December 7, 2006
Theater: All in the ‘Herbicide’ family
"Remember, it's an intimate evening with," Kogen tells him. "It's your party. So rather than just going into a story, you want to be welcoming."
"Welcome to the height of self-indulgence!" Astrow announces, cracking everybody up at rehearsal.
Astrow, a 72-year-old Los Angeles restaurateur (Yankee Doodles on the Santa Monica Promenade), is, after 50 years, returning to his first love: the theater. In a benefit at the Santa Monica Playhouse, he'll star in "Herbicide" Dec. 9 and 10.
Astrow's most recent role was playing Stanley the waiter in a production of "Death of a Salesman."
"At Brooklyn College," he laughs. "In 1958. As a kid I wanted to be an actor, but my own kids came along...."
"He's been great at being brutally honest," says Kogen, Astrow's director, who helped him reduce 16 wild tales to the four most resonant. Or redolent, like the one where Astrow smells so bad from working at Nathan Strauss Twentieth Century Fish Market in Flatbush, that he rubs cologne into his jeans before bicycling off to meet his buddies, "Itchy" (Joel Stanislaw), "Rooster" (Stu Lazarus), "Ziggy" (Marvin Zelenitz), and "Pot Cheese" (Jerry Potolsky). Astrow was "Hercules."
It was 1944, "that perfect time when the Jews, the Irish, the Italians all lived together," says Astrow 's sister, Jo Anne Astrow. "It was a golden time for education in New York."
Jo Anne Astrow named their production company Chestnut Avenue Productions, after the "last documented dirt road in Brooklyn," where they lived above their Sicilian landlord, Mr. Sharaldi.
Sharaldi "owned the last horse in Brooklyn," Herb says. "He called his horse 'Horse.' During the winter, when his ass got frozen to the wagon seat, he changed Horse's name to 'You F----- Horse.'"
Astrow went to work at the age of 9, making $4 a week delivering fish, which helped pay the rent.
His father, Barney, was his hero: "He sat in a chair reading the dictionary and the encyclopedia and philosophized on life." He taught Herb to "always compliment women on their appearance and especially say nice things about their home furnishings."
But multiple sclerosis forced Barney to quit his florist business. The family went on welfare, and when Barney had to move to another home, the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital for Chronic Diseases, Astrow's mother became his hero.
"By the sheer force of her will to survive," he recalls. "God bless that crazy woman!" Elsie Astrow underwent shock treatments for depression and used to beat her son with his father's cane "over some nonsense thing I did, like eating too many creamsicles" he says. She was suicidal, but saved his life with the taste of her lamb stew with sugared apple dumplings and the slap of a catcher's mitt when Herb was choking to death one night at dinner.
The title of the show itself comes from "the life and death struggles" he says he had once with a houseplant.
"Struggles with a life," adds sister Jo Anne Astrow, leading to Herb Astrow's story of the vodka-and-Tab habit he picked up after breaking off with his textile business partners, the poisonous dieffenbachia plant and a Thanksgiving dinner in Queens where the two opposing sides of his family -- Russian Jews and German Jews -- no longer agree to "respectfully loathe each other."
"Herbicide" is a family project. His son-in-law came up with the title, and Jo Anne Astrow not only co-produced (with Sally Schaub), she figures funnily in the stories. (She's also comedian Lewis Black's manager.) And director Kogen's family and the Astrows grew up and vacationed together for years on Fire Island.
"Even when I was little," Kogen says of his actor, "we all knew he had an adventurous life. We were told, 'Don't go on the boat with Uncle Herbie!'"
Proceeds from "Herbicide" will go to the Save the Playhouse capital campaign to put a down payment on the building at Fourth Street near Wilshire Boulevard.
George Vennes, Santa Monica Playhouse technical director, tells The Journal, "Rent for the offices, two theaters and two rehearsal spaces is up to $10,000 a month."
With Youth Theater, cultural outreach and a legendary history, the Playhouse, says Vennes, "caters from two to 92."
It was one of the playhouse's ongoing workshops, an acting class with the actor Jeffrey Tambor, that first got Astrow interested in telling his stories onstage. And it was his writing coach, Wendy Kaminoff, who dared Astrow to make it happen. (Well, her business card does say: "Creative Ass Kicker")
"Herb is this wonderful combination of New York savvy, old school wisdom and outrageous life experiences," Kaminoff says. "Imagine Garrison Keillor, only if he was a handsome Jewish guy from Brooklyn."
"Herbicide," Dec. 9 at 8 p.m., Dec. 10 at 7 p.m. $20. Price includes a post show reception at the playhouse. Santa Monica Playhouse 1211 4th St. For information call (310) 394-9779 Ext. 1
Hank Rosenfeld is writing a book with Irving Brecher, who wrote for Milton Berle and the Marx Brothers.