Special Reports

Behind the Curtain of Broadway: The Golden Age: One Man’s Mission to Document Broadway’s Fading Legacy

Filmmaker Rick McKay has taken it upon himself to archive Broadway history with his documentary trilogy, featuring interviews with over 300 Broadway legends.

Producer Richard Eric Weigle and filmmaker Rick McKay
Producer Richard Eric Weigle and filmmaker Rick McKay
(© David Gordon)

Thirteen years ago, Richard Eric Weigle was working at the Museum of Television and Radio (now the Paley Center) when a PBS filmmaker named Rick McKay came in digging for archival footage. He was searching for clips to include in his new independent documentary Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There, which would feature testimonials from some of Broadway’s oldest living legends to capture a largely undocumented era in Broadway history. He began working on it two years prior and had just completed a 30-minute chapter that he planned to screen for a group of potential investors at his Upper West Side apartment. A woman named Jane Klain, who worked with Weigle at the museum, had already gotten involved with the project and decided to introduce him to McKay, thinking he might like to screen it, as well. McKay extended an invitation to the screening to both Weigle and his partner, Michael Anastasio, and they happily accepted.

A <i>King Kong</i> poster hangs on McKay's living room wall, a tribute to his dear friend Fay Wray.
A King Kong poster hangs on McKay’s living room wall, a tribute to his dear friend Fay Wray.
(© David Gordon)

“It was magical from the first moment we walked in,” Weigle recounted. As he and Anastasio entered the modest apartment, they were introduced to a vaguely familiar, elegant older woman named Fay. It wasn’t until seeing the King Kong poster on the back wall of the apartment that they realized they had just met the legendary film star Fay Wray. After wiping the stars from their eyes, all of the guests gathered in the living room to watch the segment that McKay had promised to screen. It featured a revolving door of Broadway icons like Carol Channing, Frank Langella, Gwen Verdon, and dozens more, who spoke wistfully about the excitement they felt coming to New York City to embark upon what we now know were bound to be monumental careers. “We were all just smitten,” Weigle said.

Producing — “I won’t make one cent on this.”
When Broadway: The Golden Age enjoyed its official premiere in June 2004, after garnering a number of awards at various film festivals throughout the country, Weigle was one of the film’s associate producers. He is now a full producer (and has brought on Anastasio as an associate producer) for the next two installments of McKay’s intended Broadway trilogy — Broadway: Beyond the Golden Age (which is aiming for a 2014 release) followed by Broadway: The Next Generation — which will continue moving forward through the Broadway timeline. Beyond his financial support, Weigle has become one of McKay’s most active producers and closest allies, doing everything from the grunt work of seeking out donors and managing the film’s website, to the footwork of tracking down stars for McKay to interview.

“So many people ask me, ‘What are you getting out of it?'” Weigle said laughingly. “I’m a full producer and I won’t make one cent on this,” he said bluntly. “You don’t make money on a not-for-profit project.” While from his perspective, the question seems silly, it is difficult for many people to understand why he devotes so much time and energy to a project that offers no tangible payoff.

The walls of McKay's apartment are decorated with film and Broadway memorabilia.
The walls of McKay’s apartment are decorated with film and Broadway memorabilia.
(© David Gordon)

His reasons, however, become clear within minutes of meeting McKay and taking a walk through his apartment-turned-film studio, witnessing how he single-handedly excavates and restores the pieces of a lost Broadway history. “It’s a one-man show,” Weigle said, a tinge of awe still in his voice. “It’s almost unheard of.”

“I’m glad I didn’t know what I was getting into,” said McKay as he detailed the film’s history while offering a tour of the space. As a crew of one — writing, shooting, directing, and editing the film, all himself (with occasional help from interns who will transcribe his footage) — McKay has designed his home to accommodate nearly every stage of the filmmaking process. The walls, decorated with Broadway memorabilia, disguise cabinets that house his video equipment, while a black curtain (onto which he sewed the rings himself) can be pulled to surround his entire living room, transforming it into the space where he conducts a large portion of the interviews seen in the film. “Some people are taken aback,” Weigle admitted. He still remembers Alec Baldwin’s reaction when he arrived at McKay’s apartment for his first interview. “He walks in, looks around, sees two cats…You could tell he wanted to say to his assistant: ‘I’m going to kill you.'”

McKay has even converted half of his bedroom into an editing office, with a wall of shelves serving as both a divider and storage space for the stacks and stacks of tapes that hold over 600 hours of interviews with over 300 Broadway stars — the largest collection in history — which he expects to turn into over 1,000 hours by the time the trilogy is completed.

In addition to piecing together interviews, the film also requires digging up rare footage that will flesh out the history McKay is trying to document. A great deal of this footage comes from fans, and even his interviewees, but there’s still the cost of video and music-licensing fees (for the first film this came to a staggering $250,000, much of which McKay had to pay out of his own pocket). Still, McKay refuses to lay out a strict budget for the films, adamant that finances will not restrict their historical scope. He simply says, “I’ll find a way.”

The video tapes on which McKay's interviews are stored.
The video tapes on which McKay’s interviews are stored.
(© David Gordon)

And a “way” he certainly finds, including taking on additional side projects like the Emmy Award-winning documentary Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, selling his personal Broadway memorabilia, recording his own rendition of “Give My Regards to Broadway” in order to circumvent the licensing expenses, or finding committed donors like Executive Producer Anne L. Bernstein, whom McKay credits with singularly contributing the “lion’s share of the funding.”

Though the trilogy’s current magnitude may suggest otherwise, this was not a project that McKay actively sought out for himself. It found him, rather, at the home of Broadway legend June Havoc over Fourth of July weekend back in 1998.

Directing — “This is the story.”
A native of Beech Grove, Indiana, McKay grew up idolizing classic movie musicals. He began his career as a singer, later becoming a writer — interviewing classic film stars like Lawrence Tierney and David Manners — before landing on his third career as a producer for the City Arts series at Channel 13. He was in the middle of shooting a proposed documentary about June Havoc (the real-life “Baby June” of Gypsy fame) when Havoc’s assistant approached McKay with an idea for another piece: “She introduced me to [this girl] who was painting a mural of one hundred legends of Broadway in Times Square,” he recounted. “She thought it would be a great segment.”

However, after spending a year shooting and editing the piece, PBS rejected the pitch and McKay sought the advice of a friend who had edited one of his earlier PBS films. After watching the segment, she commented, “The artist isn’t what’s interesting — what’s interesting is the people in the mural. Get some of them to talk.”

“Once I did,” he said, “I started thinking, this is the story.” Fifteen minutes quickly became 30, which then became a feature film, which then exploded into the Broadway trilogy that still consumes his life 15 years later.

As he builds his films, it all begins with the interviews: “I do my homework,” he said. “I have guidelines that I want to follow but then I just let people talk about what they’re passionate about. All of the questions are set in advance, but then sometimes I throw them to the wind because we’ll start going in a different direction.” Bea Arthur only begrudgingly agreed to an interview after McKay cornered her at an opening in New York City. By the end of the interview, however, she was impressed enough to hand over her entire address book, sending McKay off with the home phone numbers of Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, and Shirley MacLaine. Stephen Sondheim, who had originally volunteered only a half hour of his time, ended up chatting with McKay for over two hours, while Liza Minnelli, who also promised only 30 minutes, stayed in McKay’s makeshift living-room studio for over four hours.

Though this approach is what has allowed him to collect an astounding archive of interviews, the incredible amount of content he is left to mold into a coherent, uncluttered story leaves him with a project that is far more daunting than an average documentary, which would typically structure its filming around a predetermined arc (and usually has the luxury of a larger team). “About two years into it I started thinking, I’m in trouble. I have all this great stuff, but what is the film?”

The editing process
The editing process
(© David Gordon)

Editing — “That’s when I knew I was right.”
While conducting interviews for the first film, the names that would repeatedly come up in conversation were not those he had anticipated. For McKay, allowing these stories to guide the direction of the film has been the key to unlocking this slice of history. “I found it started shaping itself,” he said. “I was thinking, You have to do the Rodgers and Hammerstein section, and the Ethel Merman section… [But] it ended up, instead of Rodgers and Hammerstein, it was Kim Stanley. Instead of Merman, it was Laurette Taylor [who inspired an entire generation of artists with her performance as the original Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie] — people that I didn’t even know as much about as I should have.”

As these themes began to emerge, his interviews became like remote dinner parties, where he would consciously build discussions, and occasionally feuds, between stars. “I’m able to put them at the same table together having an argument,” he explained. At the premiere of the first film, he even recalls Elaine Stritch yelling to Tommy Tune, “I’ve got a bone to pick with you about what you said in the film!” to which Tune passionately replied, “Good, because I’m not done with you either, Elaine!

“They wanted to finish the argument I started for them,” McKay remembered fondly. “That’s when I knew I was right” — and the stars themselves seem to agree.

Audience Reactions — “It’s all about the love of the theater.”
“It’s so fabulous knowing that someone really cares,” said two-time Tony winner and living musical-theater legend Chita Rivera, nearly bursting with gratitude during her interview with McKay. “So many times you have that person who cares but they’re not allowed to do what [he’s] doing.”

Tony Award winner and American Theatre Hall of Famer Marian Seldes could hardly hold back tears during her interview with McKay: “The first film you finished seemed to just validate all of us,” she said. “It’s all about the love of the theater. I think you bring people back to life through this film.”

And two-time Tony nominee and TV actress Charlotte Rae told TheaterMania: “I can’t tell you how grateful I am. It’s a time in history that should not be forgotten. He’s captured these marvelous things on Broadway so that they won’t fade away into dust. They’ll be here for generations to come.”

McKay and his small team of producers took on this enormous responsibility precisely for artists like Rivera and Seldes and Rae — artists who paid their dues in the Broadway community all those years ago and have earned a legacy that matches their contribution: “You are that last chance that what they did in their life might end up in something that lives beyond that night,” McKay said. “You can’t not finish it…If not you, who?”

To contribute to Broadway: Beyond the Golden Age, the second installment of Rick McKay’s Broadway trilogy, click here.