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BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Legendary theater critic Jerry Tallmer was among the luminaries recently inducted into The Players Hall of Fame at a star-studded ceremony.
The Players, at 16 Gramercy Park South, was founded in 1888 by Edwin Booth, America’s pre-eminent Shakespearean actor of his day, and 15 other incorporators, including Mark Twain and General Tecumseh Sherman. The club’s stated purpose was “The promotion of social intercourse between members of the dramatic profession and kindred professions of literature, painting, architecture, sculpture and music, law and medicine, and the partons of the arts.”
This was the fifth induction into The Players Hall of Fame. Each inductee is commemorated with a fine-art portrait that is hung in the club’s permanent collection at its landmarked Booth mansion.
Tallmer was part of the founding staff of the Village Voice and served as its assistant editor and drama critic from 1955 to 1962. In 1956 he founded the Obie Awards, which recognized Off Broadway productions, later expanding to include Off Off Broadway shows.
From 1962 to 1993 Tallmer served as chief drama critic, film critic, editor, feature writer and reporter at the New York Post. After leaving the Post, Tallmer was brought aboard The Villager by former Editor Tom Butson, and at age 92 continues to write for the paper.
Other honorees at The Players’ Sept. 30 event included playwright Edward Albee, drag icon and actor Charles Busch, astronaut Scott Carpenter — celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first orbit of Earth — actor Brian Murray, cabaret star Steve Ross, actor Fritz Weaver, director Sidney Lumet, actors Ethan Hawke and Jack Klugman, actress Martha Plimpton and, posthumously, sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens, Clark Gable and Janet Leigh.
In his remarks, Tallmer recalled how his successes would always irk Sam Zolotow, the cigar-chomping New York Times drama critic, who called him in 1956, gruffly demanding to know, “What does this ‘Obie’ mean?”
When, a few years later Tallmer nabbed the coveted George Jean Nathan Award in Drama Criticism, Zolotow rang again, asking annoyedly, “How the hell did you win that?”
It took a few decades for Tallmer to compose a fitting answer, but he gave it at The Players induction. It was, he said, in his always-gracious way, because he had been fortunate during his career to write about contemporaries like Lanford Wilson, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Sidney Lumet, John Martello — the executive director of The Players — and many other extraordinary talents.
“So Sam,” Tallmer said to his former nemesis, “that’s why I won this — that’s why I’m here.”
Just as Tallmer said it was the privilege of reviewing great playwrights’ works that fueled his own achievement, his fellow inductees at The Players turned around and praised him for his on-target, thoughtful reviews.
Albee, in particular, went on at length, calling Tallmer “one of the most important theatrical people we’ve had in the 20th century in the United States. Probably nobody has had a more honorable, honest career in American theater, who tells us the truth — really what theater criticism is all about — who can say, ‘This guy is good.’
“He doesn’t pull punches,” Albee said of Tallmer. “He doesn’t play favorites. … There’s one thing I wish more people would do — tell it like it is.” But that’s not a problem for Tallmer, Albee noted, saying, “You’re Jerry — you will always be completely honest to yourself and with yourself.”
Fritz Weaver recalled how, as a young boy growing up in New York, he saw the great Walter Hampden play Cyrano at the old Nixon Theater. Hampden went on to be president of The Players for 27 years.
Standing beside his Hall of Fame portrait, Weaver, in his sonorous voice, proclaimed reverently, “At last, I am here with Walter Hampden in this great club.”
Afterward, surrounded by family members on hand for the occasion, Tallmer said, he had been deeply touched by legendary playwright Albee’s words, which meant the world to him.
“Edward suckerpunched me — I didn’t see that coming,” he said. “I started to cry. Everything else was icing on the cake.”
As he paused to shake the theater scribe’s hand on his way out, Weaver told him, “Mr. Tallmer, I am honored to be at your bar mitzvah.”
“I never had a bar mitzvah,” Tallmer replied.
“Well,” Martello said, “you did tonight.”