Friday, April 30, 2010

Friday Dance Party: Backwards, And In High Heels

You may not believe this, but Ginger Rogers and I have something in common. We both won Charleston contests. Her win, in 1926 in Fort Worth, Texas, snagged her a spot in Eddie Foy's vaudeville act, which toured the country for several years before landing her in New York, where she was pegged to star in Girl Crazy, along with another unknown named Ethel Merman. MY win, in 1976 in Canoga Park, CA, snagged me 75 bucks and a t-shirt. We're practically twins.

Ginger Rogers met Fred Astaire during her Girl Crazy gig, but did not appear with him until their first film together, 1933's Flying Down to Rio. She was to make a total of 10 musical films with Fred, and they became the preeminent dance team of the 30s musical genre. When interviewed in 1986, Astaire was blunt about Rogers's ability: "Ginger had never danced with a partner before. She faked it an awful lot. She couldn't tap and she couldn't do this and that ... but Ginger had style and talent and improved as she went along. She got so that after a while everyone else who danced with me looked wrong."

Fred was right. Although he partnered with far better dancers than Ginger, he never looked so good as when he was gliding across the floor with Rogers. It may have been that, as an actress who danced (rather than a dancer who tried to act), she recognized that characterization did not stop once the music started. She had an ongoing non-musical career before, during, and after her decade with Astaire. She held her own opposite Katherine Hepburn in Stage Door in 1937, and won the Best Actress Oscar for her dramatic work in Kitty Foyle in 1940. (Here's a fun fact: Rogers portrayed the role of Roxie Hart in the film of the same name in 1942, a role which would later be played by Gwen Verdon, Liza Minnelli, Ann Reinking, Brooke Shields, Melanie Griffith, Bebe Neuwirth, and Renee Zellweger, among many others, in the musical version, Chicago.)

In her later life, Ginger was a prominent Hello, Dolly! replacement, once Carol Channing left the role, and she spent almost two years playing Mame in London, earning more money than any other stage actress had, at the time. She was beloved by Hollywood, despite her Republican leanings and background; her mother, screen writer Lela Rogers, named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and Rogers herself remained a staunch Reaganite until her death in 1995.

Our favorite Commie-hater was awarded the Kennedy Center Honor in 1992, but Astaire's widow demanded more money than CBS was willing to cough up for the rights to include film clips of their work together, so her televised tribute noticeably lacked her most famous dance sequences. Fred and Ginger made nine movies together in the 1930s, and one more a decade later, and those ten films constitute a trove of dancing gems. The clip below, from 1936's Swing Time, is one of my favorites. Our Ginger is a dance instructor in danger of being sacked; Fred comes to the rescue, and shows off a bit for the boss. The sequence is not cluttered up with elaborate sets or costumes, and allows the duo's smooth simplicity to shine.

It was Texas governor Ann Richards who is credited with the famous line regarding our gal: "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels." The quote became a motto for a generation of feminists; a musical version of Ginger's life, called "Backwards in High Heels" is currently making the regional rounds.

Ginger Rogers died 15 years ago this week.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Most Sincerely Dead

Meinhardt Raabe


You probably heard of this guy's death a few weeks ago. His singular claim to fame was as the munchkin coroner who proclaimed the Wicked Witch of the East's death by falling house. He was born and raised in Wisconsin, and headed to Hollywood when he read there was work for midgets there (yes, I know we are now inflicted with the term "little people" to describe the pint-sized folk, but Raabe always referred to himself as a midget).
He was cast as the coroner in The Wizard of Oz on the basis of his reading of that all-important death announcement:

"As coroner, I must aver
I thoroughly examined her
And she's not only merely dead
She's really, most sincerely dead! "

His performance lasted only 13 seconds in the finished film, but then, Ellen Burstyn won an Emmy nomination for a 14 second performance in the TV film Mrs. Harris, so what the hell? In fact, Raabe's voice is not heard in the final cut of the film; the munchkin voices were dubbed by other actors and then accelerated in the editing room.

Our boy had a long career on the road, as Oscar Meyer's spokesman, where he was known as "Little Oscar, the World's Smallest Chef," and in 1936, two years before pronouncing Wicked's Nessarose dead on film, he had been the first passenger in the Oscar Meyer weinermobile.

After filming Oz, he served with distinction in WWII, and earned a graduate degree in business administration. His marriage to his wife Margaret Marie lasted 50 years, until her death in a car accident in 1997, in which he was also injured.

Raabe always remained available to attend Oz commemorative events, and was present when the Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz received their own star on the Hollywoood Walk of Fame.

The coroner of Munchkinland died last week at the age of 94.

I don't usually note the passing of sports figures, but this one caught my eye:

George Nissen


He was a gymnast and a diver in high school, and a trip to the circus started him a-thinkin'. He wondered if the net the trapeze artists used could be adapted to help him in his own training.

He crafted some canvas and pieces of rubber from old tires, and by the time he reached college, he had a prototype. He took it to a YMCA swimming camp, where he suspected he had something special when the kids stopped swimming completely and clamored for turns on what he referred to as "the bouncer." He teamed up with two fellow gymnasts and toured the country as the Three Leonardos, performing what he called "rebound tumbling."

He found a permanent name for his invention from the Spanish word for diving board. He had created the trampoline, and he staged a series of exhibitions and photo ops to introduce the invention to the world. His favorite publicity photo was taken in Central Park in 1960; he rented a kangaroo for the occasion:
Nissen was in the front row in Sydney in 2000, when the trampoline became an Olympic sport. He died a few weeks ago at the age of 96.

This guy's death brought back a flood of memories for me, of my early teen years:

Peter Haskell


He was an actor who spent his career in episodic television, and the occasional feature (he was in the Childs Play series of horror films). The list of programs in which he guested includes (are you ready?) The Outer Limits, Dr. Kildare, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Ben Casey, The Fugitive, Charlie's Angels, Garrison's Gorillas, The Big Valley, Mannix, Medical Center, Barnaby Jones, Vega$, Matlock, Frasier, Columbo, JAG, The Closer, and Cold Case. He also spent time on the soaps Search for Tomorrow and Ryan's Hope. Back in the early 70s, I was personally thrilled when he starred in a Movie of the Week (that's what we called TV movies back then, ABC presented one every single week). This flick was also a pilot, called The Eyes of Charles Sand, and he teamed up with my favorite Dark Shadows alum Joan Bennett. That film did not go to series, for good reason, it was lousy.

Haskell first came to my attention as the star of another lousy series, though I did not know how crummy it was at the time.

When I was in the 8th and 9th grade, whenever there was a home game for the North Springs High football team, I would attend the Friday night event. Don't raise your eyebrows, I went only for the social aspect, I really couldn't have cared less about the actual game. But once the game was over, instead of joining the gang at Bella Pizza, I dashed home, mixed up a mug of hot chocolate, and settled in front of the TV to watch Bracken's World.
Never heard of it? Not surprising, as it struggled through only a season and a half before expiring. It was a melodramatic look at the lives of movie makers. Shot on the lot of 20th Century Fox, which doubled as "Century Studios," where the action took place, the ensemble series was headlined, initially, by aging film star Eleanor Parker, who played the executive assistant (read: secretary) of the studio head Bracken. Bracken himself remained unseen, though we occasionally heard him on the intercom or the phone. There were three young starlets in the series, including one played by Linda Harrison, who had married the head of Fox Studios, Richard Zanuck, and was thereby getting some help with her career (at the time, she was also starring in the original Planet of the Apes, as the mute hottie who mates with Charlton Heston).

I was enamored of all things show-biz back then, and had no idea how inaccurate this portrayal of life on a studio lot was, so I loved Bracken's World. The show was not a success, though somehow it survived into a second season; the writers tried to save the show by bringing the studio head onto the canvas. Parker left the show, and Leslie Neilson, back when he was a dramatic actor, was cast as the long-absent Bracken. It didn't do much to improve the ratings, and the show died before completing its second year.

Peter Haskell played my favorite character in the show, a womanizing film director with an alcoholic wife and a determination to make great movies. He interacted with most of the guest stars of the show, including Lee Grant (playing a lesbian gossip columnist), Ann Baxter (playing an aging film star), and Lois Nettleton (playing an actress faced with a nude scene...shocking!...) and a host of others. One of the fun factors of the series was the steady stream of cameo appearances by stars, playing themselves. Apparently, anyone who was on the Fox studio lot at any one time was fair game to be snagged by the Bracken's World team, to contribute a ten-second walk-on. The show also gave opportunities to the younger guest actors on the scene, including a pre-Waltons Richard Thomas, who played a fundamentalist nutcase who kidnapped one of our starlets, and Sally Field, post-Flying Nun and pre-Sybil, playing a left-wing activist with a penchant for publicity.

Can you tell I remember this series quite well? I have purchased a handful of episodes on EBay, all very poorly recorded on ancient video. The series itself may never be released on DVD, considering it was not a hit, and it contains so many appearances by the rich and famous. The studio system which the series portrayed was already dead and buried by the time the show aired in 1969, and some of the plotlines are pretty laughable, but I still hold Bracken's World close to my heart.

Peter Haskell died last week at the age of 75.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Theatre Droppings: Todd, Dick, and Harry

That's Sweeney Todd, Richard II, and Henry V, all of whom I visited during their final week of performances in DC.

I wish I had been able to write about these productions sooner, but it's been a busy time for me lately. However, all three of these shows attracted my attention, and though they have now all closed, I'm blathering on about them anyway.

I did not invent the term "Teeny Todd;" I think it was first assigned to an Off-Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd which shrank the orchestra and the ensemble, and played the show in a very small space. Signature Theatre's production, which I was lucky enough to catch at its penultimate performance, was not all that teeny. It was maybe moderately teeny, with an orchestra of only four players, and an abbreviated chorus of London lowlifes.

Who cares? I certainly don't. The ensemble sounded great, and delivered what many consider to be Stephen Sondheim's Masterpiece with strength and style. Musical theatre scholars and geeks will argue forever about which Stephen Sondheim show is his masterpiece; theatre folks may pick Follies, romantics insist the waltz-centric A Little Night Music takes the prize, and the Pulitzer folks picked Sunday in the Park with George as Sondheim's best. (And of course, I'm partial to his early work, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, since it's the only Sondheim I've been in.)

But really, no one can argue with Sweeney being called a masterpiece, so I was very glad I got to slip into Signature's final afternoon performance of Sondheim's grand guignol opera. This particular Todd generated some discussion for a controversial casting decision...more on that in a mo'. The cast I saw included two understudies in the principle roles of Tobias and Johanna; the original actors were busy prepping the next Signature show. As usual when I am confronted with understudy performances, I was not in the least disappointed. Both substitutes did great jobs. As did Chris Sizemore as the Beadle, a role usually played by an obese middle aged tenor. Chris, whom I admired in Civil War at Ford's a while back, and with whom I recently did a staged reading of Parade, was unrecognizable in top hat, skull cap, granny glasses, and Ben Franklin haircut. But he was menacing when he needed to be, and can work that falsetto better than Frankie Valley.

An actor with whom I am unfamiliar, Gregory Maheu, was playing our young hero Anthony, and got the honor (or the curse) of delivering what I think is the greatest, most haunting ballad Sondheim ever wrote, "Johanna." That aria never fails to move me, and this guy, who, physically, had a bit of a Jude Law thing going on, delivered a slender but still powerful version.

Which brings me to the couple at the center of any and all Sweeney Todd productions. Sherri Edelen was playing Mrs. Lovett; she has been at the top of her game for several years now, I think, and I will claim that she is the strongest musical performer her age in town. I don't know Sherri all that well; I worked with her husband Tom Simpson in Man of La Mancha at Wayside Theatre last year, but because Sherri was working in DC at the time, our paths did not cross.

May I wander off into personal memory time? Of course I can, I'm in charge of these pages. I had a pretty fun introduction to Sherri, many years ago, when we both volunteered to help with a general audition for Arena Stage. We sat outside the theatre, checking off names, and mostly, just killing time. Arena had announced Cabaret as part of their upcoming season, and Sherri mentioned Sally Bowles as one of the roles she had always wanted to play, but which had passed her by (actors talk like this a lot). I have always loved Cabaret (I wrote about that little obsession a while ago), so I mentioned to Sherri she would be a good fit for the role of the Nazi prostitute across the hall (my recollection is, she was unfamiliar with the part, which had been removed from the film version). I don't know if she actively pursued it, or if Arena came calling, but she landed the role and earned a Helen Hayes nom for her performance.

I have no doubt she will be getting another nod for her Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney. She was funny, sexy, and ruthless, all at once.

Lovett's partner in meatpies, our titular hero, was being played by Ed Gero, an actor well-respected in these parts for his classical work, though he is by no means a stranger to more contemporary plays, having won one of his several Helen Hayes Awards for Skylight at Studio. I have never been disappointed in Ed's work, and have a soft spot for him as a fellow performer. (Uh oh, here comes another sweep down memory lane.) He was the first person with whom I ever engaged in stage combat (or I should say, professional stage combat, as opposed to stuff in school). The year I spent at The Shakespeare Theatre, Ed was playing Banquo opposite Stacy Keach's Macbeth,and we opened the show with a vicious fight sequence. All the men in the show participated, as Mackers and his buddy mowed down dozens of sword swinging foes. I was Ed's first fight partner in this sequence; I have such strong memories of waiting upstage center, before the curtain went up, with Ed's wry humor helping to calm my neophyte nerves.

Gero has been one of my favorite DC actors ever since. He's pretty much one of EVERYBODY'S favorites, so it was with a bit of awkwardness that some folks wondered if he was up to the vocal challenges of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It sounds a bit odd, considering the over-the-top melodrama which is Sweeney Todd, but Ed's performance was actually understated, playing our anti-hero as a shell-shocked psychopath. The chemistry between him and Sherri was wonderful to watch (you could see their affection for each other when one of their duets went a bit awry, and they delightfully let the audience in on the error).

Ed Gero was tied up at Signature Theatre, so was not involved in the huge "Leadership Repertory" recently presented by The Shakespeare Theatre Company. But I was pleased to see several more of the "old guard" at The Shakes playing a variety of roles. Richard II opened with a scene which was apparently interpolated from an apocryphal play called Thomas of Woodstock. Who cares where that first scene came from, I was glad to see it, as its participants were Ted van Griethuysen, Philip Goodwin, and Floyd King, all playing uncles of R2. I worked with all three of these gents, who taught me a great deal about bringing the classics to life. We don't see them on stage at The Shakes as much as we used to, and that's a crime.

The title character of Richard II, and its companion piece Henry V, were both being played by Michael Hayden, in a monumental exhibition of performance prowess. I have admired Hayden for many years, ever since he proved that an actor who sings can bring new shadings to traditional musical theatre, in the well-received revival of Carousel about 18 years ago. Hayden is responsible for giving the only sympathetic portrayal of the protagonist in Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along I have ever seen, which I mentioned when it played the Kennedy Center years ago.

Here at The Shakes, his double duty really paid off. Richard II as a play is not well-known to me; I saw Kelsey Grammer play it in Los Angeles the night the 1992 riots began, and if I didn't know better, I would think the two events were related. I also tried to get through an old PBS production of the play starring David Birney, who was never a dynamic actor and proved the point in that dull version. Hayden, though, brought this hubristic character to life for me. And I particularly enjoyed the comic interlude late in the play, with Ted van Griethuysen, Naomi Jacobson, and Tom Story playing a family of squabbling royals.

A few days later, I caught Michael Hayden's Henry V, a play I know far better, having been in it with that fine classical actor Mr. Harry Hamlin:

H5 has plenty of heroic speeches to deliver, including one of the most famous Call to Arms in dramatic literature. But he has one or two quieter, more circumspect moments, and Hayden delivered those with a poignancy which balanced out the bombastic rhetoric of the warrior king. I couldn't help but compare those particular scenes to those played by Hamlin, who had some trouble bringing life to his long monologues. During one particularly lengthy speech, Harry suddenly stopped during a tech rehearsal, and suggested that the moment might go better if he slowly took off his clothes while he spoke (he was right, it would have). Hayden had no need to disrobe during his monologues.

I love seeing the classics being brought to life with vibrancy, and these three productions of Sweeney Todd, Richard II, and Henry V did just that.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Friday Dance Party: Hello, Gorgeous

In 1964, my father was working his way up the management ladder at Lockheed, but traveled rarely for the company (he was later to circle the globe a couple of times as head of their commercial aircraft program, but that was a decade in the future). He was excited to be sent to New York by the company, and even more excited when Lockheed invited my mother to join him. They had never been to the Big Apple. Neither of them were big theatre-goers at the time, but they knew that, as first-time visitors, they needed to see a Broadway show. They had no idea what was playing, and wouldn't recognize any of the shows if they did, so they asked the hotel doorman what they should see. He pointed down the street to the Winter Garden Theatre, and my parents walked down the block and bought tickets.

It was years later that I first heard from my father that he and my mother had wandered into the original production of Funny Girl, and had seen the young Barbra Streisand in her career-making role.

As for me, I only became aware of Streisand after Funny Girl,the film, had been in the theaters for many months. My best friend Robert was a huge fan, and insisted we ride the bus from the suburbs all the way downtown to see the movie. I had not heard of the woman (give me a break, I was barely a teenager). The film was one of those "roadshow" events, with an intermission and reserved seating and such. We attended a Saturday matinee, in a huge theatre, with about 8 other people. I was hooked.

During the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Streisand was one of those galvanizing personalities whom people either loved or hated, there didn't seem to be much in-between. For most of that period, I would count myself as a lover. I was not slavishly devoted; I disliked many of her recordings of the 70s, though she topped the charts several times with items such as Stoney End, Enough is Enough, and The Way We Were. In fact, she has achieved a most phenomenal feat: she has delivered at least one #1 album in each of the past five decades. She remains the most successful female solo vocalist in recording history.

While she undoubtedly has had her greatest success in the recording industry (nobody can deny that hers is one of the great voices of the 20th century), she conquered the stage and screen as well. She has only two Broadway projects to her credit, but she was a standout in both. She was first noticed in a supporting role in I Can Get It For You Wholesale, a role which was beefed up musically when her vocal talents became apparent. And Funny Girl, of course, sealed the deal. The show itself is not one of Broadway's classics, and the fact that there has been no high-profile revival indicates that the piece is now inexorably tied to Streisand. But she was not the first choice to play Fanny Brice in this stage biography; during much of its development, Mary Martin was attached to the project (Mary Martin as Fanny Brice? ACK!!) The ultra-goy Martin ultimately withdrew, and the show was offered to Anne Bancroft, of all people, who wisely declined. Carol Burnett was approached; she quite astutely replied, "You need a Jewish girl." Edie Gorme was courted, but her insistence that her husband Steve Lawrence play leading man Nick Arnstein sank that deal. Finally somebody remembered Streisand, and dragged the producers to the Bon Soir cabaret in the Village, where Babs was performing, and a star was born.

Funny Girl had a very healthy run of well over 1300 performances, and was nominated for 8 Tony awards, losing them all. Though Streisand was awarded a Special Tony in 1970, she never won the award in competition. She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for I Can Get it For You Wholesale, but lost to Phyllis Newman in the giant flop Subways Are For Sleeping, and she lost her Best Actress award (for Funny Girl, of course) to the juggernaut which was Hello, Dolly!

Throughout most of the 60s, Streisand delivered a series of television specials which won multiple Emmys, but it was still a surprise when her film debut snagged an Oscar. Her performance in the film version of Funny Girl ranks as one of the most dynamic film debuts in the history of the movies. The film itself was the top grosser of 1969, and is probably responsible for the failure of all attempts to revive Funny Girl on stage. With Streisand's definitive portrayal of Fanny Brice available for all to see, who would want to see Sutton Foster tackle the part?

This week's Dance Party celebrates not only Streisand's vocal ability, but her screwball comic chops as well. Her comic ability can be overshadowed by her musical accomplishments, but just check out What's Up, Doc? or Meet the Fockers if you have any doubt about her comic timing. Or just enjoy the clip below, which showcases her comedic and musical skills simultaneously. It's from Funny Girl, and illustrates Streisand's ability to be dynamic and endearing at the same time.

Barbra Streisand turns 68 tomorrow.