Princes Come, Princes Go
Fred Barton recalls the recently deceased composer-lyricist Robert Wright, who had a lifelong partnership with George "Chet" Forrest.
Right up until his death last week at age 90, he had cinematic recall of every personality and situation he experienced in his epic travels from Hollywood in its early years to contemporary Broadway, and he loved to regale appreciative audiences with his tales of the foibles of actors, producers, songwriters, etc. When Bob told a story, a giggle would jump from his throat; it would then expand into a rib-rattling roar of laughter that would briefly convulse him, magnifying the set-up of the punchline. When Bob told stories of Jeanette MacDonald, Judy Garland, Louis B. Mayer, Alfred Drake, et al., those icons were as alive and present in his living room as I was. Several days ago, they died once more with Bob -- and so did I, a little bit.
Bob Wright and Chet Forrest were brought to MGM as "fixers," musical handymen assigned to write and/or adapt vast amounts of material for the parade of musicals unleashed by the studio in the early years of sound films. Their first assignments on the Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy operettas developed their adaptation skills (later to serve them well on Broadway) but presented their first dilemma. "Jeanette and Nelson didn't really have much to say to each other," Bob told me with a wry tone and a significant raising of his eyebrows. He related that, when he and Chet were introduced to Eddy, the singer instructed them, "Under no circumstances do I sing the vowel 'ohh!' " Then they were taken to see MacDonald and she told them, "Under no circumstances will you have me singing the vowel 'eeee!' "
As we sifted through previously unrecorded Wright-Forrest songs for the Original Cast Records album A Bag of Popcorn and a Dream, I pestered Bob: "Tell me about when you ghost-wrote for Cole Porter at MGM. How did you meet him?" Bob lit up: "Oh, the night we met Cole Porter. There's a story! It was at a party, and who should walk through the door but..." There followed a litany of superstar party guests, whom they arrived with, and whom they left with. "Ethel Merman was in town, and she got up and sang." (In those days, entertainers entertained each other.) Over the next hour, Bob touched on 50 celebrity attendees, whether their careers were waxing or waning, and Bob and Chet's subsequent encounters with them over the years. His tale never wound back to Cole Porter, but I felt as if I had attended a terrific Hollywood party with just about everyone else I ever wanted to know.
One day, Louis B. Mayer summoned "the boys" to his office. (Wright and Forrest had fudged their ages in order to be hired in their late teens). "We signed this girl," Mayer told them. "Get up here and Iisten to her. See if you can come up with anything for her to do." Bob and Chet sat in awe as a pre-adolescent girl delivered a rafter-shaking rendition of her audition song, "Zing! Went The Strings Of My Heart." After they had offered their compliments to her, Mayer issued his own commentary: "What the f--- am I supposed to do with this f---ing FAT little girl? She's f---ing ugly and f---ing FAT and sings like a f---ing WOMAN!" Bob and Chet froze as the future Judy Garland stood motionless, a single tear springing from her eye and making its way down her cheek. Lifelong gentlemen, they stood up and told Mayer that they refused to be party to the abuse of this young lady. Then they exited.
"We just walked out on L.B. Mayer," they informed their apoplectic agent. It certainly seemed that their MGM career had come to an abrupt, premature conclusion -- but when their train reached New York, the agent called. "Mayer wants you back immediately," he told them. "Impossible," replied the boys. (At this point in the story, Bob's giggle would kick in). The agent explained, "Mayer just found out that you wrote his favorite song, 'The Donkey Serenade,' so he wants you back. He's very sentimental!" (Bob would explode with laughter on that line, each of the 50 times I got him to tell me the story.) Bob and Chet wrote a song that the teenage Garland would sing at parties all over Hollywood -- the haunting ballad "All At Sea." Many years later, Judy recorded "Sweet Danger" from their underrated Broadway musical Kean.
According to Bob, Oscar Hammerstein told him and Chet that their Song Of Norway helped persuade him to go ahead with Carousel because the Wright-Forrest show had been a hit even though it included the death of a major character. If Bob was feeling mischievous, he'd describe the great Alfred Drake's antics back stage during Kismet and Kean. He was generally very discreet but, when prodded, he would sometimes let slip a fascinating story about the pecadilloes of some film or stage celebrity.
Shortly after Chet died in 1999, Bob came to hear me play at Judy's (now Helen's) and I dedicated to Chet a rendition of their Oscar-nominated song "It's A Blue World (Without You)." Last week, it got bluer. I've had some great showbiz encounters in my day but I'll always treasure the hours I spent in Bob's living room, sitting under a sepia-toned photo portrait of a ridiculously handsome, incredibly young man while the subject of the photo -- still looking fine in his eighties -- listened to me play through some of his more obscure songs and the scores of his shows that were still in the hopper. Just call me a stranger in paradise.