Farley Granger makes book, and Keely Smith opens at the Café Carlyle.
"I love the theater," Granger enthused in a recent interview. "The first time I came to New York, I was met at the airport by two dear friends of mine. They took me to Betty Comden's apartment, where they were having a party for me. I was so thrilled and excited because I had met all of those people on the West Coast, and I adored them. The next morning, when I woke up in my hotel room, I pulled up the blinds and saw Central Park. It was beautiful. And the first show I saw was Annie Get Your Gun -- so, of course, I was going to love Ethel Merman forever. We eventually became real good friends."
Granger was a star in Hollywood, yet he yearned to smell the greasepaint and to hear the roar of the crowd. "When I was under contract to Sam Goldwyn, I'd always ask him to give me some time off to do stage work, but he just wouldn't." So the actor took the very bold step of buying out his contract with Goldwyn in the mid-1950s and heading east to find his place in the theater capital of the world. Much to his dismay, he encountered quite a bit of resistance.
According to Calhoun, "No one in New York would give Farley a job. They said, 'You're a movie actor.' " He did appear Off-Broadway in the Phoenix Theatre production of a "Chinese fantasy" called The Carefree Tree, opposite Janice Rule, but that show opened no theatrical doors for him. So he went to work in live television during the golden age of the medium. "I did The Heiress on TV with Julie Harris," he fondly recalls, "and I did The Prisoner of Zenda with Chris Plummer. He and I would come to rehearsal an hour ahead of time to work on the dueling scene. I owe a lot to live television, because it was the closest I could get to the theater in those days."
In the latter part of his career, Granger did some stock and regional theater, but he had only two more stints on Broadway: In 1965, he played Tom as a replacement in a revival of The Glass Menagerie; and, in 1981, he took over the role of Sidney Bruhl in Ira Levin's Deathtrap. Granger describes that experience as less than happy in the beginning because he didn't feel he was given adequate rehearsal. "But I loved Ira," he's quick to proclaim. "We used to sit around in my dressing room and talk. I asked him, 'How do you get all these ideas?' "
As for Marian Seldes, who created the role of Myra Bruhl and continued to play it throughout the production's four-year run without missing a single performance, Granger says: "I see her when she's not working. We usually just sort of run into each other. She bows down on her hands and knees and says that I'm the one who made her a star." (Calhoun explains: "The producers came to Farley and said they wanted to give Marian star billing, but none of the previous men who played Sidney would let them do that. Farley said, 'Sure, put her above the title. She deserves it.' ")
Granger and Calhoun live on the Upper West Side, and they attend the theater fairly often. "I haven't seen much that has excited me lately," Granger remarks, "but I do think that the man who redoes the Sondheim shows [John Doyle] is terrific. I also saw The Vertical Hour, and I thought Julianne Moore was charming and delightful in it. People always say the theater is dying -- but, thank God, it never dies."
********************Keely Smith was one of the most popular singers of the 1950s and the early '60s, both as a solo artist and teamed-up with her first husband, Louis Prima. Though she never stopped performing, she's had something of a resurgence in recent years, releasing three new CDs and electrifying audiences in several engagements at Feinstein's at the Regency. Now she has returned to the Big Apple for a month-long engagement at a new venue: the Café Carlyle, longtime haunt of the late, great Bobby Short and a favorite of such other powerhouse performers as Elaine Stritch and Barbara Cook.
When I spoke with Smith recently, she had just finished a gig in Florida: "I worked the Colony Hotel in Palm Beach, and I had a week off after that, so I decided to stay down here." She's excited about making her debut at the Carlyle. "I had not been there before, but I went to see Steve Tyrell," she tells me. "Not only was he good, but I fell in love with the room. The maitre d' is wonderful. I really think I'm going to enjoy being there."
In her shows at Feinstein's, Smith was always backed by a big band, but she's going to have somewhat different instrumentation at the Carlyle. "We've got bass, drums, piano, synthesizer, one saxophone, one trumpet, and guitar," she says. "Actually, I copied Steve Tyrell's instrumentation, because I liked the sound that he got." And what of the song selections? "No Sinatra this time. Prima yes, and some Basie things. Also Frankie Valli, James Taylor, and a lot of ballads. Dennis Michaels is my musical director, and I've got Jerry Vivino putting the musicians together for me; he's the guy who plays saxophone on the Conan O'Brien Show."
Though Smith could probably sell out Carnegie Hall for a night or two, places like the Carlyle and Feinstein's are just fine with her. "I prefer smaller venues because I like to see the people's faces," she says. "In a lot of rooms that I work, I'll have them take out the spot and raise the houselights. I even do that in some of the big venues. You know, I come from a lounge, and I think I'm still used to the feeling Louis and I used to have when we performed. I don't like to feel that I'm on stage and everyone is out there; I like to feel that I'm in the middle of the audience and they're a part of the show."
Does she regret that she didn't work more in film, or on Broadway? "Not movies so much, because you stand around too long waiting to do something. I've been interested in Broadway -- I played Julie in Show Boat in summer stock, years ago -- but my one fear about that is being stuck to the same lines night after night after night. I'm used to being free and saying whatever I want to say, so it would have to be a doggone good show for me to do it. I wish someone would do a show like The Ziegfeld Follies. That would be perfect for me."
Whether or not Broadway is in her future, Smith shows no signs of slowing down. "I work in New York, Chicago, San Francisco -- wherever there's a venue I like. I live in Palm Springs, but I love New York so much. I always think, someday, I'm going to wind up living there."
This city would be lucky to have her on a full-time basis. When Smith won a Nightlife Award in 2005, she flew in especially to perform at the ceremony, singing (among other things) "That Old Black Magic" with Tony Danza as a stand-in for Louis Prima. Needless to say, the crowd went wild. "I love what I do," she says. "I'm pretty outspoken and honest. Nobody ever knows what I'm going to say up there, including me. I just do what I want to do, and I'm very happy doing it."