By Ariel Felton. Photography by Maggie Harney.
With a new staging of her play, “Johnny Mercer & Me” on September 22, 2016 at the Lucas Theater, writer and Savannah native Miriam Center lets us in on what to look for in a great kiss, what she’d tell herself at 18, and why her friendship with Savannah’s song man was never boring.
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
I hate getting out of bed! Black coffee is the only thing that’ll do the trick.
We’ve got know: do you remember the first words you ever spoke to Johnny Mercer?
My cousin was a prominent producer in Hollywood and he took me to the Academy Awards. It was 1963, and Johnny was winning an Oscar for “Days of Wine and Roses” with Henry Mancini. My cousin introduced him to me, saying, “Here’s someone from your hometown.” But Johnny was drunk and he said something very rude. I think I said, “Oh my god. Well, call me when you get to Savannah!”
Were you friends immediately?
Well, not when he was drunk! (laughs)
When the Savannah Civic Center opened, I was chair of the opening and I invited him to come and prepare the show for the opening. He brought a bunch of show writers and actresses. And that’s how we became really close.
He drank a lot and would get really insulting when he was drunk. But every time he’d get in a rage and curse someone out, the next day he’d send them a bunch of roses. He was a marvelous, interesting person. When he died, it was me who suggested they call the theatre The Johnny Mercer Theatre.
Spoilers! Tell us something we don’t already know about Johnny.
He was painted as a sort of plastic person, without any depth or understanding. But he was a very deep and spiritual person. And he cared for Savannah and his family deeply. His father had a business reversal and lost a lot of money. When Johnny was successful he came back to Savannah and made sure everyone’s bills were paid.
Why is now a good time to tell this story?
Johnny would have been over 100 now, and I’m getting older, too. At the end of his life, he always said to me, “Nobody is going to remember my music.” But I promised the world would hear his music, because it’s so beautiful. He’s actually a poet, not just a lyricist.
How much of your story makes it into the play?
All of it. I just changed the name of a character. Instead of Miriam, her name is Maxine.
Did you have any reservations?
No. I believe in everyone being open and telling the truth. I did get some criticism, but I don’t care. Because I think it’s interesting that Johnny and I had this really deep friendship. It was never boring with us. There were a lot of deep thoughts, sorrows, and happy times.
What sort of criticism?
I think some of his family did not like the idea that I was telling all the facets of him. They wanted him to look perfect and pure—someone who never said a curse word, got drunk or had sad feelings.
What’s the first thing in NY you’ll visit if this play premieres on Broadway?
What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?
Don’t worry about being a virgin, it’s not important.
If you could be friends with another famous person, who would it be?
Eleanor Roosevelt. I think she was a woman who really knew what was going on in the world and she stood up and had her say without fear.
“Not so guilty” guilty pleasures.
I don’t have any guilty pleasures–I don’t believe in guilt.
Best kiss of your life?
You’re gonna be surprised at this one: kisses from my little 5 year old granddaughter, Sofia. She’s like sugar! She kisses me and we say to each other, “I love you to the moon and back.” It’s our little secret code.
What’s next for you?
I’ll never produce another play–it’s too much work for my age. I just turned 90 and I don’t think anyone else my age is working like this except Norman Lear in California from “All in the Family.”
I am writing a few books though. One is about my granddaughter and it’s a collection of letters to her so she’ll know our relationship and how important she is to me. It is called Letters to Sofia. I’ve also written a book about Savannah crimes that I’m also interested in getting published.
To catch “Johnny Mercer & Me,” on stage at the Lucas Theatre for the Arts on Sept. 22, 2016, at 8pm, grab your tickets here.