Who's Famous?

October 3, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

These two women embracing – you don’t recognize either of them, right?

Yet they are two of the this country’s greatest sopranos of the twentieth century (or the second half of that century), stars of the Met – Roberta Peters and Teresa Stratas.

They are both now retired – Stratas (the one wearing the cap) is 70, Peters 78 – but even in their prime they could have walked down the street together and nobody would have noticed them.

I was thinking about fame as I snapped photos of them.* Actors in film and television, a handful of rock performers, and a few athletes – those are the only people famous enough to be generally noticed. Some of them need bodyguards. But people who are “famous” in other fields go out in public wearing a cloak of anonymity.

That’s certainly true of people not in the performing arts (writers, sociologists), but it holds even for performers outside of those few favored fields. Someone might be the greatest stage actor in the world, but unless she’s starred in movies or TV, not too many people will recognize her.** Great musicians – classical, jazz, folk – have their fans, but the paparazzi will never bother them. (The photogs in the picture abover were all people who had been invited to the reception.)

Randy Newman tells this story. When he goes to restaurants, he likes to sit with his back to the room. One evening he went out to eat with his wife and three kids, and his fifteen-year-old daughter, first to the table, took the seat he would have taken. His wife quietly said to the girl, “You know, that’s the seat your father likes to sit in.” Newman’s daughter looked at him, paused, and said, “You’re not that famous.”

The hard truth is that the kid was probably right.

* I took this snapshot at a reception following a New York Opera Society tribute to Stratas. My presence had nothing to do with any involvement in opera (I have none). It was just one of those accidents of New York geography.

** Once in the local grocery store, I turned, and there was Broadway star Bernadette Peters (no relation to Roberta) standing two feet from me. Nobody else seemed to notice her, and it wasn
t just New Yorkers trying to be blasé. They didnt recognize her.

No comments: