Mr. Chatterbox

By staff March 1, 2008

A dangerous new voice has entered the Sarasota mix, so watch out. I’m referring to Michael Riedel, the theater columnist for the New York Post, the reigning “Butcher of Broadway” and the most feared man on the Great White Way. Stars, directors, producers—they’re all terrified of him. I remember watching a famous actress at a party not long ago in New York when he walked in. She’d been preening and holding court. Then she saw him and was reduced to a mass of quivering jelly. “Oh, please, please,” she begged. “Keep him away from me.”

Michael and I go way back (one of my best friends from college, Susan Haskins, produces and co-hosts his TV show, Theater Talk, for PBS), but I want to make one thing clear. We are not two peas in a pod. I deplore his methods. I keep begging him to be nicer to people but he just won’t listen. He’s destroyed at least one marriage, been responsible for several bankruptcies, and driven people like Rosie O’Donnell and Bernadette Peters and Tony Kushner to the point where their features contort with rage and they begin to unconsciously spit when they describe all the things they’d like to do to him. He’s been physically attacked on at least three different occasions.

Michael’s folks live in The Meadows, so he comes down here a lot, and he and I usually have a drink and discuss the finer points of gossip column writing. One recent evening we were doing this in the bar at Selva and I realized I was overdue at Cliff and Maria Roles’ party, so I asked him if we wanted to tag along. Oddly enough, he said yes. This is unusual because he rarely goes out when he’s here. It’s strictly R&R—a little golf and some home-cooked meals.

On the way over, I tried to describe Cliff and the role he plays in our community as radio host, local celebrity, charity emcee and auctioneer, actor, and magazine columnist, but I finally decided that I would let Cliff speak for himself. My main worry was that Cliff would be poor. I’d never been to his house before and since I’d read in Biz941 that he only made $45,000 a year translating legal documents into German, I was picturing some sort of abject poverty, with him and Maria sitting on a couch from Goodwill, passing around Ritz crackers and beer.

Well, the good news is that Cliff is not poor. He must have socked some money away somewhere. The house is in McClellan Park, with a pool and a guest house, plus acres of wall space to display all his awards, plaques, citations, signed pictures of celebrities, etc.

I mean it in a kind, admiring way when I say Cliff has an uncanny ability to seek out important people who might be of use to him, and he was greeting Michael while we were still parking the car. The first thing he did was summon photographer Lori Sax to document the occasion for his Web site, and then somehow he talked Michael into appearing on his radio show. Michael agreed to everything, but you could tell he was sizing Cliff up as someone who might actually outsmart him.

Anyway, we entered chez Roles and within the first five minutes we greeted Audrey Landers, star of Dallas and A Chorus Line, and then Annie Morrison, star of the legendary Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along. Then we went into the family room, with its collection of gold records from when Cliff worked with Bon Jovi. “Wait a minute,” Michael whispered. “Is this Sarasota or Beverly Hills?”

Yes, what a glittering evening it was. Marjorie North declared it the Party of the Year or something like that, and for once Marjorie and I are totally in sync. Now we must add to Cliff’s ever-lengthening list of talents that of party giver. It was the perfect blend of people—part theater, part society, part money, not to mention a pool cage full of Maria’s Hungarian relatives. It was everybody you wanted to see and nobody you didn’t. I’m starting to think that Cliff should start holding a salon. He’s the only person in town who could really pull it off.

I could feel Michael starting to get a little intrigued with the local scene. It’s just like New York, I could see him thinking, only smaller, cheaper and not as good. So it was hardly surprising when he was back within the fortnight to attend my opening in Evita at the Golden Apple. (See Showtime! in this issue.) I greeted him in the lobby and showed him to his seat (“Gee, Patti LuPone never did that”) as the town’s glitterati and cognoscenti filed in, buzzing like bees in happy anticipation.

It certainly was the place to be that night. The Bobs (Trisolini and Nosal of local theater fame) were there with a large party—the tip on their cocktail order alone bought waitstaffer Donna Des Isles a new plasma TV—not to mention Anne and Bill Guisewite, parents of cartoonist Cathy, serenely occupying a table for two. Susan Burns was at the Golden Apple for the very first time in her life, looking very much the candidate’s wife in a Republican cloth coat—hubby Larry Eger was busy that night touring nursing homes in his quest to become our next public defender. Lisa Rubinstein and Bruce Rodgers made the trek from Lakewood Ranch, but I must say the most dramatic entrance was that of Herald-Tribune theater critic Jay Handelman, who evoked gasps from the crowd as he strode in with his arm in a cast. It was the result of a tragic accident. While visiting Minneapolis, he was thrown off a treadmill and shattered his pinkie.

And of course Howard Millman and Carolyn Michel were present, quite a compliment when you consider that the Asolo, which Howard used to run, had its own opening that night. Afterwards, at the gala opening night party, I pointed him out to Michael. “Howard Millman!” he exclaimed. “Where? I’ve got to meet him. He changed my life!”

It seems that when Michael was in seventh grade, his English teacher took the class to see All My Sons at the GeVa Theater in Rochester, N.Y. The actor playing the father had a stroke that day, so Howard, who at that time was the artistic director of the theater, had to jump into the role. “It was the first dramatic play I had ever seen and the gunshot at the end knocked me out,” Michael said. “The play is powerful, of course—but so was Howard’s impromptu performance. I keep three such performances in my head—John Gielgud in The Best of Friends, Brian Cox in Titus Andronicus, and Howard Millman in All My Sons.”

“But what about me in Evita? Will you keep that in your head?”

He chewed one of Chef Caldwell’s delicious egg rolls and considered.

“Yes, Mr. Chatterbox,” he said with a sigh. “I’m afraid I will.”

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