Niagara Gazette

January 19, 2013

LETTERS FROM THE ISLAND: 'Odd Couple' exit to a bigger stage

By Doug and Polly Smith
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Dear Mainland Messies and Fussies — When the old year exited, so did Oscar and Felix. Bob Beach and Walt Hastrich, stars of “The Odd Couple” when Doug made his adult theatrical debut, died within days of each other, just before Christmas, both in their 80s.

Here’s how we remembered Bob in our year-end couplet collection:

“Bob Beach, his ‘Liz,’ now beside her;

Actor, joker, easy rider.”

Wife Elizabeth Beach, inspiration for our current Parish Players, cast Bob as the definitive slob for the Island Theatre Group in 1970, saying, among other things, that he looked more like a sportswriter than did Doug, who had been one for 25 years (and a slob for far longer than that). Walt was neat-freak Felix, twitching and whining so authentically that at times Doug, part of the poker cohort, thought he was actually sick.

What happened to Walt, then, provides a lesson for us all. He was a terrific actor, wide range, easy wit. With boundless, almost frenetic energy he would write, direct, help with sets, sell tickets. He was just good at it, sort of an untrained Jack Lemmon, absolutely absent ego. Everybody liked him, even in difficult circumstances.

After retiring from his day job, Walt moved to Florida, where community theaters abound, with a demographic skewed our way. Once he got his bags unpacked, Walt wandered over to the troupe nearest him and asked how he could help out.

He couldn’t, they told him. He sent us an e-mail that brought more tears to our eyes than any serious role he ever played. “Just too old for them, I guess,” he wrote. “They don’t even want me to help paint the sets.”

How could anybody refuse an offer from Walt Hastrich? He didn’t come in demanding to play Hamlet (or even Morrie Schwartz), he just wanted to be follow the avocation with which he had shared so much joy. Instead, they turned him away, reminding us, somewhat, of a grim Jack Nicholson movie titled “About Schmitt.” Nicholson, at least, got to wind up sharing a hot tub with Kathy Bates.

They don’t know what they missed, but he did, and felt the rejection deeply. Walt Hastrich deserved to die on stage, or at least raising a scaffolding. In “The Odd Couple’s” final exchange, Felix and Oscar slip Freudianly and call each other by their ex-wives’ names, and in that spirit, “Good night, Frances,” and we’re sure your new Director has scripts for both you and “Gladys.” Perhaps, “We’re No Angels …”

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SOUPER BOWL: The DeGlopper VFW Post, 2121 Grand Island Blvd., ladles out its annual Soupathon today, with at least a dozen inventive recipes, all-you-can-sip for seven bucks from 4 to 7 p.m. Come visit. Bring a bib.

Polly and DougE-mail pollyndoug@hotmail.com