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Hey, Mr. Producer!

The first CD edition of the Baker Street cast album causes Filichia to reminisce about producer Alexander H. Cohen. logo
Alexander H. Cohen and Richard Burton
It turns out that my buddy Josh Ellis had his Baker Street memories stoked by the Decca Broadway CD release of the MGM original cast album, as I did. "I loved the Baker Street hoopla and hype way more than the show itself," he wrote. So true, Josh! Though the show wouldn't open until February 16, 1965, I remember seeing an ad for it in the summer of 1962. What is now the Camelot apartment building at 301 West 45th Street was then an empty lot, but the exposed wall of the next building sported ads for two upcoming productions to be sponsored by one of the last great Broadway showmen: Alexander H. Cohen.

On the left side of the wall was an ad for Barnum (not the musical that was produced almost two decades later). On the right side was the Baker Street logo, but not the one featured on the cast album. Back then, Cohen was using a merging of two silhouettes of Holmes's head, one looking to the left and one looking to the right. Each had the fellow's trademark deerstalker hat atop it and that famous meerschaum pipe protruding from the mouth. The left side was green, the right side blue, and the superimposed words "Baker Street" were in white. (Frankly, I find both logos not too interesting.)

"Do you remember how a person originally got Richard Burton's recording of 'A Married Man?'" Josh asked me. "It was printed on cardboard and bound into an issue of Show magazine." What I most remember is that the song and the score were written by names I'd never heard: Marian Grudeff and Raymond Jessel. Let's award Cohen great credit for giving two Broadway newcomers their big chance. Other producers who were gambling $630,000 when $350,000 was the average cost of a musical would have insisted on blue-chip writers, but Cohen liked what he'd heard from Grudeff and Jessel, and that was enough for him to proceed.

Josh continued, "Remember, in Playbill, the centerfold color ad -- printed horizontally? And in those days, nothing else in Playbill was in color." Baker Street had a color Playbill cover, too -- which many believe was the first show to sport one. Actually, a 1958 Jose Ferrer vehicle, Edwin Booth, gets that distinction. But Baker Street was the first musical to go color, and it didn't merely settle for the show's logo, the way most productions do today. Instead, we got a handsome photo of Fritz Weaver as Sherlock Holmes, observed by both Inga Swenson as actress Irene Adler and Martin Gabel as Professor Moriarty. Well into the 1990s, Cohen had a large blow-up of this photograph behind his desk -- suggesting that, despite Baker Street's less-than-smash status, the show was still a fond memory.

Cohen viewed his show as such an event that men would not be admitted unless they were clad in jackets and ties, and women would only be allowed in if they wore dresses. That was his pronouncement before the production opened at the Broadway Theatre -- then the Great White Way's largest -- to mixed notices. Unfortunately, the better reviews didn't come from the more important press. Nevertheless, Baker Street was lovely to look at and something to see. When set designer Oliver Smith won a Tony Award that season, the medal said it was for three shows -- Baker Street, Luv, and The Odd Couple. But the latter two were one-set affairs that certainly didn't tax Smith the way Baker Street did. He came up with classy representations of Holmes's cluttered apartment, the Theatre Royal stage, Irene's posh house, the inside of Moriarty's yacht, and the cliffs of Dover.

Tony nominations went to Swenson as Best Actress and the one-named Motley for her gorgeous Victorian era costumes, but that was it. Here's the real irony: They gave an award for Best Producer of a Musical back then, and Cohen wasn't even nominated! Not that the Tonys meant as much then as they do now; they wouldn't until they were televised, which was still two years away. And when that happened, the man to thank was Cohen, who worked long and hard to get them on national TV.

In September 1965, on a visit to New York, I made a point of going by the Broadway Theater before a matinee just to see if people would still be turned away if they weren't "properly dressed" for Baker Street Not at all; both tourists and New Yorkers who looked the Wrath of God were being happily accommodated, and I'm sure that Cohen was glad to have them. But the real reason I went by the theater was to see the lavish $30,000 display that Cohen had installed over the Broadway's marquee. "Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street taught James Bond everything he knows," it said. (Goldfinger had opened only a few weeks earlier.) The three-story display had a ne'er-do-well climbing a ladder while being shot; this didn't quite happen in the show, but it made for a good image. To the left of it was a four-story high representation of the show's logo and to the right was a one-story ad for the cast album, which we now have on compact disc.

What's really fascinating is that Cohen forced his own show out of the Broadway; the theater's next tenant was his production of The Devils, a play about a group of nuns who went crazy, largely through the power of suggestion. Why put a serious drama in the biggest Broadway theater of them all? Cohen had Jason Robards and Anne Bancroft as his stars, so he felt he'd need the extra seats -- but he didn't. He should have kept Baker Street where it was, instead of moving it to the Beck; The Devils mustered only 63 performances. But the real surprise was that Cohen kept Baker Street at the Beck for all of 11 days and closed it after its 313th performance on November 14. I guess that outdoor display was more important that he thought.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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