Before the 1950s, no actor or singer was miked. They learned to "project" their voices. In 1952, Paint Your Wagon stuck a few mikes in among the footlights but no one paid them any mind.
I first saw a body mike in We Take the Town. The female lead, Kathleen Widdoes, had a sweet but light voice that the director decided needed a boost opposite Robert Preston. But she was furious when he insisted she wear a remote mike in her cleavage.
"Wonderful!" she said scornfully. "Now I have three nipples!"
Soon stage miking was universal and people began expecting amplified sound. In The Birth of the Poet, 1985, all twelve actors wore individual mikes. Nowadays, un-miked actors can only be found in theaters the size of broom closets way off-off Broadway.
When Elizabeth and I began touring our two-person shows, we wore individual body mikes and carried a stage manager who turned our tapes on and off. This kept our fees too high for many venues until I discovered a remote switch at Radio Shack that, slipped into my pants pocket, let me turn music on and off while on stage! In three years we did about 400 performances nationwide. We had to be careful, of course. What audience likes to hear the sound of a toilet flushing?
Which brings me to a fund raiser in North Carolina, one of those performances where nothing goes right. Our hosts didn't let us into the space to setup when promised, seemed annoyed when, as per contract, we asked for a spare room to dress in and, well, like that.
We gave it our best but the audience seemed distracted. After our bows we dashed through the hall to our dressing room only to find the door locked. So we stood there cussing out the whole outfit until suddenly a harried woman dashed up waving keys:
"Will you please turn those damn microphones off?"
The audience had heard our entire rant and from what I gathered, concentrated on it more than the show.— Stuart Hodes
Not Your Usual Christmas Story
Paint Your Wagon 1951. By mid-December the Schubert backstage bulletin board was filled with Christmas cards. I tacked up a cute one I'd found in Greenwich Village, silk screened in red with a white line drawing of a smiling Santa reclining on a beach under a beaming sun, a starfish washed up beside him.
Two days later it was nowhere among the mass of cards. I tacked up a second. Next day it too was missing. I asked stage manager, Neil Hartley, if he'd seen my card. Nope. So I put up a third. That night after the show, it was gone, the tack still there with a tiny shard of paper attached. Someone had violently ripped off my card.
Next day I prepared a fourth card. On the margin at the bottom I wrote in ink: "See Other side." And on the back:
If the chicken-hearted coward who is tearing down
my card has the guts to show his face, we can talk.
Otherwise may he rot in hell with all the other commie
nazi bastards who ruin the world for decent people.
I tacked it up well before half-hour. After the final curtain I crossed the stage toward the foyer door where a knot of people stood by the bulletin board, came up behind a couple of singers and Neil Hartley, all watching silently as James Barton, wife at his side, was squinting at the inked message on the face of my card.
"See other side," he mumbled, turned over the card and read aloud, "‘If the ... lily-livered ... coward ... who is tearing ... down my card ... has the guts ... to show his face ... we can talk."
"Otherwise ... may he rot in hell ... with all the other ... commie nazi bastards ... who ruin the world for decent people."
Barton looked up, red-faced. "Decent?" and waved the card in the air.
"Looka that Santy Claus! He's sleepin' on a beach! And looka that star! This is a commie card!"
Holding the card with one hand, he emphasized each syllable by striking the card with the pointing finger on the other. "This is a com-anist card!"
Pieces flew off and fluttered to the floor.
He peered around. All were poker faced. "Guts to show his face? I'm showin' my face! Let him show his face!"
Neil Hartley looked at me. "He's right there." The singer in front of me stepped to one side. Momentarily silenced, Barton stared.
"All right, what are you gonna do about it?"
"What am I supposed to do? Report you to Equity? I fought in World War II, Mr. Barton. "What did you do?"
When he didn't immediately reply, his wife spoke up. "Jim did his part."
"Doing what, entertaining the troops?"
Furious, unable to take any kind of action, a sob forced its way out of my throat, I turned and strode back into the dark stage."
"Awww, hell," I heard Barton say.
"I turned back. "Star or no star, I wish you were twenty years younger!"
"Oh yeah? Go ahead. I can still handle myself!"
"And be barred from Broadway for life!"
Needing to escape, I strode past Barton, pushed through the onlookers, out into Schubert Alley, in five minutes was at Grants, corner of Broadway and 42nd Street, where I stuffed myself with hamburgers and onions.
Next day I arrived at the theater well before half-hour and tacked up my fifth card. On my dressing table I found a bottle of bourbon with a card, "Jim Barton."
The fifth card stayed up. A few weeks later when I went on for lead dancer, James Mitchell, I noticed Barton watching from the wings. The next day his wife said, "Jim says you're better than James Mitchell." I considered it a sort of apology.—
In 1954, dancer, Calvin Holt, opened a combination coffee/curiosity shop and named it Serendipity. Few knew what the name meant. On each table, paper place mats carried a story about "Three Princes of Serendip," perhaps to forestall customer questions. I passed it daily on my way to the Martha Graham Center, tucked between two other storefronts on 60th between Lex and Third.
Nothing in Manhattan touched Serendipity for elegance of decor or sumptuousness of menu. Calvin himself used to wait tables and when I asked about the gleaming espresso machine, like a towering chromium pipe organ against the shop's northern wall, he said he'd gotten it in Italy and would I like to buy it? Everything was for sale: Tiffany glass chandeliers, tables, chairs, coffee mugs.
When Serendipity passed into other hands, the new owners wisely stuck to the formula and Serendipity 3 is there today. It's web site: http://www.serendipity3.com/.
Calvin, free from the 24-hour headache that any business entails, bought himself a spacious living loft on Lafayette Street which he sometimes rented to friends for dance rehearsals. Near the window was his electronic piano where he played and composed tunes in between trips to exotic lands.
Paint Your Wagon's Philadelphia premiere was an opening nightmare. Set pieces missed their mark, rising and falling backdrops tangled, cues were missed, and running time was over three hours. Next morning Alan J. Lerner called the cast together and said the show needed work. (No kidding!)
"We can fix it quickly or we can fix it creatively. We want to fix it creatively and creatively takes time."
Lerner had learned that gold rush towns often burned to the ground, that mysterious "firebugs" were blamed, and wrote one into the script. It was first character cut as Paint Your Wagon was readied for its New York City opening.
Sometimes the original team can't handle this job so the producer brings in a "show doctor." When We Take the Town was expiring in Philadelphia, rumor had it that producer, Stuart Ostrow, had brought in Jerome Robbins but for whatever reason, he never took over.
Herbert Ross agreed to doctor the dances of First Impressions but would not let his name appear on the program. At his first rehearsal he asked the women to wear their costume skirts, picked up the edge of one and began counting petticoats.
"One, two, three, four, five six. Why six petticoats?"
"Alvin Colt said it's what women wore then."
"But they did not dance in them," said Ross, and had each woman remove five. They were all piled in a corner when costume designer, Alvin Colt, strolled into the studio. He stared at the pile, then at Ross, who returned a cold gaze. Colt left without a word.
Cute little pathways wound through a formal 18th century garden set but were not used. Ross sent dancers through them improving stage traffic while calling attention to the attractive setting. He tightened a minuet during which Farley Granger and Polly Bergen flirted, vastly improved a vigorous polka that introduced Captain Wickham, played by James Mitchell.
Ross went on to doctor and direct other Broadway shows, then to Hollywood where he directed The Turning Point, and The Goodbye Girl, among others. He married the fierce ballerina, Nora Kaye, known for dramatic temperament and high technique. Dancing gypsies called it a union between Count Dracula and The Dragon Lady.
I am indebted to playwright, Larry Fineberg, for one of Nora Kaye's barbs: "If Herb is such a great show doctor, why do all of his patients die?"
I'm sure Herb Ross laughed the loudest.
by Larry Blank
Carnegie Hall Salutes Judy Garland (1999), hosted by Alan King, with Ann Miller, Bobby Morse, Tony Martin, accompanied by Skitch Henderson, was deluged with stars, from Garland's daughter, Lorna Luft, to her childhood co-star, Mickey Rooney, plus hordes from MGM.
I was musical director and chatting with my musical mentor, Don Pippin, who'd come by to say hello to me and the boys in the band when he caught sight of Robert Goulet. The two had begun together in summer stock in the 1950s.
After a warm hug Goulet said, "Don, old friend, how great to see you! Y'know I've only just gotten out of the hospital from prostate surgery."
Don said without hesitation, "I thought you looked a little shorter."
Cunningham and DeMille by David Vaughan
Merce Cunningham first auditioned for Oklahoma! Agnes DeMille asked him if he could tap. He said yes ( he was after all a student of Mrs. Maud Barrett in Centralia, WA), and she said come back tomorrow and show me something. So he did and she would have taken him but then Martha Graham had a tour and he couldn't do it.
Then there is the story of One Touch of Venus: the show was in trouble in Boston and as always happened, the producers wanted to change the ballet. Merce was hired to replace the leading male dancer (whose name escapes me.) Again as usual he rehearsed the show at night and maybe even went on a few times. I think he said one of the things he had to do was lift Mary Martin. He found the whole situation "unkempt" (a word he used to me) and quit.
I remember too that Nina Fonaroff told me that DeMille was always trying to get modern dancers to be in her shows so that backstage at One Touch of Venus there was considerable feuding between the modern and the ballet dancers.
A good result of all this is that Merce became a friend of Sono Osato and told her not to sign a new contract until the show opened because it would make her a star.
To bring us back to the present, go and see the exhibition on Merce that has just opened at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts.
[Editor's note: for an informative piece on Merce Cunningham, click: http://prelectur.stanford.edu/lecturers/cunningham/ ]
Brief Encounter The Penis Papers #2
Broadway, July, 1955. About 7:00 PM, Ronald Field and I were strolling uptown on Seventh Avenue passing through Times Square an hour before sign-in for Kismet at the Ziegfeld Theater. The sidewalk had lost its bustle after the urgent boil of office workers into the streets and before the rush of late-goers out of restaurants to their entertainments.
The day had been fine, the clear evening met by a rising glow from the Great White Way, the corona of neon and softly darkening sky making me imagine it could be prima sera, the early evening Tennessee Williams described in "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone."
Half a block away, approaching us on their way downtown were Tony Mordente and Chad Block, headed, perhaps, to their own theaters. Deep in conversation, as they passed they nodded and we nodded back.
Half a block further, Ronnie turned to me and said thoughtfully,
"And there they go, the two longest cocks on Broadway!"
Too True (To Be Good)
Broadway, between 46 and 47th Streets. 1962. When she was 15, Performing Arts HS sophomore, Chelsey Pinkham (not her real name), had stood out in my dance classes for the sparkling delight with which she danced. Two years later when I bumped into her on Broadway at 46th, she told me excitedly that she had her first job, a replacement in Do Re Mi.
Learning I'd just left that show, she asked if I knew dance captain, Chad Block.
"Sure I know Chad."
"Maybe he gets lonely on tour!"
"Aren't you still jail bait?"
She smiled a bit archly. "I'll be eighteen in Boston!"
"Everyone says he's true to his wife."
"Maybe I'll find out if it's true." Fade out, 1962. Fade In, 1963
Same spot on Broadway, we meet again, exchange greetings, talk about shows, auditions. Then, "So how was Do Re Mi?"
"It was great!"
"What happened with Chad?"
"What do you mean?"
"You know, lonely on tour, your eighteenth birthday?"
"Oh." She half smiled. "I didn't get anywhere. And neither did any other girl in the company. I'd say Chad has never been to bed with anyone but his wife!"—Stuart Hodes
I'd Rather Be A Sex Pot
Ziegfeld Follies, 1956. (Photo: Lee Becker Theodore and Gwen Verdon) Everyone knew that Lee Becker Theodore would soon rise out of the chorus. Her show-biz smarts seemed like Mozart's, inborn instead of learned. When a dancer on TV's Ed Sullivan show, she was called into the director's booth to consult and after she choreographed Kabuki Mambo, she was the talk of every gypsy in town.
In Philadelphia we pretty much knew Ziegfeld Follies was in trouble but of course rehearsals went on. I was sitting in the orchestra next to Lee watching Jack Cole work on a showgirl number and asked her what she wanted to do next.
"I don't know."
"You should choreograph more dances."
We watched as each showgirl strode forward to take her momentary place in the spotlight center stage. Each wore a plain muslin rehearsal gown topped by an enormous costume hat, feathered, flowered, glittery.
Suddenly Lee burst out: "I don't want to choreograph! I want to be one of those sex pots up there!"
It was said with such fervor there could be was no reply. But after a moment, quietly:
"And any one of them would trade her future for yours."
When Follies closed, Jack Cole sought her out backstage to tell her he'd been honored to work with her, leaving her in tears.
Her next job was "Anybody's" in West Side Story, soon after that she began choreographing and then directing musicals, and finally she founded The American Dance Machine whose mission was to preserve and present the great dances created for musical theater.
She left us much too soon.—Stuart Hodes
Anna Sokolow Way
Circa 1955. I was in the hallway of Clarke Center for the Performing Arts when a studio door burst open and a furious dancer emerged: "I never work for that woman again!"and sobbing, ran down the hall. Just another Anna Sokolow rehearsal.
Sokolow's fame rests on her biting modern dances yet she also choreographed four plays with music and eight musicals. In strictly commercial terms all were flops, from Happy as Larry, three performances, to Street Scene with 148. Adding up performances of all her shows, dividing by 12, the average run was 45. Yet all had high aspirations, a rare commodity these days when Las Vegas-cum-Walt Disney is more common than Stephen Sondheim.
Sokolow's first theater choreography was a play with music, Noah, score by Martha Graham's famed mentor, Louis Horst, who is co-credited for choreography. Two are works of art, Street Scene, music by Kurt Weill, and Candide, music by Leonard Bernstein.
Sokolow studied and danced with Martha Graham and her dances, like Graham's were dark and about desperate people. Yet she was never Graham's disciple and never lost the fierceness that could drive a dancer right out of her studio.
In 1983 in a seminar at NYU, Sokolow turned to me and asked, "Stuart, why didn't you ever audition for any of my shows?"
"But Anna, I always auditioned. You never took me."
Ten years later I was in the New York Public Library Dance Collection and ran smack into her.
"Stuart. What are you doing here?"
"Looking up stuff."
"A book I'm writing."
"Am I in it?"
"Of course you are!."
At One Christopher Street where Anna once lived, a sign has been erected: "Anna Sokolow Way."
I'll post a photo of that sign as soon as I can get to Greenwich Village and snap it.
March, 1950. Most major modern dancers choreographed Broadway Shows including Helen Tamiris, Hanya Holm, Jack Cole, Anna Sokolow, Valerie Bettis, John Butler, Herbert Ross, Mark Breaux, Felissa Conde, even Doris Humphrey. And those who didn't wanted to. Except for Martha Graham.
One day I overheard her on the studio's pay phone – its only phone – speaking to producer, Guthrie McClintic: "I promise, Guthrie, if I ever do a musical it will be for you," And hung up.
I said to Graham veteran, Mark Ryder, "She should do a musical. We'll all have jobs."
"And who will dance in her company?"
We weren't paid to rehearse and rehearsed far more than we performed so I was broke most of the time. After a long bus tour that ended in February, 1950, I auditioned for Hanya Holm, whose Kiss Me Kate was selling out. Her new show was titled The Liar, and she gave a strange move. We stood in second position, arms at our sides, and for 16 slow counts of arpeggios up and down the keyboard, were told to rise up on half toe (relevé) and raise our arms to high using the whole 16 counts.
It was a deliberately nothing move so I assumed she wanted to see if we could "sell." I schmalzed it up.
"What shows have you done?" she asked.
"Um, Step A Little Closer." A tiny off-Broadway revue choreographed by modern dancer, Beatrice Seckler. Holm acted like she'd never heard of it.
"I also dance with Martha Graham," It was a calculated risk. Graham and Holm did not love each other.
"Will Martha let you do a Broadway show?"
"We're not rehearsing and nothing is in the works," trying to sound like I was my own boss. Holm told me to come back for the final.
My mistake was mentioning it to Martha. "When does the show go into rehearsal?"
"Rehearsals last six weeks, then out of town. We'll be rehearsing before then."
At the call back, I sheepishly told Holm that Martha's rehearsals would be starting soon.
She gave me a disgusted look. "I knew she wouldn't let you." The Liar rehearsed, went out of town, came back to New York, opened May 18 and closed May 27, twelve performances. Martha didn't call a rehearsal until July.—Stuart Hodes
Sophie! Cincinnati. 1963. The theater was in a large mall, lobby doors opening into a pedestrian way lined by shops including a decent deli. But the first time I went for coffee, I couldn't get back in. The heavy front doors, although not locked, were devilishly designed so fingers could not get a grip. I had to walk out of the mall, the equivalent of four or five city blocks to the stage door.
Appeals to the theater management to allow one door to be kept open were in vain so no one could dash out for coffee until I devised a devilishly simple solution, a beer can opener inserted between door and jamb. One day I yanked a door open to come face to face with the dumbfounded manager who could only stare as I brushed by, the opener hidden in my palm.
The Sunday after our new director, Jack Sydow, arrived, he kept us late rehearsing on a second floor lobby overlooking the main lobby. Suddenly the lights went out. Everybody yelled and they came back on. Over the railing on the floor below the grumpy manager was staring up.
"We're working!" said Sydow.
"You have to be out by eleven!"
"It's only ten."
The man turned away. "Actors!" he snorted.
Before we left Cleveland, the theater was used for a lecture by none other than Agnes DeMille whose subject was the cultural role of theater. In an angry voice she said, and I quote, "A theater is not a piece of real estate!"
Obviously she had encountered our charming manager.—Stuart Hodes
Paint Your Wagon (1951-52) opened, ran, and closed while HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee, was blacklisting film folk. Biographies and memoirs describe those troubled days, like Arthur Laurents' Original Story By. Laurents, who spent years on the blacklist, acknowledged the talents of Jerome Robbins while deeply resenting that he'd "named names" to HUAC, saving his own career at the expense of others.
I had brief interactions with Robbins from time to time, even worked for him for two days. A complicated man, face to face, he radiated crystalline intelligence. Once, walking along East 55th Street with another dancer, we came upon him sitting in a brand new green Dodge convertible, stopped and chatted. He was looking forward to a vacation, (Cape Cod, if I recall), but still had a show to finish.
"I have four more songs to stage, a new Act II opening, and two production numbers." He spoke like another might about building a back porch.
In Do Re Mi (1961), saw a bearded man in the wings, said to someone, "If Jerry Robbins had a beard, he'd look like that guy over there." It was Jerry, of course, and by his crooked smile, think he'd over heard me.
In 1964, speaking to several, Robbins mentioned his new project, a musical based Sholom Aleichem's Tevye and His Daughters. I'd read it and said, "It'll be great if you can get Zero Mostel to play Tevye." It was not in my mind that Zero Mostel had also been blacklisted.
To my surprise, Robbins replied, "Yeah. We're trying."
When rehearsals of Fiddler began, rumors flew up and down Broadway about the ways Mostel was finding to torment Robbins
Back to Paint Your Wagon. Between numbers I was reading an essay by Julian Huxley, Heredity East and West. It exposed Lysenkoism, which held that acquired characteristics could be inherited. Singer, John Randolph, asked what I was reading and when I showed him, said, "Well, he's had some convincing results with crops."
Ukrainian plant breeder, Trofim Lysenko, had a theory that served the political ends of the Communist Party, who made it official dogma. Huxley argued that it was not only fallacious, but a way for the communists to claim that their "superior" social system was breeding superior people, a not-so-subtle variation on Hitler's übermensch, the Nazi superman. Today, Lysenko is blamed for crippling Russian genetics for decades. Mixing politics and science was as lethal then as now.
I said to Randolph that I too thought it was an attempt to legitimize a Communist "superman." Randolph looked thoughtful but did not argue back. Much later I heard that he'd served in WW II in the Army Air Force, but never found out exactly how or where. He was a regular kind of guy and although he would sometimes pipe up in support of ideas I considered wacko, he was altogether reasonable and certainly no fanatic.
In the next few of years every week brought news of more HUAC victims, but it was only later that I heard they'd gotten to John Randolph, and that he was one of the last to be restored to work in the movies. But one day I did see him on screen again, in decent parts too. John Randolph had outlived the bastards.—Stuart Hodes
Once Upon A Mattress (1960) During its run at the St. James Theater, Actors Equity called the second strike in its history. Nit-pickers defined it as a lockout because when Equity called out a single cast, every Broadway producer responded by closing down. Mattress co-producers, William and Jean Eckhart, were waiting outside of the locked stage door and told us that they loved us before we trooped off to the strike meeting at the Astor Hotel.
We met in a banquet room and the first person to speak was Vivian Leigh. She implored us not to strike because actors are artists and artists do not strike. She was attended warmly and applauded from the end of her speech until was she was out of the room and the door had closed behind her. Only then did an Equity staffer take over and the business of the meeting begin.
Lifestyles posted April 9, 2007
(Circa 1966.) Frank Derbas and I were overnight guests of Rebekah Harkness at her mansion in Watch Hill, Rhode Island. It was late afternoon and we were lounging on a sun porch sipping martinis in baronial splendor while contemplating sunset over the Long Island Sound.
I had a job at the Harkness Foundation and Frank was there to photograph the Harkness Ballet, which was in residence. Before becoming a photographer he'd been a dancing gypsy. We'd done Do Re Mi together and in one of his prior shows, Pajama Game, he'd danced "Steam Heat."
Frank lifted his glass: "Here's to the telephone bill. Hope I can pay it this month!"
It made me think of the 1954 Paris opening of Martha Graham, after which limousines whisked us past the Arc de Triumph through a woodsy park to the mansion of the Baroness, Bethsabé de Rothchild, where we ate haute cuisine and sipped brandy poured from bottles with hand-inked labels while contemplating Rembrandts and Van Goghs.
Next morning, waking in my tiny room without bath at L'Hotel West End, I looked forward to rehearsal in the afternoon and another performance that night.
Bethsabé de Rothchild and Rebekah Harkness hosted sumptuous parties and woke up every morning in luxurious splendor. But they could not dance.—Suart Hodes