Broadway’s greatest moments and the stars who made them
“Rise and shine! Rise and shine!” I can hear it now, and in her voice, and so all his life could Tom Wingfield, also known as Thomas Lanier Williams, aka Tennessee Williams, and so, as they talk to Rick McKay, can Gena Rowlands, Uta Hagen, Ben Gazzara, Fred Ebb, Charles Durning, and dozens of others.
Durning says it best: “I thought they’d pulled her in off the street.”
He is talking about Laurette Taylor (1884-1946), whose performance as Amanda Wingfield, Tom’s mother, Laura’s mother, in the 1945 New York premiere of “The Glass Menagerie” at the Royale Theater on Broadway is and will always remain the American high water mark of acting that goes beyond acting to be (that is, to seem like) no acting at all.
“I saw her five times in ‘The Glass Menagerie,’” says the also great Uta Hagen whom we lost only some months ago, “and ten times in ‘Outward Bound.’”
“Cabaret” lyricist Fred Ebb saw “The Glass Menagerie” seven times. In one instance that Ebb still carries in his gizzards, Laurette Taylor “turned around and pulled down her girdle, and I have never been so affected by a stage action in my whole life. It made me weep.”
“She could have been my mother,” says Ben Gazzara, speaking of the telephone scene in which a desperate Amanda Wingfield tries to get a female acquaintance to renew a magazine subscription at five or six o’clock in the morning.
“It makes you laugh and cry in the same breath. How do you do that?” says Gazzara. “Only people do that. I think we’ve all been striving to be her, one way or another.”
Rick McKay’s movie is the heart-stopping two-hour documentary “Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There,” opening June 11 at the Angelika. If you think I’m kidding about your heart skipping a beat or two, just wait until there suddenly jumps out at you from the screen a little touch of Julie Harris in “The Member of the Wedding” (1951-52), of Kim Stanley in “Bus Stop” (1955), of Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy in “Streetcar” (1947), of Gwen Verdon, of “West Side Story,” and of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
Also some very rare footage of a 1930s Laurette Taylor screen test for David O. Selznick’s “Young in Heart” in a Hollywood that, looking at it, thought she didn’t know how to act and threw it, and her, away.
It is this playgoer’s belief that Rick McKay made “Broadway: The Golden Age” just for me. When I was in my infancy—artistic infancy, anyway—I not only saw Laurette Taylor in “The Glass Menagerie” but that unknown somebody named Brando who thundered out on stage in “A Streetcar Named Desire” as the living embodiment of the Eddie Szemplenski and Johnny Wodarski I had only lately served with in the Army.
Durning, recalling (pre-“Streetcar”) Brando in “Truckline Café,” says, “I thought: another guy they pulled off the street. Too good to be an actor.”
These were the years a good bit before Rick McKay of Beech Grove, Indiana, got to New York. The years of Brando, Julie Harris, Geraldine Page, Kim Stanley, Shirley MacLaine, Chita Rivera, Paul Newman, Uta Hagen, Ethel Waters, Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, Eva Marie Saint, Richard Burton, Hume Cronyn, John Raitt, Patricia Morrison, and on and on.
Living stage. Living actors.
“I never got tired of watching Kim Stanley,” Elaine Stritch tells McKay and his camera. “Never! Never!”
A golden age indeed.
Those were the years also of the gathering places: Walgreen’s and Gray’s drug stores, the all-night Childs on Columbus Circle, Downey’s Steak House on Eighth Avenue at 44th Street, the Automat, the Rehearsal Club. In those years, four young actresses would gang up together—as Carol Burnett remembers—to buy and share one $20 go-to-auditions dress from Bloomingdale’s. Subway rides cost five cents and hamburgers were a dime.
“Somebody told me: ‘You don’t need that stuff about Downey’s. Nobody today knows about Downey’s.’ And that,” says Rick McKay, “is why Downey’s is in this film.”
“Theater was a community then,” says playwright Arthur Laurents.
“Oh, a big family,” says dearly missed artist Al Hirschfeld, who eternalized everyone in this whole movie and thousands more. A big family except for the cold secretaries in producers’ and agents’ offices, as Marion Seldes all too well remembers.
Rick McKay stood in his not very big living room—maybe 16 feet by 20 feet—in an old building on the Upper West Side, and said, “I shot and interviewed a lot of them right here: Gwen Verdon, Elizabeth Ashley, Hume Cronyn, Alec Baldwin, Fay Wray, Fred Ebb, Chita Rivera, Marian Seldes, Tony Roberts, Lainie Kazan, Lilian Montevecchi, Angela Lansbury, Barbara Cook, Kaye Ballard—at least 40 of them [of 90 in the complete movie] here in this room.
“Alec Baldwin arrived with his agent. He expected a studio. In the mirror I saw him mouth to his agent: ‘I’ll kill you.’ Then he looked at my two cats and started sneezing. I said: ‘Mr. Baldwin, aren’t you an animal rights activist?’ He sniffed and said: ‘Dogs!’ But in the end he warmed up and gave a terrific interview.”
“Where did you put all this together?” the playgoer asked.
“In my bedroom. Here, let me show you,” McKay responded.
He leads the way to his bedroom, half the size of the living room. A foldaway Murphy bed makes space for the editing process.
“Betty Garrett told me about Murphy beds. She used three phrases I’d never heard before: In-a-door bed, studio couch, cupboard kitchen.”
An actor and cabaret performer himself before he turned producer for WNET 13’s “City Arts,” McKay in the summer of 1998 was at a July 4 party at June Havoc’s house in Connecticut. Havoc’s assistant, Tana Sabillio, introduced him to two quite beautiful young women, sisters Jessica and Deborah Winer. “Here’s a good piece for you at ‘City Arts,’” said Ms. Sabillio. “Deborah’s a writer. Jessica’s an artist. She’s doing a huge mural of Broadway show people for the Visitors Center on Times Square.”
The mural, 40 feet long, was being laid out at that moment on the floor of the National Arts Club on Gramercy Square.
“I went down, took a look at it, made a little demo, brought it to Channel 13, where, to make a long story short, I was told: ‘Oh, Broadway theater’s too old fashioned, we want young and hip,’ so I decided to try to make it”—a documentary on this Broadway mural—“on my own.”
When McKay discussed his idea with top-notch film editor Wendey Stanzler, she said: ‘You know what’s missing? You have to talk to the people in the mural.’”
So, McKaye set forth to do that.
Two of the people he filmed first were Patricia Morrison and Gwen Verdon.
When McKay asked Morrison if anyone had known in advance that “Kiss Me Kate” was going to be a hit, she replied: “Oh, no, not till we opened in Philadelphia—and we made our own costumes.”
“Why did no one ever ask me these questions?” Verdon said: “They always just asked about Bob [Fosse].”
Rick watched Verdon walk away from his building—a dancer’s walk, the walk of royalty. Not long later, Gwen Verdon, who all her life never thought she was beautiful, died in her sleep.
It’s not in his movie, but 43-year-old Rick McKay vividly remembers when, at the 1985 Tony Awards, Chita Rivera in top hat and cutaway, doing a number from “Chicago,” grasped a cane handed her from behind by a shadowing Gwen Verdon—and the audience went crazy.
“I don’t know if we live to be 100 if Bebe Neuwirth will generate that madness,” McKay said. “There was a time when people grew up as going-to-theater people. No longer. It’s too expensive just to go to the theater to see one person that you love on stage.”
Or as Rex Reed puts it in the film: “Every year there used to be a new Kim Stanley play. When will there be a Cherry Jones play? She can’t wait for one.”
Making a movie even in your own living room and bedroom costs money.
“I couldn’t afford archival rights, music rights [the film is full of gorgeous standards], all that. I needed, and, thank God—and thanks to Jamie deRoy, who gave the party—I got an investor. He’s also a composer and his name is Al [Albert M.] Tapper.”
One day out of the blue, McKay received a phone call from Jane Klain of the Museum of Television and Radio.
“It was one of those things that don’t happen in life. She said: ‘I’ve heard about your film, and I know where there’s footage of ‘Bus Stop’ right off the stage.’ I said: ‘I can’t pay you anything.’ She said: ‘I don’t want money. I know where the bodies are buried.’ The ‘Bus Stop’ footage was at UCLA. Jane also came up with that Laurette Taylor screen test.”
McKay, who was born in Natick, Massachusett, on Aug. 30, 1960, but grew up in Indiana, arrived in New York in the early 80s “with a voice that I wish sounded like John Raitt—and then I found out John Raitt didn’t have a job either.”
When young McKay’s mother “was doing the vacuuming, she’d play Judy Garland at the Palace or at the Paladium. What chance did I have?”
One of the people who did not come to McKay’s Upper West Side apartment to be filmed was Elaine Stritch. He shot her at the Regency Hotel, having paid in advance for her limousine in from the Hamptons and for her hair stylist.
“But in the end it was worth it. She gave me the last line in the movie: ‘Rick, you got enough, for Christ’s sake.’”
Well, yes, except there’s a whole other movie somewhere out there in space, of wonderful stuff he had to edit out to get the film down to two hours.
And there’s “Broadway: The Next Generation.” That’s what the wannabe John Raitt is working on now.