On May 22, 2024

Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, dig deep and delivered with heart

By John Turchiano -In the pre-cell phone camera days, this photo was taken in a darkened St. James Theater with a disposable cardboard camera on June 17, 2001. Pictured (l-r): Nathan Lane, Beth Sand-Gunning, Matthew Broderick and Pam Scott.

By Bruce Bouchard and John Turchiano

Editor’s note: Bruce Bouchard is former executive director of The Paramount Theatre. John Turchiano,  his friend for 52 years, was formerly the editor of “Hotel Voice,” a weekly newspaper on the New York Hotel Trades Council. They are co-authoring this column collaborating to tell short stories on a wide range of topics. 

At age 39 Beth Sand-Gunning got the bad news sooner in life than most. The diagnosis was ovarian cancer, too often a death sentence. Her deterioration was rapid, yet her spirit remained firm. But bravery is not always enough in the battle against cancer.

Beth Sand-Gunning was one of countless people who came to New York to be a performer. It’s a wonderful calling but a very competitive profession. For every person who succeeds, there are hundreds, probably thousands who do not get their names in lights. 

Many aspiring artists in New York work in restaurants while waiting for their big Broadway break. Sand-Gunning worked as a cocktail server at the New York Hilton Hotel, where she met her husband, Ken, who tended bar there. It was also where she met her best friend, Pam Scott, who was also a server and an aspiring artist. 

The truth is that the only place any of them were on stage was the Hilton’s cocktail lounge. Still, they never gave up their goals, although Sand-Gunning’s illness brought to an end her dreams to appear in a play. But out of her courageous battle arose an occurrence that serves as a true tribute to her and to the theatrical community that she loved so much.

During her illness Sand-Gunning was visited daily by Pam Scott, who today is a successful writer, director and acting coach. During one of those visits she told Scott that she regretted that her condition would prevent her from ever seeing “The Producers,” which was, at the time, the hottest show to ever hit Broadway. This alone says much about Sand-Gunning. In the throes of the tensest drama, an unwavering battle for her life, she hoped to see comedy. In the final stages of a terminal illness, she wanted more than anything to laugh and to enjoy the best that life had left to offer her. She was that kind of special person.

But her request was a most difficult one, as “The Producers” was the most sought after ticket in Broadway’s history. Nevertheless, Scott decided to try the impossible and score some seats for the show.

Of course, the box office at the St. James Theater, the home of “The Producers,” had nothing available. Industry contacts came up empty. Other connections in the theater world didn’t work, either. It was reported that only the wealthy could see the show. Scalpers were getting a small fortune for seats in the back of the balcony, and even those were scarce. Meanwhile, as her battle with cancer waged on, time was running out for Sand-Gunning and her desire to see Broadway’s biggest comedy hit ever.

“She really wants to see ‘The Producers,’” Ken told Scott. “I would carry her into the theater myself if necessary.” 

Sand-Gunning’s father, Jack, expressed a similar sentiment.

Hearing this, Pam Scott continued her quest for tickets. As a last resort she decided to try the preposterous. She wrote a note to the show’s stars, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, and personally delivered it to the St. James Theater.

Pam Scott doesn’t remember exactly what she wrote in that note. She just remembers that she told the two actors about Beth Sand-Ginning, her love for the theater, her gallant fight against ovarian cancer, and her dual membership in New York City’s hotel workers union and Actors Equity, the union to which all the performers in “The Producers” belonged. Of course the note said that Sand-Gunning really wanted to see “The Producers,” but was running out of time, and all attempts to secure tickets, even at grossly inflated prices, had failed.

At the theater’s box office, Scott spoke with the man at the ticket booth, an employee whose only job was to tell people that the show was completely sold out for the next two years. She told him the story and hoped that he had a sympathetic ear. She asked if he could hand off the note to theater personnel or anyone who might be able to see that Nathan Lane or Matthew Broderick received it. She could only wonder what happened to the letter after that.

It was delivered. 

Later that same day, when Pam Scott arrived home, there was a message on her answering machine: “Mr. Lane would like Beth and her guests to have his four house seats at this Sunday’s matinee performance.”

Beth Sand-Gunning saw “The Producers” from Nathan Lane’s house seats, two rows from the stage on June 17, 2001. It was Father’s Day. And her father, Jack, was with her at the performance, as were her husband, Ken, and Pam Scott.

Pam Scott said that from the moment the curtain rose, Sand-Gunning laughed and laughed. “It was the most vibrant I had seen her in months,” Scott said. 

But there’s more to this story. At intermission, an usher approached Sand-Gunning and the others and asked if they could remain in their seats after the show, explaining, “Mr. Lane and Mr. Broderick would like to meet you.”

And, yes, a few minutes after the show, when the audience had cleared out, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick came out and met with Sand-Gunning and her group. 

At that moment, Sand-Gunning’s lifelong love for the theater and all those who work in the arts, both famous and non-famous, was completely fulfilled. And through their generous gesture Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, the two most in-demand celebrities on Broadway at the time (playing the parts Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom in the show) illustrated the kind of warm and caring people that they are. They visited with Sand-Gunning for more than a few minutes and, yes, they were able to make her laugh yet again. Oh, did she laugh.

Sand-Gunning’s gallant fight against ovarian cancer ended nine days later, on June 26, 2001, leaving behind a grieving husband, father and many family and friends. She showed us all that even a destructive and fatal illness can sometimes fail to dampen the human spirit. She left us after having made a tremendous contribution to the theatrical community that she loved so much. Because through the story being told here, a few others now know about the overwhelming kindness of two of the most popular stars in Broadway’s history. For a few sparkling moments on June 17, 2001, during the final stages of a damnable illness, Beth Sand-Gunning, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick proved once again that Irving Berlin had it right. There really is no business like show business.

Personal/Vermont connection

Editor’s note: The Paramount Theatre brought “The Producers” to Rutland in 2009, while Bouchard was the executive director. In the 1970s between acting engagements, Bouchard worked as a waiter/bartender or apartment painter. 

On one occasion with a great friend, I was painting an apartment on Washington Square, which was owned by James Broderick, beloved character actor and father of Matthew. 

With painting equipment, open cans of paint, and drop cloths everywhere, Broderick and his exuberant (and precocious) 5-year-old son came by to check on the work. As Matthew was highly energized we had to distract him and keep him from creating even more chaos than was already happening. Little did we know that this bright young child would grow up to be a star performer and a kind and thoughtful human.

By John Turchiano
-In the pre-cell phone camera days, this photo was taken in a darkened St. James Theater with a disposable cardboard camera on June 17, 2001. Pictured (l-r): Nathan Lane, Beth Sand-Gunning, Matthew Broderick and Pam Scott.

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