Broadway actor and renowned photographer Cris Alexander (b. Tulsa, OK, 14 January 1920; d. Saratoga Springs, NY, 7 March 2012), had the beginnings of a great career in musical theatre and film in the 1940s and ’50s, but spent most of his professional life photographing dancers, celebrities, friends, and associates. He is best remembered in the theatre world as the creator of the role of Chip, one of the three sailors in On the Town (1944), the show that introduced Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green (as well as himself) to Broadway.
Born Allen Smith and raised in Tulsa by his father, he went to Central High School with one Arthur Leonard Rosenberg – who later became Tony Randall – and several other exceptionally talented classmates. He had already adopted the name Christopher, anticipating that he would become a distinguished actor. On a lark he visited a spiritualist, who asked what it was he most desired. “Success!” he replied. She guaranteed him success if he would call himself Cris, without the “h.” The very next day, without the “h,” and even though he had a stutter, he went to a radio station and got a job as an announcer, with his own weekly radio show.
After high school Cris Alexander attended the University of Oklahoma for a brief time, but soon left for New York City – “I thought they were waiting for me.” It was 1938 and he was eighteen. He opened a photographic studio, which he was to maintain for many years to come, acted in summer stock, and studied at the Feagin School of Dramatic Art. In 1944, when a friend was hired for the chorus of a new Broadway show, Alexander, who had never sung on stage, took a flyer and auditioned for George Abbott, the renowned director and producer. Fifty years later, Alexander recalled the ever-courteous Abbott asking him, “Would you mind not leaving?”
The show was On the Town, and Cris, as Chip, was the tallest of the three sailors (John Battles and Adolph Green were Gabey and Ozzie, respectively) on 24-hour leave in the big city, looking for romance and making the most of their free time. Paired with the diminutive Nancy Walker, Alexander sang “Come Up to My Place,” “Ya Got Me,” and “Some Other Time.”
The 462 performances of On the Town kept him busy until 1946, at which time he took the part of the obsessed young playwright Roland Maule in Noël Coward’s Present Laughter, starring Clifton Webb. After March 1947 Alexander was absent from Broadway until 1953, when he played the ineffectual drugstore manager Frank Lippencott in another Bernstein musical, Wonderful Town. (His understudy, who never got a chance to go on, was Hal Prince.) This show ran until July 1954 (559 performances), and Alexander reprised his role, as Rosalind Russell did hers, in the television film version in 1958.
Meanwhile, both Cris Alexander and Rosalind Russell had been starring in the Broadway dramatization (1956) of Patrick Dennis’s blockbuster novel Auntie Mame, which at 639 performances was a substantial hit. In addition to acting as Assistant Stage Manager, Alexander played three roles: Osbert, Huntsman, and the excitable Macy’s toy department manager, Mr. Loomis. It was during this run that he formed a close and durable friendship with actress Peggy Cass, who won a Tony® as Best Featured Actress and a Theatre World Award for her performance as Agnes Gooch. (By this time he was thoroughly and openly attached to his life partner, the celebrated City Ballet character dancer Shaun O’Brien.) Once again, Alexander appeared (as did Broadway cast members Cass and Yuki Shimoda) with Roz Russell in the film version of Auntie Mame (1958).
That was the last brush with Broadway performance that Cris Alexander was to have, although he designed projections for the Danny Kaye vehicle, Two by Two, in 1970, and maintained lifelong contact with Peggy Cass, Patrick Dennis, and many other celebrities through his photography and painting. He played small roles in two more movies, The Littlest Angel (1969, for television) and Cauliflower Cupids (1970).
“I would have gotten very hungry if I had just been an actor,” Alexander said in an interview in 1980, but he never had any trouble making it as a photographer. He had begun snapping with a Brownie at age eleven in Tulsa, opened his own studio when he arrived in New York at eighteen (his first subject was Gordon MacRae), and while in the Broadway whirlwind gave lots of masquerade parties for his friends, which he documented on film. One day Patrick Dennis visited the apartment of Alexander and O’Brien and admired the snapshots pinned to the bathroom walls. “These are your real work,” he said.
They suggested to Dennis a collaboration: a photographically documented “phony autobiography of a rotten movie star.” The final product, written by Dennis and illustrated with over 150 elaborately costumed and posed photographs by Alexander (many of them staged in Dennis’s palatial 91st Street townhouse), was Little Me: The Intimate Memoirs of That Great Star of Stage, Screen and Television, Belle Poitrine. Models for the fictional characters in Belle’s saga included Jeri Archer, Broadway veterans Alice Pearce, Dody Goodman, and Kaye Ballard, Patrick Dennis’s wife and children, Shaun O’Brien, Rosalind Russell, Peggy Cass, the author and photographer themselves, and dozens of friends. First published in 1961, the book was reissued as a paperback twenty years later; the quality of the photographs in the smaller format, however, was less than satisfactory.
Neil Simon adapted Little Me as a musical for production on Broadway in 1962, but he ignored both the satirical punch and campiness of the book: where the main point had been Belle’s own hypocritical varnishing of her ruthless climb to fame, Simon’s focus was on comedian Sid Caesar’s vaudeville turn as seven (the hats on the cast album cover) of her eight successive lovers, and she was relegated to the background.
So successful (as well as revolutionary and influential) was Little Me as a book, that Alexander and Dennis tried again, with First Lady: My Thirty Days Upstairs in the White House (1964), the story of Martha Dinwiddie Butterfield (posed by Peggy Cass), the airhead wife of a turn-of-the-century robber baron who managed to steal the U.S. presidency.
Alexander was noted for his many (non-satirical) portraits of celebrities, among them Gloria Vanderbilt, Vivian Leigh, Andy Warhol, Martha Graham, Mother Teresa, and even Anderson Cooper as a teenager. He was the official photographer for the New York City Ballet for many years, and chief photographer for Warhol’s Interview magazine from 1980 to 1986.
He and O’Brien first went to Saratoga Springs, the summer home of the New York City Ballet, in 1966, and bought a house there in 1973. Closing the New York photographic studio, they retired and moved permanently to Saratoga Springs in 1991, where they became an integral part of the artistic community. When same-sex marriage became legal in New York in 2011, they married, having already spent 61 years together.
Both O’Brien and Alexander died “of natural causes” in early 2012, within 13 days of one another. It has been widely opined that Cris Alexander simply died of a broken heart. But it is also recognized that he had a wonderful life; he is quoted in his NY Times obituary recalling something his acting teacher, Marjorie Jefferson, once said to him:
“Tell me, Cris, – you were such a good actor, why did you never amount to anything?” She paused to reconsider: “No that’s not true. You were about the most ambitious person I’ve ever known – ambitious to have a lovely life.”
– Lucy E. Cross
Photo courtesy of Photofest