In July of 1975, at the tender age of 14, I went to a performance of The Gondoliers at Eisenhower Park with my family. It was being presented by the Gilbert & Sullivan Workshop of Long Island, whom I’d seen in Garden City in 1973 and 1974, but this time I screwed up my courage and, after the show, went backstage to see if I could find out how to get involved with this fascinating group.
It was a hive of activity, as people—all much older than I was—scurried about striking the sets, loading the truck, packing up costumes and lots of other things that I had no idea what were. Nobody seemed to have time to talk to a gawky teenager, and I hesitated to interrupt their frenzied activity. I stood at the side, tongue-tied and feeling in the way.
And then, out of the hubbub, materialized a middle-aged guy with a warm smile. He pulled me aside, sat down with me and, in a few minutes’ conversation, told me when and where the company rehearsed, took my name and telephone number, and suggested that I wait until September, when the new season was starting up, and come down to Merrick and audition.
He shook hands with me, sent me back out to my parents and turned back to his work. I’d just had my first encounter with Al Grand.
There would be many more, through the years. He remembered me when I showed up in Merrick that September, and was the first to shake my hand after I passed my audition, and took me around to meet the rest of the gang. Eileen Chigos, Howard Garrett, Arlene Greenberg, Sam Levinkind, Jerry March, Buddy Packer, Hazel Rager, Sy Schwartz, Izzy Stein, Bob Tartell, Tom Trempy, Jesse Waldinger … there were so many of them and they were intimidatingly talented, but they all knew Al and clearly loved him, and if he vouched for me I was OK with them too.
I soon learned that Al was a teacher, which might account for the fact that he could spot an anxious kid and put him at his ease, but that wasn’t it. Al did that with grown-ups too—it was the kind of guy he was. He could be prickly if you pushed him, but you had to push him hard. He was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.
I saw Al once or twice a week for the next 10 or 15 years. I sang Sergeant to his Samuel, I watched Sally Buckstone bristle at his mid-rehearsal wisecracks—and struggle to keep herself from joining in the laughter, not always successfully. I saw him reach out to other new people and bring them around to shake hands with me, incongruously a veteran while still in my teens.
I saw a new side of Al when I spent several weekend afternoons at his house, being coached through the role of Shloyme the Shlemiel in a weird new project called Der Shirtz, a Yiddish version of H.M.S. Pinafore that we presented for the first time in 1978. I didn’t know a word of Yiddish, but Al took me through every line, explaining the meaning of each word, the right emphases for every line. My part wasn’t a huge one—the whole show ran less than an hour—but these one-on-one rehearsals took hours, as Al kept going off on tangents, fired with his passion for the project, for the language and for Jewish culture, educating a hapless goy (albeit one from the Lower East Side) in the magic of a whole other world.
In later years I directed Al in several productions, and got to bristle at his mid-rehearsal wisecracks as Sally had before me, and learned what she’d known all along: Al knew that a little levity made work go easier, but also knew when it was time to batten the hatches and do his job. Al might seem flippant, but he took his work seriously, and was never anything but prepared.
By 1991 the Yiddish company had taken off and didn’t need a goyischer baritone anymore. Al was so busy with Der Yiddisher Mikado and Di Yam Gazlonim that he hadn’t had time for the English company for several years. When I called to tell him that we were short on men for Patience and could really use him among the dragoons, he explained in great detail the extent of his other commitments and why it simply wouldn’t be possible for him to participate. And then added, “Of course, Patience is my favorite …”
He did come down for Patience, auditioned and was cast as the Major. The following June I ran into him backstage at Heckscher Park in Huntington, both of us in red-and-gold uniforms, and he looked around at the backstage hullabaloo and the buzz of people bustling about—people who had been strangers in September and were now good friends of his, as anyone who worked with Al would always be—and smiled.
“Well,” he said, “this is good.”
It was, and that became a catchphrase between us. Other than a single fill-in performance as Shloyme a few years later, that was the last time we’d work together, but I saw him many times through the ensuing years, usually at performances by the English company, which he and Arlene often attended. Most of the time we’d shake hands, he’d look around and say, “Well, this is good.”
It was, and Al always helped make it good. It’s a source of great joy to me that he got to see so many of his dreams realized during the Yiddish company’s long run on Long Island, in New York and in the wider world, and that he got to savor the personal triumph of seeing Di Yam Gazlonim score a hit in a professional production at the Folksbiene Theater in 2006. He fought many battles along the way and didn’t always feel appreciated, but in the end I think he realized that his work had changed the lives of many, many people.
Trust me on this, because I’m one of them.