Spirited Sightseer

THE BALTIMORE SUN

He got a marriage proposal - complete with a flashy rubber engagement ring. He autographed Cafe Hon bumper stickers. He posed for photos at the birthday party of 5-year-old twins.

And on West 34th Street, a young mother dazzled - and temporarily blinded - by the holiday lights handed him a disposable camera and asked if he'd mind taking a picture of her family.

"You know who this guy is?" Jeff Johnston gently chided his wife, "That's Richard Chamberlain."

Yes. That Richard Chamberlain - Dr. Kildare, The Thornbirds' Father Ralph, Shogun's Maj. John Blackthorne. And now - Scrooge. Chamberlain is in Baltimore starring in the title role in Leslie Bricusse's musical Scrooge, which begins a one-week run at the Hippodrome Theatre tomorrow.

But the actor, who at age 70 is still handsome enough to turn more than a few heads, was acting anything but Scrooge-like last week. When low ticket sales led to the cancellation of the Detroit stop on the Scrooge tour, Chamberlain decided to take a week of rest and relaxation in Baltimore.

Getting a taste of local holiday charm on his first full day out and about, Chamberlain stopped by Cafe Hon for meatloaf and apple pie. ("Mmmm, mmmm, this is so good I can't believe it," he said, polishing off a generous slice of pie.) He then paid a visit to Bawlamer's own Miracle on West 34th Street.

But not before that marriage proposal. That came early in the evening from Cafe Hon waitress Janet Trimble, who was dolled up in her best "hon" fashion, complete with tiger-striped sweater, giant hoop earrings and a prickly-surfaced, battery-operated bubble ring that wasn't merely flashy, it actually flashed on and off.

Chamberlain was smitten - not only with Trimble, but also with the ring. "It's truly fabulous," the actor said of the illuminated bauble. "It's totally divine!"

Slipping the ring off her finger and onto his, the waitress proclaimed: "I want to be engaged to you!"

"No, no, no," Chamberlain coyly protested. "You mustn't."

"We are engaged!" an undeterred Trimble insisted. "I don't know how old you are, but I remember watching you a long, long time ago and loved you."

"I'm 39," Chamberlain said.

"I am also," said Trimble.

"We're perfect for each other!" Chamberlain happily conceded.

A parallel journey

Well, except that Richard Chamberlain is gay. The actor publicly revealed this in his 2003 autobiography, Shattered Love. Discussing it now, in the midst of the 11-week tour of Scrooge, he said he realized that opening his heart, as he puts it in his book, parallels the journey taken by Scrooge, the misanthrope-turned-philanthropist in Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol.

In Chamberlain's case, he had closed himself off by hiding his sexual identity. Even when he was not on stage or in front of a camera, he was playing a role. "I was me, which I rejected, acting like the all-American boy, who was then acting like, for instance, Dr. Kildare," he said.

"A person in that situation is not what I would think of as open-hearted because you're too afraid to be open-hearted, and I think being open-hearted is the ultimate way to be in this lifetime. ... So [playing Scrooge] came at a great time. I really like the guy. That is exactly his lesson."

Personally, he continued, what he was hiding was not only being gay, but being what he calls "relatively androgynous - in an American culture which does not honor androgyny."

His sense of androgyny, he explained, first struck him a number of years ago when he was watching a television show at home in Hawaii. On the show, a young couple fell in love. "The process of falling in love - of the male and the female coming together in this, to a certain extent, single being of this relationship - was so beautiful. And I recognized the beauty of it at the same time that I realized that that's not what I wanted in this lifetime. I didn't want to be polarized and then meet my opposite and become a whole human being. I wanted to be both, together somehow."

Chamberlain's fears and feelings that he had been, in his words, "mis-created," continued up until he was writing his memoirs. When he began the book, he said, "I didn't know I was going to write about being gay at all because I still had this sense that there was something very wrong with me, even though I'd been in this wonderful relationship for a long, long, long time." (Christmas Eve, he said, will mark the 29th anniversary of his relationship with Martin Rabbett, a director and producer.)

Feeling liberated

The decision to reveal his orientation in print came as an epiphany. In short order he found himself discussing being gay on national TV. Instead of being frightening, it was liberating. The feeling, he said, was not unlike what Scrooge experiences when he tries his hand at generosity and finds that it leads to a love for his fellow man.

"In a very dramatic, very extreme way, [Scrooge] makes what seems to me the most important human adventure, and that is, he's damaged goods in the beginning, rough childhood, terrified, scared of love, scared of anything like that kind of commitment, totally shut off, addicted to money and the power that money gives."

Then the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future - whom Chamberlain believes represent Scrooge's subconscious - show him the error of his ways, and "finally his heart opens. He really opens up as a full-fledged human, and I think that's the most gorgeous thing that can happen to a person."

The diners at Cafe Hon may not have been aware that Chamberlain has come out of the closet or written a book or even that he's in Baltimore to play Scrooge. But while they may not have known why he was there, they certainly knew who he was. A man at the next table tapped him on the shoulder and told him Shogun was his favorite of Chamberlain's TV shows. Several women brought him oval Cafe Hon stickers to autograph. And disposable cameras began appearing out of nowhere.

Donna Brink came over with her 12-year-old granddaughter, Brittany Strausbaugh. Brink had recently showed Brittany an album with a Dr. Kildare trading card collected in her youth. Now that trading card, a relic of the '60s medical drama that made Chamberlain a TV star, had come to life.

Next, Colleen O'Shea Barzyk stopped by to snap a picture of her 8-year-old daughter, Alison, with Chamberlain. Alison, Barzyk told him, was recently in a show at the Children's Playhouse of Maryland. Chamberlain asked the budding actress what she enjoyed most about the play. "Signing autographs," she replied.

The Barzyks, it turned out, were at Cafe Hon celebrating the birthday of twins Daniel and Michael. A long table in the next room was surrounded by family and friends. When the cake was brought out and it was time to sing "Happy Birthday," Chamberlain - the anti-Scrooge if ever there was one - gamely joined in.

Indeed, far from "bah-humbugging" when children dropped by, Chamberlain did his best to engage even the shyest in conversation. When that didn't work, he won them over with his flashy "engagement" ring.

"I've always been mesmerized by anything that sparkles, like city lights from a hilltop, things like that, Christmas lights," Chamberlain admitted.

A few minutes later, the actor was mesmerized indeed as he strolled down West 34th Street, where holiday lights span the street from rooftop to rooftop, where inflatable chartreuse Grinches sway on porch tops and plastic Mickey Mouse characters adorn a glass-enclosed creche. "It's terrific!" Chamberlain exclaimed.

At 708 W. 34th - the house with the hubcap Christmas tree on the front lawn - artist Jim Pollock was clicking off the number of visitors he'd welcomed to his living-room gallery that night. Chamberlain was No. 593. The previous Saturday, Pollock toted up 1,500.

Inside the small living room, secretaries from the Anne Arundel County school system were examining the beer-can angels and wrench-clawed crabs. The ladies had rented a limo for their holiday outing, but they had no idea that the elegance of the evening would include meeting Richard Chamberlain.

Saying that her birthday falls on the same day as Chamberlain's, one of the secretaries persuaded the actor to pose in a group photo.

At that moment, if Chamberlain bore any resemblance to Scrooge, it was to Scrooge after his transformation.

In Bricusse's musical, Scrooge's initial musical numbers are more spoken than sung. "He sort of learns to sing through the course of the show," Chamberlain said, acknowledging that rediscovering the ability to sing reflects Scrooge's change of heart.

At the end of the show, Scrooge sings two songs whose titles could also describe Chamberlain in recent years - "A Better Life" and "I'll Begin Again." Perhaps not unintentionally, the actor calls them his "coming-out songs."

Scrooge

Where: Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St.

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow-Saturday, 6:30 p.m. Sunday; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $27-$69.50

Call: 410-547-SEAT

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