TheaterMania Logo
Theater News

What Jack Lawrence Would Like to Add

In a chat with the co-author of I Had a Ball, Filichia gets an earful about the abhorrent behavior of star Buddy Hackett. logo
Next week marks the 38th anniversary of the closing of I Had a Ball, the 1964 musical that lasted 199 performances at the Martin Beck. It's never seen a revival, and its cast album was long out of print until Decca Broadway re-released it last month.

Jack Lawrence, who co-wrote both the show's music and lyrics with partner Stan Freeman, provided the liner notes for the reissue. But there are some facts that don't show up in his essay, so I thought I'd give the 91-year-old composer-lyricist a call and see what I could learn. It'd be a treat to talk to the man who wrote music and/or lyrics for such artists as Bing Crosby ("Ciribiribin"), Frank Sinatra ("All or Nothing at All"), Ella Fitzgerald ("Tenderly"), Tony Bennett (the theme from the movie The Pawnbroker), Dinah Shore ("Sleepy Lagoon"), Rosemary Clooney ("Poor People of Paris"), and the Andrews Sisters ("Tuli-Tulip Time").

In his liner notes, Lawrence writes that he and Freeman had auditioned their new musical for producer Joe Kipness in hopes that he'd option it. "He was impressed," writes Lawrence, "but had a completely different idea for a show" -- one set in Coney Island, U.S.A., which would become I Had a Ball. But what was the show that Lawrence and Freeman originally brought to Kipness?

"It was called Arrivederci, Pittsburgh," Lawrence tells me. "The plot was similar to Arthur Laurents's The Time of the Cuckoo, except this lady went to Rome, not Venice, and wasn't a half-assed schoolteacher virgin. She was a female lawyer from Pennsylvania who had a boyfriend back home but wanted to have an affair while she was overseas." (Doesn't it sound as if Lawrence and Freeman were a couple of decades ahead of Michael Bennett, Treva Silverman, and Jimmy Webb, who had a similar plot for their aborted Scandals?)

Lawrence relates that Arrivederci's bookwriter was Julian Halevy, a name that was unfamiliar to me until I Googled and found that he'd been a blacklisted screenwriter who wrote under the name Julian Zimet for such movies as Circus World and Pancho Villa. According to Lawrence, the script of the musical "was based on a TV-play that Loretta Young had done" -- probably after its author had seen The Time of the Cuckoo.

As Lawrence writes in his notes, "Stan and I loved the idea of the (Coney Island) show and signed on," joining Jerome Chodorov, co-author of the hit play My Sister Eileen and its musical version, Wonderful Town. (The first song that Lawrence and Freeman wrote was the opening number, "Coney Island, U.S.A.") In his notes, Lawrence immediately refers to the show as I Had a Ball, and I ask him where that title came from. "Jerry already had the idea of Garside, who'd be running a fortune telling con game," he tells me. "Jerry envisioned that, in his room, he'd have a bust of Freud and phrenology charts everywhere. When he mentioned that Garside should even use a crystal ball, we suddenly had the name for the musical. Still, the title song was one of the last things we wrote. We'd already had the idea of having a belly dancer in the show, but we had nothing for her to do until we came up with the title song and we got her to do her thing in the middle of it."

While Lawrence isn't enthusiastic about star Buddy Hackett in his liner notes, he's far more frank about him when talking to me. "We were leery of Buddy Hackett from the moment Joe Kipness suggested him," he says with disgust. "He was just a stand-up comedian, and that type can't be trusted to do a show as written. We wanted Phil Silvers, but Joe wanted Hackett -- so much so that he agreed to every outrageous demand that Hackett made, including the most bizarre one: that he have no understudy."

According to Lawrence, Hackett had two other demands: No one else could be billed over the title, and no one else could have his picture on the poster. Says Lawrence, "We'd already signed Richard Kiley for the romantic lead, and he was pretty well established by then. We -- and he -- expected that he'd be over the title. Joe wasn't looking forward to telling Kiley he wouldn't be, so I said I'd help him break the bad news. We set up a late breakfast with Kiley, but before we went to see him, we went to a very nice men's shop and bought him a few scarves and gloves. The moment we walked in with packages, Kiley smiled and said, 'What's wrong?' And Joe looked at me and said, 'Tell him.' Well, you can imagine how I felt when he made me do it, but I did. And Kiley smiled and said, 'Don't worry. Let him have his way. I discovered years ago that it doesn't matter where your name is in the program. If you're good, they'll find you.'" (This does sound like a guy who'd be right for a show in which he'd call a down-and-out kitchen maid-slash-prostitute "Dulcinea.")

"We opened in Detroit and got raves there," Lawrence relates -- and while I can't quite verify what the Detroit newspapers said, for I saw none of them, I can certainly attest that Variety's critic did indeed rave about the show during that stop of its tryout. Perhaps that's why, as Lawrence writes in his liner notes, Hackett felt confident enough to shorten the Detroit tryout, cancel the Philadelphia booking, and head straight for Broadway. "We needed more work but he wouldn't listen," Lawrence says ruefully. "He was impossible. Onna [White, the choreographer] tried to give him a tap dance, but he was a klutz."

I always love to find out what songs were dropped along the way, and Lawrence offers some: "'Be a Phony' was a duet between Buddy and Kiley, but Hackett couldn't hack it. He didn't have much of a voice. That's also why 'True-Blue Pals,' also for Hackett and Kiley, didn't make it past rehearsals. We also had a song called 'Like Everybody Else,' a soliloquy that we wrote to get the character of Garside some sympathy from the audience. Hackett couldn't make it work."

Karen Morrow did not have a ball with
co-star Buddy Hackett
What Hackett could do was improvise -- to everyone's consternation. "I always knew he'd eventually do that," Lawrence snarls. "I'll never forget what happened to Karen [Morrow] when she did her first big number, 'I Got Everything I Want.' She did it in-one, with Hackett sitting behind her on a couch. It didn't take long before he started making faces and playing with his zipper. She didn't know why the audience was laughing because she was standing in front of him, but once she found out, she came to me and cried, saying how terribly unprofessional Hackett was. I told her to move in back of the couch and do the number there. That way he wouldn't be able to sabotage her."

In the liner notes, Lawrence observes that Hackett always complained that he was working too hard; so, when Kipness closed the show for one week to give him a rest, Hackett went to the Fontainbleu in Miami and did his act there. (So much for feeling overworked!) But the most amazing story Lawrence has to tell involves the Tony Awards. Apparently, Hackett was incensed that the show managed to get only one Tony nomination -- for Luba Lisa in a supporting role. "So each night after the curtain calls," he relates, "Buddy insisted on attacking 'these New York critics who have taste up their asses.' The audience loved hearing stuff like that and, little by little, he started doing his nightclub act. The cast had to wait on stage until he was finished. That was bad, but the worst thing of all is what happened the night the nominations came out. He called everyone on stage and said -- while Luba Lisa was still there -- 'The only one they picked was the girl with the least talent in the whole show.'"

Lawrence concludes his liner notes by saying that he's "just completed his memoirs entitled Bing, Frank, Ella, Tony, Dinah, Rosie, Maxene, Patty & LaVerne -- They All Sang My Songs." So did Buddy Hackett, but I guess none of us is now surprised that he's not included in the title.


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

Tagged in this Story