Elaine Stritch: 1925 – 2014

When it got to be time to write about Elaine Stritch, I immediately thought of her stage credits.  Being a dramatic child of the musical the-ah-tah myself, Stritch 101 is essential to your education.  Even if you didn’t know who she was, you’d soon learn when you turned on the original cast recording of Stephen Sondheim’s classic, Company.  She begins “The Ladies Who Lunch” with an invitation for a toast, and she blares on and on about society women with…that voice.  That song quickly became an anthem and cultural reference for musical theater nuts and gay guys everywhere.  Beyond her stage work, however, is an accomplished resume of television credits that puts almost everyone else in Hollywood to shame.  There is one role that I will always cherish forever: Colleen Donaghy on NBC’s 30 Rock.

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Stritch’s television credits date all the way back to 1949 where she started in The Growing Paynes.  In the 1950’s she appeared in no less than 13 different series.  In a way, she reminds me of Joan Rivers, because she’s unstoppable when it comes to working.  I don’t think she was the type who liked to stop, and I believe she actually says this in the delightful 2014 documentary, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.  If you glance at her IMDB page, you will see virtually every year listed.  At an age when most people stop working, she gained momentum.

Many people will know Stritch best as Alec Baldwin’s acid-tongued mother, Colleen, on 30 Rock.  The amazing thing about Colleen is that when she appeared on the show, it caused Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy to go into such tense hysterics, and it made everything funnier.  Jack is such a confident, arrogant man, and the one of the only people who could genuinely drive him absolutely bonkers was his mother.  Colleen would belittle, abuse, and talk down to every character on 30 Rock, and every moment (every line) was gold.  One of my favorite moments of the entire show was when Colleen would purposefully call Kenneth by the wrong name (she called him Carl) just because she wanted to see if he would ever correct her.  He never did.  You would never want to be on this woman’s bad side.

Stritch appeared on only 9 episodes of 30 Rock’s 7 seasons, but it feels as if she was present for a lot more.  She was nominated for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series 5 times, and she won in 2007.

Colleen may meddle in your life, and she may make you feel guilty (“You should be appreciative.  I went down to a pack a day for you”).  Yes, Colleen was a difficult, bitchy woman who wouldn’t let go of her traditional values (“I was watching TV, and they started interviewing an Asian Santa Claus.  And my arm went numb.  My father did not kill dozens of German so that his daughter could die in a van!), but deep down she was a good mother.  Not to put a damper on a comedy classic, but I always thought Colleen was a lonely woman who only wanted to connect to her son.

Gay men often have complicated relationships with their mothers.  There are two ends of the spectrum on this.  Some gay guys have mothers who are like their best friends, but some are estranged from each other.  I know examples that fall into both categories.  Since Stritch was such a stage icon, gay men everywhere loved her.  I remember when “The Ladies Who Lunch” would come on at karaoke, and every single guy would raise their glass and sing along like Elaine Stritch.  Somewhere along the way it all got combined for me.  The unmistakable voice of Elaine Stritch and the wit of Colleen Donaghy became one at a certain point.

In one episode, appropriate titled “Christmas Special,” Jack accidentally hits Colleen with his car, and he is terrified that she will find out that he waited 8 minutes before he dialed 9-1-1.  Colleen stays with Jack (because he feels guilty), and he makes everyone at 30 Rock work ridiculous hours to prepare for a Christmas Eve special just to avoid his mother.  When it’s time for the show to start, he yells at Tina Fey’s Liz because she cut a bit with Mrs. Claus that Jack thinks is part of everyone’s Christmas (putting out food for Santa and such).  Jack thought that Colleen’s dalliances with a certain Mr. FAO Schwartz were a slutty yuletide tradition, when in reality it was a guaranteed way for Colleen to get toys for a young Jack.  It helped Jack take his mind off of a father-less holiday season.  She may not have been a perfect mother, but she had her ways of showing that she cared.  Even if you didn’t know it.  And even if she was tossing back a tumbler of scotch while she did it.

Yes, Elaine Stritch was a Broadway legend.  Yes, she was the ultimate broad.  She was bigger than the stages that she performed on.  But she was also a classic mother on an iconic sitcom.  People may not see a warm, caring, loving matriarch when they look at Colleen.  Colleen is more complicated than that.  When she died on the show, her eyes closed the moment she found out her son was happy.  Some mothers only want that, and they are happiest when they know their children reach that point.  I will forever miss Elaine Stritch’s Colleen and every single character she ever played.

I’d like to propose a toast…

1 comments

  1. Avatar
    Dragon 8 years ago

    Was hoping we would get a post here.

    I am in a habit of re-watching 30 Rock whenever I can for the past few months. The show is still great. And she is definitely great.

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