Friday, July 13, 2012

Patricia Cope: Ermengarde with Ethel Merman’s Hello, Dolly!


Patricia says her claim to fame was doing Hello, Dolly! with Ethel Merman.
Patricia also happens to be the wife of Will Mackenzie who replaced Charles Nelson Reilly when he left the show.  One night, she and Will and Marcia Lewis were at a party together. Marcia was Patricia and Will’s son’s godmother. Casting director Joel Thurm was also at this party. He struck up a conversation with Patricia. He told her they were looking for a new Ermengarde. Andrea Bell, who was playing the role, was leaving to do a show in Vegas. Andrea had taken over when Alice Playten left the show. Marcia told Patricia to cry for him and she did. “Augh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” 
He asked her to come to the theater the next day to audition for them. She went to the theater and auditioned for Lucia Victor. They liked her. 
She sang and danced and cried. They offered her the role of Ermengarde.
Cab Callaway, Pearl Bailey
Of course, Merman ended the original run of Dolly and Patricia was with the show from April , 1970 until December 27th, 1970. Pearl Bailey’s company had left the St. James and Phyllis Diller’s company replaced that company for three months and then Merman. After Dolly! Patricia would go on to do How Now, Dow Jones?   Prior to Dolly, Patricia also appeared in Roar of the Greasepaint with Anthony Newly and Cyril Ritchard. That was a fabulous time for her. She would also do Wonderful Town and How to Succeed at City Center. She and Will also did a couple of tours together, The Apple Tree and Promises, Promises.
“Opening night was magical.” Even though the audiences were there to see Merman, Patricia got huge applause.
Patricia brought her own brand of perkiness to the role of Ermengarde. She also got an agent as a result of her role in Dolly, Martin Gage.  He came backstage to meet her and greeted her at the stage door. When she spoke to him, he said, “Wait a minute. Where’s your voice? “ She had used a cartoonish voice for Ermengarde.   
She was young and he thought she was” that kind of person.” It kind of shocked him but he said, “I think we can work with this.”
She was finding something new about Ermengarde nightly. When she closed, she said, “I could have done this or that!” You’re always trying to, not overdo obviously, but to go deeper or find a better way or a more fun way. When you are doing a role over and over, you do try to make her more palpable as time goes on.   
Working with Ethel was different from every other show she would go on to do. 
Ethel set the standard. People were afraid of her but she was terribly shy and quite the professional. People were afraid of her because she did not stand for anything below par. She had a level that she played and she said, “I will never go below this. If I feel great, I will go above it, but I will never go below it. There are people out there paying to see you. Give them the best you have to offer. When I feel good, I give a great performance. When I feel great, I give a fabulous performance!”  Patricia learned a lot from her in that respect. Merman commanded this aura. Other stars, according to Patricia, had stars but not of that caliber. 
Courtesy: Stephen Crowley
You weren’t as “scared” by them, they were real people. Merman was an icon. She was someone who you almost couldn’t touch and yet you could touch. There were rumors towards the end about the show closing. Patricia decided to go to the top, Merman!  Everyone tried to dissuade her. “You can’t go to Ethel!” Patricia did. She went to Merman’s dressing room and knocked on the door. She opened the door and exclaimed, “Someone’s come to visit me! Isn’t that wonderful!” She removed the clothes that were on the chaise lounge and said, “Sit! Sit!” They sat there and talked. They talked about the show and the rumors of the closing. Merman told her that the show was closing but “not yet.” Merman said she would let the cast know when it would happen. They had the most wonderful “down to earth time.” It was a side that few rarely saw because they never made that first move.  She was shy but always present. If you started a conversation with her, she would go all out and have a great conversation.  If you didn’t say anything to her first, she was just there.
Ethel threw several parties for the cast and crew at various restaurants around town.  From time to time. Patricia would find herself at the same table as Merman. It wasn’t a “close” friendship but they WERE part of the same cast and had a great time together.
Patricia says the biggest misconception about Ethel Merman is that she was this “scary MAC truck.”
Jack Goode was Horace Vandergelder. He was wonderful according to Patricia. He suffered this horrible thing when he went into a hospital for a transfusion and died. This wasn’t long after Dolly closed.
If Hello, Dolly! was a brand new show today without its track record, Patricia does not think it would succeed in today’s theater world. 
Because of generations growing up on television, watching characters develop, and it has to be fast and furious and special effects and the louder you can sing and all of that and microphones. When Patricia started in the theater, there were NO microphones. They had to use their bodies and voices. When the microphone came in, for the most part, everything shifted to a more “pop” sound.
We live in a world of Spiderman and The Lion King and Wicked. They are all about special effects.
Patricia is a very positive person and does not recall anything remotely negative during her run of Dolly! There were absolutely no drawbacks.

One of the highlights for Patricia was standing in the wings with Ethel Merman waiting to go on.  Also sitting on the valises with Ethel and whispering in each other’s ears.
The fact that at the time of closing that it was the longest running show, having amassed 2,844 performances was exciting to Patricia.
The one thing that Patricia learned from her Dolly days that she carried throughout the rest of her career was how to be a professional, especially from Merman. She epitomized professionalism. She didn’t even allow the stagehands to play cards backstage while she was working.  It was too distracting. “You don’t want to live in a tunnel but people are paying to be entertained, big money nowadays, to see a good performance. Who in the world can make a living working for three hours a night and have the rest of the time available? When you think of it that way, it’s an easy job…to be up there singing and dancing and applause!”
Patricia saw Carol Channing perform the role many times although she never appeared with her. She saw it in San Francisco when Will did it with her when she went down to visit. “Oh, she’s just a doll. She’s just amazing.She brought an usual quality to the role that had not really been tapped before or since. She was certainly loved by the cast and audiences just adored her. They were spellbound. ”  

Patricia also saw Betsy Palmer, Betty Grable,  and Martha Raye play Dolly.  Will appeared with both Martha Raye and Betty Grable. According to Patricia, Martha Raye was definitely unique. Betty Grable brought a glamour. Betsy Palmer brought a humanity. She had been in everyone’s living rooms for so many years through television. Everyone felt they knew her. It brought a simpatico feeling with audiences.
Jerry Herman
Patricia says Jerry Herman is a doll and so cute. Very talented in his own way. A rumor that he steals from himself which is probably the best form of flattery. He has had a great long career.  He has a way of making everything fun and palpable for people. When Will went into the show with Ginger, Jerry was around a lot to see the transition. Jerry came back after Will had been in the show six months and asked him to sing the melodies more. He was actually talk singing most of it. Jerry explained to him that there were notes there that he wanted him to sing.  Both he and Michael Stewart would show up from time to time to look at the show.
The one major change that Patty has seen in the business since Dolly is that for many young people, “the show does not go on when they don’t desire it to.” Both Patricia and Will find that these days they see so many standbys and understudies go on.  In Patricia’s day, you got the job and you did the job. Whether you felt bad or not, you just did it. People are very lackadaisical now. “I have a hangnail; I think I’ll let someone else go on tonight in my place.” To Patricia, they really don’t take it that seriously.
Closing night was a very sad night.  It was also joyous knowing that had gone down in history at that time by being the longest running show on Broadway AND ending the run with the original choice for Dolly Levi, Ethel Merman. It was a momentous occasion with a huge cake rolled out on stage. Will Mackenzie and Patricia both feel that Hello, Dolly! is one of the top five best musicals ever written.
It truly was the end of an era.

Thank you Patricia Cope for the gifts you have given to the world and 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 Richard@RichardSkipper.com.

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My next blog will be... My exclusive interview with David Misch: Celebrating Comedy


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TILL TOMORROW...HERE'S TO AN ARTS FILLED DAY

Richard Skipper, Richard@RichardSkipper.com                            

 
This Blog is dedicated to ALL THE DOLLYS and ANYONE who has EVER had a connection with ANY of them on ANY Level!


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