"SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF"
By Marlene S. Gaylinn
“Satchmo,” (slang for “satchel” or large, baggy mouth) is a nickname that was lovingly applied to Louis Armstrong, one of America’s finest jazz musicians who died in 1971. His sweet smile, pleasant personality, and the crumpled, white handkerchief along with the trumpet he held on high became his trademark image. And yet, this solo entertainer, who always presented himself as being polite and mild mannered, usually played in expensive nightclubs, mostly to upper-class white audiences. This gained him wider popularity and another nickname, “Uncle Tom” -- by his own, black people.
It is therefore very revealing to hear that in his private life, this famous, stage personality had a completely, different side to him. Besides being loving to his wife, generous to those who needed help and outspoken when it came to civil rights, Armstrong had a very foul mouth and could swear like a trooper. He was apparently loyal to his Jewish managing agent, a shady, gangster character named Joe Glaser, and they casually traded four-letter words when conversing. The word “Schvartzes” (Yiddish derogatory term for black persons) was also likely to have been flung around by Glaser -- although a little more practice is needed to pronounce it correctly in this production.
Nevertheless, Glaser arranged Armstrong’s appearances, protected him when needed, and made the two of them very rich. While they did not socialize on the same level, his manager called his single client “Louie,” treated him like a son, and the pair strongly depended upon each other. However, the actual details of conversations and any personal disappointments concerning Glaser, as depicted in this play, are largely speculative.
The playwright, Terry Teachout, is a drama critic for “The Wall St. Journal.” This is his first play, which is based on one of Teachout’s recent books, “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.” It takes place in Armstrong’s dressing room at the Waldorf Astoria where the sick and aging musician gave his last performance -- he died four months later.
John Douglas Thompson plays Louis Armstrong in this wonderful, one-man, one-act production. This very versatile actor not only looks the role, his raspy voice and dialect are exactly like Satchmo’s. Even though Thompson polishes his instrument and never blows his horn for us, we do hear Armstrong’s past recordings in the background and this sets the atmosphere. When referring to past phone conversations with Glazer, in a flash, the dressing room changes into an office. Its large mirrors are transposed into windows, complete with daylight peaking through blinds, and the sick, limping actor suddenly becomes the slick, fast-talking white executive, Joe Glaser. During these instant flashbacks, which take place throughout the production, you can swear there’s another person is lurking in the shadows. And, as you marvel at this amazing talent, Thompson transforms himself into yet a third character near the end of his performance.
Lee Savage (stage design) and Stephen Strawbridge (lighting) are responsible for helping to create the wonderful illusions that hold your attention. Gordon Edelstein magically directs this brilliant, opening production of Long Wharf’s theatre season.