By: Samuel L. Leiter
(No. 26 in the series)
April 18, 2021: April 18 in the 1940s was not a particularly memorable date in the annals of Broadway history, but it did yield one fascinating, if now barely remembered, long-running artifact. Lesser shows that opened on that date during the decade were To Kill a Cat (1943), Sheppey (1944), and Magnolia Alley (1949), the longest running of which (23 performances) was Sheppey,.
If we are to celebrate April 18 in New York theatre history, however, it is for a unique postwar-themed revue titled Call Me Mister, which opened at the National Theatre and rang up 734 showings. Its sketches were by Arnold Auerbach with Arnold Horwitt, its music and lyrics by Harold Rome, its direction by Robert H. Gordon, its choreography by John Wray, its costumes by Grace Houston, and its producing by Melvyn Douglas and Herman Levin.
The springboard for this rousing musical revue was the lighter postwar experiences of American men and women who had served in World War II; almost every participant—from the creative team to the players—was a service veteran or had performed in the USO. All branches of the armed forces were represented.
Co-producer Melvyn Douglas (the movie star), then a major in the army (later promoted to lieutenant colonel), had been staging shows for the troops in China, Burma, and India when he began receiving mimeographed copies of songs and skits written by Corporal Harold Rome and Sergeant Arnold Auerbach, who belonged to the New York branch of the Special Services. Seeing how clever and diverting their material was, he looked up the pair while on leave in New York and arranged to do a show with them when the war was over.
Headlining the show were singer-comedienne Betty Garrett (the only performer already a recognized Broadway performer), comic Jules Munshin, Black baritone Lawrence Winters, and ballerina Maria Karnilova. Harry Clark and George Hall were funny comics, dancers Betty Lou Holland and Bill Callahan were on point, Danny Scholl and Paula Bane were good young singers, and comic actor George S. Irving, later a Main Stem stalwart, made his Broadway bow.
The subject of the show was hinted at by the title, implying that military persons of rank were to be addressed as “mister” in civilian life. This advice was rendered in an opening number sung before a delightfully designed curtain on which the serviceman’s discharge button was depicted in an amusing distortion. The cast informed the audience that “dramatic critics have more power over us than Eisenhower.” Some material was satirical, some sentimental, and some patriotic. Not all of it was on the same high level (like the bit featuring Munshin showing how classical actor Maurice Evans would sound as a train announcer), but enough clicked to make the show a hit.
The overall tone was jubilation at the war’s victorious conclusion. John Mason Brown said that the good-natured revue was “a lively one, healthy and unsparing in its spoofing.” Howard Barnes agreed: “Call Me Mister is a captivating show. It is fresh, vigorous and what was least to have been expected, it has great style.”
Harold Rome (then best known for his Depression-era, labor-positive Pins and Needles) was celebrated for his musical contributions and intelligent lyrics. “The Red Ball Express,” a lonely tune sung by Winters, dealt with a Black truck driver traveling down the Normandy coast. Winters also sang the socially conscious but overly bromidic “The Face on the Dime” (a tribute to Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and the emotionally satisfying “Going Home Train,” effectively set in the rhythms of a train bearing the doughboys (who served as a chorus) homeward. “Off We Go” was a parody of the Air Force, seen through Hollywood-influenced GI eyes as a world of snooty Noël Coward high life. One of Garrett’s best numbers was “Surplus Material,” in which she was a canteen waitress whose sexual frustration had been exacerbated with the demobilization of her soldier customers.
An excellent comic sketch, “Welcome Home,” concerned the homecoming of a soldier whose parents have been preparing to greet him by reading so much somber literature on the returning vet that they expect him to be a psychological wreck. The mother, for example, thinks that she must convince her son that she has shared all his battlefield experiences. When she meets him at the door, she is dressed in a helmet and a gun belt, with two revolvers, and is more frightening than the nastiest top sergeant.
Another funny sketch showed what Paul Revere would have encountered if he had had to cut through the modern army bureaucracy’s red tape to get a horse to warn that the British were coming. Some material confronted the housing shortage, the problems of buying civilian clothes (“civvies”), the serviceman who returns to meet his newborn child, and so on. Among the few numbers not directly connected to the problems of returning soldiers was one satirizing three Southern senators who are delighted to learn from a public opinion survey that their popularity is only several points below that of athlete’s foot. (I can think of three contemporary Southern politicians who might have similar results today.) “Yuletide, Park Avenue” showed a wealthy family singing the praises of various prominent department stores.
One of the best routines came about in typical show biz fashion. According to Douglas and Tom Arthur’s See You at the Movies, the show, when still in rehearsal, was in need of an up-tempo song just before the end of Act Two. Rome confessed he was out of ideas, but did have a nonsense piece he was not sure was right for the show. “Play it!,” shouted his team. “We’ll find a way to use it.” The song, “South America, Take It Away,” in which the eponymous land mass was advised to retrieve its congas, rhumbas, and sambas (ai, ai, ai) became the biggest hit of the show. It was introduced by Betty Garrett, whose performance of it at a Harold Rome celebration nearly half-a-century later is captured in this amateur video.
In 1951, a Hollywood version, which had little to do with the original show, was filmed starring Betty Grable, Dan Dailey, and Danny Thomas, whose trailer can be seen here.
Samuel L. Leiter, Ph.D.
Drama Desk voter
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