The play’s the thing

Ten rounds of a family tradition

by Jacqui Theobald

Photo: A morning tour of the Emerald City, before “Wicked”

For some, it’s books or baseball. For others, it’s cars or cooking. The river that connects generations for our family has been a trip to New York for the first time at age 12, a tradition begun long ago when my mother took me to the big city for theatre and museums.

As each of us does at first stare, I remember e-nor-mous, almost unbelievable, buildings. Were all the people in the world right there? My grandson Owen, 13, this year said, “I have never heard so many languages.”

In the beginning: over a week of nightly plays, plus Wednesday and Saturday matinees. Later trips became shorter as ticket prices zoomed. We all believe best seats are balcony-high. The play’s the thing.

How did one early experience turn into a tradition? When oldest son Mark was two, my mother said, “I’ll take you to New York to see plays, when you’re 12.” When he was 11 he said, “Mimi, next year we’ll go to New York, right?” She was startled, since there had been no intervening conversation, but true to her promise, the trip was planned and included me to help keep activities going full speed.

She made it possible for each of our four children to have that special trip, three with my husband and me. “Come back and tell me,” she said. There are always super stories about the never-rest-cram-in-as-much-as-possible experiences. 

Those never-forgotten memories sat almost dormant until our family grew up.  Second son Chuck said, “Sarah is past 12, so when are you going to take her to New York?” We gulped, looking at escalated prices. Mark’s family (daughter Samantha, then 16) had lived on the East Coast, seen New York and we’d never thought of resuming “The Trip.” I’ve always regretted not taking her.

But we did take the other five, when they were 12. It’s a family tradition, after all.

I’ve asked each to write outstanding memories. Their words have touched me with color and sound and amazement.

Each remembered all their plays, including some revivals; grandchildren seeing shows parents had attended years before. John saw “The King and I” with Yul Brynner that I had seen as a child. Mark saw “No, No Nannette,” older even than my mother’s era. “Pippin” was a hit for Chuck and recently for young Owen. Same-age cousins Meg and Grace uniquely shared the only dual trip and loved “Chorus Line” as John and Elizabeth individually had. 

Sarah remembered, “Seeing ‘Sly Fox,’ I learned theatre could be slapstick-funny and crude and still involve corsets and coattails.”

For “Inherit the Wind,” Andrew and we got to sit on stage as “townspeople,” where I, perhaps illicitly, sketched leads Christopher Plummer and Brian Donnehy and later got stage-door autographs. Chuck remembers talking to Jack Albertson on the street as I sketched him after seeing “Sunshine Boys”; that may have been the earliest autograph.

Elizabeth and John saw “Annie” and he remembers now, “I was so in love with star Andrea McArdle I saved my best outfit for her, but I don’t think she noticed. I thought ‘Chorus Line’ was fairly risqué until Mom’s hands clamped vise-like over my virgin eyes at the unexpected full-frontal nudity in ‘Otherwise Engaged.’” Mark muses, “I didn’t ‘get’ ‘Company’ with Elaine Stritch.”

The big three museums were on everyone’s schedule, and a variety of smaller museums for each. Mark: “We made faces at masks at Natural History.” Elizabeth: “At the Met; surprised that musical instruments could become extinct, like dinosaurs.” Owen: “There’s a little bit of everything at the Met and I need at least two more days there …” and, “I liked the funky sculptures at MOMA.”

Everyone commented on filth, older ones noting how Times Square changes. Andrew: “Suddenly it appeared – shouldn’t there be some warning? – ‘most famous place in the world,’ more AND less than I expected.”

Some have disquieting visual memories: “man with no legs on a skate board, seen again in the subway”; “a presumably homeless man so dirty I couldn’t tell what color he was”; “mentally ill man brandishing a machete”; “two NYPD buddies talking in the thickest cliché N.Y. accent, then grinning at us. I thought I’d walked into a movie.”

And then there is the food, sometimes not soon enough, from special places. For Mark and Chuck: coins into Automat slots and discovering Jacques Pepin’s 5th Avenue La Potagerie, amazing soup on tables that spun. Years later, Sarah: “Billowing crowds in Chinatown where Jacques Pepin’s Culinary Institute served wonderful French food.” Elizabeth: “Blecchy dessert at the Russian Tearoom.” Borscht, bagels, cheesecake for all.

Highs and lows: Top of the Empire State, Top of the Rock, “Looking down at the giant-sized book of Statue of Liberty”; “Liberty closed – 110 degrees inside”; “Feeling lost on the subway,” “Circle Line tour lasting past interesting, but liking the bridges”; “First cab ride almost made me sick, last made me sad”; “Playing ping-pong in Bryant Park,” “Seeing the real Winnie-the-Pooh Between the Lions.” 

Weather: ranging from “baked apple” to sleety snow on daffodils.

Two birthdays celebrated: Elizabeth’s “Central Park magical-night-lighted horse-drawn carriage ride”; Meg’s shared giant sundae at Serendipity.

All have felt sophisticated, recognizing a scam, feeling a comfort level with big cities, public transportation, new foods and the delight of unexpected encounters. Most have now travelled the world using these skills, all love theatre and art, all vow to continue our family tradition. 

Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at

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Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at

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