Wednesday, December 22, 2010

When You're Good To Mama

When I heard this gal died the other day, it started me down a memory lane I had not traveled in years.

Marcia Lewis


She was a registered nurse in Cincinnati before she decided to hit New York to become a professional actress. Supporting herself with her nursing degree, she landed in the original production of Hello, Dolly, playing the comic role of Ernestina opposite the Dollys of both Phyllis Diller and Ethel Merman. Her short, roly-poly figure was a natural for comic roles, and her Betty Boop voice belied her ability to belt the roof off the theatre. She did not show much of that belt when she was cast in the 1994 revival of Grease, in which she played Miss Lynch, a largely non-singing role but one which showcased her ability to milk a laugh out of dreck. The revival (this is the one which co-starred Rosie O'Donnell and Megan Mulally) did not get much critical respect, but it lasted four years and spawned continual tours. Our Marcia secured a Tony nomination for her work, losing it to Carousel's Audra McDonald.

Lewis displayed her trumpet-voice to good effect in the current revival of Chicago, in which she was the original Matron Mama Morton. Another Tony nod followed, which she lost to Lillias White in The Life. She was one of the many replacement Miss Hannigans in the long-running Annie, and she had a lively career touring in stock productions. She had some dramatic chops, too, playing in The Time of Your Life and opposite Vanessa Redgrave in Orpheus Descending. But her brassy stage presence was best suited to the musical stage, and she appeared on all the NY cabaret stages as well.

After her initial work in the original Dolly and Annie, Marcia lived in Los Angeles for a while, paying the bills with guest shots on a variety of tv programs of the 70s and 80s. I still recall with fondness her cameo on The Bob Newhart Show, playing a pushy broad determined to buy the Hartleys' refrigerator. It was during this period in Los Angeles that I met her.

My college chum Valerie was responsible for introducing me to a variety of off-beat, funky experiences which I would not otherwise have had. She had discovered the Mayfair Music Hall in Santa Monica, which was a small movie palace converted to resemble an old-time vaudeville house. The shows were live, of course, and included several different acts each night. The venue had a swell bar, where I was introduced to a very British cocktail called a Pimms Cup. I'd never heard of it, but I fell in love with the sweet taste and the unusual garnish: a slice of cucumber. I never failed to have two or three of these drinks whenever we visited the Mayfair, even in the days when I was slightly underage. Nobody ever carded anybody there, it was not the sort of place where teen-agers were likely to gather and cause trouble. In fact, Val and our crowd were always the youngest audience members in the theatre.

The house sat only about 200 people, around little tables which were convenient when we ordered drinks from Muriel the Singing Waitress. She had a winning way with a song, and later became my voice teacher, helping me get over my nervousness about singing in public.

True to the British Music Hall tradition, the show was always kicked off by The Chairman, in this case from one of the boxes which flanked the stage. He was the warm-up guy, the narrator, and the host of the evening, introducing all the acts, and making hilariously awful jokes. I had no idea at the time that I was doing research for a show I was to do decades later. In 2000, I was cast to play the Chairman in Christmas at the Old Bull and Bush, which played in the basement theatre at Arena Stage in DC, and like the shows at the Mayfair, was a recreation of the music hall experience in England. During those rehearsals in 2000, I had numerous flashbacks to my days in the audience at the Mayfair Music Hall, watching The Chairman elicit groans from the crowd for his puns and his double entendres.

I fell in love with the Mayfair Music Hall, and went whenever Val invited me, which was often. The acts were eclectic and unusual. We saw sitcom veteran Vito Scotti, who was, believe it or not, an accomplished mime, and there was a magician, and an escape artist, and a nasty little comic named Mousie. But I always enjoyed the musical numbers the best, which were often offered by a handsome leading man named Walter Willison (he went on to a larger career in New York). "Guest Artistes" were always introduced by The Chairman with great enthusiasm, and one of those acts was Marcia Lewis. She was always clowning around with a comic song. She got us used to her high-pitched cutie-pie voice, then would astound the crowd by switching to her belt, which I kid you not, would rival the Great Merman herself.

Once the show was over, we would adjourn to the bar in the lobby for one (or two) more Pimms. The performers would usually pop out for a drink, and would gather at the old upright piano to entertain some more. I loved those evenings, and can point to them as the moments when I first fell in love with the kind of talent which could perform in such musical/cabaret settings. Marcia was surely my favorite "artiste" at the Mayfair Music Hall. It would take several more decades before she would win her Tony nominations and become a Broadway name, but I'd like to think that she remembered those nights at the Mayfair with fondness. She died from cancer on Tuesday.

There are only a couple of clips out there of Marcia Lewis, but if you are interested, here is one actually filmed at the Mayfair Music Hall. Who knows, I may have been in the house that night. The quality is lousy, but if you let yourself get into it, you can see for yourself the brassy, sassy quality of her work.