Metairie Cemetary, New Orleans by T.M. Holder, 2007


There's Something About Laughter 

18 JUL 24: I think it was Jack Benny who said, “A comic says funny things; a comedian says things funny.” Bob Newhart knew he was in the latter category and was always grateful he made a success of just saying things funny and making everyone around him double up with laughter. I’m fairly gobsmacked with the news we have lost a truly great comedian—and a sweet, humble man who never saw himself as a star.

As a teenager in the mid-60s, I appeared at Melody Top Theatre in Hillside, Illinois in a rare non-musical for the then-brand new summer theatre, a stage version of The Honeymoon  Machine starring Bob and Brigid Bazlen (who would also star opposite Steve McQueen in the film version). Bob was just beginning his journey from accountant to legendary comedian status, the Chicago native (Oak Park, where I too was born) having recently gained notoriety with his solo The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, one of the most successful comedy albums ever.

He and his wife of about a year Ginny Quinn were expecting their first son Bob Jr at the time. They had been introduced by their mutual friend Buddy Hackett, Ginny once told me, because he said they were the only two Catholics he knew in Hollywood. "I think there's something about laughter," Bob once said, "and the durability of a marriage." He kept Ginny convulsed with laughter for 60 years until her death last year.

Ginny had been traveling with Bob way back in 1964 as we played our rather thin little romantic comedy at Melody Top in Chicago. She was dealing with an uncomfortable pregnancy and I would sneak her crazy things to eat and bring her silly toys. I ended up hanging out mostly in Bob's dressing room when not onstage and, especially when I confessed how sick my mother was at the time and how scared I was knowing I was going to soon lose her, the Newharts became like family to me.

When I decided to come west the next year, Bob was already on his way to becoming a huge star and he wrote a stunningly complimentary letter of recommendation for me to Pasadena Playhouse back when it was still a college of the theatre arts. I was awarded a scholarship and after appearing earlier that summer in the final stop of our tour of Oh Dad, Poor Dad… in Denver, Bob and Ginny invited me to stay in their home, a condo in the Wilshire-Comstock highrise in the Wilshire corridor until the Fall when the dorms at the Playhouse would be opened for new students.

I stayed close for many years with Bob and Ginny, although I think my globe-hopping hippie/acidfreak/music business years proved to be a bit much for them at one point—heck, they were even a bit much for me. We became what I call “Christmas card” friends until the early 90s when Dawn Wells and I tapped the Newharts to be part of a benefit we helped produce to help Marcia Wallace get through her husband’s Denny’s financially-draining struggle with cancer—coincidentally held at Pasadena Playhouse. It was like old home week and although we vowed we’d share a less emotionally-conflicted reunion, it somehow never happened.

I haven’t talked to Bob since just after Ginny passed on in 2023 since she was kinda the glue to keep up with old friends, but his death still hits hard. He was a lovely man, a brilliant talent, and someone I have adored for a mere half-century. Bob and Ginny were two lovely mensches (or the Catholic equivalent of such) who will always be in my heart.

“A guy walks into a psychologists’ convention with a banana in his pocket,” Bob once observed. “When asked about the significance of this, he said, ‘Well, you see, they were all out of grapes.’”

Bob Newhart was a very funny man, I tellya.

CHITA RIVERA  (1933 - 2024)

30 JAN 24: I wrote the following feature in the Spring of 2018. My cherished friend of 64 years suddenly sent us all reeling when she left us behind today. I truly thought Chita would live forever and, speaking to her a week ago today by phone to wish her a happy 91st birthday, I'm purdy sure she did too.

"I wouldn't know what to do if I wasn't moving or telling a story to you or singing a song," Chita said in an interview in 2015. "That's the spirit of my life and I'm really lucky to be able to do what I love, even at this time in my life."


SPRING 2018:  Somewhere in the darkest, dustiest corner in the attic of some deteriorating old Victorian mansion on some traditionally gloomy moor, there must be a hidden portrait of Chita Rivera that’s really going to hell. Oscar Wilde himself would be impressed.

It was 1960 when I first met Chita, during the time I squeezed my fine young ass into bright orange jeans and started asking Mrs. Garfein eight times a week if Charity was home from school yet. It was a bit intimidating stepping into a huge hit show where a bunch of precocious kids my age had already bonded bigtime, but one person immediately made me feel at home: Chita Rivera, the star of the friggin’ show.

I was 13 then and Chita was 26. I thought she was the oldest person in the world—or at least the oldest person in the world who treated me as a friend and a contemporary despite my age. Still, you see, almost six decades later, something Twilight Zone-y has occurred here: Chit is now younger than I am. She frequently turns her classic profile to one side, noting with pride that she’s been alive so long “I face the wind now.”

A long-overdue reunion in May, 2018, during her brief one-night appearance at the Wallis Annenberg Performing Arts Center in those illustrious Hills of Beverly, proved to be another indelible evening of time-defying brilliance as Broadway’s most unstoppable superstar gifted us once again with her spirit, her energy, her razorsharp humor, and her unique ability to defy the laws of gravity—let alone nature. At 84, perhaps her legendary extension doesn’t quite bump against the side of her head any longer but, as she noted from the Wallis’ Bram Goldsmith stage last Thursday, “as long as it’s sharp, it doesn’t matter.” Sure, there were one or two of her early signature dance contortions Chit admitted she would no longer attempt, quipping that if she did, we could all go home and forevermore be able to say we were right there the night she died.

Chita offered yet another of many memorable evenings in my lifetime being awed by this remarkable woman. Beginning with one of the catchiest tunes from Bye Bye Birdie, “Got a Lot of Livin’ to Do,” those 58 years came flooding back—and I’m sure that must have gone double for another former fellow resident of Sweet Apple, Ohio in attendance: Susan Watson, our original Kim McAfee, who sang “Livin’” to Dick Gautier’s Conrad Birdie nightly for the show’s entire New York run.

The evening shifted from Chit and host/accompanist Seth Rudetsky lounging in adjoining easychairs reminiscing about her long career to stepping back to the piano to perform the actual songs from the celebrated shows that energized her career. From Birdie’s seldom-performed opening tune “English Teacher,” the last notes of which made me want to run onstage on cue and start wailing about going steady for good, the amazingly prolific Chita Rivera Songbook was explored decade by decade, surely causing any diehard musical theatre fan in the audience to experience some kind of collective cerebral orgasm.

There were numbers recreated from her two Tony Award-winning performances in The Rink and Kiss of the Spider Woman, as well as highlights from her many other celebrated appearances, including her last of eight other nominated turns in The Visit. Without much surprise, however, the songs bringing the house down more than any other were from her first New York performance as the original Anita in West Side Story (“A Boy Like That” and a charming recreation of “America” with Rudetsky trying gamely to sing the Bernardo lines) and Velma in Chicago (“All That Jazz” and another hilarious though ill-cast duet of “Class”).

In the interspersed chats, Chit talked about her fascinating days hangin’ and being mentored by guys named John and Fred (Kander and Ebb, of course), Lenny (Bernstein), Bob (Fosse), and Jerry (Robbins), defending her name-dropping to Rudetsky by evoking her impressive longevity: “At my age, I call everybody by their first names because I can.”

She recalled the day at age 15 when some guy sitting in on Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero’s ballet class in her native Washington, DC showed an interest and offered her a scholarship to come to New York to study with him. She had no idea at the time who the gentleman was, but her first great admirer was none other than George Balanchine.

When a classmate at his School of American Ballet named Helen begged her to go to an open call for the national tour of Call Me Madam for moral support, Chit tagged along and, having no fear of auditioning, she joined the hopefuls gathering to be seen. She had never acted before and had no idea she could sing but regardless, she was the one who was hired and Helen was not (“And I have no idea what became of her,” Chita recalls with a tad of amused guilt).

The evening ended with a hard to beat finale, performing—compete with cane and top hat—the final showstopping duo she and Gwen Verdon shared nightly in Chicago some 40-plus years ago. Recreating Fosse’s incredible choreography and magnificently imitating Verdon’s famous quavering vocal style in Roxie’s solo sections, she aced “Nowadays / Hot Honey Rag” as an inspiring homage to the lategreat Mr. and once-Mrs. Fosse.

There is no way to truly describe this ageless human dynamo because there’s no one else quite like her. Even in her second of two grueling shows at the Wallis that one night, she faced her guests for hugs and cheer well into the night—providing an opportunity to hear the same thing she’s said every time I’ve been in her presence for nearly 60 years: “How could I ever forget that sweet face?” For me, of course, the feeling is mutual but also easier to express. It’s that portrait in the attic thing, I’m sure.

Chit’s advice to staying youthful and vital well beyond the time when most people are sitting at home knitting and watching HGTV? She does knee-raises every day while she’s drinking her morning coffee. “If the leg goes up,” she explains with a laugh, “you know you have a little more time.”

So, I'm going to start doing my own morning knee-raises while nursing my everpresent pot of Cafe duMonde. If for no other reason, I still need a little more time with Chita Rivera.

*  *  *

31 JAN 24: As I still today try to wrap my head around a world without Chita, someone I was convinced would always be around, here are two of my most indelible memories of her will, her spirit, her kindness, and finally, her signature sense of humor:

After her horrible car accident when broadsided by a NYC taxicab in the late 1980s that fractured her leg in 12 places, doctors told the 53-year-old Chita she might not ever walk again, let alone dance. Less than two months later, with two metal rods and numerous nuts and bolts permanently installed in her right leg, she was back onstage kicking just as high as ever.

A few years later, I brought our roommate and former kid I managed to see Chita in The Kiss of the Spider Woman here at the Ahmanson and, at the opening night party in the top floor ballroom above the Chandler, we wound our way to Chita’s table through a sea of adoring friends and fans.

The minute she saw me, she jumped up from her chair and we shared a long overdue hug. Then she saw Scott in his wheelchair next to me and immediately sat back down to greet him at eye level. They had never met, but she was well aware of his story, that only a couple of years before, two weeks before his 18th birthday, he had been in a tragic accident on a film set that left him paralyzed from the waist down.

Chita grabbed both his hands and drew him into a lengthy conversation, right there among the opening night chaos and people wanting her time, spending about 10 or 15 minutes giving him a pep talk about what a hero he was and how sure she was he could like her deny the doom and gloom of the naysayers telling him what he couldn’t do. But the end, both were in tears and he came home with an all-new resolve.

The second story, though unrelated, took place soon after. The LA Times' Sunday Calendar magazine did a feature on Chita which featured a page-filling and remarkably unflattering tight closeup of her face on the cover. When she saw it, she wailed to me, “Jesus! My face looks like a roadmap of Washington DC!” She decided that after the run, it was time to do a little facework before starting her next project.

A couple of months later, she made her first public appearance with her new “refreshed” face presenting live at the Tony Awards and she begged me to tune in see it ‘cuzz she knew I would give her an honest reaction after. Minutes after her appearance, the phone rang and it was Chita. “Well?” she said, “How did I look?” Without much hesitation, I said, “Very surprised.”

She started laughing so hard she had to put the phone down. 

Scream Real Loud 

31 JULY 23: Like so many people today, I adored Paul Reubens and I am gobsmacked by his sudden loss.

After years of being a fan and an early devotee of the live and mostly improv-ed Pee-Wee Herman Show each Friday latenight at the Groundlings long before his TV show, I was rather tongue-tied when I was introduced to him years later when he came to see my dear friends Eadie, Millie, and Elena (a.k.a. the lategreat Del Rubio Triplets) play the old Cinegrill at the Hollywood Roosevelt.

I actually SORTA met him years earlier when he tried to pick me up at Oil Can Harry’s—I didn’t recognize him but if I had, I might have agreed just to see his house.

I met him briefly another time when I was brought in to audition to play Santa on his Xmas special. I actually had my own Santa suit and a headshot back then that said TRAVIS MICHAEL HO-HO-HOLDER at the bottom but I didn’t get the part because they said I was too young and too thin—wouldn’t have that problem today, fersure.

Still, although my in-person encounters with Paul were brief, he was a gracious Facebook friend and a dedicated Xmas card guy.

These photos are from my collection, except for the last amazing Groundlings-era polaroid of Paul, Laraine Newman, and the late John “Jambi” Paragon, which Laraine’s sister and my old ERA cohort Tracy Newman posted today. I also found out today the horse in this photo was my friend Randal Kleiser’s “Violet” and was taken at the top of Runyon Canyon. And hey: I doubt many people have a permanent tattoo of the “WAY OUT” Paul dancing the frug on their left ankle, which I think disturbed him more than tickled him.

My heart hurts for my dear pals and his Playhouse/Groundlings buddies George McGrath, Lynne Stewart, and Suzanne Kent, not to mention my cousin Tom Nybo’s son Tommy and his six-year-old son Christian, both of whom are rabid Pee-Wee fans, an adoration I must note spans two more generations.

Paul’s beat, no doubt, will continue to go on but for today, the Secret Word is INCONSOLABLE.

Remembering my beloved "Aunt" Kate...

12MAY23:  Of all the totally amazing people I have been lucky enough to know in my long life, the legendary Katharine Hepburn is and will always be at the very top of the list.

Researching old photos of Kate on what would be her 116th birthday today (and I’m really kinda surprised she isn’t still with us), I came across this photo of Kate reclining in her favorite corner to relax in the kitchen of her Manhattan townhouse, the quiet spot amongst the continuous chaos where she always sat while I helped her run lines when she worked. 

Memories really started flooding back noticing the painting above her, Kate’s loving tribute to Phyllis Wilbourn, her… er… “companion” for 41 years. I found this second detailed shot of Kate’s painting of Phyllis posed in their majestic living room and realized how much her art has influenced my own in my life—one of the many things I took away from her friendship and guidance given to a confused young man.

The other photo I found was taken in front of that amazing and historic place Kate and Phyllis called home when not at her family home in Connecticut. She had owned her beloved Turtle Bay townhouse since the early 1930s, I believe. I don’t know how old it was but I do know it had been renovated in 1918.

It was a magical place where her neighbors were Stephen Sondheim on one side and Garson and Ruth (Gordon) Kanin on the other—and the nearby intersection of 49th and 2nd Avenue was renamed Katharine Hepburn Place in 2003 after she died at age 96 (Phyllis passed in 1995, a loss from which Kate never quite recovered).

Such indelible memories I have of times there with my adopted aunts who took such wonderful care of me. And if anyone who’s read my recently published “auto-novel” (Hershey Felder’s tag for it) Waiting for Walk, if you had suspicions who the real Aunt Judith and Aunt Cora featured in the story might have been, perhaps this post will explain a lot.

Here’s perhaps my favorite quote from Kate, from a 1990 interview with another national treasure and author of Follies of God, James Grissom: 

"I was lucky, pure and simple, lucky. I grew up in what I consider an ideal family, and I fell into other ideal families with whom I worked and played. It's what I wanted; it's what I sought; it's what I felt I deserved, but that doesn't mean much if the luck isn't there, and I had the luck. You know, you have the luck or you don't, and all I can do is be around and aware and try to be the luck for someone else. So I try to see people and raise people up.

"I was also lucky in having parents who taught me that I had to answer to something higher and greater and tougher than the opinions of others. I have to be good for a director or a writer--I have to keep others going around me--but in what I'll call the real world, the walking-around world, I have a conscience, that still, small voice inside here that tells me what's right and fair and decent, and also what's a lot of bunk, and I listen to that."I never could listen to what other people told me to do in the living of my life.

"I'm very ornery that way. I'll cut you off right away if you think you know better than I what I should do. Men are really annoying in this way, because men cannot imagine a greater honor in this world than to earn their attention and their opinion. How honored I must be if a man tells me how I look or how I should live! Well, I smiled a lot and beat it from those situations, and only I was the wiser. Ask me my opinion and you'll be here for days, but I'm not going to offer it, and if I want yours, I'll ask for it. But if you give it to me unsolicited, it's going to come flying right back at you.

"A way to die is to have other people dictate how you should live your life, to tell you how to love and whom to love. People betray their passions all the time, out of fear, to suit the fashions of the time, and I think that is suicide, artistic or otherwise. Nothing defines and matures you better than those things you love.

“Don't defend them. Just love them. They're calling out to a part of you that doesn't exist anywhere else in the world."  

The True and Authentic Spirit of New Orleans:  Kenneth Holditch, 1933 - 2022  

My heart hurts. As I posted on Facebook yesterday, December 7, 2022 was a surprisingly ominous day for ol’ Pollyanna me. Someone online immediately noted Mars is in retrograde and maybe that might’ve explained dead cellphones, being covered in alizarin crimson when the top of my paint tube exploded all over me, and the best of all, getting stuck between floors in my building’s elevator. But even going to bed and pulling up the covers didn’t help the worst devastation of all.

It was 3:30am when my friend Erma Duricko sent me a text that chilled my bones. Yesterday, the world lost one of the most amazing and brilliant people I have ever been privileged to call my dear friend, Dr. Kenneth Holditch. I look back now and see all that red paint spilled over my arms and hands might have been prophetic, if I wanted to go the woo-woo route.

Ken was perhaps the preeminent Tennessee Williams scholar in the world and author of Tennessee Williams and the South, The World of Tennessee Williams, and the play Tennessee Williams and His Women. He was one of the founders of the annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival in New Orleans, which is where we met in 2003 when I was there opening the Fest playing Tenn in Lament for the Moths.

I fell in love with the place bigtime that first time for me there and Ken was a big part of my enduring love for his magical city. There was never a time I returned there that didn’t include Ken and, in the last too many years, Hugh and I would visit him at his incredible art and literature-filled home on Frenchmen Street where he had been basically confined to a wheelchair and seldom ventured out. A day with Ken meant arriving with Chinese food and spending hour after hour hearing him retell hilarious and revealing stories about his life (he was originally from Tupelo and a classmate of Elvis) and his personal friendship with Tenn. He was the most charming and interesting Southern gentleman one could ever meet and for me he was the epitome of New Orleans grace, charm, humor, and resilience.

Ken retired from three decades teaching at the University of New Orleans in the 90s because of his health but that didn’t keep him from founding the William Faulkner Society (his other expertise), creating the Tennessee Williams Literary Walking Tour of the French Quarter, and being able to drink anyone under the table while holding court at his favorite table at Galatoire’s. Hugh and I are not big drinkers but visiting Ken’s home, where the spirits flowed in great and happy profusion, we were lucky we were taking an Uber back to our hotel.

I spoke to Ken often by phone but, thanks to Covid, we haven’t been able to visit NOLA since Xmas three years ago, but we had planned to return this month. When plans changed, I called Ken and he was genuinely and touchingly disappointed, but I promised we’d see him in March for our annual excursion there for TennFest, where I’ve appeared several more times since 2003 and where in 2019 Hugh won an all-access pass as the winner of the Festival’s yearly STELLLLA Shouting Contest on Jackson Square.

Ken was a special friend, someone who to me was the most fascinating, enthusiastic, and brilliantly eccentric spokesperson for the Big Easy I can ever imagine. And for all the richness of his life, whenever I called his voice was filled with joy and genuine excitement to hear from me—and he never missed mentioning Hugh, who he once called my “hot Little Horse,” a reference fans of Tenn will instantly recognize. Never did he miss giving Hugh a little extra squeeze or let his hand wander a little too low, something that usually makes Hugh cringe except when the endearment came from Ken.

When I told him about the publishing last month of my first novel, Waiting for Walk, he was so genuinely thrilled I wondered if my announcement wasn’t bad for his health. Simply, I can’t even imagine walking through the Quarter anytime in the future without remembering Ken’s wild and often delightfully inappropriate endless tales of life there in even crazier earlier times, carousing with Tennessee, championing John Kennedy O’Toole and George Dureau, and being carried out feet first from the best and the worst of places.

My heart is broken… frail as he has been for several years, I somehow thought my friend Ken was invincible.

  Robbed of Robin…

I only met the lategreat Robin Williams once, through my friend BJ Cook when we were both part of the Committee to Ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in... wow... 1980, I think. We were producing a big benefit concert event at the Geffen (then Westwood) Playhouse and Robin had agreed to be one of the hosts.

The day of the event, after a long, long dry period for Hollywood, the five-month lingering SAG strike ended and Robin had come directly from the set of his series, exhausted like the other hosts for trying to film two episodes at once that day to make up for time before the season start date. He asked to do his host thing early so he could get some sleep before another rigorous early, early day on the set.

I was assigned to wrangling our stars and get them to the stage, something I was only too well accustomed to in those days. Robin was wearing a gorgeous soft black leather biker jacket with red leather pleats inside wherever there were seams. He asked me to hold and watch over his jacket right before he went onstage and I jokingly answered, "If I took it, I'd keep it."

He quipped, "Okay, sure. It's yours."

I actually did put it on, quickly realizing it would be easier than holding it or keeping track of it in all the chaos. It felt great. When he was done with his set, he came offstage and I started to take off the jacket to hand it to him.

He stopped me. "No, no, I said you could keep it."

I said, "Oh, shit, no! I thought you were kidding!"

"No, keep it. It looks great on you, man. It's all yours."

He left for home and I kept the jacket on backstage all evening. About 90 minutes later, I got a tap on my shoulder backstage. It was Robin.

He said, "I changed my mind. I came back for my jacket." 

Martyr, Mentor, Mensch... 

I recently watched the Oscar-winning 1985 documentary on the life and times of the long-lamented Harvey Milk, an amazing man who I was proud to call my friend—and mentor. I’m sure this will spark my pal Judy Berns to once again call me “Zelig,” so let me explain the connection.

When our Troubadour North opened (and later became The Boarding House) in 1972, my frenzied often twice-weekly commute between the two cities turned into a permanent residency in San Francisco for Victor, our roommate Dale Kerpel, and me. Now, I had always taken lotsa photos as anyone who knew me then can verify, but I used a little 110 camera and never took it very seriously since it was all about the nice round asses still those days, not the art of photography. We lived at the corner of Castro and 14th and I was pleased when a little mom-‘n-pop camera store opened in the Castro business center about four blocks away—especially since it was a Castro Street business and I thought they’d be a lot more lenient about my frequent subject matter than where I had been going to develop my stuff.

Mom-‘n-Pop there, however, were Pop-‘n-Popette this time—and “Mom” was none other than Harvey Milk. I got to know his lover Scott better than him, but despite the fact that politics was not yet at least publicly in his life, Harvey was always there loudly (happily) holding court. One day when I came in to pick up my photos, Harvey called me over to him. He quietly said, “I hope you won’t think me nosy but I see you shoot a lot of nudes.” I instantly thought “Uh-oh... I’m in trouble after all.” Instead, Harvey told me how much he loved my photos and went on and on about what a great eye I had for composition and light.

He then said, “Tell me something. Why do you use a 110 camera?” I told him that I was totally self-taught, that it was all I knew how to use, and I had never considered moving up to anything else. He said I should definitely take myself and my "work" more seriously, which made me puff up like a parakeet in a breeze. A mutual admiration society began to grow over the next few months, although I always suspected that my many nakkid photos of Victor at least partially fueled his interest in my work—and in Victor, who got the ol’ eyelash-batting treatment from him I never did. One day, he asked me if I was contemplating his suggestion to be more serious about the work but before I could conjure any good excuses, he held out to me what looked like a ticket.

Turns out he had helped a very pretty young thing from Amsterdam (living in Boston) who had ended up in SF in his VW van after an obviously rather heady acid trip. He was from a wealthy family and wanted to go home but he was totally tapped and his pissed family refused to help. He slept on a couch in the camera store’s notorious back room for awhile then offered Harvey all the top-of-the-line camera equipment that had been in his van in return for enough money to get back home.

Harvey agreed, but instead of trading his goods for passage, he helped the kid pawn it to finance the trip then, when he was home and back on his feet, he could redeem the ticket and Harvey would send his equipment to him. So that’s what happened, except the kid got back in the family’s good graces and told Harvey not to bother redeeming the stuff because he had all new and better camera equipment.

So Harvey gave the pawn ticket to me. I redeemed a very expensive East German Exakta 500 camera and several great lenses, including a rare 100mm portrait lens that began my side-job taking headshots when we got back to El Lay a few years later. Harvey started coaching me and the first test photos I took were of him in front of his store.

We left San Francisco to return to LA and the LA Troub in 1976, some time before Harvey decided to make history and run for Supervisor. I tried to support his efforts from here—not as easy before computers and the internet—including designing campaign posters and other graphics for him and several times journeying back to SF for events ($19 for the daily midnight “red-eye flight” on PSA in those days), where I was asked to take photos at several different rallies.

I think it’s kinda amazing that one of those prophetic photos I shot back then became one of the most famous and even historic photos of the same gracious and incredibly kind man who taught me everything and anything I know about photography. Harvey Milk was there for me. Harvey Milk was there for us all.



12 MAR 20: Today would be the 90th birthday of my much-missed friend, legendary New Orleans jazz and R&B composer/ arranger/producer Wardell Quezergue, the “Creole Beethoven” and one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met—with grateful thanks to his mentor and my dear pal Penny Stallings who took fine care of him in his waning years.

I could sit for hours listening to Wardell’s tales of the early primitive recording techniques at the old Rampart Studios or discovering Fats Domino, Ernie K-Doe, the Neville Brothers, and many other greats. His was a life that defies description. Without Wardell, there would never have been some of our most enduring standards, among them “Barefootin’,” “Chapel of Love,” “Iko Iko,” “Misty Blue,” and “Mr. Big Stuff.”

Blind, diabetic, broke after being robbed, as so many of his contemporaries were, of any royalties, Wardell spent Hurricane Katrina floating down Canal Street on his living room couch before Mac Rebennack (Dr. John), REM’s Mike Mills, and others produced a series of benefit concerts on his behalf. In 2010, shortly before he passed at age 81, Wardell was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame and was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Music from Loyola University, presented to him at that year’s Jazz Fest.

At dinner the night before he was scheduled to sit for a video interview about his career at Antoinette K-Doe’s Mother-in-Law Lounge that would be played onstage when he accepted his honor at Jazz Fest, Wardell confessed to Penny and me how nervous he was to tape it. “I have no idea what I’m gonna say,” he lamented. I told him just tell a fraction of the stories he’d told me over the years, like about recording at Rampart with all the musicians crowded in the middle of the room around one single hanging microphone and the incredible music they created. “But that’s just the thing, Travis,” he said. “See, I remember the tunes and I remember every note... I just don’t remember the names of any of the folks who made ‘em.”

So, look closely at this treasure which hangs in my office from Wardell’s 2006 benefit at Preservation Hall. Sometime after the event, Jordan Hirsch from Sweet Home New Orleans, the incredible organization which helped all the displaced musicians after The Storm, gave us a stack of these leftover posters from the event and immediately Penny's friend Susanna Styron got the idea that, if signed by Wardell, we could hawk them at Jazz Fest to benefit SHNO.

In the dead of dinnertime (Wardell loved his raw oysters so Penny accommodated him often), Suzanna and her daughter Lila Larson scoured NOLA for a Sharpie he could use to autograph them. After leading the sightless Wardell’s hand to a place to sign the posters, he set in to sign them all.

See the little black scrawl to the right of Wardell’s face? That was it. His signature. None of us had the heart to tell him it was too small to be readable.

My last "date" with Wardell, 2010 


Bette's Little Orange Beauty 

So I didn’t know David Bowie well, but I did help Bette Midler tuck him into bed once.

Although it was during my music business years, my major source of access to David came from others, not from my own career. My lategreat pal and one-time parttime roomie in San Francisco Ola Hudson dated him for a spell, a time during which her son and our godson Saul “Slash” Hudson stayed with us in SF while Ola traveled the world on tour with David. That ended when another of our late and sorely-missed friends, Teddy Antolin, who did David’s hair and makeup for shoots and on tour, introduced him to one of his other clients, a model named Iman, and the rest is history.

But before that, in 1972 living in San Francisco when the Troubadour North first became The Boarding House and I booked Bette Midler on her first west coast appearances there and at the LA Troub, the pre-Ola-era David showed up one night to one of Bette’s late 11pm shows after his own big Ziggy Stardust tour concert at Winterland and it was up to me to sneak him and his then-boyfriend, who I THINK was one of the dancers in his tour, into the club without chaos.

Both were MIGHTY stoned and had been—and continued to—argue, even after I stealthily got them seated in the theatre during the concert by offering two people near the back house seats up front so David could remain unnoticed. Several times I had to tell them to cool it before their fight erupted into a loud affair (as Bette sang, mind you), eventually becoming such a bruhaha I had to escort them out to the lobby. The dancer, dressed identically  to David, by the way, dramatically took off in a cab and I brought David upstairs to Bette’s dressing room to meet her. Both got MORE stoned with me catching up as fast as possible until the zipped-out pair asked me to take them to the hottest SF gay dance club for even more “fun.”

I wasn’t big for bars at that time but I had gone dancing at a rather ominous-looking but nicely crazed place in an old warehouse south of Market Street whose name I cannot remember and the three of us, joined by Victor, danced the night away. It seemed the right choice for David to be able to meld into the crowd despite his bright orange spiked hair and short-legged purple overalls without a shirt beneath. Ironically, Bette was still unknown enough to not be recognized yet.

We danced until the lights came on (at 4am, I think?) and by then, David was so out of it he could hardly talk or walk. Victor had headed home earlier so Bette and I were saddled with the task of getting Mr. Stardust back to his hotel—the problem being he could not remember where he was staying. We were sure it was one of the classic ones so tried to call them all since all his key had was the room number on it. We finally gleaned that it was a rather nondescript place near the airport and we proceeded to literally carry  David from the cab, through the lobby, and up to his room where we literally put the guy Bette dubbed "her little orange beauty" to bed.

Several years later, hanging with Teddy when David and Iman showed up, I reminded him who I was and what went down. He did not of course remember me until I mentioned Ola but more indicative of those times, of our evening of angry lovers and all-night carousing, all he said was, “Funny… I don’t remember meeting Bette back then.”

I wasn’t too surprised.    


Here’s my one memory of the late Zoe Caldwell (1933-2020) that I cherish and have often shared with my students.

When Caldwell opened in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum in Master Class  before it went off to Broadway, my frequent “plus one” for theatre back then was someone in a wheelchair, so we were always seated in the section halfway back on audience right that can accommodate a person in a chair.

Often, since the Taper is a thrust, the view was not the best. Near the end of Master Class, as Audra McDonald’s character was berating Maria Callas as a hasbeen who was teaching because she had lost her voice, Caldwell was positioned with her back to us.

I felt so frustrated not to be able to see the emotion on her face as the scene unfolded, but her Callas was wearing the loosely fitting black satin blouse seen in this photo and suddenly, as I watched, the back of her blouse began to tremulously, almost imperceptibly shimmer, the result of the delicate, subtle, full-body emotional range only a great, great actor such as Caldwell was able to conjure.

It was magical—and I was absolutely overwhelmed by emotion myself as I realized that I was one of only about 20 people able to see that blouse stir on its own, perhaps that one time only and possibly never again. It filled me with a renewal of the unique wonders of live theatre I have spent my life worshipping, a place where the spontaneity of the moment can never totally be duplicated.

I will be forever grateful to Zoe Caldwell for that one defining moment in my life which, once again and better than ever before, instantly renewed and reinvigorating my passion for theatre above all the other artforms I revere.


LEON KATZ (1919 - 2017) 

Speaking / performing at the LEON KATZ MEMORIAL CELEBRATION, Kirk Douglas Theatre, LA, 12 JUN 17


Leon’s brilliant and highly-acclaimed play Beds debuted in 2000 at the Stella Adler Theatre in Hollywood directed by Leon and Debra DeLiso and featuring Irene Roseen as Alice B. Toklas, Jeremy Lawrence as Oskar Kokoschka, and Travis Michael Holder in his award-winning turn as the dying Oscar Wilde “composing a letter in the air” to his absent lover Lord Alfred Douglas. Here is Travis recreating a passage from Beds:

I am Tireseas!

No. No, no, no. Not Tireseas…

I am… I am…

No! No lamentations!

At the moment, dear Bosie,

I am struck with another fantasy.

One you deplored

and one which we both destroyed:

Oscar: Husband and Father.

Bourgeois malgre lui!

And one day,

with adoring wife and adorable sons,

The superbly respectable quartet!

Shopping! In the better part of Piccadilly Circus…

I, on the verge of entering Swan and Edgar,

the door ajar and wife and sons already through its portals

but I not yet quite inside the shop’s dark enclosures,

Glance back, for an instant, at the brilliant sky and busy street,

And catch, in that glance,

the painted boys on the pavement

Shocking passersby with their costumes and their airs…

And something…

Both horror and… affinity, I suppose…

Clutched at my heart like ice

And dwelt there, unrelentingly,

until ice turned to fire.

For I knew that in knowing them I knew myself.

I knew their paint was under my features

and their clothing a thin layer beneath my own.


My imagination rushed…

To be among them.


Travis’ testimonial:

"The Oscar Wilde section of Beds, which consisted of an hour-long monologue ending in Wilde’s death during a very Katzian, very lengthy onstage orgasm, was excerpted from Leon’s full-length still unproduced solo play Dear Bosie. About four years ago, several days after waxing nostalgic about the experience of playing the role with Leon, he called to say, 'You must play Oscar again' and told me, if I was interested in doing the whole entire Dear Bosie, he was offering me the rights to present it. I reminded him that, although I’d love to revisit his fascinating take on Oscar, I'd played the role in 2000. I was then 53 or 54. Four years ago, I was 66--20 year older than Wilde was when he died in 1900 at age 46. Leon roared, 'Damn it! How frustrating! This whole age thing always gets in the way, doesn't it?'

"Not that it did much for Leon, who once told me many of his ancestors lived to be 100 and he intended to beat them. Well, despite his health and tubes in his nose, the guy almost made it, didn’t he? Maybe he would have made it to 100 and past if the inauguration of our 45th President, three days before he died, had turned out differently.

"I’d met Leon the year before he first asked me to do Beds through Maria Gobetti and Tom Ormeny when he was serving as dramaturg for Tom’s play Life on the Line, which provided another chance for me to die onstage—though less euphorically. Leon and I became instant friends and there are so many memories, especially watching the transformation on my students’ faces when I would ask Leon to come speak to them in my class studying 20th century playwrights to kids whose knowledge of theatrical history begins with Will Farrell and ending with Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson.

"But the most vivid memories I hold dear are less academic. Like, driving with him in the pouring rain—anybody ever ride with Leon behind the wheel, the only person who could ever park halfway up a curb and not worry about the ticket? So, during a major storm, I accompanied him to a special effects warehouse in Chatsworth to check out lifesize dolls that Jeremy Lawrence as Oskar Kokoschka would abuse physically and sexually each night in Beds. My most vivid memories of that strange day—besides the drive—were how seriously Leon checked out each doll for durability and… well… anatomical access, and how the proprietor of the shop, from his reaction, surely thought Leon was not at all really interested in producing a play.

"But here’s the story I tell about Leon the most: About 10 years ago, Leon came to see me in Glengarry Glen Ross. As we shared a meal afterwards, he flattered me profusely, finally telling me my take on Shelley 'The Machine' Levine was one of the best performances he’d ever seen. Of course, I was sufficiently stunned and hopefully accepted his compliment graciously, as his unending and passionate support for my career, which has hardly been on par with, say, anyone knighted by the British Empire, had been such a game-changer for me and my sagging confidence—especially after becoming the only geriatric juvenile with an ass the size of an outdoor movie screen in the business.

"But, yes, soon the gin-and-tonic started to kick in and I started to whine—the same kind of whining that one hears during a break at any Hollywood scene study workshop. I began to grumble about how ephemeral acting for the stage is, saying that two years from then he'd remember I was good as poor ol’ Shelley but he would not remember exactly why, unlike the formaldehyde-bottled nature of a performance captured on film, something I am still to conquer in these, my own quickly dwindling twilight years.

"As an example, I told him when I was about eight, rehearsing for my first play in New York, everyone around me, including people like Paul Muni and Melvyn Douglas, kept talking about how great Laurette Taylor had been as Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie but she had died when I was two months old so I never got to see just how good she had been. Leon pondered for a moment, then leaned across the table and said, 'Travis, let me put your mind at rest. Laurette wasn't that good. Now, Nazimova as Hedda Gabler in 1926... like yours, that was a performance I'll never forget.'

No one, no one ever in the world, could put someone in their place as slyly and elegantly as Leon Katz.


UTA HAGEN: 1919 - 2004 

“Be curious! Ravenous! I hate that I can’t read or hear or see everything. I can’t cook or taste everything. I don’t know the origin of a word. Kills me! How much longer can I study? The world and people offer so much, and we are perpetual students. Inhale the world.” — Uta Hagen 


Uta Hagen, one of the most respected theatre actresses of our time and surely the most important acting teacher of the 20th century, died at age 84 on Jan. 14, 2004. She had been in grave health since suffering a stroke late in 2001, soon after the close of her last performance here at the Geffen Playhouse opposite David Hyde Pierce in Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks,  which she was excited planning at the time to bring to Broadway the following season.

As an actress, Hagen was best known as the original Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  on Broadway in 1960, a feat she repeated in a benefit reading opposite Jonathan Pryce at the Ahmanson in 2000. After 40 years, she was still sharp, sexy, scary and magnificent in the defining role which won her a well-deserved second Tony Award. She was awarded her first as Georgie in The Country Girl  in 1951 and received a third, for Lifetime Achievement, in 1999. She was awarded the National Medal of the Arts in 2002.

Of course, Hagen will first be remembered for her revered classes at HB Studio, the renowned acting school she found with her late husband Herbert Bergdof in 1947. She published her first definitive textbook on the art, Respect for Acting, in 1973 and its eventual update, A Challenge for the Actor, in 1991. Never one to flinch at marketing herself, when asked to autograph her first book after the publication of the second, Hagen would inscribe: "Throw this book away. Uta Hagen”

I first saw Hagen as Blanche in Streetcar Named Desire  in Chicago as a very young child and was immediately galvanized by her. While in New York appearing in a play soon after, I was given a golden opportunity through my mother, a fellow victim of Sen. McCarthy’s infamous blacklisting. Hagen agreed to let me sit in on—not take, because of my young age—her classes at HB. I wasn’t to talk, wasn’t to work, wasn’t to offer comment. Just listen and stay quiet, which I did twice a week without fail.

Hagen gave a series of master classes at the Howard Fine Studio in 1997 and I attended a seminar at Paramount Studios, where she sat with her ever-present cigarette in one hand and her beloved dog on her lap, pontificating like the grand diva she was on the art and the business of acting. After the event, I waited dutifully in a long line while she signed books and autographs. Finally my turn, I said, “Miss Hagen, I don’t know if you’ll remember me. I’m Travis Holder and I used to audit your classes at HB when I was a kid in Birdie  and you have been the most important person in my career ever since.” She squinted through her cigarette smoke and focused curiously on me. “T-R-A-V-I-S?” she asked. “Yes,” I replied eagerly, pleased to be remembered by such a great lady. She looked down at a stack of notecards on hand for bookless admirers, wrote “Warm wishes, Uta Hagen” on one and handed it back to me without so much as another look in my direction.

When I wrote about the incident in my column in Entertainment Today  soon after—along with a suitably devotional two-part account of her seminar—I received a package at ET's  offices from Hagen in New York, which included two signed photos, one from her 1972 film The Other  and the other a recent headshot, as well as several more of those signed notecards identical to the one I'd been given at the seminar. No note. No explanation. That was it.

Then in 2001, just as she was here appearing in Six Dance Lessons,  I was asked by producer Bob Guenette of LAMEC to play opposite my friend Stephen Nichols in an Equity production of The Zoo Story,  which was tentatively set for the Ivar Theatre in Hollywood. When Stephen told me Bob had asked his old friend Uta Hagen to direct the production while she was in town, my heart raced. Unfortunately, the production was eventually abandoned due to Guenette’s illness but before it went kaput,  since I was cast before she got onboard the Albee-train I was invited to meet Hagen after a performance at the Geffen.

Coincidentally, it was also Uta's 82nd birthday and when we met after the show, we discussed Zoo Story  and Albee in her dressing room until almost everyone else had left the building. She suddenly turned to me and breathlessly said, “God, I’m too wired to go to sleep… want to go have a drink?” Also almost alone there, we sat in the cushy lobby of the Beverly Hilton Hotel and sucked down our share of margaritas that night. I was in theatrical heaven. She discussed her frustrations with herself in the show, where she was still struggling for lines. She said she knew the words backwards and forwards in the shower, but when she got onstage, they disappeared.

“It’s not because you don’t know them,” I ventured bravely. “It’s because you're still trying to figure out why you're saying them.” She brightened up like a lightbulb and said, "Yes! You're right!" She told me nothing was harder for her than at that point in the process, especially after so few rehearsals. Until the words were organic, she told me, her thoughts were clouded with creation and the dialogue suffered. "Thank you for saying that!" she gushed. "I read it somewhere," I told her. It was in a book called Respect for Acting,  I believe." She howled with laughter and we were instant friends.

We also discussed something else I found fascinating that night: preparation as an actor. I joked about a mutual friend with whom I had recently worked, who arrived at the theatre each night three hours early and would only speak in her character’s accent or answer within her world. She even smoked tobacco for the first time in her dressing room, something the real life person she was playing did.

“That kind of work does nothing for spontaneity, which is the key to a great performance” she said. “All I need is 30 seconds to say to myself, what time is it, how cold is it, remind myself what my problems are, then I hit the stage running. Too much preparation anchors your work in cement. If you don’t surprise yourself, you have nowhere to go.”   

Hagen told the Orange County Register  while she was here then in 2001: “I could play 10 performances a week forever and thrive on it. I'm never bored. People who get bored don't know their craft. There's always something new to be gleaned from every performance. After two years of playing The Cherry Orchard,  you know what I did on closing night? I cried.”

The world has lost an artist of unparalleled stature, one of the greatest, most courageous, most unique, and most groundbreaking talents of our time.

 From Uta’s 1996 interview with James Grissom:

”I called the book 'Respect for Acting' for a very clear reason. I did not call the book 'Delight in Acting' or 'Love of Acting' or 'The Fun of Acting.' I called that book what I called that book because of the shocking lack of respect that was creeping into both the teaching and the practicing of acting. Now? Forget it. We have allowed so much to recede or languish that I don't know what I could call a book today. 'Demand for Acting' might work. ...There was a time when people became bored and they took up bridge or golf; ladies had an affair or had their hair rinsed and joined a book club. Now they want to act. And there are fools with no standards who allow them into classes and theatre groups and tell them to live their dream. I don't care about dreams. I care about work and responsibility and truth and commitment."

Oreo Cookie, Warrior Princess:  ? - 2022 

Miss Cookiedough was only our girlie for nineteen months, but since we were told that Oreo, thirteen-ish, dumped by being tied to a doorknob at a pet clinic in the dead of night, and gravely ill, would probably only live two months, we were determined to make them special.

We showered her with unconditional love (we think for the first time) so strong she wasn’t willing to let it go—and she gave it back many times over. Simply, we saved her life and in return, as I dealt with daily cancer treatments, she saved mine.

As she was finally unable to stay with us any longer, she was scared. Her eyes were darting wildly and she was shaking all over. I took her in my arms, held her as close as I could, and said directly into her ear so she could feel my lips (she was mostly deaf), “It’s okay, my love. I’m well now. You helped make me well. You can let go now.” Her whole body instantly relaxed. She sighed a huge, grand sigh, closed her eyes, and was gone 🧡

The House Dog's Grave

by Robinson Jeffers

My very favorite poem of all time.
For Haig, Jeffers’ beloved bulldog, buried just outside the living room window of the family’s magical home, Tor House, in Carmel, California. Written “in Haig’s voice," 1941

I've changed my ways a little; I cannot now
Run with you in the evenings along the shore,
Except in a kind of dream; and you,
If you dream a moment,
You see me there.
So leave awhile the paw-marks on the front door
Where I used to scratch to go out or in,
And you'd soon open; leave on the kitchen floor
The marks of my drinking-pan.
I cannot lie by your fire as I used to do
On the warm stone,
Nor at the foot of your bed; no,
All the nights through I lie alone.
But your kind thought has laid me less than six feet
Outside your window where firelight so often plays,
And where you sit to read‚
And I fear often grieving for me‚
Every night your lamplight lies on my place.
You, man and woman, live so long, it is hard
To think of you ever dying.
A little dog would get tired, living so long.
I hope that when you are lying
Under the ground like me your lives will appear
As good and joyful as mine.
No, dears, that's too much hope:
You are not so well cared for as I have been.
And never have known the passionate undivided
Fidelities that I knew.
Your minds are perhaps too active, too many-sided...
But to me you were true.
You were never masters, but friends. I was your friend.
I loved you well, and was loved. Deep love endures
To the end and far past the end.
If this is my end,
I am not lonely.
I am not afraid.
I am still yours.