Michael Colby of Metuchen and the Algonquin Reads at To Be Continued . . .

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Colby_4_Photo_by_Pat_Rubin.jpgMichael Colby grew up in and around the Algonquin Hotel in New York City, where the Round Table writers and raconteurs conversed for decades and he was serenaded by Ella Fitzgerald herself. His book, THE ALGONQUIN KID, is about to launch and he will be reading at To BE Continued on April 29th. MM asked him a few questions about his life that are not discussed in this recent New York Times article. Check it out!

What prompted you to write the book NOW?

NOW turned out to be the ideal time, with the Internet making it so easy for me to research and consolidate information.  In addition, as my grandparents' generation has passed on, I felt it incumbent on me to gather family history while there were still relatives to delineate the facts.   Adding to the authenticity, I've been fortunate in having kept diaries since I was 18 years old, to evoke and verify family history.   Nonetheless, my family history included some turbulent times at my home in Long Island.   That and sadness over lost family members made me question whether I had the emotional wherewithal to objectively achieve my three goals:  (1) provide a chronicle of the Algonquin Hotel in years not previously covered (from 1946 on); (2) narrate a family history (since my family's past includes fascinating facts beyond just the Algonquin, including ties to the Gershwin family and the musical FIDDLER ON THE ROOF); (3) tell the story of how I, as a real-life counterpart to Eloise of the Plaza (my middle name is even Elihu), navigated my own way into the world of theatre and the Arts.

What was pivotal in the development of the book was a venue whereby I could "test the waters."   That venue was a series of articles via the online website www.theaterpizzazz, thanks to its editor, my wonderful friend Sandi Durell.   I knew, after a year of relating my experiences, I would be capable of finishing this history in book form.  BearManor Media made an offer to publish, and I gratefully completed my goal.


When did you realize that you were surrounded by some of the most iconic figures in the arts and entertainment field by living there?

I lived something of an insular life, where for years, I just assumed it was normal to be surrounded by famous people.  Where I was especially fortunate was observing the balance sheet of people in the Arts, both those on the rise and those on the downward spiral.  I realized the importance of humility, knowing brilliant but selfless icons like Maya Angelou and Thornton Wilder.  I also recognized the folly of vanity, observing former celebrities whose egos became their downfall.

What was your best memory about your grandfather? Grandpa Ben had a wicked sense of humor and  many of his best jokes are shared in the book.  But my happiest moment with Grandpa was when he and Grandma Mary threw me an opening night party--for my show CHARLOTTE SWEET-- at the hotel's Oak Room.  Though my grandmother was always supportive, Grandpa Ben had been cynical about my theatre aspirations.  At the opening night, surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd including Celeste Holm, Eli Wallach, Hermoine Gingold, Liliane Montevicchi, and other Algonquin regulars, Grandpa Ben proudly beamed, signaling I'd earned my show biz stripes

What was the best thing you ever ate at the Algonquin?

The roasted squab stuffed with wild rice and glazed with sweet sauce.  Served on Wednesday nights, it was a treat I awaited all week. Of course, owing to my Southern/Jewish heritage, I capped (or I should say uncapped) the meal with a Coca Cola.  To this day, I even drink Coca Cola for breakfast.  I might have titled my book "The Coca Cola Kid", but that title was already taken.  

Outside of the Algonquin menu, my favorite food there was my Grandma Mary's home-made matzo ball soup.  Grandma made the best matzo balls I ever tasted--I could eat them one after another like extra large popcorn.  To this day, using that recipe, I'm the matzo ball maker at my home.     

Did you have "playdates" at the hotel? Could you bring friends home from school to hang out there?

Actually, as a child, I lived in Long Island but commuted to New York regularly during weekends; my father (who was a manager at the hotel) drove the Colby family.  Sometimes friends from my school, Woodmere Academy, would ride along on weekends for lunch at the hotel and even a Broadway matinee.  Conversely, I had a memorable playdate at my own home in Long Island with a kid staying at the hotel. The kid was actor Jay North, TV's "Dennis the Menace."  He came to our home in Hewlett for lunch and played in our backyard.  I remember being a little shocked discovering the blond "Dennis" actually had dark roots.  

In my late teens, even more friends visited me when--at the age of 18 during my college years--I moved into the hotel.  All I had to do was go upstairs, when Sam Hagan (my best friend from Woodmere Academy) and his wife Chris enjoyed their wedding reception at the hotel.  They later attended my own engagement party there on Valentine's Day. My ultimate "playdate" at the hotel was when my grandparents allowed me to convert the hotel's Annex into a rehearsal space where many of my musicals had their auditions and rehearsals (as described in the book).

What did you learn as a kid in the Algonquin that relate to your experiences as a teacher now?

I was an introverted kid who didn't always communicate well with my classmates.  However, through my interest in the Arts and theatre, I had no trouble conversing with Algonquin regulars, including many of the more famous guests.  They never spoke down to me, but boosted my confidence enormously.  That's how--nowadays--I try to communicate with my students.  I try my best to be their friends, to demonstrate enjoyment in what they're learning, and to help in any way I can.  I also emphasize how important reading, giving education a chance, and the Arts were in transforming me from a so-so student at Woodmere Academy to an A student in my college years.

Did you ever meet Kay Thompson, since you were the male "Eloise"? Although I guess I should also ask if you met Liza Minnelli, since she was the inspiration for the character.

I never met Kay Thompson, but have met Liza on a few occasions.  There are conflicting reports on whether Liza was actually the basis for Eloise, although I do use that point of view in a lyric I wrote about my growing up at the Algonquin (You can hear the song at  http://www.michaelcolby.com/index.php/the_algonquin_kid/)

I've been compared to Eloise

Who grew up at the Plaza

As based on Liza Minnelli.

But my fam'ly came from overseas

With names like Coh'n and Maza

And built the South's first Kosher deli.

Moreover, a close family friend is Hillary Knight, illustrator of the Eloise series and the subject of Lena Dunham's documentary "It's Me, Hillary: The Man Who Drew Eloise."  Hillary likewise designed the illustrations for the book, The Algonquin Kid (by Val Schaffner), and has been a longtime friend of my brother Douglas.

Don't you miss the excitement of those days?   Yes, I deeply miss those days--especially being with my family there.  But the book has helped me recapture some of that.  And the Algonquin management has been very supportive and kind to me.

What was the highlight of your own entertainment career?     Foremost, on my 50th birthday, the magnificent off-Broadway company, Amas Musical Theatre, torchbearers of non-traditional casting, honored me with a benefit for the company, featuring my alumni.  The event also became a recording spotlighting actors from my shows performing songs from CHARLOTTE SWEET, TALES OF TINSELTOWN, MRS. McTHING, and others.  Among the performers were Broadway stars like Ron Raines, Alison Fraser, Merle Louise (the original Beggar Woman in SWEENEY TODD), and Christine Pedi, joined on the CD version by Michael Feinstein.  My own son Steve sang opposite Donna English (a favorite at Paper Mill Playhouse, who's now standby for Renee Fleming in Broadway's LIVING ON LOVE).

Further, one of my greatest joys was working with the late Broadway actor, Bruce Adler.  I co-wrote a tribute to Danny Kaye for him, HERE'S TO DANNY, which was a big hit in Florida.  Commuting between Metuchen and New York rehearsals, writing comedy sketches then returning to my wife and son in suburbia, I felt like I was living an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show (My wife and I even bear some resemblance to the actors).

What do you most want audiences to walk away with from your book?

It's my hope that my book conveys all the excitement, humor, and sense of history I experienced during those days when I was blessed to be part of this very unique hotel.

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