Photos courtesy of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS
Every October 15, and onward, my house turns into an atelier, the likes that would make Coco Chanel proud. Yes, from the middle of October, right up to October 31, my two kids channel their inner Bob Mackies and Yves Saint Laurents. My son and my daughter, who are both very artistic and creative, sit down to produce costumes that are quite awe-inspiring. Last year, my son built from scratch a suit of armor that transformed him into a real-life Michael Bay Transformer character. Using his imagination and tons of cardboard, he spray-painted, colored, glued, and duct-taped his way into the Halloween Hall of Fame. It was really an excellent achievement.
This year, my daughter and her friends are turning themselves into the blocks that are used in Tetris. Each one is a different geometric shape, color, and height. When they all stand together, they will be one big interlocking block. Again, brava to the enterprising young lady.
Costuming — an article of clothing that can turn a mild-mannered man into a superhero, or a man into a miss — is a wondrous thing to behold. In the bear world, it was always such a delight to see the costumes on parade for the annual Broadway Bears Auction. Produced by Scott Stevens, of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, the yearly fund-raiser first launched in 1997 as a onetime event. Its ability to attract attention and bidders turned this charitable curiosity into a high point of the theatrical and ursine season!
Broadway Bears ran for 15 glorious years, and took its final bow in 2012. During its run, the bears touted up a whopping $2,048, 427 for BC/EFA. It’s a fabulous accomplishment.
What I loved about the Broadway Bears was that I was able to participate in the starry event, mingling with some of the celebrities who attended and paying tribute to the talented designers. I truly enjoyed the high-stakes bidding and the very clever ad-libbing of master of ceremonies Bryan Batt. Batt is a theater veteran, appearing in a host of well-known shows (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Cats,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “The Scarlet Pimpernel”) and TV programs (a regular cast member on “Mad Men”).
Batt had a fantastic ability to coax more and more big bucks from the attendees and from the bidders who would phone in, having proxies vocalizing their ever-increasing pledges. It was spine-tingling — to borrow a lyric from “Hamilton” — to be in the room where it happened!
Sadly, the BC/EFA rolled up its red carpet before the “Hamilton” blockbuster hit the boards. I can only imagine how miraculous the interpretations of our Founding Fathers and Mothers, plus their red-coated foes, would have been when they were re-created by these amazing costumers. (Interesting side note: multiple Tony Award winner Lin-Manuel Miranda did have a teddy bear clone made of his character, Usnavi, from his previous hit “In the Heights.”)
Lucky for me, I am a “Broadway Baby,” having developed a passion for original-cast albums when I was 10 years old. So, for me, the chance to attend five of these 15 events is a privilege that I’ll never forget. Interestingly, many of the bears serve as a marker for who was on the rise in the theater world, and who has since departed. The very simply designed Wishful Drinking bear, a salute to Carrie Fisher, packs an emotional wallop now because of her too-soon departure. The teddy bears stand as a remembrance of theater personalities who had the ability to put on a costume and change the world. They are really powerful for that reason.
The bare bears were donated to the cause by North American Bear Company (NABCO), and over the years there were hundreds upon hundreds drafted into service. Each of these teddy bears — and an occasional Robert Tonner doll — was lovingly handcrafted to honor Broadway legends, skyrocketing newcomers, and characters that were larger than life.
Speaking of legends, I shall never forget encountering the late Marian Seldes (“Equus,” “Deathtrap,” “Deuce”) at the affair. A Rayleen bear in her likeness from “45 Seconds from Broadway” was on the slate to be auctioned, and I sidled up to her. I asked quite eagerly, “How do you like the bear? What do you think of it?” And in true deadpan diva fashion, she intoned: “It’s like looking into a mirror.”
All total, these teddy bears add up to a huggable and embraceable testament to the magic a show can weave. Much of the credit for the success of the Broadway Bears goes to their charming and ebullient auctioneer, the late (and much missed) Lorna Kelly. She was able to corral a room of noisy patrons and get them to focus, and, most important, get them to reach for their Visa and MasterCards.
It was a feat of incredible skill and maneuvering. She made people happy to be writing checks for thousands upon thousands of dollars per Teddy, and made them proud to be part of a worthwhile event. It was a tour de force of quick, rapid, and engaging auctioneering.
All of the bears that were carried across the stage to be bid upon hold a special place in my heart. They were examples of how clothes do, indeed, make the man, the woman, and the bear.
This Halloween, my kids will borrow a page from the Playbill in their mind and will execute some might fine handiwork. The BC/EFA teddy bears demonstrate that imagination is a land worth visiting and spending time there.
And wouldn’t it be quite wonderful if a collection of the bears could be reunited — like a one-night-only benefit or the showgirls from Sondheim’s “Follies” — for a traveling exhibit or a sit-down curated museum show?
Proceeds would go to BC/EFA, of course. I think these bears deserve one more chance at a standing ovation. That would be a treat all teddy bear and theater lovers could embrace. I hope it does happen one day.