By: Samuel L. Leiter
(No. 27 in the series)
June 24, 2021: Perhaps you know that, soon after the Covid-19 pandemic struck, and live theatre met cryogenics, I took off my reviewing hat and put one on with which I wrote columns on old-time New York theatre.
I did a couple of dozen for Theater Pizzazz called “Leiter Looks Back,” around 600 (!) for my blog, Theatre’s Leiter Side, titled “From My (Unpublished) Encyclopedia of the New York Stage, 1970-1975,” and, of course, another couple of dozen for the one you’re reading.
Now, however, with New York theater getting ready to raise its curtain again, it’s time to take off the column-writing hat for a couple of months so I can bask in the summer sun, prepare for the imminent theatre season, and continue the research I’ve been doing for a new book.
Thus today’s “On This Day in New York Theatre” will be the last in its line, one I hope has been of some nostalgic interest during a time when Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Off-Off Broadway-loving readers have been deprived of reports on current productions, apart from digital productions via Zoom and other platforms. I’ve had a fraught relationship with those, I admit, and could never accept them as a replacement for the living thing itself.
This farewell column takes us back to June 24, 1942, a smidgen more than half-a-year after we entered World War II. June was rarely busting out all over with shows in those days, and only three opened on the 24th during the forties, two being spectacular ice-skating revues, all the rage back then, with internationally famous skaters like Sonja Henie. The venue was the Center Theatre, a 3,500 seat theatre built as part of Radio City, located on Sixth Avenue and the southeast corner of W. Forty-ninth Street, which, in 1954, became the only building in Radio City ever to meet the wrecking ball.
The two ice-skating extravaganzas that opened there on our chosen date in the forties were Stars on Ice, which slid into town in 1944, chilling out for 403 performances, and 1948’s Howdy, Mr. Ice!,which kept family audiences cool for 406 showings. (Stars on Ice, be it noted, was the second edition of a show that opened on July 2, 1942, and glided to 427 performances.) I’d like to entertain you with details of both, but time and space allow me to focus on only one show today.
Its title is Star and Garter, it was an elaborate revue, and it opened at the Music Box Theatre in 1942, where it packed them in for 609-perfomances. Wartime crowds seeking pure escapism were then being lured not only by a brief resurgence of vaudeville, but by expensively produced, pseudo-burlesque shows such as this one starring ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee and, as her top banana, classic clown Bobby Clark. The show, ticketed at an expensive $4.40 top, seemed to be what the customers wanted, especially as real burlesque had recently been banned. New York Supreme Court judge Aaron J. Levy even called it “inartistic filth” when denying the application of the Minsky brothers, famed burlesque producers, to renew their theatre license. An unnamed Variety reviewer encapsulated Star and Garter: “It’s bawdy and racy, lusty and sexy, an excursion into the double-entendre (sometimes it’s just singleness of thought) that will draw a large clientele.”
Producer Michael Todd, who later married Elizabeth Taylor but died in a plane crash, was warned that sophisticated audiences would not tolerate this old-hat type of material. He responded that it would be old-hat to audiences who saw it at forty-cent burlesque shows, but not to those able to spend $4.40, especially with the cachet of director Hassard Short’s name on the marquee. According to Art Cohn’s The Nine Lives of Michael Todd, the producer told the director, “You take care of the art, Has, I’ll put in the a-a-a-a-ah.”
Pulchritude (including that of bump and grinder Georgia Sothern) triumphed over comedy, with Clark flailing in his familiar sketches, such as “The Sacred Gherkin,” “That Merry Wife of Windsor,” and “In the Malamute Saloon,” and coming back just in time with “Robert the Roué” and “Alfred in Court.” In the Malamute Saloon bit, Clark staggered from the bar, asking “Where’s the powder room?” When the barkeep pointed outside, Clark opened the door only for handfuls of snow to be thrown in his face from offstage. Closing the door, he declared, “It’s too cold. I’ll wait till next spring.”
In the courtroom sketch he played a judge who spat spitballs at the prosecuting attorney. When the male witness claimed, despite the presence of a sofa, not to have done anything to the pretty defendant (Lee), the judge replied, “I would have done just what you did, only wouldn’t lie about it!” He also fell off his seat whenever the defendant crossed her shapely legs.
The show had its fair share of standard variety acts, including acrobats Wayne and Marlin and the Hudson Wonders; a dog and monkey act trained by Gil Maison; singer Marjorie Knapp, with a naughty tune, “The Bunny”; nightclub comedian Pat Harrington; Latin dancer Juanita Rios; comic xylophonist Professor Lamberti; a drunk act, Frank and Jean Hubert; and comic adagio dancing by Lynn, Royce, and Vanya. There was also burly burlycue queen Carrie Finnell, who could make the tassels on her breasts swing in multiple directions. The show’s best-known song was Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen’s “Blues in the Night.”
Todd circumvented the ordinances against stripping, said George Jean Nathan, by “bringing on the girls stark naked in the first place except for small rosebuds on their nipples and miniature gift stars on their pupenda [sic].” Speaking of the main attraction, Arthur Pollock deposed, “Gypsy Rose Lee, looking very pretty and wearing gorgeous clothes [designed by Irene Sharaff] turns out to be a surprisingly sweet actress, very smooth indeed. She’s pleasing in the opening chorus, charming in an Irving Berlin song, ‘The Girl on the Police Gazette,’ quite delectable in her strip tease, ‘I Can’t Strip to Brahms.’” The star, whose strip was done in aloof and dignified style, wrote this last number herself.
Cohn notes that because there was not enough money for an out-of-town-tryout, the show was going to open “cold,” with only a single preview. Hearing this, Short responded, “That’s wonderful! . . . And if anything needs fixing, we’ll have the whole night to revise it!” That preview, however, proved so catastrophic that one backer, Herb Freezer, immediately asked for his $10,000 back. “I hate angels,” remarked Todd. “They usually have opinions.” Todd was asked to take the show to Boston so it could be worked on before getting murdered by the critics, but he refused, saying that all it needed was ‘new songs, new skits and new scenery.’” “And new money,” chimed in an investor.
When Todd, realizing he could not raise a penny, told Lee in her dressing room that the show was too frail to open, she insisted that it had to open, as she had paid $125 to paint her dressing room and bought enough body paint for two years. On hearing from Todd that the show not only required at least a week’s additional work, but that a backer wanted his money back, Lee said she would buy out Freezer’s interest herself.
Todd then began to reshape the show, with new material added. Cohn writes, “He telephoned an agent in Los Angeles to have an act flown to New York. He ordered a new routine in which each chorus girl’s costume would cost $386, something of a feat since the apparel consisted of a necklace, brassiere, chastity belt and hat.”
When Todd was unable to raise even a bit of the $25,000 bond for posting with Equity, the cash again came from the glamorous star, who herself led the most frugal of lives and resided in a thirty-dollar-a-month flat in an old tenement building she owned. When he doubted her ability to assemble so much cash quickly, she not only promised to have it in an hour, but actually did it. “She had money and bonds stashed all over town. She had been frightened by signs in banks that said deposits were insured only up to $5,000.” She also provided numerous burlesque routines she knew intimately, and Todd touched them up with his personal flavor, thereby converting a potential flop into a hit.
“Burlesque, the fast and fallen woman of the theater,” wrote Louis Kronenberger, “swept into the Music Box all done up in silks and ermine. A leg-and-laugh show with considerable lure and good filthy fun, it is fleshed with style rather than suggestiveness, and offers an entertaining evening.” The first of those evenings was seventy-nine years ago today, a week after the show originally had been scheduled to open.
During the run there was an interesting crisis in the Music Box. A pair of FBI agents took over the box office before a sold-out show. Soon there were numerous quarrels at the box office as over sixty outraged people with bona fide reservations were turned away, told that there were no tickets in their names, regardless of whatever proof they displayed. During the show two couples in the fourteenth row of the orchestra were, like everybody else, laughing loudly when one of the men was tapped on the shoulder and beckoned to leave. He and the rest of his foursome were soon making their way up the aisle. They had been surrounded until then by sixty-some-odd FBI agents and their escorts, watching from the previously disputed seats. It turned out that the FBI had been tipped off that these two couples would be present, and that they headed one of the biggest Nazi spy rings in the country.
Let me take this day in New York theater to thank you for reading these columns over the past year and a half, and to wish you a happy and healthy summer. I look forward to seeing you at the revivified New York theater, where new memories will be created for future chroniclers to look back on.
Click Here for #24 in the Series ON THIS DAY IN NEW YORK THEATER: March 13 in the 1920’s
Click Here for #25 in the Series ON THS DAY IN NEW YORK THEATER: March 28, 1939
Click Here for #26 in the Series ON THIS DAY IN NEW YORK THEATER: April 18, 1946
Samuel L. Leiter, Ph.D.
Drama Desk voter
my blog: THEATRE’S LEITER SIDE http://slleiter.blogspot.com/(now available as a paperback and eBook series, https://www.amazon.com/s?k=theatre%27s+leiter+side&ref=nb_sb_noss)
THEATER PIZZAZZ http://www.theaterpizzazz.com/
THE BROADWAY BLOG http://thebroadwayblog.com/
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Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Theatre, CUNY
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