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When you talk to Steve Niemiec, you’d think he‘s never met a famous actor, actress, opera singer, dancer, classical musician, Broadway diva, Motown headliner, pop star, blues guitarist, country legend, film icon, or comedian he didn‘t like. And he’s met a lot of them.
Niemiec was the stage doorman for the Stranahan Theater (formerly the Toledo Masonic Auditorium), from its opening in 1969 with a performance by Phil Ford and Mimi Hines in the musical I Do! I Do!, until he retired in May. And he seems to have fond memories of just about all of the performers who appeared there.
Bette Davis? She may have had a reputation for being difficult, but not as far as Niemiec is concerned.
Paul Anka? A nice guy -- he sent Niemiec a pen and pencil set and a note after his Toledo appearance.
Mitzi Gaynor? “She was the sweetest thing on two feet; she couldn’t be any nicer. She was just nice to everybody,” Niemiec said in a recent interview, adding that her first appearance here was in 1973.
And Helen Hayes? She was a lovely lady, Niemiec said. He remembers sitting on a bench with her before her 1989 appearance, and listening as she talked about making movies with big stars like Gary Cooper.
Ann Murray? She took the time to autograph CDs for him.
Milton Berle, who performed here for the first time in 1976, was genuinely funny and genuinely nice.
Ditto for Dana Andrews, Howard Duff, and Bobby Vinton.
Donald O’Connor? A wonderful talent and a nice person.
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B.B. King, who appeared in Toledo often? He gave Niemiec guitar-shaped lapel pins; Niemiec‘s grandchildren have them now.
Donny Osmond and Marie Osmond, who appeared separately in Andy Williams‘ Chistmas shows? Two of the nicest!
“The bigger the star they are, the nicer they are,” he said.
It look a little persistence to get Niemiec to say which stars were not so nice, but eventually he said Mickey Rooney, who appeared here with Ann Miller in the musical Sugar Babies in 1986, “could be surly,” even to his co-star. And Harvey Korman, here in 1971 and again in 2005 with Tim Conway, complained about everything, all the time. But Tim Conway was nice, and accessible to fans wanting autographs.
Over the years, Niemiec gathered memories of the performers he ushered into the theater, starting with a small, old-fashioned autograph book.
“I was so green in the beginning,” he said. “I thought, I will be seeing all these famous people.” So he decided he would just ask them to sign that little autograph book. One memorable entry is Tex Ritter‘s 1969 signature, which includes what looks like a stylized cowboy hat.
When that book was full, he created guest books by taking a sheet of paper, decorating it with a logo, a backstage pass, a photo from The Blade, or part of the program from a show, and asking the cast to sign it. He put them in binders and eventually there were enough to fill 13 guest-book volumes. He also has snapshots of himself with many of the famous.
He has donated most of his collection of memorabilia to the Stranahan.
Even his stories of encounters with the stars are kind. For example, there was the night Bette Davis was in town for “An Evening with Bette Davis” at the theater in 1974. A large screen was set up onstage to show moments from her legendary career, including Academy Award performances. But just before the show was to begin, there was a problem: the projector was not working. The show would not start on time. The promoter seemed a little afraid to tell Davis himself, so Niemiec was assigned to do it. With some trepidation, he headed for her dressing room.
He knocked at the door, and recalls Davis standing there with a cigarette in one hand and a lighter in the other. He told her what had happened. She lit her cigarette, took a puff, and calmly told Niemiec not to worry about it; it wasn’t the first time something like that happened, and she was used to waiting while making movies. “She was as nice as can be,” he said.
Other favorite memories include talking to Kate Smith in 1971; Niemiec‘s mother used to listen to her on the radio often, so he was looking forward to meeting the singer. “I said, ’Hello Mrs. Smith,‘ and she said, ’Mrs. Smith is my mother, just call me Kate.‘”
When Sally Struthers starred in Hello, Dolly! at the Stranahan in 2013, Niemiec told her he did not realize she was such a good singer, and compared her favorably to Carol Channing’s performance in the same role in 1982. Struthers told him that was quite a nice compliment, coming from someone who had heard so many performers.
And when Cyndi Lauper signed one of her photos in 2004, she left her autograph and a lipstick imprint of a kiss too.
Comedian Paul Lynde, who appeared in Toledo several times, including 1974, ‘75, and ’78, was fond of a drink or two or three, but he never opened a bottle before the show started, or before the first act, Niemiec recalls.
Niemiec, who is friendly and a good conversationalist, has seen and heard hundreds of performers, from Victor Borge, Robert Merrill, Glen Campbell, and Beverly Sills, to Lana Turner, the original Ink Spots, the Four Tops, and Willie Nelson, and he even recalls a speech by Bishop Fulton Sheen in 1975, that drew so many people that 200 folding chairs had to be set up onstage to accommodate the audience.
But Niemiec’s favorite was Sammy Davis, Jr., who visited Toledo in 1980.
“I‘ve seen a lot of performers in my day, and to me he was the consummate performer. That guy could do anything,” Niemiec said. “He could do impressions of so many people, and they were perfect. Plus, he was a helluva good singer, his voice was so clear, and his diction was perfect.”
Niemiec’s duties included security, such as controlling access to the backstage area and the performers, he said. And in the early days, the days before stars made elaborate requests for food and drink backstage, he sometimes was asked to run out and purchase snacks such as chips and dips for the dressing rooms.
He does recall one time he was asked to find gourmet food for a performer. Singer Patti LaBelle wanted a lobster dish when she was here for a 1990 show. So Niemiec started calling Toledo restaurants, with no luck, until he called Fifi’s. Owner Fifi Berry is not positive since it was years ago, but thinks her restaurant probably made Lobster Newberg for LaBelle.
Now that he‘s retired, Niemiec says he has no regrets about being away from the footlights -- the old days were better. “I’ve met the really big ones, the important ones, and it does‘t compare to now.”
Contact Sue Brickey at email@example.com.