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Authors: Jane Rossiter

Tags: #romance, #nurse, #medical

Backstage Nurse (15 page)

BOOK: Backstage Nurse
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In the days that followed, Joy made a point of avoiding her. This was not difficult because Shirley was almost constantly in attendance on Oliver Craft. She was thankful to see the weekend in Cleveland. At least it gave the star an extra day to rest. The air flight to Detroit was a short one and he went to bed in the hotel as soon as he arrived. At the old man's insistence, Shirley arranged with the local registry for another nurse to share her daytime duties.

Malcolm Dennis was also an old friend of Craft's, and he often came by to reminisce with the star. Shirley liked the new actor as well offstage as she did on.

The weeks slipped by. From an excellent week in Detroit, they moved on to Minneapolis, then St. Louis. Here they encountered the first snowstorm of the season. Shirley laughed at Charles Victor, when she saw the little character actor arrive at the theater bundled up in a very shaggy fur coat.

The stout oldster was surprised at her amusement. "Got it downtown in a second-hand store. Very reasonable." He strutted before her. "This is genuine Australian kangaroo."

Shirley tried to stifle her laughter. "It's just that I've never seen anything quite like it before."

"This'll come in handy in New York," the old actor said. "Broadway's a cold and windy spot on a winter day. And I have a room away downtown."

It was during this same week that Oliver Craft had another severe bout of pain. Shirley phoned Dr. Trask and for twenty-four hours it seemed that the old man would have to leave the show. Malcolm Dennis prepared to take over and they held several rehearsals in which he did the Cardinal, Hugh Deering again resuming the part of the chief villain.

Shirley missed these rehearsals, but Lyon Phillips confided that they had gone well and he at least had the assurance of knowing there would be continued performances if the Chief had to return to Boston.

Then, with surprising suddenness, Oliver Craft felt better again and a feeling of normalcy came back to the company.

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

Indianapolis was the next stand. Cold weather had now come with certainty, and Shirley noticed that the department-store windows were trimmed with tinsel and ornaments, and featured Christmas scenes. With the change in the weather, several of the company came down with severe colds. Joy Milland was one of those stricken, and for three days the understudy played her part. When the actress returned, she looked pale and miserable.

Roger continued to make his regular daily phone calls and Shirley looked forward to them, although at the same time she actually worried about the nearness of the week the company would be in Philadelphia.

"Week after next." Roger's voice was full of anticipation when he called the hotel on Friday of the Indianapolis week.

"It hardly seems possible," Shirley said.

"I have Mother eager to meet you, darling," Roger went on. "And a couple of parties and afternoon things lined up for you to attend."

"Just a minute! Remember I'm a nurse with a very ill patient," Shirley reminded him. "I'm almost without a minute to myself these days."

"We'll hire other nurses," Roger said. "This is going to be our week. A special week."

"I'll discuss that with you later," Shirley told him.

After she had hung up the phone, she realized that within a few days the decision she had put off would have to be considered again. And this time, Roger wouldn't let her shy away from an answer so easily.

There was a knock at the door of the suite, and she went and opened it. A stout man with a bald head and a pleasant, friendly face presented himself. "How do you do?" he said, "I am Abraham Rothstein."

Shirley smiled. "Our producer! This is an unexpected surprise. Won't you come into the bedroom and see Mr. Craft? He's resting, but he's not asleep."

"Thank you," the producer said quietly. Removing his coat and hat, he put them on a chair and followed her to the bedroom.

Oliver Craft sat up in bed and extended a frail hand in greeting. "It's good to see you, Abe," he said. And then, "But what brings you so far from Broadway?"

Abraham Rothstein chuckled. "Business! What else?"

The old actor lay back on his pillows. "We've been doing very well, Abe. I imagine your office has last week's returns."

"Wonderful! Wonderful!" the producer said. "That's why I'm here."

"I don't follow you, Abe," Oliver Craft said.

"I've been worried about you, Oliver, for one thing." The producer spoke earnestly now. "Before I flew out here, I had a long talk with Dr. Trask. He thinks you're taking too much of a chance. He'd like to have you in the East for treatment."

"In time. After the tour."

"That's it." Rothstein beamed. "I've fixed it. In a way I know you'll approve of. The tour is finished with this stand. I'm canceling next week, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh!"

Shirley was shocked at the rotund producer's blunt announcement. It seemed so callously cruel to end the tour after what Oliver Craft had gone through to make it possible. Surely the producer appreciated the star's gesture of loyalty.

Oliver Craft took the situation calmly enough. "You plan to cancel the rest of the tour?"

Rothstein glanced at Shirley's distressed face and chuckled. "Let me make myself clear. The tour ends, but the play goes on. The Belasco Theater is open for a show until Christmas week. I can book
The Cardinal
in right away for a second limited Broadway run. Four weeks in New York. How does it sound?"

The star sat up and stared at the producer. "Do you think it's a wise move, Abe? We did rather poorly there in the spring."

"That's just it." Rothstein was enthusiastic. "We opened at the wrong time. Our office has been getting letters from people complaining that they missed the play and asking if it could be brought back again. They want you, and I think you should do it, Oliver."

Oliver Craft smiled faintly. "Broadway is very tempting. I would like to finish the run there. What about the managements in the other cities? Can you honorably get us out of our commitments?"

"The Guild has some open time on their new comedy and they are willing to take over the three weeks we have definitely set. Everyone will be happy."

Shirley could see that the prospect pleased Craft. And she was glad that it would give the old man a final chance to return to his beloved Broadway. She was certain that Dr. Trask had told Rothstein that this would be his star's last play. And Oliver Craft would be able to get better medical care in New York. Dr. Trask would only be an hour's flight away.

The star looked at her and asked, "What do you think of it, Shirley?"

"It sounds like a wonderful idea." She smiled.

"Go ahead with it, Abe," Oliver Craft said. "We'll post a bulletin for the company tonight."

"Fine!" Abe was full of the idea. "It will take next week to get into town and have the show set up. We'll open a week from Monday. I'll give the go-ahead to my office right away to start publicity in the New York papers."

He went on explaining the other details to Oliver Craft as Shirley stood silently in the background. Then it came to her. If they were not going to Philadelphia, all Roger's plans would be upset. There would be no opportunity for her to meet his mother, no necessity for her to arrive at the decision she had been worried about. She was both relieved and saddened. Relieved because she was still not certain about herself and Roger; saddened because she liked Oliver Craft's grandson and there was a chance this delay could mean the end of things between them.

Roger seemed to take this point of view when he phoned later in the day. "Not coming to Philadelphia," he said. "I don't believe it."

"It's true," she told him. "It will probably be in your local paper by tomorrow."

"But Shirley, I counted on it!" Roger's tone was plaintive.

"I know." Shirley felt genuinely sorry. "But it does seem best for your grandfather. We can work out things later."

"I'm not so sure. I have an idea you weren't too keen on facing Philadelphia, anyway."

This was so close to the truth that Shirley hardly knew what to answer. She said, "You can come to New York any time."

"You can depend on that. You'll see a lot of me," Roger promised.

At the theater that night, the company was generally enthusiastic about the news. It meant a second New York exposure for them in parts which were now perfected, and since they would be looking for jobs in a few weeks, it gave them the added opportunity of scouting the various agents' offices while the show was still playing.

Lyon Phillips grinned at Shirley as they chatted before curtain time. "After next week, I'll have no more worries about sets arriving in time and fitting them into theaters built for half or twice their size. How's the Chief?"

Shirley glanced toward the corridor. "As good as he's been any time lately. He and Mr. Rothstein are talking now. I felt in the way."

"Good old Abe!" Lyon said. "I'll bet he pulled plenty of strings to arrange this. It's the way it should be. The Chief will give his farewell performance before a Broadway audience."

"It doesn't seem possible that this will end. Sometimes I feel it will go on and on." Shirley hesitated. "I don't dare think what's really happening to him. I feel so bad."

"Don't," Lyon advised. "Just accept it day by day. Oliver is occupied by the challenge of all this. The hard part will come for him when he can no longer face an audience. In a way, I'd like to see him go before that happens."

Hugh Deering came up to them, handsome in his uniform of the Communist aide. "On to Broadway," he said. "Does that suit you, Nurse Grant?"

She shrugged. "It's all the same to me. I think it will be better for the Chief."

"Agreed," Hugh said. "Likely Trask will send him to Memorial Hospital for a check."

Shirley hadn't thought too much about where Oliver Craft might go for actual treatment in New York. But what Hugh suggested made sense. The Memorial Hospital for Cancer and Allied Diseases was one of the leading institutions of its kind in the country. Its Sloan-Kettering Institute was always in the vanguard of new treatments, and possibly they might have something that could be tried on the grand old man.

"I've never been there. Have you?" she asked the ex-doctor.

"Yes." He looked slightly embarrassed. "One of my classmates is on the staff there. He took me through the place. It's really something."

Lyon Phillips called for places, and the conversation ended. The curtain rose on a capacity house, and again the play was well received.

Abe Rothstein stood in the wings with Shirley watching the rising climax of the final third-act scene between the Cardinal and the Communist, played by Malcolm Dennis.

Moisture glazed the bald man's eyes as, without turning to Shirley, he asked, "Is he really as bad off as they think, Miss Grant?"

"Yes," she said softly. "I'm afraid so."

"It doesn't seem possible! We've been together for nearly thirty years! He's like a brother to me."

"Doing this show has been a wonderful thing for his morale," Shirley told the producer. "It is very good of you to take the chance you have. Not many managements would have been so understanding."

Rothstein's eyes never left the stage. "With Oliver, it was no chance. He's never let anyone down."

Onstage, the star gave his last line and after a second's pause the curtain fell to the usual roar of applause. Shirley and Rothstein stood together watching the cast take curtain after curtain, ending with Oliver Craft standing alone before the enthusiastic audience.

"He's the last of them," Rothstein said reverently. "The last of the really great ones."

Shirley felt that the producer was right.

It was an unseasonably cold November in New York, and Shirley made the purchase of a smart mink-trimmed coat. Little Charles Victor hadn't worn his Australian fur model as yet, but he had arrived at the Belasco Theater many times, cold and shivering, in his winter cloth coat. Oliver Craft and Shirley were in a suite at the Algonquin Hotel, just a block from the theater on Forty-fourth Street.

Hugh Deering and some of the other members of the cast had rooms at the Royalton Hotel, also on Forty-fourth Street, and opposite the Algonquin. Joy Milland had an apartment uptown and Charles Victor rented a room somewhere in Greenwich Village.

The management had agreed to omit all midweek matinees and so it was only on Saturdays that Oliver Craft faced the grueling task of doing two shows. Advance sale of tickets was good, as Rothstein had predicted, and the company was in a happy frame of mind.

The change of scene seemed beneficial to Oliver Craft. Even though his strength was visibly failing, he seemed to take on a renewed vigor that Shirley hoped would see him through the run of the play. Since the Lambs' Club was just across the street from the Belasco Theater, many of his show-business friends dropped in on him from time to time. Several of his cronies were also living at the Algonquin, and this allowed other short talks.

Shirley tried to hold them to short periods of time. And even though the conversations were tiring in one sense, they helped the star in another. Caught up in theater small-talk, he temporarily forgot his own plight. Dr. Trask arrived on the third day after they came to New York, and they went up to Memorial Hospital, as Hugh had predicted.

After Craft had been thoroughly examined, Dr. Trask talked privately with Shirley about his condition.

"Has he complained much of pain lately?" the doctor asked.

"Not much. I seem to be giving him less and less sedative."

Dr. Trask nodded. "I suspected that. Of course his condition is so much weaker it's not likely he will require as heavy a dose of drug to give relief."

"What do they think here?"

"It could be a matter of weeks. We'll do another short series of X-ray treatments now. Later, when the show closes, I'd like to try a more experimental form of X ray. It's something new they're doing here."

"But in the end, it will be the same?"

"That is certain." The doctor sighed. "But we owe it to him to give our best. And if the new treatment eases his condition and gives him a little longer, it will be our best. It will also place Oliver in a position to help the Institute's research. A link in their battle to find a cure. I think he'll appreciate that."

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