By Jerry Waxman
Author’s Note* my dear friend, Shayan Elahi, messaged me “It’s Thanksgiving. Write something.” Since we are both rabid fighters for social justice I’m sure that he expected me to write about the Simon Legree Big Box stores and their attitudes toward their employees. I do that kind of stuff every day and so do thousands of other writers and bloggers. I needed something different to write about, although I wasn’t expecting to hear about the death of Jane Kean whom I knew and worked with. What I can say is that I give thanks for Jane Kean and many others in show business for the opportunity to have known them for however brief a period of time.
So, here we are snugly sequestered in an idyllic setting of the snow covered mountains of Asheville, North Carolina with our daughter, son-in-law and our granddaughters hosting a Thanksgiving pie breakfast party, a tradition that Nancy picked up while working as a nurse at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Everyone brings some kind of (home-made not store bought) pie to eat and we baked several pies ourselves. It was a fascinating collection of culinary arts and skills and everything tasted great. During a break in the activities the news came that Jane Kean had passed away at the age of ninety. I wasn’t the same the rest of the day.
It was the summer of 1990 and I was in the cast of a local production of The Music Man in Ft. Lauderdale. Jane was hired to play the part of Mrs. Paroo as a guest artist. Our producer had asked me to be Jane’s personal escort and chauffer for the several weeks we would be together. I didn’t exactly jump at the chance because the year before for Bye Bye Birdie, we had had another well know actress from that era (who will remain nameless) who, while not difficult at all kept to herself and never got to know her cast, playing the role of Albert’s mother, May. I did some research on Jane and decided that she was worth the effort, and it was a most rewarding experience. Her association with Jackie Gleason over the years made her a well known and beloved personality in South Florida, especially among the sixtyish and up crowd who actually did buy theater tickets then.
The glamour photos from the forties and fifties that were published in the obituaries don’t do her justice. Very few of her publicity photos do. They don’t capture the twinkle in her eyes. They don’t capture the pixie quality in her stature and personality and in her uninhibited joy. You had to know her personally to see that. We hit it off from the moment we met. Her husband, Joe Hecht, was with her and we had much to talk about since we were both native Philadelphians. Our time together was spent doing radio and TV interviews, visiting old friends from the Gleason years and doing a lot of lunch. Lots of time spent with Jackie Gleason’s widow, Marilyn, and her sister, the fabulous June Taylor. One noted lunch companion was Hedy Lamarr, who at age 76 was as strikingly beautiful as ever. Oh yes, we also rehearsed a lot too. I’ve done lots of rehearsals in my career and this one never felt like work.
Through it all, she never complained about the working conditions, or her fatigue or any of the cast and crew and I knew she had some criticisms, but she was a real lady. Her years in Vaudeville, Theatre and night clubs gave her a drive to excel, which she did, yet there wasn’t a bitter sentiment in her character that I could detect. She, Joe and I parted friends and kept in touch for a couple of years. I never forgot how warm and gracious she was. I’m thankful that I got to know her.