|Jack Ritschel and Karen Morrow|
Veteran actor Jack Ritschel has the distinction of having done eight different productions of Hello, Dolly!
As Horace Vandergelder, he did three productions with Martha Raye, one with Yvonne De Carlo, Lainie Kazan, Karen Gilley, Karen Morrow, and Carol Swarbrick. They just don't make musicals like this anymore!
Originally, he wanted to be a radio actor.
Literally, as he was leaving college, they were bringing in the television equipment.
Jack went into the army after college. Then he got married, had a kid, and got a regular job in aircraft. Also, he became involved with a local community theater, rehearsing and performing at night. After he divorced, his next girlfriend became his second wife. She taught voice, and she tutored Jack enough so that he was able to compete on a professional level.
She encouraged him to go into this full time and eventually he did. In 1965, he got his first Equity show. It was called What This Country Needs, with Peter Marshall. The author/producer/director gave a heart-rending speech to the company describing the plot of the show; and they all knew it was autobiographical. It involved a boy- wonder who had a very successful show the first time out of the gate, and then the heartache in trying to duplicate that early success. It turns out he had been giving that speech for many years. He didn’t really care if the show succeeded or not, since he got paid as the author, producer, and director. Several years after that, it resurfaced in Las Vegas with a different title, but still with Peter Marshall.
After that, Jack found work in a couple ensembles. He performed at a 3200-seat theater called Melodyland in shows starring Peter Palmer and Georgia Brown.
Those shows also traveled to West Covina and Redwood City.
|Martha Raye in Viet Nam|
In Redwood City, during Oliver, the producers said that the show was doing good business and asked if anyone had a problem with them extending.
The only person who couldn’t extend was the guy playing Bill Sykes (Danny Sewell). Jack looked around the room, and the only person who could physically play the part was himself. Terrified, he went home that night and started studying the role, just in case.
(For the next several shows, Jack always memorized at least one extra role). It turned out that he didn’t end up playing Sykes that time, but did play it a year later in Salt Lake City opposite Bernice Massey. He reprised the role a few years later in Oakland, with Ben Wrigley as Fagin. What a hoot! Ben (“Mr. Rubber-Legs”) dated back to the old English Music Halls, and had a handful of hysterical pantomimed “bits” which he inserted into each of his roles.
|Martha Raye on Broadway|
When Carousel came along at Melodyland, with John Raitt, Linda Michele, and Ned Romero, Jack got his first chance at a real honest-to-God role (Mr. Bascombe). Then the roles became lengthier and more often.
For years, a director friend (Gary Davis) had been wooing Jack to do dinner theatre with him. Jack kept refusing because they were reputed to pay very little.
Finally, Student Prince came along, and Jack couldn’t resist playing Dr. Engel. Once he made that leap, it was easy to do more dinner theatre….and he ended up that first year grossing more than in a “regular” year.
Jack did Student Prince six times, from California to the east coast, with the magnificent Jim Cutlip and David Eisler. Back in Anaheim, he also appeared in musical repertory with Eileen Brennan and Bill Chapman, who was a fabulous singer and Jack’s hero.
Another of Jack’s favorite gigs was being the first director Long Beach Civic ever paid, for 110 in the Shade. Simultaneously, he appeared in his first opera. Working night and day, he had four dress rehearsals in two days, and broke his foot just to complicate things. (Went on in the opera with a black stocking disguising the cast on his leg).
In 1970, Long Beach Civic lost their leading man to a heart attack right after the opening of Sound of Music. They called Jack early the next morning to ask if he would do the show starting that night They had never hired an Equity actor before, except in the emergency situation with Jack mentioned before. So he and management spent the entire day talking with Equity, and trying to figure out how they would proceed. “Would be it be the understudy taking over, or the general manager, or Jack?” It turned out that they wanted Jack. So the following night, he began his run as Von Trapp, with book in hand for that night only. He had learned the music by then, so he carried the script like it was supposed to be there (like a pipe); and he could put down the pipe quite naturally for the musical interludes
He didn’t think it would go as well as it did, because a half hour before curtain, he started trembling violently. But 15 minutes later, an icy calm descended on him; and he did the entire show as if watching from above, cataloging every move he made and every line reading. It made for a very interesting night, and one that patrons commented on for years afterward.
A year later (1971), the organization hired its first Star, Martha Raye, to do Dolly. Martha had been the third Dolly on Broadway, after Carol Channing and Ginger Rogers. It was the first time Long Beach paid big money.
Jack knows, because they accidentally switched her paycheck with his one week (he almost had a heart attack!). He was kind of a “shoo in” for Vandergelder because he had worked there before and they liked him. But again he was terrified, having never worked this closely with a star before.
He had a difficult transition going from being just another actor in the show to leading man. He could never think of anything to talk about with Martha while alone. He definitely put her on a pedestal above him. She also encouraged that!
The first time they did the show together, she had a little difficulty with the eating scene.
The way it’s written, lines don’t always arise from what was said before. Jack decided to learn both parts just to be on the safe side to help her out! He couldn’t do it! And now he has even greater respect for all Dollys.
Not only had Martha done the show on Broadway, she had also taken it to Viet Nam.
She loved to ad lib, and afforded Jack certain opportunities do it. If Maggie “forgot a line,” she would run offstage and yell “What the hell is my line?” It would get a big laugh, and then she’d continue. Jack never found out if she actually forgot her line, or if it was just a “bit.” He believes, though, that she really forgot, and instantaneously invented this clever way to cover it up.
After rehearsals and performances, Maggie and several cast members became fixtures at the Ritschels’ house.....for rousing games of Password. Maggie felt she was an expert at the game, having done the TV show; and she got really pissed when Jack’s stepdaughter and he turned out to be invincible ('cause their minds worked on the same track). They would play until the wee hours of the morning. When they had passed the point of no return, Jan would announce that she had called Martha a cab, and that she was off to bed. Jan was a voice teacher who had to get up early; and Maggie forgave “Murph” her abruptness because they were “good buds.”
Jack didn’t get brave enough to try ad libbing with her until their second stint together. This was a time when certain TV commercial “tag lines” were very popular, and well known enough so that the general public was using them. Maggie would incorporate some of them into the eating scene. Like “Who made the salad?” Big laugh! And “Try it…you’ll like it.” One night, Jack waited until that laugh died down, and replied “I tried it….thought I was gonna die!” (which was a tag line from yet another commercial.) After that performance, he asked her what she thought of the ad lib; and she said “Great. Keep it in.”
One night, a small fire started around one of the lights at the proscenium. The smoke became visible to the audience and they started getting antsy, so Martha took charge (ad libbing was not a problem for her). She Five minutes later, they were going on with the show.
After the 3-week run in Long Beach, director Jack Bunch hired Jack to co-star in Dolly again with Martha, because they figured he knew all of Maggie's "schtick," and could help them prepare, knowing what she wanted. This was for San Bernardino Civic Light Opera, in an old ghost-ridden movie house which dated back to vaudeville.
After a performance in San Bernardino, director Jack Bunch hosted a poker party attended by Maggie, Jack & Jan Ritschel, and famous singer Russell Arms. Jan warned everybody that win or lose, at 2:00 she was leaving because she had an hour’s drive home, and had to get up at 6:00 to teach voice. Well, when the Ritschels left at 2:00, Jan had everybody’s money….and Jack Bunch was really steamed about it.
Ft. Worth’s Casa Manana hired Jack in 1975 to appear for the third time opposite Martha Raye. Maggie and Jack got along pretty well, with only a few bumps in the road. Maggie asked for Jack when she did Everybody Loves Opal for Sebastian's West in San Clemente in 1976. It was an uneventful experience, but provided some insights into Maggie's preferred way of doing a show….rehearsed "break-ups." This was a show she had been doing for years….2-week stints at various theaters. The entire show was filled with things that were once “accidents” that she left in. And it was tough to make them appear spontaneous.
Not only did Maggie bring comedy to the role, but Jack thought that Maggie’s speeches to Ephraim were standouts….honestly tender and nicely done.
Jack then did the show with Yvonne De Carlo - at the Grand Dinner Theatre in Anaheim, California.
Her understudy for that production was Australian cabaret star, Toni Lamond. Working with De Carlo was strictly professional. They did not “pal around.” She stuck strictly to herself, and the artistic director of the theater went to her hotel each day to see if she was “ok.”
Onstage, she got all the laughs that Dolly should get. Audiences loved her. She was a true television and movie star. Jack has a strong memory of seeing her do Follies, and thought she was dynamite. But Jack was kind of spoiled by his 3 shots with Martha Raye, and didn’t feel that same dynamism on stage with De Carlo.
Toni Lamond eventually took over De Carlo’s part, but that was after Jack had departed the company to do his first Production Contract: a touring company of Seven Brides starring Debbie Boone, David James Carrol, Lara Teeter, and Sha Newman. Two weeks in San Diego….three weeks hiatus…. seven months on the road…..then opened on Broadway.
This was not a bus and truck company! They'd plunk down in a town for four to six weeks…and actually got to unpack.
The next evening, the audience pretty much sat there with their arms folded, saying “show me!”
It took half an act to get them up to "hootin and hollerin"; then it was just the same reaction as in the previous five cities. But they had to close; and even the elevator operator was crying.
Jack stayed on in NYC after Brides closed….got his 2nd Production Contract, as Drake and understudy of Warbucks in a touring company of Annie. He was in seventh heaven! Jack never got to go on as Warbucks, but Rhodes Reason was very kind in helping him learn all the “bits” involved. They played a month in DC (when a “big-weenie” from NY came to say they were not going to close) and a month in Boston (where the weenie came back to say “Never mind….you’re closing.”)
Looking ahead to 1994, Jack was auditioning for Wichita's Dolly. He also wanted to play Honore in Gigi and Warbucks for them. So he sang and read for the first two; it went well; they were very interested; and started to thank him for coming. He said "Hey, what about Warbucks?" They were taken aback, but said "Uh...ok."
He sang and read for Warbucks. In awe , they said "Gee, those were three totally different characters." His mind went "Well, duh! They are three different characters!" They hired him for all three in a single season, which must have been a first for them. The Wichita Dolly was Karen Gilley, who subsequently was on Broadway in Cats.
A long time had passed since his last Dolly; but in 1981 he auditioned for and got the co-star role with Lainie Kazan in a three-month stand at the Claridge Hotel in Atlantic City.
It was a really great experience! Lainie was a Hot-Mamma lounge singer who was popular at Playboy Clubs.
However, at that time, she had never seen or read the show. This experience enhanced Jack's ad-libbing skills, "cause she came into our two-week rehearsal not knowing word one, or any lyric.” Fortunately, Jack had learned a lot from Martha. He often had to ad lib with Lainie, and actually looked forward to something going wrong. This went on for the first two weeks, but she eased into the role and she was wonderful!
It was a hoot working with Lainie. She wanted to know things like why there was a dinner table in the middle of a courtroom. Plus, she was great personally; and they “hung out” together several times. She was ensconced in Film and TV (My Favorite Year opposite Peter O'Toole among many others). That role propelled her into almost specializing in "Jewish mothers." Lainie is still very active and thriving in film/TV.
One night in Atlantic City, Lainie, Lainie’s hair dresser, and Jack were walking along the boardwalk. A Pushcart vendor offered to push them. All three were rather large and asked the guy with the pushcart if he was really up to this! The guy said yes, so they squeezed themselves into his “chariot.” But Jack is convinced this guy must have felt he earned his rather large tip!
In 1994, Jack had the good fortune to do the show with Karen Morrow, who is something of a legend. It was at South Bay CLO in Redondo Beach, and he can't remember if he had to audition. It seems to Jack that with Karen, it was a case of two actors connecting and having a ball. They earlier did Annie together (Hannigan and Drake), with John Schuck, in Phoenix. Again, Dolly was a strictly professional relationship. They didn’t go out to dinner together or do drinks or “pal around.” But she was very easy to talk to during breaks in rehearsal.
She is a terrific actress. To Jack, she captured the softer side of Dolly, and didn’t really go after the slapstick.
In 1999, Musical Theatre West produced the show, with Carol Swarbrick and Jack. Audiences loved her, but she had a concept about the show and the role that was very different from Jack’s. There was no real chemistry between them, and they had different ideas about how to get a laugh. There was a connection between her and the audience; and Jack believes it was a failing in him, that he couldn’t adapt to what she was doing.
It was stimulating playing opposite all of these Dollys. It worked best with Martha and Lainie. They both had a total charm that audiences could relate to. Everything seemed natural. The comedy just flowed, and it Jack loved working with Martha the most. They remained friends, sort of. He and Jan visited her house once after working together. About 8 months before she died, she did call Jack out of the blue (when her illness was not common knowledge). At the time, he didn’t know the purpose of that call. She didn’t mention anything about her illness, but he now thinks this was her way of saying goodbye.
It’s obvious that audiences love this show and Jerry Herman’s music. Both are still very popular, and everybody knows the name. Like Oklahoma, It is still a title and song that most people have heard all of their lives. Some haven’t seen the show, but when it is mounted anywhere, audiences flock to it, based on name recognition alone.
Regrets? Jack wishes he could go back and do a better job on Horace’s long speech at the beginning of the show. He wishes that he had studied dancing.
He thinks he would have a somewhat different approach to Horace now…. perhaps less gruff, and a kindlier curmudgeon.
Jack certainly wouldn’t be surprised to see Dolly revived on Broadway.
They have brought back many shows that had not visited there for ages. It would be interesting to see who would play the title role. He thinks Lainie Kazan and Karen Morrow would be likely candidates. And Jack regrets that his health won’t permit him to do it again.
|Yvonne De Carlo and Jack (Courtesy: Bruce Morgan: Yvonne De Carlo Private Collection)|
Other highlights in Jack's career include 1983’s Chaplin (Anthony Newley) at the Chandler in LA. Big money behind this. Seven weeks rehearsal, during which Newley, Jack, and several of the company sweated bullets trying to improvise a funny scene representative of what Chaplin might have actually done in his early years. Heavy-duty singing with Marsha Bagwell, and a comedy gem with Newley, during which Jack slowly lost his costume, down to kiss-shaped embossments on the undershorts.
Due to some friction between the Nederlanders and David Susskind, the production could not raise the Coincidentally, Jack also did the movie Chaplin (Robert Downey, Kevin Kline), in which he portrayed William Randolph Hearst.
1974 - Fiddler on the Roof at the Ahmanson in LA. In Jack’s mind, this was a definitive production, with Robert Merrill, Peg Murray, Judy Kaye, Fyvish Finkel, and other stellar performers.
1988 – Fiddler in Sacramento, with Theodore Bikel and other leading players who had done the show upwards of 2000 times each. And the whole rehearsal period was a bedlam of “No, dollink, the vay ve did it vas…” “No, you say xxxxx, and then I do my bit.” “No, you cross ovuh dair, and den I counter ovuh to here….” Absolute pandemonium. The director (Glenn Casale) basically threw up his hands and just let things happen. Jack's role was the Constable, a relatively small part. But he remembers the audition, in which he came on very strong at the beginning, and he could see the director snap to attention.
Because of his 1982 exposure to Annie, Jack was able to star as Warbucks 8 times, with performers such as Kathleen Freeman, Jack Denton, Rob Barron, Tom Hatten, and Tim Smith.
La Cage Aux Folles - Jack remembers seeing the show for the first time (maybe 1984), and thinking “Hmm, well, it’s mildly amusing, but I feel sorry for the poor guy who has to play Dindon.” Well, about 1988, he got the chance to audition for Dindon….and had no real clue about how to play him….he just relied on his gut instincts. Got the role, along with Harvey Evans and Larry Kert. It was at Sacramento Music Circus, reputed to be a “red-neck” community. And the cast was all anxious to see what audience reaction would be to this “shocker” of a show.
So they hung around the rear of the tent for the first 20 minutes….until they could see that the audience was all "hootin, hollerin’, and laffin’" uproariously. Then they relaxed, and went about their usual routine. Jack was fortunate enough to do the show again twice with Kurt/Evans, and again with Harvey a couple more times, plus a few more.
Man of La Mancha - In the 80s, Jack auditioned for the first National company of La Mancha.
Having never seen it, he was very confused about the concept of one person playing two characters. The originators tried and tried to get him to understand…but it was no use, and he bombed out. “Oh, what could have happened if only…..” As it turned out (after having seen La Mancha a few times), he then understood the concept, and was able to do the Governor/Innkeeper with George Ball, John McCook, Ken Howard, Robert Goulet, and two others.
42nd Street – One thing that amazed Jack was during his first time as Julian, in San Jose. The costume department went to a local Goodwill store, and came back with two brand-new (price tags still on) 3-piece suits of the period…. which fit Jack perfectly, with no alterations!
Phantom (Yeston/Kopit) - Jack saw the original in Elmsford NY, fell in love with the show, and couldn’t wait until it was available out west. He did nine of them as Carriere, the Phantom’s father. The very first one, in San Jose, had a big-budget set, which was still being welded together as their first audience came in for preview. There was a neat effect at the end of Act One where the Phantom (Kim Strauss) takes Christine in his arms for a descent into the catacombs.
In the first preview, the platform tipped, and the two actors went tumbling below the stage. Kim’s cape got caught in the machinery, and he was within a whisker of losing his life; and he ended up with a big dent in one bicep. Christine had caught herself by the elbows on the stage level; but now the elevator was rising, threatening to chop her into two pieces. An actor who was waiting in the wings ran onstage to help her get out of the trap door. They almost made it! Her ankles were severely cut and bruised, and she was in the hospital and out of the show, which an Ensemble girl had memorized.
|Phantom, Fullerton, 1995, Vicria Strong & Robert Patteri (courtesy Jack Ritschel)|
Throw in a handful of other recordings, pageants, movies, TV shows, commercials, and voice-overs…and there you have it!Thank you Jack Ritschel for the gifts you have given to the world and continue to give!
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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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...Celebrating Jack Bannon as Horace Vandergelder (opposite Ellen Travolta) Couer D'Alene Summer Theater' 2000 and 2012 productions of Hello, Dolly!
Thank you, to all the mentioned in this blog!
Here's to an INCREDIBLE tomorrow for ALL...with NO challenges!
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!