Robin Miller, Co-Creator of Dames at Sea, 1928 – 2010
by Ken Jillson
While in Londo
n in 1992, I had the great fortune to meet Robin Miller, then in his mid-60s. We struck up a friendship because of our mutual love of musical theatre. When I discovered he’d written my jaw dropped because that tight little gem is one of my all-time favorite musicals since I first saw it at the Ivar Theatre in Hollywood in the early 70s.
A Brit, Robin attended Eton, served as a Grenadier Guard and in Palestine in World War II. On leaving the military, he migrated to New York, where he became a journalist.
It was where he met George Haimsohn [a professional photographer shooting under the name Plato, and writer of erotic gay fiction under the name Alexander Goodman] and composer Jim Wise [who taught at Columbia briefly in the early 50s before joining the New Jersey Institute of Technology, where he taught English composition, and composed musicals].
He regaled me with many heart-warming stories regarding the struggles to get Dames produced. He described endlessly pounding the pavement, carrying a portable speaker to do countless pitches to producers, where he played shodily-produced demo recordings. I almost cried when he told me of what it felt like for him and co-lyricist/book writer Haimsohn and composer Wise when they finally got a "Yes."
The musical first played Off Off Broadway in May,1966 at Caffé Cino in Greenwich Village as Dames at Sea, Golddiggers Afloat, where it ran 148 performances. Young Bernadette Peters played Ruby, the small-town chorine who taps her way from the bus station to Broadway-at-sea stardom in 24 hours.
Robin described opening night April 22, 1969, Off Broadway at the Theatre de Lys [now the Lortel] when Bernadette, finishing "Raining in My Heart," exited the stage in tears to the roar of laughter. Robin said he asked her why she was crying. She replied, "Because they hated me!" He dabbed away her tears, began laughing, and told Bernadette, "They absolutely loved you! The number’s a parody. You want them to laugh." "Then she got it," he said, "and went back on in the next number to thunderous applause – and, the next morning, rave revues." What a way to launch the career of a Broadway luminary!
Robin came to Laguna Beach [CA] in 1994 and co-wrote the book with me for the annual charity musical, The Big Splash, performed in Jillson and partner Al Roberts’ swimming pool and supporting Orange County’s AIDS Services Foundation. The theme was 1947, and a spoof of the M-G-M Esther Williams swim extravaganzas complete with a Louis B. Mayer character [voice of Kirk Douglas], our "Aquanettes," in-drag unsynchronized swimmers; and three evil Hollywood gossip columnists [Bea Arthur, Dolly Parton, and Lauren Bacall] via a lip-synch soundtrack.
Robin was fun and such a dear. How thrilled he’d be – No! Blown away! — to know that after three revivals, Dames at Sea has made it to The Great White Way and making it’s Broadway debut at the Helen Hayes Theatre, no less, in the capable hands of Randy Skinner, whom I’ve known since the original 42ns Street, when he assisted Gower Champion.
Robin was a very dedicated, hard-working writer who never gave up. Though ill for several years and increasingly limited in mobility, he continued to write. At the time of his death, December 16, 2010, at age 82, he was working on a new piece. Dames was the big hit of his life and how many writers have had their show on Broadway? I have this gut feeling Robin is singing "Good Times are
Here to Stay."
Ken Jillson, an associate producer of Swingtime Canteen and playwright, was writer- producer of Laguna Beach’s The Big Splash! from 1985 to 2009, "the largest backyard fundraiser in the nation raising over $10 million during its run."
Dames at Sea Trivia
The musical was originally a short sketch, based on the Warner Bros. Gold Diggers movies and the lavish production numbers staged by Busby Berkley – only on a tiny budget. The part of Ruby was modeled – in a steal of a deal — after Ruby Keeler in 42nd Street was suggested by the Ruby Keeler-type from those early movies. It was lengthened to 50 minutes with Robert Dahdah directing. When the actress portraying Ruby withdrew during rehearsals, choreographer Don Price recommended Bernadette Peters. And a star was born.
The original Caffe Cino cast featured Peters as Ruby, Joe McGuire as Frank, David Christmas as Dick, Jill Roberts as Joan, Norma Bigtree as Mona and Gary Filsinger as the Director and Captain. During the run, Peters was replaced by her sister, Donna Forbes. The show reopened with the shorter title at the East Village’s Bouwerie Lane Theatre on December 20, 1968.
It transferred to the Theatre de Ly [the Lortel] on April 22, 1969, where it on May 10, 1970 after 575 performances. It was directed and choreographed by Neal Kenyon. Peters and Christmas [Ruby and Dick] reprised their roles. The cast featured Steve Elmore as the Director/Captain, Tamara Long as Mona Kent, Joseph Sicari as Lucky, and Sally Stark, who attended a recent preview at the Helen Hayes, as Joan.
Later Rubys were Loni Ackerman, Bonnie Franklin, Janie Sell, Barbara Sharma, and Pia Zadora. The Off Broadway production won Drama Desk Awards for Best Performance, Outstanding Director, and Outstanding Lyrics.
In November 1971, Walter Miller directed a TV adaptation by the original creators starring Ann-Margret as Ruby, Ann Miller as Mona, Anne Meara as Joan, Harvey Evans as Dick, Fred Gwynne as Hennesy, Dick Shawn as the Captain, and with an added ensemble for the production numbers.
Robin Miller, adapted Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, with music by Julian Slade of Salad Days. He was an activist for "the beleaguered and the unfortunate members of society, espoused gay and lesbian rights, took care of homeless people and helped many asylum seekers find their way through the complexity of officialdom." George Haimsohn died in 2302 at age 77 and Jim Wise passed in 2000 at age 81. Wise, who wrote the musical Yankee Ingenuity in 1976, and the children’s musical Olaf, with Don Price, in 1997, endowed Ohio’s Wooster College with the Allardice-Wise Scholarship, in memory of his friend and classmate James Allardice. The scholarship continues to be awarded "to a senior Theatre major of exceptional talent and interest in theater."
== Ellis Nassour