Reading a 54-Year Old Book
Filichia looks at a theater book written in a time when Wilder was risqué, Rodgers was nice, and Olivier was young.
Still snowed in, so it was a good time to read one of those unread tomes I've bought in second-hand bookstores. Should it be Meredith Willson's Eggs I Have Laid? Harold Clurman's The Fervent Years? Robert Brustein's Revolution as Theatre? Jack Gaver's Curtain Call?
That's the one I chose to read. Gaver, the United Press drama critic from the '30s to the '70s, wrote this book in 1949. It was his look at Broadway as it approached the mid-20th century mark. Suddenly, that's a very long time ago. I knew I was reading an old book when I ran into those distinguished-sounding theatrical names like Bretaigne Windust, Harry Wagstaff Gribble, and Pembroke Davenport. Better evidence still was when I came across Gaver's line, "Laurence Olivier is currently the number one younger actor."
Yeah, time's gone by. Gaver reacted strongly to the first use of the words "ass" and "shit" on Broadway. And who wrote them? Would you have guessed Thornton (Our Town) Wilder, in his adaptation of Jean Paul Sartre's The Victors? "There was never any censorship action by anyone," wrote Gaver, "but most of the critics made a point in their reviews of expressing some surprise." If that's not enough to show the nation had a different sensibility, Gaver wrote of A Streetcar Named Desire, "Some people actually have said that the play made them feel dirty and/or ill." About Frank Loesser's "Baby, It's Cold Outside," Gaver reported, "The radio networks looked askance as it for a time, wondering if it were not a bit too risqué for their listeners." (Forty years later, the creators of the awfully-square Oil City Symphony blithely chose it for their all-too-provincial concert.) On a more benign note, Gaver wrote, "There seems to be a conspiracy in recent years to remove those wire holders for men's hats from under the seats." Wow! I didn't know that seats ever had these! But I'm not surprised they're gone. Does anyone still wear a hat?
What's fascinating is seeing how many of Gaver's opinions still hold water. "All My Sons is as unworthy a play to ever win a prize," he wrote. (But it still gets plenty of productions, doesn't it?) "Arthur Miller isn't as homely as Lincoln, nor as handsome as Gregory Peck." (Perhaps, Jack, but he eventually got Marilyn Monroe, and you didn't.) Life with Father, he said, "is certain of a revival one of these years" -- but that hasn't turned out to be true. Most Broadway savants think it may never return, and not just because it has a 16-member cast. As Anna Crouse, widow of co-author Russel Crouse once said to me, the play's concept of a martinet father tyrannizing a large brood is no longer one to which contemporary audiences can relate. Interesting, too, that Gaver reported that Oscar Serlin, the play's producer, "anticipates a musical version." But that never happened, either. Still, Gaver was prescient when he wrote of Gypsy Rose Lee's relocating to Manhattan, "This town will provide her with much new material. When it is over, she might write another book or a play or a musical comedy based on her experiences." In fact, as Walter Kerr would report a decade later, "The best damn musical I've seen in years."
Angels in the Wings, he wrote, "was the show that gave the world that insidious 'Bongo, Bongo, Bongo, I don't want to leave the Congo' song." Little did we know that it would appear on Broadway just last season, sung once again by the same performer who did it then, and one whom Gaver doesn't mention: Elaine Stritch. And while Gaver said how much he liked Lend and Ear -- and listed eight performers he particularly admired -- he matter-of-factly placed Carol Channing, whom I've always heard skyrocketed to stardom in it, seventh, and never referred to her again. (Guess he didn't think she was going to amount to anything.) When discussing Where's Charley?, Gaver stated, "In the audience, a child piped up when Bolger was singing the engaging song, 'Once in Love with Amy.'" In fact, according to the show's co-producer Cy Feuer, the child was his son Bobby Feuer, who'd heard the song so many times around the house that he had already memorized it and just joined in. (You can read the whole story in Cy Feuer's upcoming memoir, I Got the Show Right Here.)
Gaver told us that back then, the city's building code didn't allow offices above a stage -- so there couldn't be a new theater built that way. But less than 20 years later, the law was repealed, paving the way for the Minskoff, Marquis, and Gershwin. (Given the way those houses turned out, some would say this change was not a good thing.) But how amusing to see the reason why the code was still in place back then: Louis Lotito of City Investing Company said, "Desirable big tenants do not relish a show business atmosphere."
Several items are no longer true, ranging from "The Theatre Guild is second only to the Shubert empire in overall influence" to "The Bucks County Playhouse, one of the country's leading summer stock theaters." Those I knew. But I enjoyed coming across things I didn't know. Such as, the night that Robert Morley opened as Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner, his son was born -- so he named him Sheridan. Or that Elia Kazan's contribution to A Streetcar Named Desire was thought to be so significant that he was given 20% of the profits. And while I knew that six seasons before South Pacific opened there was a non-musical with the exact same title, I didn't know that that play's plot involved a white captain and black seaman on a Japanese-controlled island. (About that musical: Gaver wrote that Leland Hayward and Joshua Logan wanted "Fo' Dolla" as the main South Pacific plot, but "it became secondary," he said, approving of that choice. "Had it been dominant, no matter what was done to it, it would have just been another version of Madama Butterfly." Well, in 1991, there was a 'another version of Madama Butterfly,' and it wound up running more than twice as long as South Pacific.)
Then there are the things that seemed impressive back then. Gaver reported with astonishment, "Mayra Waite of Winnetka, Illinois saw Life with Father 39 times." Every Jekkie and Pimpie out there must be sneering in derision. Of Show Boat, he says, "There was a show! Hammerstein and Rodgers won't equal it if they work together 50 more years -- nor is anyone likely to." I won't submit the names of the musicals that have been said to have eclipsed Show Boat's accomplishments, for I'm sure you can furnish a few of your own. And what do we think today of Gaver's insistence that "Richard Rodgers is one of the nicest men in show business"?
Certainly I learned how nice New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson was. It seems that he so wanted Anne of a Thousand Days to succeed that he actually paid to have his quotations put in the daily ABC ad when the production couldn't afford it. Gaver also noted that Atkinson's first name was actually Justin, which made me think about David Merrick's famous Subways Are for Sleeping ruse. He used to say that the reason he didn't make up that fake ad with seven bogus critics' quotations long before Subways opened in 1961 was that he could never find someone named Brooks Atkinson to stand in for the Times critic. If Atkinson at the beginning of his career had opted to use his real first name, would Merrick have been able to find a Justin Atkinson years before Subways?
Fascinating that though Gaver was writing in 1949, he didn't even mention television until page 91, and then only in passing. It wasn't until the book's final pages that Gaver truly tackled the issue: "The season of 1948-49 was one in which television ceased to become a barroom phenomenon in a few eastern cities and began invading homes." But Gaver wasn't worried: "One advantage the stage has always held over the movies and radio has been its ability to be more forthright and daring in the matter of subject and treatment, giving writers a scope they cannot achieve in working for the screen." Yeah, well, now you can see an episode of Sex and the City where the four friends are discussing how to get out those stubborn brown stains from men's underwear. Mrs. Day sure didn't have that problem with her husband's boxer shorts in Life with Father.