Theatre yesterday and today



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On this date in 1944 (seventy-five years ago today— and notoriously bad at math as I am, I used a calculator to assure it's correct), a hit comedy opened at the Music Box Theatre titled Over 21. It was a semi-autobiographical play (nothing new about that), but what was original at the time was that it marked the debut of a writer who was already a renowned Broadway and film star: Ruth Gordon. She was forty-eight, just past the half-way mark of what turned out to be a rich, long and varied career, that only ended with her death at age eighty-eight, after an Oscar and an Emmy and many other notable highlights. But it bears mentioning that for a mere actress to have attempted to take on the mantle of a playwright was something fresh and exciting in 1944 (and still is today). And oh, she starred in it too.

Ruth Gordon as Paula Wharton in Over 21 (1944).

But that was Ruth Gordon. An iconoclast, and as strong a presence on stage and off, that the theatre has ever known. She appeared in thirty-two Broadway shows over the course of sixty-one years (she began in 1915), and since so many titles were long before the Tony Awards were founded, she was only nominated but once: for Best Actress in 1955 for her turn as Dolly Gallagher Levi in Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker. It's a sin that she was never voted a special lifetime achievement Tony, for if anyone deserved such an honor, it was she. Standing at just 5 feet tall, she was something of giant in the business, again not only for her acting, but for her writing. For alongside her husband, Garson Kanin, they were nominated as a team for three Academy Awards for three original screenplays: A Double Life (1957), Adam's Rib (1950) and Pat and Mike (1952). In total, and all on her own, Gordon penned three Broadway plays and two volumes of autobiography. To my knowledge, the only thing Gordon never attempted was a musical. If so, perhaps it's safe to assume the only thing that prevented her was an inability to sing, though that tiny drawback has certainly not stopped many who came before her (or since).

The morning after Over 21's opening night, Lewis Nichols in the New York Times wrote that "Having started writing plays for herself, Miss Gordon will probably keep on. That will be all right, too, if she can act in them as she does in this." Defying that, Gordon returned to Broadway just shy of three years later in December 1946, with a more directly autobiographical play, Years Ago, which was based on her early years, coming into her own as a young actress (in which she did not perform). The primary relationship in the play is one with her father, a salty-seadog and former ship's captain from Quincy, Massachusetts, the town where Gordon was born and raised. Years Ago ran for 206 performances, about the same as Over 21, which played for 221. However, unlike Over 21, Years Ago was made into a successful 1953 film, retitled The Actress, with Jean Simmons (as Gordon), playing opposite Spencer Tracy as Gordon's dad.

Spencer Tracy and Jean Simmons in The Actress (1953).

Given that Lewis Nichols in his opening night review of Over 21 dubbed it "okay," he still decided to return to it for a follow-up review a few days later in the Sunday NY Times "Arts & Leisure" where he wrote: "What gives Over 21 its gaiety is, of course, the fact that Miss Gordon belongs to it body and soul—the latter, as author, the former as actress. For a long while she has been one of the theatre's better comediennes, who can toy with a good line something like a terrier puppy with a Christmas sock. If there is humor hidden anywhere in a sentence, she can bring it out, displaying it proudly."

What Over 21 had by the way of a passable plot had all to do with its setting, as World War II still had eighteen months to go before finally ending in September, 1945. Audiences were happy to spend time at home front-related comedies. With this one, Gordon took from her own experiences as a wife with a husband overseas (Kanin served served in the Signal Corps and then in the Office of Strategic Services). In her fictionalized version of events, Gordon's character followed her husband to a Florida Army camp, taking up residence in a motor lodge, in order that she could be near to him (and help him as he struggled through Officers' Candidate School). Creating a character that owed more than a little to her good friend, Dorothy Parker, Gordon played a celebrated writer with a smart aleck's way about her, but with an attractive allure that somewhat eluded Parker herself.

But the encouragement critics and audiences gave Ruth Gordon fueled her engine, with Years Ago following as it did, as well as the screenplays she co-wrote with Kanin. Sadly, all the time she spent writing took her away from acting. As her New York Times obituary reported, "for 23 years, from 1943 to 1966, Miss Gordon did not act in a single film, partly because of her constant activity on other fronts. When Miss Gordon did return to film, however, she found an entirely new audience, moviegoers young enough to be her grandchildren."

For her first film back, Gordon received a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination (Inside Daisy Clover). Three years later, she won in the same category for playing Mia Farrow's nosy neighbor (who happened to be a witch) in Rosemary's Baby. At the time, she was the oldest winning actor ever, having made her first film (a silent one) in 1915. Here's the footage of being handed her Oscar by Tony Curtis:

The opening line of her acceptance speech is still a classic: “I can’t tell you how encouraging a thing like this is.” And did you notice her walk to the podium, filled with such confidence, pride and poise? Amazing! And on that night, Gordon had no way of knowing that for the next twenty years she would be working at a pace that might have put younger actors to shame. Her roles in Where's Poppa? (1970) and Harold and Maude (1971), made her a hero to young and hip moviegoers the world over. Her biography is so long and stuffed with events, these 1,200 words can't begin to cover it. You are best to continue on your own. All it takes is some simple Googling.

One last great Gordon quote, told to me by the late George Furth. As a young actor making his way in New York in the 1950s, Furth had reason to get to know Gordon while she was on Broadway in The Matchmaker. He once asked her what was necessary to succeed as an actor, and Gordon told him in no uncertain terms: “It’s not enough to have talent! You have to have a talent for talent!”

And Ruth Gordon surely did.

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, sign up to follow me here, as well as email me with comments or questions at