Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Past Week In Theatre History (Jan. 16 - 20)

The Past Week In Theatre History: January 16 -20

By Robert Viagas, David Gewirtzman, Sam Maher
Christopher Reichheld and Anne Bradley

1882    Birthday of A.A. Milne (1882-1956), best-known as creator of the Winnie-the-Pooh books, but also a prolific Broadway playwright, author of Mr. Pim Passes By, The Truth About Blayds, Belinda, Give Me Yesterday and Ariadne.

1887    Birthday of Alexander Woolcott (1887-1943), actor, author, radio personality, theatre critic of The New York Times, and one of the original members of the Algonquin Round Table is born today. He will appear as an actor in several Broadway shows, and serve as the model for the character of Sheridan Whiteside in George S. Kaufman's comedy, The Man Who Came to Dinner.

1896    Say good morning, George. Actually it was "Nathan" then -- Nathan Birnbaum born today. As George Burns, he and Gracie Allen will become headliners of vaudeville. Together they will appear in films and their own television show. On his own, Burns will also have a successful film career.

1908    There's no birthday like Merm's birthday. Ethel Zimmermann is born in Astoria N.Y. today. In years to come she will be acting and belting all over town as Ethel Merman. She gave all three birth years.

1913    Birthday of funnyman Danny Kaye (1913-1987), who will star on Broadway in Let's Face It, Lady in the Dark (singing "Tchaikovsky") and other shows before going off to Hollywood for a series of comedies and musicals. He will return to Broadway in 1970 for Richard Rodgers and Martin Charnin's Two by Two.

1917    Birthday of sturdy leading man John Raitt, star of Broadway's original Carousel and The Pajama Game, and father of pop singer Bonnie Raitt.

1926    Actress Patricia Neal is born today in Packard, Kentucky. Among other productions, she will appear in Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest. For her performance in that show she will have the distinction of being the very first person to be handed a Tony Award at the inaugural ceremony.

1931    Birthday of James Earl Jones, resonant-voiced actor who will win the Tony Award for Best Actor twice: for The Great White Hope in 1969 and Fences in 1987. Broadway appearances will include Othello, Les Blancs, A Lesson From Aloes, Of Mice and Men. Paul Robeson and MASTER HAROLD...and the boys. He's also known for voicing the characters of Mufasa in Disney's film The Lion King and Darth Vader in Star Wars, and for his telephone company commercials.

1938    Opening night for third of a nation..., a "living newspaper" revue of sketches about life during the Depression, created by the Federal Theatre Project of the WPA. It runs 237 performances at the Adelphi Theatre.

1942    Birthday of British musical theatre star Michael Crawford, who will star on Broadway in two gothic musicals, the blockbuster The Phantom of the Opera and the flop Dance of the Vampires.

1954    Stage and film actor Sydney Greenstreet dies in Hollywood today. He acted with Sybil Thorndike, Constance Collier and Tyrone Power Sr. in many classic roles. His film roles were normally supporting but always memorable. He was 75 years old.

1956    Tyrone Guthrie directs Anthony Quayle in Christopher Marlowe's 16th century epic Tamburlaine at the Winter Garden Theatre. It runs only 20 performances, but gives one thing to posterity: it's the Broadway debut of William Shatner, later Captain Kirk on TV's "Star Trek."

1958    Henry Fonda and Anne Bancroft are Two for the Seesaw at the Booth Theatre. This comedy about a married man and the younger woman who helps him 'find' himself will run 750 performances. William Gibson penned the script.

1964    Say Hello, Dolly!. Carol Channing stars as the musical Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi at the St. James Theatre. Adapted by Michael Stewart from Thornton Wilder's play, The Matchmaker has music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. Gower Champion directs and choreographs. There will be 2,844 performances, which will make it, briefly, the longest-running Broadway musical ever.

1965    London's Old Vic Theatre houses Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Produced by the National Theatre and directed by Laurence Olivier, the cast is led by Joyce Redman and Colin Blakely.

1967    The Promise, Aleksei Arbuzov's Russian play about three young people who've survived the siege of Leningrad, runs at the Fortune Theatre in London. Judi Dench, Ian McShane and Ian McKellen star. There will be 289 performances.

1968    Songwriters Kander & Ebb follow their success in Cabaret with The Happy Time, based on a play about a French-Canadian photographer, and his relationship with his adoring nephew. The musical runs only 286 performances despite the presence of Robert Goulet, then near the top of his popularity, in the lead.

1969    Broadway composer Vernon Duke dies today. Duke's music filled theatres from the West End to Broadway. Among many memorable songs are "April in Paris" with E.Y. Harburg and "I Can't Get Started," with Ira Gershwin. He was 65 years old.

1974    Michael Bennett, a choreographer and director, responds to an idea for a show about the lives of dancers in Broadway choruses. Bennett assembles a group of dancers, including Donna McKechnie, and has them discuss their experiences in an all-night session tonight. The show that will become A Chorus Line will begin to take shape tomorrow.

1975    A gay bathhouse is the setting of Terrence McNally's high-energy farce, The Ritz, which stars Jack Weston as a bewildered straight man forced to hide out there, and Rita Moreno as spirited entertainer Googie Gomez. It runs 398 performances at the Longacre Theatre, and wins Moreno the Tony for Best Supporting Actress. She's the last person to win it, however: Her speech about supporting "nothing but my beads," leads the Tonys to change the name of the category to Best Featured Actress.

1984    Ian McKellen opens tonight at the Ritz Theater in Ian McKellen Acting Shakespeare. He receives a Tony Award nomination for his performance.

1989    British comedienne, Beatrice Lillie, dies today. Lillie first performed in New York in 1924 (Charlot's Revue). Her film credits include 1967's "Thoroughly Modern Millie."

1998    It's Ragtime at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts. The show's epic journey to a home on Broadway nearly matches that of E.L. Doctorow's novel, adapted by Terrence McNally. Frank Galati directs the cast of 59, led by Brian Stokes Mitchell, Peter Friedman, Marin Mazzie and Audra McDonald. It will go on to win several Tony Awards but ultimately fail to survive the financial turmoil of its producing organization, Livent.

2000    Smokey Joe's Cafe, the longest-running revue in Broadway history (2,036 performances), closes today. The musical features words and music by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

2003    Iconic Broadway caricaturist Al Hirschfeld dies at age 99. Having captured the spirit of New York life, particularly actors in performance, since the 1920s, he was known for hiding his daughter's name, "Nina," in his sketches. At least one Broadway show, My Fair Lady, used a Hirschfeld drawing as its logo. Within months of his death, the Martin Beck Theatre will be renamed the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in his honor.

2004    Billed as North America's current longest-running theatrical production, The Toronto Truck Theatre staging of Agatha Christie's durable murder mystery, The Mousetrap, closes after a run of 26-1/2 years.

2004    Urinetown, which won Tony Awards for Best Score and Best Book of a Musical in 2002, closes after 965 performances at Henry Miller's Theatre. The theatre itself also closes, ostensibly so it can be incorporated into a new skyscraper being built on the block bounded by West 42nd and 43rd Streets on Avenue of the Americas. However, the theatre is subsequently largely demolished.

2005    Harvey Fierstein takes over the role of Tevye in the Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof.

2008     In the midst of the presidential primary season, David Mamet opens his political comedy, November, about an entertainingly corrupt U.S. President (played by Nathan Lane), who tries to leverage a turkey-pardoning into a surprise second term. It runs 205 performances at the Barrymore Theatre.

More of This Week's Birthdays: Minnie Dupree 1873. Mack Sennett 1880. George Kelly 1887. Cary Grant 1904. Robert Russell 1912. Danny Kaye 1913. Jean Stapleton 1923. Eartha Kitt 1927. Shari Lewis 1933. Andy Kaufman 1949. Debbie Allen 1950. Liz Larsen 1959. Denis O'Hare 1962. Jesse L. Martin 1969. Lin-Manuel Miranda 1980.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of everything that happen this week in theatre history, that post would be WAY longer than this one. To see more check out the "Today in Theatre History" blog posts on


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