NPR brought the sad news this morning that Marcel Marceau has died at the age of 84. When I was a journalism school undergraduate at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, a father-son pair named Ralph and Robert Frost booked Marcel Marceau into Knoxville’s Civic Auditorium. I requested an interview with him, and to my astonishment my request was granted. Seems that no other media outlet in town even asked.
I met Marceau in the Hyatt House, where he was staying, and he was very generous with his time with me, even though I was writing for a student newspaper, the Daily Beacon. I interviewed him several years later when I was a freelance writer, when he saved my social neck. Therein lies a tale.
Yours truly and Marcel Marceau
I had a terrible time with foreign languages while at UT, mostly due to not sitting down and doing the hard work of memorizing verb conjugations, determining whether nouns were masculine or feminine, and figuring out where to put the danged accent marks. My academic record looked like I had flunked my way across Europe–Spanish, French, and German–all down the tubes.
As I approached the end of my undergrad years, I was getting desperate. My college required me to pass one year’s worth of a foreign language. I was considering transferring to the College of Agriculture, in which one only had to talk to the animals, when UT announced a new program: sign up for an intensive foreign language program with all-day summer classes and knock off two years of language requirements in 10 weeks.
Sold. During the summer of 1974, I would set off every morning for eight hours or so of French classes, and it was there that I fell under the spell of an instructor named Micheline Rabot. A native of France, she seemed impossibly exotic during that hot summer in Knoxville, and she inspired me to buckle down at last. I got a B in the course.
Madame Rabot was a gourmet cook as well, and she invited my wife and I to take part in a series of dinners that she and a small circle of friends held every couple of months or so. These were wonderful yet intimidating affairs with multiple kinds of wine. I had never eaten food like this in someone’s home, much less cooked it, and these were my first tentative steps as a foodie. My wife and I were young and careless, and on one horrible night we forgot about that month’s meal and didn’t show up.
Mon Dieu! I don’t know the French phrase for shit list, but we suddenly were at the top of it. Madame Rabot never said anything, but there was a certain coolness in the Franco-Tennessee relationship. That’s where Marcel Marceau came to the rescue. He was coming to town, and I was scheduled to interview him after his show. I called Madame Rabot on the phone and, breathlessly not giving her a chance to say no, invited her to be my guest at his performance AND to meet him after the show.
I knew she could not turn that down. We picked her up and attended the show, which was wonderful. Afterwards, thanks to Frost per and fils, I had backstage passes, and I escorted Madame Rabot behind the curtain. After a period of time, Marceau appeared, and I introduced him to Madame Rabot. She bowed, he kissed her hand, and he treated her as if she were the celebrity. They spoke a rapid-fire French for a few minutes, and then she turned, with stardust in her eyes.
I was back in her good graces, thanks to the kindness of the world’s greatest mime.