So what does Patty Duke in Oklahoma! have in common with Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl and Zero Mostel in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum? All of them are seen in the very first moment that their musicals open. The only difference, of course, is that Fanny Brice and Pseudolus are the main characters in their shows, and Aunt Eller isn't in hers.
Still, Duke got entrance applause at her opening in Oklahoma! on Wednesday, as she churned the handle on the machine Aunt Eller has been given in this production. She churned as Curly came on and sang "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'." She churned as Laurey came on and sang "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'." And she churned as Curly and Laurey sang about "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top." I wondered if Duke's fans were thinking, "Is this all she's going to do all night long?"
She does have fans, as was proved by the Patty Duke Show Reunion of a few seasons ago, called "Still Rockin' in Brooklyn Heights." (Patty's a high school teacher who's directing Romeo and Juliet; her leads drop out just before opening night and so she has to go on as Juliet. In a high school play, mind you.) The reunion special began with a man with a microphone asking people if they could sing the song from Duke's 1963-1966 TV show, in which she played not one teenager (the cool Patty Lane) but two (her "identical cousin," the cultivated Cathy Lane). Well, there were plenty of fans who could easily warble, "Meet Cathy who's been most ev'rywhere, from Zanzibar to Berkeley Square" all the way to "when cousins are two of a kind." Yes, people remember.
Now Duke is back to Broadway after a four-decade absence -- unless you care to count an episode of the aforementioned Patty Duke Show that had to have been filmed sometime in early 1965. There's Patty Lane in Shubert Alley, passing by three-sheets for Barefoot in the Park, Poor Richard, Ready When You Are C.B., and The Subject Was Roses before she reaches the stage door of the Prager Theatre. (It's actually the Booth's stage door but it was renamed the Prager in honor of Duke's producer Stanley Prager, whom we know as Prez in the original cast of The Pajama Game as well as the director of Let It Ride, Bravo Giovanni, and Minnie's Boys.)
Patty Lane then walks past three-sheets for Hello, Dolly!, Any Wednesday, Luv, Fiddler on the Roof, and Ben Franklin in Paris. That's what caught my attention -- though I know we're supposed to be concentrating on the girl herself, who's wearing a sandwich sign that proclaims, "Stars of Broadway! My name is Patty Lane. I need your help." Seems that the overzealous Patty has promised her schoolmates at Brooklyn Heights High that she'll snag some big Broadway star to appear at their prom, and now she's so desperate that she'll pay $15 to whomever will do it.
Cut to Sammy Davis, Jr.'s dressing room above Shubert Alley. He was doing Golden Boy at the time, though that isn't yet mentioned. Davis's manager relates Patty's tale of woe, and Sammy -- with a heart as big as the great outdoors -- admires the kid's spunk, and decides to take the gig, even though his manager cautions him that the $15 will boost him into the next tax bracket. Sammy sends his manager to fetch Patty but she's already gone to the offices of Variety, where she speaks to the editor, played by Arthur Rubin, whom we know from the original casts of The Most Happy Fella, Kean, and Here's Love among many other shows. Patty wants to take out a full-page ad and hopes that the $8.35 she's budgeted for this will cover the cost. The editor turns her down but decides to do a news story on her. (Yeah?) So we then see a story in Variety headlined, "'Help,' Cries Moppet" (Duke was 18 at the time) "Patty Lane Seeks Entertainer" -- as if every Variety reader would know who Patty Lane is.
One might wonder how Davis could appear at the prom, given that he's got to do an evening show, but he tells his manager that he'll drop in at the prom after the performance. (Hmmm. Given that shows began at 8:30 in those days and it takes time to get to Brooklyn Heights from midtown, I'd say he'd be pretty late.) Sammy calls Patty at home and when he says "This is Sammy Davis, Jr.," she assumes it's her boyfriend Richard pretending to be the star. She says, "Yeah, and I'm the Gabor Sisters -- all three of them," a line that the laugh track people didn't bother enhancing with an artificial guffaw. (I would have loved it if Patty had said, "Richard, you're not Mr. Wonderful," but I guess we can't have everything.)
Patty hangs up on Sammy, but he calls back and, to prove who he is, sings a few lines of his hit record of three seasons earlier, "What Kind of Fool Am I?" (Interesting that he doesn't sing a song from Golden Boy, which still hasn't been mentioned at this point.) Patty hangs up again, then complains to Cathy (who won't be seen again in the episode) and her mother and father. (He, by the way, was played by William Schallert, whom I met last year. Schallert told me that he was president of the Screen Actors Guild at one time and sat on the board of advisors after his term expired. As it turned out, a subsequent president was Patty Duke. "I had the hardest time not treating her as if I were her father and she my daughter," he told me. "I really had to get out of that mindset.")
Anyway: While Patty's mother is pinning up her prom dress, the lass decides that she should head back to the Broadway theater district and see if she can talk to the real Sammy Davis, Jr. "You know what they say," she reasons. "There's no people like show people." She goes to a stage door that says "Majestic" (which is where Golden Boy actually played), between a three-sheet for Funny Girl and another for -- at last! -- Golden Boy. But Patty is rebuffed by a tough doorman. Only on her third try to sneak by him is she successful: She crouches behind a bunch of cops who waltz their way in as the doorman chummily says to them, "Comin' to see Sammy win the big fight again?" (At last! An allusion to Golden Boy, which did have an improbable Davis as a boxer.)
By the time Patty gets to Sammy's dressing room, she doesn't have the chance to ask him to attend the prom because dozens of autograph seekers are swarming all around him. (Hey, how did they get past that tough doorman?) Sammy leaves quickly, en route to Brooklyn to appear at the prom, though Patty doesn't know this. She goes to the big dance expecting the slings and arrows of her outraged classmates; but, when she arrives, there's Sammy singing a few bars of "What Kind of Fool Am I?"
It's a happy ending, of course -- just as there's ultimately a happy ending for Patty Duke in Oklahoma! Granted, her singing voice is a little gravelly and she was a little flummoxed by Hammerstein's quick wordplay in "The Farmer and the Cowman," but that latter problem should be fixed with a few more performances. Her timing on each of her comic lines is pinpoint perfect, and why should I be surprised? She's been a pro since the Eisenhower administration. (As Schallert told me, "I quite often forgot when dealing with Patty and Cathy that Patty Duke was only one person.")
Duke does a nice "Why not?" take when Ali Hakim wants to come into her house and show him her wares; she gives us the impression that, in those pre-radio days, she's doing it because he will at least provide some welcome entertainment. When you think of it, Duke is very right for the role, for Aunt Eller spends a lot of time getting Curly and Laurey together -- and that's pretty analogous to what the busybody Patty Lane did. The actress says it all when, as Eller, she proclaims: "I don't say I'm no better than anybody else, but I'll be damned if I ain't jist as good!" You're doin' fine, Patty Duke; you're O.K.!
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at email@example.com]