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Where Do the Elephants Go?

Filichia talks about the 1973 musical revival that, for two baffling performances, had an elephant live onstage. logo
When I saw the very first preview of the revival of Good News at the Colonial Theatre on December 15, 1973, I was convinced the new version of this 1927 hit about college life was going to be a big hit all over again. First off, there was that terrific DeSylva-Brown-and-Henderson score, with such songs as "Good News," "Lucky in Love," "Just Imagine," "The Best Things in Life Are Free," and "The Varsity Drag." But it was buttressed with other of the trio's hits, including "Button Up Your Overcoat," "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries," "You're the Cream in My Coffee," and "Keep Your Sunny Side Up." All great songs.

Truth to tell, stars Alice Faye, John Payne, and Stubby Kaye, exhumed from the entertainment industry's mothballs, were uncomfortable in their roles as, respectively, an astronomy professor, a football coach, and an athletic trainer. But, oh, that young cast cutting up behind them! There was a winning Wayne Bryan as Bobby, the young man on whom Babe (a sensational Barbara Lail) set her sights -- though he was afraid of her old boyfriend, a linebacker (a delightfully dumb Joseph Burke) who was named Beef for a reason. Charming Scott Stevensen played Tom, the football hero who was happy that he was going to land rich girl Pat (deliciously performed by Jana Robbins) if Tait College won the big football game (which of course it did). And considering that this Good News Boston preview was the first-ever en route to a year-long road tour before it would settle into the St. James, there was ample time for Faye, Payne, and Kaye to get comfortable.

Good News played its year-long run on the road, came in to town, and ran all of two weeks at the St. James. How did it happen? When I went to Music Theatre of Wichita over the weekend, Wayne Bryan explained it all to me -- and his audience. For Bryan, who's been the artistic director of the theater for the past 15 years, always takes to the stage a half-hour before the performance to greet the crowd and give some background on the show they're about to see. With Good News, his current attraction, he sure had a great deal to say.

Bryan recalls that the show reached its apex when it played San Francisco in May 1974, partly because San Franciscans welcomed Faye and Payne who, after all, starred in the 1943 film Hello, Frisco, Hello. But it's a long, long time from May to December, and by the time Good News got to the St. James, it was limping. Director Abe Burrows and choreographer Donald Saddler were gone, and replacing them to do both jobs was Michael Kidd -- who, ironically enough, worked with Burrows on the original Guys and Dolls.

Good News stars Alice Faye and John Payne
in the 1943 film Hello, Frisco, Hello
But producer Harry Rigby -- who'd initiated the wildly successful No, No, Nanette revival and had produced the moderately successful Irene revival -- was still confident, because he had a good idea: Stubby Kaye would be given a through-line where he was supposed to find the Tait team mascot. Thus, he would first come in with a duck, then later a skunk, and then later still a llama, all of which would be rejected. But, at the very end of the show, the entire cast would run in, screaming with fear, "Mad elephant! Mad elephant!" not understanding that it had just come across the team's new pet. Then Kaye would triumphantly bring in the pachyderm and assuage everyone's fears before ending the show with a reprise of the show's title tune.

Bryan remembered Rigby saying with excitement, "Broadway hasn't seen a live elephant since 1935, when Jumbo opened! The audience is going to go crayyyyyy-zeee!" (By the way, I knew Rigby, and can tell you that Bryan did a wonderful imitation of his inimitable voice. You know how when someone quotes Carol Channing, he never uses his own voice, but imitates hers? Same thing always happens when anyone apes Harry Rigby's voice -- which, incidentally, sounded a bit like Carol Channing's.)

Of course, getting the animals wasn't easy, but luckily a woman who kept aforementioned creatures was found somewhere in the wilds of New Jersey. Bryan also remembered that she was named, appropriately enough, Bunny, and that she was six months pregnant. As time approached for the animals' first performance, Bunny brought them all to the theater, except the elephant, whom, she explained, had suddenly fallen ill. Still, the dialogue had been written and rehearsed, so it was put in, even though there wasn't yet an elephant on the premises to make the audience go "crayyyyyy-zeee!" The performers were going crayyyyyy-zeee, though, because, as Bryan remembered, "backstage was starting to smell like a carnival, and the llama just wouldn't stop spitting at us."

Stubby Kaye,
sans elephant
Some days later, the elephant was deemed fit for both travel and performance. But Kaye had had no time to work with him. The decision was reluctantly made to have Bunny bring on the elephant. But in what would she be costumed? "Oh," said Bunny blithely, "I used to be with Ringling Brothers, and I still have my outfit." With time a-wastin' and no money for a new costume in the well-over-budget production, everyone reluctantly agreed that that would have to do.

Matters were set back, though, when the elephant arrived and Bunny had to admit that on the trip in, the poor thing had suffered from diarrhea. Thus, Bunny had to spend much of the performance not preparing for her big entrance or getting into her costume, but cleaning off the other animals who had been tainted during the ride into the St. James. Finally, though, the big moment came when the chorus rushed in from off-stage, screaming for their lives, "Mad elephant! Mad elephant!" And then, Bryan remembered, from offstage, everyone heard, Thunk ... Thunk ... Thunk ... Thunk ... Thunk. Finally, out came Bunny in her Ringling suit, which wasn't zipped all the way up her back because she was so heavy with child. Still, Bunny pulled on the rope, and finally, Thunk ... Thunk ... Thunk ... Thunk ... Thunk ... the elephant lumbered on -- in chains, which didn't make it seem like such a "mad elephant." Indeed, its appearance was more sad than spontaneous.

Thunk ... Thunk ... Thunk ... Thunk ... Thunk. Finally, Bunny and the beast reached center stage. Bunny reached into a handbag that looked awfully 1974 for a show set in the '30s, found a peanut, and fed the treat to the elephant, who dutifully took it up the trunk. Once that was done, Thunk ... Thunk ... Thunk ... Thunk ... Thunk, until it was offstage. "And," said Bryan, "the audience didn't go 'crayyyyyy-zeee,' but just sat there in stunned silence -- the type of silence that's far more silent than silence."

After one more performance, Bunny and her charges were canned, and without them Good News finally opened at the St. James and met its 16-performance fate. There were a couple of stock productions after that, but then the show disappeared -- until the early '90s, when Bryan and director Mark Madama asked the DeSylva-Brown-and-Henderson heirs as well as Tams-Witmark, which controlled the stock and amateur rights, to let them take a crack at rewriting the book. All eventually consented, and that's the show I saw at Music Theatre of Wichita -- and the one on which I'll soon report.


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

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