Theatre yesterday and today



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Father's Day falls today on June 19th—a Hallmark holiday (as many coin such occasions) in order to sell a few cards and neckties. Of course Mother's Day came first, and was an idea that gained strength in 1868 as a way to unite families torn apart by the Civil War. Father's Day was inspired by Sonora Smart Dodd of Spokane, Washington, who was raised a single child and wanted a way to pay tribute her dad. Through her efforts, the notion took hold in the early 1920s, though it wasn't until the 1970s that President Richard Nixon proclaimed the third Sunday in June officially as Father's Day.

In the year 1971, I saw a very short-lived play called Father's Day. This was the second Broadway production in the infamous career of playwright Oliver Hailey who was once called “the most produced, least successful playwright in the New York theatre." Hailey's first play on Broadway was in 1966 entitled First One Asleep, Whistle. It closed in one night.

His last, produced fifteen years later, I Won’t Dance, also closed in one night (an afternoon, actually —but let's get too technical). This was the show that had the distinction of being the final tenant at the Helen Hayes Theatre on 46th Street, which was razed along with its neighbor, the fabled Morosco on 45th Street (as well as the under-utilized and not terribly mourned Bijou Theatre) in 1982. This was a notorious calamity for the theatre community when the wrecker's ball took down these houses in the way of progress. Replaced by the massive Marriott Hotel, it had a new theatre within (the 1,611 seat Marquis) that is no one's idea of a suitable substitute. These lost playhouses, which almost exclusively booked straight plays, were built in the early part of the twentieth century with materials that made for optimal sound conditions and no necessity to ever mike its actors.

Father’s Day, played the John Golden Theatre, thankfully never torn down and one of Broadway's most intimate houses. I saw it at one of its final previews and, as a fourteen year-old, was not exactly its core audience. A dark comedy about divorce, it featured three female friends forced to deal with their ex-husbands who all arrive late in the afternoon of a Father's Day, dropping off their kids having spent their one day a week with them. The set, designed by one of the theatres great designers, Jo Mielziner, depicted the balcony of a high-rise Manhattan co-op (for which Mielziner received one of his twelve Tony Award nominations). Over cocktails, heavy bitching and dishing made up the bulk of the play's dialogue.

And that was it in the way of plot, nothing more. It didn't receive the worst reviews of a show that season, (that might have been for one that opened the previous week) a play that starred Gwen Verdon in the one and only non-musical she ever appeared in on Broadway. Children, Children was a melodrama about a baby-sitter in charge of evil children. Boy, I sure wish I caught that one.

Anyway back to Father's Day, which managed a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress for one of its three leads, Marian Seldes. Not bad for a show that ran one night.

Oh, did I not mention that yet? Yes, this was the middle show in Hailey's perfect trifecta. Lasting only one performance, and not without a sense of humor, late in life Hailey would say of his three bombs: “They ran all evening.”

Happy Father's Day!

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