By: Samuel L. Leiter
(No. 6 in the series)
June 13 in the twenties, thirties, and forties had its theatrical ups and downs, mostly downs, of course, like the vast majority of summertime shows during those decades. Looking at what opened in the days right before and afterward, however, does make the thirteenth look good by comparison, even if, of the mere eight shows that opened that day over the course of three decades, only one had the cachet of popularity.
Before we look at that single memorable June 13 enterprise, The Grand Street Follies (1922), let’s survey the more easily disposable products of the passing show (a phrase that reminds us of yet another popular revue series of the twenties). A couple do have at least a smidgen of continuing interest. One, in fact, The Whirl of New York (1921), was entertaining enough to accumulate 124 performances at the Winter Garden. The problem is that it was a revival of The Belle of New York,an outdated 1897 musical, an “expanded version” that was more revue than book musical.
The old plot situations were retained in attenuated form, mainly as an excuse for adding specialty numbers for vaudevillians like the Avon Comedy Four (later known simply as Smith and Dale, the likely inspiration for Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys), dancers Adelaide and Hughes, and various other acts. In what passed as a plot, German-dialect comic Louis Mann starred as Karl Von Pumpernick in a flimsy love story featuring a Salvation Army heroine (Lucille Shalfont). No one was terribly impressed.
Talk about Girls was a flimsy new book musical that opened at the Waldorf Theatre in 1927, its otherwise second-rate songs at least having the distinction of lyrics by the great Irving Caesar. It was based on a flop comedy of 1921, Like a King, which had 16 showings, one more than this dud.
The plot remained the same: failed small-town boy (Willard Mack) returns home in a borrowed Rolls-Royce and goes on to win fortune and romance. The music and lyrics were “indifferent enough, the scenery . . . routine,” and the singing poor: “sometimes in fact, it is sour,” added the Times. Even the real Rolls-Royce rolled on for effect couldn’t save this show from four flat tires.
The only other June 13 entry of the twenties was The Marriage Bed,a mildly effective comedy-drama by Ernest Pascal, directed by the respected Robert Milton at the Booth Theatre, where it eked out 72 performances. Richard Dana Skinner called it “a very creditable piece of dramatic work,” with its pro-marriage theme and a plot about a married man, George (Allan Rinehart), who falls for and philanders with a young woman (Helen Flint), and whose wife (Ann Davis) refuses him a divorce for what she takes as a passing fancy.
When she discovers that her own sister (Helen Chandler, who went on to play Mina Seward in the 1931 horror film Dracula) is in the sad position of the other woman in her own life, she relents, but by now George no longer wants the divorce and is happy to be taken back. Francis R. Bellamy called the play “a curious combination of Victorian emotionalism, and what is called ultra-modern, hard-boiled intellectualism.”
In the Threatening Thirties, only two shows opened on the fateful thirteenth: Back Fire (1932) and The Climax (1933). The former opened at the Vanderbilt Theatre, where it backfired after eight performances. It was by Jerrold Robert, who acted in it under the name Robert Ober, with a group called the Broome Stagers, who hoped to form an ongoing company before their effort was swept away.
The play itself was “an innocuous bit of conventional masquerade,” according to Brooks Atkinson, about two women’s (Mabel Taliaferro and Doris Packer) love rivalry—one is morally upright, the other a sensualist with a past—over the same man (Ober).
The next June 13 turkey was a revival at the Bijou Theatre of Edward J. Locke’s The Climax, a 1909 drama that had enjoyed earlier revivals in 1919 and 1926 but survived in this version for only 15 performances. It starred Guy Bates Post, who had toured the play internationally, and musical comedy star Norma Terris, he as Dr. Golfanti, she as the singer he tries to convince her voice is gone. “After all these years it remains a shoestring production,” griped John Mason Brown, “only now it appears to be suffering from fallen arches; or perhaps, remembering Miss Terris’s gay and canary-like performances, it’s just fallen archness.”
Bringing us closer to our concluding examples, we note just two June 13 plays in the Fighting Forties, Slightly Scandalous (1944) and The Fifth Horseman (1949). The first was an “incredibly feeble,” as George Freedley described it, seven-performance comedy by Frederick Jackson seen at the National Theatre. It marked the return to Broadway of once-popular actress Janet Beecher after twelve years in Hollywood.
The plot (which has no relation that of the similarly titled 1946 movie) bears a striking resemblance to the musical Mamma Mia! with its lead character, Frances Stuart (Beecher), being a noted writer-lecturer of liberal morality who never married but had three children, two of whom are getting married. The prospective in-laws want to determine the paternity of Frances’s children. She must inform her brood—who were led to believe that the portrait over the fireplace is their father—that she never wed, and that each is the offspring of a different man. Each of these is still living, so she invites them to her Westchester home where she will select one to be her spouse.
“The piece has neither wit nor point. It bumbles through three ponderous scenes without giving players or spectators a Chinaman’s chance,” said Howard Barnes. Too bad Abba wasn’t around to offer it a score.
Now for that famous revue, The Grand Street Follies,which, like the most famous example them all, the Ziegfeld Follies, was part of a series with multiple editions. It was essentially a high-class vaudeville show, born in 1922 at the Neighborhood Playhouse, in the same venue that now serves as the Abrons Arts Center on Grand Street and Henry. It enjoyed seven editions, the last moving from its funky downtown theatre to Broadway’s Booth, but we’re concerned here only with the first, which began as a giveaway to the Neighborhood Playhouse’s 1921-1922 subscribers. The Playhouse had been giving informal burlesques of its work annually since 1912, but they had remained private, inside jokes for the theatre’s “family.”
Alice Lewisohn conceived the notion of showing the sketches to the public when nothing suitable could be found to end the season. What was developed from this idea was labeled “a low brow show for the high grade morons,” and quickly became so popular the two subscribers’ performances had to be supplemented by ten more for the public at large, most of whom had never been to 466 Grand Street before. The revue had to close for various reasons but could have drawn audiences all summer if had been able to remain open.
This first edition established the format for later programs: songs, impersonations, and sketches all designed to ridicule both the Playhouse’s productions and those of the uptown theatres. Such spoofs or burlesques were a regular part of late 19th-century and early 20th-century revues, and were the predecessors of today’s Forbidden Broadway. It opened with “In the Beginning,” a bit depicting the world’s first drama critics, Adam Stale and Eve—the former a takeoff on critic Alan Dale—and moved on to parodies of leading personalities and plays. In the second half, the show used a framework borrowed from a contemporary international revue Le Chauve-Souris to introduce the acts. Albert Carroll, who was in this first Grand Street Follies, became a stalwart of later editions, which resumed after a year’s hiatus in 1924.
See you in another week or so.