Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Smile, Baby"

She was on the vaudeville stage by the age of two, and appeared in several silent film shorts before she could talk; if she was required to cry on camera, it's reported that her mother told her the dog had died. Though she created a solid acting career on stage and film during her adult years, a fictionalized account of her childhood overshadowed her actual accomplishments.

June Havoc

1912 (or 1913)-2010

She never really knew how old she was, as her mother carried five different birth certificates with five different birth dates, in order to satisfy child labor laws. During her early life in vaudeville, she was bringing in a whopping $1500 a week, a fact overlooked in her sister's memoir which became the basis for the musical which is most closely linked to her public identity. If you are a musical theatre fan, these facts are starting to sound familiar. She first hit the stage as Baby June, graduated to Dainty June, then, at the age of 13 or so, abandoned her domineering mother and a sister she later called "beautiful and clever...and ruthless," eloping with chorus boy Bobby Reed.

This is the plot of the first act of Gypsy, and it haunted Havoc throughout her career. She remained bitter that the musical based on the memoir of her sister, burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee, left the impression that sister June sank into obscurity after taking off with that dancing boy ("Tulsa" in the musical). In fact, though her teen years were spent in poverty (she and her young husband entered dance marathons in order to share in the free meals afforded the contestants), she eventually carved out a stage career which included the original production of Pal Joey, and a film career which included costarring with Gregory Peck in Gentlemen's Agreement. She was a playwright and director as well as an actress, winning a Tony nomination for directing Julie Harris in her own play Marathon '33, at a time (1963) when female stage directors were few and far between.

Major Broadway appearances included her portrayal of Miss Hannigan late in the run of the original Annie, and an acclaimed performance in the 1975 sex farce Habeas Corpus (I actually saw that production, and wrote about it here). She replaced Ethel Merman in the original production of Panama Hattie, and decades later, headlined the second national tour of Sweeney Todd.

Here's a quickie clip of Havoc's work on an original musical called Happy Birthday Aunt Sarah, which ran on the Omnibus series during the early days of television. I remember seeing her sister Gypsy Rose Lee (at right) on various talk and game shows during my childhood; there is an undeniable family resemblance. This clip confirms that Gypsy's Baby June grew into a performer of charm and comic talent:

In 2003, a small Off-Off-Broadway space was christened the June Havoc Theatre; her final performances were in 1990 on the daytime soap General Hospital. She died a few days ago, at the approximate age of 97.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Bob & Fess & Mack the Knife

I'm sensing a Soviet plot. I hope those Men From U.N.C.L.E., Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, are keeping a lookout for dangerous situations, since our TV spies are dropping like flies. On the heels of the death of Peter Graves, whose best known role was in the espionage thriller Mission: Impossible, comes word of the death of another television spy:

Robert Culp


He had headlined an earlier TV series in the 50s called Trackdown, but his co-starring role in the mid-60s show I Spy made him a household name. The series was unusual for several reasons, as it mixed a sly wit with the action common in the espionage genre of the period. More importantly, the show introduced one of television's first dramatic lead characters of color, played by Bill Cosby. The chemistry between the two stars was palpable, and though it was Cosby who won Emmys every year of the series, the duo stood side-by-side in the Civil Rights movement of the period.

Culp also broke new ground in Paul Mazursky's first film, Bob & Ted & Carol & Alice, a spoof of the sexual revolution of the late 60s (it's about wife-swapping; that's Elliot Gould, Natalie Wood, and Dyan Cannon sharing the bedtime).

Culp returned to his "spy" roots in the 80s, when he costarred as an FBI agent in the light-hearted fantasy series The Greatest American Hero.

He was apparently a recurring regular on Everybody Loves Raymond, but as I didn't (love Raymond), I never saw his sitcom work. He died the other day as a result of a fall at the age of 79.

Another television star of the mid-60s recently died:

Fess Parker


Parker's appearance as two iconic American heroes overshadowed anything else he attempted in his acting career. In the mid-50s, Fess was a contract player for Warner Brothers, and appeared in a single scene of the horror flick Them!. Walt Disney viewed the film with an eye to cast star James Arness in the role of Davy Crockett for a three-episode television event. Instead, he chose the little-known Parker to play the frontiersman, congressman, and Alamo martyr. No one knew it at the time, but with Davy Crockett, Disney had invented the mini-series; he was more excited about the explosive interest in coonskin caps, lunchpails, and moccasins which the show ignited. (It's said the price of raccoon fur shot up from 25 cents a pound to over 8 dollars thanks to the Davy Crockett Craze.)

Uncle Walt placed Fess under contract, and gave him one of his most memorable film roles in Old Yeller, among other features. In the mid-60s, Disney created a television series around the legends of Daniel Boone, with Parker in the title role. The show lasted six years; Parker later retired from acting (after turning down the role of McCloud). He spent his subsequent years running a wine resort.

Here's a guy I never heard of until his death, but his contribution to the theatre should not be overlooked.

Carmen Capalbo


In 1952, he was a brash young man in his 20s when he attended a concert presentation, directed by Leonard Bernstein, of the Kurt Weill classic The Threepenny Opera. The show had already had an English language production in the early 30s, but with a new adaptation by Marc Blitzstein, Capalbo was determined to reintroduce it to New York. He persuaded Kurt Weill's widow, Lotte Lenya, to reprise the role of Jenny, which she originated in the 1928 Berlin premiere, and opened a new production at the Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortell) in Greenwich Village in 1954. The show was a smash, but was forced to close to make room for an incoming production.

A campaign to reopen the show resulted in Threepenny Opera returning to Off-Broadway in September, 1956, where it set the record as the longest running musical in New York (it kept that record until The Fantasticks surpassed it in 1966). The Tony Award committee broke with its own rules when, in 1956, it awarded the Tony for best supporting actress in a musical to Lenya's Off-Broadway performance; a special Tony went to the production itself.

This Off-Broadway revival remains the pivotal English language production of the show, and included in its opening night cast Bea Arthur (barely recognizable at right), John Astin, and Charlotte Rae, as well as the legendary Lenya. Capalbo directed several pieces uptown on Broadway, including the original production of Moon for the Misbegotten, but he will best be remembered as the man who put Off-Broadway on the map, while bringing a musical theatre classic to the attention of the western world.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Friday Dance Party: Still In Business

I am not alone in thinking Stephen Sondheim is the greatest American composer/lyricist ever to work in musical theatre. Just check out the folks at Roundabout Theatre Company, who just renamed one of their Broadway spaces The Stephen Sondheim Theatre. Sorry Henry Miller fans, the theatre which used to carry his name now belongs to the Tony- and Oscar-winning Steve.
Sondheim is, these days, late in his career, but his work is still being showcased all over the place. On Broadway, for example, as I write this, the acclaimed revival of West Side Story, for which he contributed lyrics way back in the 50s, is still going strong after a year or more. The first revival of A Little Night Music is poised to swipe some Tony awards, with the star power of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury keeping the houses full (this revival is the fulfillment of a wish I made a while ago). And as if that were not enough, the newest revue of Steve's work, Sondheim on Sondheim is currently in previews, with a starry cast including Barbara Cook and Vanessa Williams (I wrote about seeing the first Broadway revue of Sondheim's work, Side By Side By Sondheim, here), and a second revue called Putting it Together remained on the Great White Way as long as its star, Carol Burnett.

I was first introduced to the work of this genius in my college days, by one of the biggest Sondheimophiliacs ever, my friend Valerie. Val is a few years older than I, and headed a clique which centered around musical theatre, so I was always flattered to be included in her gatherings. At one such evening, she pulled out the cast album of the original A Little Night Music, and I was entranced. Frankly, I was so blown away that I sat in a corner the rest of the night, reading along with the lyric sheet as the album played.

I was hooked. I was soon studying the lyric sheets and cast albums of Follies and Company, and since then, am sure I have spent countless hours reveling in the Sondheim canon as it developed. I suppose I would have eventually found Sondheim on my own, but Valerie's enthusiasm for his genius was infectious. She has become one of Steve's acquaintances over the years, and with his approval, has just created a new revue of his work appropriate for teen performers, entitled Our Time. A few years ago, Val flew out to DC, and we enjoyed an out-of-town tryout of Sondheim's most recent show, Bounce. Well, at the time it was called Bounce; by the time it finally reached New York, it was called Road Show. (If you are interested, I revealed in previous pages my feelings about how Steve's work has been translated to film, and my reactions to the Company revival of several years ago.)

I have a full list of roles in Sondheim musicals I would like to play, but most will remain out of my vocal range. I've had a ball in the two roles I have played, in Sondheim's first Broadway appearance as both composer and lyricist, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Back in the very early 80s, I played conniving slave Pseudolus in a dinner theatre venture:

Over a decade later, I played the comic lech Senex in another production (both of which were directed by my best buddy Judy):

Have I wandered down memory lane long enough? Stephen Sondheim turned 80 years old last Monday, and a star-studded celebration was held in New York; the concert will be telecast on PBS later this spring. For this week's Dance Party, here is a clip from Steve's 75th Birthday Celebration, held in San Francisco. The song is from one of Sondheim's film scores, Dick Tracy, and was introduced to the world by Madonna, of all people (another Sondheim song from that film, Sooner or Later, won the Oscar.) Here, the song is performed by an adolescent belter named Hannah Rose Cornfeld:

Happy Birthday, Steve, and give us many more years of your genius.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Sunshine vs. Clouds

The week just past has been a prime example of the schizophrenic nature of the actor's life. Or at least, of THIS actor's life.

Our production of Lord Arthur Savile's Crime has continued apace, with audiences both large and small. The crowds are very much enjoying this slight, off-kilter Oscar Wilde tale of wit and murder. This week, we welcomed a new cast member, the lovely and talented Sunshine Capelletti, whose parents must surely have been hippies. I worked with Sunshine many times in the past several years, in staged readings, where we almost always played husband and wife, or brother and sister. She is a terrifically talented young woman, and she is the perfect choice to replace our original ingenue, Tricia McCauley, who had to leave the show due to a prior engagement.

After a gracious little amount of actual rehearsal, Sunshine stepped into the breach (and the breeches, as one of her roles is a man), and our shows have continued to gain a following. I have found a real affection for the two roles I play in the show, and an even greater affection for the folks with whom I am sharing the stage. I will be very sad when the show comes to its conclusion next week.

But for now, our shows have been greeted with enthusiasm and laughter from our audiences. It's been quite a good week, Stage Guild-wise.

But, as almost always happens in my professional life, where there is success, there is also failure. And I had my share of that this week as well. I was up for two shows this week, losing one because of stale fish, and the other because I have a penis.

Fords Theatre ("But otherwise, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?" Yes, that Fords Theatre) had called me in twice for a new musical they are producing next year. I was frankly surprised to get the second callback, as the auditors did not express much enthusiasm during my first. But that just proves that one never knows, do one? I was very pleased to get the second callback, and worked quite a while on the four scenes and three songs they sent me to prepare. On the day of my callback, illness struck, and I just could not get out of bed any longer than to send an email apologizing for my missing the audition. That email was not picked up before my appointment time, so I received a series of messages and emails from the casting intern and the musical accompanist, wondering where the hell I was. Well, I was flat on my back in bed, trying not to expel any more noxious bodily fluids.

Once my situation was known to them, the folks at Fords were very sympathetic, but they had a show to cast, dammit, and apparently that show had to be cast that very day (opening night for this show is March 30, 2011. That's not a misprint; they were desperate to cast this show which will open to the public more than a year from now).

Well, what can you do? Point out to them that, with rehearsals starting 11 months in the future, perhaps their sense of urgency was premature? I had much higher hopes for a summer stock gig which turned from a good possibility to a sure bet to a complete gender reversal, in the course of about a week. I was invited to attend a private callback for this one (no one else was there, just yours truly), and spent half an hour having a ball with the director, my buddy Ray. I sang, read a speech or two, and talked about the logistics of putting this oddball little musical satire onstage. When I left, I felt I had delivered my best audition in a number of years.

I was pretty crestfallen, then, when the call came six days later, telling me I was not, in fact, going to be playing this aggressive theatrical agent in Ruthless, the Musical. They were going a different way, a euphemism often used to dismiss an actor. But Totem Pole Playhouse wasn't kidding; they really WERE going in a different direction: they were hiring a woman.

I suppose the role is sometimes played by an actress, since the character is in fact a female. It was originally written for, and played by, a man. What's more fun than a man in a dress?

I have only played a few drag roles in my career, and I looked pretty gruesome in all of them. Perhaps a picture such as this one surfaced, and Totem Pole thought such a vision would frighten their audiences. Who knows?

So, after Sunday's matinee of Lord Arthur Savile's Crime, I return to the place where we performers spend so much of our time: on the dole.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Friday Dance Party: Foster Care

I love this gal's story. After spending several years in the ensembles of various Broadway musicals (Grease!, Will Rogers Follies, Annie, Les Miz) she was plucked from the chorus of Thoroughly Modern Millie during its pre-Broadway try-out in San Diego. The show's original star was Kristin Chenoweth (check out her Dance Party here, it's a hoot), who nurtured the title role through the workshop process only to bow out to film her own sitcom (which flopped). Chenoweth was replaced by Erin Dilly, who was herself replaced by this week's Dance Party star, Sutton Foster. (Don't feel too bad for Dilly, she went on to create Truly Scrumptious in the Broadway Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and played Cinderella in the 2002 revival of Into the Woods).

But back to the show at hand, Thoroughly Modern Millie. Based on the 1967 film musical starring Julie Andrews (which has already appeared on the Dance Party, go here to watch Andrews and co-star Mary Tyler Moore hoof in the elevator), the stage version had a pretty long gestation period before seeing the light of day. Both Beatrice Arthur and Pat Carroll were involved in various workshops of the show, playing the role created, hilariously, on film by Beatrice Lillie (that role, the villainous Mrs. Meers, ultimately went to Harriet Harris, who won the Tony).

Our girl Sutton won the Tony, too, for what many consider to be one of THE break-out performances of the decade. After Millie, Foster went on to create roles in Little Women, The Drowsy Chaperone, and Shrek the Musical, all of which earned her additional Tony nominations. She played yodeling lab assistant Inga in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, and will be headlining the Encores! staging of Sondheim's cult flop Anyone Can Whistle next month in New York. Despite all this success, she remains virtually unknown outside musical theatre circles.

She is another of those Broadway stars who would have become household names by now, if such things still occurred. They don't, so she, and her brother Hunter Foster, who also has much musical theatre cred, will remain below most people's radar until they snag a leading role in a film or TV series.

But not here at the Friday Dance Party! Below, enjoy one of Sutton's showstoppers from her Tony-winning performance as Millie. This sequence was broadcast on the Tony awards, which explains why the entire cast trots out to take a bow at the end of the song. The number is one of many which were written for the stage show, as much of the film score consisted of old standards which were jettisoned for music more appropriate for the story. I am a sucker for tap, which is yet another reason I am attracted to numbers like this:

Sutton Foster turned 35 years old yesterday.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Seeking Naked Boys

...but not for any prurient reasons, rest assured!

My buddy Jeffrey Johnson, artistic director of Ganymede Arts in DC, is putting the word on the Rialto that he needs some naked boys who sing, for a show entitled, appropriately, Naked Boys Singing.

This is a musical revue which has been around for quite some time, from humble beginnings in West Hollywood to a long-running production Off-Broadway, to a filmed version currently available on DVD. There was even a locally produced version, oh, at least a decade or so ago. How I've missed this thing, I don't know.

Ganymede Arts is the local group dedicated to the Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgendered experience (someone once noticed that by the time you've finally included all those orientations, the parade has already passed). When Jeff took the helm of the group, they were called Actors Theatre of Washington, and had been producing off and on for quite a long while. Jeff has expanded the group's mission in recent years, to include all the visual and performing arts. Ganymede sponsors an annual GLBT Arts Festival each autumn, which usually includes staged readings of plays, stand-up comedy nights, dance, music, and guest stars such as Julie Halston and Karen Black. There is usually a bit of drag, too.

Ok, I dislike drag intensely, or rather, dislike the art of the lip-sinc (if indeed that is an art, which I refute), so I usually can't stand drag performances. But I have seen Ganymede's biggest star, Special Agent Galactica (don't ask me the significance of the name, maybe she's a spy from another planet), and have been very entertained. I lay that compliment squarely at the feet of Jeff Johnson, who portrays the pink-haired pseudo-chanteuse; there is something more complete about his performances, probably because he is an actor rather than a drag queen. (That's a term I hate, too. Let's call Jeff a gender illusionist, a term he earned by portraying Little Edie Beale in a home-grown play which has an ongoing life in New York...I wrote about seeing that show here).

I seem to have wandered off topic a bit. Ganymede Arts will be returning to full theatrical producing this spring with a new production of Naked Boys Singing! (note the exclamation point, like Hello, Dolly! or George M! or Hallelujah Hollywood! Musicals are always more exciting with exclamation points, don't you think?). And don't you love a show where there is absolutely no doubt what you are in for? Jeffrey is currently casting non-union exhibitionists who can sell a song in their birthday suit, go here for more audition info.

I will probably try to work one of the performances into my schedule...

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Mission: Obituary

Once again, I've fallen a bit behind on the obits, but hey, I'm working.

You don't need to hear much about this guy, do you?

Corey Haim


or this one?

Andrew Koenig


They were just two in a very long line of child stars and teen idols who could not handle celebrity, or rather, their loss of celebrity as they aged. Haim's death may have been an accidental overdose, while Koenig's was surely suicide (he was found hanging in a tree, so unless he was pulling a David Carradine, it was intentional). Truthfully, both guys look vaguely familiar to me, but I would be unable to pick either of them out of a lineup. So, if you want further details regarding their lives and deaths, go elsewhere.

I'd rather mention this quirky gal, whose career I followed, as she was one of the ladies In Support:

Caroline McWilliams


She spent the early 70s in New York, splitting her time between stage work (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Rothschilds) and her day job on soaps (Guiding Light, Another World). Her training in daytime drama served her well when she moved to Hollywood and snagged a regular role in the second season of Soap, a parody of the soap opera genre.

When Robert Guillaume moved from that series to his own, she went with him, spending three years as a regular on Benson. Her television career included recurring spots on Beverly Hills 90210 and Judging Amy.

She was married to Michael Keaton in 1982, a marriage which ended in divorce but produced a son, Sean Douglas Keaton. Caroline died February 11th from multiple myeloma at the age of 64.

Everybody has heard this guy died a few days ago:

Peter Graves

Born in Minnesota, he headed to Hollywood after a stint in the Air Force near the end of WWII. He spent some time in low-budget sci-fi flicks, and appeared for several seasons on Saturday morning television in Fury, a live-action series about a boy and his horse. He delivered a strong supporting performance as a Nazi in Stalag 17, and included Night of the Lonely Hunter and The Long Gray Line in his list of higher-profile credits. While his older brother James Arness was sleepwalking through two decades of Gunsmoke, Graves had a bit more variety to his career. It was his appearance in two unsold pilots in the mid-60s which brought him to the attention of Desilu Studios, who were looking to replace Steven Hill in their new espionage series Mission: Impossible. (Hill made a career-long habit of deserting hit shows: decades later, he left Law and Order in its prime). As the cool-headed Mr. Phelps, Graves led the series for six seasons (and returned to the role in a remake in the late 80s, which lasted two years).

Graves joined fellow leading men Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, and Leslie Nielson in the parody film Airplane, and returned in its sequel.

He won an Emmy for hosting the documentary series Biography, a program so successful it spawned its own cable network.

But for me, Peter Graves will always be Mr. Phelps. Mission: Impossible was appointment television in our house, for its edge-of-your-seat suspense. The show made stars of our man Peter, as well as the husband-and-wife team of Martin Landau and Barbara Bain. In its later seasons, such stars as Leonard Nimoy (post-Star Trek), Sam Elliot, Lee Meriwether, and Lesley Ann Warren (who dropped her middle name at the time, in hopes it would improve her standing as a serious actress) joined the Impossible Mission Force.

Graves won a Golden Globe for his work in the original Mission: Impossible, a series which spawned a national catchphrase ("your mission, should you decide to accept it...") and a musical score by Lalo Schifrin which became one of the most widely recognized of all television themes. It accompanied the title sequence of each episode, right before Mr. Phelps received his instructions via tape recorder (which always self-destructed). This sequence was either an editor's dream or nightmare, as it always included scenes from "tonight's episode." At the time, it was very unusual for a weekly TV series to employ such labor intensive jump-cut editing to its opening every single week, but it was always beautifully executed, at a time when digital editing was unavailable. Take a peek:

Here's the opening from a later season, with the same tension-building editing:

Peter Graves died last week from a heart attack, after a family brunch, just shy of his 84th birthday. That was some breakfast burrito!