By: Samuel L. Leiter
(No. 5 in the series)
June 3, 2020: A survey of shows that opened in New York on either June 3, 4, or 5 in the twenties, thirties, and forties reveals that, over the three decades, the first decade saw 14 openings, the second 12, while only five arrived on June 5. Not only did June 3 have the most shows, it also offered two historically important ones, since it was on that date in 1931 that The Band Wagon, starring Fred and Adele Astaire, opened, while the same date 11 years later presented Rodgers and Hart’s musical, By Jupiter, headed by Ray Bolger. Space—and your time—is limited, however, so the meal that follows focuses only on the twenties and thirties, with a few details on the forties added for a light desert.
June 3, 1924, gave the world a dust mote of a musical called Flossie, which played at the Lyric for around 16 performances, and was said by Arthur Hornblow to have the “dubious distinction” of possessing “the most banal book of any play of the season.” Even worse, though, was the same season’s One Helluva Night, a revue with the self-mocking slogan, “the world’s worst drama.” It took an anarchistic approach to theatre-making, not unlike The Play That Went Wrong of more recent vintage. One helluva night and it was lights out.
In 1928, a romantic comedy by Fred Ballard and Charles A. Bickford (who became a leading character actor on stage and screen), called The Cyclone Lover,made it to 31 performances at the Frolic Theatre. A number of critics lacked the patience to sit through a play that Percy Hammond dismissed because “its values as entertainment are meager.” Two years later, in 1930, a black revue called Bubble Along, the length of whose run is unknown, was dismissed by the Times as “a shadowy and nondescript entertainment not worth the burnt cork fetched to meet the occasion.” Even in 1930, black performers were blacking up. Bringing the June 3 theatrical twenties to their ignominious end was Spook House, a murder mystery that had 15 showings at the Vanderbilt Theatre. “It is not very good,” grunted the Times, “and it is acted with a good deal of oratorical deliberation.”
The depressed thirties had only two shows that opened on June 3, but one was The Band Wagon, a hit revue of 1931 to which we’ll circle back in a bit. The other, a year later, was a 19-performance comedy by Augustus L. Stern at the Bijou Theatre. It was called The Hired Husband and inspired Percy Hammond to groan, “You’ll have to see this one yourself to know how bad it is, since you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
For the record, as promised, a few notes on the five June 3 shows of the forties. In1941, Thomas A. Johnstone’s Snookie, a comedy with music, opened at the John Golden Theatre and closed 15 days later. It was a vehicle for the zany comic duo of Olsen and Johnson, who produced it. The show was so awful the stars/producers had their names removed from the program on opening night. Although considered too risqué for 1940s Broadway (Sidney B. Whipple whipped it for its “puerile indecencies”), its most intriguing aspect was its subject of test tube babies. In fact, earlier titles were Test Tube Baby and Whose Baby Are You?
A year later brought Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s smash hit musical comedy By Jupiter, which accumulated 427 performances after opening at the Shubert Theatre. Set in Homeric Greece, it was the last Rodgers and Hart collaboration before Hart’s untimely death, and might have run longer had star Ray Bolger not left to entertain the troops. Mention of the troops brings us to the next June 3 day of the decade, in 1946, when City Center provided a16-performance return engagement of Maurice Evan’s widely approved revival his so-called “GI Hamlet,” which he’d successfully toured for American forces in the Pacific in World War II, and that had played locally at the end of 1945.
Harry Young’s Open House, which debuted at the Cort Theatre, in 1947, closed its house after seven showings. Richard Watts, Jr., dumped on it as an example of “unbelievably boring witlessness,” even though it brought respected actress Mary Boland back to Broadway. City Center presented another June 3 revival in 1948, The Insect Comedy, fraternal Czech playwrights Joseph and Karel Capek’s modern classic, first seen in New York in 1922. It was directed with moderate success by its star, Jose Ferrer, for a limited run of 14 showings, with a talented but short-lived stock company he’d assembled. Memorable actors involved included George Coulouris, Tom Poston, Rita Gam, Paula Laurence, Ray Walston, Nan McFarland, and Alexander Scourby.
The year 1948 also provided Sleepy Hollow, a drowsy musical based on Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It dozed through 12 performances at the St. James Theatre in 1948. This version, though, despite the involvement of some big creative names, succeeded mainly in putting the critics to sleep.
We close by striking up the band for The Band Wagon, the popular revue that opened at the New Amsterdam Theatre in 1931, with sketches by George S. Kaufman and Howard Dietz, music by Arthur Schwartz, lyrics by Dietz, direction by Hassard Short, and choreography Albertina Rasch. Their musical wagon trotted along happily 262 times.
This memorable effort provided Fred and Adele Astaire with their last Broadway collaboration (she retired to marry an English lord). Also on stage were such A-names as Frank Morgan, Helen Broderick, and Austrian dancer/actress Tilly Losch in the show that had the critics practically dancing in the aisles to tunes like “Dancing in the Dark.” As Brooks Atkinson reported, The Band Wagon was “both funny and lovely; it has wit, gaiety and splendor. . . .”
Even Albert Johnson’s scenery was witty, including its inventive use of a double revolving stage. The costumes, the score, and the deliciously pointed satirical sketches, free of off-color humor, were all terrific. Schwartz and Dietz had insisted to producer Max Gordon that they’d only to the show if the sketches were entrusted to Dietz and Kaufman. They also demanded the Astaires and the New Amsterdam.
The show began with the cast onstage taking their seats along with the audience, with several actors dressed precisely like the ushers. As the lights dimmed, the company voiced the audience’s expectations in “It Better Be Good.” The revolve revolved, bringing on a tabloid show parodying all the ingredients of conventional revues.
Throughout, Morgan acted as a sort of MC, appearing before the curtain with amusing patter. Best known as a straight actor (he later played the Wizard in the MGM musical, The Wizard of Oz), he displayed surprisingly good singing chops. He had a noteworthy duet with the female Astaire, “Miserable with You,” in which the woes mount up as the singers grow increasingly depressed. Morgan and Broderick scored in a sketch satirizing mystery plays, and in one about a stereotypical Southern family, “The Pride of the Claghornes,” in which the daughter is cast out for the unforgivable sin of virginity.
Broderick had a funny bit as a Westchester matron buying bathroom fixtures as if they were works of art, while other skits made fun of college sports, theatregoing, male quartets, and arctic expeditions. The Astaires stood out both in comic routines and, of course, in their dance numbers, like “Hoops,” in which they impersonated French kids rolling hoops, and “I Love Louisa,” done in Tyrolean costumes with beer steins for props. It’s also one of the memorable numbers in the show’s 1953 movie adaptation, which otherwise has barely any relation to the show.
Astaire’s other contributions included “A New Sun in the Sky,” in which he checked out his appearance in white tie and tails before a mirror, and “Sweet Music to Worry the Wolf Away,” which allowed Fred to dance with Adele while playing the accordion.
Tilly Losch’s three dance numbers included one with Astaire, “The Beggar Waltz,” replete with old-fashioned, Viennese, gaslight atmospherics. Astaire was a beggar dreaming of dancing with a ballerina he adores. In another, John Barker, in evening clothes, sang the now classic “Dancing in the Dark,” as Losch danced with her reflection on a raked, mirrored floor, alive with moodily shifting colors and patterns
When The Band Wagon prepared to go on the road, it needed a replacement for Losch, who wasn’t going. An 18-year-old named Florence Chambecas was hired, which irked Losch enough to make her difficult to work with during the show’s closing days. Chambecas was allowed to play the final New York week but Losch insisted on doing the Saturday night performance. This led to a mix-up in which both she and Chambecas appeared in costume, ready to go on, forcing Dietz to insist that Losch stand down. She resisted, and Dietz had to physically restrain her while her replacement went on instead. The star ran up to her dressing room, then reappeared to make a dignified entry down the backstage staircase. Dietz linked arms with her, threw her off balance by asking if she’d ever seen a burlesque show, and proceeded to escort her to one around the corner, thereby bridging further troubled waters.