Ghost Light

Ghost Light

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Ghost light refers to the superstition that one small bulb should always be left on so that no theater is ever totally dark--and thus vulnerable to "ghosts." A reader of Frank Rich's memoir Ghost Light is likely to conclude, however, that the title refers to the author's attempt to exorcise his miserable childhood.
The son of Frank Rich Sr., whose family had been in the shoe business in Washington since the Civil War, and Helene Rich, a teacher, was born in 1949. Members of the family led seemingly ordinary lives in Somerset, Md. There, according to Rich, all the houses looked alike, dads went to work, moms stayed home and television perpetuated the myth that all families were happy. While he was in grade school, Rich's parents split up, making him the first kid on the block to bear the stigma of coming from "a broken home."
Both parents subsequently remarried, and, in a telling detail, neither Rich nor his younger sister, Polly, was invited to either parent's second wedding. Rich is venomous on the subject of his stepfather--a crude and violent man with a vicious temper--but acknowledges that thanks to his affluence the family went to the theater often.
The protagonist in Rich's life is his mother (described as a Judy Holliday, not physically but emotionally); her death was tragic. The driver of the car in which she was killed was Rich's much-loathed stepfather.
Rich, writes freely of having been a lousy athlete, an insomniac and a loner. What pleasures he had in childhood came from theater--listening to recordings of musicals ("South Pacific," "The Most Happy Fella" and, while in bed with measles, "Peter Pan") and reenacting shows in the miniature theaters he created out of shoe boxes from his father's shop. For lighting, a desk lamp was put into service; pillowcases became curtains. He saved playbills (even ones found in trash cans for shows he had not seen), analyzed album covers and memorized lyrics. For his third-grade talent show, Rich sang "You Gotta Have Heart." Educated in public schools, where he claims classes were undemanding, Rich was blessed with teachers, librarians and friends who abetted his passion for theater, for reading and for writing. At the age of 8, he published a neighborhood bulletin that announced the arrival of babies, puppies and new cars. He also wrote a "book" titled "A World All My Own," about a boy who lived in a big box.

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At the suggestion of his father, he kept a diary that chronicled, for potential legal purposes, his stepfather's outbursts. At camp, Rich met Harry Stein, the son of Broadway writer Joseph Stein, a connection that gave him the opportunity to follow a musical from backer's audition to Washington tryout--where the young know-it-alls proclaimed it a flop in the making--then on to Broadway. The show was "Fiddler on the Roof."
Throughout his teenage years, Rich's appearances at the National Theatre's box office were so frequent that the management hired him as a ticket taker. It was, he writes, "the one place that promised me surefire intoxication." He also saw shows at Arena Stage and on Broadway. Musicals, rather than straight plays, seem to have been his preference, although he liked "Sunrise at Campobello," John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson in "School for Scandal" and "A Raisin in the Sun," which was something of an eye-opener for the young man from this still-segregated city.
Ghost Light is at its best when tracing the roots of Rich's obsession with theater but sheds little light on the Washington of his youth. It was, he repeats, a dull place. The family's move to Cleveland Park put him closer to, but not into the heart of, the Jewish mercantile aristocracy who lived in "Hanukah Heights" and whose teenagers' social lives centered around rec rooms and Ritz crackers. All he offers about his bar mitzvah at Temple Israel is that the ark was designed by theater artist Boris Aronson, about whom he later wrote a book. After taking tickets at the National Theatre and operating a paper route, Rich went on to Harvard, which is where Ghost Light ends.

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