Grayson Hall: A Hard Act to Follow by RJ Jamison

Chronicling the Life of Grayson Hall

Chronicling the Life of Grayson Hall, by Rebecca Jamison

This article was originally published on Flickhead.

“You want to write about who?”

That is often the response Steve Shutt receives when discussing his labor of love, a chronicle of the career of the “Queen of Off-Broadway,” Grayson Hall. Other replies have included: The redhead? The one with the flaring nostrils? The whiskey baritone? The one who yelled “you beast!” at Richard Burton so emphatically she garnered an Oscar nomination in 1964?

Steve became transfixed by Grayson as a child, when she wove a spell of enduring proportions in the late 1960s on the beloved ABC Gothic serial, Dark Shadows. For those too young to remember, Dark Shadows found a pop-culture niche back in the day similar to that recently occupied by the X-Files. It had a similarly devoted following, broke new frontiers in daytime television, spawned two feature films and, until recently, aired seemingly forever in syndication (though it originally went off the air in 1971). Teenage girls were mad for the male lead, Barnabas Collins, portrayed by fortysomething Shakespearean actor Jonathan Frid. Grayson portrayed his confidante, Dr. Julia Hoffman. Where this soap took a jump was in Barnabas’s unique dilemma. As Grayson told it, “I’m the only actress who ever played a vampire’s therapist…I’m in love with the vampire. Why? Because he’s an unhappy vampire…”

Steve undertook the journey to record and catalog Grayson’s unique, inspiring and interesting career nearly ten years ago.hall002.jpg His friends thought it was a joke. But when he’d explain who she was, people’s eyes would light up, followed by appreciative nods. For those who remember her, she is unforgettable, one of the most fascinating creatures to grace a television or movie screen or the stage. Richard Burton said, “You, love are unique…when that camera is on you, the rest of us might as well not be there at all.” (1) For Steve Shutt, a lad of ten years, Grayson’s intensity immediately arrested his attention when he first tuned into Dark Shadows because she was so totally different. Not cookie-cutter in any way, shape or form. Something of an actress’s actress, many in her profession call Grayson an icon. (2) (English actress Barbara Steele, an icon in her own right, described Grayson’s work as “excruciatingly good” when she was cast in the late actress’ role for a 1990’s remake of Dark Shadows that aired on NBC.) Grayson was a tall, slender, fair-skinned, red headed woman, with gravity-defying cheekbones, wide transfixing eyes, full lips and a 150-grit sandpaper voice—though “no butt and no boobs” to quote the actress herself. Another co-star, Alexandra Moltke Isles, compared Grayson’s style to “Auntie Mame meets the Addams Family.” (3)

Aside from her stint on Dark Shadows and the loyalty of its cult following (who continue to attend annual festivals in New York and California), why does this woman deserve a biography? Steve responds that Grayson’s eccentric diversity, range of work, and her peculiarly complex impact as a 1960’s cultural icon call for a big canvas in capturing her life and work in print. He says that “the facets of her career bridge the gap between the avant-garde and the mass media in the Sixties—which is at times a strangely narrow gap, especially in New York during that time.” Grayson Hall loved the obscure, the odd, the unusual, and her choice of projects testifies to that devotion. She didn’t do O’Neill, did very little Shakespeare, and Tennessee Williams on screen but almost never on stage. In the theatre she did Pirandello, Saul Bellow, John Guare, and Genet often—“I don’t know if I’ll ever work again, Genet hasn’t written anymore madams” she said in the mid-1970s. (4)

She also devoted herself to the work of such lesser-known playwrights as English dramatist Edward Bond, the New York writer Jack Gelber, and Ronald Tavel, sometimes known as the “Andy Warhol” screenwriter. Even her short-lived career in feature films cut an unusual silhouette—from Disney’s That Darn Cat (1965) to a role in the imperfect film adaptation of John Barth’s End of the Road, and even a turn opposite Michael Douglas (“Mikey” to Grayson) in an early exercise in his patented brew of masculine angst, Adam at Six A.M.

Chronicling her life and career, however, has not been for the faint of heart. Her love of the avant-garde has left minimal available documentation for many of her stage projects. At least two feature films in which she appeared seem to have vanished off the face of the earth; they certainly have not shown up in any major archival collections or libraries to date. But there are memorable finds, such as an onsite-viewing-of the play The Suicide, with Derek Jacobi, at the New York Public Library’s Billy Rose Theatre Collection. In it, Grayson flits about the stage playing your archetypal nagging Russian mother-in-law. Finding the video was poignant because Hall did not appear in any of the extant publicity photos in the library’s files (she was a last minute replacement for another actress who quit the production). Another stunning find was an 11” x 17” color photograph of a young, beautiful Grayson from The Balcony, the earliest color photo of her onstage to have been discovered thus far.

Grayson onstage in The Balcony

Steve also has enjoyed stories from friends and neighbors of Grayson’s guerilla driving style on the narrow roads of the Hudson Valley while rehearsing the William Walton/Edith Sitwell presentation, Façade, which she was doing for a fund raiser. Others confirm she lived her life in a no-holds-barred way: “What you must do,” she said, “is get in your car, roll up the windows, and scream. I do it all the time, and that’s why I never get sick.” Another acquaintance wrote about her, “She screams with total self control, and with no reserve of language, at people who call her on the phone at night to ask her whether [a Dark Shadows co-star] is pregnant.”

Steve also fondly recalls attending a Hudson Valley Historic Home Tour and meeting Grayson’s husband Sam. Sam shared a few insights about his late wife while conducting an off-the-track private tour of their country home. He winked while showing Steve a VHS of the film Satan in High Heels, which, in her later career, Grayson pretended didn’t exist. “I didn’t do that,” she told her fan club president, crossing it off her credits list. You watch the film and there is little doubt that the cigarette wielding, dry-witted, club owner Pepe is Grayson perhaps at her best on film. “Bear up darling, I love your eyelashes,” she purrs to a disappointed boy bartender.

Night of the Iguana

During that same visit, Steve also met Grayson’s housekeeper who had many fond memories. She told him the story of her first interaction with Mrs. Hall. Grayson sat on the patio overlooking the Hudson staring down her domestic-to-be with her Bette Davis eyes for several minutes. Finally the other woman asked what was the matter? Grayson replied that she was merely admiring the job candidate’s beautiful eyes. Steve chuckles at that tale, likening it to a bar pickup line, although he doesn’t doubt that the actress made the compliment in all innocence. He recalls Village Voice film critic Michael Feingold’s juxtaposing Grayson’s world-weary cynicism with her child-like, innocent wonder in the obituary he composed for her.

Born Shirley Grossman in 1923, she was unwittingly baptized Grayson Hall early in 1960 after Jose Quintero’s secretary mistakenly typed her stage surname (Grayson) and husband’s surname (Hall) onto a contract. Under the aegis of Grayson Hall, she immediately bounded onto some very big career highs: eighteen months as Queen Irma in The Balcony, where she led a quartet of prostitutes in seducing, hoodwinking and aggrandizing their johns’ fantasies in Genet’s twisted political allegory; a co-starring role in the cult sexploitation film, Satan in High Heels; her Broadway debut in Subways are for Sleeping (which led to a guest appearance on David Brinkley’s Journal), and then the coveted role in John Huston’s Night of the Iguana. Huston cast her as the repressed lesbian school teacher in the film version of the Tennessee William’s play, starring Richard Burton and Ava Gardner. Huston saw a “young Hepburn” quality in her. (5) Grayson spent the shoot in Mexico playing poker with Huston and Williams, while the paparazzi spied on newly minted lovers Burton and Liz Taylor. In a film with several powerhouse performances, only Grayson was singled out for Oscar and Golden Globe nominations.

After refusing to relocate to Hollywood, where she was typecast as “the dyke chasing Sue Lyon down the beach” (6), by 1967 Grayson was suffering through a serious acting drought in New York. She accepted the supposedly short-term gig as the lady doctor on Dark Shadows in order to stave off relocating. The specter of her husband’s hometown, New Carrolton, Ohio, loomed as Grayson and Sam Hall faced the facts that their fifteen years as starving artists was not ideal for their ten year old son, Matthew. For Dark Shadows aficionados the rest is history.

After five years on Dark Shadows, she played another Genet madam with several knitting needles protruding from her breasts in the legendary 1971 BAM production of The Screens. There was another cult turn in the TV thriller Gargoyles (filmed in Carlsbad Caverns), several short lived off-Broadway appearances, and a much heralded appearance in The Chelsea Theatre Company’s Happy End, in which she flew and sang. She peppered these appearances with commercial voiceovers including the Rolling Stones and Blue Oyster Cult. (Her fans positively drool at the idea of finding a tape of her bombastically calling out the BOC command—“On Your Feet or On Your Knees!”) She returned to soaps as Euphemia Ralston, scheming dowager in turban and lace, a role tailor-written for her on One Life to Live in the early 1980s. And lastly, a final stage appearance in The Madwoman of Chaillot (Theatre at St Marks, 1985) with Geraldine Page, Madeleine Sherwood (The Flying Nun) and Carrie Nye.

Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo?

Grayson passed away (unexpectedly for many people, since she kept her brief illness with lung cancer private) in the Summer of 1985. At that time, Steve was about to return from a four-year stint in Asia. He was stunned to learn that she died at such a young age. (Her obits gave fifty-nine, but Steve’s research has revealed she was a month shy of sixty-two.) Given her iconic status to a certain generation who rushed home every day to catch DS after school, her outré theatre work and a 1964 Academy Award nomination, Steve felt certain that someone must have written a book, an extensive profile or at least something more substantial than a Dark Shadows fanzine article. But he found nothing beyond a mimeographed fan tribute, “A Gift of Memory.” So, in true devotion to his childhood love, Steve launched into research with the goal of doing Grayson true justice in a book-length study of her art and enthusiasms.

The attempt to record her life has taken many detours, dead ends and odd turns. Perhaps the most surreal moment was after the guided tour of Grayson’s home by her accommodatingly reminiscent widower. Steve’s friends, an adventurous crew that had arranged the tour, whisked him off down a country road for a picnic lunch. They selected a lovely country church near the Hudson River. Steve enjoyed taking in the 18th century carpenter Gothic structure, lush foliage and accommodating spring breeze. He found nothing odd in the thought of eating amidst several grave markers, some dating back to the early 1800s; this being a typical custom in many cultures. They enjoyed a lovely picnic lunch of pasta primavera, a salad tossed with a vinaigrette that Grayson (a lifelong gourmet chef) would surely have approved, and slices of chocolate cake. At the conclusion of the meal, Steve, basking in the glow of communion with the spirit of Grayson Hall, sat back as his friends stood with great fanfare and pulled away a table cloth to reveal ..they were eating at Grayson’s gravesite.

For Steve, her career is emblematic of the artist striving to make it in an often gruelingly commercial business—of a hugely talented woman being overlooked and under-appreciated for superficial reasons—the same reasons many of today’s over-35 actresses cite. “She was too damn smart,” Steve will tell you and others of Grayson’s Legion. (Her devoted admirers— styled after a quote from Grayson, when asked who would read a book all about her that husband Sam joked he would pen, “Who’s going to read it?! My fans are Legion!” she quipped.) It hasn’t been until recently that this woman has even gotten her due at the Dark Shadows fan events, though her roles in the series were invariably pivotal. But in the past few years her fans have come out of the closet and are demanding she receive respect. They are also demanding the biography! But the years have taken a toll and, although Steve still loves Grayson, he no longer has the time to commit to completing the project. So his latest erstwhile assistant, Rebecca Jamison, is now taking the lead and hopes to complete interviews and have a draft of Grayson’s biography to a publisher by the end of 2006. As Steve said recently, “If they could make a movie about Ed Wood, why not Grayson Hall?”

Why not, indeed.

Satan in High Heels

1. Look magazine, 1964.
2. Diana Millay April 2005 interview with Rebecca Jamison.
3. 35th Anniversary Dark Shadows Memories by Kathryn Leigh Scott, pg. xiv.
4. Village Voice Grayson Hall obituary, 8/20/85.
5. New York Post, 10/24/1970.
6. Saturday Evening Post, November, 1968.

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