It's Mae West vs. Tallulah Bankhead in the millennium popularity contest. Last year, West made a theatrical comeback of sorts with "appearances" in Claudia Shear's Dirty Blonde and the Hourglass Group's revival of Mae's notorious play Sex. Now, it's Tallulah's turn to traipse the boards in three (3) biographical productions: Tallulah Hallelujah!, Dahling, and one called simply Tallulah.
"Nobody can be exactly like me," claimed Bankhead. "Sometimes, even I have trouble doing it." But three distinguished actresses--Tovah Feldshuh, Nan Schmid, and Kathleen Turner--are now (or will soon be) attempting to conjure the amazing Tallulah. The first show of the season to tell the tale of this legendary entertainer is Feldshuh's Tallulah Hallelujah! now playing at the Douglas Fairbanks Theatre. "I wish everybody well, dahling," says Feldshuh in a smoky Southern drawl that mirrors Bankhead's infamous voice, "but I'm here first!" In discussing this self-penned play with music, the Tony-nominated actress makes two things perfectly clear: Tallulah Hallelujah! is not a one-woman show, and her performance is not a mere imitation of the sophisticated lady.
Frequently impersonated by drag queens, Bankhead is today best remembered for her bawdy behavior and her rumored two-bottle-a-day consumption of bourbon. The daughter of William Brockman Bankhead, at one time U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Alabama-born actress usually received more attention for her vices and razor-sharp wit than her acting. On Broadway, she gave star turns in The Little Foxes, The Skin of Our Teeth, and Private Lives but, with each passing year, the roles became increasingly scarce. And Bankhead was relatively unsuccessful in Hollywood, giving her only noteworthy screen performance in Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat. Turning to radio and television, Talloo hosted The Big Show and The All-Star Revue. Near the end of her career, she played herself in an infamous episode of I Love Lucy and made a guest appearance on the popular Batman series as the Black Widow.
One of the most opprobrious moments in Bankhead's colorful life was an ill-fated theatrical comeback in the 1956 City Center revival of A Streetcar Named Desire. Rooted in historical fact colored by lots of dramatic license, Tallulah Hallelujah! opens as Bankhead takes the stage to introduce Ella Fitzgerald at a USO benefit on the evening following her Streetcar opening. The jazz great is delayed and Bankhead is required to "vamp for five." She claims not to have read the notices of her performance as Blanche DuBois, but has apparently been informed that they are disastrous.
"She was an international icon and had just suffered a terrible artistic failure," explains Feldshuh, who spoke to Theatermania just prior to the opening of Tallulah Hallelujah!. "I can only begin to imagine her pain and humiliation." As the play's star and author, Feldshuh is also exposing herself to critics and audiences. But "comparisons to Tallulah and the other women playing her are welcome," asserts the actress who is best known for her recurring role on TV's Law and Order and for her Broadway appearances in Lend Me a Tenor and Yentl.
"This show evolved by chance and great fortune," says the dynamic performer. Originally conceived as a cabaret piece and written with the assistance of Linda Selman, Tallulah Hallelujah! eventually became a full-length, three-character play. Larry Amoros joined the creative team, as Feldshuh explains, "to make sure the humor lands." Directed by William Wesbrooks and produced by Chase Mishkin and Eric Krebs, the show features Mark Deklin as Corporal Chapman, a young object of Bankhead's affections, and musical director Bob Goldstone as composer/pianist Meredith Willson (who actually served as Tallulah's conductor at one point in her career). Tallulah Hallelujah! includes songs by Irving Berlin, Noël Coward, Cole Porter, and others.
Feldshuh says that playing the scandalous legend is "an artistic highlight" of her career. "I love her!" she exclaims. "Tallulah is a creature of remarkable intelligence, voracious appetite, and untrammeled emotional freedom. She freed me!" While researching Bankhead's life and career, Feldshuh made a pilgrimage to the star's childhood home and became a "visiting scholar" at area libraries and museums where vaulted tapes of Bankhead's stage and screen appearances hold secrets to the icon's mystique.
"Miss Bankhead was blessed with a life force that would rival any great cat of Africa," remarks Feldshuh. "By trial and error, she invented an exceptional self which she flung with a child's abandon straight into the face of the world. She drank too much, took drugs, spoke dirty with celebrated speed and wit, and turned cartwheels just to keep our attention."
Bankhead died in 1968; the official cause of death was pneumonia arising from influenza and complicated by emphysema. Her last professional appearance was an interview on The Tonight Show. "What killed Judy Garland at 47 sustained Tallulah Bankhead until she was 68," theorizes Feldshuh. "She rode the bull. She lived life to the fullest." It will be interesting to see if Tallulah Hallelujah! plus the subsequent Dahling and Tallulah will be theater enough to showcase this truly extraordinary, larger-than-life personality.