Theatre yesterday and today



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Yesterday I wrote of the actor Jimmy Stewart's only two appearances on Broadway between the years 1947 and 1970—both of them in the same play: Mary Chase's Harvey. The first was when he filled in for the vacationing Frank Fay, the actor who created the part of the more-often-than-not ossified gentleman who befriends a 6' 2" rabbit that only he can see. The second, with a decidedly more mature Stewart (then nearly sixty-two), was twenty-five years later. "I'm nervous," he told the New York Times in an interview before the show opened. "When you haven't been on stage in 20 years, it's a pretty hard thing to get back into. Especially the voice projection. But my wife, Gloria, and I kind of welcomed the change. We found ourselves sitting around Beverly Hills having conversations with our two little dogs."

"Harvey" (with Stewart) in just about the most awful publicity photo ever taken.

In that same interview, Stewart said: "I've always loved the play, and always had it sort of in the back of my mind that I'd like to do it again. I wasn't satisfied with the movie version of Harvey. I think my age is much more Elwood P. Dowd than it was 20 years ago. I played him a little too-dreamily, a little too-cute. I don't intend to do that this time."

Far be it from me to disagree with Mr. Stewart's assessment, but for me, he isn't too-cute in the 1950 film at all. In fact, it struck me as brave that he made the conscious choice to not shy away from Elwood's need to be forever in search of a drink. For someone who in his private life was extremely conservative, with rigid ideas about patriotism and family, it could have been easy for Stewart to hide the character's inherent alcoholism by making him seem merely eccentric, instead of a drunk. But he goes all out, making Elwood more than a little tipsy in nearly every scene. My memory of the way he played it in 1970 just happens to be enhanced by a copy I own of a taped version of that production which aired on the NBC Hallmark Hall of Fame two years later. In it, Stewart is every bit as congenial as he was in 1950, though more centered and less flighty. As a prime example, one only has to look at the long monologue in which Elwood tells of how he first met Harvey. In the movie, it is shot outside a bar in an alley, with Elwood seated on a trash can. He's wistful and "in his cups," as the old expression used to go. In the TV version, it is performed as it is on stage, in a doctor's office. In the less convivial atmosphere, and obviously with no alcohol to fuel it, Stewart performs the monologue in a way that can best be described as "avuncular."

Once again, the visibly "invisible" Harvey, commonly used when promoting the play.

But a word or two of praise for Helen Hayes in the role of Elwood's sister, Veta. Though most of her career had been spent on the stage, including many light comedies in her ingenue days, the more mature Hayes was often seen in dramatic plays and films like Victoria Regina and Anastasia. It's what makes her comic timing, based in reality, such a wonderful surprise.

When first approached to do Harvey once again, Stewart had his reservations. He was tempted by a desire to help out the Phoenix Theatre, a producing entity which first began in 1953 and was responsible for over a hundred productions offered at discount prices both on and off-Broadway in its seventeen-year existence. With a star like Stewart, the Phoenix was looking for a way to keep their doors open in order to live to fight another day. But a pre-arranged contract with the University of Michigan to have their shows play Ann Arbor prior to Broadway, left Stewart troubled. This was 1970; the height of protests over Vietnam. Not only was Stewart one of the most highly visible hawks in support of that war, but things were further complicated by the recent death of his stepson, Ronald, killed in action at age twenty-four. Hanging out on a college campus, even though Michigan was no Berkeley, filled Stewart with dread. Not only due to politics, but a fear that no one of this current highly vocal generation knew who he was anymore.

It was Helen Hayes who came to the rescue, who as a member of the Phoenix Board, chose to take on the co-star role in Harvey as an enticement to get Stewart on board. On this subject, Hayes's son, James MacArthur, said "Mother essentially told him that if nobody had ever heard of him, nobody would have heard of her either, so at least they would be company for one another." In fact, when the hotel they stayed at proved to serve food that didn't agree with either of them, Stewart and Hayes took to eating on campus at the university restaurant for every single meal. As Robert Schnitzer, then in charge of the theatre program at Ann Arbor recalled to the author Donald Dewey, who wrote a 1996 biography entitled (appropriately enough) James Stewart: "There was absolutely no targeting of Jimmy during the student demonstrations while he was doing the play. On the contrary, the only students who came near him were the ones in the university restaurant who came up to ask for his autograph or just to say how much they liked his work. I suggested that maybe we ought to do something to discourage the autograph seekers from constantly interrupting his meals, but he wouldn't hear of it. 'When they don't come up to me, he said, 'that's when I'll start worrying.'"

Helen Hayes and Jimmy Stewart in Harvey (1970).

When I saw this Harvey, even though I was thirteen and at the height of going backstage after every show, for some reason on that particular afternoon, I didn't. It might have had something to do with the hard time I had in my attempt to meet Henry Fonda when I had seen him play the Stage Manager in Our Town at the same theatre a year earlier. On that afternoon, the doorman told me that Fonda wasn't receiving any guests, but when I saw a group heading up the stairs, I simply smuggled myself in with them. Lucky for me, the black coat I was wearing enabled me to blend in with the dozen or so nuns, which is how I found myself in Henry Fonda's dressing room.

My Playbill, signed by Henry Fonda.

My not going backstage after Harvey might have had something to do with having brought my wonderful Aunt Helen with me that day, she who had taken me to my very first Broadway show two years prior; the person responsible for feeding the flame that launched my theatregoing obsession. I have a memory of going out to dinner with her that evening at the earliest flagship Benihana restaurant in Manhattan on 56th street. Perhaps she was anxious to not be late for our reservation, and thus turned down my offer to take her backstage. It would have been nice to report that I had met Jimmy Stewart and Helen Hayes that afternoon, but it was infinitely nicer to have spent the time in the company of Aunt Helen.

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