Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ethel Barrymore's Curtain Call

According to New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson, “Everything about ‘The Corn is Green’ reawakens enthusiasm for the theatre.”

He wrote in 1940 on Ethel Barrymore’s Broadway performance. We’ve noted on this blog the recent performance in Boston, in the same role of Miss Moffat, by Kate Burton (see post here). Ethel Barrymore also appeared in Boston with this play, where the audience contributed to an ethereal experience at the curtain.

The play, which had earlier been a hit in London, was offered first to Helen Hayes when it was brought to this country, but handed over to Ethel Barrymore when Miss Hayes declined, which Miss Barrymore also did on first reading, and was later persuaded to take the part. Despite the misgivings of more people than just these two celebrated actresses, the play went on to become an enormous hit.

Then, as now, it was tricky times for the theater. We were in the last years of the Great Depression. Just the happy realization that such a first class production representing the best of what theater could be could also be a financial success, seemed heaven-sent.

As Mr. Atkinson noted, “As things go in the theatre, this is a great part, and as things are gong in the theatre just now, Miss Barrymore plays is magnificently…from now on she can wear Miss Moffat as a jewel in her crown.”

In May 1942, Ethel Barrymore toured with the play. On May 19th, her brother, famed actor John Barrymore collapsed in Hollywood, suffering from several serious health conditions. Her other equally famous brother, Lionel Barrymore, stayed with John and kept Ethel informed of John’s illness and that John requested she not come to the hospital, but that she remain with her show.

Ten days later, on evening of May 29th, John Barrymore died. Earlier that afternoon Lionel called Ethel after her matinee performance on the box office telephone at the Wilbur Theatre on Tremont Street in Boston. He told her that the end was likely near. In taking his call, according to “The Barrymores” by Hollis Alpert (The Dial Press, NY, 1964), she fell before reaching the phone. Only after she hung up the phone and had difficulty walking back to her dressing room, did she realize she had hurt herself. She had broken a bone in her foot, and played that evening’s performance with her ankle taped.

As Alpert described it, when she came on stage for her curtain call and “…the audience gave her a stunning ovation for several minutes, and through the tumult of sound that filled the theater she stood with head bowed.”

She realized suddenly the tribute was for John, offering condolences. It was a tribute to herself, and Lionel Barrymore, and possibly all their acting ancestors, so great was the contribution made to American theater by one family.

A playbill of Ethel Barrymore’s performance at the Wilbur Theatre is currently being offered on eBay. Have a look here.

For more on the history of the Wilbur Theatre, have a look at this website.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

"Tranced" at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre

A new psychological thriller is currently running at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre of Lowell, Mass. The New England premiere of “Tranced” by Bob Clyman, directed by Kyle Fabel, will continue through March 8th.

Philip, played by Mark Zeisler, is a trancing psychologist, who must unearth the repressed traumatic memory of Azmera, played by Zainab Jah, a London graduate student suffering from panic attacks.

From MRT’s synopsis: “What happened to Azmera on her volunteer trip to Africa and why is it linked to the ongoing Kanguya Dam Project? What is the truth in the shocking memories of his patient and will anyone listen? Layered with provocative questions, the outcome has life and death consequences for thousands of people. This truly powerful production is sure to leave its audience questioning their experience and what they would have done in each of the characters’ difficult positions.” The cast also features Kimber Riddle as Beth, and David Adkins as Logan.

In an interesting aside to this production, the Merrimack Theatre is also in partnership with Community Teamwork’s SuitAbility program for a shoe and shoe box drive for the upcoming MRT production of “Bad Dates”.

In “Bad Dates”, Haley Walker is a single mother and successful business owner living in New York City. She is obsessed with shoes, and claims to have over 600 pairs in her closet.

To “dress” this set, MRT will hold a shoe and shoe box drive during the run of “Tranced”. Donated shoes and shoe boxes will be used in the upcoming production of “Bad Dates”, and then donated to SuitAbility, a Lowell-based charity. New or gently worn women’s dress shoes may be dropped off at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street in Downtown Lowell between February 12th and March 8th.

The following is a list of brands needed for the shoe drive: Chanel, Nine West, Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, and any other shoes from a notable designer or high-end department store. Shoe boxes for these brands are also needed. While they may not be used in the production, MRT will also collect other brands of new or gently used women’s dress shoes.

SuitAbility is a program of Community Teamwork, Inc. created to enhance the marketability of economically challenged women. SuitAbility provides free employment related services such as interview/work clothing and employment/life skill workshops to low-income women.

If you’re able to take in this intriguing thriller, “Tranced”, check your closet first and bring along a pair of shoes to star in the next show, “Bad Dates”. Recycling at its most dramatic.

For more information on “Tranced” and the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, have a look at this website.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Majestic Theater - West Springfield, Mass.

The Majestic Theater in West Springfield, Massachusetts thrives not through nostalgia, but through adaptation. Once a neighborhood second-run movie house, the Majestic is now one of the best places in western Massachusetts to see live theatre.

Because of the coincidental overlapping of blog subjects, this post will be featured on all three of my blogs this week precisely because it conveniently (for me) dovetails the purposes of discussion of old movies (Another Old Movie Blog), New England history (New England Travels) and theater in New England (Tragedy and Comedy in New England).

At the informative Cinema Treasures site, the Majestic is noted as opening in the 1920s. The ads here are for second-run films in the 1940s when the Majestic continued to be a popular neighborhood movie house. The top ad for “Brewster’s Millions” on a double bill with “Alias Billy the Kid” is from April 1946. Note how though the war has ended, we are still encouraged to buy war bonds.

The ad for “Good Morning Judge” and “Gorilla Man” is from October 1943. Note the “vermillion rose dinnerware for the ladies” at the top. For our past discussion on Depression glass and movie “dish night” please see this post from February 2008.

The third ad features Gary Cooper in “The Westerner”, along with “The Mummy’s Hand” and a “The Adventures of Red Ryder” short. This is from January 1941

The Majestic re-opened as the Paris Cinema in the 1960s showing foreign films, and became the Elm Cinema in the 1980s, but the mid-1990s brought its most drastic, and welcome, change. Danny Eaton, who brought his Theater Project to a new home here in West Springfield, became the founder and artistic director of a re-born Majestic Theater.

Later this month, their production of William Inge’s “Bus Stop” opens.

Nostalgia for the past is a wonderful thing, but without the vibrancy of modern purpose, we are left with little more than an entertaining scrapbook, as fun to look at but as out of date as these movie ads. We’ve seen on this blog how many old-time theaters are demolished. It is pleasing when some can be converted to modern use either as movie theaters or as small businesses.

But when they can be successfully transformed into theaters for stage plays, then the theater building becomes more than a beloved town relic. The production of stage plays involves a lot of people. People working on and off stage, people spending, people volunteering, a community that comes together when people are the engine that drives the product. People have always been the business of show business.

For more on the current season of the Majestic Theater, here is their website.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Belle of Amherst - StageWest

This program for “The Belle of Amherst”, produced at StageWest January through February of 1983, contains a recipe for Emily Dickinson’s black cake. A nice touch, for the poet soars to moments of ecstasy when she describes for us her black cake and her gingerbread, with as much intensity as she does her delicate poems.

StageWest was still producing shows from a theater on the Eastern States Exposition fairgrounds in West Springfield at the time this play was presented. Later that year, StageWest would move across the river to Springfield.

Tana Hicken played Emily Dickinson in this one woman show, and in a talk with the audience after one performance, she mused how a difficult aspect of giving one-person shows is that there is no one else on stage to feed you a line when you forget. Theater is so inter-active between players, it’s tough on stage to be as solitary as Emily Dickinson was.

Directed by Donald Hicken, the William Luce play was of course made famous by Julie Harris. Donald Hicken continues to direct, and Tana continues to act, in the Baltimore area. StageWest is now defunct.

Quite a few of the businesses advertising in the program, like StageWest, are also no longer around. Can so much have changed in 26 years?