Lucille Ball Would Have Been Perfect in a Non-Musical Remake of “AUNTIE MAME”

Lucille Ball as the lovable character “MAME.”

Lucille Ball, they say, was terribly miscast in the title role of the movie MAME.  It’s been uttered so many times you’d think it was a universal truth.  “Lucy was too old.”  “Lucy couldn’t sing.”  “Angela Lansbury played it better on Broadway.”  I could  recite the list of reasons why they say she shouldn’t have done it the way she did it in my sleep.

And yet…

If you take away the distracting, and ridiculous, soft-focus shots they used to film her close-ups, which the movie could well have done without,  and if the singing numbers had been dubbed, what would you have?  The lady’s acting in the role of irrepressible, unconventional “Mame Dennis” can hardly be faulted.  She nails every scene, and not as a “Lucy Ricardo” type, either.  If I hadn’t grown up on “I Love Lucy” reruns, I never even would have guessed this part was played by the same actress.

Take the scene where she’s fired from the department store.  She’s tried on the roller skates to demonstrate them for her handsome customer, “Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside.”  She gets fired from the job.  She can’t get out of the skates because she’s knotted the laces.

What does Mame do?  Well, first let’s look at what she ought to do, what anyone else in her position back then would have done.  After all, it’s a scene set in 1929, she’s broke, the world is a different, stuffier place, and to be a lady accidentally on skates out in public in a store is supposed to be mightily embarrassing.  Yet watch the scene.  The character holds herself up high, as if being stuck in those skates is an honor, not a disaster.  She makes it look deliberate, a matter of pride, yet it’s all subtly done.

I imitated her stance for years, after seeing this movie as a child, whenever I got myself into a bit of a jam.  If life gives you lemons, stand tall, even if you’re five foot one, like me, and make some lemonade, folks.  Wherever you are, Lucy, thank you so much for that scene!

I only wish that Lucy had tried to make a remake of AUNTIE MAME, the non-musical movie version of the same basic story that was made in the 1950’s and starred Rosalind Russell.  Yes, Lucy in the musical was a mistake, but if she had starred in AUNTIE MAME, sans the unnecessary gauzy close-ups and songs, I think she’d have been remembered well for it, and rather than going down in motion picture history as something of a bad joke, it would be remembered as a good movie.

And let me add this: I hate it that Lucy took abuse for this movie!  Her version was the very first one I saw of this story, so Lucy was “my Mame.”  The joy and love and fun of this movie gave me a whole new perspective – and even got me through several godawful years at a terrible, abusive school.  Wherever you are, I say, BRAVA, Lucy!  Just wish I could have told you in person.

 

Stunning in every outfit: Lucy as MAME.

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An Incredibly Fantastic Tony Awards Opening Saluting Theater Kids

Theater kids, I always say, are the same as any other kids anywhere.  We just happen to dance to a different beat.  Make that a happy, uplifting beat.  Take if rom me, Broadway music can give children the kind of boost that can provide them the impetus to rise above practically anything.

So many times, when I meet another adult and find out they were  a fellow musical-theater-lovin’ kid, it’s funny, but on first meeting I usually feel like I’ve known them forever.  There’s a distinct and glowing difference to these wonderful people, an “anything’s possible” attitude of positivity.  That’s especially true of those who love musicals like MAME, the story of a woman who embraces life to the fullest and the show I was in at twelve, in a theater workshop that changed my whole life.  I remember how much the theater meant to me when I was young, especially during the years I was attending a particularly nasty and miserably-run school.  I think a lot of kids, when surrounded by the ugly, reach for the good to counter-balance it, and we find it in the theater.  There wasn’t any place to be that was anywhere near as fabulous to me, especially then, as any seat in any theater, be it on Broadway or the nearest high school gym.

I have been watching The Tony Awards since I was twelve years old, and I’ve always loved them, the annual televised salute to the best of Broadway.  I especially love seeing the numbers from the newly nominated musicals, which help me decide which ones I want to rush right out and see, and which cast albums, I want to get, too.

This year, though, last night, the opening number was, undisputedly, beyond a doubt, the very best one of them all.  It was a salute to theater kids!  It was all about us, and how our love of the theater put so many of us onto our career paths.  Host James Corden illustrated what it was like for him to be brought to the theater by his parents, complete with a “Little James” character of his younger self.  Before I was the author of Mama Rose’s Turn: The True Story of America’s Most Notorious Stage Mother, once upon a time, I was a little girl sitting in a plush seat at the Winter Garden Theater, enchanted by watching Angela Lansbury in GYPSY come up the aisle, calling out, “Sing out, Louise!”    I’ve even got plans for a fiction book, a mystery, for middle school-age kids,  set during the era of traveling vaudeville acts, and you can be sure, the love I have for that long-ago time period that all began the day I was in that audience of GYPSY.

James Corden and anyone else involved in writing this phenomenal number should get a special award for it, not to mention a gold star in heaven, too.  Oh, and did I happen to mention, the nominees are in it?  Take a look!  Here it is, boys!  Here it is, WORLD!  Here’s the best Opening Number of the Tony Awards of them all.  This is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.  Enjoy!

 

 

The Broadway Performance I Wish I’d Seen: Angela Lansbury and Beatrice Arthur as Mame and Vera!

Every theater fan has a Broadway performance they wish with all their heart they could have seen live.

If I hadn’t been five years old in 1966 and too young to go to Broadway in Kindergarten, mine would have been the Angela Lansbury original Broadway production of Jerry Herman’s MAME.

In particular, I would have loved to see Angela and Beatrice Arthur perform this little gem on the stage: “Bosom Buddies.”  We’re all very lucky that they performed it two decades later on the Tony Awards and it was preserved. Still, to have seen this on the stage when the show first premiered certainly would have been wonderful.  Take a look and enjoy!

Hey, Hollywood: THE UPSTAIRS ROOM is Still a Hit Waiting to Happen!

Look out, world, here we come!  Author Johanna Reiss and Me.

Look out, world, here we come! Johanna Reiss, Author of “The Upstairs Room,” and Me on Governors Island.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the undiscovered Hollywood hit movie waiting to happen is the true story detailed in my friend Johanna Reiss’ book, The Upstairs Room.  I read it and loved it when I was a child and have always wondered just why it was never made into a movie – yet.

Johanna, called “Annie” as a child, and her older sister Sini had to be hidden as young girls in Holland because they were Jewish and it was World War II.  They were sheltered by a prosperous family named the Hanninks for a few months, but the Hanninks were helping a lot of Jews and grew nervous about keeping the sisters.  The girls were moved to the home of a local farmer, Johan Oosterveld.  Johan, his wife Dientje, and his mother, Opoe, kept the girls safely hidden.

Johan, Dientje and Opoe were true heroes in the way they rose to the occasion and sheltered Sini and Annie during the war.  They are also characters that are so unpretentious that they’re funny, on the one hand – and so ingenious in the ways they protected the girls that they’re absolutely brilliant on the other.  At one point, Nazis even took over another room in their house for a few weeks to use as an office, and…well, if you want to know more, you’ll have to read the book!  I can not imagine an actor or actress alive who would not want to grab the chance to play these fantastic real-life heroes.  Every Jewish person who survived the war has a story and this one, in particular, deserves to be told.

The two hidden girls, Sini and Annie, survived the war. That’s Annie, in the photo above, all grown up, with me, yesterday, pedaling a Surrey on Governor’s Island.  We’ve been best friends pretty much since the day we met about a year and a half ago.  She’s fun!  Getting that surrey moving was a bit of a challenge.  It got stuck in the cracks on a sidewalk when Annie was trying to drive it in a U-turn.  We had to bail out while I extricated the thing.  After that, I steered it.  I said, “This is like an I Love Lucy episode, say, ‘Lucy and Ethel Pedal a Surrey!'”  Annie taught me how to sing “Long Live the Queen” in Dutch and now I can’t stop bursting forth with it.  I recently gave her the Original Broadway Cast Recording of Mame so she could learn the song “Bosom Buddies,” since that’s what we are, sung by Angela Lansbury and Beatrice Arthur.

Speaking of Angela Lansbury…now there would be perfect casting for “Opoe!”

Anyone interested in making the book into a movie can contact the author through www.johannareiss.com.

 

Jerry Herman and The Ripple Effect

Jerry Herman with Carol Channing.  He wrote the music and lyrics to her biggest hit, HELLO DOLLY!

Jerry Herman with Carol Channing. He wrote the music and lyrics to her biggest hit, HELLO DOLLY!

Happy Birthday today, July 10th, to the gentleman who has brought so much fun and joy to my life: The one, the only, the magnificent, splendiferous, fabulous Broadway composer Jerry Herman!

Whenever I hear a story about the positive power of “the ripple effect,” and how one person’s acts of good can reach more people than they may ever have dreamed possible, I think of Jerry Herman.  This is a man I’ve only met twice, once at an album-signing in a Barnes & Noble, and another time at a stage door.  However, he’s been enhancing my life since I was three years old with his upbeat, positive, happy music.

Jerry Herman wrote the Broadway shows Milk & Honey, Hello, Dolly!, Mame, Dear World, Mack and Mable and La Cage aux Folles.  Take a look at these lyrics from the song This is the Land of Milk and Honey from the first one.  It’s about the building of the nation of Israel which, when initially settled, was a desert requiring a whole lot of hard work to transform into an oasis.  One look and you’ll see what I mean about Mr. Herman’s amazing outlook:

What if the earth is dry and barren?

What if the morning sun is mean to us?

For this is a state of mind we live in

We want it green and so!  It’s green to us!

For when you have wonderful plans for tomorrow

Somehow even today looks fine

So what if it’s rock and dust and sand?

This lovely land is mine! 

Mr. Herman is from Jersey City, New Jersey, originally.  I wish the stereotype of Jersey people were more like that of the Herman family and less of the godfathers and the goodfellas.  People like the Hermans do New Jersey residents proud.  Jerry was blessed with the gift of an encouraging mother named Ruth.  Her philosophy is said to come through a lot of his songs.  When he asked her once, as a child, why she was having a party, her response was, “It’s today!”  That became one of my favorite songs from Mame.  Here’s some more lyrics for you:

Light the candles,

Get the ice out,

Roll the rug up,

It’s today!

Though it may not be anyone’s birthday,

And though it’s far from the first of the year,

I know that this very minute

Has history in it – we’re here!

It was Ruth who encouraged her son to be a composer, and the world is a better place because she did.  My house is filled with old vinyl LP’s and newer CD’s of music by Jerry Herman.  My iPod is loaded with all of my favorite Jerry Herman tunes – Open a New Window, The Best of Times, With You on My Arm, Each Tomorrow Morning, Bosom Buddies, Mame, Put on Your Sunday Clothes, Elegance, Hello, Dolly!  It’s been said that “input determines output.”  I have never been a sad or depressed person.  How could I ever be?  Jerry’s tunes have been playing in the background my whole life!

I know quite a few “Broadway babies” who feel the same way about these songs.  There are quite a lot of us, people he doesn’t know but whose lives he’s uplifted for the better.  Whenever I meet up with one for the first time, they always feel, automatically, like an old friend.  They’ve got the same kind of can-do outlook, the same spirit that if you want something, you’re capable of getting it, or that if there’s an obstacle, it can and it will be overcome.  When you have wonderful plans for tomorrow somehow even today looks fine!

I hope Jerry Herman has wonderful plans for today, his 83rd birthday.  I also hope he realizes how much good he’s done for so many of us “out there” in the land of the public.  He might not know us personally, but we’re certainly a more terrific group than we might have been, all thanks to knowing and loving his work.

By the way, my iPod also filled with songs played by Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, the band from Broadway Empire, and as I write this, I’ve just had the most brilliant idea.  Wouldn’t it be fantastic if Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks were to record a Jerry Herman Songbook Album?  I can’t resist putting that little idea out there.  Who knows?  Perhaps it will create a nice ripple effect of its own!

 

Angela Lansbury, who became a musical comedy mega-star in Jerry Herman's MAME, presents him with his well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Tony Award.  BRAVO!

Angela Lansbury, who became a musical comedy mega-star in Jerry Herman’s MAME, presents him with his well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Tony Award. BRAVO!

 

 

 

Peggy Herman Sings Jerry Herman at Feinstein’s & a Visit from Arlynn Presser

Some weekends are just plain spectacular.

On Sunday evening I was invited to a show that my friend Richard Skipper had been promoting at Feinstein’s night club in Manhattan.  His friend Peggy Herman had recorded a new CD of songs by my all-time-favorite Broadway composer bar none, Jerry Herman.  Jerry Herman is so multi-talented that he wrote the music and the lyrics to some of the best shows Broadway ever produced – like Milk and Honey, Hello, Dolly!, Mame, Dear World, Mack and Mabel and La Cage aux Folles – and more.  His greatest inspiration was his beautiful mother, Ruth, who believed in Jerry from the moment he was born.  Ruth even set up the meeting with another songwriter, Frank Loesser, that led to Jerry becoming the composer that the world loves.  Ruth’s positivity wound up in every one of her son’s songs.  In addition to the title songs of most of the shows, they include “Open a New Window,” “It’s Today,” “Each Tomorrow Morning,” “We Need a Little Christmas,” “With You On My Arm,” “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” and “The Best of Times.”

That, right there, is already a collection of numbers bright enough to light up a large metropolis.

For me, though, Jerry Herman’s music means a whole lot more.  Back when I was a kid being bullied by a gaggle of kids so vicious they could have done a Fascist youth group proud, it was a lifeline.  I loved it, played it constantly, and, thank God, it kept me flying above the type of despair that plagued so many other bullied kids.  If Jerry wrote it, I believed it.  I particularly loved the line in “Open a New Window” that deliciously advocated, “Whenever they say you’re slightly unconventional just put your thumb up to your nose” while around people who couldn’t appreciate you.  How perfect!  Bullies destroy plenty of children, but after hearing that, they didn’t have a chance with me.  Somehow I got the idea from those fabulous songs that great times were waiting for me, just as I was waiting for them.  I was all of twelve years old.

It’s thirty-nine years later, but I still go to every Jerry Herman show or event possible.  Fortunately, tons of them seem to happen right here in New York.  This was one of the best.  Feinstein’s is a great venue in Loew’s Regency Hotel on Park Avenue, and Peggy Herman’s event was as spectacular as Jerry Herman’s songs!  I was seated at the same table as another friend, Elli the King of Broadway.  This night was also the launch of Peggy’s CD, Herman on Herman: Peggy Sings Jerry, and she gave every person who attended the show a complimentary copy.  And what a CD!  I thought I knew all of Jerry’s songs, but Peggy found three even I wasn’t familiar with – “It’s As Simple As That,” “The Best in the World,” and “To Be Alone With You.”  She also included one of my all-time but little-known favorites, “World, Take Me Back,” a Broadway belt number which was written for Ethel Merman when she took over the leading role in Hello, Dolly!

I thought one of the best parts of the night came towards the end of the show.  Peggy acknowledged plenty of people, including her 92-year-old voice teacher.  It just happened to be his birthday.  Peggy led the audience as we all sang “Happy Birthday” to him and the waiters brought out a cake!

My weekend wasn’t done yet, because I’d put in for a long one at work and had Monday off, too, in honor of the fact that my Facebook friend Arlynn Presser was visiting from Chicago.  Arlynn also has a blog here on WordPress.  One day it was the “featured blog” and I read it – and was amazed.  Arlynn’s agoraphobic but decided to fight it.  She has been going around the world for over a year to meet all of her Facebook friends in person!  Don’t every say anything can’t be done.  She’s living proof that it can!

I was going to have Arlynn, who was staying in a Brooklyn hotel, meet me at the Brooklyn Museum and Botanical Gardens, but they close both on Mondays (oh, what nerve)!  We met up at the Aquarium in Coney Island instead.  Incredibly, we turned out to be so much alike that it was kind of astonishing, and I had more fun than I’ve had in ages. We look so much alike that the Cantonese woman giving me a manicure  at nail salon in the Russian neighborhood by Coney that we hit after lunch thought we were sisters.  We seem to have the same taste in just about everything.  Next up, I’m visiting her in Chicago!

So it’s been a wonderful last couple of days.  Thank you Richard, Elli, Peggy, Arlynn…and Jerry.  Long, long ago, it was Jerry Herman’s songs that make me think that some day I’d have, well, spectacular weekends exactly like this one.  If there’s any bullied kids out there, please take note – and take heart.

Mr. Herman, if you ever read this, please know that with what I owe you, you’ll absolutely never be broke.  Hats off to your inspirational mother Ruth, too.