Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Jack Ryan: A Press Agent's Memories of Hello, Dolly!

Jack Ryan
In all honesty, Jack’s relationship with Hello, Dolly! is not as close as others I have interviewed. He was a publicist, in fact, an apprentice to the Association of Press Agents and Managers (ATPAM).  At that time, the sixties, Jack was working for what was New York’s busiest and most prestigious press offices, run by Lee Solters and Harvey Sabinson. I have already written about Alan Eichler who also worked in that office.  Jack began work in that office in 1965 during the Carol Channing engagement of Dolly!   
The press agent that was assigned to the show during the show’s run was a wonderful man named David Powers.
David represented dozens of Broadway shows over a 40-year period. He died in 2009. He had the privilege of handling all of the Broadway Dollys…and their egos.
Jack recalls the first time he heard the score of Dolly! He purchased the cast album and played it when it first came out. The first time he saw the show was with Carol Channing starring. 
It was standing room.  He was absolutely knocked out by the score. He loved it so much. The originals are so wonderful, Charles Nelson Reilly and Eileen Brennan and Jerry Dodge and Sondra Lee and of course David Burns, not that he does that much on the album.  Whenever he hears those songs, no matter who is singing them, that’s who he hears, especially Carol Channing. 
 Jack had nothing to do with Dolly…except one night. It was the opening night of the Pearl Bailey Dolly. It was November 12th, 1967. Harvey Sabinson, who was Jack’s boss, asked him and a couple of other guys in the office to assist him with Bailey’s opening night. 
 He put on his tux and headed to the St. James Theater and met Sabinson in the lobby. They greeted all of the celebrities who came in. When Channing arrived with Charles Lowe, Sabinson introduced Jack to Channing and told her that he had asked Jack to take her back to Bailey’s dressing room as soon as the curtain came down.

There would be photographers backstage to capture the two Dollys. Channing looked at Jack with those big saucer eyes and said, “Honey, I am as blind as a bat, especially in the dark. At the end of the curtain call, just put out your hand, I’ll grab it, and we’ll run.” Jack assured her that he would be right there. 
The show ran without a hitch with Jack standing in the back of the house enjoying it. The curtain came down and Miss Bailey’s “third act” was longer than would become her norm. Jack felt sorry for the chorus who just had to stand there and endure this. They had to look interested as they had to do every night. 

The whole Pearl Bailey routine including “My feet are killing me.” Cab Callaway then performed Minnie the Moocher. This went on for what seemed like forever. After a huge ovation, and just before the house lights came up, Jack rushed down the aisle. He put his hand out to Channing, gave his name, and they RAN up the aisle, across the orchestra, to the little curtained off area stage left, which led up to backstage. Dolly’s dressing room was stage left. It is the largest dressing room at the St. James. David Powers was there to stage the photos with Channing congratulating Bailey. The next day that photo was in the Daily News and the Post and ran on the Associated Press photo wire. It appeared in many newspapers around the country.
Dolly has always been a favorite musical of Jack’s and he made it his business to see every Broadway Dolly including Bibi Osterwald who stood by for all the Dollys after Jo Anne Worley. Thelma Carpenter, who stood by for Bailey and went on for matinees is probably the only one Jack missed. Working in Sabinson and Solter’s office, they were always coming up with stories and items along those lines. Jack’s rank wasn’t high enough in the office to be assigned to the show.
Carol Channing was larger than life. She brought her eccentricity to the role.  Jack also feels she played the subtext very well. 
Dolly Levi is a very lonely and rather desperate woman. He has seen some Dollys who didn’t quite capture that. He thinks his least favorite Dolly was Betty Grable. She played the surface very well. She was very razz matazz show business but he felt she never really got into the subtext of this woman who has no money and is trying to “rejoin the human race.” Every night, Dolly is hand printing those cards she so freely gives out. She sees Horace as her last chance. He thinks Grable just touched upon that.
One of his favorites and one a lot a people have no idea how wonderful she was, was Phyllis Diller. She did no shtick whatever. It was always easy for Jack to get tickets from the office. He went to see this show with some trepidation. He knew Phyllis only as a stand-up comic. He had no idea what she would do with Dolly. She did it beautifully with great poignancy. He remembers how moving the “Ephraim, Let me go…” speech was. Diller really understood Dolly.
Martha Raye and Max Showalter
Ginger Rogers was his favorite after Channing and way ahead of Grable. She was a better actress than Grable, to start off with. He believed Dolly a lot more with Rogers. Martha Raye also did a great job. She also was eccentric, but there was a lot of pathos there. Martha was a great clown. Great clowns are able to easily tap into the pathos. Martha showed that. Miss Merman was Miss Merman. She was one of those stars that we have so few of anymore. He remembers her with great fondness. You could never take your eyes off of her. She was one of those phenomenas of nature. He thoroughly enjoyed watching her do it. He second acted that several times just to see her one more time. This was not the “prime of her career” and yet she had such command and presence. 
She was always in control of the stage. Her and Merrick were fighting tooth and nail through her engagement as Dolly. Merman had a lot of demands. He was tight as a pistol and would not easily give in to many of her demands. Generally, Miss Merman won. She was a formidable woman. He sadly did not get to see the road Dollys, particularly Mary Martin. He has seen film clips, especially the DVD of Martin around the world. He would have loved to have seen her do it. He did see Martin’s replacement in London, Dora Bryan, and felt that she was quite good. He regrets not seeing Yvonne De Carlo or Dorothy Lamour. There are many things that each actress can bring to the role and he would have loved to have seen these different interpretations.
Osterwald was also wonderful. She acted it beautifully and she had been around the role a long time. She didn’t get a chance to go on with Channing at the helm! Osterwald came in for two weeks between Grable and Bailey. Once Bailey was on board to come to New York, Merrick asked Grable to extend for two weeks. She declined. Jack was glad to see Osterwald finally get to do the role.
Harvey Evans (as Barnaby) and Bibi Osterwald
Jack believes that there ARE future audiences for Dolly. It is a universal show. That story has proven itself from The Matchmaker to Hello, Dolly! and has been performed around the world. It’s one of those classic stories that will never go out of style. He would love to see someone rethink it. He thinks that Hello, Dolly! is one of the most amazing productions that he has ever seen. Oliver Smith’s sets and Freddy Wittop’s costumes were amazing. Jack says it is time to take a look at it again. He doesn’t feel that any production should be “set in stone”.  Shows should be rethought, in some cases. Marcia Milgrom-Dodge recently did a revised production down in Florida. (See my chapter on Marcia). He’s hoping this revival happens while Mr. Herman is still with us. He doesn’t think you’ll find a better book in musical theater.
Jack has pretty much retired at this point. His career changed paths somewhat. While working in the Sabinson/Solters office, they got the Ringling Brothers, Barnum, and Bailey account. He was asked if he wanted to take on this account. Jack had loved the circus his entire life. He couldn’t say no. He eventually went on to join the circus itself! He stayed with them for several years in charge of national publicity.
The advice that Jack would give to someone wanting to go into publicity today is to get a job in the mailroom. That’s what Alan Eichler did. (See my chapter on Alan).  Jack was a “step ahead” of Alan. He started out as a publicist at Look Magazine. He was covering the Broadway theater and kept bugging Sabinson. He also had a friend, Hal Holbrook, who was a client of the office. He kept sending letters and telling Sabinson he should talk with Jack. They didn’t have an opening at the time but they were very gracious. About a year later, he got a call asking if he was still interested. Was he ever! He went over and got the job. Again, his advice is to just get your foot in the door. Don’t go in thinking you’re instantly going to be handling a show on Broadway or a top personality. It ain’t gonna happen!  Take baby steps. Back then, a big thing that PR offices did was write column items. They would have to come up for something “funny”. These would be put in the mouths of the clients. Earl Wilson or Leonard Lyons or some other columnist would run these.  Jack started there and Sabinson thought he did a great job with that. In addition to being a client of the office because of Dolly, Channing was also a client of the office as a personality.
Jack used to see Channing at many openings and functions and she was frequently in the office. She was always very kind and gracious. This was the only office that Jack ever worked in in New York.
At the risk of sounding like a cliché, Jack’s strengths were that he was always thinking outside of the box. He is also a very strong writer and he thinks that helped him more than anything else.
Louis Armstrong above, Charles Lowe, Channing
Later in his life, he lived in southern California and taught PR writing at USC. For twenty years.  He has seen more young people going into PR get into more trouble for not knowing how to write than for any other reason. With writing, the more you do, the better at it you get. You also need a good editor and a good coach. Jack was lucky in the Sabinson/Solters office. He was working with some of the best publicists in the business. When he was starting out, he would write a release that he thought was perfect and take it to one of his colleagues. They would look at it and say, “Jack, your lead paragraph is your third paragraph. Move it up.” They were absolutely correct.
Through the haze of memory, everything looks rosy. He cannot recall anything negative about those days. It WAS a very hectic place. It was very demanding and the clients were very demanding. Merrick was the “devil on wheels” to work with. Merrick WAS brilliant and demonic. 
We don’t have any Merricks anymore. Watch the Tony Awards and see the next winner for best play or musical. You wonder if they are going to have to put in extra support for the stage for the number of people so they won’t fall through. Forty people run up on the stage to accept the award. Before, it was David Merrick Presents…  or Harold Prince Presents…  We’ve lost the era of those really brilliant producers. They did it all themselves. They raised the money. They had to, but it was not corporate like it is today. Merrick was a difficult man. Merrick and Sabinson got along well. Jack does remember one afternoon, however, when Merrick and Sabinson got into such a heated phone argument that Sabinson took the phone out of the wall and threw it across the room. With Merrick, there were NEVER any gray areas. They were always black or white. THAT was the worst that Jack ever saw.  
Why does Jack think the title song stops the show every time? Gower’s genius more than anything else. The Louis Armstrong recording was also a great boost. That song presold the audiences. That song even changed the name of the show. There are more hooks in that song than a fish that has just been caught. There is hook after hook after hook. Otherwise, it wouldn’t get all the different times the audience applauds. They were so right to take Penny in My Pocket and various songs out of the show. The show IS about Dolly. That’s who you care about. By the time you get to the Dolly number, you are really cheering for Dolly by that point. “Look at the old girl now, fellas!” When she comes down those stairs, we all put ourselves in that moment.

David Burns
David Burns, off stage was a nasty old man! On stage, he brought gruffness and a great understanding of what he was doing.  He was also a great “straight man” that Channing could play off of. He never tried to be the jokester. He got laughs every show because he had great lines written for him. Channing played off of Burns so much in Dolly! One of the best scenes Jack ever saw in any musical is the eating scene in the Harmonia Gardens. He never saw anyone do anything near what Burns and Channing did with that scene. It went on and on and on and got funnier and funnier. He brought a tremendous working partner relationship with him. He knew who the star of the show was. That was very obvious. He did not attempt to be the star of the show. He attempted to help the star of the show…and succeeded in spades. Carol adored David Burns. He was not a threat to her. He made her look better. Max Showalter replaced David Burns when he left the show.  Jack said he was fun but he doesn’t have any great memories of him. David Burns is etched in Jack’s head.

Merman's closing night
Jack was not at Merman’s closing night but he was there the week before she closed. Everyone always said that Merman did every show the same. There may have not been a lot of spontaneity in her performance, but she was always great. She knew her audiences! It was always wonderful to see her. She was a force of nature.
Hello, Dolly! represents Jack’s youth. It was and is always a joyous experience in the theater. It’s what life should be.
 Thank you Jack Ryan for the gifts you have given to the world and will continue to give!

With grateful XOXOXs ,

Check out my site celebrating my forthcoming book on Hello, Dolly!
I want this to be a definitive account of Hello, Dolly!  If any of you reading this have appeared in any production of Dolly, I'm interested in speaking with you!

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If you have anything to add or share, please contact me at


Please do what YOU can to be more aware that words and actions DO HURT...but they can also heal and help!    
My next blog will be... Elizabeth Hansen's Memories of Hello, Dolly! (Irene Molloy, 1983 Channing Tour)

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 ALL THE DOLLYS and ANYONE who has EVER had a connection with ANY of them on ANY Level!

1 comment:

  1. Love these Dolly blogs! The back stories are irresistible and fascinating. --Alan K. Choy (