For a generation, Rob and Laura Petrie were the face of New Rochelle, on TV’s “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”
For the foreseeable future, when Broadway audiences think about New Rochelle, they’ll think of Ron Bohmer, Christiane Noll, Dan Manning, Bobby Steggert and Christopher Cox.
They play the privileged New Rochelle family that represents a third of the story told in E.L. Doctorow’s sweeping “Ragtime,” the stage musical that returns to Broadway tonight at the Neil Simon Theatre.
The 2009 revival begins as the 1974 book did, with the line: “In 1902, Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York.”
Then, for the better part of the following three hours, theatergoers see New Rochelle — real and imagined, serene and, at times, ugly — through the prism of Doctorow, book writer Terrence McNally, composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens.
“Ragtime” is three stories in one: the Protestant privilege of New Rochelle; the rowdy but hopeful ragtime-flavored Harlem of Coalhouse Walker and the idealistic but downtrodden immigrant experience of Tateh and his daughter. Those fictional characters interact with real-life figures Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit and Emma Goldman in Doctorow’s sprawling story.
The face of New Rochelle is the Family: Father (Bohmer); Mother (Noll); Grandfather (Manning); Mother’s Younger Brother (Steggert); and The Little Boy (Cox).
One morning earlier this month, these real-life Broadway actors came to the real New Rochelle in search of perspective on their fictional “Ragtime” home.
Their guide was Barbara Davis, the city’s historian, who saw the musical in previews (right) and devised a “Ragtime”-inspired tour.
Because Doctorow layered fiction onto reality, planning a tour was not an easy task.
Certain sites were given, Davis said: the home (at the crest of the Broadview Avenue Hill) in which Doctorow wrote “Ragtime” and where he lived until 2001; the train station and the preserved Rochelle Park neighborhood that still evokes a turn-of-the-20th-century feel.
Other spots suggested in the book or musical required a slight stretch for Davis, who literally wrote the book on the city: Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of America: New Rochelle,” published this year.
Among the not-specifically-mentioned sites were a firehouse on Drake Avenue and the Rowing Club at Hudson Park, once a meeting place for the new city’s high society.
At each of the stops, the actors peppered Davis with questions.
What were the streets like in 1906? (Mostly dirt roads, with horses and buggies, although there were reports in the papers of motorcar accidents.)
Would they have had horses or a car? (Possibly a car, but their garage would have been detached from the house, because city ordinance writers feared cars exploding, catching houses on fire.)
Was it common to have pleasure boats? (Hudson Park was packed with yachts, sailboats, canoes and sculls.)
Doctorow, Davis said, got much of his inspiration from old newspapers and spent much of his research time in New Rochelle Public Library’s local history section, which now bears his name.
The bunting and patriotic adornments seen on so many buildings at the turn of the last century — and in many of the photos in the library’s collection — might have prompted Doctorow to make Father a seller of bunting and fireworks, she suggested.
With the exception of Steggert — who visited New Rochelle in search of “Ragtime” landmarks and snapped a photo of the Doctorow home — none of the other cast members had set foot in their new musical hometown, even though it’s just, as the song says, 45 minutes from Broadway.
Starting at the New Rochelle station (right), Davis charted a course to Broadview Avenue, pointing out City Hall, the former high school, where Cox’s character would have attended, unless he went to boarding school.
“Oh, he would have gone to boarding school,” declared Noll, jumping into her maternal character for a moment.
North Avenue was two-lane North Street back then, home of the trolley line that the family would have taken.
When the tour arrived at the foot of Broadview, they gave a small cheer. Up the hill, on the left, stands the home in which Doctorow lived and upon which he based the “Ragtime” house. (Below.)
(The house in the film version of the story, of which Davis said Doctorow is not a fan, still stands in Mount Kisco.)
Davis pointed out that Doctorow wrote in the attic and would look out and see maids walking up the hill to work.
“He was staring at the wall up in the attic and was spending time at the library because his other books were also historical fiction,” she said. “And he’d probably gotten a sense of the place from looking at photos and newspapers on microfilm. That’s how it all got started.”
Davis was an organizer of the city’s “One City, One Book” program last year, when “Ragtime” was presented at New Rochelle High School and the book was the focus of discussions, exhibits and guest speakers, including Doctorow.
After leaving the Doctorow home, the tour snaked through the Rochelle Park neighborhood, “which really feels like that time era because it’s a historic district and you feel like you’re in the late 1800s, early 1900s,” Davis said.
New Rochelle also had a Jewish section, along Main Street, where peddlers set up shop, she added.
The Irish had their section, too, and “their time of discrimination” in New Rochelle, she said: “There was a line painted down Centre Street and it said ‘Irish cannot pass here.’”
In staging the rousing opening number in the revival, director and choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge keeps the lines — white, black, immigrant — distinct. They whirl and spin, but don’t mix.
New Rochelle is also depicted in an ugly scene of racism, when an Irish fire chief leads a racist attack on Coalhouse Walker’s car, eventually sending it down the hill into salt marshes.
While this was a Doctorow fabrication, Davis’ next tour stop was a Drake Avenue firehouse (right) which, she surmised, might have inspired the scene.
The geography is right: uphill from the salt marshes of the Long Island Sound, in the Irish section of town, on a line between the Forest Heights section and New York City.
“When we originally thought about doing ‘Ragtime’ as our ‘One City One Book,’ there were peopple who thought it would be detrimental to New Rochelle,” because of that scene, Davis said.
“But by last year, everyone agreed we were beyond that and we could handle it and it would actually be a good thing.
“It was as if New Rochelle had matured enough to be able to handle it, particularly the Fire Department,” she said. People were concerned that firefighters would be looked poorly upon, even though it was historical fiction and it never really happened.”
This part of the tour resonated with Noll, she said later.
“For me, this crystallized the notion that there was an Irish section of town where they were pushed away — and far away — from the privileged. So a car coming through that section of town, even if it were driven by a white man, would have been rough for them to handle, let alone a black man,” the actress said.
The tour’s next stop was the New Rochelle Rowing Club in Hudson Park which was founded in 1880 and was the social spot for society folks. A prominent family such as Mother’s and Father’s certainly would have spent time there, Davis said.
Bohmer said Father, a self-made man, “perceives New Rochelle as the pinnacle of New York society. ”
“Moving the family to New Rochelle is the ultimate status,” he said.
Mother’s Younger Brother changes from a star-struck, lovesick kid to a man with a plan, undergoing a complete transformation. But Steggert, who plays him, was struck by how pockets of New Rochelle hadn’t transformed at all.
“Some of the sections are exactly how I imagined they would have been 100 years ago,” he said. “They’re really kind of frozen in time.”
On stage at the Neil Simon, in Derek McLane’s minimal set design, the house is represented by a door and a transparent piano.
Manning, who plays Grandfather, a former teacher of Greek and Latin who is quick with a quip, said Davis’ tour gave him perspective and “definitely images I’ll use to fill in gaps in our stage, which is sparsely appointed.”
On the tour’s final stop, in the library’s Doctorow local history room alongside a photo of the author (right), Noll said she had learned a thing or two.
“I was thinking, for whatever reason, of this whole area as being much more condensed,” she said. “But it really is quite spread out.”
Bohmer added that he came away with a sense of the divisions in that world.
“Particularly when we see the house, we really can see how they lived in their own little protective bubble,” he said. “That makes the events of this show that much bolder in the impact it has on their lives because they’re so raw compared to this nice, clean, sweet little community up on a hill.”
“Before we came here, I thought it was cream-colored,” joked Cox, echoing a line he has in the musical, to the delight of his stage family.
“But my opinion has changed.”
When: Opens Nov. 15
Where: Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St., between Broadway and Eighth Avenue
Tickets: $46.50 to $126.50
Call: 212-307-4100, or toll-free, 877-250-2929
“Ragtime” photo by Joan Marcus; Barbara Davis photo outside the theater by Peter D. Kramer; all other photos by Ricky Flores of The Journal News