When Samuel Johnson was a boy afflicted with the scrofula, his mother took him on an arduous journey to London to have the young critic-to-be touch the hem of Queen Anne’s garment in the belief that her son would be healed.
Momentary encounters with the famous and renowned retain their aura. Indeed, it is one of the reasons to live in New York, where the anonymity of the famous is still assumed, although paparazzi and publicity agents have eroded this fine balance somewhat. My late brother Will spent many happy hours as a teenager lingering at the Oak Room Bar of the Plaza Hotel, awaiting such celebrity encounters, and thus engaged in long conversations with Dick Van Dyke, CBS news anchor Harry Reasoner and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. My late Mom, who came to New York from Rochester in the 1930s to work as a fashion model, once got stuck, alone together, in a Waldorf elevator with Cary Grant.
The Bible, of course, niftily inverts this hunger for meetings with remarkable folks by having three mighty masters of the magus follow a star to pay tribute to a poor babe in a manger. Even in an agnostic, not to say secular, age, the desire to be touched, if not by God then by one of His emissaries, remains dominant, because we all assume that the Lord hands out the talent sparingly.
In the art world, brushing up against the renowned is perhaps a more blasé experience than elsewhere. I have, for example, interviewed Allen Ginsberg on my radio show, fought bitterly with Jeff Koons at cocktail parties and had David Bowie spend the entire day at my apartment. I’m sure you, too, have done the same.
But chance encounters are different and I had one in 1966 that I’d like to relate. Then, in the eighth grade at the Buckley School on 74th Street, I was part of the Glee Club’s evening salute to Richard Rodgers, boys braving their way through Surrey with the Fringe on Top and Edelweiss. The climax of the show was my own solo of Some Enchanted Evening, a difficult song, because of its range and drama, for the most seasoned professional, much less a grade-school urchin.
But, I gave it my all, and after the applause died down, the Buckley headmaster James Hubball announced, "Boys, we have a special guest in the audience. . . Richard Rodgers." At which point the composer, who had come to the tribute with his friend Dr. Stretch Becker, a Buckley parent, graciously took a bow and thanked the embarrassed singers. Say what you will about my efforts in these online pages, I can always reply that I sang Some Enchanted Evening for Richard Rodgers. Merry Christmas!
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).