This has been an absolutely fantabulous weekend!
My friend, the incomparable Richard Skipper, was hosting two events and I went to them both. The first was the 50th Anniversary of Hello, Dolly! The show, with lyrics and music by Jerry Herman and starring Carol Channing, opened fifty years ago this week.
How did that happen to be fifty years ago? I can remember the happy day in 1964 when my father brought home the Louis Armstrong Hello, Dolly! album. I was three and a half, and remember it like it was last week. Dad came through the back door of our good old house in Roselle, NJ, carrying the album, put it on the old hi-fi, and a song full of joy infused the house. My mother, father and I were all dancing to it. For years the song was also in the juke box in Geiger’s restaurant in Westfield, NJ, and even though we had the record at home, I always played it there, too.
The cast reunion was held at the Sheet Music Society and featured actors from the original cast of the show, as well as from the touring companies, in discussion with Richard about their experiences. Hello, Dolly!, for anyone who may not know, is the story of a matchmaker, Dolly Levi. A widow for far too long, she’s supposed to be matching a half-a-millionaire named Horace Vandergelder up with another widow, milliner Mrs. Malloy, but…he’s caught Dolly’s eye, and she really wants him for herself. First, though, she has to decide it’s time to rejoin the human race. Dolly, Vandergelder, his niece Ermengard, her artist boyfriend, Ambrose, Mrs. Malloy, her shop assistant Minnie Fay, and Vandergelder’s two runaway employees, Barnaby Tucker and Cornelius Hackl, all convene in turn-of-the-century New York City. The fun begins, those not yet matched up are about to be, and you can already figure out which lady will ultimately get hitched to Vandergelder.
Richard read a letter that he had received from Jerry Herman about the show’s anniversary, and quoted his famous song lyrics, saying, “All I can say is ‘Wow wow wow, fellas, look at the old girl now, fellas!’”
I’ve heard it said that the show, along with the Louis Armstrong hit recording of the title song, were credited with cheering up America after the Kennedy assassination in 1963. What I didn’t realize until the reunion took place was that out-of-town tryout of the show had been scheduled for November 22, 1963. The show must go on, they say – but that assassination stopped America cold. The show didn’t take place for two nights, but then opened.
John F. Kennedy had been planning to attend one of the performances of the show when it played in Washington D.C. next. That of course was not to be. A cast member recalled watching Carol Channing on the phone with President Lyndon Johnson, saying that they were going to go on with the show, just as everyone in the country had to go on, despite what had happened. Nothing could better illustrate the fond place this show has found in the hearts of the public than this image I now have in my head of grieving star counseling grieving President and then getting out there to sing.
From this event I went to M.S. 51 in Brooklyn. It’s a middle school with an arts program. The kids were having a playwright’s festival. A friend’s grandson, Henry, was one of the promising playwrights whose work was chosen to be performed onstage by actors and there wasn’t a dull moment. I already can’t wait to see what these kids might create in the future!
Another event this weekend was Peggy Herman in Herman Sings Herman at the Laurie Beechman Theater in the West Bank Cafe. I have seen this fine lady perform before and she always delivers! She sang more show tunes written by Jerry Herman, including both parts of “I Won’t Send Roses” from Mack & Mabel and “Loving You” from Mame. At one point her special guest star, Lee Roy Reams, another Dolly alumnus, came onstage. He sang Hello, Dolly! – as Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, Ethel Merman and Louis Armstrong, all but channeling them, before leading the audience in singing the old favorite. I have never seen anything quite like it and already am hoping that Lee Roy will have a nightclub act next!
Want to find out what all the fuss was about with regard to that Hello, Dolly recording? Here’s Louis!