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Clive Barnes at the Kaatsbaan International Dance Center’s "Starburst of Dance"
Gala in 2000, Poughkeepsie, NY.
Photo credit: Rosalie O'Connor; courtesy of Kaatsbaan International Dance Center

Memories of Clive Barnes

Jan/ Feb 2009

Tennessee Williams was responsible for my meeting Clive Barnes. Tennessee was also responsible for my not dining with Clive at that first meeting. Those memories were revived Thanksgiving week when I learned of the dance/theatre critic’s death.

It had been apparent for some time that Barnes was ailing. So it should not have surprised when he died November 19 of liver cancer. Still, I felt a distinct personal loss. A long chapter of my past had closed: A chapter ranging from the mid 1970's to the early 21st century.

I met Clive when we were both dance/drama critics; he for the prestigious New York Times, me for the Springfield Daily News, the afternoon newspaper in Western Massachusetts. He came to West Springfield with a busload of other New York based critics to view a re-written “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof,” being premiered at Stage/West regional theatre.

As I was the catalyst for this production, Artistic Director John Ulmer asked me to liaison with the Manhattan critics. Steve Rothman, then publicist for Stage/West, did an impressive job arranging for their transportation, snacks and entertainment and even more, in getting all the major publications to send critics.

We had a bit of a party in the lobby of the theatre on the arrival of the critical dignitaries. The drinks went down like a hurricane, blowing away memories of the uncomfortable bus trip and providing a mellowing effect. All the critics were friendly, barbing and bantering with each other, but kind and polite to me, including Ted Kalem of Time, Walter Kerr of the Sunday Times, and a busload of others.

Clive was the one I was most nervous about meeting, since the Times was a luminary light in my envious eyes. From reading his reviews I knew he had a great sense of humor and a barbed wit.  He was utterly charming, appearing to me to more like a pudgy, overgrown, slightly rumpled elf than a famous critic.

Since we both reviewed Jacob’s Pillow and other New England venues, we easily exchanged stories, reactions and tales of letters received from irate actors or disgruntled dancers.

I dined that evening with Mr. Williams, his agent Billy Barnes, Howard Hewes, (reviewer for the Saturday Review) and a small group of other local theatre people. Hewes noted he had gotten Tennessee to turn a story into a play, and I noted how, at a press breakfast hosted by Paul Weidner at the Hartford Stage Company a year previously, when Williams said he wished “Cat” with the ending he had wanted in the first place could be staged. (Elia Kazan had insisted on a different ending than Tennessee had envisioned. The play was a great success on stage and film. But Tennessee wondered, would it have worked better as he wanted originally?)  I asked the famous playwright why not do the play his way now, and he amazed me and my editor William Poleri, when he claimed no theatre was interested. I said I knew one which would be more than interested. I mentioned it to Mr. Ulmer, who acted upon it immediately. Thus, my presence at this dinner, instead of being with the press dinner that evening.

I mingled with the New York media during intermission, however, and knew the production was doomed in their eyes. I had seen many points which misfired, but hoped it would still “work.” It did not. No one discussed the play, all remained polite, but the critical claque was much less boisterous during that endless intermission than they had been when they first arrived.

Most of the New York press avoided my company, but Clive came over to share another funny story about being both a dance and drama critic with me before we all filed back into the theatre. I was charmed by his kindness, and his English accent and manners.

He “cheerioed” me tongue in cheek when he left soon after the curtain came down.

Next time I saw him was about a year later, in New Haven where again, a new version of “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” was being presented. Clive was in the lobby, alone, still looking more like a loveable uncle than one’s image of a theatre critic. I saw him and hesitated, sure he would not remember me. But he did remember, greeted me warmly and we talked about the fact that the Stage/West production was the opening door for this staging. Again, I felt his comments were intended to soothe my disappointment about the harsh (but true) words which had been written about the Stage/West production. Tennessee had reworked the script, it played well, and deservedly, the New Haven production moved to Broadway.

A few years after that, I relocated to my native New York hoping to continue my theatre/dance critic career. I had no luck getting such a job in the recession of 1977. When dancer friend, Sven Svenson asked me to serve in his stead as producer of a play, because he had to go to L.A., I eagerly agreed.

The play’s press agent was getting no coverage. Forgetting this was New York City and our play a mere showcase, I complained. The agent invited me to his office. Challenging me to get critics for my little production, he handed me a list and one of his phones.

I called Clive, by then at the Post, and said, “Remember me from Springfield?” We chatted a bit before I asked him to review my off off Broadway show. He explained he could not, but promised he'd get someone to do it. Marilyn Stasio, another wonderful critic who loves theatre and was committed to new plays and new playwrights, did review it.

As a result of the phone calls I made in the office, I was offered and accepted a job as a press agent.

One night a few months later, I sat with my young daughter attending a Broadway opening of a play handled through that press office. In the middle of the first act my daughter, oblivious to the fact we were surrounded by critics, said in her strident voice, “This isn't very good.” From behind me I heard the familiar low chuckle of Clive Barnes. I turned to look into his smirking face.  Mortified, I whispered my daughter silent. Clive whispered I was raising a potential critic. Neither Clive nor I ever mentioned the incident again.

Most shows I handled when I later had my own publicity office were not on Broadway. But a few off Broadway shows intrigued him, as did one play about a famous movie star. When Clive agreed to come to the showcase production, I saved him two terrific seats in the 75-seat house, and awaited his arrival, slightly late, for the performance. When I walked him into the theatre I found a couple had taken the seats. Clive said he'd sit in the back. I insisted the couple move. They claimed there were no signs on the chairs. I lifted the torn sign from the floor beneath them. Clive did not want me to start anything. I agreed, we would not start anything, particularly the play, until he got his seats. The couple grumbled and moved. Clive smirked his approval.

I would run into Clive at various Broadway plays and he was always friendly and warm.

Whatever production I called him about he was always jolly and polite. Only once did he cut me off, because he was expecting a call from overseas where his son Chris was ailing.

Another time, when I was handling the off Broadway transfer of “Tallulah” with Helen Gallagher, Clive said he would be delayed, coming from another show, but to be sure to hold his seats – with no one in them, he added jovially. I told the ushers.

Clove was later than we had thought he'd be. It was 20 past the hour and the house manager wanted to start the play. I insisted he wait another few minutes. The moment Clive’s cab pulled up outside the theatre, I told the house manager to start the overture. Clive came huffing and puffing into the theatre, saying he presumed I had not waited for him. I caught the twinkle in his eye as I said I started the overture when I saw him, and again personally saw him into his thankfully empty seat.

One day, he and I were both rushing from Chelsea where we both lived, to the Broadway area, he for a major show, me for an off Broadway one. We chatted amiably about his family and mine as we rushed along the darkening streets.

On another occasion, he and a sister press agent were joshing together, and she plumped herself on his lap just before the curtain went up. I made a remark that rumors might start and they both laughed. Later she told me rumors had started years ago but were long since forgotten.  I was embarrassed and wanted to apologize, but was advised against it, and it was never mentioned at all.

I retired from press agentry some years ago, but occasionally found myself walking towards the theatre district in his company. Winded though he might have been, rushing as usual, for he had a tendency to be late, we always chatted amiably.

I admired Clive for his honesty as a critic, and his insights into the flaws of productions and performances. I liked him for his good humor, his amiable smile and for being so patient whenever invited to a play or dance event.

I shall miss the man, whose Times byline once accidentally read Olive Barnes, leading to many jibes among my fellow Massachusetts theatre buffs. They all took his English accent and mannerisms to indicate effeteness, but his string of wives and various dalliances put an end to that. Another laugh that went around the theatre/dance community was the line that actors wished he would just review dance, and dancers wished he'd just review theatre.

Theatre people often complained he came to the theatre smelling of booze, and often slept through productions. I thought, his reviews caught the essence of the play, its staging and production values. Maybe he was not so much asleep as resting his eyes or mulling over what he was going to write?

I personally wished all reviewers could be as friendly and approachable, as caring and devoted to plays and dance as this wonderful man. He recognized many new talents, supported them with his reviews and chastised them when they fell below the standards they themselves had set. He loved the performing arts and gave obeisance to them. I bow to him.

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