As annual vacationers on Edisto Island, a remote barrier island off the South Carolina coast, we never seemed to get the timing right for a glimpse of the Broadway star Patti LuPone while we were there. Patti and her husband, Matt Johnston, had built a house on Edisto after falling in love with the small island on a 2001 visit.
We had been fans of hers for decades.
Often when we’d visit Edisto, the security gate on Patti’s beachfront property would be closed, the house shuttered, the yellow VW Beetle convertible neatly covered in the open garage that faced the road.
Just as frustrating, though, were the times when there were signs of activity, when the gate was open, the cover off the Bug. One day when I swam a good quarter-mile from our favorite spot on the beach to Patti’s house, I saw a young man I presumed to be her son, Josh Johnston, on the home’s rooftop deck. But never Patti.
So near and yet so far.
Then in 2015, when Ted’s younger brother, George, moved his family to the island, hope sprang anew for a meeting with Patti LuPone.
George and Jackie and Patti and Matt become buddies.
George was a career police officer for many years in Columbia, South Carolina. When he was offered the role of Police Chief on Edisto, he eagerly took it, thinking it would be an easy transition to retirement and a welcome escape from his high-pressure job in Columbia.
Like us, he and his wife, Jackie, and their son, Beau, loved Edisto, too.
It’s customary for the police and fire departments on an island like Edisto to know the security codes to the gates at residents’ homes in case of fire or other emergency. So, one day when George spotted the yellow Bug at the Piggly Wiggly, the only grocery on the beach, he tracked Matt down in the parking lot, introduced himself and told him the department needed a way to open the gate in case of trouble when Matt and Patti were away.
Matt was impressed that George had reached out. That was all it took. With a farmhouse in Connecticut and a heavy travel schedule, Patti and Matt had frequent contact with George in the years that followed, especially when two hurricanes struck Edisto: Matthew in 2016 and Irma in 2017.
Matt and Patti readily trusted George. (If you know him, you’ll understand why. He is the essence of what we’d like all police officers to be: tough but big-hearted, patient, kind, compassionate.) It’s no wonder they became fast friends with him and Jackie, an avid sportswoman who had also been a police officer in Columbia. Retired now, Jackie worked part-time in a bait shop offering kayak trips through the marshes on the island.
The irony is that George never knew who Patti was before his Police Chief days on Edisto. We had to school him.
“She’s a goddess,” we’d tell him.
“If you say so,” he’d answer, stunning me by how indifferent he was to the fact that one of the queens of Broadway resided in his bailiwick.
He has her phone number!
In the early years of his work on the island, George took great sport in taunting me about his friendship with Patti.
He phoned me one weekday morning when I was working on a website writing project at our home in the northeast Georgia mountains.
“Patti gave me her cell phone number,” he said in a sing-song voice.
“I hate you,” I replied.
I was the performer in the family, after all, the one frequently involved in community theater productions, the one who’d followed every up and down of Patti’s career since hearing her incredible voice on the Evita album in 1979.
I regularly took tap dancing and voice lessons, knew the difference between the Broadway belt and the head voice, knew Patti’s impressive vocal instrument moved fluidly from one to the other. Wasn’t I the one who should have her phone number? I figured the only belts George knew about were hanging on a rack at Kohl’s. It just didn’t seem right. Kind of like Santa giving the gift you’d been wanting FOREVER to your brother or sister, who didn’t appreciate it. Who, unlike you, had no clue as to its inestimable value.
Other stories emerged over the next few years: George and Jackie eating spaghetti and drinking wine at Patti and Matt’s dinner table, taking them kayaking. George told me of a Saturday morning when he stopped in at Patti’s and met another couple who was staying with her and Matt for the weekend.
“Who was it?” I demanded to know.
“Just a couple,” George said in his easy-going style.
“You didn’t find out who they were?” My voice rose half an octave. “It was probably Stephen Sondheim and Audra McDonald or some other legends of the theater. Why didn’t you ask?”
He shrugged. “I didn’t want to seem nosy.”
“Lord help us.”
Underneath my annoyance, I had to forgive George for his apathy. I knew that his and Jackie’s decidedly un-fanlike behavior was probably one of the things that drew Patti and Matt to them. Their jaws didn’t drop or their palms sweat in the presence of Broadway royalty. To them, Matt and Patti were just another married couple who enjoyed Edisto and liked having a good time. And, having known George and Jackie since the late 1970s, I must add that their unpretentious spirit is one of the things I love about them, too.
Tap dancing in Patti’s driveway.
Another reason is their sense of humor.
We had a running joke, a fantasy in which George would loan me a police uniform on one of Ted’s and my visits to the island. I’d accompany him one morning to visit Matt and Patti. I’d be Barney Fife to his Andy Taylor.
“I brought one of my officers with me,” George would say to Patti. “Is it okay if he comes in?”
“Of course,” Patti would answer. “I’ll pour him some coffee, too.” Then she’d glance out her kitchen window. “George, why is he tap dancing in our driveway?”
George would chuckle. “He’s a little different.”
“Good God,” Patti would say, frozen at the window. “Now he’s doing fan kicks.”
Yes, in my uniform and cap, I’d be dancing up a storm in Patti’s driveway, all right. Who could blame me? I’d simply be starting our lifelong friendship on the right foot, so to speak.
He throws us crumbs.
Patti showed her appreciation frequently for George and Jackie’s friendship.
She donated generously to special projects of the Edisto police department, due in large part to her trust in my brother-in-law. I learned to live with my envy, even in 2017 when Patti was starring with Christine Ebersole in the musical War Paint on Broadway. She invited George and Jackie to New York to see the show and meet for dinner afterward.
Hurricane Irma dashed those plans when it hit Edisto, requiring George to stay on the island to lead the storm response team. Ted and I were crushed, of course. We’d been looking forward to George and Jackie returning home with juicy new PATTI STORIES!
With those dashed hopes came the understanding that we’d probably always have to live vicariously through George and Jackie when it came to Patti. Alas, we’d likely never enjoy a connection of our own. Even though George had told Patti about Ted and me, our interest in theater and our decades-long devotion to her, the “say, let’s get together for drinks or dinner next time you’re on Edisto” invitation from Patti had never arrived.
Ted and I even saw War Paint on a spring visit to New York in 2017, but we didn’t hang out at the stage door to try to meet Patti after the show. I didn’t want to be that kind of fan. We were content, once again, to appreciate her from afar, our stars destined, through some cruel trick of the gods, never to cross.
But wait! We make contact!
After War Paint closed, Patti went on tour. Ted checked her schedule online, and though her 2018 concerts mostly included stops in the Midwest and Northeast, she was scheduled for one show in the South: at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Knowing Tallahassee lay only about a six-hour drive from our Georgia mountain community, we decided to go for it.
We invited friends to join us. Vicki and Linda were also lovers of Broadway musicals, fellow performers in local productions and diehard Patti fans. So, on Thursday, April 5, 2018, we packed up the car and headed south, Patti’s rendition of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” from Evita trumpeting from the speakers of my VW Tiguan.
It turned out to be much more than a road trip to Tallahassee for a Patti concert.
As we drove down Interstate 75 that day, little did the four of us know that we were heading toward one of our best-ever moments together as friends.
THE MOMENT, as a matter of fact.
The one I had been dreaming about … for a long, long time.
Stay tuned next week for Part III, the final installment of The Night We Kissed Patti LuPone.
A favorite from my Patti Playlist: Patti tapping and belting to beat the band in Anything Goes, 1988. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M7z43oIt2GM
4 thoughts on “The Night We Kissed Patti LuPone: Part II”
Loving the Patti story!! Can’t wait to read part 3!! ❤️
This is great! Thanks!