Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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DWELLIN' ON HELEN

It happened a lot during my teenage years, when I would be walking through the theatre district in the 1960s and 70s, and I would take in the marquees for upcoming shows, a number of which never saw the lights of Broadway. My childhood memories are filled with images of the logos and stars above the titles for plays and musicals that never made it to their ultimate destinations. Too often they closed out of town, not with a bang, but with a whimper. It was always my hope that some of these marquees were photographed for posterity by a relative or a friend with a camera. Otherwise, where is the evidence that an immodest disaster such as Hellzapoppin with Jerry Lewis, that closed in Boston in 1976, never made it to the Minskoff Theatre, where its marquee boldly announced this self-billed "musical circus" would soon open?

A whole column could be written about the horror show that was Hellzapoppin, but in the spirit of shows that closed out of town, I want to concentrate today on Helen Raymond, an actress I was barely familiar with before doing a bit of research for this column. I certainly knew of her most prominent credit, that of creating the role of Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn in the original Broadway production of The Music Man. But I was too young to have seen that show, and her presence on the cast album is reduced to her talk-singing her way through "Pick-a-Little-Talk-a-Little," meaning there's very little to access much about her career at this late date.

Helen Raymond and Paul Ford in The Music Man (1957)

And speaking of late dates, Raymond was born in 1878 while Rutherford B. Hayes was President. In the early part of her career she made a few film appearances in, you guessed it, silent movies.

What makes Helen Raymond of interest (to me, at least) is a discovery I made while perusing a book titled Broadway Bound: A Guide to Shows That Died Aborning. It lists just about every show that closed out of town that expired before any chance of Broadway success. It's a fun book to leaf through and it was while studying the index that I kept seeing the name of Helen Raymond. After counting carefully, it turns out she appeared in seven flops that closed in Philadelphia, Boston or Detroit. That's a whole lot of disappointment to contend with over the course of one career, even one as long as hers.

As it comes with the territory, some of the greatest Broadway stars suffered out of town closings, from the earliest of the acting-elite like George M. Cohan, Katharine Cornell and Ethel Barrymore, on to "Golden Age' performers like Alfred Drake, Henry Fonda, Uta Hagen, Julie Harris, Geraldine Page, Robert Preston, Elaine Stritch and Mary Martin, right up to those still working such as James Earl Jones, Chita Rivera, Angela Lansbury and Patti LuPone. It's a badge of honor, and most have worn it well.

And speaking of Mary Martin, she was in two of the seven out of town bombs that also featured Helen Raymond. Between Martin's sensational debut singing Cole Porter's "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" in the 1938 musical Leave It to Me , she attempted two shows to further her overnight stardom: Nice Goin' in 1939 and Dancing in the Streets, in 1943. Both shows never made it out of Boston. But later in 1943, Martin had a reversal of fortune: One Touch of Venus, with a book by S.J. Perelman and Ogden Nash; music by Kurt Weill; and lyrics by Nash, gave Broadway Martin's portrayal of the statue of Venus come to life and solidified her star status for all time. And who was in the cast along with her? Yup—Helen Raymond.

The seven shows featuring Raymond that "died aborning," came between the years 1937 and 1946. All was not lost, as it still allowed for her to work with some of the great composers of the day: Sammy Fain, Al Dubin, Howard Dietz and Vernon Duke. If these names don't mean much to you, look them up. They were responsible for some of the most beautiful compositions you've ever heard from the Great American Songbook.

Raymond even did an early show that marked the very first collaboration of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, Life of the Party, which closed in Detroit. It only proves that everyone makes mistakes and that nobody's perfect.

It is wonderful that Raymond's final shot at being in a hit paid off major dividends. Meredith Willson's The Music Man was one of the biggest and best of the 1950s and Raymond stayed with the show for much of its three-and-a-half year run. After it closed in 1961, she retired until her death in 1965.

One last discovery I made was when I pulled up Helen Raymond's two-paragraph obituary in the New York Times. It said that "Miss Raymond was in her late 70s." Try again. She was eighty-seven. It also said, that "she died at the Lynwood Nursing Home at 306 W 102nd Street." I did a double-take, as that's right down the same street from where I just moved to in Manhattan last week. Today I went by and paid my respects.

306 W 102nd Street as it appears today.

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© 2016 Ron Fassler - All rights Reserved

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