Wednesday, August 29, 2012


Back in the days when John Cullum, my husband, was job hunting and I was nervously taking over as artistic director of my dance company, John and I biked everywhere. Quite often on weekends, we went on excursions to areas of New York City that we'd never visited before.

It was a summer and fall thing to do. I loved the wind in my hair, and the exercise -- using my legs, my straight-backed posture, tut-tut observing John, who rides his bike hunched over. I wanted my ex-tennis-champ husband to have a dancer’s posture -- he wanted me to bike like a biker, and stop worrying about how I looked.

Golly, I still remember when I was a little girl, the big deal that learning to bike was. Harder, even more important than learning to tie the laces on my shoes, riding a bike was a way of becoming a grownup who could head for the park were grownup, bigger kids were jumping rope and playing baseball.

Well, I did it -- learned, and it grew me up, like learning to drive a car did, when I was older. I had to learn to drive in order to be able to earn a living from performing on college campuses.

After John landed a role in Shakespeare in the Park, on our bikes, we visited all sorts of wonderful Central Park nooks and crannies. When John, who was understudying two leading roles in “Henry V” went on for the Chorus, and did the famous “Oh for a muse of fire” speech, he was discovered by Alan Lerner’s assistant.

While John was playing Sir Dinadan in Lerner and Lowe's “Camelot, on his day off we rode our bikes up and down all the streets -- 41st to 50th street, stopping and studying the exteriors and backstage entrances of famous theaters, not realizing that John would be working on the stage, in most of them someday.

Sometime around then, my second-hand pink bike (I’d painted it) was stolen. We’d been parking our bikes in the hallway of our building, where the main entrance door wasn't locked. We'd rented and transformed the 4th floor loft into a spacious home and dance studio, and didn't have a buzzer that allowed us to unlock it for mail and package deliveries.

John’s blue bike (I’d painted it) was stolen when he was standing-by for Richard Burton, who was off to Rome to co-star with Elizabeth Taylor in “Cleopatra” -- it changed their lives, as well as ours.

John’s rising income enabled us to install a buzzer system and buy a smallish Honda motorcycle from an actor pal, who was in “1776," when John was singing “Molasses to Rum.”

Though traffic and potholes scared me, while John auditioned for Lerner, over and over for a new show, working on the Viennese accent Lerner wanted the leading man to have, I started learning to ride “Harry” the Honda. (That's what I called the Honda)

Nevertheless, I usually sat behind John on Harry, clutching him as we explored NYC's downtown Jewish shopping district ( open on Sundays) where I was shopping for fabric for 16 costumes for my solo performances at Lincoln Center. Suddenly, “helmets” had to be worn. Golly, I hated the way my head sweated, when I wore a hard hat. John said, "stop worrying -- you look fine," but my hair looked lousy for hours, after a trip on Harry.

Also, Harry stalled sometimes, and there were skids -- a nasty skid hurt my collarbone, so Harry temporarily lived in the hall way. With John’s “On a Clear Day” earnings, we bought our building, also new bicycles, and baby furniture -- parenting's part of our growing up -- our little one, John David Cullum was arriving.

As JD grew. we employed housekeeper- baby-sitters, and there were more jobs on Broadway for Dad, more prestigious bookings for Mom. We ventured out as a trio on Harry but it was nerve-racking, not safe -- city streets were getting to be very crowded. We gave Harry to John's understudy -- JC played Laertes in Burton’s “Hamlet,” and bought a tricycle for JD.

On Sundays, the three of us biked around the huge empty parking that's on our street -- us on two new bikes, JD on his first two wheeler -- then, a full-size bike -- wow, he was growing up fast.

When JC starred in “Deathtrap,” like rich folks, we commuted to a rented summer home in the Hamptons, exploring, on rented bikes, possible fabulous homes to buy. It was a fun game -- we weren’t rich, but a lot of things were in the offing -- meetings with Hal Prince about “On the 20th Century,” talk about John starring in a TV show, a tour for my adaptation of “Cyrano,” with John playing the part. All that, while I was on my way to London for a British Arts Council tour and JC was starring in “Shenandoah,” with JD playing a small role. No doubt about it -- the Cullums were in the busiest time, the prime of life. John bought a scooter but his producers objected, so he and JD traveled to the theater in the limo they provided.

Today, in NYC, there are bike paths everywhere, 290 miles of them have appeared under Mayor Bloomberg’s jurisdiction. I read recently that around 600,000 cars crawl into lower Manhattan each weekday; that 19,000 New Yorkers commute to work by bike. Tain’t a friendly city these days -- car-guys hate bikers, bikers hate car-guys, pedestrians hate the cyclists whizzing the wrong way on one-way streets -- more than 500 people were injured by bikes last year.

Anyway, JD’s an actor in LA now, driving a fancy sports car, and our dusty new (old) bikes belong to a neighbor who has two rambunctious kids. Hey, if you want to ascend to a ripe and active old age, you live less dangerously. On weekends, if we’re not busy puttering and fixing worn-out things, JC’s on our treadmill in our studio, and I, being concerned with how I look, do my barre every day in my studio and practice standing tall.

I stand very tall, and so does John Cullum, when we go on one of our long, long walks.


pamela said...

So poignant and beautifully written. I am in the same "stage." Reflecting back and seeing those scenes from life in vivid movies.

I miss the theatre JC was in with all those gorgeous songs. Can't seem to find Broadway shows like that anymore. And if there are a couple of beautiful songs, they surely aren't sung like John Collum would perform them. Mollases to Rum and so much more.

Em, have you thought about a two person performance piece for you and John? Your lives...a true depictions of the good and not so good?

Many years ago I was studying theatre at the HB Studio. I went backstage with a scene partner from class and met JC. He was so warm, encouraging. A special memory I cherish. Eventually became a theatre professor/director and artistic director of a black box theatre in Boynton Beach, FL.

From a fan in south Florida...pamela

Carola said...

Was the seat uncomfortable? I got onto a bicycle for the first time in years and bruised myself.

Anonymous said...

Hi Em,
Our son Andy lives in Brooklyn and bikes to Manhattan every day. He's still working with Occupy Wall Street. In fact I will be coming down to NYC Sept. 14-17 for the one year anniversary gathering.
At any rate I was an avid "biker" in Boston in my college days. Back and forth from Cambridge to the Back Bay! Wild rides weaving through traffic. I would pick out a car and see if I could keep up with it or better yet beat it... I enjoyed reading your description of your bike rides with John. I use my bike for shopping now here in Belfast, ME. I have this pannier(sp) attached to my bike. So long for now, David

Anonymous said...

Wonderful story about you and your family riding and walking in NYC over the years. Really enjoyed this and it was worth telling.
I remember learning to ride a bike and riding all over my neighborhood after school. Each yr I would ride alittle further from home. Fun and good memories. kam

Billy Ray Chitwood said...

Biking and the good old days! Did most of my biking around Marina del Rey, Santa Monica, and some of the beach towns in Southern California...

Fun? Yes, it was, but my tail bone always hurt after the long rides. Silly thing to remember but there it is.

Keep writing, Em.

Billy Ray

Reserve123 said...

Nice post. Do you ever get the urge to bike anymore?

Unknown said...

I love the way you associate your vehicles with the work you were both doing at the time.

What a fun insight into the lives of the Cullums. I really enjoyed this piece.

Jess S-C said...

A beautiful post, thank you for sharing. Jess :-)

E P Vaughn said...

Really enjoyed the story. I truly envy you your in-depth knowledge of the city―especially being able to see first hand the kaleidoscope that was New York during our lifetimes.

No more bicycles for me though―they make my butt hurt. I grew up on a farm, five miles from the nearest town. My bicycle was the only way I had to get anywhere, mostly on dirt roads. I traded it in for a motorcycle when I was fourteen and never looked back.

Unknown said...

That was a neat little memoir, Em. Very well done. Made me want to go to NYC…well, maybe a little bit...not enough to actually go. I'd rather hear you tell about it.

Didn't make want a bicycle…not even a little bit though.

Gus said...

But does Bloomberg have his own bikes? In London our Major Boris Johnson (yes that mad man) has a fleet of bikes for renting. Well they're not his exactly. We tax payers paid for them. However we call em Boris Bikes coz it rymes. :)

Maureen Jacobs said...

Biking is one of my favourite forms of enjoying the world. I certainly do not do it enough. If I were to move to NYC, my mode of transport would most likely be a bike as it is economical and moves quicker than the vehicles do.

Thanks for reminding of the fun that my childhood entailed and how it still remains an integral part of today.