Around The Town

On This Day In New York Theater: July 15 in the 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1940’s

By: Samuel L. Leiter

(No. 10 in the series)

July 15, 2020: Before we move to July 15, the next day in our rambles through the sluggish summertime offerings of the twenties, thirties, and forties, note should be made that the heat must have affected my reflections my last time out, when I reported on shows that opened on July 6. I refer to my having omitted a 1920 musical offering, Buzzin’ Around. I knew of it but it must have melted from my notes before I began to write. Alan Gomberg, however, who manages the Vintage New York Theatre Facebook page, added some comments about it there for those who might wish to give it a buzz.

By: Samuel L. Leiter

(No. 10 in the series)

July 15, 2020: Before we move to July 15, the next day in our rambles through the sluggish summertime offerings of the twenties, thirties, and forties, note should be made that the heat must have affected my reflections my last time out, when I reported on shows that opened on July 6. I refer to my having omitted a 1920 musical offering, Buzzin’ Around. I knew of it but it must have melted from my notes before I began to write. Alan Gomberg, however, who manages the Vintage New York Theatre Facebook page, added some comments about it there for those who might wish to give it a buzz.

So few shows opened on July 15, the most prolific mid-July theater day of our three decades, that I’ll squeeze mention of them all in here, very briefly for some, more fully for others. Much of it is dross, but a few worthwhile nuggets are present. There were four July 15 shows in the twenties, Silks and Satins, All-Star Idlers of 1921, Kosher Kitty Kelly, and Broadway Nights; one in the thirties, The Mikado; and three in the forties, Maid in the Ozarks, Rip van Winkle, and Miss Liberty. Only two or three have any interest now.

Silks and Satins (George M. Cohan Theatre, 60), a humdrum revue, included William Demarest (remember him from TV’s “My Three Sons”?), who was still a vaudeville comic at the time. He got the most laughs, said the Times, “partly because an audience likes to see a man fall as if it must hurt him.” The star, though, was comic dancer William Rock, who specialized at playing an old codger leeringly rejuvenated by nubile attentions. The lineup of now forgotten performers included Aileen Stanley showing off her jazz singing chops with “My Little Bimbo Down on the Bamboo Isle.”

Silks and Satins

Silks and Satins made it through 60 showings; All-Star Idlers of 1921, at the Shubert, survived for just one. It was a mélange of disconnected and poorly integrated bits and pieces that didn’t end until 3:30 in the a.m. Around 30 Lambs’ Club members were laid idle by this disaster, among them Ed Wynn. Their humor came from themes of Prohibition, blue laws, and, ironically, theatrical unemployment. “It was a combination of burlesque without tights, minstrels without bones and review without a small fortune being spent,” scoffed the Times.

The most memorable thing about Kosher Kitty Kelly (Times Square Theatre, 105), a musical with book, music, and lyrics by Leon De Costa, was its title. Otherwise, it was a middling attempt to write a dialect musical in the Jewish-Irish romantic vein of Abie’s Irish Rose. It ran through the summer, closed briefly, and then had a two-month return engagement. A 1926 silent film version (produced by Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr.) exists, with one reel missing. 

Kosher Kitty Kelly

Kosher Kitty Kelly tells of the love affair of Morris Rosen (Basil Loughrane) with the eponymous heroine (Helen Shipman), during the working out of whose relationship it transpires that Kitty’s mother (Dorothy Walters) was married to a man who previously had been the husband of a Mrs. Feinbaum (Jennie Moscowitz). In the end, Mrs. Feinbaum’s daughter, Rosie (Beatrice Allen), winds up with Morris, and one Patrick O’Reilly (Fred Santley) pairs off with Kitty. Percy Hammond reported that “it proved to be a merciless and incompetent bore.” 

Yet another revue ends our peregrinations through the twenties, a diversion called Broadway Nights (Forty-fourth Street Theatre, 40) featuring Dr. Rockwell, the comic quack, whose son was George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party. (Read all about it here!) Others on board included songstress Odette Myrtil, the Chester Hall Girls, the Allan K. Foster Girls, and various denizens of the burlesque and vaudeville stages. 

Dr. Rockwell

The only July 15 show of the thirties was one of the decade’s eight (count ‘em) revivals of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. Two of those were jazzed-up modern versions, The Swing Mikado and The Hot Mikado, both of 1939, but our sample was a standard version offered by the Civic Light Opera Company (Adelphi Theatre, 8), with a cast made up of many already familiar locally for their regular services to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. 

William Danforth was the Mikado, Howard Marsh was Nanki-Poo, Frank Moulan repeated his well-known Ko-Ko, Bertram Peacock acted Pish-Tush, and so on. Moulan was chastised for slipping in contemporary references, with rhymes about stock brokers, radio announces, soapbox radicals, golf scores, and the like. On August 19, another eight performance run commenced.

July 15, 1942, saw the low-priced revival of another iconic operetta, Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow (Carnegie Hall, 29), the first time since 1931 this now standard 1905 Viennese confection was produced. George Freedley said the hastily produced show was “slapdash,” and he complained about faulty arrangements that incorporated “jazz, swing, and even the samba, or something vaguely resembling it.” 

Helen Gleason in the title role was encored for her “Vilia,” but her dancing deficiencies meant a diminution of the famous “Merry Widow Waltz.” As Baron Popoff, comedian Eddie Garr improvised considerably, adding lines like “My momma done tol’ me” and “That’s all, brother!.”  Nathan grumbled that the effect was “akin to placing one’s nose on a window and then whimsically slamming down the window.”

The first July 15 non-musical show of our era was Maid in the Ozarks (Belasco Theatre, 103), Claire Parrish’s 1946 satire on hillbilly radio shows and backwoods plays like Tobacco Road that raised hackles because of its allegedly pornographic contents. Originally called Blue Mountain, it had made a lot of money during lengthy Los Angeles and Chicago engagements. After five years of traveling profitably through the hinterlands, it arrived on Broadway, where producer Jules Pfeiffer predicted it would be “the worst play that has ever hit Broadway.” A colorful article on the show’s history can be found here.

Despite its come-on advertising showing a striptease, the play was soporific. The striptease itself was mild, the performer never taking off more than a trifle. The jokes were inspired by things such as the human anatomy, plumbing (or what passes for it in the Ozarks), bedbugs, body odor, bodily functions, dirty feet, and the uses to which mail-order catalogues are put in the backwoods. William Hawkins described the show as “crude, distasteful, amateurish and boring.”

Maid In the Ozarks

Maid in the Ozarks, packed with eccentric rustic types, is set in the Arkansas mountains, in the primitive kitchen of the Calhouns. There are two sisters, Lydia (Johnee Williams) and Frances Tolliver (Gloria Humphrey), waitresses from Hot Springs. A moonshine maker named Temple Calhoun (Jon Dawson) falls in love with Lydia—a former bigamist—and returns to his country home with her and her sister. Lydia, needing money, agrees to pose nude for a local artist, but her reward is to be tarred and feathered by the disapproving neighboring women. She runs off with the artist, and Temple marries Frances, although he’s wavered throughout regarding which sister he really wants. 

On July 15, 1947, the New York City Center Company commenced a two-week revival of Herbert Berghof’s new adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s once enormously popular version of Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle. It had been a meal ticket for 19th-century actor Joseph Jefferson III, but no banquets followed this sorry attempt. Rip, who falls asleep for 20 years in the Catskill Mountains and awakes to find surprising changes among his family and friends, was played by Philip Bourneuf.

RVW seemed “languid, arch and maudlin—compounded of the absurd hokum of The Black Crook and the stage melodramas that are tolerable only in burlesque now,” thought Brooks Atkinson. The company had planned to follow up with a revival of Shaw’s Arms and the Man, but Rip Van Winkle put that notion to sleep for good.

Surprisingly, given the examples we’ve seen, our last July 15 show, in 1949, was a minor hit called Miss Liberty (Imperial, 308). This largescale offering had a team of major creatives. It had a book by Robert E. Sherwood, music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, direction by Moss Hart, and choreography by Jerome Robbins. 

Miss Liberty

It was a promising undertaking that didn’t fulfill its promises, although a large advance sale allowed it to run all season. The first promise it broke was that of opening on July 4, which circumstances pushed forward almost two weeks. Despite a lineup of tremendous talent, on and offstage, Miss Liberty’s flame—much revised during its month-long Philadelphia tryout—flickered more than it flared. Even Irving Berlin could produce little of lasting popularity, apart from “Let’s Take an Old-Fashioned Walk,” sung here by its original performers, Eddie Albert and Allyn McLerie.

The subject concerned romantic developments in the 1880s stemming from events encircling the erection of the Frédéric August Bartholdi-designed Statue of Liberty, given as a gift by France to America. When young photographer Horace Miller (Albert) takes the wrong pictures at a ceremony honoring publisher Joseph Pulitzer’s (Joseph Bourneuf) donation to pay for the statue’s base, he loses his job. Pulitzer, meanwhile, is in a fierce circulation war with rival publisher James Gordon Bennett (Charles Dingle). At the behest of his Police Gazette reporter-girlfriend Maisie Dell (Mary McCarty), who feels that he can get his job back thusly, Horace goes to France to seek out the model used by Bartholdi (Herbert Berghof). 

Meeting Monique DuPont (McLerie), he mistakenly assumes that she’s the model and arranges to return to the United States with her. Unbeknown to the faithful Maisie back home, Horace is falling in love with Monique.  Maisie talks Bennett into sponsoring an American tour for Monique, but when the girl arrives, she learns for the first time that she’s the victim of mistaken identity. She achieves national popularity, despite the deception. The truth emerges, however, and Bennett has Horace thrown in jail for fraud. Pulitzer bails him out and hires him. Horace chooses Monique over Maisie. The statue is dedicated and the words of Emma Lazarus’s poem, “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor,” set to music, conclude the saga.

The opulently designed show seemed disappointingly old-hat, formulaic, pedestrian, and unoriginal. Its lack of comedy was especially deplorable. Howard Barnes called the libretto “aimless and witless.” According to an unnamed reviewer, “Sherwood’s book is pint-heavy and barren of humor; Berlin’s score is embarrassingly reminiscent; the principals are only so-so.” “It looks as if Mr. Sherwood, a thoughtful man, set out to write a musical comedy with a purpose,” suggested John Beaufort. “The purpose was apparently abandoned in Philadelphia.”

Among the finer tunes were the comical “Homework,” sung by McCarty, and the amusingly cynical blow at tourists, “Only for Americans,” sung by an under-the-bridge Parisian madwoman called the Countess (Monique’s mother), played by Ethel Griffies, who practically stole the show. Jerome Robbins’s choreography, as often, was memorable, including his Parisian masquerade and a hilarious “Follow the Leader” jig at a policeman’s ball. Dancer Tommy Rail was outstanding. One of the chorus girls was future comic actress Dolores (Dody) Goodman. Also in the company were Maria Karnilova and Gloria Patrice.

According to Laurence Bergreen’s As Thousands Cheer, the idea for the show had come from Sherwood, who had wanted the story to be about Pulitzer’s campaign to raise funds for the statue’s assembling after it was delivered to America and lay in pieces on the dock. The tale was to be expanded by the story of Bennett’s sending a reporter to Paris and bringing back the model, a prostitute, who is lionized as a symbol of liberty. Berlin’s own research disclosed that the model was actually the sculptor’s mother, which forced Sherwood to rethink his approach.

Sherwood and Berlin, wanting no suggestions from outsiders, produced the show themselves, but they weren’t able to develop a fruitful collaborative relationship. This hindered their ability to create a truly integrated show in the highly reputed Rodgers and Hammerstein vein. Sherwood, who infrequently attended rehearsals, was reluctant until quite late in the process to allow anyone to tamper with his bookish script. At one point, director Hart threatened to quit unless changes were made.

Berlin’s ego got in the way, and he was sure his songs would all be hits, especially the one with Lazarus’s words, heard here with McLerie from the cast album. When he beamingly played the song for composer Gordon Jenkins and bragged about being the first to write a song to those famous verses, Jenkins told him that he himself had composed and recorded such a song several years earlier. This so infuriated Berlin that he screamed profanities at Jenkins and told him to “Get the fuck out.” The song remained in, and Berlin was so convinced of its ultimate success he planned to create a foundation that would shunt all the song’s profits to charity. One of the most promising songs, the jazzy “Mr. Monotony,” was cut at the suggestion of Rodgers and Hammerstein. When none of the songs became big hits, Berlin, reportedly was crushed.