Archive for Jerome Kern

The High Aspirations of The Princess Theatre

Posted in Broadway, Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2017 by travsd

I’ve had the damnedest time locating an image, but this seems to be it, from the vantage of the Sixth Avenue elevated

On March 14, 1913, New York’s Princess Theatre opened for business. Aside from a couple of exceptions (e.g., the Palace, Niblo’s Garden) we don’t typically write about specific theatrical venues here except in passing. The lapse isn’t inadvertent. It simply isn’t my line. As a general rule, I have very little to say about buildings. But today we make an exception, both because this one had an interesting history, and because it was partially owned by my wife’s family!

The Princess Theatre was an outlier, both in terms of geography and in mission. It was located at 104-106 West 39th Street, off Sixth Ave, which is farther west than most (but not all) Broadway theatres, as well as a bit on the southerly side as the years passed (there also used to be plenty of theatres in the 30s, but gradually, as you know, 42nd Street became the approximate southern boundary.)

But beyond its relative remoteness, it was unusual in other ways. It was an early harbinger, both in size and in mission, of what came to be known as the Little Theatre Movement. At 299 seats it was far smaller than most other Broadway houses. The intimate scale was intentional. The venue was designed to present one-act dramas by a repertory company, a very early reaction to the commercialization of mainstream theatre certain people were already identifying, coming from an almost identical conceptual place as the later Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway, and Indie-Theatre Movements (the only difference being that the response was coming from the commercial theatre industry itself). The main players in the venture were producer F. Ray Comstock and the Shuberts, with actor-manager Holbrook Blinn and theatrical agent Bessie Marbury (to whom I happen to be distantly related;  Katherine Marbury is my 12th great grandmother; her sister was Rhode Island founder Anne Hutchinson).

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The first few years of the Princess were bumpy; the serious plays were not filling the seats. But the venture found success in the middle teens with a series of “thinking man’s musicals”, which have since become known as the Princess Theatre Musicals, with integrated songs, and books less crude than the standard fare of the day. Most of them were authored by the team of Jerome Kern, Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse. The most successful of these was Oh, Boy! (1917) which ran for 463 performances.

In the 1920s, the theatre returned to its original mission of dramas. The best known plays from this period were Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (1921, transferred from the Provincetown Playhouse) and the American premiere of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1922-1923). But it was a tough slog. In 1928, after only 15 years, it ceased to be the Princess Theatre.

Next came a quarter century of name changes, transfers of ownership, and new missions: it became the Lucille Laverne in ’28, the Assemble Theatre in ’29, was shuttered from ’29 to ’33, then became the Reo Theatre, a cinema, in ’33.

In 1934, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union acquired the space to use as a recreation hall. Normally, I bemoan such repurposing of precious theatre space, but this new ownership ironically resulted in the greatest theatrical success ever mounted in that location, the Depression Era labor revue Pins and Needles, which ran for 1,108 performances starting in 1937. The Princess was now the Labor Stage, and remained under that name for a decade. In 1947, the legendary Actors Studio was hatched in one of the theatre’s rehearsal spaces.

In 1947, it became Cinema Dante, which showed foreign movies; in 1948, the Little Met; and in 1952, Cinema Verdi. In 1955 it was torn down to make way for an office building. For more on the cinema years, and this theatre in general, see its entry at Cinema Treasures, a wonderful resource.

For all of its history, the Princess Theatre and its later incarnations seem to have been governed by moonbeams, a series of Noble Experiments. It is not atypical that the venture was short lived. But as I sometimes like to joke, the art of theatre would do okay if it weren’t for these damn audiences.

To find out more on theatre historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

On Charles Frohman

Posted in Broadway, Impresarios, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE with tags , , , , , , , on July 15, 2014 by travsd

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 Today is the birthday of the visionary theatrical producer Charles Frohman (1856-1915). Frohman was the brother of producers Daniel and Gus. 

Charles Frohman came up through the ranks, ripping tickets at Hooley’s Theatre, Brooklyn, then managing in succession Haverly’s United Mastodon Minstrels, the Chicago Comedy Company and then (with his brothers) Madison Square Garden. His first Broadway show was Bronson Howard’s Shenandoah (1889). In 1896 he became one of the members of Klaw and Erlanger’s Theatrical Syndicate, later to be such a thorn in the sides of the vaudeville magnates. The following year he became a force in the London theatre as well.

Frohman’s notable successes are too numerous to list them all here, but we’ll mention a few that have some special relevance to folks we’ve written about. He produced the original production of Sherlock Holmes with William Gillette (1899) which was to enjoy several revivals and transplantations (one of them featuring a precocious young lad named Charlie Chaplin).

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There was The Cowboy and the Lady (1899) starring Nat C. Goodwin (later made into a film with Gary Cooper) and  Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines (1901) with Ethel Barrymore.

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As you may have seen in the film Finding Neverland, he was a major supporter of J.M. Barrie, producing the original productions of The Admirable Crichton (1903), Peter Pan (1904, with Maude Adams in the American production the following year), and The Twelve Pound Look (1911, which became Ethel Barrymore’s perennial staple on the vaudeville stage).

Frohman also gave Jerome Kern his first leg up in the theatre in several London musicals, a fact you will see dramatized in the film ‘Til the Clouds Roll By.

It was Frohman’s transatlantic career that eventually killed him. During one of his frequent crossings, Frohman became one of the most notable victims of the German sinking of RMS Lusitania in 1915. His production company continued to produce plays under his name for nearly another two decades. In his astoundingly prolific professional career, Charles Frohman put his name on 700 productions.

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For more on theatre historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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‘Til the Clouds Roll By: How NOT to Learn about Kern

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Music, Tin Pan Alley with tags , , , on January 27, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the great Broadway composer Jerome Kern (1885-1945). Kern contributed songs to over 100 musicals between 1904 and his death. His most well known shows include Show Boat (1927), Roberta (1933), and the Marilyn Miller vehicles Sally (1923) and Sunny (1926). I think of him as a crucial transitional figure between the European operetta style works of Victor Herbert and the more jazz oriented modern musical comedy period that came after (an era he helped usher in). A crucial period of his work included a number of critically acclaimed shows for the Princess Theatre between 1915-1920. Since CR’s forebears were part owners or builders of the Princess according to her family lore, we are especially interested in investigating these.

But that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about REALLY. A side benefit of having researched No Applause is having become an expert on a largely defunct genre, the Hollywood musical show biz bio-pic. Allow me to qualify that. Hollywood still makes musical show biz bio pics, of course, but nowadays they tend to be at least marginally closer to real facts. It must be admitted that biographical drama might be the hardest of all formats to write in, going all the way back to Shakespeare. On the one hand there are the needs of storytelling; on the other hand there are the historical facts to tell. And these are more often than not almost impossible to reconcile. And no matter which direction you take, fictionalizing, sticking with the facts, or trying to walk the line between both, it’s going to be somehow dissatisfying to a significant portion of the audience.

Anyway, like I say, there was a huge vogue for this type of picture in the 40s and 50s, the most famous of which is probably The Jolson Story. Many of these films are plenty entertaining though forgettable, and nearly all of them err on the side of storytelling at the expense of facts. (Nowadays, the more common error seems to be trying to squeeze in all the facts at the expense of storytelling). At any rate, to someone who KNOWS the facts of the real story, these old show biz bio-pics are a hilarious hoot. The liberties the film-makers take sometimes are brazen, the films tell lies as great as any ever spun by Pravda. Sometimes it seems the only real facts seem to be the name of the character being depicted and the names of some of the shows or songs he or she was associated with. (The largest calumny in The Jolson Story is the replacement of his wife, the equally famous Ruby Keeler, with a fictionalized straw woman with the unlikely name of “Julie Benson”). And sometimes (very often, in fact), the screenwriters will go down crazy tangents with their completely fictional characters, until they seem to have left the main character —  who happens to be the only real one and the one we’re theoretically supposed to be “learning” about — in the dust. ‘Til the Clouds Roll By is one of these.

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In case you haven’t guessed, ‘Til the Clouds Roll By is the Jerome Kern story. It came out in 1946, right after the composer died.  Kern himself is portrayed by creepy psychopath Robert Walker (best known from Strangers on a Train).

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It starts with him leaving another triumphant Broadway opening night, but in a melancholy, reflective mood. He gets into a cab, and the driver (from central casting)  asks, “Where to, Mr. Koin?” And Kern says, “Why don’t you take me by the old house, [Pete, or Zeke, or whatever the cab driver’s name is].” And then Kern proceeds to sit in front of the old house and reminisce for the next 90 minutes about a bunch of things that never happened to him. (He must be a rich man; presumably, the meter is still running).

The main trunk of the story is a vaguely homoerotic relationship between Kern and a completely fictional mentor named Jim Hessler (played with equally creepy intensity by Van Heflin). Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the story comes to be about Jim’s fictional daughter “Sally” (Lucille Bremer), who grows up and and gets into a spot of trouble. Kern sure wishes he could help her out, and then, by jiminy, he does. I reiterate: she’s completely fictional!

And then, the big fantasy segment where most of the big musical stars in Hollywood (Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, etc etc) sing songs from Kern’s shows. At any rate, I recommend this film heartily, if only NOT to learn anything about Jerome Kern in the most entertaining way possible.

Here’s the whole damn thing if you feel like watching it:

To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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