The night before Pearl Harbor

December 06, 1996|By Isabelle Ribakow

ON DECEMBER 6, 1941, I attended a performance of a play entitled ''The Admiral Had a Wife'' at Ford's Theatre with a date whose name I no longer recall.

The play starred Uta Hagen, who played the admiral's wife, and, if memory serves me correctly, it dealt with the goings-on of a group of naval officers and sailors who alternately bragged about their sexual prowess and griped about being stationed at a godforsaken outpost that no one had ever heard of, by the name of Pearl Harbor.

By the next day, everyone had heard of Pearl Harbor. Early in the morning, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, changing the course of history. ''The Admiral Had a Wife,'' as I subsequently learned, was to open on Broadway the day after Pearl Harbor, December 8. Instead, it closed, the first Broadway wartime casualty. It was never performed again.

Uta Hagen, the star, went on to perform in many other plays, TV dramas and motion pictures. She won two Tonys, an Emmy and innumerable other awards and prizes for acting. She also wrote four books and became a well known acting teacher. Alfred Drake, Mildred Dunnock and Red Buttons were also in the cast of ''The Admiral Had a Wife,'' and the director was Jose Ferrer, then Ms. Hagen's husband.

After all these years

Fifty-five years later, Uta Hagen, now 78 years of age and still a star, appeared at Washington's Kennedy Center in a play entitled ''Mrs. Klein.'' I decided to attend and see for myself what she looked like after all these years, and possibly get to see her backstage. Remembering her as tall, blond and very attractive, I could not help but wonder how the years had dealt with her. After all, I, too, was 55 years older. The pull of nostalgia and the coincidence of having seen her the night before Pearl Harbor in a play about Pearl Harbor was irresistible.

I wrote to Ms. Hagen, and, to my utter amazement, received a charming letter in return. She was astonished that anyone remembered that long-ago brief run in Baltimore, and agreed to meet me after the performance.

''Mrs. Klein,'' a play with a cast of three, was very talky with too little action for my taste, but what a starring vehicle for an actress! Uta Hagen, still slim and trim, her hair no longer blond but silvery gray, gave a mesmerizing performance.

Afterward, I trekked backstage to meet her. She seemed happy to meet me, and we chatted like old friends. She was charming and outgoing. Her skin was youthful, her smile bright. I could not help admiring how young and fresh she looked after such an exhausting performance.

As we parted, I said, ''Miss Hagen, it as so delightful to meet you after all these years. I hope I see you again before another 55 years go by, because, frankly, I don't think I'll make it!'' ''Neither will I,'' she laughed, and the magical moment came to an end.

As I rode back to Baltimore that night, I marveled at the full circle of coincidence and circumstance that had begun 55 years before when a young girl had attended a performance of a play about Pearl Harbor on the night before Pearl Harbor.

Isabelle Ribakow writes from Baltimore.

Pub Date: 12/06/96

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