Steve Press is one of the few remaining actors in the play who can say that he played in the first Broadway-adaptation of 'The Diary of Anne Frank'. The play had its premiere in 1955 and stayed on Broadway for almost three years. Purely by chance Steve auditioned for the part of Peter van Daan in 1956. At time he was 21 years old. He got the part. The show closed in New York in 1958. What followed was a lengthy national tour of the United States.
Peter van Daan (Steve Press) with Mouschi during the opening night in Chicago. On the left Mrs. Van Daan (Nan McFarland), on the right Mr. Van Daan (Gil Green).
Steve was just out of the theatre-program of the Theatre Department at New York University and started to do the impossible: To look for work as an actor. But by chance, truly by chance, I got a possibility to audition for the big hit play on Broadway at that time: ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’. The play had started in 1955 and had been running while I was a student at NYU. I was going to an audition and met somebody on the street that I knew. He said he was the understudy for the part of Peter van Daan. He had started to play the role, because Danny Levin, who was playing the role at the time, had been drafted into the army. However, they did not want him to continue playing that role, because he was too big and too old. He suggested that I should see Garson Kanin, the director. I went straight away. In his office I was told that auditions were only possible through agents. I did not have an agent at that time. But as luck would have it, Garson Kanin was in the office. He looked over to the receptionist and said: “Give him an audition”.
'Everyone looked a like...'
Steve was one of the 350 young men auditioning for the role. He found it very strange to go through the auditions, because everyone looked a like...They were all about the same height, had the same kind of look, the same colour hair...I looked at them and thought: It’s me, over and over and over again! They were auditioning right in the theatre. I did my few minutes, walked off and got a call back. They said they would like me to audition again. And this time there were a lot less, 40 or 50. Then suddenly it was down to 6 or 7 and I was still there!
Steve Press in 1956 and 2002
Winner or a loser
Finally there were only two auditioning... Then Steve got a call from the producer, Kermit Bloomgarden. He wanted to talk to me. I did not know why they were calling me down to the office. Maybe they were going to say to me: “Steve, thank you very much, that was wonderful, but ...”. Because in theatre you’re either a winner or a loser. You either get the part or you don’t. It’s something you have to learn in this business. That was in the back of my mind as I went in and sat down. We were chatting and then suddenly he turned to me and said: “Well, we're going to take a chance with you...”
Most of the original cast was still there when Steve joined. Great actors like Joseph Schildkraut, Gusti Huber, Margalo Gilmore, Lou Jacobi and Clinton Sundberg. It had stayed for almost three years on Broadway. I think Susan Strasberg, who had played the part of Anne Frank, had just left. Her role was played at that time by Deena Dorn and later by Abigail Kellogg. Steve finished the run in New York and they asked him to stay. “The Diary of Anne Frank” was going on a national tour. I was very excited because this was not an ordinary play. World War II had not long been over. There were a lot of memories....
People weren't talking
It soon became clear to him that "The Diary of Anne Frank" was no ordinary play: ''When I first played in it there was the normal applause. Even if the audience does not like the play, there is applause. But it began to happen more and more that the final curtain would come down and there would be no sound. We would all line up behind the curtain ready for the first call, but all we’d hear from the other side of that curtain was sobbing. Then we would hear the seats move, a squeak and then a clunk, as they were on springs...After that we would start to hear thump, thump, thump, as more and more and people would get up, shuffling up the aisle. People weren’t talking, they were sobbing. It was very moving.''.
Three kinds of audiences
So we took it on the road. We played the Far West, opened in LA and went to San Francisco. We were doing very well, we were getting very good reviews. Audiences were great. There were three kinds of audiences: There was the older audience who really understood the play and could relate it to their own experience. Then there was the young audience who saw it as a family story. The way ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is not about antisemitism, but about a father and his daughters. And finally there was the third audience. The only way I can characterize that third kind of audience is through the following: There is a line in the play where Otto Frank is talking to Mr. Kraler. It is a light moment in the play. Suddenly Otto says to Mr. Kraler: ‘Did we start the war, did the Jews start the war?’ It is a joke and everyone laughs. But every once in a while, not too often, we’d hear someone shout from the audience: ‘Yes, you did!’ You never knew when that was going to happen.
So we played the Far West, but we were all looking forward to one city: Chicago. Chicago is famous for being the second city. One of the toughest and one of the best theatre-critics in America lived there: Claudia Cassidy. She demanded that the shows that came to Chicago were of high quality. No third rate productions. You did not know on what night she would come... The tension in the cast during the opening night was unbelievable. Would we fail or succeed? The young actress Abigail Kellogg was so stressed-out...In one of the scenes she goes into her bedroom after a fight with her mother and throws herself on her bed. During the opening night in Chicago she missed the bed, hit her head and knocked herself out... She was out cold. Play stopped. The curtain came down and Abigail was taken off stage. Her head was bathed and everyone huddled around. People called: “Is there a doctor in the audience?” She had a big bump on her head. “Are you ok?” “Yes, yes, I’m all right, I’ll go on, I am sorry...” We finished the night...
The best review ever
Claudia Cassidy wrote a review, it was terrible. But for Steve she wrote: “Steve Press is authentic as young Peter.” , but for me that was the best review I ever received. Being ‘authentic’ is what an actor works for in playing a part. It means that you have achieved truth. However, the review more or less stopped Chicago. We played there for about three months, but it should have been much longer.
We continued the tour towards the east and eventually we were playing in cities like Washington DC and New Haven. After that we went as far south as Atlanta...Then there was discussion, as to what to do next. Remember: this was not a play, this was an event in history. The people involved saw it as a dedication, as a mission. We were doing something very important and we all knew that. I remember getting a call from the producer, Kermit Bloomgarden. He said: “Steve, I want you to stay with the show, we want to send it to the South”. The big national tour had ended but they wanted it to continue. This time we would go to smaller towns, smaller venues. There would be some one-night-stands, some two performance-nights. It was odd playing those one night stands. We would arrive in a town and then the stagehands would build the set. At night we would get to the theatre and the stage-manager would hold a meeting. He’d say: “All right, let me tell you what part of the set is missing tonight...” Sometimes they simply could not fit everything on the stage.
A perfect script
After the tour in the south, the play closed. It was very sad. I do not know where we played our last performance. Suddenly it was over. It was an unbelievable experience. If you put together a list of plays of the twentieth century, I think that “The Diary of Anne Frank” was one of the most important plays. Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett's script is perfect. I think the piece is flawless in terms of what theatre is all about. I have heard it many times, I have seen it many times and I must say there is something very pure and beautiful about it.