Audiences attending the closing performance of George Bernard Shaw’s Candida at Washington Stage Guild Sunday, Oct 20th, witnessed a pre-show ceremony as Lou Altarescu accepted the 2019 Gary Maker Award on behalf of himself and his late spouse Alan Friedman, an honor he called “bittersweet” knowing how much it would have meant to Friedman.
Lou Altarescu and Alan Friedman met in 1987 when a mutual friend set them up for a dinner date. At the time, Altarescu, a lawyer, was living in Baltimore, while Friedman, a teacher, was living in D.C.
“We hit it off right away and took turns—either I would drive to Washington or he would drive to Baltimore—and it wasn’t very long before we decided to move in together,” Altarescu says. “I had gotten a Master’s in social work and was able to land a job at Health and Human Services in D.C., and I stayed in that job for 26 years.”
Friedman taught school in D.C. for 34 years and volunteered at the National Building Museum, the National Gallery of Art and as an international medical courier. He also served as an usher at the Kennedy Center for 45 years, eventually getting Altarescu in on the ushering gig—something they shared together for almost 30 years.
Tragically, Friedman passed away last month, after battling liver cancer over the past year.
The award, named in memory of Gary Lee Maker, a gracious and supportive audience member, is given to outstanding audience members, nominated by area theatre companies. Previous winners include David Tannous (2011), Alison Drucker and Tom Holzman (2012), Linda Elyse Bryce (2013), Barbara Bear (2014), David S. Kessler (2015), Lisa Carr (2016) and the late Joel Markowitz (2017, for lifetime achievement).
“I’m very thankful for this award and we are following in the footsteps of some very wonderful people,” Altarescu says. “It gives me goosebumps. I really feel glad about this. We were enjoying what we were doing and had wonderful feedback on the job we did. Everyone comments on Alan’s smile and how it made people instantly comfortable, and that wasn’t just for the theater world.”
Altarescu grew up in Queens, N.Y., and ventured out to the big city in high school to see his first Broadway productions, which included The King and I, Fiddler on the Roof and Camelot.
“I saw a production of Carousel around 1965 and I had a love of theater then, and although I went off to college, I would get back to New York sporadically to see some theater,” he says. “But then there was a void. I lived in Baltimore for nine years and saw just a bit of theater there.”
But after meeting Friedman in 1987, Altarescu’s passion for theater grew even more.
“Alan, of course, started getting into theater much earlier, as he started ushering at the Kennedy Center in 1973,” Altarescu says. “He started off at the Opera House and saw great productions of opera, dance and theater, with companies from Europe, Cuba and Mexico. He always had great stories to tell about these productions.”
He remembers the first time he went to the Kennedy Center and saw Friedman in his red coat. He eventually joined him in ushering around the vibrant D.C. theater community. They were at the original theaters for Woolley Mammoth, Round House, Arena Stage and Washington Stage Guild, and at one point were ushering at 11 different theaters around town.
“We could afford to get season subscriptions at 3 or 4 theaters but to be able to get subscriptions for 11 theaters would have been cost prohibitive, so of course it’s wonderful to see a show for free,” Altarescu says. “It’s also wonderful greeting people. People walk into a theater not knowing what to expect, but eager for a good evening, so they’re often in a good mood.”
Together, they got to work a lot of opening nights and got to know plenty of actors, critics and those involved in the theaters.
“At Round House, we have the same group of opening night ushers; at Studio Theatre, there is a group of five friends who’ve been ushering together for about 20 years, and I think that’s really nice,” he says. “There’s a collegiality among ushers that also adds to the experience.”
At the height of their ushering, the couple worked about 80 shows a year, but that number decreased when Friedman became sick. The couple never saved programs and didn’t keep track of how many total shows they saw, but it was most likely over 1,000.
Altarescu has great memories and stories from his ushering. For instance, at Arena Stage many years ago, they had volunteers behind the bar and one night while serving, NPR’s Bob Mondello was there to review a show.
“He approached the bar, and maybe it wasn’t appropriate for an usher, but I gave him a look that kind of asked what he thought, without saying anything, and he gave me a look back that made it clear he was not liking the show,” he recounts. “He asked for a scotch and I said I’d make it a double and I gave him the drink, and lo-and-behold, in his review, he wrote ‘even the usher felt that the show demanded a double drink!’ That may have ended Arena’s volunteer at the bar program.”
Another time at Arena Stage, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was there with Nina Totenberg and the Justice had just gone through her cancer treatment.
“She was really looking fabulous and in beautiful health and she came to the bar to ask for a chardonnay and I said to her, “Madam Justice, I’m going to need to see proof of age’ and she got a kick out of that,” Altarescu says.
As for productions, there are so many favorites, with a recent one being Escaped Alone directed by Holly Twyford, starring four of his favorite actresses—Brigid Cleary, Catherine Flye, Helen Hedman and Valerie Leonard.
“After the show, they all came out and hugged me because they all knew Alan, and it was very special to me,” he says. “I’m still grieving and the theater community has been tremendously supportive to the two of us, and I really appreciate that.”
Altarescu and Friedman were nominated for the Gary Maker Audience Award by Washington Stage Guild.
“They are a special theater to us,” he says. “Not only do we like the quality of their productions but the core group opened up the theater together and were renowned for their George Bernard Shaw productions. We became closer and closer to various members of the company. They have a Christmas dinner every year, and we’re Jewish, so being invited each year was even more special to us. Alan would always bring his knives and cut the turkey, and it’s a wonderful community to be a part of.”