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"The Kid's Got a Glow"
When 13-year-old Sal Mineo hurried along the block of West 44th Street toward the St. James Theater for an audition, he'd already been in two Broadway shows. In a bit part in The Rose Tattoo by Tennessee Williams, he was a scrawny Italian kid with one line: "The goat is in the yard." He'd played a shoeshine boy in Dinosaur Wharf, but it closed after only four performances. There was also a small role in The Little Screwball, in a summer stock production at Connecticut's Westbury Country Playhouse starring comedy veteran Walter Abel. None of these had called on the actor listed in the programs as Salvatore Mineo, Jr., to sing. Yet after a performance of Screwball, a talent scout had asked him to come to New York to try out as an understudy for the role of Chulalongkorn, the Crown Prince of Siam, in the smash hit heralded on the St. James marquee:
RODGERS and HAMMERSTEIN
In a New Musical Play
THE KING AND I
The show had been running for more than a year. Commissioned by Miss Lawrence as a vehicle for herself and based on Margaret Landon's novel Anna and the King of Siam, it was the story of Anna Leonowens, an English widow with a young son who, in the 1860s, had been hired to teach English to the children of the King of Siam. The part of the scary, overbearing, bald-headed, muscular monarch who was tamed by a headstrong teacher had made Yul Brynner a star.
Directed byJohn van Druten and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, the lavish production offered a beautifully soaring score with several songs that were on their way to becoming pop standards, including "Getting to Know You," "We Kiss in a Shadow," "I Have Dreamed," and the romantic "Hello, Young Lovers." The role of the prince who becomes king at the end of the show called for the prince to reprise a number about life's contradictions titled "A Puzzlement." But the sheet music clasped in Sal's hand as other boys took to the stage ahead of him was for none of these. While the other auditioners all performed numbers from the show, he'd chosen to do a novelty tune, Down Yonder, a hillbilly song elevated by a Doris Day recording to the heady heights of the "Your Hit Parade" radio program.
Spotlighted as he sang the lively ditty, Sal heard whispers and giggles coming out of the black depths of the theater.
"Everybody was in hysterics, and I knew that was it," Sal would say of the restlessness he detected in the people out there in the dark. "I had goofed."
What he couldn't observe or hear from the stage as sweat beaded on his brow was casting director John Fearnley turning to his assistant, Barbara Wolferman, and whispering, "He's the one. The kid's got a glow."
No one had to convince Josephine Mineo that her child was special.
Her third son, the black-haired, brown-eyed boy with a captivating smile had been born on January 10, 1939, seven years, 11 months and two days after Josephine Alvisi had married Salvatore Mineo. A skilled woodworker and sculptor who'd emigrated from Sicily, Salvatore, Sr., earned a living in the Great Depression by starting a coffin-making company. The family lived in a small walk-up apartment in New York City's East Harlem, a polyglot neighborhood of Italians and Puerto Ricans. Little Salvatore was nicknamed Junior. His brother Victor had been born in 1936 and Michael had come into the world in 1937.
On the day Sal was born, glimpses into the future of that world were taking shape a couple of miles beyond the East River on a huge tract of reclaimed marshy land that had been the city's main garbage dump. In his 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald saw it as "a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens bounded on one side by a small foul river." In 1939 the nations of the world had erected grand exhibition halls to show "the world of tomorrow." Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was to fling open the gates of the New York World's Fair in a ceremony on April 30.
Had the Mineos wanted to take in the exposition, admission would cost 75 cents each for Salvatore and Josephine and a quarter for three-year-old Victor. Michael and Junior would get in free. But for a coffin-maker with a wife and three kids to support, a buck and a half plus subway fares to Flushing Meadow in Queens was a princely sum. Neither was there spare money to go downtown to take in a movie with a stage show at Radio City Music Hall or the Roxy, Capitol, or Paramount theaters. And even as attractive as were the prices of men's shoes advertised in the papers as on sale at Macy's for $3.89 to $6.94 and a bargain for ladies' corsets at Bergdorf-Goodman ($5 to $32), the Mineos would have to make do with what they had and try to put away enough money little by little to buy a house for a growing family.
Need for additional living space became even more imperative in 1943 with the birth of a girl, Sarina. But it would be another five years before the Mineos were able to afford to buy an old house in a Bronx neighborhood that still boasted trees and open spaces. Located on East 217th Street within walking distance (through Woodlawn Cemetery) to Van Courtlandt Park, the three-story house was readily convertible into a two-family home. The Mineos rented out the basement to help defray the mortgage.
Sal's upstairs room had been a kitchen. It still had a sink and a stove.
Any new boy in a neighborhood is likely to have trouble being accepted by kids who have lived in the area all their lives, but in Sal's move to the Bronx he found himself shunned because word was out that his father made coffins.
"They wouldn't have anything to do with me," Sal would recall. "So late one afternoon I thought I'd get on their good side and have some fun. I told them to come over to the back door of my father's shop and look in the big coffin just inside the door. I promised them it would be full of bags of candy. I got home from school just before they arrived, climbed into the coffin, and shut the lid. When the kids showed up and opened it, I jumped up and yelled, `Boo.' Their eyes almost fell out of their heads. Were they scared! They ran like hell, screaming for their mothers."
Learning of this escapade, Salvatore Mineo ordered Sal to give candy to each of the boys he'd terrified, to be paid for out of his allowance.
"The kids took the candy," Sal noted, "but they didn't take me. I still didn't belong."
Acceptance came three months later when Sal saw the gang of kids ducking behind a fence. They had a stolen a pack of cigarettes and a couple of cigars. As they started to puff away, one of them told Sal that if he wanted to join the gang he'd have to smoke an entire cigar. Not wanting to be shunned again, Sal lit up the stogie. As the others coughed and choked on their cigarettes, he willed himself to smoke the cigar down to a stub. Impressed, the gang elected him vice president.
When Sal was nine and attending the neighborhood parochial school, St. Mary's, the nuns of the Dominican order astonished him by telling him he was to be in a play about Jesus. He was to portray the Savior.
"I was struck dumb," Sal would recall for an interviewer eight years later. "I had been to movies and I knew there was such a thing as acting. But to have these nuns, who had dedicated their lives to God, ask me to portray Jesus—well, that was something beyond my understanding. I was afraid that it would be wrong. The sisters kept telling me it was all right, I had nothing to be afraid of. That afternoon I took the script home. It was handwritten. I studied it as though my life depended on it."
He returned to school confident that he could play the role.
When he found a drawing of Christ in a religious book and noted that He was carrying a staff, he informed the nuns that he should have one in the play. The sisters replied that it wasn't necessary. When he persisted in his desire for a staff, someone proposed that he carry a sawed-off broomstick.
"What an idea! I wouldn't hear of it," Sal recalled. But by the afternoon of the play, he still had no staff. After putting on his costume in a classroom, he walked disconsolately toward the room where the play was to be presented. Waiting for the drama to begin, he found a solution to the problem of Jesus's staff. On a wall beneath a sign declaring FOR EMERGENCY ONLY hung a large fire hook. He grabbed the hook off the wall, tied a blue ribbon from his costume to its top, heard his cue, and happily made his entrance.
Years later, he said that it had been a sacred moment of revelation that he had been born to be an actor, and more than that, a star.
Although the nuns had spotted young Salvatore Mineo as a personification of the Lord Jesus, the nine-year-old soon disappointed them by getting involved in a schoolyard brawl that left him with a bloody and broken nose. Other misdeeds soon confirmed the nuns' fears that Salvatore was "a natural troublemaker." He was booted out of school.
At age ten he was the leader of a group of gamin would-be gangsters. After one daring caper, they stashed the loot in one of Salvatore Mineo, Sr.'s caskets. Their cache was discovered almost immediately.
With Josephine at her wits' end and fearing that her youngest son could be destined for a reformatory, fate took a hand in the form of the owner of a school of dancing who earned his money by persuading mothers like Josephine that their kids had real talent, which, with a little training, could land them lucrative work in the theater and in the new and rapidly growing field of television. After spotting Sal playing sandlot baseball, he tracked down Josephine, told her, "The kid's graceful," and urged her to sign him up for classes.
Sal was thrilled with the prospect of being on television. Josephine was skeptical.
The man persisted. Her youngest son was not only good-looking, he argued, he positively radiated charm.
Josephine looked at the man warily. His true goal, she suspected, was to collect tuition. Dubious about his promise of Sal making a lot of money on TV, she hoped dancing classes would get Sal off the streets for a few hours a week. She asked the man to leave his card.
When the pitchman was gone, Sal pleaded to be signed up.
In this he was supported by his brothers, Vic and Mike, and sister, Sarina, each of whom hoped to benefit from Josephine's rule regarding her children: what one got, they all got. Vic and Mike wanted clarinet lessons. Sarina wanted to learn to dance, too.
Josephine agreed to enroll Sal in the school along with Sarina because Sarina would let her know if Sal actually went to classes. She needn't have worried. With the possibility of being on TV as motivation, Sal took to dancing enthusiastically and discovered he not only enjoyed it, he was good.
When it became obvious to Josephine, and even to Sal, that the dancing-school proprietor had no connections to anyone in theater and television, but convinced that the boy had promise, Josephine placed him in a different school, one with a record of placing worthy students on TV programs. To Sal's delight, he found himself performing occasionally on local TV on The Ted Steele Show.
Being a dancer on television came at a price, however. He found himself ostracized from the gang. When the president called him a sissy, a fistfight ensued. This resulted in both being summoned to the office of the principal of Sal's new public school, P.S. 72. He asked Sal why he'd been in a fight. Sal explained. The principal demanded proof that Sal was a dancer. Sal tapped a few bars. The principal declared, "Son, you're a pretty good hoofer."
One day in the fall of 1950, as 11-year-old Sal and seven-year-old Sarina were clogging and tapping away in class, a smartly dressed woman appeared in the dance studio. Sal assumed she was a suspicious mother checking to see if her kid was there.
After a few minutes, she walked over to him and in a demanding tone said, "Boy, let me hear you say, `The goat is in the yard.'"
Sal said the words.
The woman commanded, "Say the line again."
When Sal complied, she introduced herself. She was Cheryl Crawford, a Broadway producer with offices on West 45th Street. She was producing a new play by Tennessee Williams, The Rose Tattoo. Starring Eli Wallach and Maureen Stapleton and directed by Daniel Mann, it was scheduled to open at the Martin Beck Theater in February, after a tryout run in Chicago. If Sal was interested and his parents approved, she said, she would offer him a contract to say the line in the play six nights a week and on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons for $65 a week. Sal gasped in amazement. He signed two days later and was given a date and time to meet the play's company at Grand Central Terminal to catch a train for Chicago.
Having never been away from home, he cried so much as the train departed that the play's author, Tennessee Williams, astonished everyone in the car by plunking Sal onto his lap until the sobbing stopped.
When Madame Pompadour opened the new Martin Beck Theater at 302 West 45th Street on November 11, 1924, cynics said the play would soon have to close because theatergoers would not cross Eighth Avenue. In the span of the next 27 years, they eagerly did so to take in Ruth Gordon in Hotel Universe, Lunt and Fontanne in Reunion in Vienna, Katherine Cornell in The Barrets of Wimpole Street, Orson Welles and Basil Rathbone with Edith Evans in Romeo and Juliet, and Paul Lukas in Watch on the Rhine. On February 3, 1951 they gladly crossed Eighth for The Rose Tattoo. Seconds after the curtain went up, a slight, black-haired kid who'd just turned 12 walked on stage to declare in a New York accent so thick you could cut it with a knife, "The goat is in the yard."
Catching the Broadway debut of a Salvatore Mineo, cited in the Playbill's biographical sketches as "Master Mineo," was not, of course, the audience's purpose. They were drawn by the reputation of playwright Williams and the talents of the stars, Maureen Stapleton and Eli Wallach. She had come to Broadway from Troy, New York, in 1943 with no training, no cash and no stage experience; only an ambition to be an actress. Talent put her on stage and kept her there. Eli had been at war for four years as a soldier, only to be discharged and land a part as a sailor in the hit Mr. Roberts. He'd been in an off-Broadway production of Tennessee Williams's This Property is Condemned. His amazing career would continue in theater and on screen into the 21st century.
Also in the cast of The Rose Tattoo was a young actor making his second Broadway appearance, Don Murray. Martin Balsam, as "Man," was so new to the stage that he did not merit a biographical note in the program. Both would forge lasting success on stage and in films.
In order to join this cast and speak his line on the Martin Beck stage a few seconds after 8:30 six nights a week, Master Mineo had to leave the house on East 217th Street no later than 6:30. This allowed for delays in the running times of the two subway lines that carried him from the Bronx to Times Square station three blocks from the theater. Because he had to be on hand for curtain calls, he rarely returned home before one in the morning. On matinee days he left home at noon. The hours between afternoon and evening performances on Wednesdays and Saturdays were whiled away in Times Square's game arcades and pool halls. "All of a sudden I was on Broadway," Sal recalled. "A million miles of colored neon, earsplitting whistles, and those head-piercing police sirens. I thought the world had gone mad."
In a Saturday Evening Post profile of Sal Mineo the movie star, titled "The Boy Called Sal," published on October 31, 1959, Sal told writer Dean Jennings of being alone and waylaid in the subway by midtown hoodlums who saw him as an intruder on their turf.
"I felt like a hunted animal," he said of switching trains half a dozen times and scuttling through the labyrinth of subway stairs and levels, up to the street and down again, to shake off the young switchblade thugs.
Sal also found himself a target of bellicose guys close to home.
"With his delicate features and sensuous lips and a make-up kit clutched in his hand," the Post article noted, "Sal was a natural fall guy for the Bronx gangs. Many a night he showed up at the theater with torn clothes or a bloody nose."
A few individuals who noticed the pretty young boy riding subways or as he walked the blocks of Times Square alone eyed him as a different sort of prey. That a man wanted to have sex with a boy came as a shock. That men wanted it with him was scary. Sal had seen his favorite actor, John Garfield, in the movie Castle on the Hudson, in which Garfield as a youth carried a pistol to protect himself against street thugs. Sal bought a realistic toy pistol and successfully wielded it to ward off advances.
None of this was told to his parents and brothers. Their reaction, he feared, would put an end to what he saw as the beginning of an acting career.
In wandering around the Broadway theater district, Sal had discovered what he wanted and needed in life. Looking up at one of the theater marquees, he counted the letters to see if his name would fit. Salvatore was too long. If the day came when his name was going up on a sign or marquee, he decided, it would be short and sweet—SAL MINEO. "To be an actor was a brand new challenge," he recalled of his start, from the heights he achieved in only a few years. Observing Stapleton and Wallach, he said, "I was learning something new every night."
Their lessons in acting ended when the play closed. Having said his one line for more than a year at $65 a week, Sal was out of work and the youngest person standing in line to pick up a check at the New York State Unemployment Office. But being on the dole did not last long. That summer he played Candido in The Little Screwball and in the fall he found himself the backup for the boy playing the Crown Prince of Siam.
He was also informed that he might have to fill in for one of the other children who made up the King's large brood, none of whom had a speaking part. Consequently, it was when one of these boys got sick that Sal first set foot on the St. James stage with an audience out front. The boy who was ill was slightly smaller than Sal, so Sal had to squeeze into the costume. It was so tight he could barely breathe. At one point in the scene he had to bow low for Miss Lawrence. As he did so, the belt holding up his satin pants broke and the britches dropped to his feet to reveal what Sal called "the craziest-colored pair of shorts a prince ever wore." The audience roared with laughter. Gertrude Lawrence got him out of his misery with an ad-lib and a pat on the rump.
Still ahead of Sal, however, loomed an inevitable moment when he would be called upon to step onto the stage of the St. James Theater with Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner in the part he'd been understudying—the Crown Prince, who had lines to speak and a song to do. While acting with the genial and considerate Gertrude Lawrence did not worry him, Sal was terrified of playing scenes with her costar.
"I had watched him from the wings for over a year," Sal would later write for a movie fan magazine. "He was so very stern as the King with his Oriental makeup, his broad, unrestrained gestures, his very loud voice, that I thought he must be that way off stage, too. I had heard he had a good sense of humor but I couldn't believe it. I couldn't see how anyone who played the King as ruthlessly as Yul Brynner could have a sense of humor!"
The dreaded moment arrived in August 1952 when the boy who played Chulalongkorn went on vacation. Until that moment, Sal had not dared to speak to the man everyone referred to as "Mr. B." and the star had not spoken to him. Quite likely, Sal supposed, Brynner had not even noticed the understudy.
"I was so shy of him, so completely awed," Sal wrote, "that I never dared approach him, though I very much wanted to. But now that I was to play opposite him, I was more afraid of the man than ever."
Realizing he had never been shown how to apply the Prince's makeup, Sal sought help from Don Lawson, Brynner's makeup man. "Why don't you ask Mr. B.?" asked Lawson. "I'm sure he'll be glad to teach you."
Sal hesitated. "An important actor like Mr. Brynner," he reported thinking, "wouldn't want to be bothered with such trifles as telling a 13-year-old kid how to put on greasepaint."
With no one else to turn to, Sal went to Brynner's dressing room and stood at the closed door, knees shaking, trying to summon courage to knock.
He did so weakly, but was heard and answered.
Trembling, Sal opened the door and saw Brynner seated on a bench in front of his makeup table, back to the door and looking into a mirror. Seeing Sal's reflection, he boomed, "Hiya, Sal!"
So stunned was Sal that Brynner knew his name that "a very polite apologetic speech" he had planned went right out of his head.
"I hear you're going on tonight," Brynner said, beckoning him into the dressing room. "I'm sure you'll be terrific."
Sal blurted, "I don't know how to do my makeup. Mr. Lawson told me to ask you. I want my makeup to be right."
Brynner rose from the bench.
"Sit, sit," he said, ordering Sal onto the bench with all the force he exhibited so intimidatingly on stage. He handed Sal a stick of greasepaint. "I'll tell you how to put on the makeup, but I won't do it for you. You must learn to do it yourself." Studying Sal's face in the mirror, he added with a scowl, "Frankly, I don't see how makeup can help you."
Sal needed a moment to realize a joke had been cracked.
Made up and in costume, Sal waited anxiously in the wings for the moment in Act One during "March of the Siamese Children" when Prince Chulalongkorn makes his entrance. Arms crossed on his chest, chin high, and barefooted, he strode boldly to center stage and bowed his head to his father, the King.
As Sal lowered his head, Brynner whispered, "Relax, kid."
Of the night of his debut in a Broadway musical that became a classic of the theater Sal wrote, "All I remember was that Yul's voice was so loud, so clear, and carried so far, that it made my own voice seem very small. After the show, he was the first to shake my hand. `Nice job,' he said. That was all."
Presently, Sal inherited the part of the prince permanently. In writing about his experiences in a charming magazine article titled. "The King and Me," published seven years after he took over as Chulalongkorn, he drew aside the veil that separated the audience in a theater and the actors on stage. He wrote, "If you have seen The King and I either on the stage or in the movies, you'll recall the scene at the very end where the King is dying and is giving final instructions to his son. The King lies on a divan and the two keep whispering to each other, while other stage business is going on. To make it appear that he was really giving me final instructions he told me jokes. When the jokes began to pall, he started to play `knock-knock' and expected me to come prepared with my own. In the midst of my grief at seeing my `father' in his death throes. I had to think up a good `knock-knock' joke. It's a wonder we ever kept sad faces."
A professional relationship developed in which the veteran actor mentored the beginner.
"Every night, we would meet in the wings before we went on. He would talk to a 13-year-old boy as an equal. We discussed acting and one day he presented me with several books on the subject," Sal recalled. "At one point during the play's run, I was beginning to have trouble with my part. I was getting mechanical and I wasn't getting what I thought were enough good laughs. One night, I told the King about it. He suggested that we get together and rehearse it again. Immediately, I began getting laughs."
Yul Brynner taught Sal acting technique, timing, how to play comedy, and most importantly, how to listen to the other actor's lines and react to them.
When The King and I closed in 1954, after 1,246 performances, Sal had played the Prince nearly 900 times. No less an expert than Richard Rodgers told an interviewer, "Sal Mineo is the finest young actor I know."
Now 15, the boy whom nuns once picked to portray Jesus looked like an angel in a Michelangelo fresco. With jet-black hair tumbling over his forehead, full black eyebrows over alluring eyes, sensuous lips and dimpled cheeks, and a wistful laughter that seemed to pour out of him, he did, indeed, have a glow.
In show business that's called "star quality."
But now actor Sal Mineo found himself confronting the player's timeless question: "What do I do next?"
|Prologue: Invitation to Brunch in Boys Town||xi|
|1||"The Kid's Got a Glow"||1|
|2||Wrong for the Part||13|
|3||Will the World End at Night?||23|
|4||A Giraffe for the Mantel||41|
|6||The Switchblade Kid||61|
|9||Who Killed Teddy Bear?||111|
|10||Down but Not Out in Beverly Hills||125|
|11||Fortune and Men's Eyes||131|
|12||"I Find It Very Baffling"||144|
|13||One-Night Stand in Manhattan||156|
|14||P.S. Your Cat Is Dead||162|
|15||It's a Mystery||170|
|16||File No. 76-1953||175|
|17||"This Is a Big Deal"||185|
|18||Who Would You Cast?||195|
|Epilogue: Plato Lives!||204|
|Sal Mineo's Credits|
|About the Author||239|