By: Samuel L. Leiter
(No. 20 in the series)
December 31, 2020: For this column’s last entry in the horrific year of the pandemic, I thought it might be interesting to see what opened on New York’s stages on New Year’s Eve, December 31, during the three decades covered in this series. What with all the tumult normally associated with that date in the theatre district, it would seem an unlikely time to venture forth to see a show, much less to open one. For the record, the celebration of New Year’s Eve in Times Square began in 1904, although it wasn’t until three years later that the first version of the ball drop was inaugurated. You can read the fascinating story here.
While one wouldn’t necessarily associate theatre openings with New Year’s Eve, a surprising number of shows actually did try to entertain those who, perhaps, thought they could kill two birds with one stone, seeing a play and then sashaying over to join the festivities.
Of our three decades, the one that saw the most New Year’s Eve openings was the twenties, which had eight such shows, although two were in one year (1923) and three were in another (1928). The thirties celebrated the New Year with only four, while not a single show opened on December 31 in the forties. Among the relatively few New Year’s Eve openings, several had more than ordinary interest.
Those in the thirties can be quickly dispensed with. On December 31, 1930, Shakespearean barnstormer Fritz Leiber brought As You Like It to the Ambassador Theatre, where it had three showings as part of a seven-play repertoire produced by the Chicago Civic Shakespeare Society. A year later, a white-authored Black musical called Savage Rhythm opened at the John Golden Theatre, where it eked out 12 performances with its treatment of the religious superstitions of poor Black folks in the Deep South. In 1934, New Year’s Eve playgoers had little to celebrate when they attended Slightly Delirious by Bernard J. McOwen and Robert F. Adkins. John Anderson said of this sex comedy, “It is some comfort to know that the theatre did hit bottom and whatever it does from her out must be better. They do not come worse.”
The only other New Year’s Eve show I find for the thirties is If I Were Rothschild, whose Fiddler on the Roof-like title is only natural given that it was a Yiddish-language comedy given by Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theatre based on a story of the same name by Sholem Aleichem. Schwartz himself was too ill to appear, a rare occurrence.
What remains to survey are the eight New Year’s Eve offerings of the Twinkling Twenties, two of them rep company revivals of Shakespeare featuring Fritz Leiber. Neither of the latter (The Merchant of Venice, and Richard III) was of much import—so let’s jump to the original works that could use the little space available. Of the rest, two arrived in 1923, Kid Boots and The Song and Dance Man; three in 1928, Caprice, The Lady Dedlock, and The Street Wolf; and just Ginger Snaps in 1929.
Kid Boots, which ran up 479 performances, was the biggest hit of the bunch. For my description, I recommend you to my recent “Leiter Looks Back: Four Musicals of 1923-1924” column in Theater Pizzazz. For the record, it was a musical comedy starring Eddie Cantor and Mary Eaton, produced at the Earl Carroll Theatre, and scoring a hole-in-one with a golf-themed story.
Its competitor that busy night starred another towering luminary of the decade, George M. Cohan.
Cohan’s aptly titled show was The Song and Dance Man, which did moderately good business with its 96 performances at the Hudson Theatre. The first-rate Cohan, who wrote the comedy, was acclaimed for his portrayal of a third-rate, touring, song-and-dance (and comedy) actor who stops off in New York long enough to get into trouble after helping an ingénue (Mayo Methot). By telling the tale of his show biz woes, Cohan’s character gets out of his scrape, earns a chance to audition for a Broadway show, muffs it, and goes back on the road.
John Corbin called the show “merely a theatrical anecdote, and rather straggling at that. But all those greater hearts who love the theatre for the sheer glamour and fascination of it will take this offering to their bosoms.” Percy Hammond thought it was “what Cohan calls the gravy-drama. It starts rapidly, remains motionless for an unctuous act or two and then glides into a sweet and sticky finish. It is a good show.”
Caprice, the most glittering straight play of our New Year’s Eve offerings,was one of three that opened in 1928. It had what was then a rather decent run of 178 performances, longer than many others offered by the Theatre Guild, which produced it at the Guild Theatre. Sil-Vara, as he was known (real name: Gustav Sil-Vara [Silberer]) was the Austrian-Jewish journalist who wrote it, and it was directed and designed, respectively, by Guild stalwarts Philip Moeller (who did the adaptation) and Aline Bernstein.
Caprice, known in German as Mit de Liebe Spielen, is a frivolous, sophisticated comedy that benefited enormously from Moeller’s super-smooth direction and the acting genius of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne—the Lunts, on their way to Broadway legend. Alfred played Counselor Albert Von Echardt, who had an illegitimate child with the virtuous Amalia (Lily Cahill), 16 years earlier. Amalia now brings the boy (Douglas Montgomery) to his father for guidance.
Fontanne was Ilse Von Ilsen, Albert’s current fling, a witty, jealous woman, who suspects Amalia of wanting Albert for herself. After trying several ploys to rid Albert of the idealistic youth, she succeeds by getting the son to develop a passion for her and then by dashing his hopes by revealing her long-standing intimacy with his father.
British critic St. John Ervine, guesting for the World, had never seen the Lunts before. He wrote, with remarkable prescience: “Mr. Lunt’s performance was a delightful exhibition of accomplished comedy acting, a fine and accurately observed show of manners. Miss Fontanne startled me with her brilliant artifice. I had not expected to see anything so good. . . . No wonder people are proud of this brilliant pair. They are destined to be prominent in the history of American comedy.” Of the play, Robert Littell commented, “It makes much out of very little with sophisticated gaiety, it has a Viennese high polish and wit, and also the Viennese inbreeding and tendency to run in a narrow groove.”
Also opening on this New Year’s Eve was a play based on a Charles Dickens novel, but not, for once, A Christmas Carol. Instead, of all things, it was Bleak House, hard enough to contain in a TV miniseries (which it has been more than once, as here), but up against it as a Broadway play. Paul Kester’s adaptation (which he dubbed a “Romantic Melodrama”), directed by renowned actress-director-producer Margaret Anglin, opened at the Ambassador Theatre and squeezed 50 performances from this difficult material.
Anglin starred in the double role of Lady Dedlock and her French maid, Hortense. The story, in a nutshell, is about how Lady Dedlock, to prevent a villain from revealing the truth about the lady’s illegitimate daughter, kills him, with the usual Victorian consequences.
The tradition of doubling these roles began with a late 19th-century adaptation called Chesney Wold, starring the great Czech actress Fanny Janauschek. The work “remained a conscientious but uninspired effort,” reported the Herald Tribune, which believed that the complexities of the source with its expository requirements overwhelmed the adaptor’s ability to master them. The Times, though, felt differently, claiming, “The play is convincing, which is more than one expects of melodrama; and the dialogue, which is far more Kester that [sic] it is Dickens, is worthy of the star.”
Lady Dedlock was a fine vehicle in which to display Anglin’s thespian talents. She demonstrated that “acting is not a lost art or a mere showroom for eccentricities and mechanical inventions,” wrote the Times. “What one part failed to give the star to do the other part did; and Miss Anglin ran the gamut of romantic and tragic acting as only a truly accomplished actress in command of her art at every moment, could possibly do.”
By far the least of the three shows competing for attention on New Year’s Eve, 1928, was The Street Wolf, by Hyman Adler and Edward Paulton, which survived for eight performances at the Garrick Theatre. It was, according to the Times, a “lurid and preposterous” comedy-melodrama with a nightclub background, like so many others of the era. Its tale was a sordid one of white slavery and potential incest. A seemingly elegant woman has been lured into a Greenwich Village rathskeller by a young, attractive man. Before things go too far, it is revealed by a nurse that her seducer is her son and the man who just attacked him is his father. “Worst of all,” sneered Time, “it is banally written.”
The Times ended its review thusly: “Outside the Garrick is a tasty three-sheet showing a wolf with a man’s head leering across the prostrate figure of a blond woman. It is one case where the advertising portrays exactly the nature of the play it heralds.”
Finally, on December 31, 1929, just before the ball drops from the Times Building, ending the Twinkling, Roaring Twenties and ringing in Dark, Depressing Thirties, we sleepily, and, perhaps, woozily, cut through the crowds, disappointed that Ginger Snaps, the sloppily done “new colored dance revue” we’ve just seen could not have been better. Presented at the Belmont Theatre, where it lasted a week, this show co-written and co-directed by Homer Tutt, Donald Heywood, and George Morris, was “completely unbearable,” thought the World. The Times, calling it “glum and inept,”exclaimed, “Less than nothing was added to the midtown New Year’s Eve gayety.” “As if this were not enough,” the angry critic continued, “last night’s performance met with more than its share of mishaps—long waits, balky curtains and sudden shifts for which the stage hands were obviously unprepared.” Those displaying a tiny hint of ability were dancers Vivian Baber and Bobby De Leon, as well as “alleged” comics Swan and Lee.
Here’s hoping your own New Year’s Eve—even if you spend it watching Netflix—provides more fun than those who saw Ginger Snaps enjoyed as they closed out that fabulous, if troubled, decade. Now we’re about to enter our own version of the twenties. May the years ahead be maskless, healthy, prosperous, and roaring!