Martin
Sherman


 

MARTIN SHERMAN



New York Times * October 29, 1931

IN PERSON; You Can Take the Boy Out of Camden . . .

MARTIN SHERMAN, Camden High School class of 1956, left his hometown and went on to become a successful playwright, something that doesn't surprise the former Angela Ciccotelli very much.

While still in his neo-Shakespearean phase (that is, in the fifth grade), young Martin wrote a play, ''Homlio and Roulette,'' casting his friend Angela in the lead female role, not the least because the Ciccotelli backyard in the Parkside neighborhood was larger than most.

He remembered her performance. He autographed her copy of the 1956 Camden High School yearbook to ''the first little actress since Marilyn Monroe who laughs when she should cry (last scene).''

Mr. Sherman, as so many others did, left Camden at the first opportunity, and when his little star, now Angela Ciccotelli Mulloy, saw him recently it was for the first time in 44 years.

She and five other members of the class of 1956 joined Mr. Sherman for a small reunion, lunch in a theater district restaurant in Manhattan, and opening night for his new play, ''Rose,'' at the Lyceum Theater on Broadway.

It is a one-woman play about a Holocaust survivor, a subject Mr. Sherman has written about before, starring Olympia Dukakis.

''Everyone always says I look like Olympia Dukakis,'' said Helene Goldman Singer, who postponed a trip to Paris to attend opening night. At the cast party at Sardi's after the performance, Ms. Dukakis agreed that there was a resemblance and gave Ms. Singer permission to sign autographs for overly insistent fans.

Members of the Camden High School class of 1956 do not get to go to many Broadway opening nights or cast parties at Sardi's. The events brought back memories of their childhoods in the once-prospering city that is no longer recognizable to them.

Nancy Lemerman Hermann's parents owned a candy store that was across the street from the Parkside Theater, a movie house that no longer exists. In fact, there are no movie houses at all in Camden now. And the Walt Whitman Hotel, where the class of 1956 held its prom, is gone as well.

RCA Victor, which made most of America's first television sets in Camden, is gone. Campbell's Soup, which fed several generations of children their lunchtime tomato soup, is mostly gone. The New York Shipbuilding Corporation, which built the warships that helped the American victories in the two world wars, is gone.

In 1950, not long before Mr. Sherman's class graduated from high school, Camden's population hit its peak: 124,555. That class of 1956 was in the advance guard of leaving town and Camden's population last year was estimated at 83,546 -- so many of them unemployed, on welfare and addicted that the city seems to totter. Even the mayor is under indictment, the third mayor in 20 years to face criminal charges.

Before things started falling apart, there was a lot going on in Camden.

Dr. Michael Grossman, another former grad, remembers the radio program broadcast each week on WCAM, a station then owned by the city, which had studios on the top floor of the City Hall. The program was produced by the Y.M.C.A., which no longer exists, and was across the street from Camden Catholic High School, which also no longer exists.

While a student at Hatch Junior High School, Mr. Sherman wrote, directed and starred in a 15-minute segment of the program, a sitcom he called ''The Adventures of Don and Henry.''

Dr. Grossman, a cast member who put aside acting in later life to become an obstetrician-gynecologist (he was, after all, voted most likely to succeed), said, ''I don't remember how many programs we did, but I am sure we were great.''

The recollections of Mr. Sherman (class actor in 1956) are not quite the same. ''We just giggled a lot on the air,'' he said.

Dr. Grossman made the trip for opening night from Cherry Hill, as did another 1956 graduate, Myrna Caplan Fineman, who teaches emotionally disturbed youth at the Brookfield Academy. Ms. Fineman probably has seen more of Mr. Sherman's plays than any of his longtime friends, including ''Bent,'' his story of gay men killed during the Holocaust, and ''When She Danced,'' the story of Isadora Duncan.

Ms. Hermann (Miss Personality in 1956, Ms. not yet having been invented) came from Scotch Plains, where she markets commercial carpet backings made by the Dow Chemical Company.

Ms. Singer came from Reading, Pa., where she runs a travel agency, and Ms. Mulloy came from Orange, Va., where she and her husband, Richard Brown, run Willow Grove Inn, a 1790's plantation house converted to a bed and breakfast with a restaurant that is among the most outstanding in the stretch from Washington to Charlottesville. One old grad came from Washington.

Mr. Sherman came the farthest, from London, where he now lives and where he has been able to get his plays produced more quickly than New York. He is a gay man and Jewish, and homosexuality and the Holocaust figure in many of his plays.

Ms. Fineman remembered the odd parties that Mr. Sherman organized as a boy. There was one, she recalled, when he served some candy and then announced to his friends that they had just eaten chocolate-covered grasshoppers. That was very funny stuff in the 1950's.

At the reunion lunch, after he got over the mortification of being photographed by his old friends at such a hip theater district restaurant as Joe Allen's, Mr. Sherman remembered his favorite party stunt.

''I told everyone that there was going to be a surprise guest,'' he said. ''Then I left through the back door, ran around to the front and came in, the surprise guest at my own party.'' Not quite the level of Tom Sawyer watching his own funeral but very funny in Camden.

Dr. Grossman and Mr. Sherman were in the boys' finals of Camden High's annual public speaking contest that year. Dr. Grossman said: ''Martin did 'The Treasurer's Report' by Robert Benchley. He was absolutely hilarious. I did 'John Brown's Body' -- very dramatic. Martin should have won, but comedy never wins, so I won.''

Dr. Grossman remembered Mr. Sherman's family, his father, Joseph, and his mother, Julia. ''Joe Sherman was the first ever public defender in Camden County,'' he said. ''He then returned to practice criminal law. He took clients who could barely afford to pay. He was a legend among local attorneys.''

Sad things happened in Camden in those days. ''Mother had Huntington's disease,'' Mr. Sherman said. ''She was increasingly bedridden, certainly during the last 15 years of her life. It is a horrible, horrible disease.''

Mean things happened. ''There was a girl in the class who everyone hated,'' Mr. Sherman said. ''I don't know why. So I befriended her. She wanted to become a jazz singer. I don't think it's a story that ended well.''

Tragic things happened. Some thuggish boys beat up on Mr. Sherman, who looked frail as a youth, and there was a disturbed boy named Joseph Ernst. ''He would occasionally come in to homeroom and show his collection of pictures of baseball players,'' Mr. Sherman said, ''and the teacher and everyone else ignored him, so I feigned interest in baseball, and he protected me.''

Not many years later, Joseph Ernst murdered his girlfriend when she tried to break off their relationship. He was executed in the state prison electric chair in Trenton a few years later.

''Rose'' won awards and critics gave it rave reviews in London. Not so in New York.

The critic of The New York Times, Bruce Weber, said that ''for all its picaresque detail, her story resonates on the tired frequency of a lecture about the wages of forgetting the past.' The New York Post's critic, Donald Lyons, wrote: ''The play, an insufferable lecture, is Martin Sherman's imagining the past, not surprising from one who imagined himself a gay victim of the Nazis in the 1997 film 'Bent.' ''

On the other hand, the critic in The Daily News, Fintan O'Toole, felt that ''Rose'' marked ''a real maturing'' for Mr. Sherman by adding the element of restraint that had been missing in his earlier work.

There was no restraint among the six longtime friends from the Camden High School class of 1956. ''It is blissful to see Martin so successful,'' Ms. Singer said.


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