Published: July 22, 2003
NEW YORK CITY and A NUMBER OF OTHER PLACES — Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour, move over. You have been together on the road many times, logged countless miles, but you have been passed by a 1989 silver Chrysler convertible with black top and two passengers. The lady behind the wheel is Nansi Nelson. In the passenger seat is her husband, Barry. And it is safe bet that they are either on the way to, or returning from, an antiques show.
Take the latter part of April, for instance. The couple left their apartment in Pittsburgh at 4 am on a Wednesday, arrived in New York in time for lunch at one of their favorite places, La Bonne Soupe on 55th Street, where each polished off a bowl of squash soup, a plate of creamed spinach and a couple of scoops of ice cream bathed in hot chocolate sauce. All of that was, by the way, washed down with a good-size pitcher of sangria. By midafternoon Barry and Nansi were in line at the Seventh Regiment Armory awaiting the opening of Wendy’s New York Armory Antiques Show. They were among the last to leave there at closing time, and, “We did not get to see the entire show so we went back the next day,” Nansi said.
The week continued with a couple of shop visits in the city on Friday, and then the Southport-Westport Antiques Show in Connecticut on Saturday. The same thing happened there: “We did not make it all the way around.” Saturday’s activities, however, did not end with the closing of that show. There was still the opening of Jeffrey Tillou’s new shop in Litchfield, Conn., to attend, and the silver convertible was seen traveling in that direction along Route 8. Sunday it was a return visit to the Southport-Westport Antiques Show to complete the rounds. “We had hoped to get down to the show in Williamsburg, Va., on Sunday, but a second look at Southport-Westport won out,” Barry said.
Now that’s your average weekend for this couple, with a few antiques shows or antiques-related events thrown in during the middle of the week. And it is the reason their faithful car, sometimes loaded with a great variety of purchases, logs more than 60,000 miles per year, at the very least.
So just who is this unusual couple that tweaks the curiosity of many people at shows, auctions and other gatherings? He is Barry Nelson, age 83, born in San Francisco of Scandinavian heritage, with a long history in the theater, movies and television. He is easy to recognize, always dressed in black trousers, long black raincoat when necessary, and his signature black, wide-brimmed hat covering his shoulder-length hair. The only color he sports is in his shirts, but his whole presence is brightened by his warm smile. And his many appearances at antiques-related events rival his active show business career.
Always with him, and generally a good number of steps ahead, is his wife and constant companion, Nansi. She was born in Pittsburgh where she attended elementary and high school, and then went on to finish her education at Hood College in Frederick, Md., majoring in history and language. Jobs of little consequence filled the next couple of years and it was in 1977 that she met Barry and entered the world of theater. Today she works overtime on her interest in antiques and she is generally seen at shows wearing floor-length dresses, mostly blue, with a generous piece of jewelry around her neck and two rings on each finger. When she is not talking to friends or dealers, she is speaking into a tape recorder, noting the many things she sees and likes, and where they might be found at a latter date. She goes through about one recorder per year and has amassed boxes of tapes over the past 20 years. Like Barry, she is never without her hat, a light tan straw number that “droops when the weather is damp.”
It is not uncommon for someone to point down an aisle at a show and remark, “There is Barry Nelson.” While he is known to just about every dealer in the business, and to many “regular” show attendees, he is also recognized by those versed in movies and the theater. Depending on a person’s age, you might hear someone mention, “I remember him in A Guy Named Joe with Spencer Tracy.” That was in 1943. A younger person might have enjoyed him in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, 1980, which also starred Jack Nicholson.
“I was at the University of California-Berkeley playing Macbeth when a talent scout from MGM saw me and suggested a screen test,” Barry said, “and at that time they were looking for people with Robert Taylor noses and apparently I did not fit the bill.” On his way out of the studio he met Lillian Burns and his talent scout suggested he read something for her. Since he was totally involved in Macbeth at the time, he offered to do the soliloquy from the play. “That was probably the first time Macbeth had been done at MGM and Lillian was impressed, called a producer and a real test was scheduled,” he said.
It resulted in a seven-year contract and “at that time MGM was a fun place to be. The studio had many great people and it was wonderful to work and play with them. I was very lucky.” His first film in 1941, Shadow of the Thin Man, cast him as Paul Clark, reporter, with Donna Reed as his leading lady. Thirty-two other films followed in a career that lasted 40 years, a time span that brought him into the company of many of the great personalities of both stage and screen.
The only film he made in 1970 was Airport, and it remains popular to this day with frequent showings on HBO. The cast was filled with stars including Bert Lancaster, Dean Martin and Helen Hayes. “Helen was a very easy actress to work with,” Barry said, “but both Bert and Dean would go to their dressing rooms after filming a scene and would not sit around and have fun with other members of the cast,” Barry recalls.
“Before, during and after the filming of A Guy Named Joe, I had great respect for Spencer Tracy; he was my mentor,” Barry said. “His reaction to things was terrific and he quickly won over an audience. I learned a lot from him and we got along very well.”
Barry’s movie contract was interrupted by World War II, and “it was very unfortunate for those of us who were drafted,” he said. “Great parts that would have gone to us if we were on the lot went, of course, to others as the films had to be made,” he commented. As for the war, a three-year stint ended with the rank of sergeant and, “I really could not get into it,” Barry said. “It came close to ruining my career.”
While movies consumed a great deal of his acting career, “it was to work in the theater that I always wanted,” Barry said. He was a staple of the stage from the late 1940s and really got his feet wet in Moss Hart’s Light Up The Sky. “Moss Hart was a genius and that was the first show he did without George Kaufman. We opened in Boston and there were six comedians in the cast and I had one big chance, a soliloquy at the end of the first act,” he said. He went on to say that after a rehearsal he approached Moss Hart and told him that some changes to the soliloquy should be made.
“He stood there staring at me, his eyes could go right through you, and he just turned and walked away. I could have easily been fired for doing that, but Moss listened and stayed up most of the night writing a new soliloquy. That new version greatly helped my reputation and I received lots of offers as a result,” he said.
One of the offers was to join the cast of Cactus Flower with Lauren Bacall. “The show was going down the tubes in Washington and I was flown in to replace Joe Campenella, the leading man,” Barry said. “I moved about the stage, while Joe had just been sitting, and was able to get the audience on my side and they knew just how the man I was playing really felt.” The show turned out to be a big hit on Broadway and played for a couple of years. He also starred in three Broadway hits with Barbara Bel Geddes, Mary, Mary; Everything in the Garden and The Moon is Blue.
“I had been playing a number of sophisticated comedy roles when I received a call from Maurice Evans who was producing a show in London. He wanted me to be in No Time For Sergeants, the Andy Griffith part,” Barry said, “and with billing over the English actors in the play, it was an opportunity I could not turn down.” The show played for two years at Her Majesty’s Theatre and “we flew across the stage on parachutes, prior to the later flights of Peter Pan.” The dressing rooms in the theater were grand and well-appointed, so much so that, “I hated to leave the theater and go back to my apartment,” he said.
It was in 1948 that Barry took his first steps in television, playing in “Close Quarters,” an episode of The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre. His final venture into television was in 1988, an episode of Monsters, concluding 45 appearances on TV that included I’ve Got A Secret, Bob Hope Chrysler Theatre, Zane Grey Theatre, The Twilight Zone, To Tell The Trust, Nero Wolf, Taxi, Fantasy Island, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Love Boat and Murder, She Wrote.
He is also known for portraying the first James Bond in the 1954 TV adaptation of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale. When it comes to sangria, he prefers it “stirred, not shaken.”
“Barry had lots of fans, and I was probably one of the biggest,” Nansi said, “and that was when I was just a kid in college. The stage door was the place to be when the cast left the theater, and I was at many of them including Four in a Garden, which also starred Carol Channing.” In 1978 Barry was nominated for a Tony for his lead role in The Act, a Broadway musical co-starring Liza Minnelli. The show tried out in Detroit, “and that is where I got my real break,” Nansi said. Due to the crime situation at the time, the city had banned all stage door meetings and the fans had to gather out in front of the theater to see the stars and other cast members leave. “I was right there, it was raining hard, and out came Barry. I offered him a ride, and he took it,” she said. He finished the story by saying, “I have never had to drive since.”
But before taking to the road to shop at antiques shows all over the country, Barry toured the United States in Lend Me A Tenor for three and one-half years, and had a long stint in 42nd Street, accompanied by Nansi who was working in the wardrobe department of the show at that time. For a period he did work in Canada, playing 39 episodes as a Canadian fur trapper on TV. “As a result of being up there, I started to collect Hudson Bay trade silver.”
“I have never been typed,” Barry said, “and consequently my acting roles have been varied to the point that one day I said, ‘have been there, done that,’ and it is time to let my other interests grow.” No one agreed faster than Nansi as she took the wheel and plotted a route that would take them mile after mile down a trail spotted with antiques.
Fortunately, neither of them entered the world of antiques as a stranger. Nansi’s grandfather was a druggist and she had already developed a fondness for apothecary-related rdf_Descriptions. Barry, on the other hand, might just have been a frustrated druggist as his interests ran in the same direction. “My living room in the New York apartment was setup as a pharmacy, complete with soda fountain, barber pole, cash register and all the appropriate trimmings. Apothecary jars were everywhere, filling shelves and chests, and when Nansi’s interests fell into the same area of collecting, we really went to it,” Barry said. To date they have amassed more than 1,300 of “the little devils,” the oldest one of German stoneware, dating circa 1200.
“It is not just a random collection,” Norma Chick of Autumn Pond Antiques noted, “each must have a name on it and be colorful. Their pieces are mostly ceramic, some glass examples, and come from everywhere including this country, Spain, Italy, Holland and Mexico.”
Barry’s pharmacy has now been dismantled as the couple has moved from one apartment to another, but “we hope to be able to display the entire collection once we are settled in our new place,” Nansi said. Of course this collection has been expanded in other directions and now includes ample selections of glasses, tankards and pipes.
“Rain did not dampen our quest for antiques and we made it to both Woodbury and Wilton recently,” Nansi said. The couple came away from Woodbury with two sets of Hessian andirons, a garden chair with oak and leaf design, several books from Rick Russack, a tete-a-tete from Colette Donovan that took up the entire back seat of the car, a 1712 oak coffer from Greg Kramer and an apothecary chest (“We seem to be drawn to them by instinct”). Oh, let’s not forget the stuffed beaver from Jon Magoun. “We love animals and are not able to have them as we spend so much time on the road,” Nansi said, “so the best alternative is a stuffed one. We love the beavers and have about six of them now.”
The next weekend Wilton expanded their collection through the following purchases: a big cash register, a number of country store things for the new apothecary, a barber pole and another apothecary jar. The couple also shares an interest in chocolate, a collecting field that caught Barry’s attention some 30 years ago. A chocolate advertising sign was too good to pass by in the booth of Time and Again, and a stop at the display of Jennings and Rohn resulted in the purchase of a decorated chocolate tin. “I guess I have about 100 of them,” Barry said, but an actual count will not be available until a great deal of unpacking has been done.
So where do all of these seemingly round-the-clock purchases end up? “Our public storage bill is very high, as that is where many of the things end up until we can work them into a house,” Nansi said. To help with this financial dilemma, the couple responded to an advertisement for a metal storage building that could be constructed on your own piece of property, and for a very reasonable cost. “It was on sale and the last one available when I called,” Nansi said. The building arrived on schedule and where is it now? “We had to put it in storage as we have not gotten through all the zoning regulations as yet,” Barry said.
When this storage facility is eventually put together and into use, it will share its land with yet another building, a log cabin. “We learned about this wonderful man in Pennsylvania who seeks out old log cabins, numbers the pieces, takes them apart and then assembles them on your property,” Nansi said. It seemed a good idea and yet another place for antiques fell in line. “Right now the cabin is just a pile of logs stored in Western Pennsylvania,” she said.
It would seem, however, that there should be ample space for their things in spite of the ferocious pace of buying. “Houses are like chairs, you never seem to have enough,” Nansi said while counting off their nationwide properties. Unless things have changed within the past three months, and that is not out of the question, Barry and Nansi have apartments in New York City, Pittsburgh and Venice, Calif., and homes in New Orleans, New Jersey, Virginia and in New York’s Hudson Valley. Oh, there is also a place in Provence, France, “where we have an equal amount of fun searching out antiques,” Nansi said. “There is one market we always attend near our town and every dealer there seems to have a dog,” Barry said. The dogs sleep under the tables while the market is in progress, and “everyone stops to eat in the middle of the show.”
Do all of these homes get regular visits? “We have not been to the New Orleans house for a year or two,” Barry said, “and it is the one we enjoy a great deal.” He added, “It seems that everyone there wants to have a good time, it is always fun and there is lots of interesting history.” Plans are to furnish that home with a mixture of American and European antiques, all prior to 1820, with a blend of formal and high country furniture.
Their purchase of the two pairs of Hessian andirons is perfectly understandable, as the troops marched through the area where the New Jersey home is located. The oak coffer will, no doubt, end up in the 1669 home in the Hudson Valley. “That house was once a tavern and we are going to furnish it in much the same manner,” Nansi said with both a twinkle in her eyes and a note of determination.
The task of decorating and furnishing that many homes, without the services of a team of decorators and movers, would seem insurmountable to most. “Houses decorate themselves, they ask for things,” Nansi said, quickly adding, “and you never have enough chairs.”
The Nelsons seem to agree on just about everything, except when it comes to chairs. Barry has a weakness for writing-arm Windsors, and chairs must be “both beautiful and comfortable.” Should you buy one if it is uncomfortable? “If it looks good, you sit in it anyway, regardless of comfort,” Nansi counters.
But sitting does not take a great deal of time out of their lives, except in the front seat of the car. “We are always on the go, generally visiting a show, and we have come to find out that the driving time between one place and our next stop is not over six hours,” Nansi said. With all of the travel comes an awareness of restaurants, and some favorites always fit right into the show schedule. Vegetables and pasta are the mainstay of their diets, with some poultry thrown in, and a few favorite spots are The Century Inn outside of Pittsburgh, City Tavern in Philadelphia, Revere Tavern in Lancaster and the Texas Road House where sweet potatoes are always ordered. “We never cook at home and while in the city frequent a number of Thai places and we like D.J. Reynolds also,” Nansi said.
A sign for an antiques mall along the road is nothing more that a stop sign for the Nelsons, and the car turns in almost automatically. “We visited a good one in Ames, Iowa, one time and came out with a humpback trunk, a bargain we could not pass up at $90,” Barry said. The car was already well laden with purchases and before moving on it was necessary to unload the car, pack the trunk, and reload the car.
This repacking process, however, is not an annoyance to them, but a sign that all is going well and the buying has been fun. And a very busy show season is fast approaching. The rest of the calendar year includes the Triple Pier Show (“Takes lots of time, Americana Pier the most interesting, generally we find ourselves limping off the piers”), The Greater York Antiques Show (“We love York, and this fall there will be two more shows at the same time”), Antiques Week in New Hampshire (“Sometimes we feel that Manchester gets to be too much, if that is possible”), Richmond, Va. (“Our favorite gun show”), Lititz, Penn. (“A small show, but it takes all day anyway, and we sometimes manage a couple of crab cakes at The General Sutter Inn”), Atlantique City (“Often overwhelming with the amount of plastic on display”), Rhinebeck Antiques Fair (“A great one and generally worth two full days”), Wilton (“We seldom miss those shows”), VADA Show (“We get to catch the Vermont foliage at the same time”), and on and on. The list is endless.
Every so often the couple travels to parts of the world just to see the sights, not to buy antiques. They travel by plane (neither one of them likes flying) leaving their faithful convertible at home. On trips to Africa and Asia, for instance, “We don’t even think about buying antiques,” Barry said. On the return trip, however, as the plane touches the runway, plans are already in the works to head for an antiques show. Should there be one between the airport and home, it is certain an unscheduled stop will be made.
Both Barry and Nansi led interesting lives before meeting, and life became more exciting as they fell in love. Do they miss life before antiques? Not really, but Barry still smiles when he talks about some of his favorite roles and he has lots of wonderful tales to tell. He has tread the boards with the best of them, shared the stage and screen with such leading ladies as Ginger Rogers, Ann Sothern, Margaret O’Brien and Debbie Reynolds, to name but a few.
But all that seemed forgotten when Barry took his wife’s hand in his and said, “The person who made all the difference in my career and life has been Nansi.”
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