Saturday, April 14, 2012

Lorraine Ford DeMan: An actresses memories of Starring as Dolly Levi!

Artist: Jonathan Beck Reed
Happy Saturday!
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The wonderful thing about Dolly is that any great actress can carry this show and make it her own. There are productions of Dolly opening daily at some high school, community theatre, or regional company. Daily, I receive google alerts about a production somewhere. Today, I decided to share with you the stories of an actress that most of you may not know. However, she DID play Dolly and I'm going to celebrate her for that achievement alone. 
Lorraine Ford DeMan played "Dolly" in May of 1994.  This was the last production of the 93-94 season for the Park Players, who performed at that time in the legendary Park Theatre in Union City, NJ.  The Park Theatre, a 1400-seat proscenium stage was originally a vaudeville house, and has also housed an annual production of The Passion Play, billed as America's Oberammergau.  
The Park Players are a community theatre group, but the level of the productions was very high, thereby attracting equally high level talent.  Lorraine was frequently surrounded by top notch, professional talent during the time she worked with the Park Players.

with friend Margie Samp
She has not played "Dolly" since then, but would love to have another crack at her.  :)
 Lorraine considers herself a true character actress, with no fear of immersing herself into any crazy role.  In her theatrical career, she's played FEW (if ANY) leading ladies.  Bitches, battle axes and schlumps are her specialty.
 Director Mark York saw in Lorainne the humor, and the fearlessness, and the grace under pressure REQUIRED to take on Mrs. Dolly Levi.  If she had to pick ONE quality that sets her apart, she would say that it was the bustier push.
with Paul Marte, who is now the Communications Director at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford 
(The WHAT???)  Oh, dear ... this is SUCH a visual ... but, as almost a bit of punctuation in various moments throughout the show, she would put her hands on her sides (in bustier position), and push UP, usually with some sort of "Huh!" vocalization.  (For example: "Horace Vandergelder, I have no intention of marrying ANYONE, least of all YOU!" ::push & "HUH!"::)  Oh, a visual, yes, but hysterical, in her humble opinion.  AND, even more so when Mark directed her to do so, and demonstrated exactly what he wanted her to do.  LOL

 Horace was played by Joe Conklin.  
 The Park Players, as most community theatres, has a hierarchy.  Joe is still the Chairman of the Board of directors, and Lorraine thinks he would freely admit, is very instrumental in every selection made by the group. 
 Seasons were suggested and chosen with Joe at the helm, and most shows were either directed by Joe, or featuring/starring Joe.  By the time 1994 rolled around, Lorraine had done several shows with the group, and Joe and Lorraine had played Sextimus and Aggravain in "Once Upon a Mattress", Daddy Warbucks and Hannigan in "Annie", Uncle Jimmy and Pauline the Maid in "No, No Nanette", among others.
 What  Lorraine remembers most about her audition was (oddly enough) GETTING there.  Typically Park Players auditioned by show, and held a few days of auditions, followed by a series of callbacks before casting. She almost DIDN'T audition; the stable of talent had some fabulous Leading Lady types --- more beautiful and thinner than she (her words, not mine!), vocal ability equal or surpassing hers --- but she knew the role to be one requiring something beyond looks and a fabulous coloratura.   So, on the last night of auditions, she hopped in her car, and headed toward the Park Theatre ... about 5 miles / 15 minutes away from her home.
Who knew that there'd be an oil spill on Route 3 East???  Oy. She was stuck on that road for easily 90 minutes.  This was long before cell phones and finally she arrived just as the casting team was getting ready to leave.  She ran in, breathless, and sang (of all things!) "Shy".    She actually expected to be turned away, but Mark was very gracious, heard her, and invited her to callbacks for the role of Dolly.  Over the years, she';s thought back on that endless traffic jam, and equated that frustrating wait to her personal theatrical journey:  That there are frustrations and long waits and setbacks, but if you're patient, and keep your eye on the prize, you'll get there eventually.  :)
The callback was interesting, and comes with a story.   There were three up for Dolly ... the premiere Leading Lady of the group ("Mame", Maria "Sound of Music", Babe "Pajama Game"), another regular leading lady from the stable, quirky, pretty, songbird of a woman, and Lorraine.  They read, they sang, they "moved", over and over.  No other characters were present ... she doesn't even remember reading with Joe (the pre-determined Horace.)   She seized the opportunity to prove that she could play a leading lady, and put forth her ultimate "A" game. Lorraine left that callback satisfied that she'd nailed it, but completely convinced that casting would go the usual way, and that the "Mame" would also play "Dolly."  She was told later that it MIGHT HAVE gone that way ... but someone from the casting group slipped Mark a copy of a videotape of a production of "Jerry's Girls", in which all three of thems vying for Dolly had performed.  Mark has said many times that when he had the opportunity to compare the three of them in performance mode, Lorraine was the one with the spark that stood out.
 Of course Lorraine had WANTED to be considered to play Dolly, but the "realist" in her was thinking that she'd wind up playing Ernestina Money or Mrs. Rose.
Lorraine tells me her first performance was amazing.  It was wonderful.  She found secret joy in the fact that she KNOWS she "doesn't look the part of Dolly" ... and the local audiences were so used to her playing the clown or the bitch or the battle axe ... so you almost heard gasps when she made her first entrance in "Call on Dolly".  By the time she was doing her "Ephraim" monologue and "Before the Parade Passes By", she had them in the palm of her hand, and she was feeling that wonderful electric pulse when you KNOW the audience is not only WITH YOU, but you are truly ENTERTAINING them.
Mark was very happy afterward, with one exception:  He SCREAMED at her for not enjoying her bow!  It was the first time she ever, ever, EVER got the last bow!  She made it fast, and scooted back.  NOOOOOO! he screamed.  Smile!  Drink it in! She assures me that she did just that at every subsequent performance.
Sadly, as happens with most community theatres, the show only ran 8 performances. Despite that ridiculously short run, it was life changing.
with husband Gerard and son, John
Lorraine's closing performance was a matinee, and she had no intention of letting Dolly go.  No, they wouldn't continue performances, but Dolly has lived in her since.  It hit her that she wouldn't get to BE Dolly on stage anymore during the last scene with Horace. Joe turned to Lorraine and looked into her eyes as he began to sing, "Hello, Dolly ...", and saw that her eyes were filled with tears.   Joe's voice cracked a bit as he, too, got caught up in the emotion of ending this lovely production.   Joe and Lorraine were good friends, and that moment on stage remains one of the most precious of her career.
Lorraine's favorite memory (and there are MANY Mark York moments) was when Mark called her one evening to inform her that his roommate was wearing her red Dolly dress.  ::pause for reaction::
What had happened was their producer had every intention of renting the costumes from a costumer.    He went to Mark to inform him that the costumer had the Vivian Blaine tour to rent, and that "Lorraine will not fit into any of her costumes, so we're getting her a brown dress for Act One, and a red gingham for Act Two."   Mark was having NONE of this ... asked how much the producer was going to pay to rent these dresses, and he and a friend MADE her set of dresses:  A green for the opening, a purple suit for the second half of Act One, an AMAZING red Dolly dress, a sailor dress and a wedding gown for Act Two.  Made to fit her to a "T".  They built a dress form using her measurements, and named her Lorraine, and ... on this particular occasion, Mark's roommate, who had her measurements (roughly), although he was a foot taller than Lorraine, was trying on her dress.  It was at this moment that she knew Mark and she would be forever friends.
Lorraine told me that playing this role simply made her a better performer.  One CANNOT live as Dolly Levi for ANY amount of time, and experience the richness of this role without being eternally changed for the better.
Joe ... despite casting himself in every plum character role ever written ... is an amazing, funny and very talented actor and singer.  We were friends, which made the experience all the more pleasant.  His portrayal was presentational and humorous.
Lorraine feels that Jerry Herman is a national treasure. She loves the shows that he's written without exception.  As much as she loved doing Dolly, she had a BALL doing a production of "Jerry's Girls", and got the opportunity to sing both "Time Heals Everything" and "Have a Nice Day".  Rich, glorious music.
Again via Mark York, Lorraine was very privileged to perform in a tribute to Jerry, in a one-night-only star-studded "Mack and Mabel in Concert", to which Jerry attended a rehearsal and the performance.  A gracious and wonderful man, she was honored to meet him, and beyond honored to share the stage with him.
 She feels that Gower Champion was an incredible director and choreographer, whom she wishes she could have met before his untimely death.
The first time Lorraine heard the full score of the Broadway version was at the first read-through of their production, and they listened to the Pearl Bailey recording. She remembers feeling very overwhelmed that she --- "little old me!" --- would get to sing these incredible songs!
Aside from Barbra Streisand, Lorraine has only seen a couple of community theatre productions.  She is sorry that she does not remember their names.
None of them were bad ... they were good with timing and had musicality ... but Lorraine felt something was missing in each case.
Lorraine and Gerard
Lorraine confesses that she didn't have much time to evolve once the show opened before it closed 8 performances later, but she did find little nuances each time she stepped into that first "Call on Dolly" costume. She had all of the cards printed exactly as Dolly says her various talents, and they tended to empower Lorraine to be DOLLY to the maximum.

 Lorraine said she won't do it without Mark York ... and if she could have him musically direct and/or direct, then, no,she would do NOTHING differently.

Here's hoping Lorraine descends those stairs again at the Harmonia Gardens very soon! 

Thank you, to Lorraine, for the gifts you have given and continue to give to the world.

Your devoted fan,

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  1. Great blog entry, loved it! I saw Lorraine in that 1994 rendition of Dolly and she was great!

  2. Try keeping a straight face on stage with Lorraine as wasn't easy...but WOW was it a lot of fun!!!