Theatre yesterday and today



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It did my heart good as I scrolled through Facebook yesterday, to see that a number of people posted photos of Jimmy Stewart in remembrance of his 109th birthday. True, a good many of those who post regularly in my feed are in the entertainment business, but I would hope that everyone remembers this beloved actor. Even though he died twenty years ago and his last performance on film was eleven years before that, he almost always seemed to represent what was good about the American spirit, be it in larger-than-life westerns or as some humble resident of a small town, such as Bedford Falls. Or by way of his playing fictionalized versions of modest and heroic men like the band leader Glen Miller; baseball player Monty Stratton, or aviator Charles Lindbergh. That in real life he became a genuine hero by volunteering for service at the height of his career after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and served the entire length of the war between 1941 and 1945. Already a highly accomplished pilot as a civilian, he enlisted as a private and rose to the rank of full colonel, one of the few Americans to ever ever do so in only four years during the second World War. All of this added greatly to his stature as an American icon and as a go-to actor for the full length of his career. And I suppose as long as his movies are being digitally optimized, with little danger of them disintegrating, it should allow for future generations to enjoy and learn from Stewart's one-of-a-kind gifts.

Like many of the early Hollywood greats, Stewart began his career on the east coast, educated at Princeton, where he joined the Triangle Players, renowned to this day for their original musical productions each year. It was there he met the multi-talented Joshua Logan, who invited him to join his theatre company the University Players, for what ended as their final summer on Cape Cod. It was a troupe that boasted such future stars as Henry Fonda, Margaret Sullavan, Jose Ferrer, Mildred Natwick and Myron McCormick—all of whom (like Logan) would became key players on the Broadway stage. Having graduated with a degree in architecture in 1932, it was never Stewart's intention of turning the fun he got out of performing on stage into anything resembling a professional capacity. But as Stewart once told a reporter, "My first glimpse of the Falmouth Theatre decided my future. Built practically on the water, it s one of the most beautiful theatres in America. Cape Cod in the summer is a paradise."

James Stewart (left) with Joshua Logan (center) from their Princeton days.

Later that same fall, through his contacts with the University Players, Stewart got himself cast in Carry Nation, which offered him his Broadway debut. It ran a month. He then appeared in seven more plays over the next three years, which tells you three things: one, that Stewart had what it took to be an actor. Two, that he was an easy-to-cast type. And three, that none of these shows ran very long. But his work was enough to make West coast talent scouts take notice, and shortly thereafter, Stewart was shooting out in Hollywood and making his big screen debut in 1935's The Murder Man, starring Spencer Tracy. He followed with a similar streak to his theatre credits, appearing in twenty-four movies in five years.

His was a rapid rise, and after such hits as 1938's You Can't Take It With You and 1939's Destry Rides Again and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stewart won the Academy Award for Best Actor for 1940's The Philadelphia Story. After that, he only returned to Broadway twice (as a bone fide movie star) and each time it was in the same play—Mary Chase's Harvey, the much-beloved comedy classic that won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Yes, the one with the 6' 2" invisible rabbit. And I was fortunate enough to see it when it was revived In 1970, with Stewart now sixty-one years old playing the charming (and rarely sober) Elwood P. Dowd, opposite Helen Hayes as his sister Veta. It was only a short and limited engagement, but I was there "up in the cheap seats" on an afternoon I will never forget.

Helen Hayes and James Stewart in Harvey (1970).

Harvey was a seminal play for me. When I was in 8th grade it was one of the first in which I ever performed. It was also probably around that time I saw the 1950 film version, where Stewart gave a performance that for years was one of my absolute favorites (an opinion that has only grown in admiration ever since). He was first introduced to the part as a temporary replacement in the original Broadway production when Frank Fay, who had created the part of Elwood, went on a seven-week vacation. In an article in the New York Times on July 13, 1947, Stewart explained what drew him back to the theatre: "I like the stage and never intended to give it up. Just kind of got so busy out West I never got back to it ... and the one that ran the longest, Goodbye Again, with Osgood Perkins, I had nine lines in it... When I joined in the curtain call at the end, I'd see people in the audience pointing at me wondering what I was doing there ... The rest of the time during the show I just watched Perkins—every performance ... I learned a lot that way. It's the best kind of experience."

Talk about the "cheap seats." $1.20 at the now demolished 48th Street Theatre, demolished in 1955. A parking garage stands there today.

The 1970 Harvey was at the ANTA (now the Virginia Theatre) on West 52nd Street. It was where the previous year, I had seen Stewart's lifetime pal (and alumnus of the University Players) Henry Fonda in a revival of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. I found Fonda mesmerizing in that production and Stewart no less dazzling. First there were the sounds of their voices; both of whom shared completely unusual and unique manners of speaking. And even though I would not be cast in my school production of the play until the following year, I knew the film of Harvey so well by then that I eagerly anticipated every twist and turn of its near-farcical plot. Every time Stewart would introduce Harvey to someone—imaginary to all but him—the faces that would turn out in disbelief, in order for us to could catch every twitch of disbelief, was comedy perfection.

While researching this column, my curiosity got the better of me in terms of figuring out just how it came to pass that Stewart decided to come to Broadway in the winter of 1970, after so many years in the California sunshine. What I found was very interesting and very much a part of the time in which this all took place. Please return tomorrow for more on Jimmy Stewart and Harvey.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: