By Ronald B. Hellman
If you have a local theater company, the odds are good that Richard and Millie Gudonsky have been in the audience. And certainly more than once. In fact, the Gudonskys now get to see 60-75 plays a year produced by at least 18 different groups!
Married for almost 15 years, the Gudonskys, both retired and in their 60s, live in Forest Hills and like to walk whenever they can. Millie was a supervisor for Merrill Lynch for 40 years, and Richard was a New York City science teacher for 32 years — all at JHS 43 (the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. school) in Harlem.
While still working, they would see an occasional Broadway or Off-Broadway show, and were season subscribers at Queens Theatre in the Park and The Stage Theatre (in Merrick). Then they discovered The Parkside Players (at the Grace Lutheran Church) and The Gingerbread Players (at St. Luke's Episcopal Church), both within walking distance from home.
But it wasn't until retirement a few years ago that Millie and Richard became aware of all the theater groups around them. Now they show up in Queens at Beari Productions (Middle Village), The Phoenix Players (College Point), Theatre Time Productions (Whitestone), Theatre A La Carte (Douglaston), Astoria Performing Arts Center (Astoria), St. Gregory's Theatre Group (Bellerose), The Spotlight Players (Ozone Park) and The Outrageous Fortune Company (Flushing Meadows Corona Park), among many others, as well as getting out to the Island and into Manhattan. Recently they found their way to Fort Tilden in Breezy Point and The Rockaway Theatre Company, where their grandnephew, Michael Newman, had a role in “Annie.”
“In many ways,” says Richard, “theater has become a spiritual experience for us. Plays not only entertain us, but touch our very souls. We've laughed and cried, been frightened, confused, angry, inspired, nostalgic, hopeful and joyous.”
Millie is the family historian — I hear she's got a great scrapbook collection — and Richard is a chess aficionado and a runner (he used to be an ultra-marathoner, with his longest race at 100 miles). They have a lot of relatives, meaning lots of family events, and — get this — besides all the plays, they see more than 100 movies a year (many at the nearby Kew Gardens Cinema). They're not home much, folks.
And now, friends, a cautionary version of “the show must go on.” In February, Richard had a couple of tickets for “New Jerusalem” at the Classic Stage Company in the East Village. He was taking an elderly friend, but that afternoon his pulse rate was very rapid, so he went to see his doctor, who sent him for an EKG and then straight to an emergency room. Once there, he protested, naturally, that he had to leave by 5:30 for the theater, but was told that he had to be admitted to the hospital.
So, in the face of dire consequences, Richard signed himself out, promising to return after the show. “My friend and I had a great theater experience, even though I was wearing a hospital bracelet,” he says. And he did go back to the hospital that night, spending six days there and undergoing an atrial ablation.
Don't ask, don't try that yourself, and yes, he's doing fine.
Note to potential audience members: Remember this story when you don't want to show up because it's raining. Richard and Millie Gudonsky may be exceptional, but they're quick to say that “local theater has been, and continues to be, a wonderful experience for us — we applaud all of you who are involved.”
Contact Ron Hellman at RBH24@Columbia.edu