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Harvey Cocks: A Life in Theater

From Broadway to the Civic, the director of Fort Wayne Youtheatre talks about his career in show business

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2008-10-07


Harvey Cocks is struggling to remember the very first play he ever directed. He knows it was in summer stock theater during his time in New York in the 50s. He remembers Melvyn Douglas was in it, and he remembers the play was about the first girl to play on a football team. “Oh, it was a terrible, terrible play,” he laughs, before adding. “You’ll have to forgive me. I’m having a senior moment.”

Hardly. With nearly seven decades of show business memories to draw from, Cocks can be forgiven for forgetting the name of a play here or there, even if it was the first play he directed.

There are a lot of entertainers who will tell you that show business is in their blood, that they grew up on stage or under the spotlights. But when Harvey Cocks, director of Fort Wayne Youtheatre, tells you that he grew up in the theater, it’s no idle boast — one of his first memories is of sitting on his father’s lap, a little over three years old, and watching a singer run through an early rehearsal in preparation for a show later that day. The singer? Al Jolson.

The Fort Wayne Youtheatre kicks of its 75th season on October 11 with The Wizard of Oz, and Harvey Cocks has been at the helm of the organization for 31 of those years. The Wizard of Oz is the 105th play he’s directed at Youtheatre; Cocks can’t remember exactly how many productions he’s directed or acted in around Fort Wayne. Just last spring he starred in the Civic Theater’s Tuesdays With Morrie, and this month the Arena Dinner Theater is staging one of his original plays, James Dean: The Boy from Fairmount (directed by Robert Scrimm).

Cocks knew James Dean when they were both actors in New York. But Cocks — who turned 83 while starring in Tuesdays With Morrie — knew a lot people. He literally grew up in the theater business, with a career that stretches back to the Broadway stages of the 40s and 50s, and includes stints in radio and early television. He’s met and worked with some of the greats of the era, like Jimmy Cagney, Alec Guiness, and Helen Hayes, just to name a few. He took classes at the Actor’s Studio with Elia Kazan and studied script writing with John Gassner. He saw the entertainment business slowly change over the decades, from the era of the glamorous movie palaces to the massive, big-budget Broadway spectacles of today. And if you press him, he’ll tell you stories about who was “wonderful” (Jimmy Cagney rates high) and who was “a royal bitch” (a popular actress that Cocks asked me not to name).

Cocks sounds just as astounded by his life as any entertainment buff would be listening to his stories. “I just think I’m very lucky,” he says. “I think life is a matter of timing. Each part of my life was a step forward, a thing of growing. I’ve just gone from this to this to this to this. Everything was by accident in my life.”

Cocks’ father worked for a theater-owner in Glen Cove, Long Island named Henry Hedges, who taught Harvey Sr. every aspect of the business, from pulling ropes backstage to working the front office. When the big Broadway shows closed in Manhattan, the theater would usually bring the production out for a stint in Glen Cove, and Harvey Sr. would often meet the cast at the train station and haul their luggage and trunks via cart.

When Harvey came along, his father was doing promotion for Paramount Public’s theaters, now Paramount Pictures. These were the days of the big movie palaces, when a studio would send their stars out for gala premiers in towns all across the country. Harvey Sr. would go to a town, run the theaters for a while, promote them, and then move on. “So my childhood, one minute we were in New Haven, the next in Boston, then we’re moving to Des Moines, Iowa, then Atlanta, Georgia,” Cocks says. “All my life, we were constantly moving. It was a transient kind of existence.”

He says he remembers being in six different schools during his third grade year. “I thought that was a normal existence,” Cocks says. “I thought everybody did this, until we moved to a little town called Findley, Ohio. Smallest town we’ve ever lived in, but it’s still one of my favorite places. Kids would say ‘you’ve been on a train?’ I’d say ‘well, yeah, haven’t you?’”

It was also a star-studded existence. Cocks remembers meeting a wide range of stars at the premiers — Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman, Laurel & Hardy… “Just wonderful people, very family-like in their own way, and they had just chosen to be entertainers rather than plumbers or lawyers or whatever it might be.”

Cocks’ family first moved to Fort Wayne in 1929, then again during Cocks’ middle school years. They settled here in 1939 — Harvey Sr. was friends with Clyde Quimby, a theater owner here, and when Quimby died his wife Helen asked Harvey Sr. if he wanted to help her run the business. It was Cocks’ mother who convinced her husband to stay. “Fort Wayne was a great theater town in those days,” Harvey Jr. says.

But after high school, Harvey Jr. was ready to embark on his own career in theater. He had been accepted at Carnegie Tech (later Carnegie Mellon), but as graduation approached, he told his family that he wasn’t going to wait; he was going to go to New York and start his career on Broadway after he graduated. His father was unsympathetic. “Having worked with all these people, all these actors and show business people, my father could have probably opened doors for me,” Cocks says. “But he’s a real tough guy. He said ‘okay, I taught you to be independent. You’re going to blow college, that’s your decision. I’m not going to do anything for you’.”

So Cocks got a job at International Harvester for the summer and made enough money to get a coach ticket to New York, and a little extra for rent and groceries.

Things happened very quickly for Cocks once he jumped on that bus to New York. Indeed, the beginning of Cocks’ career sounds like something out of a classic movie, where the plucky young kid from the provinces makes his way in the big city. Right off the bus, he picked up a New York Times, found a furnished apartment, and then set off to audition for a play called The Bright Boy that he had read about in Variety during the long ride to Manhattan. “I got all dressed up in my suit and tie and went to the biggest agency in New York City, Music Corporation of America, who later became Universal Studios,” Cocks says.

Cocks walked in to a huge room full of actors and was greeted by a receptionist. “This is when I learned that receptionists were told to keep an eye out for a look. If you’re the physical type, they okay you,” he says. Sure enough, Cocks soon found himself face-to-face with Maynard Morris, the biggest agent in New York, who tossed a script at him and said “I want to hear you read.” After a short time exchanging lines, Morris told him that was enough. “He wrote a little card out — I still have it — and told me to go see Arthur Beckhard, the producer and director, at the Mansfield Hotel.” If Cocks didn’t quite realize who Morris was at that first meeting, Beckhard was a name he had read in books and magazine. He made his way to the Mansfield hotel and read for Beckhard and John Boruff, the writer. Boruff pronounced him “perfect” for the role, and in a matter of days Cocks found himself cast as “Specs” in a Broadway production. “I don’t tell that story often to beginning actors,” he laughs. “I was very lucky. Right look, right size, wearing glasses. I had some credits, so that’s why they sent me in. And they knew they could get me for equity minimum.”

It turned out to be quite a while before Bright Boy actually made it to the stage (and even then its run didn’t last too long). In the meantime, Cocks found other gigs, acting and otherwise. In the former category, he traveled for three months with the Clare Tree Major Children's Theatre playing Little Men and had a bit part in a play called I’ll Take the High Road, where he met Jimmy Cagney (Cagney’s sister was in the production). In the latter, he was an information clerk at a hotel.

His next big break came when he auditioned for two already successful plays, Harriet and Life With Father. Harriet was a showcase for actress Helen Hayes, an idol of Cocks’ since he was little; she actually read with Cocks during the auditions. In another almost unbelievable stroke of luck, he got offered parts in both productions. Cocks called Helen Hayes’ office and told her secretary his dilemma. She told him to wait by the phone, then called him back to tell him that Ms. Hayes wanted to talk to him in her dressing room at the theater.

Hayes said she would be sorry to lose him, but… “She advised me to take Life With Father,” Cocks recalls. “I said ‘thank you, thank you, thank you.’ I was about to leave, and she said ‘remember, you owe me one’.” Hayes actually called Cocks on this debt years later, when she was heading up the March of Dimes effort to raise money in the theater world (Hayes’ daughter Mary had died of polio). She and Cocks — in full costume — drummed up donations for the March of Dimes during intermission for a play she was in.

It was an obligation Cocks was more than happy to pay. “Life With Father was the best thing that ever happened to me in my professional life,” he says. “I stayed for three-and-a-half years in that show — it’s still one of the longest running non-musicals in the history of Broadway theater — and I met the most wonderful people.”

Perhaps most importantly, in Life With Father Cocks found something he had been missing his entire life: a sense of permanency. The boy who had grown up moving constantly from one town to the other welcomed the stability and camaraderie he found among the cast and crew. “Early on in my life, when I was about in third grade, I decided I wasn’t going to have any best friends anymore, because saying goodbye was becoming so painful,” he says. “So I would only get so close to people, until I got in to Life With Father. I was 18. They insisted that we do everything together. ‘We’re not only a family on stage, we’re a family off stage.’ We celebrated our birthdays, wedding anniversaries… everything that happened, we did as a family.”

“The shows I turned down, and the producers I turned down… I think of it now. It’s unfortunately the way I am,” he adds. “I think the permanency (of it). It was the first time I had felt that way in my entire life.”

It was an eventful time in Cocks’ life. He was engaged to actress Cathy O’Donnell but the relationship ended when O’Donnell went to Hollywood for a screen test and found work in movies (The Best Years of Our Lives, Ben Hur).

But Cocks began to have terrible headaches. “I had my eyes examined, my brain tested. They couldn’t find anything wrong.” A psychiatrist friend provided a diagnosis while they were chatting at a party. Cocks told him that playing in Life With Father was becoming more and more difficult. “He said ‘how long have you been in the show?’ I said ‘three and a half years. He said ‘well, that’s why you’re having headaches!’”

Cocks left the show and the headaches cleared up. He did a few summer stock jobs, and when he came back to New York in September, 1948, he didn’t have a single lead. A random run-in with actor Arnold Stang (“He looked like a chipmunk. He had great success playing comedy in early live TV”) got him an introduction to famously acerbic producer Mike Todd, who was looking for a juvenile lead in the play As the Girls Go By. After a meeting peppered with expletives on Todd’s part, Harvey told Todd he had to give him an audition “because I’m the best!” Cocks laughs. “I couldn’t do that now if you paid me, but as an actor, you do what you have to do.”

Cocks got the part, but things dried up a little after that. A few shows came and went, he did some radio work, some television work (he worked with a young Cloris Leachman on a live early TV show called Places Please), and several other jobs. At one point he tried to get a play produced with Jose Ferrer directing, but due to (a) money, and (b) Ferrer’s enormous ego, things fell apart. “I think I was very lucky to come along at a time during the second world war, when an awful lot of older, mature male actors were gone,” he says. “I had some talent, but I was young and cute and all that kind of stuff, and there were an endless amount of shows that required young people.” But with jobs scarce in New York, Cocks bought into a summer theater up in New Hampshire with two other guys, and ran that for five years.

The Broadway scene “went out the window” during his time in New Hampshire, though when he got back to New York he continued to work regularly on radio and television. Cocks says Broadway was beginning to change, taking its first steps towards what it is today. Old movie stars whose screen careers were in decline often found a second life on Broadway. “This is when productions began to cost so much money,” Cocks says. “(the stars) would come from Hollywood with these huge salaries, and demand the same salaries in New York, so they would get 50% of the gross, plus a weekly salary — several thousands of dollars a week, which in those days was a lot of money.”

He continues: “I got equity minimum, which was $67.95 a week, and I lived like a king on that. Subways were a nickel, telephones were a nickel. I had a gorgeous apartment, I bought clothes at Brooks Brothers… I miss those days. You can no longer make a living. I lived very comfortably working as an actor in New York, as did many other people, doing nothing but theater.”

Cocks was six months in to a production training program at ABC television when he got a call from his father, who was the owner and manager of Quimby Village at that time. His father was going to the Cleveland Clinic to have his heart checked out, and he needed someone to run the business while he was away. “He said ‘I taught you everything since you were eight years old. I trained you like Harry trained me. I don’t trust anybody’.” Cocks rented a house on Indiana Avenue with his wife and children, figuring he’d be there for about six weeks.

Sadly, Harvey Sr. died, and left the business to Cocks. It was his wife, Jean Hansen (they were married in 1958), who encouraged Harvey to stay. An actress and dancer who was raised in Chicago and had spent most of her life living in city apartments, Hansen loved the freedom and space she found in Fort Wayne. “She checked out the school system, checked out the churches, and she said ‘the freedom our children have is so wonderful here,’ compared to New York, where you grab your children and hold on to them. So I stayed.”

Cocks ran the business for a year, and realized early on why his father died at 67. “You’re on call every single day,” Cocks says. “I saw less of my wife and my kids than I ever did in New York City.” One Sunday, Cocks and his wife were in church, and Harvey found himself having trouble hearing the sermon because of the trains outside. He told Jean that he had never realized how close the tracks were to the church. “She said, ‘what are you talking about? There aren’t any trains.’ The next thing you know, I woke up in the emergency room at Lutheran Hospital. I had collapsed.” The doctor who attended him — the same doctor who had attended Harvey Sr. — told Harvey he was on the same path as his father.

Cocks sold the theater, and after a brief period where he found inactivity didn’t agree with him, he took a job in public relations at Lutheran Hospital. That lasted a year, until the headaches that had plagued him as a teenager in Life With Father returned. He left the hospital, and was wondering what he was going to do with himself when he got a call from Roberta Daniels, the president of Youtheatre. She had heard of Cocks and they were looking for someone to direct. She wondered if… Cocks jumped at the chance, taking the director’s chair from Larry Wardlaw for a production of I Will. He thought he’d stay at Youtheatre for a couple years. That was in 1977.

Jean Hansen was also very active in Fort Wayne theater until she died in 1994. “We were a great team,” Cocks says. “When I lost her, I lost my right arm.” He adds that he really misses seeing his wife on stage. But as far as giving up his New York show business life to move to Fort Wayne, Cocks has no regrets. Being an instructor and a teacher is one of the most fulfilling things he’s ever done, and he has made a lot of great friendships during his 31 years at Youtheatre. “Maybe it’s a big ego-trip,” he laughs. “But I go to New York now, and frankly, most of the people I knew then are dead. So the people I see shows with and meet for dinner now are former students who are now professionals in New York.” Recently, one of his former students worked on the High School Musical casting reality series at ABC. She told him that even though she didn’t “make it” as an actress, everything she had learned at Youtheatre helped her land a job in TV production.

Besides, Cocks simply isn’t the kind of guy to regret much of anything, or bemoan the way things used to be. At 83, he’s focusing on the next season of Youtheatre, thinking about acting in another play (he tries to act in at least one a year, “to keep my brain sharp”), and looking forward to seeing the Arena’s production of his James Dean play. And he currently has no plans to retire. “I’ll probably go on doing this until they carry me out of here,” he laughs. “But life is wonderful. It’s worth taking care of yourself for.”

Then, he snaps his fingers. “Time Out For Ginger,” he laughs. “That was the first play I ever directed.”

Fort Wayne Youtheatre presents The Wizard of Oz
Arts United Center_303 East Main Street
Saturday, October 11 and Sunday October 12, at 2:00pm
Tickets: $12.00 adults and students; $8.00 students/child
Box Office opens Monday, October 6, noon – 4 pm. (260) 422-4226

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