Nine Armenians was a new play by a promising playwright. So new and promising that the director, designers, and cast was brought in from New York City with the hopes that the show would turn right around and go back to New York City and take Broadway by storm. A few of the actors had appeared on Broadway before and I would hear the word “Broadway” a lot while working on this production.
Six weeks of Broadway, Broadway, BROADWAY!
The play was a heartwarming little jewel about the generation gap within an Armenian-American family. Not long after rehearsals started, I was warned by stage management that the entire cast of Nine Armenians was crazy: probably all that nervous energy.
One of the nine Armenians approached me during the first dress rehearsal and whispered in my ear.
“Do you think my character would be the kind of guy that would wear a pinky ring?” This elder actor’s claim to fame had been playing John Travolta’s brother in a blockbuster movie many years before. The man was now portly, paranoid, and a bit of loon.
“I don’t know. Maybe? Ask your costume designer,” I said.
The busy costume designer approved the pinky ring and promised to get him one as soon as she had a chance.
Days passed. No pinky ring yet.
John Travolta’s brother got annoyed and started pestering the costume designer.
“Can I go shopping and get the ring myself?” he asked.
The costume designer gave him a budget of forty dollars and John Travolta’s brother was elated to go shopping during his next dinner break. He told me he found a pinky ring and left the receipt for reimbursement on my desk. I gave the receipt to the costume shop supervisor.
“Can I see what the ring from this receipt looks like?” my boss asked.
Later that night, I asked John Travolta’s brother for the ring and explained why. I might as well have shone a bright interrogation light in his face. He was flabbergasted.
He cautiously looked over his shoulder.
He cautiously looked over my shoulder.
“That’s weird,” I thought to myself.
John Travolta’s brother stood on his chair and reached up to the ceiling. He pulled down a small velvet ring box from the top of the dusty ductwork.
“Ahhhhhhhhh, it’s a beauty,” he whispered into my ear. He slowly opened the box to share the ring with me. What I saw was a pretty bland silver-plated ring with a fake red jewel. But John Travolta’s brother felt it was The Hope Diamond.
As the dresser, I see this sort of behavior occasionally. Actors can get very attached to their costumes or props. I’ve learned it’s best to just play along or be silent about odd situations like this (this is very important).
Fine. John Travolta’s brother was reimbursed $40 and the ring was now, technically, theatre property.
The actor LOVED his ring. It changed everything about his performance. I noticed him wiggling his pinky a lot on and off stage.
So every couple of days, I would stand on a chair and check out the pinky ring’s secret hiding place. It didn’t take long for the velvet box to go missing from the top of the ductwork in the men’s dressing room.
The ring wasn’t at his dressing station.
It wasn’t in any of his costume pockets.
It wasn’t on the prop table.
I casually asked John Travolta’s brother where he was keeping it.
My interrogation blindsided him. He was stunned by my question.
“You SAW where I was keeping it last time,” he explained while shaking his head. “I HAD TO find a whole NEW hiding place!”
I felt my jaw drop. The actor was completely serious …and delusional. Who’s going to steal this $40 ring? And if does get stolen, I would just go buy him a new one. I have petty cash.
Remember: “As the dresser, it’s best to just play along or be silent about odd situations like this.”
I played along.
“Hey, you know,” I whispered in his ear. “There’s a drawer in my desk that locks with a key. We don’t want this beautiful ring to get stolen, so why don’t you bring it to me after the show and I’ll lock it up. My office is locked every night when I leave. I have the only key and your ring will be safe. I promise not to tell anyone where you and I are keeping it.”
“Oh, thank you! Thank you, thank you, thank you!” he said, almost crying. Donating a kidney would have been less intense.
So after every show, John Travolta’s brother would discreetly come to my office when no one was looking and give me the $40 ring in it’s velvet box. He would carefully watch me lock it in my desk, and give me a smile and a James Bond 007 nod. We were buddies: secret agents.
The reviews for Nine Armenians were tepid. The show had some good things going for it, but it needed some more work. The playwright, no doubt, would probably wipe the slate clean and shop it around the country for another try. There were nine very disappointed actors backstage.
John Travola’s brother took it especially hard. His Broadway dream was dashed. He came into my office one day and sheepishly asked if he could keep his pinky ring from the show. I told him I would inquire with my boss, the costume shop manager.
“We don’t have many pinky rings in stock. But I guess he can buy the ring for whatever it cost,” she said.
I relayed the message that he could buy his Nine Armenian pinky ring for forty dollars.
He didn’t take the news well. His face turned bright red and I could see the veins in his temples swell.
“How dare you!” he snapped at me.
“I went out and bought this ring myself. This theatre OWES me this ring. Without me there wouldn’t BE a pinky ring!”
I said nothing.
On closing night, the pinky ring, in it’s original velvet box, was placed on my desk while I was out of my office. John Travolta’s brother and the other eight Armenians left town quietly.
A year later, I saw in a theatre magazine that Nine Armenians did get another go in New York City (but not on Broadway) with a new director and a new cast. The NYC reviews were not much better.
Eight years later.
Different actor, different show.
I crossed paths again with John Travolta’s brother’s $40 pinky ring when I was the head of wardrobe for the world premiere of The Light in the Piazza at my theatre. It was worn by an actor who was once in a film with Reese Witherspoon.
Our musical transferred to Chicago. I packed up all the costumes (and the ring) and shipped them onward. The Light in the Piazza (and perhaps the pinky ring) then moved to Broadway where it ran 504 performances and won six Tony Awards.
Dennis Milam Bensie is a writer and, for thirty years, has made his living as a dresser in professional theatre all over the United States. Short stories and poetry by Dennis have been featured in numerous publications and his essays have been seen in The Huffington Post, Boys on the Brink, and The Good Men Project. He has three books published by Coffeetown Press. This essay is part of a series for Queen Mob's Teahouse on his experience working backstage.