A brush with a celebrity

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 19, 2003

CHESAPEAKE - Books about celebrities make for popular reading these days. The lifestyles of the rich and famous are the subject of countless tell-alls.

One local author has his own stories to tell about his brush with Hollywood royalty. "Good Afternoon, Miss Dietrich" is Chesapeake native Michael Brown's humorous account of working with Hollywood film legend Marlene Dietrich.

Brown was the guest yesterday at the monthly book club of the Chesapeake branch of the Briggs Lawrence Public Library.

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Brown's introduction to Dietrich came in 1975 while he was working as a theater assistant with the Kenley Players in Columbus. The summer stock theater brought in the likes of Mickey Rooney, Florence Henderson and Shirley Jones for plays and concerts. At the time, Brown was young and still learning the ropes of back-stage employment. His encounter with Dietrich was one of many lessons about ups and the downs that make up the reality of fame and fortune.

Dietrich was 74 when she visited Columbus.

In spite of her age, Brown said Kenley Players manager Joe Vispi booked her because he wanted a larger-than-life celebrity to perform on his stage. Brown's book tells the story of a difficult Dietrich, who, in spite of her advancing years, still commanded awe and attention, partly through her attempts to look youthful and vital on stage and partly through her temper tantrums that took their toll on everyone around her- except Brown, whom she singled out for something closer to friendship than her normal vitriol.

"I expected this glitz and glamour, and when she showed up at the theater the first time, there was this little old lady in a brown suit and a little cap," Brown said. "Her first words to me were 'I'm going to sue the city of Columbus.'"

It seems Dietrich was incensed that Columbus city workers were undertaking road repairs while she was in town. During her three-day stay, Dietrich complained about everything from the food to the cleanliness of the stage to the flowers Vispi left in her dressing room each day. The stagehands, the lighting crew and even Vispi were not spared her continuous wrath. Her demands on the staff were often bizarre by anyone's standards.

"If she liked you, she was loyal," Brown noted. "If she didn't, you were in big trouble. I think in the era of time her career spanned, she felt like she could do whatever she wanted to do. Her reputation as a difficult star was widely-known. She was certainly the most difficult person I ever worked with. But I think when she saw me, she knew she needed one person on her side to do what she did."

Some of the tidbits Brown dishes: the elderly Dietrich wore a peach colored sequined gown on stage that was padded in places with foam latex, to give the illusion of youth, and when the stage lights hit the fabric the right way, she almost appeared naked; in the days before cosmetic surgery, the film star used tape to hold the wrinkles back on her face; she often popped pills and swigged booze before being physically propelled on stage by her personal assistant.

Brown said he was motivated to wrote his book by the friends and acquaintances

who heard his tales of the theater.

"People who heard the story would say it was funny and that, maybe, I should write a book," Brown said. "I had a good time writing it."

"Good Afternoon, Miss Dietrich" may well be the first of Brown's literary accounts of his days with The Kenley Players.

During his three year stint, Brown met and worked with other Hollywood stars who brought their own piques and fancies.

"Most were really nice to deal with. Of course, they had their images. But it was just so much fun."