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Taking Stock

Filichia discovers that everyone from "the Merm" to "the Fonz" has appeared in summer stock in Dayton.

By New York City
Been talking to a lot of friends about the old days of summer stock. Not just because it's summer, but also because my recent trip to Dayton included a stop at Marion's Piazza. There, the walls are bedecked with framed photos from the days of the Kenley Players -- one of the nation's most celebrated stock companies, which brought its shows to Dayton from 1965 to 1995.

What visitors to Marion's see aren't production or even rehearsal photos but, rather, snapshots of opening night parties where the stars were captured salivating over the restaurant's terrific pizza. Many of the pictures bear no captions, so identifying the "stars" isn't always easy. But about half of them do tell you at whom you're looking, and about half of those tell you what shows they did, too.

Like The Most Happy Fella with Karen Morrow, presumably in the Susan Johnson role. Plain and Fancy with Dody Goodman and Peter Marshall, he the erstwhile Hollywood Squares host who'd already played Albert in Bye Bye Birdie in London and who later assumed the role of Georges in the Broadway company of La Cage aux Folles. Nearby on the wall, in a nice show of symmetry, there's a picture of Gene Barry -- the original Georges -- during his stint in Bye Bye Birdie.

Arthur Godfrey and Julius LaRosa, whojoined the Kenley Players for Funny Girl
Arthur Godfrey and Julius LaRosa, who
joined the Kenley Players for Funny Girl
"Julius LaRosa in Funny Girl," one picture is captioned. He was obviously Nicky Arnstein, but who was Fanny Brice? The photo doesn't say and I can't identify her. But even if LaRosa had not been captioned, I would have immediately recognized him, for he was an enormous star in my youth thanks to his appearances on a TV show hosted by Arthur Godfrey -- a man so influential in those days that television's 11th commandment was said to be "Thou Shalt Honor the Lord Thy Godfrey." Godfrey fired LaRosa for "lack of humility," an action that shocked and saddened the nation. (I'm serious.) Neither man ever had as much power or appeal after that, which is one reason why there's a picture on Marion's wall of Godfrey after a performance of Take Me Along. (LaRosa's being canned back then may not have been the last time such a thing happened to the guy: He was the original leading man of the Broadway musical entitled A Broadway Musical when it had its workshop at an uptown church but wasn't with the show when it opened -- and closed -- on Broadway on December 21, 1978.)

There's Dean Jones in the almost eponymous How Now, Dow Jones. (He almost got the job on Broadway, too. During pre-production, David Merrick was toying with the idea of casting the entire show with people surnamed Jones. Dean Jones, Jack Jones, Shirley Jones, et al. Speaking of Shirley Jones, there's a picture of her too at Marion's, taken during her stint in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. (Hmmm...does she sound right for that?) Some of Kenley's choices mystify. Though I can see Michael Allinson as Henry Higgins, given that I saw him do the part on Broadway, I can't quite see Jane Powell as Eliza Doolittle. But Kenley wanted stars to bring the bodies into Memorial Hall, no matter what the circumstances -- which explains the picture labeled "Vicki Carr in The Unsinkable Molly Brown."

Some stars on the Marion's wall are still known today thanks to reruns of their vintage TV series (there's Barbara Eden in Finian's Rainbow) while some are long-forgotten, like Joey Heatherton; she was in Kenley's Can-Can, which also starred the hardly forgotten Ann Miller, additionally pictured here during her run in Mame -- but not in Hello, Dolly!, for which my buddy Kevin McAnarney still remembers her. "In 'So Long, Dearie,'" he says, "she ripped off her tear-away skirt to reveal her famous gams before going into her dance."

As for those pictures that just identify the stars without saying what shows they did, there's Lucie Arnaz with Kay Medford; Dick Latessa with Susan Anton; Tom Bosley with Russ Thacker; Tommy Tune with Maxine Andrews. In what shows did they appear? What could possibly have been the musical in which Leslie Uggams, Anna Maria Alberghetti, Dorothy Lamour, and Gary Krawford starred? (Don't know Gary Krawford's name? I've never forgotten it, thanks to a New York Times review of Pousse-Cafe: Then-critic Stanley Kauffmann said, "Gary Krawford sings as if two invisible hands were strangling his neck.")

Kenley presented straight plays, too, so there are pictures of Vivian Blaine (The Marriage-Go-Round) and Bob Cummings (Generation). I smiled when I saw James Whitmore and Bobo Lewis as pictured during their run in Nobody Loves an Albatross. This was a 1963 Broadway entry that starred Robert Preston and ran for six months. If the title rings a bell, that may be because you read Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby: you see, Nobody Loves an Albatross is a play that Rosemary's husband, actor Guy Woodhouse, is supposed to have been in (as well as the Broadway production of John Osborne's Luther). The next time you see the film, watch carefully the scenes in the Woodhouses' apartment and you just may notice the framed window cards for both shows. (Excellent work from the set decorator!)

While munching on pizza at Marion's during my recent trip, I sat with Daytonians Jim Lockwood and Richard Brock, who ruminated on the Kenley shows and stars they saw: Buddy Greco in Pal Joey; Dottie West in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (she had to have her lines fed to her, they told me); Henry Winkler in Room Service; Jerry Van Dyke and Billy de Wolfe in How to Succeed; Mickey Rooney and Ann Blyth in Show Boat.

Ann Blyth! My buddy Craig Jacobs, production stage manager for The Phantom of the Opera, worked with her on a summer stock production in Milwaukee. After watching her perform and dance in rehearsals, he told her how he marveled that she never perspired no matter how hard she worked. Days later, after one particularly grueling rehearsal, she came up to him, pointed to her forehead, and said, "Look!" to show him that a single bead of sweat had formed.

Ethel Merman (second from the left) reprised herrole in Call Me Madam in summer stock
Ethel Merman (second from the left) reprised her
role in Call Me Madam in summer stock
Lockwood and Brock have fond memories of Ethel Merman and Russell Nype in Call Me Madam, which brings up another valuable aspect of summer stock: Sometimes, you could see stars recreate their original roles. True, some were now a little long in the tooth for the parts. Still, when you saw Barry Nelson in Cactus Flower, it was fun to know that he was in the original cast. Ditto Molly Picon in Milk and Honey, Ann Corio in This Was Burlesque, and Joel Grey returning to -- what else? -- Cabaret.

Enjoying the photos at Marion's and talking with Lockwood and Brock brought back my own summer stock memories. Diana Sands, best known as a dramatic actress (A Raisin in the Sun, Blues for Mr. Charlie), was terrific in Hallelujah, Baby! So was Eartha Kitt in Peg, a musical of Peg o' My Heart that never came to Broadway. Larry Kert was a dashing Kodaly in She Loves Me and John Raitt a hard-working Harold Hill. In Mame in 1969, Elaine Stritch was not Vera Charles, as you might infer, but the title character -- and she was swell. Oh, and then there were Bernadette Peters and Mickey Rooney in W.C. -- as in Fields, not toilet, though that's where the show eventually went.

What I most remember was that Tuesday in August 1966 when my parents suddenly decided we should take a trip to see our relatives in Baltimore. Now, I had gotten a ticket for a summer stock production at the Carousel Theatre in Framingham that very night but the papers had given the show lousy reviews, so when we called Cousin Tony and Joyce and they said that Liza Minnelli was appearing in nearby Owings Mill, Maryland in The Pajama Game, I was all for skipping the show in Framingham.

Minnelli turned out to be terrific and I was so glad I'd made the decision to see her show. Now, though, I'm sorry that I did, for the show I passed up was the pre-Broadway tryout of A Joyful Noise. Granted, the musical would only run a week on Broadway, but it had choreography by newcomer Michael Bennett, who'd get a Tony nomination for his work -- and he'd hired two of his pals, newcomers Tommy Tune and Donna McKechnie, to be in the show. If I'd seen it, would I have said, "Wow, this guy can really stage dances! Hey, that tall guy is really something! Mmmm, can that girl dance!" I would like to think that I would have. Marion's has lots of memories on its walls, but I have none of A Joyful Noise in my head.

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


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