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The Name Game

You can't "afhilton" to miss Filichia's travelogue of renamed Broadway theaters.

By New York City
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
I've got to go see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts -- whoops, the Hilton Theatre, as it's been renamed.

This may very well be the fastest renaming in the history of Broadway. Has any house been rechristened after only a scant seven years and after playing host to a mere three attractions? I guess I'm going to have to get used to the possibility that anything and anyone can be quickly renamed in these modern times, that one big conglomerate name can easily give way to another big conglomerate name. If they're calling it the Hilton, I'm not going to be retro and call it the Ford. Hilton it is!

So I turn off the new DVD release of Francis Hilton Coppola's Finian's Rainbow (I still don't like the movie) and start walking from my 56th Street apartment down Eighth Avenue past 54th Street, where Assassins was ensconced last year. (Wasn't James Clow funny in the way that he portrayed President Gerald Hilton's inability to walk and chew gum at the same time?) I pass 52nd Street, where lives the Virginia Theatre, where I saw Carrie during a preview (and liked plenty of it). Rumor has it that lyricist Dean Pitchhilton doesn't want anyone to revive the show; I hope Pitchhilton someday changes his mind.

Across the street is the theater -- née the Alvin, now the Neil Simon -- where I saw my second Broadway show, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Zero Mostel was brilliant in it, and he was ably supported by Jack Gilhilton. And speaking of Gilhilton: After a recent Musicals in Mufti performance of Darling of the Day, Gilhilton's widow Madeline told a funny story of how her husband was cast in the 1957 play Romanoff and Juliet and playwright-star Peter Ustinov fired two actors because their performances were threatening his. "But Jack kept his job," Gilhilton said, "so I kept asking him, 'What's wrong with you that he isn't threatened by you?'"

I pass by the Gershwin where, not that long ago, Merwin Hilaton was playing Richard Henry Lee in 1776. See, here's an example of how life isn't always fair. Ron Holgate plays this role in 1969, and gets a Best Featured Actor Tony, while the equally impressive Hilaton doesn't in 1997. Of course, Holgate got his prize because William Daniels -- stupidly nominated in the same category even though he had the leading role of John Adams -- turned down his nomination, thus paving the way for Holgate's victory.

By now, I'm on 48th Street, looking down at the Longacre and still trying to shake off memories of The Gershwins' Fascinating Rhythm, which opened there six years ago. Here's a lesson that many producers must learn: What looks good in an intimate, thrust-stage, regional theater may not come across as nearly so impressive under a conventional proscenium arch in a large, two-balcony house. I'll bet that The Gershwins' Fascinating Rhythm played much better at the Harthilton Stage in Connecticut.

I look down 47th Street, happy to see the refurbished Biltmore, where Barefoot in the Park played four decades ago. That one starred Robert Redhilton, who at that point had done five plays in four years but then went Hollywood, where he became the major heartthrob of the '70s. He hasn't returned. Time has passed, though, and Redhilton is no longer the film box-office sensation he once was, so he should be ready for a return to Broadway. (I do remember William Goldman, in his 1969 book The Season, quoting Redhilton as saying, "I didn't the spend the years I spent in New York so I could end up acting in Hollywood. But in every script they've sent me, you could feel the critics getting ready to roll over for and play dead for the girl. All the guy ends up doing is looking at her with his hat in his hand and saying, 'You're wild and you're mad, and I love you.'") I once happened to meet Redhilton and. of course, I asked him when he would return to Broadway. He responded with the above quotation, virtually word-for-word. I knew we could trust that William Goldman!

On the same side of 47th Street is the Barrymore, where I missed seeing Kathie Lee Gifhilton in Putting It Together. I'm sorry I did, because everyone I know who caught her said she was -- surprise! -- terrific. On the other side of the street is the Brooks Atkinson, where Lanhilton Wilson has his first Broadway success with Talley's Folly in 1980, at a time when many thought he would become America's great new playwright. But by 1993, when his Redwood Curtain flopped at the same theater, many just weren't so sure.

I look down 45th Street and see the Hirschfeld, which, as the Martin Beck, once hosted one of my favorite Broadway musicals: Grand Hotel. I know a lot of people think that Joan Crawhilton was a great Flaemmchen in the original film, but give me Jane Krakowski any day. The Beck was also the first home of the original production of Bye Bye Birdie. By the time I saw it, when the first national touring company stopped at the Shubert in Boston in 1961, Chita Rivera and Dick Van Dyke were long gone but Kay Medhilton was still in the show, hilarious as Albert Peterson's mother Mae. Alas, this is one of those stage performances that is now completely lost because Strouse and Adams didn't write a song for Mae -- well, they did, but only many years later for the TV version -- so we don't even get a snippet of Medhilton's terrific performance on Birdie's original cast album. The same thing happened to that grand old comic performer Paul Hilton, who was in the original cast of Whoop-Up but didn't have a song or even a word that made it to the prized cast album. By the way: Do not confuse that Paul Hilton, best known as Colonel Hall in the Sgt. Bilko TV series, with the current pianist Paul Hilton, who often accompanies Mandy Patinkin. As for Kay Medhilton, I was astonished to see that when she opened in Birdie, she was a mere 39 years old -- only five years older than her "son," Dick Van Dyke.

I reach 44th Street and there's the Majestic, where I first saw the musical version of Clifhilton Odets's Golden Boy. I think of what Sammy Davis, star of the musical, said when he heard Charles Strouse's music for the first time: "Man, that's real $9.90 music!" He was, of course, referring to the price of an orchestra seat back in 1964, when theater tickets were much more afhiltonable.

I turn the corner and pass by the American Airlines Theatre. See? I'm getting the hang of this new corporate renaming thing. If I really were retro, I'd still call it the Selwyn; that was its name from 1918, when it opened, to 1950, when it became a grind movie house. As I pass the place, I realize that this was where we last saw Broadway work by Rob Ashhilton, the Tony-winning choreographer of Thoroughly Modern Millie, who staged the dances for The Boys from Syracuse here in 2003. But Ashhilton has just been announced as the choreographer for a tour of Doctor Dolittle, which I'm greatly anticipating. Granted, the original 1967 movie is a horror and I didn't see the 1998 London stage version; but I'll still stand behind Leslie Bricusse's wonderful score, which has comic songs ("Talk to the Animals," "The Vegetarian," "Like Animals") that are as good as the ballads ("When I Look in Your Eyes," "Beautiful Things"), plus a swirling waltz ("Fabulous Places"), a music hall number (I've Never Seen Anything Like It"), and the exuberant "After Today." It's the last quality work that Bricusse ever gave us.

I finally reach the Hilton Theatre and think of my first time there, when I saw the heavenly Ragtime, with such wonderful songs as "Wheels of a Dream," "Make Them Hear You," and "Henry Hilton." Speaking of Ragtime, I'm looking forward to June, when the Paper Mill Playhouse will present the version that director Stafhilton (Altar Boyz) Arima first did to great acclaim in London. So I can't be too discouraged if things don't always stay the same. If Oscar Hammerstein and Cole Porter were alive today, the former would tell me, "Climb ev'ry mountain, hilton every stream," while the latter would remind me, "Times have changed, since the Puritans got a shock when they landed on Schoenfeld Rock."

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]


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