So you’re sitting in your seat – excellent seat, second row center – watching Caroline, or Change and some cretin starts talking behind you. Well, they’ve reminded everyone to turn their cell phones off, and to put their candy away, but they forgot to say stop talking. And this guy is nattering on. What do you do?
If you’re Joel Markowitz, you know that some behaviors can’t be tolerated. So you turn around, peer into the darkness, hesitate – he seems like a big guy, and vaguely familiar – and then say, “Please, sir. Would you mind? I’m trying to watch the show.”
But then it’s the second scene, at that long, emotional soliloquy which starts the scene, and he’s at it again. Loudly. Even the actress – Tonya Pinkins – seems flustered. So, since you’re Joel Markowitz, you turn around again and in a steely voice say, “Sir, you need to stop, or I’ll have the house manager remove you.” And the loquacious man and his wife finally stop. Tonya throws a thank-you nod in your direction. When the lights go up at intermission you turn around to see who this rude guy might be. And you find yourself looking at Chevy Chase.
“Sorry,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking.”
See, if you’re Joel Markowitz, actors and actresses show you respect. Big-time producers and directors care about what you have to say. And ask you to help them PR their shows This is because you represent The Ushers, a large organization of theater lovers, with members all over the country.
When Markowitz formed The Ushers fifteen years ago today, he had no idea that it would turn out like this. He had recently seen a particularly trying version of Miss Saigon. At the end, he turned to Bill Smith, who was accompanying him that day and said, “There’s got to be other people who need to suffer with us at these depressing British musicals.”
Shortly afterwards, he and Bill caught a beautiful production of The Secret Garden at the St. James. “This is too good for people to miss,” he told Bill. “We should find some way to share the experience with other theatre lovers in the DC/MD/VA area.”
So he went home and called the editors of the Post, the City Paper, and the Washington Blade and told them that he was forming an organization of active theater-goers. The Blade was interested. They sent a photographer, who took a picture of Joel holding some of his large collection of autographed Playbills.
The next week, 150 people called.
“I think of us as an organization of friends helping friends,” Markowitz says. “We carpool to the theater; we go to dinner together; groups of us will go out to the movies, attend other shows and get together for holiday meals.”
They have their biggest impact, though, when they go to the theater. “Our goal was to help the little guy out – the little theater. And we do help the little theaters get attention. We’ll volunteer to usher – ” hence their name – “and we’ll get the word out when there’s a good show.” If The Ushers decide to go to a show, they generally buy between thirty and a hundred tickets. “And we are a terrific audience. Casts wait for us to arrive because they know we are a great, loud, supportive audience. But, beware if the production is not up to par.”
Markowitz particularly likes the work done by MetroStage, Signature Theatre, Studio Theatre, Elden Street Players, and Toby’s Dinner Theatre. Elden Street – a community theater? “Some of the best musicals I’ve seen have been at Elden Street,” Markowicz says of the Herndon, VA. company, singling out their productions of The Who’s Tommy and Hair.
But Markowitz’ highest praise these days is for Toby’s Dinner Theatre. “Ragtime was far superior to anything I saw that year,” he says. “Thirteen Helen Hayes nominations – for a dinner theater. They’re intimate, funny, with beautiful costumes and fantastic cats, and in-your-face productions And that’s what we like: in-your-face theater.”
Though The Ushers is primarily centered in Washington – Markowitz estimates his core membership at 500 in the DC area- the organization has plenty of impact in New York. “We take 2 trips up there each year,” he says. “The reception we get is fantastic.”
He ticks off one astonishing stage door/back stage story after another. “We’re waiting outside at the the Neil Simon Theatre on a very cold night after Elaine Stritch’s one woman show and we hear her belt out ‘bring them in, it’s cold’ and the next thing she’s showing us around her dressing room…Tony Winners Vicky Clark and the cast of The Light in the Piazza and Marissa Winokur and the cast of Hairspray spending over an hour with us after their shows taking pictures, schmoozing and signing autographs…Richard Skipper (who does a one-man Carol Channing show) and Christine Pedi (who does the same with Liza Minelli and other Broadway divas in Forbidden Broadway) doing a private midnight ‘Carol and Liza’ cabaret for The Ushers…”
But he’s quick to point out that Washington theaters are as accommodating as their New York counterparts, if not more so. “Washington theaters will get us their schedules early, after swearing us to secrecy,” Markowitz says. “They’ll go to great pains to seat us together. They’ll make their casts and staff available to us for post-performance discussions and desserts after the shows.”
In return, The Ushers offer reliability. “When we had that recent February snowstorm, we were the only group that showed up for brunch at Bistro Bistro and Nevermore at Signature,” Markowitz points out. Every other group cancelled. The Ushers consider it a point of honor not to miss a scheduled theater date, Markowitz says. Being a Buffalonian, no snow storm can scare him away.
In addition to supporting local theaters, The Ushers do their best to support the people who make theaters work. “I’ve been able to point Broadway actors who’ve contacted me through our website and the many business cards Idistribute after Broadway shows, to theaters in Washington where they could find work,” Markowitz says, noting that Signature and Arena now use Broadway actors quite frequently. (The Ushers’ website is www.ushers.us.)
The Ushers have also championed the careers of local actors. “One of my best memories was having dinner at the West End Dinner Theatre,” says Markowitz. “Our waitress was a delightful and talented woman named Megan Lawrence. She was incredible as Sister Amnesia in Nunsense and we strongly suggested that she audition for Into the Woods at Signature. She did, and landed the role of Little Red Riding Hood, and won the Helen Hayes Award for her performance.” Lawrence has since gone on to carve herself a solid career in New York theater, appearing as Eponine in Les Miserables (where she met her future husband) as Little Sally in Urinetown. She now is Gladys in The Pajama Game.
“Don’t be surprised if she wins the Tony this year. Her reviews have been fantastic,” Markowitz says
Forty five Ushers’ members and their friends are celebrating the group’s 15th anniversary this Friday, March 31st, by going to NYC for a theatre marathon where they will see 5 shows and a cabaret. Shows include The Light In The Piazza, Three Days of Rain, The Pajama Game, Three Penny Opera and Jersey Boys. They will also be seeing Tommy Femia in Judy Garland Live! at Don’t Tell Mama.
“This has been a sweet experience,” Markowitz says. “Dozens of couples have met through The Ushers. Hundreds of friendships have been formed. The Washington theater scene has grown from twenty-three stages to over a hundred in the last fifteen years, and it feels as though we’ve grown with them. Ushers’ events are not cheap but people keep coming back, and keep bringing their friends and family to events. They know they’re getting their money’s worth, and hopefully for another 15 years.”