Remembering Ethel

Sardi’s unveiling; Bolshoi voices; Broadway centennial

I sat with legendary star Patricia Neal at the Sardi’s unveiling of artist Jessica Daryl Winer’s seven-paneled screen, depicting a century of Broadway performers. The subject of the recently deceased Shelley Winters came up, an undeniably gifted actress who led a complex life.

“I acted with Shelley in the film, ‘An Unremarkable Life,’” Neal remembered. “I had one very good, strong scene, but during it, she carried on, trying to draw attention to herself any way she could. I adored Tony Franciosa [Winters’ one-time husband] with whom I did ‘A Face in the Crowd.’ In one scene, I had to strike him and [director] Elia Kazan told me to hit him as hard as I possibly could. Well, I did, and it was so hard, he burst into tears and ran to his dressing room. Poor baby, I loved him!”

Neal won her 1963 for “Hud,” which she calls “the shortest performance to ever win Best Actress. I had maybe one other scene which they cut, but that was really all there was for me in the script.” She recently performed Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” with actor Joel Vig, who did the adaptation, in real Capoteland, Birmingham, Alabama, to thrilled audiences. She loved the film, “Capote,” marveling over Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance and, when I asked if she had ever met Capote, answered, “Yes, twice. But since I wasn’t a glamour girl like Babe Paley or C.Z. Guest, he didn’t have much time for me.”

It was sublime to hear the thrilling fervor and awesome vocal support at Carnegie Hall’s “Stars of the Bolshoi Opera” concert on January 21. Apparently, Russian singers aren’t as obsessed with weight issues as their Western counterparts are, for all five performers?sopranos Makvala Kasrashvili and Larisa Rudakova, tenor Badri Maisuradze, fantastic bass Mikhail Kazakov, and towering mezzo Elena Manistina?were full-bodied and wholly comfortable with it. I asked them about the phenom of the big Russian voice. Most of them merely shrugged their shoulders modestly, but Rudakova, who had delivered a delightfully agile “Una voce poco fa,” said, ?I think it might be our language?its sounds are very round.” Kasrashvili, marvelous veteran diva of the Bolshoi, said it was also a mystery to her. “But, you know, I am really Georgian. I love America and made my debut in 1969 at the Met in ‘Eugen Onegin.’ My favorite roles, though, are Tosca and Turandot.”

January 16 would have been the 100th birthday of Ethel Merman, and the occasion was marked by a sardine-packed event at Danny’s Skylight Room on January 25. The party was tied to the publication of Geoffrey Marks’ dishy book, “Ethel Merman: the Biggest Star on Broadway” (Barricade), and impressionist Richard Skipper slipped out of his familiar Carol Channing mode to deliver a ringing, Merman-esque welcome with the song, “It’s Good to Be Here,” from her show, “Happy Hunting.” During rehearsals for that show, co-star Fernando Lamas asked director Abe Burrows if Merman would deliver all her lines in their scenes straight out to the audience. Merman said, “I’ve been doing that for 25 years!” Lamas replied, “That proves two things — you are not always right, and you are very old.” Merman didn’t speak to him for the entire year’s run of the show.

My favorite Merman story was when she had her famous pompadour hairstyle revamped for a personal appearance. The hairdresser had arranged a series of unflattering little spitcurls framing her face. When her friend, Benay Venuta, expressed reservations about it, Ethel said, “Screw you! I like a little fuckin’ softness around my face!”

A famous co-star of Merman’s, Paula Laurence, died last October 29 at age 92, and her life was celebrated at Chez Josephine, also on January 25, with a glittering gathering of her nearest and dearest. Laurence, born Paula De Lugo in Brooklyn, appeared with Merman in Cole Porter’s “Something for the Boys,” Kurt Weill’s “One Touch of Venus,” Orson Welles’ “Horse Eats Hat” and “Dr. Faustus,” and “Ivanov” with John Gielgud and Vivien Leigh. With her late husband, producer/director Charles Bawden, she was a true benefactress of the arts, giving sage advice to generations of younger performers and a key supporter of New Dramatists, who sponsored the party with money Laurence left to the organization. Bawden produced Tennessee Williams’ plays and he and Laurence became the guardians of Williams’ institutionalized sister, Rose, after the playwright’s death.

Chez Josephine was wondrously transformed into Paulaland, with photos of her unique, haughtily libidinous face everywhere. Friends reminisced about her utter devotion to the theater and salty language. Actor Simon Callow, who was helped by Laurence with his Orson Welles bio, recalled how her advice made him attempt his first singing role in “The Woman in White.” A scarlet-clad Kitty Carlisle Hart remarked that Laurence once went out with her husband, Moss Hart — they were actually engaged. Hart then launched into an exquisite “September Song.” Merman specialist Clea Blackhurst sang a bang-up medley of songs from “Something for the Boys,” including “Leader of a Big Time Band,” which Laurence always insisted, incorrectly, that Merman never sang. I only wish my favorite Laurence song from that show, “By the Mississinewa,” had been performed, a song I’d sing whenever I saw her?to which she’d always respond, “John Guare does that, too!”

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com.

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