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The First Disappointment

Filichia tells what happened in 1962 when the curtain rose -- or rather, didn't rise -- on Carnival. logo
So, my buddy Josh Ellis asked me the question that his buddy Bert Fink had asked him, which Bert's boss Ted Chapin had asked of him: What was the first theatrical experience you saw that was actually a disappointment? Which was the show that made you say, "Oh, no! They aren't all wonderful!" I'd like to hear what yours was -- though I'd be just as happy if you told me that you haven't yet experienced any theatrical disappointments. But, yeah, I guess that's much too much to ask.

Anyway, if you tell me yours, I'll tell you mine. The experience is an indelible one. It happened on April 18, 1962 and it followed the seven extraordinary experiences I had with My Fair Lady on Broadway; Kiss Me, Kate in summer stock; Bye, Bye Birdie, Fiorello!, Irma La Douce, and The Music Man in national touring companies; and the pre-Broadway tryout of I Can Get It for You Wholesale.

I was 15 and living in a Boston suburb. After each show, I would tell my 14-year-old cousin Bobby about this wonderful new art form I'd discovered. I kept telling him how exciting it is when you go into this ornate place like the Colonial Theatre in Boston, where there was an enormous curtain with lush gold trimming at the bottom and three different levels of seats. After you've been sitting there a while, all of a sudden, the lights begin to dim, except in the orchestra pit right in front of the stage, where real musicians begin this wonderful piece of music called the overture, which includes the best songs in the show. "It's kind of like a medley," I told him, "except it sounds much more important than a medley."

Then, when that's over, everyone applauds and the beautiful curtain goes up. "It doesn't split apart in the middle like at school but actually flies way up high," I explained. "And you see all this wonderful scenery! London in My Fair Lady! A train in The Music Man! And the scenery doesn't end there. In Bye Bye Birdie, there was a scene where kids were singing while they were talking on telephones and -- look! I'll show you," I said, walking over and taking out my beloved Birdie cast album and opening its beautiful gate-fold jacket. Bobby was already impressed with the look of the album, and while the picture of the jungle-gym "Telephone Hour" set was small, he saw the possibilities.

I put the record on my phonograph to cinch the deal. Bobby loved the sound of it and thought "Hymn for a Sunday Evening" was even funnier than I did, so, yes, he was interested in seeing a musical. That's when I had to deliver the bad news: It was expensive. While movies in downtown Boston cost $1.80, tickets to a musical cost as much as $7.50 if you bought an orchestra seat on a Saturday night. "But," I wisely opined, experienced theatergoer that I was, "if you go to a Wednesday matinee and sit in the first balcony" -- which is what we called the mezzanine in those days -- "it only costs $4.20. And we can go on a Wednesday afternoon when we're off school for Easter vacation."

Bobby grimaced because $4.20 was then a fortune for teens who hadn't yet joined the workforce and had to rely on allowances. It was almost the cost of three movies in Boston or six at our suburban movie house. Still, I'd made it all sound so wonderful -- the lights dimming, the orchestra swelling up, the curtain rising, the glorious set -- he just had to say yes. So we looked in the paper and saw that the next show coming to town was the national touring company of Carnival. "Winner! New York Critics Circle Award!" boasted the ad. That sounded good.

"And look!" I said excitedly. "Susan Watson, the original Kim from Bye Bye Birdie, is going to be in it! And Gower Champion and Michael Stewart, who directed and wrote Bye Bye Birdie, directed and wrote this one, too! And also in it is Ed Ames of The Ames Brothers" -- a popular singing group in the '50s. Not that we particularly liked The Ames Brothers, mind you, but at least we felt we we'd be seeing someone famous.

The first day that the box office opened, I rushed in to buy the tickets. "What are your best seats in the first balcony?", I asked timidly, and was rewarded with seats in the very first row. Wow! But spending that $8.40 -- Bobby would pay me the next time I saw him -- wiped me out, so I wouldn't be able to buy the original cast album in advance. I shrugged. While I did know the scores of My Fair Lady and The Music Man inside out before I saw them, I didn't know the scores of the other five shows I'd seen. And I had loved all of them, hadn't I?

The big day came and I beamed with pride as Bobby oohed and aahhed over the lobby of the Colonial. We climbed the stairs, walked inside, and -- the curtain was up! What happened? Had they forgotten to bring it down? Oh, this was awful! And there was nothing on stage! Oh, there was some sort of -- what do they call it, backdrop? -- with some painted trees on it, but that's not what I called scenery. I was devastated -- and then, to make matters worse, a guy sauntered from what I now know to be stage right and s-l-o-w-l-y walked across the stage. "What's happening?" Bobby wanted to know, for the lights hadn't yet gone down. I had no answer for him. Maybe the guy was coming out to fix the curtain? But no. The lights were now dimming; the guy was an actor and the show had already begun. A few modest wagons came onto a stage that would hold no impressive scenery or big changes from one scene to the next for the whole afternoon.

Joanne Worley
Oh, there were some good songs. Bobby and I enjoyed a then-unknown (and now again unknown) Jo Anne Worley singing "Here's to the son-of-a-bee, tra-la!" and there was some showbiz excitement in "A Sword and a Rose and a Cape" -- but when we left the Colonial, we were far less excited than we were when we'd walked in. Of course, in a sense, I disappointed Carnival more than it disappointed me. Had I gone to a dozen or more musicals before I'd encountered it, I would have been ready for a show that didn't start with an overture and a curtain rising and all the other conventions that I was still enjoying during my musical theater honeymoon phase. But even though I now recognize the innovations that Gower Champion brought to Carnival, it will always be not only the first but also one of the biggest disappointments I've ever had in the theater. For if Bobby ever attended another musical, he never told me that he did.


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

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