Volume 75, Number 13 | August 17 - 23, 2005

Theater

LILIA!
Yankee Ferry
Pier 25, Hudson River, foot of North Moore St.
Tues., Aug. 23 at 8 p.m., doors open 7 p.m.,
piano music at 7:30 p.m.
$20. 212-253-4236, or www.LiliaThePlay.com.

Doug Miner

Libby Skala performing Lilia!

Theatrical tribute to a special grandmother

Libby Skala ‘writes a part’ for grandmother Lilia Skala


By Jerry Tallmer

Thumb sucking, says the exacting, Austrian-backboned Lilia Skala to her 4-year-old granddaughter in New Jersey, “is a very bad habit. It makes the teeth grow crooked… Remember, I gave up smoking cigarettes. You can stop sucking your thumb.”

“Grandmother,” says 6-year-old Libby Skala, who now no longer sucks her thumb, “this is for you.” It’s a lion the little girl has made in clay class. “I tried to make his head go straight, but it kept falling over.”

“No, that’s what gives him movement and life, you see?” says the grandmother. “The talents God gives us, we must improve. That statement is of tremendous help to me when I struggle as an actress …I love my lion. Let’s put him on this table where everyone can admire him.”

“Libby darling,” says Lilia Skala to the granddaughter who is now 13, “your nose is much too large for your face. … Fortunately, the proportions in a woman’s face change as she grows older…. I myself look very different now than I did at 18 or 25 or even 35. It’s natural … But right now, Darling, your nose is disproportionately large.”

It isn’t. It’s a quite nice nose in perfectly good proportion on the charming features of Elizabeth Anne (Libby) Skalia who is no longer a 13-year-old and whose grandmother took her final curtain at age 98 one week before Christmas 1994.

That extraordinary personage lives on in “Lilia!,” a two-women-performed-by-one-woman show that Libby Skala has been doing to sustained applause in this and other cities for a half-dozen years now, and will do again for just one performance aboard the Yankee Ferry at Pier 25 in Tribeca on Tuesday night, August 23. The historic Yankee Ferry that once, years before Libby’s grandmother’s time, conveyed voyagers to the new world from Ellis Island to Manhattan.

You may remember Libby’s grandmother. Lilia Skala, with her full-bodied Viennese accent, stood out in supporting roles in movies like “Ship of Fools,” “Charly,” “Eleanor and Franklin,” “Roseland,” “Flashdance,” “House of Games,” was an Oscar nominee for her performance as the Mother Superior opposite Oscar-winner Sidney Poitier in the 1963 “Lilies of the Field,” appeared on countless television shows and serials from 1952 to 1985, and as Grand Duchess Sophie kept company on Broadway with Ethel Merman in “Call Me Madam” not too many years after toiling in a Queens zipper factory as a non-English-speaking refugee from Austria, the mother of two small boys, one of whom is Libby Skala’s father.

“My earliest memory of my grandmother,” Libby Skala says over a salad one recent blazing afternoon, “was when I was 2 or 3 and she was crawling around on the floor with a bottle, play-acting, she the baby and I the mother. Because she was always The Actress.

“Then when I would come home from nursery school – this was in Englewood, New Jersey, where we’d moved from Queens – I would watch her in ‘Search for Tomorrow’ on television. She played the grandmother to a young boy named Eric.”

As it happens, Eric was the first name, also, of Lilia Skala’s husband, Libby’s grandfather. Eric Pollack, who was Jewish. “But when Hitler came in, my grandmother’s aunt adopted him so as to give him the Christian name of Skala. It’s a Czech name, which, from what I understand, means ‘a rocky cliff.’”

Lilia Skala, born in Vienna in 1896, had come out of the University of Dresden as Austria’s first-ever female architect, had become bored designing orphanages and other institutional structures – “Not very romantic” – and therefore turned to where she really wanted to be, rising to pre-Hitler stardom in the theater company of the famed Max Reinhardt.

On Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, “the night on which all the Jewish men are rounded up in the streets of Vienna and thrown into jail just because they are Jewish,” Lilia Skala’s husband Eric is one of those men. “And I go to that prison,” she says – or Libby says, in the show, in her grandmother’s inflections – “and I bribe the prison guard with a gold cigarette box to let Eric go, and he does.”

In 1939, at the last possible moment, Eric Skala gets out of Vienna, out of Europe, and eventually to the United States, leaving wife and two young sons behind. Six months later, Lilia and the two boys get out and rejoin her husband, their father, in Queens, New York, USA.

In 1952 Eric Skala – “a sweet man who wouldn’t read Grimms’ fairy tales to me because they were too bloody” – will go off with another woman and move to Florida.

The Lilia of 1939 speaks no English. “I was not educated to be a refugee.” She goes to work, at 45, for the Waldes Zipper factory of Queens, first attempting to sell their zippers in Manhattan’s garment district, but the language barrier knocks that out. She’s put behind a machine in the factory itself, going through endless repetitive motions a la Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times.”

She works as a bus boy, a waitress, a seller of mutual funds, and lo and behold, before two years are out, through one miracle or another, she is, language and all, making her debut in the American theater, on Broadway, in a play called “Letters to Lucerne.”

A pretty formidable lady, your grandmother.

“She was, she was,” says granddaughter Libby. “I remember her coming to our home with makeup and wigs and costume jewelry she didn’t want any more. My sister Emily and I would dress up in it.

“When she was nominated for an Academy Award for ‘Lilies of the Field,’ she was actually at that moment working behind the Lost & Found counter at the New York City Center. She didn’t know what the Academy was. Wasn’t in the loop. Didn’t know the meaning of it. For the ‘Lilies’ job she got SAG (Screen Actors Guild) minimum – a two-week shoot at $500 a week.”

Libby’s family eventually moved from New Jersey to Connecticut.

“I was very shy. I didn’t have any friends, except one friend who was also shy, and who for that reason was going on Saturday mornings into the city to the Neighborhood Playhouse. My grandmother called the Neighborhood Playhouse and got me in.

“I was there for a year in Fran Anthony’s classes. When I told my grandmother I wanted to go back for a second year, she said” — here Libby reverts to Lilia Skala’s inimitable Viennese English – “ ‘Iss zere really anyzing to be learned zzat you haffent learned already? Acting can’t be taught! You eizzer haff it or you don’t haff it.’

“So I didn’t go back. She said: ‘I will work with you.’ She spoke to her agent at William Morris, but they weren’t interested in newcomers. I would have done Cheerio commercials, I would have done anything, but another agent felt that Cheerios commercials were below me. I had the chance to do puppets, but my grandmother was against that.”

In the end, Libby went off to college at Oberlin, in Ohio, earning a BA in English with an emphasis on theater.

“On my return to New York, my grandmother was already in her 90s, and not getting parts. How many roles are there for 90-year-old Austrian actresses? So she was pouring all her energy into me, even down to details like what headshots I should have.

“It didn’t sit well. It was overbearing. I started to wonder: Am I doing all this for myself, or am I doing it for her? I couldn’t tell. So” — says Libby Skala with a disarming smile — “I moved as far away as I could. To Seattle, Washington.

“I went there thinking I’m ready to let go of acting – but in the first week I met people from college, playwrights, directors, actors, and immediately fell back into it.

Lilia Skala’s granddaughter Libby was in Seattle when Lilia Skala died, December 18, 1994. “During the night, in her sleep [at Bayshore, Long Island], after a party in which she was belle of the ball. The last thing she ever said to me was: ‘Write a part for me.’ ”

This is that part. It sprouted in a workshop conducted in Seattle by itinerant acting teacher Gary Austin, who somewhere along the way had said to Libby: “Although you’re presenting your grandmother to the world, I think she’s really presenting you to the world.”

The Yankee Ferry is nowadays owned and operated by furniture designers Richard and Victoria MacKenzie-Childs.

“Victoria came and saw me doing this show at the Arclight Theatre on West 71st Street last May, and invited me to do it on their boat. I think it’s thrilling to do my grandmother’s story aboard a boat that once ferried immigrants from Ellis Island to New York City.”

Libby, are you doing it for you – or for her?

Silence. Reflection. “For both.” Pause. “I think.”

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