So go figure. My father’s cousin, Michael Spreder, was in a 1944 Michael Todd Broadway production called Catherine Was Great written by and starring Mae West. That’s Michael Spreder just to the left of the small person on Mae West’s left. At least I am pretty certain that it is.
I had been Googling Mike and his friend, Victor Finney, for a while. Mike and Vic were close with our family when I was growing up, and I had heard them tell of their brief time in the theater. So periodically I checked online theater databases just to see if I could find out anything more about their time in the lime lights. And one day this image appeared on my computer screen.
I first saw this publicity photo on EBay. The listing read: “Original Photo Mae West Unknown Image STUNNING! Catherine Was Great Stage Play? – $25.00” I went up very close to my screen and looked at all of the faces in the picture and most certainly the gentleman 2nd from the left – sort of upstaged by the priest – is Victor Finney. The facial expression especially in the eyes and mouth, seems very familiar to me. But which one of the faces, if any is that of my father’s cousin? Perhaps the tall guard standing next to Victor? No. Not Really.
Holy wow! That tall guard on the other side. The one who is looking right into the camera. The one kind of making sure the tall feathery thing in front of him doesn’t block his face. He looks a lot like my father. That one must be Michael Spreder. They were cousins after all. And so, I was now very pleased that I had found a picture on the Internet of Mike and Vic. Actually on Broadway. Not only that, but right there in the same shot with Mae West. And I was satisfied with that. Sort of…
I simply do not remember my dad and Michael Spreder looking that much alike. In fact, quite the opposite. If you had been looking at them standing next to each other, and someone then told you that they were cousins, you would say, “Oh yeah. I see it now. They’re both tall.”
And then I started to have some vague recollections. A conversation that could have taken place when I was a sophomore in high school. Actually a story that Mike and Vic told. And then I realized that the reason the person in the picture looks a lot like my father was because it was my father. I was beginning to come to the understanding that the true story of this picture goes way beyond that of being merely a cast photo. It is actual proof of an old story that I had heard when I was young.
Mike and Vic were members of the family when I was growing up. They would drive their 1960 Rambler up to Elmsford from New York for just about every holiday. And, we would go to their place in NYC very frequently. Probably once every other month or so. I do not recall any discussion on the subject while growing up, but I’m pretty sure that Mike and Vic were a gay couple. I can only imagine what it must have been like to have been gay during WWII. Especially being in your mid-twenties as they were. Mike and Vic were able to stay employed in New York City as actors throughout the war years. Both appeared in a play titled Johnny 2X4 – which marked the debut of Lauren Bacall. Victor was in the cast of My Sister Eileen. It may have been after telling Mike and Vic that I was in my high school production of Wonderful Town (the musical version of My Sister Eileen) that they told of the time that both of them AND my father were ‘on stage’ with Mae West.
Catherine Was Great opened on August 2, 1944. Not quite two months after D-Day. Not quite two months after my father’s 20th birthday. He had been in the Army since 1942 – stateside in communications. He was home on leave with his parents in Jackson Heights sometime in the summer of 1944. He was the son of German speaking immigrants. It would have been important for my grandparents to make sure that everyone knew that their son was in the U.S. Army during World War II. It would have been a statement of their own American patriotism. Michael Spreder would also be proud of his cousin for the same reasons. And so in appreciation for my dad’s service to America, Mike and Vic plotted to sneak my father into one of the dress rehearsals of Catherine Was Great.
Before Lady Gaga, there was Mae West. Before Madonna, there was Mae West. Before Marilyn Monroe, there was Mae West. It was Mae West that many soldiers were fighting for in World War II. Sailors called life preservers Mae Wests. No twenty-year old serviceman in 1944 on leave in New York City would turn down an opportunity to maybe get to actually see Mae West in person. So I’m sure my father was simply thrilled beyond measure to have been invited to hopefully catch a glimpse of this icon from backstage in the Shubert Theatre.
I do not know the minute details of what actually transpired. I only heard this story one time and that was many years ago… The day that Mike and Victor chose to sneak my dad into the theater was also the day that the publicity photos were going to take place. Gene Barry, one of the stars of the show, did not show up for rehearsal. And he is not in this picture. For some reason, Mike was to ‘Stand in’ for Gene Barry. My father, who just happened to be in the wings, put on his cousin’s costume and stood in for him. I do remember that Victor was laughing so hard that he was nearly in tears as he was telling parts of this story. Mae West supposedly was not to know about the switches. There were some kind of Actors Equity issues. Michael did a horrible makeup job on himself – crooked eyebrows and a silly penciled-on mustache.
Michael Spreder is the other ‘suitor-looking’ character in this picture. And you can see the poor makeup. The uneven eyebrows and drawn-in mustache. Also if you look at his pose, he is way behind any sight-line of Mae West and leaning backwards. But something else that I see is the ‘notch.’ I recall that Mike had a very distinct hairline, with a very distinct notch above and forward of his sideburns.
And so here is a photo of my father on stage with Mike and Vic, AND Mae West. A very proud twenty-year old photobombing Mae West. And you have to love his pose – curving to the side a little to keep that feather out of his face. Funny thing though, is that he is one of the few on the stage who is looking at the camera.
The listing on EBay read “Original Photo Mae West Unknown Image STUNNING! Catherine Was Great Stage Play?” To me, this great photo is so much more.