Peter Lind Hayes on Caring for Strangers

In this Guideposts Classic from October 1968, entertainer Peter Lind Hayes tells of a terrifying and unforgettable experience he and his wife and performing partner, Mary Healy, went through.

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Posted in , Sep 16, 2015

Guideposts: Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy

A good scare can often teach a man more than the best advice.

Some years ago, I had such a scare, shared by my wife and about 200 other people.

It was the last night of our two week engagement at a posh private supper club—The Mounds—in Cleveland. Mary was on stage, in front of the band, decked out in a lovely taffeta gown. As part of our act I was in the audience, heckling her.

I was sitting at a table where there was only one guest—a slight, neatly dressed man, who seemed rather lonely. He smiled at me and tried to start a conversation. I brushed him off. I was busy playing the part of a western lumber tycoon, Mr. Goodpile. Mary was trying to get me to come up on the stage.

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Our banter was interrupted by the sudden appearance of 14 masked men. Over their heads they wore dark stockings with eye slits. One was wearing a gray felt hat. A few of the men carried submachine guns. The rest held revolvers and wore Army fatigues and overseas caps. It just didn’t seem real—not in The Mounds. Was this some kind of a gag?

More in fear than doubt I yelled to Mary, “I don’t figure on comin’ up there, Miss, until you tell these clowns to take off their masks.” One of the men leaped onto the stage, grabbed the mike from Mary and snarled into it, “This is a stickup! We’re not kidding.”

Maybe Mary thought it was a gag too. She grabbed back the mike. (Never, never take a mike away from a performer.) The thug pointed his submachine gun at the ceiling and sprayed it.

Mary went wide-eyed, looked up at the ceiling, saw the holes, sprinted from the stage and through the nearest door leading to the kitchen area. I got up to follow her. A gunman pushed me back to my seat. Val Ernie, the band leader, slipped off the stage. The gunman shoved him into a seat next to mine.

I was frantic about Mary. Did any of them go after her? I counted them. They were all in the room, all 14. Thirteen seemed nervous. Amateurs. I was even more frightened. Amateurs have jumpy trigger fingers. The 14th, the man with the gray felt hat, was confident, decisive; apparently he was the leader.

One man in the audience still thought it was a joke. He shouted, “Stop this nonsense. Get on with the show.”

The leader rushed over to him, slammed his revolver against the man’s head. The man fell over the table, stunned.

“Anyone else?” the man demanded.

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There was a deadly silence.

The leader snapped quick orders to the others, positioning them around the room. No one was going to leave before the gunmen were through.

I looked at Val, our band leader. His face was chalk white. The face of the other man at the table was just as white. Mine was probably whiter. I began mumbling, unaware at first that I was praying:

Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name; Thy kingdom come…

The leader barked. “All women put your jewelry in your hands! Palms up. Men do the same with their money! All of it.”

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day…

Val’s head was lowered in prayer. The little man was praying too—in Hebrew. Then he took his money out of his pocket, a packet of neatly folded bills. He looked at it, not ruefully, but just as if he were hoping it would content the greediest stickup man. He held it in his upturned palms and continued his prayer.

I broke out in a sudden sweat. I had left whatever money I had been carrying in the dressing room. Actors don’t like the slightest bulge in their pockets. Vanity. I glanced over at Val, wondering if band players were as vain as actors.

“I haven’t got a dime on me,” I moaned.

Val stuttered, “Neither…neither have I.”

How were we going to convince the thugs that we really didn’t have any money? They were moving around the room, collecting the loot from the upturned palms. I shot a quick look at the man the leader of the gang had slugged. He had come to. There was blood on the side of his head.

And forgive us our trespasses… Dear God, where is Mary? Keep her safe…

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Val groaned, “What are we going to do? They won’t believe us.”

Our companion looked at the consternation on our faces. He held out his hand with the money toward us and whispered, “Take a little. Leave a little.”

There was a sudden bond between the three of us. And a few minutes earlier I had brushed him off so brusquely.

Val and I took a little—a little money, but a lot of strength. Then we all returned to our own thoughts and prayers. But we were no longer strangers.

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…

The stickup men reached us and took the money. The leader had forced the manager to open the safe. They all fled with the collection and the contents of the safe, about $120,000 in cash and four times as much in jewelry. The whole episode took less than 30 minutes.

As soon as they were gone, there was a babel of voices and spurts of hysterical laughter. I turned to thank the little man, but he had disappeared. I wanted to follow him, to find out his name, but instead bolted after Mary. I found her in a tiny storeroom. She and two waiters had hidden themselves there.

All three were terrified because every time Mary moved her taffeta gown rustled. Afraid that the gunmen would hear her rustling, the waiters tried to hold her still. It was the kind of comic scene that verged on tears.

Mary was trembling. “How is it possible for gangsters to come into a place like this—private and well protected—and threaten everyone with death?” she asked. She was bewildered and shocked, shocked into what turned out to be a long illness. It took us all some time to recover.

Ever since that night I have wondered about the stranger at our table. If he should ever read this, I want him to know how much I regret the cold way I first greeted him and how grateful I am for his act of brotherly concern.

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