Theatre yesterday and today



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WHAT’S IN A NAME?… or a signature?

As I wrote last week, the Hudson Theatre, built in 1901, will be re-opening its doors as a legitimate Broadway theatre for the first time in 49 years this coming weekend when a revival of Sunday in the Park With George begins previewing. It’s only through sheer luck that the theatre wasn’t bought by developers and that an office building isn’t marking the spot today.

With its last production mounted in 1968, and having begun my weekly theatregoing a year later, I never saw a show at the Hudson. However, I was fortunate as a teenager to have seen a show at the George Abbott Theatre, which was destroyed in 1970. First opened as the Craig, later the Adelphi, then even later as the 54th Street, it was only renamed for Abbott shortly before its demise. All I can say when theatre aficionados have asked me over the years what the Abbott was like, is that it was a minimally attractive theatre in a maximally undesirable location. It was way off the beaten track on 54th Street, located between 6th and 7th Avenues, too far north and too far east of where the action was.

This 1963 photo gives an idea of what the neighborhood

surrounding the Abbott/54th Street was once like.

In its briefest shot at immortality, the theatre was used solely as a television studio in 1955 for Jackie Gleason, Art Carney and company to perform and shoot all thirty-nine episodes of The Honeymooners— still in syndication today some sixty years later. Though there should have been a plaque honoring this historical highlight, it would have been reduced to rubble along with the entire structure when it was torn down to make way for an expansion of the Hilton Hotel.

My first visit to the Abbott was in 1969 when something was rushed in due to the sudden availability of a name value performer — and if the George Abbott was the only theatre available, then so be it. The show demanded that its title role (not even the lead, mind you) be played by someone of size and stature. The person the producers chose was certainly a potential box office draw though he possessed one slight drawback: he had never acted a day in his life. Although that could be debated, as his “act” had been playing world-wide for a number of years. And to make matters even more challenging … this wasn’t a play — but a musical!

This powerful marquee name — two names, really — was Muhammad Ali (a.k.a. Cassius Clay), then the heavyweight champion of the world and one of the most charismatic figures in all of sports. Ali, at this point in his career, was no longer fighting, having been stripped of his title due to his refusal to honor his draft notice and serve in Vietnam. This was when the war was at the height of its controversial protests among America’s draft-age youth and Ali, citing his 1964 conversion to Islam, asked to be excused from service as a conscientious objector. Later, Ali was convicted in court of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison and banned from boxing.

Needing a job badly. He was paying lawyers a small fortune to help keep him out of jail. And with alimony and all sorts of other bills to pay, he had no means of making a living at what he did best.

More reminiscent of a fight poster than a Broadway show (for good reason).

So this is how one of the greatest athletes of his time wound up a stranger in a strange land — and on Broadway, of all places. And not merely taking on an acting role, but a singing one as well.

Since it only gave a grand total of seven performances, and no original cast album was recorded, you would think Ali’s singing voice was only heard by the few thousand people that bought tickets for Buck White.

Not true.

A few lucky million who tuned into CBS on a Sunday night in January, 1970 to watch the long running and highly popular TV variety program, The Ed Sullivan Show, were in for a special treat. For those brave enough to give a listen, here was Ali singing (even if it was nothing like singing).

And let’s hear it for the late, great Ed Sullivan, allowing something after it closed to air on his program. Buck White ended its run on December 6th, 1969 and Sullivan put Ali & Company on the air five weeks later.

Ed Sullivan welcoming Muhammad Ali (in costume as Buck White)

onto his show in January, 1970.

A man of his word, it didn’t matter to Sullivan that Buck White held no promotional value anymore.

Hell, it barely held entertainment value, evident in Ali “singing” the first act finale “We Came in Chains.”

“Climb Every Mountain” it was not.

And since Buck White was among the first forty or so shows I saw, I was still in the habit of going backstage. There was no way I was going to miss out meeting Muhammad Ali and I probably met my personal best racing from the top of the balcony to the stage door when the curtain came down.

Somehow I got into Ali’s dressing room, which was absolutely mobbed with people. How they arrived ahead of me when I was moving at lighting speed I’ll never know, such was the desire to meet and greet an icon.

When I got there, Ali was holding a telephone with one hand and signing programs with the other, seated on his dressing room table. He had shed the nearly foot high afro wig and full beard he had been wearing and now he looked like “the champ” I had long seen in print and on television.

I’ll always remember what he was shouting into the phone, as he did not disappoint: “You gotta see me in this show! I am the greatest.”

He grabbed my program, scribbling his name on it:

Of course, I would rather have interacted with Ali. His signature was a nice keepsake, but it didn’t really mean anything without my having had a chance to make even in the smallest way some sort of connection.

It wasn’t long after this I saw a revival of Bertlolt Brecht’s 1943 play The Good Woman of Setzuan and went backstage to meet Colleen Dewhurst. Not only a great actress, but Dewhurst was a wildly charismatic individual, especially when standing two feet in front of her. She welcomed me into her dressing room down under the Vivian Beaumont Theatre and we had the sort of conversation one never forgets, no matter how brief. After discussing the play for a bit, I held out my program for her to sign and she looked me up and down as if debating whether to participate in this ritual. She gave me that smile of hers that was both incandescent and a mile wide and, while signing and without looking up, said, “You know, it’s your autograph I should be asking for.”

Colleen Dewhurst in perpetual radiance

Whether that was sincere flattery or not, who can say? But I’ll tell you one thing: I walked out of her dressing room a bit taller than when I went in.

And I never asked another person to sign a program again.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available for pre-order exclusively from Griffith Moon Publishing.