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The Golden Silence

by Arthur Giron

I believe in signs and taking action. When I was a teenager a superb Russian actress appeared in my life, Eugenie Leontovich. It was an unmistakable sign of my destiny.  Growing up in Los Angeles, my father was a dentist at MGM before he took his own life.  I was 13 years old and did not  know what to do with my feelings.  Until I saw Madame Leontovich's production of The Cherry Orchard , which changed my life forever.


Arthur Giron as a young teenager

Eugenie Leontovich PNG.png

During WWII, Hollywood was populated by major international artists.  The Russian camp included Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Michel Chekhov, Anton's nephew, and Madame Leontovich.  The English camp included James Mason, Claude Raines, and Charles Laughton. Laughton and Leontovich put their heads together and decided to show America Anton Chekhov's masterpiece THE CHERRY ORCHARD, produced in the manner he intended. L.A. had few legitimate theaters in those days, and in a spirit of humility these powerhouse players converted a corner drugstore at Beverly and La Cienega into a creative space.  What occurred in Hollywood was magical. True, unadorned glamour was achieved.  Obviously, the motivation was not commercial.  But, as ever,  the news spread that this was a production of high quality that must be seen. I was not able to get a ticket for six months. It played into the summer months.  Since the air conditioning was faulty,  unexpectedly Charles Laughton costumed in the role of Gaev stepped into the audience, bowed, and said, "Since it is warm in here,

Madame Leontovich insists that the gentlemen take off their coats."  There was a happy chuckle and grateful applause. The performance began and so did the laughter.  Unlike most productions of Chekhov plays, the actors did not anticipate the grim ending.  Madame Leontovich, who also directed, was quite funny in the lead role until the moment she heard the first cherry tree being chopped down. I made a discovery - all the characters, some who lived on coffee plantations, were like my relatives who lived in Guatemala.  Many years later I would write my version of THE CHERRY ORCHARD, called THE COFFEE TREES. As I watched the pratfalls and the witty dazzle of the misguided characters, my grief and deep distress devolved. "I have to have this for the rest of my life." I said to myself.  I had to study with Eugenie Leontovich.  How could I do this?  What I did is the sort of thing I don't do anymore.

I went to her studio on La Cienega, went directly where she was standing, threw myself at her feet, grabbed her ankles, and said, "I have no money, but I have to have you!" She looked down at me - tall and well developed for my age and said, "I tink you got someting."  She needed me.  She was paid very well by rich ladies, some celebrated actresses.  But, she didn't have enough young men to do scene work with her women students. Madame told me that she would give me a scholarship, but she would work me to death.  What could be better? 

Eugenie Leontovich taught her students what Konstantin Stanislavski showed her about how to reveal what lay buried inside us. I had plenty buried within me in those days. The revolution Stanislavski, and such playwrights as Anton Chekhov initiated at their Moscow Art Theater spread throughout the world until this day. To return to the beginnings of a movement would mean so much to many of us. I attend the Playwrights and Directors Unit of the Actors Studio in New York, the U.S. outpost of Stanislavsk's teachings.  Many of us Studio folks followed  Director-Teacher Curt Dempster and went on to found The Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST) which commits to member actors, directors, and playwrights for life.  This is the opposite of the usual, impermanent way of life in the theater where groups, after working intensely, disband when a play ends its run.


Young Arthur Giron, playwright at the San Diego Shakespeare Festival

Arthur Giron, the San Diego Shakespeare Festival at 18 years old, playing Aumerle in Richard II


Eugenie Leontovich in Grand Hotel 

The experiments at the Moscow Art Theater produced concrete methods of work while the bloody Bolshevik Revolution raged in the streets.  Eugenie fled to the west with her beloved sister.  In Berlin, she and future husband  Gregory Ratoff founded a theater for refugees. I remember Madame telling me "The Theater has never betrayed me."  In London, the theater family embraced her. Along with Sir Cedric Hardwick, she played 2,000 performances of CANDLELIGHT. But the performance that gave her an important reputation was playing Grushenskaya the ballerina in the original production of GRAND HOTEL on Broadway .This was thethe role portrayed by Greta Garbo in MGM's film version of the Vicki Baum novel. 

Madame Leontovich embodied a strict devotion to theater as a near-sacred calling, always working tirelessly to unearth the psychological truth of a script.  It was not uncommon to rehearse a play she was directing for eight months. As with all great actors, she broke down specifically the significance of every single second of stage time.  I remember playing a headstrong young man in DAPHNE LAUREOLA.  Peter Finch played my part in the original London  production.  And Dame Edith Evans played the rich, older woman in my bed. The word went out that Madame was presenting the West Coast premiere. We could hear a sizeable crowd in the lobby eager to get inside.  We pleaded with Madame to stop tinkering and let in the audience of first-night noteables.  In a loud voice that could be heard through walls, she said, "Nobody rushes Genie!" The respectful audience outside grew silent, happy to be here, feeling privileged to be a part of creation.

On weekdays in Hollywood, before class started, she enjoyed setting a trap for the few, select members of her class.   For instance, she would ask us, "Where is de teater?" And one by one we would say.. "New York." "London." "Paris." She would become enraged and scream "No!!" "De teater is here, now, tis minute!"  She wanted us to give our all - not at some future, but now. What an important lesson.

At two o'clock one morning I was on her small studio stage working on  BLOOD WEDDING  when I yawned. Like a predatory bird, Madame flew at me nose to


nose and hissed, "DON'T YOU EVER DO DAT AGAIN!" We learned what we didn't do could be a more powerful use of stage time. She called it "the golden silence." We watched her use this technique in her own work.  When she starred on Broadway with Viveca Lindfors in ANASTASIA, playing the Dowager Empress, their encounter in the second act - known as "The Recognition Scene" - became celebrated for the acting fireworks between the two actresses.  The stakes were very high; the Dowager Empress had the unique power to authenticate if  the woman claiming to be the real Anastasia was legitimate. A footman announced the arrival  of the Dowager Empress.  The tall doors opened center stage.  There was no one there. Silence. On stage, Viveca Lindfors waited.  We could almost hear her beating heart. Madame delayed her entrance for a slow count of thirty seconds. Silence.  Finally, Madame appeared, at her most imperious.  Thunderous applause. Using a walking stick, she studied the large room.  With inner authority, she walked, conquering the space.  Not a word was said.  Not a sound. Until a painful cry arouse from Viveca's soul and she threw her arms around her grandmother.  Two great actresses playing the moment to its fullest. Madame fought to not respond. For a count of thirty.ore.


Eugenie Leontovich with Viveca Lindfors in ANASTASIA

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