Don Gregory is a theater producer who has done some big box office in his time.
A quick glance around his waterfront condo in Newport Beach, with its impressive array of antique furniture, paintings and sculpture, attests to that. So do the framed posters in his study, mementos of shows he has taken to Broadway with stars such as Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison and James Earl Jones.
One poster touts the original production of "The Belle of Amherst," a one-woman show from 1975 in which Julie Harris triumphed playing the reclusive but vibrant 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson.
Now Gregory is instrumental in mounting a six-month, 25th-anniversary tour of "The Belle," as those connected with the play call it. The show opened over the weekend at the Laguna Playhouse's Moulton Theater, with Harris starring under the direction of Charles Nelson Reilly, with slight retooling of the original script by its author, William Luce--the same creative trio that teamed with Gregory 25 years ago.
A tall, husky man with a white, wavy crown of hair, Gregory, 65, has the mien of a friendly but dignified bear. His voice, gravelly and soft, sounds an earthy, unpretentious note--a timbre well-suited for a Bronx accent.
Gregory is well into an account of his days growing up 10 blocks from Yankee Stadium when, without prompting, he pauses and takes a sudden conversational leap to sum up his later career:
"The executives, the 'suits' as they call them, I don't consider myself one of those. People have a stereotype of a guy who raises money, which doesn't take a lot of sensitivity. I don't consider myself that kind of producer."
He is the kind of producer who daily attended rehearsals of the Laguna "Belle" and felt confident enough to grumble when Harris and Reilly began experimenting with a new wrinkle: having Emily mimic the voices of some other characters in the story instead of narrating each bit in her own voice.
Gregory said he piped up: "'I want to say one thing. You're fooling around with a classic."'
From then on, every time he came to rehearsal, the puckish Reilly would greet him with a saltier variant of "You're fooling around with a classic." By mutual agreement of all concerned, there will be no mimicking of voices in the 25th-anniversary "Belle."
"I respect him and I like him" so when Gregory ventures opinions on creative matters, "I don't get angry or anything," Harris said. "He has been with this material as long as we have, so I enjoy what he has to say."
Reilly points to the rarity of a drama like "The Belle" being done at all as a major touring show--because touring is now almost exclusively the domain of hit Broadway musicals.
"A straight play is an endangered species, and he's trying to keep the whole category alive," Reilly said. "That's a producer."
Gregory began as a star-struck 7-year-old helping his teenage sister clip pictures from movie magazines for her scrapbook. His father, who worked in the meat business, died when Gregory was 4; his mother worked in a restaurant and got financial help from relatives. Gregory said he grew up never wanting, but "close to the edge."
The stars in the scrapbooks shaped his dreams.
"I desperately wanted to be a part of that world. They lifted you from the reality of what you were living into the land of your imagination, which is always more romantic and successful and less lonely."
A high school teacher in Norwich, Conn., where the family moved after his mother remarried, saw something in this self-described "atrocious" C-student and indoctrinated him in Shakespeare. Gregory made his stage debut in a school production of "The Taming of the Shrew" and went on to major in theater at the University of Connecticut.
After graduating, Gregory tried for stage roles in New York, then for movie parts in Hollywood. All he netted was a turn as the Gentleman Caller in an "off-off-off-Broadway" production of "The Glass Menagerie" and a chance to play a motorcycle gang member in a film knockoff of "The Wild One." On the verge of the film shooting, Uncle Sam summoned Gregory for a two-year hitch in the Army.
For a year after his service, Gregory tried to kindle his acting career and got nowhere. In 1960 he got a call from an Army buddy, inviting him to help run a cafe in New York's Greenwich Village--where soon-to-be famous folk musicians and comics ruled a soon-to-be legendary club scene.
Gregory assessed his acting career and concluded that he was pursuing it for "superficial reasons"--fame and recognition--instead of an inner artistic drive that made it impossible to do anything else. He decided to enter show business from the other end.
In Greenwich Village, he displayed a talent for publicizing the talents of others and for booking clubs shrewdly. That led to a 10-year stretch as a talent agent or manager for such names as Harry Belafonte, Victor Borge, Rowan and Martin, Frank Gorshin and Red Buttons.