You're wondering why, aren't you? It happened because, four years ago, Paul K. Looney and Doug Perry--respectively, the executive producer and managing director of Theatre Tuscaloosa--decided there should be an Alabama Stage and Screen Hall of Fame. To be eligible, you have to be a native son of Alabama so, even though Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht wrote "The Alabama Song," don't expect them to ever be inducted. But Tallulah Bankhead, honored in 1999, was born in Alabama--as was Nell Carter, Class of 2000, and Rebecca Luker, who took a night off from The Music Man last year to get her plaque. This year, the trio of luminaries included Dean Jones of Decatur, Hugh Martin of Birmingham, and George "Goober Pyle" Lindsey of Jasper.
Yes, "Goober Pyle." Bet you didn't know that he was also one of the football players in the original cast of All-American, the musical that would mark its 40th anniversary only three days after Lindsey saw himself enshrined in the hall. Needless to say, I asked him about the show that had a book by Mel Brooks, music by Charles Strouse, and lyrics by Lee Adams during the press conference I hosted. Lindsey mentioned that director Josh Logan "always had a nervous breakdown on whatever he was working on" (Lindsey was in Logan's movie, Ensign Pulver, too). Then he made a bigger impression at the conference by admitting that he got amazingly drunk during All-American's opening night party and was so hung over on second night ("...when a lot of critics were there," he correctly noted) that he totally forgot his lyrics to "Physical Fitness." Afterwards, he recalled, "Mel Brooks came up to me and said, 'Thanks for ruining my show'--which is why I wasn't in Blazing Saddles.'"
How I wish I could report something from Hugh Martin, who must have stories galore about Meet Me in St. Louis and Best Foot Forward on both stage and screen as well as tales of such musicals as High Spirits, Make a Wish, and Love from Judy. But the infirm 87-year-old wasn't present because he doesn't fly. "He hated to fly even before 9-11," said his brother Gordon, who accepted the award for him along with the composer's identically-named nephew Hugh (who noted, "I've tried for years to take credit for his work--usually with women. But they do the math and figure out I can't be that Hugh Martin"). By the way, at the silent auction that preceded the ceremony, eight CDs of Martin's shows and films, his autographed "Buckle Down, Winsocki" sheet music, and an LP of "Martin and Blane Sing Martin and Blane" fetched $360 while, a few tables over, two tickets to the Alabama Crimson Tide-Auburn Tigers football game only brought in $280. I'd say people are starting to cotton to the arts in the Cotton State!
Before I discuss my interaction with Dean Jones, let me say what I've been telling people for 32 years: I was at the world premiere/first preview of Company at the Shubert Theatre in Boston in March, 1970, and I truly believe that I saw the precise moment when Jones--playing Bobby, the not-so-confirmed bachelor--said to himself, "I've got to get out of this show!" (which, of course, he did, right after the landmark musical debuted at the Alvin). It happened when he delivered his 11 o'clock number--not "Being Alive" but its predecessor, "Happily Ever After." During the song, Jones/Bobby told that older, Boston Brahmin-filled audience that marriage meant living "happily ever after in hell," and I saw his eyes widen to what seemed to be twice their usual size.
So when I brought up Company at the press conference--not even yet asking him why he quit the show after opening night--Jones told those assembled, "I went out there in Boston and sang this song 'Happily Ever After' and I could feel the audience asking me, 'Why are you doing this to us?' I saw their eyes widen as they asked, 'Why do you hate us?'" Well, I was flabbergasted that he used the exact same expression--"eyes widen"--that I'd been using about him for more than three decades, and I told him so. (Jones' eyes widened even more when I brought up Into the Light, the 1986 quick failure that he did at the same theater where Company played..."but I didn't have the same dressing room," he noted.)
He's a nice man and a very religious one, which is why he had to have been interested in Into the Light, about scientists and the Shroud of Turin (the cloth in which Jesus Christ was allegedly buried). When I asked Jones if he had fond memories of Jane Fonda, I could see him struggle for a euphemism before he finally had to admit that he hadn't. I was referring to his appearance with her in the movie version of Any Wednesday but he reminded me that he had done a play with her before that: There Was a Little Girl, in 1960. He had been asked to take over in Boston on a day's notice, had to learn the script on the train, was only able to see a Wednesday matinee, never had a put-in rehearsal, and had to go on that night. The director was the aforementioned Joshua Logan, but this time it was Jones who almost had the breakdown.
That night in Tuscaloosa, at the cocktail party before the actual ceremony, I again talked to Jones--who, by the way, doesn't remotely look 71. (No wonder he so readily admitted his age to the crowd!) When I brought up Company, he reiterated what we've heard through the years: that he was going through a divorce at the time and he just had to get out of a show about marriage and its pitfalls. "And I just can't do anything too nihilistic," added the actor who's been spending a good deal of his time playing St. John in his own one-man show. "I was offered a revival on Broadway a few weeks ago but I read it and said, 'No, too nihilistic. I'm sorry.'"
I had to wonder how Jones felt when it came time for him to be honored during the ceremony. First, the performers from Theatre Tuscaloosa did a mini-medley from Company--the title song followed by as dynamic a rendition of "Being Alive" as I've ever heard, from an actor named Charles Prosser--before they all closed with "Side by Side by Sondheim." This was followed by film clips of Jones in Disney's The Love Bug and a scene from the actor's St. John show. But the longest clip by far was the entire sequence from the Pennebaker Company: Original Cast Album documentary where Jones does "Being Alive." One of the Theatre Tuscaloosa staff said to me earlier in the day: "When you see him on that tape finishing 'Being Alive,' you can see him say to himself, 'Okay, that's it. I'm done with it. I'll never have to do that again.'"
Of course, Jones did do it again--a few times on each coast--when the Company cast reunited for those concert performances of the show in the early '90s. I'd say that Company was simply the right show at the wrong time for Jones and that he's more than made his peace with it. He was able to sit in the auditorium on Saturday, proud that he helped create one of the great American musicals. Thus, I personally believe that the determined look on his face at the end of the "Being Alive" taping was him thinking, "I hope I did this decently enough so that generations of people who hear it will feel that I did it justice." And I could be right, for I do have this slender history of knowing what Dean Jones is really thinking.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]
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