Master of Ceremonies by Joel Grey: Life’s Not Just a Cabaret

Joel Grey, he tells us in “Master of Ceremonies,” is “one of only eight people to win both the Tony and the Academy Award for the same role” – in his case the Emcee in “Cabaret.” It’s the role that made him famous, and it is also the only role for which many people know him.

But Grey has more than one story to tell. He is a performer who got his first professional gig, in a straight play at the Cleveland Play House, at age 9, and is still at it as he approaches his 84th birthday, a 75-year career that has included work as a nightclub comic, TV guest star, Broadway song-and-dance man, Hollywood supporting player, and a serious actor. He is also a man who was married for more than two decades, and a father of two (including actress Jennifer Grey), who came out in People Magazine as a gay man just last year. His career and his struggles with his sexuality are the two major threads of his memoir.

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Born as Joel David Katz in Cleveland, Ohio in 1932, Grey is most vivid in “Master of Ceremonies” describing his extended family, including his beloved immigrant grandfather, a fruit peddler, his intimidating gaggle of aunts, and his elegant, self-centered mother who favored Joel over his younger brother because she sensed he would be a star. Joel’s most affectionate portrait is of his father, Mickey Katz.

An interesting line can be drawn directly from Mickey Katz’s career to his son’s biggest success. Katz was a big band musician much valued for his affable nature and sense of humor. For fun, he began writing Yiddish spoofs of popular songs of the day. This improbably resulted in a hit record and catapulted him to national stardom, including a touring revue he called the Borscht Capades. Mickey’s son Joel  had already been acting professionally for some eight years when at age 17 he joined the Borscht Capades — without ever having sung, danced nor even spoken a word of Yiddish (“Aunt Jeannie translated the lyrics….”) Joel asked Mickey not to introduce him as his son, so Mickey called him Joel Kaye. Joel’s performance led to a spot on Eddie Cantor’s TV show, which led to representation by the William Morris Agency, which built a nightclub act for him. They renamed him Joel Grey, since “Joel Kaye” was too close to “Danny Kaye,” a star performer who shared his energy and over-the-top shenanigans.

At 18, Joel Grey became a successful nightclub entertainer — which he quickly grew to loathe, since his aim from childhood was to be a serious theater actor.  But it was his memory of a fellow nightclub comic, older and more successful — which is to say, crude, bigoted, and “totally corrupt, desperate for adoration, willing to do anything” — that informed Joel Grey’s performance as the Emcee in “Cabaret” on Broadway in 1966, in the 1972 movie, and then in a 1987 revival.

By the time he gained international fame as the pan-sexually decadent, lewd character of the Emcee, Grey had (more or less) put his own outlaw sexuality behind him. He had had sexual experiences with boys from a young age, he tells us, climaxing with a sexual affair at age 16 with the 25-year-old cantor at their family’s synagogue — who insisted Grey engage in a threesome with the cantor’s new bride. (This was in 1948!) When the bride annulled the marriage and threatened to name Grey in court as co-respondent, he felt forced to tell his parents. His father was understanding. His mother said “You disgust me.”

Grey spends much time in the book on his 24-year marriage to Jo Wilder, an actress with whom he says he truly fell in love, and who fulfilled his dream of a happy family. Grey manipulated Jo into giving up her own career, something he says he regrets, and he also seemed to treat her like a dress-up doll, something he might not even realize. (He recounts a series of high-fashion designers whom he hired to dress her on special occasions, over her objections.)  He didn’t tell her about his past experiences with men until more than two decades into his marriage; she divorced him not long afterwards.

Joel Grey is a delightful performer. He is an impressive survivor. By the evidence of this book, he is also a charming, candid, flawed but decent human being. But when a stranger interrupted my reading of “Master of Ceremonies” on the subway to ask me how it was, I reluctantly had to admit to her, and to myself,  that I found it disappointing as a theatrical memoir.

My standards are surely too high. I can blame this on “Act One,” playwright and producer Moss Hart’s memoir, which (much like Grey’s) describes a conventional lower middle class Jewish upbringing, a childhood sparked by a love of theater that turns into an adult conflagration, and then a first big against-the-odds theatrical success. But every page of Hart’s 1959 book is fascinating or funny or suspenseful, or all three. “Act One” holds up even though we have now been told that some of it was surely altered from what really happened in order to make a better story. It is a storyteller’s memoir.

It is hard to see the sense behind some of Joel Grey’s choices in “Master of Ceremonies.” There is as much space devoted to name-dropping of celebrities and his bit parts in little-remembered films as to his starring roles on Broadway. (“Wicked” gets a sentence. He goes into some engaging detail about his performance as the replacement lead in “The Normal Heart” Off-Broadway — what it meant to him as a closeted gay man to play an out gay man —  but says nothing about his direction of it on Broadway.) There is no mention at all of his respected second career as a photographer.  The pages on “Cabaret” on stage (maybe 12 in all, out of a 240-page book) are among the only ones in which he talks about his craft (as opposed to his career) as a theater artist — and they’re engrossing.

A possible clue to why I found “Master of Ceremonies” wanting may occur near the end of the book, when he tells us his mother Grace died at age 92, and left a diary that he had known nothing about.
“I opened it to the first page. I could quickly see her full venom…” He closes it quickly and asks his therapist to read it for him. “A week later, she advised me to throw it away, which I did without reading another word.”
Would a compulsive storyteller like Moss Hart have thrown out his mother’s diary without reading it?

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Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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