump up out of my seat and join -- or start, actually -- the ovation. My heart was pounding a mile a minute, the smile on my face was so large, I was almost crying, and I was clapping so hard, my arms were numb from the elbows down. What a thrill!

During the intermission, I had gone to the ticket counter to collect the money from the sale of my standing room ticket and had asked the coat check woman if there was "any hope of getting to meet Mr. O'Toole after the performance." She told me that he usually exited by the Stage Door in the alley to the left of the theatre, and sometimes stopped to sign a few autographs if he wasn't soon engaged elsewhere. Thus, when the show was over, I headed for the Stage Door.

It had started raining again and there were about 20 people alongside me waiting to see him. A few were special people (I recognized one as Alan Rickman from SENSE AND SENSIBILITY (1997)) who were permitted to go inside and up to his dressing room, but the rest of us just stood outside in the rain and waited. Fifteen minutes became twenty, and thirty, and forty, and still it rained and he didn't come. Gradually people began to drop off and go home. I had already made up my mind, seeing all the pen-wielders about me, that I was not going to ask him for his autograph. He had already given so much of himself for my enjoyment, I didn't feel it right to ask for any more. Finally, about 11:30pm he appeared. He walked slowly down the stairs ("He's had a few," the man next to me whispered.), but his appearance was much improved -- slacks, shirt, sweater vest and a brown fishing hat.

The first man who approached him handed him a book to sign, but Mr. O'Toole declined. (I suspected it was an unauthorized biography or something he didn't approve of.) He did sign a piece of paper for the man though. A lady from France was next. She had about five pictures for him to sign and a pen that didn't work. "I've come all the way from Paris," she told him. "Il ne marche pas," he said, obviously a little annoyed. The man behind her offered his pen and Mr. O'Toole tiredly signed both their pictures.

Finally it was my turn. I approached him, put out my right hand and he took it. "I just want to say thank you," I told him. He looked at me a little bewildered. "I've seen most of your movies, but this is the first time I've ever seen you live and it was a great joy." My heart was pounding, my eyes were beaming and he was still holding my hand. Slowly a smile spread across his face. He let go of my hand and reached out, touching my left cheek with the back of his fingers. "Thank you." he said.

Suddenly, I remembered the little piece of paper on which I'd written the address of my homepage about him. I handed it to him and asked him to take a look at it if he was ever curious. "A homepage," he said, obviously surprised. I smiled and told him he had now conquered a new medium.

He signed a few more autographs and got into his car. "Good night," I told him, and I waved as he drove away. He waved back though the rain-spattered window. As I walked up the alley and crossed the street, I knew this had been a day I would always remember. I couldn't wait to get back to my room so I could call my dad and tell him all about it. In my excitement however, I headed the wrong way up the street and it was a good five minutes before I realized I didn't know where I was. Luckily, I had my map and soon reoriented myself toward the Waterloo station. As I trudged back up the wet street and past the theatre again, I knew it had been a day I would never forget.

© 1999 Reel Classics, LLC

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