Liz Smith: Anne Berlin and a Surprise Little Gem

Art by Richard Weinstein

Our Gossip Girl’s friend and colleague brings a unique show to off-Broadway

“YOU have a different class of people now where the talent element is mostly gone and the fame element has taken over …We are in a very bleak time!” said the one and only Bette Midler, a woman who knows the difference.

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I WAS chastised the other day for often writing about “useta-wuz” people, the big stars of yesterday, the dead and dying, the once “greats” and frankly, the person criticizing me said I was “obsessed” with old people! (We do try to leaven that out with episodes on the Kardashians, Angelina Jolie, Lady Gaga and the like.)

But, I guess Bette Midler said it all up there in her opening quote. Both Bette and Liz are always happy to write and rave about new talent. Nevertheless, we are aware of what’s going on in the world these days.

For instance, numbers are soaring of people beyond the age of 65 who have to continue working to keep body and soul together. Retirement? It has become a myth. Old guys and gals are working beyond retirement age because they have to and the numbers of them are rising worldwide. In Great Britain, these “retirees” soared by 40,000 in the three months of April to June. I am betting U.S. rates are rising at the same rate.

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BUT NOW for something entirely different.

I, for one, am always stunned by the serendipity of life. For instance, I have written before about how I responded to a letter from an unknown kid named Anne Berlin. She told me of her dream to write musical comedies and I was amazed at her chutzpah for having chosen what must be the most difficult way to break into show business. But I took her on as a kind of mentor, advising her to scale down her ambitions and write a TV sitcom or something more “commercial.”

Anne Berlin, Liz’s mentored playwright

Anne went her own merry way and we became friends. I was eternally surprised at her ambitious presumption. At the time we met, Anne had an original musical comedy she’d done with her musician partner, Andy Cohen. It was titled improbably “Charlie Chang and the Mysterious Salami.” This little gem, misspelling Charlie’s name, was to be experienced in the “The Bad Musical Festival” of New York’s off-Broadway. (This institution’s name has now been changed to “The International Cringe Festival.”)

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“Would I go see ‘Charlie Chang’?” asked Anne, noting that she’d written it as an homage to her grandfather who had loved the old Charlie Chan black-and-white movies of the good old days, late ’30s to ’50s. She said he often took on the Chinese detective’s persona and spoke in the pidgin English of the past; all very non-U and not politically correct these days.

I gulped and said I would go to see her show and dragooned my talented director friend, Valentina Fratti, into attending with me. (Frankly, neither of us gave Anne Berlin’s idea a Chinaman’s chance, if you know what I mean.)

Well, lo and behold, we had a rousing good time. “Charlie Chang” was presented in a theater where the stage was too small for its big cast. Some of the “acting” took place in the front-row seats. Anne had been allowed no say-so in casting or direction and about half the cast consisted of some of the worst actors I’d ever seen and the other half were exhaustingly brilliant. What an evening! Valentina and I were amazed and Anne and Andy won the festival “honor” as best of the worst.

She proceeded to collaborate with Valentina after that and together and separately, they came up with six of Anne and Andy’s different musicals, readings and playlets that they put on in one season at various small theater groups. One, titled “Love Stinks,” was done at the distinguished Public Theater.

WHERE DOES serendipity come into this story?

Well, reading Harper’s magazine and the New Yorker the other day, I came across stories about a book being published about the history of the Charlie Chan phenomenon. (W. Norton publisher’s Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang.)

(Then I picked up The New York Times last week to find Charlie himself in a tease on the front page, shown as he was always played by the Swedish-American actor Warner Oland.) There was a huge story inside about the book and about how Charlie Chan is back in the news in a big way with the usual arguments raging as to whether such an amusing idea is politically incorrect or whether it no longer matters. Some think yes; some think no.

And my little pal, Anne Berlin, who keeps body and soul together working part-time in a job at CBS for the head man Les Moonves, is already busy adding another act to her “Charlie Chang” idea. She tells me she yearns to see a big production where someone famous like B. D. Wong would be her leading man, detective Chang, and all the other ethic roles would be played by suitably important name performers.

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So life, amusingly, sometimes has a single one-track mind. Meanwhile, Anne
Berlin and Valentina Fratti won an award for “Outstanding Production of a Reading” from the Planet Connection Theater Festivities people. They had put on Anne’s latest with partner Andy Cohen, a brainstorm play/musical called “Revolution,” which deals with the American, the French and the Russian histories in three acts.

They have new worlds to conquer and I have some interesting and energetic young friends, which is always entertaining to an Old Party like me.

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