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Dramatis Personae: The Passing Show Part 3

Dramatis Personae: The Passing Show Part 3

In the first part I talked about the early days of Gina Lollobrigida, Anna Magnani and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr and in the second part Holly Hunter.

I met several more cool people when we were at the “old place,” in 45th St, such as Paul Green, who stopped by several times. He had been a successful Broadway playwright in the 1930s, winning the Pulitzer Prize for In Abraham’s Bosom, before he started writing outdoor historical pageants such as The Lost Colony and The Stephen Foster Story, both of which are still performed every year. Mr. Green was an elderly, soft-spoken Southern gentleman, surprised that I knew who he was. 

The Dramatists Guild used to hold an annual party in May for every member who had had a play produced that season, and they invited a few industry people such as myself as well as old-time playwrights. I met the aforementioned Gar and Ruth, Robert Anderson and his wife, the actress Theresa Wright and several others. One year, I saw an elderly man sitting by himself, off to the side. Since nobody seemed to be paying any attention to him, I went over to him and introduced myself. His name was Marc Connelly, and he was surprised that I knew who he was. Mr. Connelly was George S. Kaufman’s first collaborator, and together they wrote Dulcy, Merton Of The Movies and Beggar on Horseback. In 1930, he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Green Pastures, which was set in Heaven and featured an all-black cast. It toured for years and made Richard B. Harrison, who played God (called in the play “De Lawd”) famous. He was also a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table. He told me some stories about Kaufman and the other Round Table members, all of which I have forgotten. I asked him if he was still writing plays; but no, he hadn’t written anything in years. He still saw every Broadway show, though, missioning in from New Jersey where he lived, but he told me he always left at the intermission because he just didn’t enjoy them, the theatre having changed so much since his day. He was a charming fellow; but I thought to myself, “This guy’s an Old Fart. I hope to God I never become one of those.” Later in this book I’m going to have a chapter on Old Fart-ism. 

While Samuel French was still at the Old Place a strange little man, a playwright named Bruce Millholland. used to drop by from time to time, usually to see if we had any money for him. He was a legendary moocher, notorious for crashing parties to get free food. He probably had a room in a flophouse. He had long white hair and the way he dressed was very eccentric. One day, he showed up all in emerald green, wearing green plastic shoes and large, thick glasses with green frames which made him look somewhat bug-eyed. He looked like a giant frog. I always enjoyed talking to Bruce, because he was very witty in a catty sort of way. In the 1920s and 30s, there was a guy at Samuel French who used to function as an agent, representing Bruce’s plays, none of which ever went anywhere except for one called Napoleon Of Broadway, which he managed to get optioned by George Abbott and Philip Dunning, who hired Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (who had written The Front Page) to rewrite it. This became Twentieth Century, a Broadway hit at the Broadhurst Theatre during the 1932-1933 season, which Mr. Abbott directed, running for 152 performances. In those days, a play which ran 152 performances was a hit. It would run five or six months, until late spring, then close because there was no air conditioning then, and go out on tour. I guess audiences on the road didn’t mind sweltering. The play was made into a very successful film which starred John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. Since Bruce wrote the original play, he received a tiny percentage of the royalties which, somehow, he lived on for the rest of his life. The play was revived in 1952, at the ANTA Theatre (which is now the August Wilson), and near the end of his life (which is when I first met him), he hit the jackpot when the musical version, On The Twentieth Century, opened on Broadway in 1978 at the St. James Theatre and became a hit, running for over a year. Bruce died in 1991, aged 88. 

After Samuel French moved to the New Place, the young actresses kept coming in. There were several acting schools and studios in the area. A woman had a studio nearby, where she worked with models who wanted to get into acting, and she would lead a group of them in from time to time and ask me to help them find scenes and monologues. For some reason they were all tall, very beautiful blondes, Jorge Ibbott, who worked in the Order Dept. for many years, called them the “Swedish Bikini Team.” He would come into my office, salute, and announce, “Sir, the Swedish Bikini Team has arrived!”

As I said, most of the young people who came in to see me were women; but. Occasionally, I got a guy. One was a muscular, very Italian fellow who had a thick Brooklyn accent. I gave him a couple of monologues which I used to call “monologues for Vinnies.” “Lemme show you something,” he said, and he rolled up his sleeve. He had “Vinnie” tattooed on his arm. Another was a very cute blonde man. I spent several minutes with him, and noticed that Lurch was lurking in the Order Dept., observing me. When I finished up, Lurch said, “He was attractive.” “Oh, come on, Peter,” I said. He asked, “Do you think he was a Club Member?” I told this story to my sister, who is a lesbian, and she said, “We call them family.”

Ron Howard

Sometimes, Famous People came in to talk to me. I had a couple of sessions with Ron Howard. Ron is a very friendly, unassuming man, and we always had a delightful chat. The second time he came in, he was looking for monologues for his daughter, who was auditioning for college theatre programs. She later became a pretty successful film actress – Dallas Bryce Howard. Robert Uhrich came in once, looking for the script of The Music Man, a revival of which was running on Broadway, because he had been asked to go into the show when the star, Craig Bierko, left. I had to tell him that the show was handled by Tams-Witmark, which didn’t sell their libretti but rented them, so we didn’t have a copy. We had a nice chat about “Lonesome Dove,” in which he played the horse thief Jake Spoon. He never did The Music Man

Dallas Bryce Howard

I met Twiggy once. She had been a super model (before that term was coined) in the 1960s, epitomizing the term “mod.” She was appearing in a musical revue of songs by Noël Coward called If Love Were All at the time and she wanted some plays to read. She bought them using her credit card which had her real name on it: Lesley Hornby. She’s now Dame Lesley Hornby and is 70 years old. Hard to believe.

The British actor and director Roger Rees came in often. He had shot to fame in the title role in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Nicholas Nickleby; and at the time I met him, he was the Artistic Director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. He was always looking for scripts to consider for production there. Roger was quite the wag, very funny. The Festival had recently opened a small theatre named after its late founder, Nikos Psacharapoulos, called the Nikos. Roger cracked, “Maybe when I die, they’ll name a theatre after me. They could call it the ‘Roger’.” To “Roger” is a British sex slang verb, as in, “I rogered her.” One time, he regaled me with stories about “corpsing” in the British theatre, a term for the common practice of an actor trying to make a fellow actor lose it and break character. He was pretty knowledgeable about plays, but he often asked my opinion of some of them which interested him. After he left Williamstown he co-wrote and co-directed Peter and The Starcatcher and starred in the musicals A Man Of No Importance and Kander and Ebb’s musical version of the Dürrenmatt play The Visit, alongside Chita Rivera. During the run, he developed cancer and died very quickly. I’m still waiting for Williamstown to honor him; if not with a theatre then perhaps with a lobby or rehearsal hall, called the “Roger.” 

Roger Rees Nicholas Nickleby

Come back next week for more.

Broadway

For over thirty years, Lawrence Harbison was in charge of new play acquisition for Samuel French, Inc., during which time he was responsible for the publication of hundreds of plays, by new playwrights such as Jane Martin, Don Nigro, Tina Howe, Theresa Rebeck, William Mastrosimone, Charles Fuller and Ken Ludwig among many others; and the acquisition of musicals such as Smoke on the Mountain, A…My Name Is Alice and Little Shop of Horrors. He has edited over 100 anthologies for Smith and Kraus, Inc. For Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, he has edited several monologue, full length, 10-minute and 5-minute play anthologies. Currently, he is editing books solely for Applause. He has set up a new division for Applause to publish and license individual full length plays, as well as the World Premiere Club. His column, “On the Aisle with Larry,” appeared in the Chelsea Clinton News and the Westsider for several years and then moved to www.smithandkraus.com. In December of 2019, it began running on the Applause website, www.applausebooks.com. It also appears on his blog at www.playfixer.com and on www.doollee.com, the international playwrights database. He also writes occasional columns for Theatre Record, a London-based magazine. He was a member for many years of two NYC press organizations, the Outer Critics Circle and the Drama Desk, and served on the Drama Desk Awards Nominating Committee for the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 seasons. He works with individual playwrights to help them develop their plays (see his website, www.playfixer.com). He has also served as literary manager or literary consultant for several theatres. He taught playwriting in the Theatre Dept. of the University of Michigan in the winter semester of 2016. He holds a B.A. from Kenyon College and an M.A. from the University of Michigan. His book, How I Did It: Establishing a Playwriting Career, a collection of interviews with playwrights, was published by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books in March, 2015. His latest anthologies of monologues and 10-minute plays were published in December, 2019 by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books.

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