I figured the odds of my taking off work, getting on my first airplane and traveling to Chicago by myself were quite slim. This is so out-of-character for mebut it only took the thought of seeing Gregory Peck in person to make me drop everything and head north. I even bought my tickets for the show before I had decided whether or not to drive or fly; not to mention before I found lodging. As it turned out, everything fell into place and I decided I was meant to take this trip.
I arrived in Chicago and was met at the airport by a friend I met over the Internet. It would have been all right with me to have headed straight for the Music Box Theater and wait for the doors to open some 7 hours later! But I had a wonderful time visiting and made my way to the theater just before the doors were to open at 5:45.
It was like taking a trip back in time. It would not have been a surprise to find the beautiful vintage building, marquee aglow with "starring the screen's exciting NEW lovers Tamara Toumanova and Gregory Peck."
Well, no one else was waiting outside the theatre. My friend and I, anxiously pacing back and forth, heard a woman's voice from behind us saying, "Is one of you named Linda?" My friend said, "Yes, I'm Linda." And we were joined by another web surfer who somehow coerced us into leaving our coveted spot and going to a cute little pub only two doors down from the theater. We weren't in there long, but when we came out there was a huge crowd lining up all the way down the street in both directions!! General seating, I thought. Great. But as we were sent from one line to another tickets in hand, picking up tickets, still need to buy tickets, aren't going to get tickets we somehow found ourselves in the second row just behind the press in the right hand section of seats! The stage was only about 6 feet away!
The waiting went quickly as we talked to anyone who would listen about our favorite Peck films. We almost didn't notice the auditorium get suddenly quiet out of respect, I'm sure, as Mr. Peck came down the red-carpeted isle just like any other person coming to see the show. They didn't sneak him in the side door or bring him out from behind the curtain. He looked up towards the ceiling, taking in the amazing craftsmanship, glanced around, smiling humbly at the crowd now applauding in unison. He and his entourage stoppedat the second row just behind the press in the MIDDLE section of seats! Well, it was still VERY close! He stood quietly, like a gentleman, waiting as his lovely wife, Veronique, Tony, and Cecilia along with new grandbaby Harper, took their seats. Others I didn't recognize followed closely behind.
Chicago International Film Festival founder, Michael Kutza, quickly walked out on the stage, welcomed Gregory, his family and the "Conversations" filmmakers and invited us to sit back and enjoy an evening with "an icon."
By now, most of you have seen "Conversations." From the very first seconds of the opening sequence, so brilliantly simple and immediately recognizable, you could tell this was a product of love and respect.
We watch as the lid rises on a box full of Hollywood memories. "MacArthur's corncob pipe. Atticus' pocket watch. We are taken back and forth in time from a young Eldred happy with "a bike and a dog" and "MacArthur" walking on water, "Harry Street" showing us how to light a cigarette, a determined 22 year old stage actor in "Anna Christie", and Gregory showing us how to eat a fig. We catch glimpses of private joy and pain and watch as Gregory, oozing with charm, jokes with his audience and recalls memories of a Hollywood princess and the day he won out over Albert Schwietzer and Jean Paul Sartre. We hear the deep, familiar chuckle coming from the middle of the auditorium.
Even with the anticipation of Greg standing on the stage in front of me, the film ends much too soon. In spite of all the fond memories and classic movie moments, as he ponders a question put to him from the audience, Gregory tells us that it is his role as a loving husband, father and grandfather that he wishes to be remembered for. As I watch tears well up in a Grandpa's eyes, I feel happy for Gregory for having found the family he was searching for.
The lights go up and the crowd is on their feet. The applause gains momentum as a small crowd makes their way to the stage. Gregory does the introduction, saying, "This is the entire cast of the film." Cecilia, baby Harper Daniel, Cecilia's husband, Anthony, and Veronique are followed by film editor Bob Eisenhardt, director Barbara Kopple, co-producer Linda Saffire, the Peck's housekeeper and a couple of four-footed family members.
I am only a few feet away from a legend. Still standing, relying from time to time on his cane, he is thinner than usual, oddly reminiscent of the long-legged Peck from the early films. The once jet-black hair is now silver. But there's no mistake; it really is Gregory Peck! Lewten, Atticus, Ahab and the Old Gringo all rolled into one.
He quickly dismisses the family, with the exception of co-producer Cecilia, and they make themselves comfortable in the appropriate form of seatingdirector's chairs.
He asks for the lights to be turned up so he can see his audience. He's told they are up. "Oh, okay, " he says. A short question and answer session begins. Questions are immediately directed to Mr. Peck. They sound familiar. "Didn't you watch the movie?" Gregory quips. He has some trouble hearing the questions. Cecilia translates. A half a dozen times he tries very hard to elicit questions for the filmmakers. And when the director finally starts asking her own questions of her crew, Gregory sits quietly. But I can't take my eyes off of him. Humble. Dignified. That familiar twinkle in his eyes. Quieter than I expected. A hint of shyness still there.
Again, this phase of the evening ends too soon. The stage clears leaving Gregory sitting alone. Michael Kutza returns to the stage. As he sits, he begins to remind us why Gregory is being honored with the festival's Lifetime Achievement Award. Gregory interrupts, "Oh, yes, but you've done such a wonderful job here." He accepts the award graciously. After throwing accolades back and forth for a short time, Mr. Kutza thanks Greg for coming and mentions that John Frankenheimer ("I Walk the Line") will be honored on Sunday. "Oh, yes, he's a fine director," Greg says. "Maybe I'll try to come back and see him," he adds as he stands, holding his trophy as if it were an Oscar, cameras clicking away. He thanks the audience and slowly moves down the steps. In a matter of minutes Greg is surrounded. He still managed to slip quickly out the side door.
Except for the limousine waiting out front, it's over. We wait to see if he comes out, hoping to get one more glimpse, but soon it is clear that it would be difficult for Mr. Peck to get through the crowd.
A few minutes later we're having dinner with some friends who saw the show. "Isn't it amazing that at 83 years old, he still oozes sex appeal?" one of them says.