The wind chills your bones. You walked four unnecessary blocks, lost when you finally reach Ilene Kristen's West Side New York apartment, her blond head poked out the door is a welcome sight.
While you defrost, she offers you fruit juice, and a bowl of fresh fruit. She isn't at all what you epxected. You're used to seeing her as Delia (Dee) Ryan on Ryan's Hope. You remember the manic verve she displays as that troubled, erratic personality. You aren't prepared for someone as together, so articulate, so sane.
Then you see it. On the wall in another room. A portrait of Dee, done by a smpathetic fan.
Its colors are warm and bright, suggesting a girlish exuberance - the happy side of Dee, so often betrayed by the "sick" side of her.
Then Ilene says something surprising. Despite all the condemnation heaped on Dee by irate fans, Ilene prefers to think that this portrait represents the real Delia. And she defends her against her detractors.
petite, 5'2" frame sunk back in an enormous, high-backed armchair, she
speaks with authority, and some passion, about
don't condome some of the things she does," she begins, "but you have to
understand where she came from. She grew up
without parents, without security or guidance. Her father was locked away in a mental institution, her mother was never around. There's a lot of love locked up inside her, she just doesn't know the right way to let it out.
"Do I think she's insensitive to others? She might be, but no one has more contempt for herself than Delia. She doesn't like what she does. But isn't everyone guilty to a certain extent? The people around her are not very helpful. They're so self-indulgent in their own ways, it's unbelievable!"
But if Ilene takes the side of the "sick" Delia, she's also happy to see the humorous side. "I think the scenes where she decorated her apartment was marvelous," she laughs. "Did you see what she did to the furniture? Turned all the chairs toward the wall."
She is proud of the fact that her character has more than one dimension. "If I had a friend like her, I'd never be bored!"
But if Dee were her friend, they would never see eye to eye on decorating.
Her first floor, brownstone apartment reflects Ilene's all-consuming interest in the arts. Besides her "Delia" painting, there are several other original works. The dominate colors are tans and beiges, offsetting darker wood surfaces and the polished parquet floors.
The high-ceiling living room has a real wood-burning fireplace. Shelves in two corners, opposite one another, display her collection of beautiful, turn-of-the-century objets d'art. And in the bedroom, on the wall, are sequined handbags from New York's Flapper Era, given to Ilene by her grandma.
There's an impish sense of humor behind all this exquisite tastefulness, however. Ilene's favorite piece is a marvelous hat rack, carved and painted in the likeness of Popeye the Sailor, tatoos and all!
The whole impression is both an active body and mind, seeking the unusual in antique shops and flea markets.
"I'm a doer," Ilene agrees. "I get involved in so many different things, my life gets extremely complicated."
A recent involvement, at once painful and joyful, was with her Jean Renoir theater, which she co-founded with Ray Blanco. "I know how hard it is for people to get a break in the arts. So much red tape, I thought I could give beginners a showcase, where we could put on films and also plays and poetry readings."
Ilene still has rueful memories of landlord trouble and other problems that forced the closing. "I'm not a businesswoman. Sure, we wanted to make a profit, but whatever money was made we planned to plow back into the theater....I just can't deal with people who aren't human beings..." She hopes next time, things will be easier.
"I am incredibly patient in bad situations. But when someone is trying to take advantage of me and not treating me with respect, I blow up!"
Once, she got so angry she kicked a phone plug out of its socket. But that is rare behavior. Basically, she's a pushover.
"I'm like my parents. We tend to carry the weight of the world on our shoulders," she laughs.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, she took a liking to "Latin and Jazz rhythms" early in life. By the time she was eight, she was taking ballet lessons and dreaming of becoming like her idol, dancer Bambi Lyn. Her first professional work was in the Broadway hit, Henry Sweet Henry, at age 15. Her father insisted she get a higher education but Ilene lasted only one year at Finch College, studying drama. Real life was going to be her school, and the only delay came when she became deathly ill at 18.
The illness kept her in the hospital for a long time and involved her thryoid. "I had been perfectly healthy up to then," Ilene remembers, "and I've been fine ever since."
With irrepressible energy she bounced back, getting experience in every area of show business.
She did satirical skits with a group called Six New Happenings, worked in the produciton of off-Broadway's Lenny, and helped design sets for Jesus Christ Superstar. She also studied guitar and piano at the New School, and won a role in the 1971 film, Preacherman.
Her big break was when she was selected to play Patty, the central character in New York's longest running show, Grease. Althought Ilene calls herself "mild-mannered" and has a cheerful, upbeat outlook on life, she found the role of the goody two-shoes Patty difficult to relate to. "It was hard work, trying to understand Patty" she recalls. She perservered however, and stayed with Grease for two and a half years.
Althought her parents live in Florida now, Ilene keeps in close contact with them, either through phone conversatins, or an occasional holiday visit. She has an affectionate nickname for her younger sister, "Me too." Because Ilene was the elder, her sis would follow her around on her advantures, saying, "Me too, me too."
One thing her childhood experiences taught her was a joy of lifel Her sense of fantasy was enhanced by frequent visits to the Japanese Botanical Garden in Brooklyn, and she created puppet shows for the amusement of her sister and their friends.
In talking about her childhood, and the influence her parents had on her life it becomes clear why Ilene's attitude toward Delia is one of compassion and understanding.
"It was an unspoken rule in my home that you never said anything about someone you wouldn't want said about yourself." Ilene tries to live by that rule. But if this makes her sound like a forbearing saint, Ilene recognizes there are times you must put your foot down too.
A Leo, born on a July 30, she's trying now to be more assertive in her dealings with others. "Sometimes I've found it hard to say no. When someone wanted me to do something I didn't want to do, I used to go along with it, just to avoid a hassle. Now I'm learning to be assertive. If you aren't, you wind up feeling miserable, and you have no one to blame but yourself."
Although her thyroid condition persists, and she has to keep her weight down, she finds this easy to do. Her natural vitality and small appetite help her plus an occasional swim or simple exercise.
She's happy that she's completed her first directing effort -- a twenty minute film, After the War, for New York University Film School. And she is optimistic about opening a new theater complex, perhaps with a subsidizing federal grant.
"I'm a happy person as long as I'm doing something," she smiles.
And she's doing fine.