By Peter Filichia
Go to Google Maps to locate the Emerson Colonial Theatre on Boylston Street in Boston.
Then punch in the Emerson Majestic Theatre on Tremont Street in that selfsame Boston, and you’ll find that the distance is a mere tenth of a mile.
That doesn’t sound like much, but it certainly seemed immense at 10 a.m. on July 16, 1962, when a line of people more than 525 feet long stretched from one theater to the other.
I was a young teen just getting interested in theater, so when I approached the Colonial from the Boston Common, I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. Oh, I knew that MR. PRESIDENT would be a hot ticket. Just the credentials and pedigree of those involved virtually guaranteed a smash.
The score was by the legendary Irving Berlin, who’d had two big hits out of his last three tries: ANNIE GET YOUR GUN and CALL ME MADAM. In between he had two equally big hit films: WHITE CHRISTMAS and THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS.
The book would be by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, authors of LIFE WITH FATHER, the longest-running play in Broadway history. (It still is.) Legend has it that before they had produced Joseph Kesselring’s ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, they’d doctored it a-plenty; without their help, it mightn’t have become the fourth-longest running play in Broadway history. Add to these achievements a 1946 Pulitzer for STATE OF THE UNION, produced by Leland Hayward, who’d produce MR PRESIDENT, too.
Lest you rebut that those were plays, their books for musicals included ANYTHING GOES, CALL ME MADAM, and, last but hardly least, the then-still-running THE SOUND OF MUSIC.
Directing MR. PRESIDENT was Joshua Logan, who’d steered Berlin’s ANNIE GET YOUR GUN to second place as the longest running book musical in Broadway history. It would, however, be plunged into third place three years later when it was surpassed by SOUTH PACIFIC – a musical conceived, co-written and directed by, yes, Joshua Logan, and co-produced by Hayward.
So, I knew that there’d be intense interest in MR. PRESIDENT. Still, months earlier when I’d arrived at the Colonial to buy a seat for IRMA LA DOUCE and showed up at the Shubert to purchase one for BYE BYE BIRDIE, I’d just sauntered up to the box office where one or two people stood ahead of me.
But those were national tours. In those days, nothing excited Boston theatergoers more than the world premiere of a new musical – especially ones by these luminaries. So, I might have expected some sort of a line the day the box-office opened.
Yet one a tenth-of-a-mile long? As I surveyed the slow-moving procession, I wondered how many tickets were left. Unlike adults, I had no checking account that would allow me to send in a mail order long in advance as they undoubtedly had. As for these other adults in line, they were theatergoers who preferred to see for themselves what seats and dates were available so they could have a wider selection from which to choose.
More miraculously still, this July 16 was a Monday morning – a workday for many, if not most. These jobholders would somehow have to convince their bosses (whose mail orders had already arrived) that they’d be a little late today.
Once I got a gander at all those would-be ticket buyers, I made what is still the worst decision of my theatergoing life.
I didn’t join the line.
If I’d only done the math! The show would play eight performances a week for a solid month. The Colonial was large (1,646 seats, I’d later learn). Thus, 52,672 seats were available.
The line wasn’t that long, and mail orders couldn’t have snapped up nearly that many tickets. Had I joined the parade, I’m sure that I would have snagged at least a single in the second balcony.
But I turned around and went home.
MR. PRESIDENT was also a hot ticket in Boston because John F. Kennedy, born in nearby Brookline, was in the White House, where many Massachusettians expected him to reside until January 19, 1969. Clearly Berlin, Lindsay and Crouse would be writing about a young, handsome and vibrant chief executive in his mold.
Instead, their Stephen Decatur Henderson would be played by Robert Ryan. Although he was only eight years Kennedy’s senior, he had an old-school presidential look, and more resembled McKinley, Wilson and Harding.
And he’d never done a musical.
The better news was that Nanette Fabray would portray his First Lady. Tonys didn’t mean as much then as they do now, but Fabray had landed one – and not in a hit, either: LOVE LIFE (a Kurt Weill-Alan Jay Lerner musical) in the same season in which Patricia Morison vied for the same prize for KISS ME, KATE.
Alas! I figured I’d just have to catch MR. PRESIDENT the following summer when my parents and I took our annual trip to New York. I just hoped by then I’d be able to get a ticket and the line at the St. James wouldn’t be nearly as long.
(Little did I know …)
In the meantime, MR. PRESIDENT’s songs were plentifully played on easy-listening radio stations. Robert Goulet’s “Don’t Be Afraid of Romance” staunchly urged, “Come on! Take a chance!” Who wouldn’t after that crisp delivery?
Vicki Belmonte, whom most wouldn’t know until almost a quarter century later when she became the original Sister Mary Hubert in NUNSENSE, recorded two songs with very teen-oriented orchestrations. In “I’m Gonna Get Him,” she insisted that she would land her man even if she’d “have to drop my shoulder strap.” For “The Secret Service” she sang, “I don’t give a damn,” using a then-notorious word that one almost ever heard on a recording.
That Belmonte chose to do “The Secret Service” was bizarre, for it’s a character song clearly for, as the lyric unequivocally stated, “the president’s daughter.” It would pose no problem as an instrumental (no worry about “damn” there), so it was in the purview of then-famed orchestra leader Andre Kostelanetz.
(How famous? Two years later, he was even mentioned by name in a song in BAJOUR.)
Kostelanetz also recorded “The Washington Twist,” which I assumed would be a big dance number. But that ticket-buyers line kept me from knowing for sure.
Some months earlier, the Boston Traveler reported that a bidding war between rivals Columbia and RCA Victor would duel to the death to land the cast album rights. Goddard Lieberson and Columbia won the race.
And here’s where we see even more intense interest for MR. PRESIDENT, for RCA decided to plow ahead with their own cast album lest they miss out on the bonanza that the musical was bound to yield.
They enlisted Perry Como, then a star through his eponymous television variety show that ran from 1948 through 1967 – a whopping 1,003 programs in all. In 1962, his series regulars included Kaye Ballard, Sandy Stewart and The Ray Charles Singers; all would participate in Como’s MR. PRESIDENT.
So, after all this, I was surprised to see that the Boston reviews weren’t good at all. Among those taking them to heart was President Kennedy. He was scheduled to attend the September 25th opening at the National Theatre in Washington, but only saw some of it. He spent half the night watching a closed-circuit broadcast of the heavyweight championship boxing match between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston (who won).
Too bad, for the production did trouble to please the Democrat. Although Fabray usually made an entrance on an elephant (two actors inhabited a pachyderm costume), a donkey suit was substituted that night in lieu of the GOP mascot.
Kennedy told Berlin that he liked it, but the Washington critics weren’t much more enthusiastic than their Boston counterparts. MR. PRESIDENT arrived on Broadway 60 years ago this week with a $2 million advance in an era when even a first-row orchestra seat would only set you back $9.90. Howard Taubman of the New York Times did find “effervescent charm” in Fabray. “Berlin,” he added, “gives her several lively songs, and Nanette Fabray does the rest.”
The rest of his review and the others were highly critical, mostly because of a terrible book. A musical called MR. PRESIDENT should keep him in office. At the end of Act One, Henderson loses his re-election bid, so Act Two has his wife singing “You Need a Hobby.” No, you needed to win the election and do great things, not take up “rowing and glass-blowing” as she suggests. Musicals need Big Characters and Big Events; a President can provide both, but a losing candidate is unlikely to.
The night after opening, Ryan and Fabray appeared as the mystery guests on WHAT’S MY LINE? The blindfolded panelists included Bennett Cerf, the Random House guru, who might have helped the show by positioning his question as “Would you have any connection with a great big fat hit that has very recently come to town?”
That got Arlene Francis to add, “Anyone who has an opportunity certainly ought to see these people on the stage.” Dorothy Killgallen asked, “May I paraphrase an Irving Berlin song and say to Nanette we loved you” before realizing that that compliment excluded Ryan and quickly adding “Both!” Cerf concluded, “You brought new luster to the White House.”
So, I bought the cast album the day it arrived at Jordan Marsh. How handsome it was with its unprecedented silver-foil gatefold cover with an extra page inside! Columbia still believed in it!
I found that it wasn’t Berlin’s best set of songs, but I cherished that Fabray exuberantly proclaimed “They Love Me” after she’d faced the glamour-lacking realities and responsibilities of being “The First Lady.” Ryan had a character voice that well served “It Gets Lonely in the White House” and was stirring when he insisted “This Is a Great Country.”
But between my July 16 mistake and the cast album’s release, a name on the album cover that had previously meant nothing to me now did: Anita Gillette. In the interim, I’d purchased the cast album of ALL AMERICAN, where I became enamored of her. In “Nightlife,” she played a college student looking for love and made clear “I want to Twist until I get arrested!”
And here she was in MR. PRESIDENT spiritedly singing about just such a dance in “The Washington Twist.”
Finally, at a scene set in a county fair – they had to give the retired President some place to go – I sure loved a belly dancer’s proclamation that she was doing “The Only Dance I Know.”
Only one problem. For seven years, I’d been vituperatively arguing with my father about the merits of Lawrence Welk, whose hour-long variety show was mandatory viewing for him. He adored the man’s so-called “champagne music” with its doodley-doodley-do ride-outs, which I proclaimed “Mickey Mouse music.”
So, imagine my chagrin when the ride-out to Fabray and Ryan’s “In Our Hide-Away” did the exact same thing. After one hearing, I couldn’t risk that my father would overhear it and (once again) mock my taste. So, I always picked up the needle to hide “In Our Hide-Away” and moved it to the much better “The First Lady.”
Be glad that today’s technology will allow you to avoid this one.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – The Book of Broadway Musical Debates, Disputes, and Disagreements – is now available on Amazon.