Allan Ripp: A bellhop never forgets
NEW YORK — Some years ago a friend and I were having dinner at a past-its-prime bistro in New York's theater district, when we fell into conversation with a petite red-headed woman at the next table scribbling on a script.
She told us that one of her plays was opening that evening at an off-Broadway venue and she was preparing notes for the actors. Trim and perky, with pageboy bangs, she looked like a sitcom actress. As she talked, I realized I knew this woman and may have been keeping a long-held secret of hers.
"Were you ever in Stockbridge, Massachusetts?" I asked. "Did you stay at the Red Lion Inn?"
The woman recoiled, as if she had just taken a whiff of ammonia.
But I had more questions: "Did you stay up on the fourth floor, away from the other guests? Were you working on something called 'Box Office?'"
By now, the woman was swooning. She looked at me in horror, as if I were the district attorney and her jig was up. In fact, my hunch was far less sinister, though she had reason to feel spooked.
My mind was racing back to 1974 and the best summer job ever, as a bellhop at the Red Lion Inn, the quintessential country lodging in the heart of the Berkshires. Back then, it was owned by Jack and Jane Pratt Fitzpatrick, whose daughter, Nancy, still runs the place.
With my oversized red vest, clip-on bow tie and college gusto, I attended to a parade of celebrated guests, most of them on hand for concerts and other events at nearby Tanglewood. That included everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Aaron Copland, Ted Kennedy, Seiji Ozawa, Rudolph Serkin, Victor Borge and Carly Simon, who picked me up hitchhiking one day after I got tired jogging back from Lenox.
I got Norman Rockwell's autograph and Shelly Winters caught me inspecting the labels on dozens of prescription bottles on her dresser in one of the inn's ground-floor cottages. I had a blissful meal at the original Alice's Restaurant and got to know Stockbridge's own William Obanheim, the infamous Officer Obie who arrested folkie Arlo Guthrie for dumping a bag of garbage by the side of the road. I even had a head-spinning one-night affair with a Persian singer named Azada who had ordered room service — the Fitzpatricks would have fired me on the spot if they'd found out.
Off hours, I rode my bike to Tanglewood, gorged on lemon pie from the inn's pantry and snuck my girlfriend past the hulking night watchman who prowled the fourth floor. It was there that a small group of hotel staff resided — and where I encountered the playwright.
The few guest rooms tucked away on the fourth floor were subpar — low ceilings with no air conditioning, and without the County Curtain decor that brightened rooms on lower floors (the Fitzpatricks owned the curtain company). But the fourth-floor digs were cheaper and appealed to long-term guests, like the single woman at the end of the hall clacking away on a manual typewriter. She stayed for two weeks, leaving her room only for short spurts in the afternoon, during which I was tasked with clearing her breakfast trays and tidying up.
It was obvious she was struggling through a piece of writing. Discarded pages were everywhere and the wastebasket was filled with crumpled sheets. It wasn't long before I began unfolding them, forming a picture of the play she was crafting.
Titled "Box Office," it was about a lovelorn gay man named Jerry, who worked the ticket booth at a Greenwich Village theater, where a hit musical called "Jellybeans" had run for years. When he wasn't bitchily dispensing information about the show to incessant callers, he was on the phone dishing with an off-stage friend named Cathy. In one catty exchange, Jerry tells Cathy how he screamed at a woman who called him a fag and peed in the potted plant of a boyfriend over some jealous slight. To a '70s-era college sophomore who wrote mild satire for my school paper, this was eye-popping stuff. Even more so were sheets of tossed paper filled with the F-word typed over and over in all caps. From what I could gather, the entire play unfolded without Jerry ever leaving his box office perch.
Perversely, I held on to the racier pages and shared them with my bellhop pals, who weren't above muttering some of Jerry's lines when the writer walked through the lobby. They particularly loved cooing his signature phone greeting at the box office: "Hello, Jellybeans, can I help you?" She seemed not to notice,cor since the Red Lion's front parlor was a lively scene, especially at dinner when the house pianist played Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" over and over.
I became increasingly intrigued by the woman and wondered what she was doing holed up in our hotel during a creative crisis. Why was she alone, knocking herself out writing about such a peevish guy as Jerry stuck in a ticket booth? I was tempted to knock on her door one evening when the night watchman wasn't around and hope for an adventure, like with the singer. But before I could summon the courage, she had checked out, becoming just another character from that memorable summer.
And now, here I was, many years later, confronting her with her own secret turmoil. Unnerved, but finally convinced I wasn't a psychic or a ghost, her color returned and she filled in the pieces.
She explained she'd been a former actress and film producer, but felt destined to write plays. "Box Office" was her first major piece and those two weeks in Stockbridge in 1974 were both a crucible and a breakthrough, though it would be nearly a decade before she saw her work produced. She described the Red Lion Inn as a crossroad in her life and told us that no one knew she had gone there. She hinted that she'd left her husband in the process. Rattled to learn that someone had been forensically snooping through her hotel trash, she nonetheless gave my friend and I a cordial parting as she rushed off to catch her opening night production.
I looked her up recently and saw that the woman — whose name was Elinor Jones — had acted on Broadway and became an associate film producer on such classics as "Lord of the Flies" and "Bonnie & Clyde"; in one published account, she was developing the latter project with Warren Beatty and Francois Truffaut before director Arthur Penn took over.
And she had been married — to Tom Jones, the lyricist behind the forever-running musical "The Fantasticks," likely the model for her fictional "Jellybeans."
Elinor Jones, who died in 2007 at age 77, went on to write numerous plays — her works were notably produced by the Actors Studio and Circle Rep, where "Box Office" premiered in 1980, three years after I coincidentally worked there as an usher after college. I keep meaning to order a copy of the play on eBay to see if Jerry ever came out to his parents or reconciled with his off-stage boyfriend.
The thing is, I always knew she was wrestling with something big during her short time at the Red Lion Inn — not just because of her profanity-laced reject pages. Rather, because after a two-week stay Ms. Jones didn't leave a tip. A bellhop never forgets.
Allan Ripp runs a press relations firm in New York and still visits the Berkshires regularly from a weekend home in Millerton, N.Y. He apologizes posthumously to the Fitzpatricks for sneaking so many hors d'oeuvres while standing around the Red Lion Inn lobby waiting for guests to arrive.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.