By: Samuel L. Leiter
(No. 2 in the series)
May 19, 2020: During the 1930s, six Broadway shows opened on May 19, the years being 1931, 1932, 1935, 1936, 1937, and 1939. These were, in order, a revue called Crazy Quilt; a revival of the great musical Show Boat; a politically-slanted revue titled Parade, which introduced Eve Arden; The Dance of Death, a poetic, W.H Auden-written satire with music on the middle class; a hit farce, Room Service; and Life and Death of an American,a propagandistic, labor-themed drama with music. Two were products of the Federal Theatre Project.
First up, opening on May 19, 1931, was a talent-packed revue called Crazy Quilt, with sketches by David Freedman, Dorothy Parker, and others; music by Billy Rose, Richard Rodgers, Rowland Wilson, Harry Warren, Jimmy Monaco, and others; and lyrics by E.Y. Harburg, Lorenz Hart, Billy Rose, Ira Gershwin, and others. Billy Rose directed and produced it at the Forty-fourth Street Theatre, with choreography by Sammy Lee. Despite some of these names, among the brightest in musical theatre of the day, and those of its stars, it ran only 79 performances.
First-line comedians Fannie Brice (Mrs. Billy Rose), Ted Healy, and Phil Baker were the main attractions of this show, also known as Billy Rose’s Crazy Quilt. It was actually a revised version of Rose’s hit revue, Sweet and Low, of 1930. Brooks Atkinson thought it all somewhat flat, though, with the stars being only fitfully amusing. Bide Dudley said, “It is undeniably a piece of patchwork, made up of odds and ends, some of them of brilliant hue; others less vivid and a few serving merely to hold the quilt together. But as a whole it is good entertainment.”
Baker came off best, appearing with his familiar accordion and argumentative, interrupting audience stooge, John Humphrey Muldowney, who shouted out for Baker to play “Old Man River” from Show Boat, and then instructed the comic to “throw yourself into it.”
Brice, whose brother, Lew, was also involved, was outstanding during several of her bits but didn’t impress during several others, notably Dorothy Parker’s melodramatic “Telephone Call.” Her best moments were her singing of “I Found a Million Dollar Baby in a Five and Ten Cent Store,” while dressed in top hat and tails; her introduction of a new song, “To Think That Once We Were Sweethearts and Now We’re Not Even Friends”; and another new tune, “Rest Room Rose,” by Rodgers and Hart.
Healy was less effective, most reviewers feeling he was used neither wisely nor too well. The show also included such melodies as Warren’s “Would You Like to Take a Walk?,” and “Sing a Little Jingle.”
As the reference to Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern’s masterpiece, Show Boat,reveals, that 1927 show was still on people’s minds, which warranted a 1932 revival produced and directed by master showman Florenz Ziegfeld at the Casino Theatre, where it racked up 181 showings. It was Ziegfeld’s final production before he died, two months later. The Casino was the renamed, rebuilt Earl Carroll Theatre, billed as “the largest legitimate theatre in the world.”
Most of the original leads—Charles Winninger, Edna May Oliver, Helen Morgan, and Norma Terris were on hand, but Dennis King took on the role of riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal, and Paul Robeson, for whom the role originally was intended, and who had played it in London, was cast as Joe. His singing of “Old Man River” was turned into a leitmotif to be woven throughout the action. Also, the later part of the show was updated to 1932, the year of the production.
Show Boat was as fresh as ever and hailed for its artistry. Brooks Atkinson lauded the new stars, King and Robeson, saying of the latter, “Mr. Robeson has a touch of genius. It is not merely his voice, which is one of the richest organs on the stage. It his understanding that gives ‘Old Man River’ an epic lift. When he sings it out of the cavernous depths of his chest his face is a mask for the humble patience of the Negro race and you realize that Jerome Kern’s spiritual has reached its final expression.” You can see it here.
Yet another revue opened on May 19, 1935, the title being Parade. Produced by the Theatre Guild at the Guild Theatre, its sketches were by Paul Peters, George Sklar, Frank Gabrielson, Kyle Crichton, and others. The music was credited to Jerome Moross, with additional music by Marc Blitzstein, with lyrics by Peters, Sklar, and Crichton. Philip Loeb directed, with Robert Alton creating the dances, Lee Simonson the sets, Constance Ripley, Irene Sharaff, and Billi Livingston the costumes. The run lasted only 40 performances.
The Guild flushed away $111,000 on this “socially conscious” satirical revue—the first musical sow since December 29, 1934—that paved the way for such later efforts in the same vein as Pins and Needles, the decade’s classic revue about leftwing-oriented political significance. Parade was originally supposed to be done by the pink-tinged Theatre Union but was taken over by the Guild when the Theatre Union couldn’t afford to continue with it. Its subject matter proved far from appealing to the Guild’s befurred and bejeweled audiences, with its constant swipes at the abuses of contemporary capitalism. Even the frequently hilarious comic, Jimmy Savo, could do little to salvage the effort. A number of critics felt it would have succeeded better at the Theatre Union’s Fourteenth Street Theatre.
A talented cast offered such young players as Ezra Stone, Jack E. Leonard, Eve Arden, black songstress Avis Andrews, and dancers Dorothy Fox and Charles Walters. The general opinion was the Parade was far too heavy-handedly propagandistic. Grenville Vernon noted: “Satirical is scarcely the word to express the naif, obvious, tub-thumping, soap-box type of humor which permeates most of the sketches. Among the topics: police corruption, Alcoholics Anonymous, college educations, the Brain Trust, Hearst journalism, the New Deal, war, and emergency rooms.
One of the best of Savo’s routines had him impersonating the manager of a factopry who decides to run the place himself while his workers are striking. Before long, he’s overwhelmed by mechanized madness as he loses control of the machinery, and his efforts to place the lids on tin cans racing past on a conveyer belt had them rolling in the aisles. Readers who’ve seen Lucy and Ethel do a similar conveyer belt routine on “I Love Lucy” will get the idea at once. Savo’s number called “Hot Dog” had him as a hungry beggar trying to con chestnuts and hot dogs from a street vendor in what was deemed a masterstroke of comic pathos.
Eve Arden made her first important dent on audience consciousness with bits like her portrayal of a Vassar graduate making a mess of being a Macy’s salesgirl, or a Russian princess delivering a lecture on her flight from the USSR. She also sang Blitzstein’s “Send for the Militia” in a number requiring her to portray an elegant society woman of professed liberal views who screams for the armed forces at the first sign of danger. This number was being considered for the chopping block the night before the opeg but was allowed to remain in order to cover a scene change.
Arden writes in The Three Phases of Eve, “I was surprised to hear warm applause as I rushed to make the next change, pulling off my wig as I went. Half undressed, I was horrified to be told that the number had stopped the show cold. In a dressing gown, with my wig over one ear, I faced the gratifying applause. At the next performance I was given an encore to do. Such are the fortunes of war and show business.”
Opening on May 19, 1936, was a work by England’s W.H. Auden, backed by music from composer Clair Leonard, called The Dance of Death but not to be confused with Strindberg’s famous play of that title. With a set by Cleon Throckmorton and direction by Emile Beliveau, it was a creation of the Poetic Theatre unit of the Federal Theatre Project, seen at the Adelphi Theatre for 16 performances.
Auden’s ambitiously arty attempt to combine balletic dance, choral music, and drama in a satire about the attempted flight of a British middle class facing extinction came to New York after a London debut (although also seen at Vassar), and was revised for local audiences.
A top-hatted character (Bernard Savage) tells the audience that the play is “a picture of the decline of a class, of how its members dream of a new life, but secretly desire the old, for there is death inside them.” Death was represented by dancer Barry Mahool. The middle class is seen indulging in its decadent lifestyle, all the hedonistic aspects of which Auden ridicules. Much of the performance had an immersive manner, with the actors appearing in the aisles and orchestra seats.
John Mason Brown attacked The Dance of Death for standing “in the same relation to truly effective poetic satire that a Greek bootblack does to Aristophanes.
The outstanding May 19 production of the 1930s arrived in 1937 with John Murray and Allen Boretz’s still revived farce, Room Service, staged in his inimitable speeding bullet manner by George Abbott at the Cort Theatre, where it ran for 500 performances.
The 1936-1937 season was nearly over when this hilarious knockabout farce was served up to comedy-hungry Depression-era audiences, who proceeded to relish it for over a year. It eventually became one of the most frequently revived plays of its type, and was the basis for two films, one of them starring the irrepressible Marx Brothers. Its door-slamming, sight gag-crammed, bullet-paced production helped to typify what was becoming known as the director’s “Abbott touch.”
Abbott had been persuaded by his assistant, Garson Kanin, to take the show over after producer Sam H. Harris had abandoned it in Philadelphia. “Gar insisted that the play was full of funny stuff and that if I got the story straightened out we would have a hit. He was right,” says Abbott in his memoir, Mr. Abbott. Retaining Philip Loeb from the Harris cast, Abbott filled in the other roles with actors from his other recent hits and put together one of the most sterling comedy casts of the decade.
Gordon Miller (Sam Levene), shoestring producer, and Harry Binion (Loeb), director, are in rehearsal with a play but lack the wherewithal to get the thing produced. They ensconce the unpaid company at the White Way Hotel and sell a share of the show to the chain hotel’s manager (Donald McBride)—Miller’s brother-in-law—as a way of keeping the wolf from the door and the show in rehearsal. However, a representative of the chain wangts them to pay up at once. Miller has to scheme up various devices to keep from being evicted (and starving). Among his ruses is one claiming that naïve young playwright Leo Davis (Eddie Albert) has measles and tapeworm and must be confined. When that fib wears out, he announces his suicide, and holds a mock funeral over his “corpse.” Finally, a backer is found, the show gets produced, and it’s a smash hit.
Its characters were stock, its situation outlandish, its ideas virtually nil, and its plot a one-joke premise, but Room Service was filled with theatrical values, nonstop laughter, and explosive vitality, perfect for its gloomy times. “What the farce has,” declared John Anderson, “besides its incessant barrage of quick-firing wisecracks and katzenjammer madness, is an affectionate and amiable attitude towards the theatre which gives the humor a special qualiy and an enduring charm.” The cast included topnotch folks like Teddy Hart, Philip Wood, and Betty Field.
The final May 19 play of the decade was a drama called Life and Death of an American, written by George Skar for the Federal Theatre Project and performed 38 times at Maxine Elliott’s Theatre. Charles D. Freeman directed and Howard Bay did the set. Music was composed by Alex North and Earl Robinson, with choreography created by Lily Mehlman.
As per Sklar’s leftist leanings, his show was a labor-themed “Dramatic Biography” that expressed its angry viewpoint by using a Living Newspaper style to present, in 50 brief scenes, with the occasional interpolation of songs and dances, the life of Jerry Dorgan ([J.] Arthur Kennedy), an average American, from his birth in 1900 through his life with his working-class family. It touched on his academic and athletic achievements, his father’s factory-caused tuberculosis, his leaving college to support his mother, his war experience, his airplane factory job, his becoming an executive before being forced by the Depression to take a blue-collar job, and his death at the hands of the cops during the 1937 Memorial Day strike in Illinois.
Life and Death of an American failed to convince that it told a universal story and it lacked the emotion and dialogue to raise it to a higher level. “It is drably written and its scenes are conventionally organized,” griped Grenville Vernon, who was turned off by the writing’s propagandistic intentions. The play, however, helped Arthur Kennedy on his path to stardom.