Mike Todd: The Tragic Impresario

Today we celebrate the brilliant stage and screen impresario Mike Todd (Avrom Hirsch Goldbogen, 1909-1958). He’s my new hero, I think. I look down the list of what he produced, and it hugely comports artistically with my idea of theatre. This is my kinda Broadway! And on top of that, he was savvy, bold, innovative, brassy, and smart enough (as so many aren’t) to understand the importance of branding. If your name means something, use it! If it doesn’t mean anything yet, use it, and then it will mean something! The name Mike Todd meant something.

The son of an Orthodox rabbi, Todd started out in the construction business in Chicago. This led to work soundproofing movie studio sound stages during the talkie transition, his first baby step towards show business. In 1933 he produced an attraction at the Chicago World’s Fair called “the Flame Dance”, which mixed elements of a circus daredevil act with burlesque: a woman wore a special dress that burned off with fire, leaving her (relatively) naked. This got him a booking at a New York nightclub, soon leading to his career as a Broadway producer.

After producing two short-lived shows on Broadway, Call Me Ziggy (1937) and The Man from Cairo (1938), Todd tried a bold gambit. He stole the concept of the Federal Theatre Project’s Chicago hit The Swing Mikado, and opened it in New York as The Hot Mikado (1939), starring Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Both shows were jazz adaptations of Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera The Mikado. Todd had directed a production of it in high school. When the FTP brought their version to New York, Todd moved The Hot Mikado to the 1939 New York World’s Fair, where it continued to be a hit.

Todd was also instrumental in bringing burlesque to the Broadway stage. Burlesque itself had been outlawed on New York stages since the late 1930s, but Todd simply integrated many of its trappings into book musicals. Shows he produced using this strategy included Star and Garter (1942-43) with Bobby Clark, Gypsy Rose Lee, Pat Harrington et al; The Naked Genius (1943), written by Gypsy Rose Lee and starring Joan Blondell (to whom he would be married from 1947 to 1950); and Michael Todd’s Peep Show (1950-51), written by Bobby Clark and featuring a cast of burlesque veterans. A related production was Catherine Was Great (1944-45) by Mae West. 

He produced two shows by Dorothy and Herbert Fields, two with songs by Cole PorterSomething for the Boys (1943-44) with Ethel Merman, Betty Garrett etc; Mexican Hayride (1944-45) with Bobby Clark and June Havoc; and one with music by Sigmund RombergUp in Central Park (1945-46, 1947). He also produced classics! Maurice Evans in Hamlet (1945-56) and Bobby Clark in Moliere’s The Would-Be Gentleman (1946). His last Broadway was Garson Kanin’s The Live Wire (1950). By that point he was transitioning to Hollywood.

In 1950, he was one of the co-founders of widescreen process Cinerama. Shortly afterwards he left the company to form a new one with an even better process which he called Todd-AO. Popular movies were produced using these processes over the next couple of decades. The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm! How The West was Won!

In 1956, Todd produced his own first film Around the World in 80 Days, probably what he is best known for today. (As with The Hot Mikado, it was sort of a lifted idea. Todd had been one of the backers of Orson Welles’ Broadway show based on the same Jules Verne book a decade earlier. Welles felt Todd took his idea). At any rate, Todd’s all-star film (dozens of major stars) was a smash hit.

The following year, he married the most beautiful woman in Hollywood, Elizabeth Taylor. Like Phileas Fogg in his balloon he was at the top of the world. Still in his late ’40s, who knows what he would have gone on to achieve? Tragically, in 1958 his private plane The Liz fell from the sky in New Mexico, killing himself and three others, so we’ll never know what spectacles he would have given an adoring public in the ensuing decades. But it’s fun to imagine.

To learn more about classic show biz, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,