“Oy, dot muzt be de texxis cab,” was my stage character’s opening line responding to the honking car offstage as the curtain rose on the 1976 Van Dam Theatre production of 1920s vintage classic “Abie’s Irish Rose. ”
One of the demands of my leading role as well-to-do immigrant widower Solomon Levy was affecting a Yiddisher dialect, a chore for which I was eminently prepared through memories of dear grandmother Jenny Press and her struggle with the English language that drove me and my cousin David into hysterics, prompting a slap in the face from his angry mother, my Aunt Marion.
The Off Broadway showcase was sold out for all eight performances, thanks to cast member Ivan Boesky, arbitrageur and corporate takeover speculator. A decade later he was on the December 1, 1986 cover of Time Magazine, featuring the story of his prominent role in the Wall Street insider trading scandal. As a result of a plea bargain, he served 2 years of his 3 1/2 year sentence in California’s Lampoc Federal Prison Camp and was fined $100 million.
I met him in the early ’70s, a fellow member of my beloved and now long gone City Athletic Club that during its 90-year existence was the respected West 54th Street Jewish equivalent of the New York Athletic Club. Ivan haunted the four squash courts, often spending hours playing against the club pro. I also discovered he had an eccentric wit nurtured in childhood at several of his father’s Detroit delicatessens. His pastrami-on-rye genes prompted the Borscht Belt repartée we shared at the club’s second-floor bar, our own private vaudeville act that proved a natural for our subsequent stage venture. Sue me, I also valued the munificense of his extensive J.Press wardrobe collection, consisting of lookalike dark gray suits, stiffly starched white broadcloth 3 3/4-inch, straight-collar shirts conservatively garnished by a range of semi-formal English Macclesfield, Spitalsfield and Swiss Grenadine lace silk ties.
One day after a shvitz and a swim in the the club’s fifth floor lap pool, he tossed me a question, “Hey, you doing any theatre lately?”
I told him indeed I was about to begin rehearsals for a downtown revival of “Abie’s Irish Rose.” Ivan’s face lit up. “I love acting. Anything in it for me?” I gave him the name of the director who called me shortly thereafter. “Hey, this guy Boesky is a scream. I gave him the role as your nosy neighbor Isaac Cohen.”
Rehearsals took place after hours at the 16 East 44th Street J.Press hub a block from the Yale Club and around the corner from the Clock at the Biltmore. While we rehearsed stage business and read lines on the mezzanine floor Outerwear Department, Clifford White, senior J.Press shipping clerk, was busily packing suits in the adjacent stock room for next day’s UPS pickup.
Limousines blocked Van Dam Street as they disgorged Ivan F. Boesky & Co. customers into the shabby 120-seat venue that defined off-off-Broadway in the 1970s.
My interlude from J.Press was well received in the trade papers. Show Business gave a favorable notice, headlining it “Irish Oys” and calling Ivan Boesky’s performance “amusing.” The review’s laudatory commentary ended, “Richard Press has a magnetic and endearing quality as Solomon Levy.”
After the stage lights dimmed, I returned to real life in retail. What about Ivan Boesky? Go see Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayan Akhbar’s dramatic reincarnation of the junk bond era, “Junk,” at Lincoln Center with arbitrageur “Boris Pronsky” prominently stacked on the junkpile. — RICHARD PRESS