Cheers for the imminent refurbishment of the Biltmore Theatre, former house of Hair and the new Broadway home of the Manhattan Theatre Club.
Wednesday's New York Times didn't seem to yield so much good news. Osama bin Laden still hadn't been caught, the economy continued to slide, the Knicks lost a game they should have won, and New Jersey Transit decided to raise its prices. But there, on D4--the other side of a page that sported a headline "Confession in Wendy's Deaths Wasn't Forced"--was "Dawning of a New Age for the Biltmore" by David W. Dunlap. And not a moment too soon; for while we had heard in June 2000 that something nice was happening at the long-shuttered Biltmore, word had lately been going around that a refurbishing of the house wasn't the lock that we had initially believed. But wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, it's happening after all.
Isn't it interesting that the Biltmore's first tenant was a play called Easy Come, Easy Go, given that the property itself has been coming and going along Broadway since 1925? Theatergoers had to go when the police raided Mae West's Pleasure Man at the Biltmore but they were able to come back for other, more notable attractions: e.g., The Living Newspaper productions, those series of dramatic sketches that told of society's ills, and such comedy legends as Brother Rat and My Sister Eileen. What I find especially fascinating is that Warner Brothers bought the theater in the late '30s specifically to nurture George Abbott productions. If they'd purchased it today, I'm sure someone would insist that they rename it The Warner Brothers. (Actually, in these times of the American Airlines Theatre, I fully expect that Uncle Ben's Rice will buy the house on 45th Street at the corner of 7th and rename it the Uncle Ben's Riceum. And can the Kaopectate Arts Center be far behind?)
The Biltmore was taken away from us in 1952 when CBS leased it to do live TV--really, there once was live TV in New York--but it returned to the legit fold and some glory days in the '60s. Hal Prince's one big non-musical hit, Take Her, She's Mine, played a year there. It was a comedy by Henry and Phoebe Ephron that was inspired by all the trouble they were having with their wild teenage daughter, whose name was Nora. The play suggested in the end that the kid would straighten out, and straighten out Nora did indeed, with all the successful novels and movies she's since had to her credit. (By the way, the Ephrons were so happy with the success of Take Her, She's Mine that when their next play, Everybody Out--The Castle Is Sinking, opened in Boston (and closed there without braving Broadway), it actually used as its author credit on window cards: "By Henry and Phoebe Ephron, who last brought you Take Her, She's Mine." Is that amazing, or what? Hey, when Arthur Miller's adaptation of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People opened on Broadway in 1950, it didn't say that it was from the guy "who last brought you Death of a Salesman."
Take Her, She's Mine starred Elizabeth Ashley, who got used to showing up at the Biltmore; the theater was also the site of her next big hit, Barefoot in the Park, in 1963. She starred with one Robert Redford, who'd get to be pretty big before the decade was out. This was Neil Simon's third script for Broadway and what I most remember is that, when the show was playing out of town, Simon decided to change the name of one character to Victor Velasco. Alas, what I don't remember is what the character's name was beforehand. Anybody out there know?
But the biggest hit the Biltmore had during that decade--its biggest ever, in fact--was Hair. If you sauntered by the theater in the late '60s, when the sidewalk was packed, you would have seen plastic vines crawling up the poles that held up the marquee. Tacky, sure--but fun, too. And isn't it ironic that the theater where a Mae West play was shut down because of its language should be the first Broadway theater to have nude people on stage? (For that matter, many people have told me--I didn't see it--that the place should have been raided when The Robber Bridegroom was there, given that Barry Bostwick's pants were so tight.)
While the long-lived original production of Hair played at the Biltmore for 1,742 performances, the short-lived 1977 revival played there for only 43 performances; and, yet, that revival provided me with one of my favorite post-theater experiences. As I was walking up the aisle after the show was over, I saw co-author Gerome Ragni standing there. "Hey," I asked, "that lyric in the title song, 'I'm hairy, noon and night'--is that an allusion to Ronald Ribman's play Harry, Noon and Night?" "Yes!" Ragni cried excitedly. "You're the first person to ask me that, but that's exactly what I meant. Harry, Noon and Night was my first professional job as an actor!"
Because the Biltmore didn't belong to either the powerful Shuberts or Nederlanders, it had a tough time competing. In April 1979, the house taught me a lesson that the theater business was changing. As I was approaching it, I saw a long line under the marquee that said "Rex Harrison, Claudette Colbert: The Kingfisher." Well, I reasoned, of course there'd be a line; the limited engagement was in its final week and everyone was rushing to see these two legends. Except when I got closer to the Biltmore, I saw the sign that said tickets were going on sale that day for Peter Allen's one-man show--and that's what everyone was there for.
The last time I was in the Biltmore was a dreary February afternoon in 1987 when tickets were literally being given away for Stardust, a dullish revue of Hoagy Carmichael songs. The theater was almost as empty as it is now, but I didn't realize the end was nigh and that the place would become such an eyesore. When Glenn Close, Gene Hackman, and Richard Dreyfuss were doing Death and the Maiden at the Atkinson, I wondered how they felt each night when they came out the stage door and they saw this dingy monstrosity across the street. It's probably just another reason why some actors prefer Los Angeles.
Now, though, I have every confidence the Biltmore will be back. And I don't mind a whit that there'll be a 51-story building next door, if that's what will make it possible. I also don't mind that they're removing 300 of the 950 seats. I still recall seeing Boston Celtic defender Kevin McHale being a good daddy and taking his kids to a performance of Peter Pan at the Colonial Theatre in Boston, where he was tortured by the inadequate leg room his row offered. Granted, not every theatergoer is a six-foot-ten basketball player; but still, we need a little leg room even more than we need a little Christmas now. And, oh, do we need to see a beautiful Biltmore Theatre presenting plays again!