George Abbott: Mr. Broadway

Today, an overdue appreciation for a miraculous man of the theatre, George Abbott (1887-1994). Abbott wrote, directed, acted, and produced for the stage, and to a lesser extent, for the screen. His professional credits start from around 1911 and continue through 1994, something like 83 years, a professional longevity to rival George Burns (and we fudge a little in Burns’ case, starting the clock from age five when he danced on street corners for pennies).

Abbott’s Broadway debut as an actor began in 1913. He appeared in 10 shows over the next dozen years. Though he’d been writing plays since 1911, his first Broadway playwriting credit came in 1925, with The Fall Guy, cowritten by James Gleason and starring Ernest Truex. Taught at Harvard by the great playwrighting guru George Pierce Baker (who also taught Eugene O’Neill and Thomas Wolfe), Abbott was widely respected as a “script doctor”; hence, most of his writing was done in collaborate with other scribes. His best known works include Broadway (1926, with Philip Dunning, later made into films in 1929 and 1942); Coquette (1927 with Ann Preston Bridgers, later to become Mary Pickford’s first talkie vehicle in 1929); Three Men on a Horse (1935, with John Cecil Holm, a 1936 film); On Your Toes (1936, and a 1939 film); The Boys from Syracuse (1938, and a 1940 film); Where’s Charley? (1948); A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1951, with Betty Smith); The Pajama Game (1954, and a 1957 movie); Damn Yankees (1955, with a 1958 film); and Fiorello! (1959) among numerous others.

Abbott also directed the Hollywood film versions of The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees I listed. He only directed 15 movies, but his career there began almost immediately after his first musical stage success. He directed two shorts with Walter Huston as early as 1929, The Carnival Man and The Bishop’s Candlesticks. Also notable is his 1931 remake of Cecil B. DeMIlle’s The Cheat.

Abbott also directed and/or produced the original productions of many another classic Broadway show, including the original (non-musical) Chicago (1926), Twentieth Century (1932), Jumbo (1935), Room Service (1937), Pal Joey (1940), On the Town (1944), High Button Shoes (1947), Call Me Madam (1950), Wonderful Town (1953), Me and Juliet (1953), Once Upon a Mattress (1959), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), et al. The last Broadway show he directed was the 1987 revival of his show Broadway!

Abbott was 107 years old when he died in 1994 — making Irving Berlin, who passed at age 101, seem a veritable spring chicken.

Abbott was originally from western New York. I visited the region in 2019 for the annual Fredonia Marxonia celebration, and came upon this:

For related show biz history please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,