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Thinking About Imogene Coca—and Magic

Imogene_Coco I ran into a colleague who marveled at the stunning contrast between some actors’ scintillating performances and totally inarticulate, dull and, in some instances, dumb personas off-stage. He found the chasm almost unfathomable and talked about the transformative—arguably, mystical—powers of theatre. Something unaccounted for happens when an actor steps on stage he said. 

His comments brought to mind the late great comedian Imogene Coca, best known as Sid Caesar’s side kick in Show of Shows. She died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2001 at the age of 92. About ten or 12 years prior to her death she was reunited with Caesar to perform some of their old routines at midtown night club. I interviewed her at that time and she was already frail, stooped, and had difficulty walking. Her assistant helped her in and out of her chair and coached her with answers to my questions. At moments, she was forgetful, confused, and even vacant looking. Her voice was barely audible. I couldn’t imagine how she was going to negotiate a cabaret act. 

And then I went to the show. This was a surreal—Twilight Zone—experience. Something I will never forget. When Coca stepped onto the stage, her musculature had changed. She was abruptly bounding about, her voice was clear and loud, and her comic timing was impeccable. It was a youthful and vigorous performance. Caesar and Coca were still charismatic and the audience lapped it up, not simply for its nostalgic element, but because it was funny and entertaining in the present.

But when the act was finished, and the curtain calls had run their course, it was a fast forward. From where I sat I could see Coca leaving the stage and almost immediately morphing into an old woman again, bent over, shaky on her feet, and extending a faltering hand to her assistant. It was deeply disturbing.
If only she could have stayed on stage permanently. I’ve never been a big on magic. But after that night I was no longer sure.

-- Simi Horwitz

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