by Michael Elihu Colby
Part 12: This Doesn’t Happen at the Holiday Inn
Not every hotel could claim live bouzouki music resonating through the halls. In 1967, the musical version of the Greek movie Never On a Sunday was rehearsing for Broadway, and many of its creators were staying at the Algonquin Hotel. Grandpa Ben, who’d complained about the music in My Fair Lady and walked out of a backer’s audition for Kiss Me Kate, finally agreed with Grandma Mary that this show was a surefire hit. The musical, titled Illya, Darling, had the biggest advance sale of the season thanks to its credentials. Melina Mercouri would be recreating her celebrated role of “Illya,” the independent darling of a brothel In Piraeus, Greece. In her seductively husky voice, she’d be singing a score by the quintessential Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis, including his Oscar-winning title song from Never On a Sunday.
It was Mercouri’s husband, American film director Jules Dassin, who’d arranged for Mercouri and Hadjidakis to join him at the Algonquin. Dassin had been one of the many artists blacklisted during the McCarthy era who’d found the hotel to be an apolitical haven. Before the blacklist he’d directed such American film classics as The Naked City and Night and the City. Afterwards, he fled to Europe, helming Rififi and Topkapi there. Dassin actually began his career as an actor in New York Yiddish Theatre and was the leading man in the movie Never On a Sunday, which he also wrote and directed (He couldn’t sing, so actor Orson Bean would be playing his role in the musical). Illya, Darling was his return to directing on the Broadway stage, where he’d previously directed Two’s Company—believe it or not—a musical revue starring Bette Davis (Davis wasn’t exactly the go-to person for musicals or altruism, but she personally got Dassin hired for this show during the blacklist).
Anyway, my family couldn’t have been more excited as the Dassins and Hadjidakis spent afternoons rehearsing new material at the hotel, with a full contingent of musicians on hand. Live bouzouki performances were certainly classier hotel accompaniment than elevator music. Guests in the vicinity were impressed by rehearsals—knowing major movie names were involved—and Grandma would tour the floor with me when I visited her. She even knocked on the Dassins’door during rehearsals to say hello to their entourage.
The show also involved veterans from three of the most successful musicals ever, producer Kermit Bloomgarden (The Music Man), lyricist Joe Darion (Man of La Mancha), and choreographer Oona White (My Fair Lady). How could it miss being a winner? Well, they said that about Thomas E. Dewey too. As Mercouri stated: “Never on Sunday changed my life twice. With the film I became known. And with the play… I lost everything I owned.” 2
Still, despite bad reviews and being financial quicksand, the musical ran nine months on the strength of Melina Mercouri’s Tony- (and previously Oscar-) nominated performance. The Bodne family was rooting for it—right from its ill-fated tryout. Grandpa Ben and Grandma Mary took my brother Douglas and me on the train to Philadelphia for our first out-of-town theatre event. Everyone loved the experience—if not necessarily the show. We went backstage and Grandma tactfully spoke for all of us, expressing her genuine enthusiasm. It was certainly thrilling to get a backstage look at designer Oliver Smith’s vivid Piraeus set, then greet Melina and Jules Dassin alongside our favorite “Algonquin” bouzouki players (who toured with the show since the musicians union didn’t have many American bouzouki players).
Moreover, Illya, Darling wasn’t the only show we saw in its Philadelphia tryout that weekend. We attended the even more ill-fated, Love in E Flat, a new comedy by the heretofore successful playwright Norman Krasna. Krasna had written a string of Broadway hits that were turned into even more profitable movies, including the comedies, Dear Ruth, John Loves Mary, and Sunday in New York (whose film versions successively starred William Holden, Ronald Reagan, and Jane Fonda). His screenplays included Mr. and Mrs. Smith (a rare Alfred Hitchcock comedy), Princess O’Rourke (Oscared for “Best Original Screenplay”), and White Christmas (with Fred Astaire and Danny Kaye). His love of theatre had begun decades earlier, when he saw The Front Page—the celebrated play by two Algonquinites, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. As a crash course in playwriting, Krasna retyped that play’s script more than 20 times in order to assimilate its style and structure.3
Grandma Mary introduced me to Krasna while he was staying at the hotel in pre-production for Love in E Flat. Impressed by my knowledge of theatre, Krasna, father of six, took an immediate paternal liking to the 16-year old Algonquin Kid. He even asked me for advice on Broadway and TV actresses when the show’s star needed to be replaced (He’d moved to Switzerland and wasn’t familiar with the names agents were offering). The actress who’d been let go was Susan Oliver, whom I recalled from a terrifying episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Her replacement was Kathy Nolan, “Kate” of TV’s The Real McCoys, who’d also been in that terrifying “Hitchcock” episode. Krasna was impressed I’d know valuable information like that.
Not only did I get to attend the out-of-town tryout of Love in E Flat, I attended the Broadway opening as Norman Krasna’s guest! In fact, while he watched from the back of the theatre, he let me sit with his lovely wife, Erle (who was also the widow of Al Jolson). I was deeply honored by that gesture, then devastated when the show received tepid reviews. Nonetheless, I made it my mission to try and save the show. Back home in Hewlett, I became a one-boy publicist, phoning people randomly and pretending to be a recorded message proclaiming, “See Broadway’s notable new hit, Love in E Flat! Hurry now to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre while tickets are available.” My calls didn’t work—the show lasted a mere 24 performances.
Another “Algonquin” playwright I had the honor of knowing was Thornton Wilder. The winner of two “Best Play” Pulitzer Prizes—for Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth (and a third Pulitzer for his novel The Bridge Over San Luis Rey)—he was surprisingly humble and as kind as Kris Kringle. He took the time to send my parents a personal note of encouragement about my writing skills. He seemed to take delight in everything that was happening, whether it was something as simple as my telling him I’d received an “A” on a school essay or the phenomenal success of Hello Dolly!, the musical version of his play The Matchmaker. An evening I’ll never forget was the occasion I was invited by Charles Abramson, the supportive agent I called Uncle Charlie, to join him for a cocktail hour chat with Wilder and the legendary Jed Harris—also staying at the hotel. That evening, I felt like a page at Camelot observing royalty. Moreover, I witnessed the great divide among artistic temperaments. On one side of the lobby round table was Thornton Wilder, whose knowledge of history, language, and literature colored his conversation with inspiring and illuminating insights. On the other side was Jed Harris, who talked all evening about Jed Harris. He was the producer, director, on both of such classics as The Front Page, The Heiress, The Crucible, and Wilder’s Our Town. Yet, largely due to his unpleasantness and duplicity, he had fallen on hard times—about to be kicked out of the Algonquin for not paying his bills. According to Harris’ biographer Martin Gottfried, Harris had worked with all the greats and made enemies of most of them. 4 Laurence Olivier based his interpretation of the venomous Richard III on Harris. Walt Disney is said to have used Harris’ features as the basis of the Big Bad Wolf in the cartoon, The Three Little Pigs. George S. Kaufman reportedly asked that his ashes be thrown in Harris’ face. 5
As the evening progressed, I could see why. Harris was not good company. He rolled his eyes when Wilder extolled the current crop of Broadway playwrights. He interrupted Wilder repeatedly to give his less flattering opinions, nettling Wilder by calling him “Thorny.” He barely let speak the customarily loquacious Mr. Abramson. Then, Harris’ vainness reached a Himalayan peak when he cited how he’d turned down directing Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth—as if he’d escaped a burning building. It came as no surprise that, when the bill arrived, Harris ducked out and Thornton Wilder paid for the get-together. To this day, I can brag, the playwright of Our Town treated me to two Coca Colas.
The contrast between Wilder and Harris was an object lesson on what constitutes a life well spent—or squandered—in theatre. As Grandma Mary told me, toward the end of his life, Jed Harris’s genius had turned into dodging his creditors, rather than creating stage magic.
Regardless of Jed Harris, I observed lots of glamorous and inspirational guests at the Algonquin who DID pay their bills during the late 1960s. I was in Grandma Mary’s apartment when she was visited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis with another frequent Algonquin guest, Greek actress Irene Papas. I saw Princess Grace Kelly dining in the Rose Room. Coretta King passed me in the lobby.
Of course, spending my weekdays at high school on Long Island, I missed many Algonquin doings I could only wish I’d seen. Perusing old Leonard Lyons column in the NY Post, I’m in awe of what my Grandparents hosted every day:
“All seven judges of the Court of Appeals lunched at the Algonquin yesterday—the first time in court history that they’ve all convened in New York.” —The Lyons Den, 2/2/1968
“CANDIDACY: At the Algonquin yesterday, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. [U.S. historian/Special Assistant to JFK], told of his meeting Sen. Vance Hartke (D-Ind.) … Hartke stated that LBJ would not run for reelection.” —The Lyons Den, 4/2/1968
“Sen. [Eugene] McCarthy left Esquire’s Algonquin party to fly to France. An aide explained: ‘Gene wants to get away from those who ask when he’s coming out for Humphrey.’” — The Lyons Den, 11/13/1968
“Jack Valenti had a true Texas chili luncheon at the Algonquin yesterday [NOTE: During the late 1960s and 70s, the after-theatre Algonquin included such Bodne favorites as deli sandwiches and bowls of chili]. The head of the Motion Picture Producers Assn. was diverted when the hotel’s owner, Ben Bodne, served him potato pancakes. Valenti ordered more and more, sighing: “I’m hooked. For potato pancakes I’m a mainliner.” — The Lyons Den, 1/15/1969
“Stalin’s daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva, dined with the literary set at the Algonquin.”— The Lyons Den, 4/4/1969
There was even an item about me in a Leonard Lyons column:
“Mrs. Ben Bodne, whose husband owns the Algonquin, sent her grandson a daily allotment of caviar while he was away this summer. Mrs. Bodne dotes on the boy, who dotes on caviar.”—The Lyons Den, 8/27/1968
This item was placed while I was taking a two-week summer course at Syracuse University in Journalism. Grandma had recently introduced me to caviar during lunch at the Algonquin; and—since I didn’t smoke, drink, or take drugs—she decided I deserved at least this one indulgence while I was studying hard.
No matter her faults—and how she’d spoil me at times—Grandma remained my strongest support system through the years. She never missed a chance to get my brother Douglas and me involved in something she knew we’d enjoy. She even arranged for us to be present when movies were made at the Algonquin. One weekend, Douglas and I sat on the sidelines while the multi-million dollar movie, Star!, was being filmed in the Algonquin Rose Room. As with Illya Darling, there were high expectations for this 1968 movie, combining many elements that had in 1965 made The Sound of Music the most successful movies of its time. The same director (Richard Wise) and producer (Saul Chaplin) would be overseeing this next screen musical for superstar Julie Andrews, who’d again be playing a biographical character, this time the British actress Gertrude Lawrence rather than Maria Von Trapp.
The scene filmed at the Algonquin portrayed an opening night party for Gertrude Lawrence. In the movie, the characters would be rejoicing at their opening night raves. In reality, nobody rejoiced over the lukewarm reviews received by Star! The film did, however, receive seven Oscar nominations—but it won zippo.
By coincidence, another movie—filmed at the Algonquin—was up for “Best Documentary” that same year. The movie was The Young Americans, a tribute to the All-American singing group by that name who toured the U.S. Written and directed by Alexander Grassoff, a friend of the Bodnes, the movie included the unlikely plot development that a company of 36 smiley teens would be staying—and rehearsing—at the compact Algonquin. Grandma Ben gave Grassoff a special deal, especially since Grandpa was always generous to friends and the hotel would be spotlighted. Grandma even talked her cousin into using Douglas and me as extras. The scene featuring the Colby Brothers took place in the Rose Room, during a breakfast conference between one of the Young Americans and his adult supervisor. I was at a table directly in back of that Pat Boone-like Young American. I would be seen prominently jabbering to Douglas. Months later, when my family attended a preview of the movie at a Long Island cinema, we were disappointed to discover that only part of the Colby Brothers were on-screen. I was seen but just Douglas’ hand was visible in the corner frame. Nonetheless, Douglas’s hand was quite lively, gesticulating and pouring milk into a bowl of cereal. He could have gotten a Jergen’s Hand Lotion commercial out of this showcase.
The biggest surprise of all was that The Young Americans—a movie hardly anyone saw (except my family)—WON the Academy Award that year! At least, temporarily. For a short while, I could brag that I’d made my movie debut in the “Best Documentary of the Year.” Unfortunately, it was soon learned that the film’s too early release date should have disqualified it. The Young Americans was retroactively declared ineligible—one of the few movies ever to have an Oscar revoked.
I must admit some of the experiences weren’t the sort to make one eager to pursue show business. But I was one lucky kid to live them. Nothing like these occasions ever occurred when my family vacationed at the Holiday Inn. Every visit to the Algonquin would be like a special holiday, sometimes like Thanksgiving, sometimes April Fools, and always a day to remember.
Next part: Who Knew?
1 Severo, Richard, “Jules Dassin, Filmmaker on Blacklist, Dies at 96,” obituary in The New York Times. April 1, 2008.
2 Dowling, Colette. “Chronicle of a Closing Night” in Playbill Magazine. As reported in http://www.theatreaficionado.com/tag/flops.
3 “Norman Krasna, 74, Is Dead; Playwright and Screen Writer,” obituary in The New York Times. November 7, 1984.
4 Gottfried, Martin. Jed Harris, The Curse of Genius. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 1984.
5 Lyons, Leonard. The Lyons Den in The New York Post (various editions), 1968-1969.
6 Coleman, Terry. Olivier. New York: MacMillan Publishers, January 1, 2005.
© 2014, Michael Colby
*No copyright Infringement Intended. For Entertainment Purposes Only.
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