Monday, April 9, 2012

A Conversation with Stephen Crowley!

Photo credit: Elliot J. Cohen
"The difference between a boss and a leader is: A boss says "Go!" - A leader says "Let's go!" Nothing so conclusively proves a person's ability to lead others as what she or he does from day to day to lead themselves. Leaders don't create followers, they create more leaders and the best leader is a person who takes a little more than their share of the blame and a little less than their share of the credit."
Happy Monday!
Judy Blazer and Louise Pitre
I hope you all had a great holiday weekend. I am anxious to jump into the week ahead of me. Great things happening this week. Tonight, I am seeing Liliane Montevecchi at Feinstein's! I interviewed Judy Blazer this afternoon. 
She is about to open as Vera Charles in the Goodspeed Opera House's production of MAME starring Louise Pitre. I also am interviewing a friend of Edwina Lewis today. I hope to do a future blog on her. Tomorrow, I'm having lunch with Lauren Fox who just won a MAC Award for cabaret debut and is a recipient of a Bistro Award this year! 
You will read about her on Wednesday. 
Also, later this week, a blog on Robert Hocknell who played Rudolph in the International company with Mary Martin, On Saturday, Lorraine Ford DeMann who played Dolly, and I'll end the week with a blog on Randi Levine-Miller in anticipation of her upcoming Feinstein's show. 
Goodspeed Opera House
Today, I'm starting what I hope will be a series of blogs with memories of Stephen Crowley. Last week, a volunteer archivist from the library at The Goodspeed Opera House posted something on LinkedIn. I wrote to her to find out if Goodspeed Opera House has ever done a production of Hello, Dolly! She put me in touch with Joshua Ritter who runs the library. What a goldmine! No, Goodspeed has never done Dolly. HOWEVER, they have a room devoted to Max Showalter who did many productions of Dolly (as Horace Vandergelder). I hope to spend a day there next week going through his collection. Josh also put me in touch with Stephen Crowley.  
Stephen wrote a book about Hello, Dolly! in 1998 that, alas, was never published. Stephen told me that it had been shopped around to every publisher...and was turned down by everyone as being yesterday's news. I'm banking on my book coming out to celebrate the 50th perhaps timing is everyone. Stephen had the luxury of interviewing so many people who were part of the Merrick productions of Dolly that I, unfortunately, will never have. Stephen has agreed to sit down for a series of talks to give me an insight to those interviews. I just asked him to say what comes to his mind. Once a week, I will share them with you. I hope you enjoy these as much as I enjoy talking with Stephen. If there are specific questions that you would like me to ask him, please don't hesitate to let me know. 
The National Theatre
Stephen's interest in Dolly started because he saw it at The National Theatre in December of 1963 prior to it opening at The St. James Theatre on Broadway.  In January of 1964, his mother came home one day with the original cast album. From that moment on, his parents didn't have a moments peace. Particularly with "Put On Your Sunday Clothes". 
Stephen wrote his Dolly book because he was always disappointed that no one had ever done this before...up to that point in 1986. His mom had passed on. He felt that he needed a project to occupy his mind.
Carol Channing, star of Broadway's "Hello Dolly," arrives with husband, producer Charles F. Lowe, to console actor George Burns on death of wife, comedienne Gracie Allen. Note Channing's large clock necklace; a thoughtful touch of fashion poetry. 
1956: Photo of Carol Channing with husband Charles Lowe.
So, he called Bertha Klausner, his agent. She had been his agent from 1968 up until her death in the early 1990s. He tells me that her story is a book in itself. Her father was Jacob Adler from the Yiddish Theatre. Klausner was her married name; she was also related to the actor, Luther Adler, Stella Adler's brother.
Bertha was one of the best literary agents around. She opened every door, introduced Stephen to many people including Charles Lowe, Carol Channing's former husband. 
The following is from Stephen:
When I wrote my book about "Hello, Dolly!"
I was lucky enough to meet with Carol Channing
and her husband Charles Lowe three times.  The
second time was in 1988 in New York City in a
luxury hotel on Sixth Avenue close to Central Park. 
The Regency I think it was called.  Their suite had a
private elevator from the lobby that a concierge had
escorted me to. The visit lasted about four hours
and during it we had lunch brought in from room service.
I had a tremendous corned beef on rye sandwich - can't
remember what Charles ate and Carol (with her famous diet
restrictions) drank some sort of juice from a thermos
and radishes that room service had arrayed festively on
a plate with lettuce leaves. That was all she had - strange
but her famous allergies made for a rather restricted diet
(Life Magazine once did a whole article about it).
I'd assumed up until then that it was just a publicity
ploy but there was nothing fake about the way she ate lunch
that day.

As we ate the conversation veered from "Hello, Dolly!"
to other things (including "First Traveling Saleslady" which
was Carol's first Hollywood movie, co-starring Ginger Rogers.) 
In her retelling of that experience - "oh, people just love to
drag out that awful thing and Lila - I think that was her name -
Ginger Rogers' mother was always there and she... "  at which
point Charles loudly broke in with a glare and urgency in
his voice - now Carol, Carol, Carol - look let's just say
that Carol and Ginger are wonderful friends and it was a very
happy experience...   and she didn't say another word about
it but the look in her eyes would have made flowers wither...

For some reason I don't remember the conversation then centered
on Judy Garland's 1961 Carnegie Hall concert - the building was
just down the street as I recall and maybe that's what brought
it up - Carol and Charles had been in the audience on that
very historic night - the audience was genuinely crammed with
celebrities - and as they described it with emotion Carol's eyes
just lit up, glowed... she looked me straight and deliberately in
the eye and said with low voice and intense earnestness in each
word "it was the single best performance I ever saw anyone give on
any stage anywhere in my entire life.  It was just - magic... "  
Charles had the same degree of enthusiasm as he shook his head
agreeing, smiling at the memory.  "Oh that poor girl" Carol then
said, shaking her head and sort of tsk-tsk-ing.  "that poor girl
had the voice of the angels... that poor girl... "

My lunch with Carol and Charles - an indelible experience -
as much for the seriously emotional mention of Judy Garland's
Carnegie Hall triumph as anything else. 

He said he could go on forever about all of that. He was very young when they started that process. Bertha was just as passionate about this project as was Stephen. She shopped it around to every publisher. Stephen is primarily a lyricist.Writing this book was something that he had no prior experience in. It took over two years for Stephen to write the book. He called Charles Lowe up and said, "Hi, I'm Stephen Crowley." Charles responded by saying, "You're Bertha's client! We're awfully glad to hear from you." Stephen told Charles that his first idea was to write a New Yorker piece about Dolly. Charles told Stephen that they would LOVE to see him. That Carol would love to talk with him. As mentioned earlier, no one had done this type of a project before. Stephen went with two friends of his, Mark Crosby and Suzanne Lamb. Charles and Carol were in New York.  They were staying at The Regency. Stephen and his friends arrived at The Concierge who took them up in a separate elevator. As they were waiting for the elevator, out came Barry Manilow and a friend. When they arrived, it was only Charles. Carol was at the dentist. Charles was very hospitable and welcoming. There was also a very nice lady with them who was their au pair person. Coffee was served. All in all, a very pleasant experience. Charles' every other sentence was "I'm only the husband." He apologized that Carol was detained. She finally got there after more than an hour. She tried to be as gracious as she could be under the circumstances. She was not in a real good mood, having just come from the dentist. At the time, she was having implants done. That is a very painful procedure. After a brief while, Charles admitted that this was not a terribly good time for Carol and asked if they could reschedule. They agreed to reschedule the next time they were in New York. 
Stephen would go on to do a total of three interviews with Carol and Charles. He once even did a very long conference call with Bibi Osterwald, Carol, and Charles. For part of that conversation, Eileen Brennan was on. It was a very long rather detailed conversation. The guy who was helping Stephen with the book was also on. It went on so long that Carol asked how long this interview was going to go on. Charles had given Stephen their home number and Stephen had a few conversations with them. Charles was always more than happy to talk with Stephen. Stephen doesn't remember the name of their secretary in Sherman Oaks. 
A number of years later in the early 90s when an earthquake occurred in Sherman Oaks, their office was totaled. Many things were just irreparably lost. The secretary there called Stephan to let him know of this. Stephen gave them several items from his private collection including the souvenir program booklet from when the show first opened which included, at that time, only rehearsal shots. He spoke with Ken Mandelbaum at the time and suggested that Ken might give them one of his original Dolly posters. Ken shot back, "I will not."
Stephen admits that he knew more about Charles than he should have known because of his (Stephen's) days at The National Theatre. Long before he knew Carol and Charles. He dealt with them professionally when they came through with Lorelei. Carol had also done The Vamp there and Showgirl. The tour of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes played there also. Stephen feels that Charles was a detriment to Carol's career. In a big way. They lived very very well. Charles went through Carol's money as if it was water. He enjoyed being "Mr. Carol Channing." At the end of their marriage, they had done the 1995 Dolly. There was no money left and there never would be "that last tour".
Carol went on Larry King around that time without wig and her trademark make-up. She was terribly bitter at the time and Stephen doesn't blame her.
Stephen's bosses were much older than Stephen and "they had stories". Jokes were constantly being made at Carol's and Charles' expense. Stephen, at the time, only knew her from Lorelei. Adolph Green was at every performance practically directing it. They were trying to figure out to do with it. Lee Guber and Shelly Gross produced it. According to Stephen, the scenery was very cheap. He says it was almost embarrassing. When Robert Moore was signed on as director to try and fix it before it got to Broadway, one of the first things he did was make Guber and Gross come up with more money. The sets needed rebuilding! At one point Carol/Lorelei is on stage talking about "The night I sailed for Europe, France on the Isle de France ", and one side of the stage a cut out of the ship came wobbling out on stage. "It WAS BAD!" 
Guber and Gross were the guys who did the music fairs. They had never done a Broadway show before. These were the guys who would eventually bring "Bring Back Birdie" to Broadway which was never really intended to be a Broadway show. They were even lower on the producing ladder than Alexander Cohen... "and that's low". Alexander Cohen lived by the Max Bialystock rule. Every single musical he ever produced except maybe "A Day in Hollywood..."  That was based on a British show. Alexander Cohen always had these terribly expensive flops. In the meantime, he traveled in limousines. His office was in the Shubert building. He also had the prettiest posters.  Shows like Dear World and Baker Street. It's a shame they did not live up to their potential. He did make money on some shows he brought over from England. One example was Good Evening starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and Beyond The Fringe. He also presented Marlene Dietrich's Broadway appearance. He did make a lot of money there. He produced a Chekov play in the 60s starring Sir John Gielgud and Vivien Leigh. He was good at the prestige stuff. He had really bad taste when it came to musicals.  
Back on track...Stephen told me that he had met Jerry Herman several times. They also had several phone conversations. Stephen said, "What a wonderful man." He was living on Central Park at the time. Jerry was very guarded about certain aspects of Dolly that Stephen brought up and he was very vague about other aspects. When you work for David Merrick; it's called survival. You learn to do that. 
 David Merrick was a very difficult man. So many people in the business despised him. Nowadays he would be on medications. He was bi-polar/manic. That was responsible for a lot of his modus operandi. Stephen does feel that he is singly the greatest producer Broadway has ever had.
If you just count in musical theatre, not to discount the numerous straight plays, the incredible timeless treasures that he was responsible for. He was also instrumental in making other shows happen, as well. He had produced The Matchmaker earlier and came up with the idea of making that a musical. 
He bought Gypsy Rose Lee's memoirs and shopped it around until he found the right creative team and the right star, most importantly, the right star. 
As difficult as he was, Stephen sorely misses the fact that we don't have producers anymore on that level. We have corporations. We don't have producers that have a single vision. There was a time when you knew you could count on David Merrick for six shows in a season.
At least half of them would end up as flops, but it didn't matter.

   When you went to see a Merrick production, it was not like seeing a Guber and Gross production. The money had been well spent. Merrick's productions always looked good. When Gower had to fix ACT ONE of Dolly, and put in Before The Parade Passes By, that was $40,000.
Merrick at a rehearsal for the musical "Fanny."
They had to throw out the Penny in My Pocket set which was very prop heavy. Merrick did not bat an eyelash to make that change happen. $40,000? No problem. When that change was made, it was made on such short order that they didn't even have the sets and costumes and props for that scene. They didn't have them in DC; they didn't have them until they got to New York for the first previews. 
 Initially there was one specific costume technician who hand-sewed each of the spangles on the red dresses.  You wouldn’t think of it off the top of your head but even though it was only worn in one extended scene there was tremendous wear-and-tear on the red dresses and there were always two on hand backstage for the actress playing Dolly (Pat Tolson, Dolly's original stage manager said it was mainly enormous quantities of sweat and after a certain amount of time the smell was there to stay).
In addition there was always a separate set of Dolly’s costumes backstage in
understudies (usually Bibi Osterwald’s) sizes in case they’d be needed on
short notice.   Each set was custom-made. 
David Merrick
When Merrick took the Pearl-Calloway company into the St. James on rather short notice Bibi was still retained as Dolly’s standby.  Bibi had a serious confrontation with Merrick about it and Stephen wrote about it extensively in his book.
She told Merrick “I can’t go out there and say lines like ‘I wouldn’t marry you Horace Vandergelder if you were the last man... ‘ – it would just sound racist.
Merrick took his time getting Pearl an understudy though, and when one was needed on very short notice Novella Nelson was quickly enlisted , going on in Pearl’s costumes with literally a couple of hours of quick rehearsal.  After that Ms. Nelson and Thelma Carpenter were both retained concurrently on an as-needed basis (meaning they weren’t paid a retainer by Merrick and there were necessarily always two extra sets of costumes backstage) because Pearl would call in usually with only a few hours notice
(sometimes less than that).
  Pat Tolson said that two actresses were unofficially on
standby for Pearl because of the quick nature of the absences and when they were
summoned “you never knew who was going to be available”.

Shortly after Pearl took the role the green dress she wore in the hat-shop was redesigned (by atechnician at Brooks costume, not Freddy Wittop) in shades of yellow.  After Pearl left the New
York production Phyllis and Ethel both wore the yellow dress. 
Usually the hats were interchangeable but Phyllis Diller was so incredibly diminutive
in stature that completely new hats had to be made just for her in scaled-down size.
Richard Deacon was hired as Vandergelder for her cast at her suggestion – they had
both worked together in her failed series “The Pruitts of Southhampton” and she and
Mr. Deacon were long-time friends until his death.  When Ethel took over the role from
Phyllis she insisted on her longtime friend Jack Goode (Jack Goode can be seen
in the cast of the first Fred-Ginger teaming "Flying Down To Rio"by the way - and he
was a good Vandergelder (nobody ever came remotely close to the singular artistry of David Burns though - no one could... that man was a one-of-a-kind original)
to replace Deacon and of course on Russell Nype to replace Bill Mullikin as Cornelius.  

Anyway - Ethel knew of Jack Goode before "Dolly" - I'm not sure they were more than professional colleagues - but in all of her shows after "Du Barry" (except infamously "Happy Hunting")she made sure that none of her leading men were any kind of threat to her primacy on stage.
I guess you could say that Jack Klugman was a kind of exception too - she was almost in awe of his talent (and thought he was hot too).  In 1959 he wasn't the major star that he would later become, though, and in "Gypsy" she deferred to him perhaps more than to any other leading man in her career.  And he famously gave her an acting lesson that she never forgot.
As a Tony-winner in his own right
(and a bigger star than Goode) Mr. Nype was paid considerably more than any of the other
supporting players in Ethel’s cast. 
The supporting players that were paid less than Russell Nype in Ethel's cast were such exemplary performers - Danny Lockin as Barnaby, Georgia Engel as Minnie Fay (both were astounding charmers), June Helmers as Irene Molloy, Marcia Lewis was an unforgettable Ernestina, David Garrison & Patricia Cope as Ambrose and Ermengarde, James Beard as Rudolph.  They were the best supporting cast of that show that Stephen thinks he ever saw all together on one stage. 

Good stuff, huh? I'll be speaking with Stephen again tomorrow and I will share that with you next Monday! 

To ALL the Dollys past, present, and future, thank you so much for the gifts you have given and continue to give to the world.
Your devoted fan,

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Please do what YOU can to be more aware that words and actions DO HURT...but they can also heal and help!
Tomorrow's blog will be..A  belated Happy Birthday to Jane Powell!

Thank you, to all the mentioned in this blog!

  Here's to an INCREDIBLE tomorrow for ALL...with NO challenges!

Richard Skipper,                            

This Blog is dedicated to Al Koenig! THANK YOU! THANK YOU!! THANK YOU!!!


  1. Replies
    1. Richard - It just gets better and better. Great stuff and a highpoint in my day!! Thanks!
      Paul Brogan

  2. WOW WOW WOW!!!! I can't wait to read the next installment. It's a shame that his book was never published but what a blessing that he was so open and honest enough to share all these wonderful stories with you.