First Person: Secrets of the Green Room at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue

Holding hands with Nancy Pelosi, giving sightseeing tips to Diane Keaton, handling celebrity demands, dishing about the President, and more.

By: Jackie Leventhal

On the night of Game 7 of the 2011 World Series, I talked baseball with Justice Stephen Breyer. I once tried to convince comedian Michael Showalter he shouldn’t smoke. (“You’re better than that!”) Diane Keaton asked if she should visit the Lincoln or Jefferson memorial. How was I in a position to counsel Annie Hall? What would Woody say?

I’m not normally a name-dropper. These conversations were work. Just before my 24th birthday, I was hired by DC’s Sixth & I Historic Synagogue to start a speaker series. Five years and 200 events later, I’ve hosted 25 authors who’ve been number one on the bestseller list, nine Pulitzer recipients, one Celebrity Apprentice winner, four Nobel laureates, three Supreme Court justices, four Oscar winners, five Presidential Medal of Freedom honorees, 13 Emmy winners, three former Secretaries of State, one USA Memory Champion, and a left-handed gay congressman.

With seasoned speakers, the presentations are nearly always excellent. What I’ll remember longer than any lecture are my interactions in the green room.

Over the years, I’ve been asked to provide Marcona almonds, Green & Black’s 70-percent dark chocolate, organic mixed nuts, raw agave syrup, Red Rose tea, room-temperature Fiji water, and hand sanitizer. I can appreciate cocoa-based requests, but I find the others irritating, especially when the items go untouched.

When not serving a backstage function, Sixth & I’s green room is used by nervous brides, kids practicing prayers before their bar mitzvahs, and a staffer notorious for napping. Above the two sofas hang framed book and album covers highlighting people who have taken the stage during Sixth & I’s eight years as a cultural venue. The most common reaction is “Adele performed here?” Yes—before she won her first Grammy. Director Michael Moore seemed most tickled by that.

In my job, I see the person behind the persona. The green room is where I’ve learned people are people—flawed, wonderful, mortal—no matter how successful they are. They forget things—Pulitzer-winning novelist Geraldine Brooks had to borrow my watch to keep track of time during her talk. Most speakers visit the bathroom before going onstage. For the record, Tina Fey and Thomas Friedman have both flushed the same toilet.

At times I’ve wondered if an interaction might have gone better if I was taller, older, or male. I’ll no longer read anything by a once-favorite author who treated me like I was incompetent. Rather than a live Q&A, he wanted questions submitted on cards. Someone would need to select the best ones and pass them to him.

“Who’s going to screen the questions?” he asked. I said I was. He gave me a “You’re the one I have to depend on?” look and proceeded to list every type of inappropriate question, all of which I knew.

I’ve also seen humility and gratitude. Humorist Demetri Martin shared his chocolate with me and asked if I could come in late to work the next day, given that his event ended near midnight. Then-House speaker Nancy Pelosi took my hand in hers (think prom-picture-style hand-hold), looked into my eyes each time she passed, and said, “Thank you, Jackie.” It happened at least seven times.

Then there’s the author whom I asked if she knew President Obama when they were at Harvard Law. She said, “If I knew then what I know now, I would have slept with him!” And that’s why she’ll remain anonymous.

Jackie Leventhal (jleventhal@sixthandi.org) is director of cultural programming and communications at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue.

This article appears in the October 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.