Marcel Marceau didn’t seem to notice the dearth of VIPs attending his opening at Ford’s Theatre Wednesday night, though it was a pity snowy weather prevented a better turnout of White House, congressional and social luminaries.
Their professional drivers could have been more venturesome, one wag commented, because all the streets and sidewalks downtown were perfectly clear.
Not that Mr. Marceau minded being the center of attention later on at the cast party the theater hosted in his honor at the Old Ebbitt Grill. Snow was no problem for the phalanx of photographers or the program-toting fans who waited patiently in line for a brief chat or autographed scribble.
It was the first time Gertrude d’Amecourt had seen the master of mime perform since another memorable night in Paris 30 years earlier. “He is still absolutely amazing,” she said, praising the 76-year-old’s limberness and dexterity on stage as she sat, swathed in furs, serenely watching the hungry crowd swarm the buffet.
“Besides,” she added, “I just had to get out. With all this snow, I feel like I’ve been in jail.”
Jack Sloat, who last saw Mr. Marceau on stage in the 1960s, managed to get there as well despite getting his ticket a mere hour before curtain time. “I wouldn’t have missed it,” he said. “It was an easy sell.”
It was a lucrative booking for the theater, according to Producing Artistic Director Frankie Hewitt, who elatedly reported that the French artist’s three-week run (through Feb. 13) already was 75 percent sold out. “It’s extraordinary to have $300,000 in advance sales,” she said, noting that the smallish proscenium stage, intimate setting and acoustics at Ford’s had, in the past, provided a “perfect venue for one-man shows” by such stars as Hal Holbrooke, Vincent Price and James Whitmore.
There could be no doubt that Mr. Marceau’s place in the Ford’s galaxy was firmly fixed especially after his stellar performance of “Youth, Maturity, Old Age and Death” and other classics from his 100-vignette repertoire along with a second act devoted entirely to the antics of his trademark character, the hapless Bip.
Mr. Marceau may never say a word on stage, but at the party, there was no need to coax a soliloquy about his long career and legendary status.
“All of Hollywood came to see me when I first came to America in 1955,” he told enraptured guests still hovering near his table at midnight. “Critics compared me to Charlie Chaplin. They called me ‘the essence of theater.’ “
After paying tribute to American pantomimists, including Ed Wynne, Buster Keaton, Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, Harpo Marx and Red Skelton (with whom Mr. Marceau worked on an adaptation of “Pinocchio”) he had words of encouragement and praise for the 60 students whom he trains back home at his Ecole Internationale de Mimodrame de Paris.
“I help them to expand, create and become auteurs,” he said, “and to realize that art is eternal, not a fad.”
Stephan Le Forestier, Mr. Marceau’s assistant, protege and onstage herald, was only 12 when he saw Mr. Marceau perform for the first time, and he said it had a profound impact on his life. After three years at the school studying mime, dance, theater and fencing, he has his own company, Mime de Rien, which he said owes much to the master despite its “quicker, more rhythmical and more choreographed” technique.
“The most important thing he gives his students is freedom,” Mr. Le Forestier, 28, said. “He gives us the freedom to believe we can act in silence and that people will laugh or cry.”