While sitting in the audience of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee on Broadway, Claybourne Elder made an impression on another person watching the show.
This was 15 years ago, while Elder, who had dreams of being an actor, was visiting New York City from Utah. Because he didn't have much money, Elder bought a ticket for the very back of the theater. After the show was over, a man walked up to him and asked if he was from out of town. Elder told CBS News that after he said yes, the man handed him $200 and said: "You looked like you were having more fun than the people in the expensive sets. Go buy yourself a ticket to Sweeney Todd tomorrow. It'll change your life."
The man took a photo with Elder, but left before he could get his name. Elder followed his instructions and purchased a mezzanine seat for Sweeney Todd, starring Patti LuPone. Being that close to the Broadway legend "did not seem real," Elder said. Fast forward to 2022, and Elder has made his Broadway dreams come true, co-starring with LuPone in the musical Company.
Elder never forgot about the man who gave him $200 to see Sweeney Todd, and once a month, he goes with his 4-year-old son to their favorite diner, where they pay for a stranger's meal. He's also started giving away free tickets to Company, and has received $10,000 in donations to buy more tickets for people.
Elder, who is also in the cast of HBO's The Gilded Age, recently shared on Instagram the photo he took with the stranger who gave him $200. One of his co-stars told Elder he's friends with the man, and gave him his name: Mark Howell. Howell, who lives in Los Angeles, told CBS News that when he heard from Elder, "it all came back ... that night, the whole experience came back." Knowing how his act of kindness changed Elder's life has been "really inspiring and overwhelming," Howell said, adding, "it makes me cry."