Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

caravantoozAnyone who has ever availed themselves of the Off-Off-Broadway experience in New York City, whether as a performer, a crew member or simply “one of those little people out there in the dark,” will truly sink their literary teeth into Caravan to Oz, a splendid history of one family’s journey into a most exciting period in the American theater in the Big Apple. Anyone who hasn’t ever availed themselves of the Off-Off-Broadway experience in New York City, whether as a performer, a crew member or simply “one of those little people out there in the dark,” will truly sink their literary teeth into the book all the same. And in any case, this two-hundred-and-seventy page tome laden with stunning photography, emerges as a wondrous history lesson even to those not necessarily theater-oriented. To be succinct, it’s nearly impossible to put down once begun reading. The book bears vague similarities to Edie, the smash recounting of Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick, except that in this case the story is actually told by the subjects in question, along with additional input by such legends of the Off-Off-Broadway scene and the cultural world at large as Tim Robbins, Bob Heide, Robert Patrick, Crystal Field, Mike Figgis, Mark Lancaster, Ritsaert ten Cate, and the late Ellen Stewart.

The caravan begins its initial drive down life’s highway in the Westchester, New York enclave of Bronxville, where actor-writers George Edgerly Harris II (hereafter referred to as George Sr) and his wife Ann launched a family of six eventual children, namely and in order George Edgerly Harris III (hereafter referred to as G3), Walter Michael Harris, Frederic Joseph Harris, Jayne Ann Harris (today Harris-Kelley), Eloise Alice Harris (today Harris-Damone) and Mary Lucille Harris, hereafter referred to as Mary Lou. After the family relocated to Belleaire, a suburb of Clearwater in Florida, and spent several years there in which all six of the children proved themselves extremely adept at both performance and self-producing various extravaganzas, the family once again headed north and took up residence on the Lower East Side, slowly assimilating themselves into the world of Off-Off-Broadway which had already begun coming into its own ten or more years earlier with the advent of LaMaMa Experimental Theater Company, the Living Theater, and the Caffe Cino. By the late 1960s, Walter Michael (not merely an actor-singer but a very impressive and self-taught musician) had established himself as the youngest original cast member of the hit musical Hair on Broadway, while George Sr took a role in The Great White Hope and subsequently took the show on the road, and mother Ann assumed a featured part in the classic horror film The Honeymoon Killers, alongside Shirley Stoler and Tony LoBianco. G3, meanwhile, trotted off to San Francisco to find his own path and, aside from being reportedly the first person to stick flowers into the gun barrels of the police during the Summer of Love in Haight-Ashbury while living on a commune, also began exploring drag artistry under the name Hibiscus as a founding member of the pioneering troupe The Cockettes. Upon his self-imposed termination in Hair, Walter Michael also ventured to Northern California to join his big brother but opted for a more spiritual path, ultimately becoming a monk of the Holy Order of MANS (although he did eventually return to the theatrical fold after a fashion). Once reborn as the theater company The Angels of Light, the girls of the family along with their mother settled into a happy existence as literally the First Family of Off-Off-Broadway besides appearances on a triumphant tour of several European countries.

The story also has some disturbing twists and turns. Hibiscus ended up as one of the earliest-known victims to succumb to the AIDS crisis. It’s also notable that brother Fred offers no input to the book whatsoever, leaving a reader wondering exactly what his side to the story might be. The Harris Sisters, however, continued to find fame as a trio within the cabaret club spectrum during the 1980s and 1990s (occasionally making appearances with the renowned downtown actor-singer Bobby Reed), and the entire book is interlaced with lyrics written by mother Ann for such shows as The Sheep and the Cheapskate, There Is Method In Their Madness, and Sky High. It’s almost a little too much to take in upon just one reading, to realize exactly how incredible this superb family of eight managed to accomplish in one lifetime together. But by the last page, one can’t help but feel a sense of peace, as well as the hope that anything in life is truly possible given the right brand of dedication and talent.

Caravan to Oz is available by ordering here. Do yourselves a favor and grab a copy.

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The first time I even heard the name Julie Wilson, I was twelve. I’d begun saving my allowance every month to make a trip to the old Disc-O-Mat record store in the city on 58th and 3rd because they sold Broadway albums for $3.99 apiece, so I’d buy three or four at a time. One of the first was Gypsy, and the liner notes explained that countless tours of the show had also starred such women as Mary McCarty (of whom I knew because I was a big fan of the TV show “Trapper John MD,” and I had no idea she was also a singer) and Julie Wilson, who I’d never heard of at all. So I just sort of put her name on a back burner and figured I’d get around to her eventually. I had a lot of learning to do, after all.

A few years later, in my late teens and when I started getting into cabaret proper, was when I really started learning exactly who Julie Wilson was and what she meant within entertainment circles. From what I could gather aside from her sensational facial beauty and perfect physique, she’d been somewhat of a big Broadway star and did a few movies, married a big Broadway producer named Michael McAloney and had two sons with him, went through a messy divorce, and all the while maintained a career as a major cabaret star at clubs like La Maisonette and The Persian Room. And was particularly known for wearing her hair in a beautifully-coiffed chignon with a gardenia attached over her left ear, much like Billie Holiday. Nice. But by the time I came along, apparently her voice wasn’t nearly what it had been in her heyday, and what she relied on most was talk-singing her way through the songs and managing to still thoroughly communicate the essence of the lyrics. By that point I’d still never seen her on stage, although I heard a few albums and honestly couldn’t figure out what the big deal was. That, clearly, was the naivete of a precocious seventeen-year-old who believes they know everything.

juliew02In 1990, I got my very first job as an entertainment journalist, for a magazine called Night & Day. And my debut assignment was covering the MAC Awards, which at that time was presented at Symphony Space. Receiving the Henry Luhrman Memorial Award that year just happened to be Julie Wilson. I didn’t know Hank (Henry) at all, he was before my time and had just died of AIDS sometime shortly prior. But in the course of her speech she revealed that she’d been in semi-retirement out of town and that it was Hank and his longtime partner Hilary Knight (best known for illustrating the “Eloise” series of children’s books) who had convinced her to come back to NYC and start over. Well, she started over but good; she got booked at the Carlyle and stayed three weeks. Bear in mind that up to this point I’d still never seen her perform on stage.

Well, I guess my coverage of the MAC Awards must have been pretty good, because three days later they had me sauntering off to the Ballroom to review Peggy Lee. Which was excellent. Then to the Duplex to review Judy Carne’s comeback show. Which wasn’t so excellent. Then I got wind of the fact that Mollie Taylor Martin (no relation to me) would be doing a show at Don’t Tell Mama that weekend, so I asked my editor John Hammond for clearance and he said yes. Mollie and I had done summer stock together on the Bucks County/Pocono/etc circuit in ’86. You can imagine my surprise walking into the club and literally smack into Julie, looking very beautiful with her chignon but no makeup and no gardenia and ordinary street clothes. She smiled at me, and I said, “Oh! Miss Wilson! Congratulations on the award the other night!” and kissed her hand. She said, “Well, aren’t you a gentleman! Although you look about twelve. What’s your name?” I said, “It’s Andrew Martin, but you wouldn’t know me.” She said, “Oh, but I do! You’re that new young man who writes the reviews. Are you reviewing our Mollie?” I said, “Well, yes. What brings you to see Mollie?” She said, “I dated her uncle for a time. Have you seen her perform?” I said yes, she and I had done summer stock together. Julie took my arm and said, “Well, then we have to sit together and you tell me all about yourself!” and steered me into the room to a table. But I didn’t tell her all about myself, because she did all the talking. She talked about how her older son (Mike) was planning to move into his first apartment on his own but she wouldn’t let him because it had no refrigerator, and how her younger son (Holt) was trying very hard to have an acting career and make a living, and the whole thing was frankly dizzying. So that was really the beginning of the beginning. We became friends and always had a wonderful time talking together. But she wasn’t like this “mega-star Julie Wilson person,” she was just Julie. And she was fabulous.

juliew03A couple of years later, at someone’s show at Eighty Eights (I can’t remember whose, I apologize), I brought my mother as my date (which I was wont to do when she was still mobile, because she loved going out to shows in the city). And Julie happened to be at the show, so we all had a drink downstairs afterwards. The meeting between Julie and my mom went off like a Roman candle. As many know, my mom was on TV a lot when she was a kid, so she and my grandmother were always running to coffee shops for snacks and stuff in between shoots, and there was this one day when they stopped in at (I think) Child’s around the corner from the Roxy. And of course Julie worked at the Roxy as one of the showgirls. My mom told Julie, “You know, this one day when I was eight or nine, you stopped in at the coffee shop around the corner from the Roxy and ordered a coffee to go. And I told my mother, ‘Mommy, I think that’s the most beautiful girl I ever saw in my whole life.'” Julie, of course, dissolved in peals of laughter when she heard my mother tell her this. So then, of course, THEY became great friends. In a lot of ways, Julie was like a second mother to me in that respect; if the three of us were hanging out at a show together and I said something to my mom in a snappy tone, Julie would say, “Andrew, don’t TALK to your mother that way!” and my mother would say, “Yes, you LISTEN to Julie!” So it was a lose-lose for me, but it was brilliant.

I was on my hiatus from cabaret during my marriage, we’re talking between 2001 and 2008, so other than occasionally attending a show if I had to cover something for New England Entertainment Digest or a similar publication, I really sort of kept my nose out of it. But I did know that Julie suffered her first stroke at that time. I didn’t see her again until the autumn of ’08 when I came back onto the scene, and even though she walked and spoke more slowly and seemed a bit feeble, she was the same old Julie when I ran into at Joan Crowe’s show at Metropolitan Room. And it was NOT like having to talk to an old lady who’d lost her marbles; she’d have suffered none of that gladly. Her first words when she saw me (even if a bit slurred) were, “Andrew, where’ve you been and how’s your mother?” God bless her.

juliew04She did a brand-new show in ’09 at the Met Room, and by then she couldn’t sing anymore at all; she performed the songs more or less as monologues. But even that was unequivocally brilliant and the utter essence of cabaret communication. I brought my cherished friend Alice Kane with me, and we had the most marvelous evening, slurping down Grasshoppers and watching Julie. Her eleven o’clock number, as I recall, was Brecht/Weill’s “Surabaya Johnny,” and by the time she got to the end of the final verse, screaming, “TAKE THAT PIPE OUTTA YOUR MOUTH, YOU RAT!!!” we were all absolutely mesmerized. THAT was Julie as only Julie could be on a stage, musicality or not.

The very last time we got to speak was (I believe) at the ’13 MAC Awards. The afterparty, specifically. I don’t know what prompted me to bring it up, but I asked if she knew that my then-husband and I had seen “Below,” a thriller that just happened to star her son Holt as the captain of a doomed submarine (my ex was crazy about submarines, don’t ask). She smiled and said, “You know, Holt brought me to the premiere. They treated me like a queen, which was very nice, and then the movie started. And it wasn’t very good. And then came THAT SCENE. You know the one, where he’s in the shower.” (There’s a scene where Holt is in the shower, fully naked from the back. Which for me was the best part of the movie, but I digress). She continued, “I was horrified. The lights finally came up when it was over, I slapped him on the arm and said, DON’T YOU EVER DO ANOTHER MOVIE WHERE EVERYBODY GETS TO SEE YOUR TUSHIE!!!”

Oh, my darling Julie. I can’t believe you’re gone today. Go with God, my sweet gardenia-bird.

elly01Elly Stone would most likely be the last person on earth to ever call herself a living legend, either publicly or privately. But she is indeed. And how. Best known as the definitive interpreter of the English translations of songs by Jacques Brel, finding fame as the star of the theatrical hit Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris and the film version that subsequently followed (both with lyrics by her late husband Eric Blau and contributions by Mort Shuman), Stone today, at the age of eighty-eight, often refers to herself as “just another grandma in Manhattan.” And even with a career which, to date, has spanned nearly seven decades and from which she removed herself completely from the limelight some time ago, her fan base continues to grow by leaps and bounds completely and utterly unabated.

A Brooklyn native, Stone was an introverted, abused child who chose to escape within her own thoughts rather than interact with those persons surrounding her. Her vocal prowess, however, showed promise and she possessed a keen ear, and while a student at Junior High School 50 in Williamsburg, a teacher introduced her to a vocal coach named Lillian Strongin, who retains the distinction of being the person that would truly unleash Stone’s instrument as it was intended. Strongin, who Stone has always considered her true mother, helped organize her audition material for the famed High School of Music and Art (now Fiorello LaGuardia High School), where she was accepted as a voice major. After graduation, Stone opted to marry at the tender age of seventeen, divorced her first husband shortly thereafter, and began a lifelong residence in Manhattan, rarely ever looking back upon her outer-borough roots. However, after a foray into folk music, she would meet Eric Blau, at the time a published poet, who had written a campaign song for a candidate seeking election as Brooklyn Borough President; Stone was engaged to sing it. He later told an interviewer, “I thought she was kind of cute.”

Blau and Stone began a whirlwind romance very soon thereafter, and this was a heady time for her. She’d phased out of folk music and into theater, first as a standby for Barbra Streisand as Miss Marmelstein in I Can Get It For You Wholesale in 1962, and then in Blau’s Off-Broadway revue O, Oysters! in 1964, by which time they were married and she’d given birth to their son Matthew. At this time, Blau’s friend Nat Shapiro (the head of International A&R for CBS/Columbia Records), introduced the two to the songs of Jacques Brel, which blew their minds. He also introduced them to Mort Shuman (a wunderkind composer in the 1950s of such classic pop tunes as “Save the Last Dance For Me” and “Teenager in Love”). Shuman was also a big fan. Jacques Brel, at that point, was only a star in Europe (particularly in Paris and his native Belgium), but the three saw a clear course. Brel was obviously as powerful an artist at the time as Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, and deserved adaptation into English. One thing led to another, and by 1968, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris was opening at the Village Gate. What followed, aside from the recording of the original cast album, were productions in every possible corner of the globe and truly a worldwide miracle. As Stone says, “Not a day has gone by since the show’s inception forty-seven years ago, without the show being played somewhere on the planet.”

While all of this was transpiring, Stone was working diligently into the late nights in the studio after getting off stage at the Gate to record her first album, the self-titled Elly Stone, which emerged on CBS/Columbia. Although not a commercial success, the record did include several translations of Brel that weren’t included in the original show (among them “My Childhood” and “Song for Old Lovers,” interpreted from “Mon Enfance” and “Chanson Des Vieux Amants” respectively) as well as the extremely-poignant “Alexander’s Song,” a tribute by Blau to his father, who made a living as a New York City taxi driver. Her large cult following rushed to purchase copies, and it still remains a favorite among her fans. Several selections on the recording were developed in tandem with orchestrator/arranger Ralph Affoumado, and Billboard Magazine referred to it as “one of the best undiscovered albums of the year.”

Once freed from having to star in Brel on stage as a full-time occupation (by 1973 the show had closed at the Gate and moved to the Astor Place Theater with a cast that featured Teri Ralston among others), Stone set about a separate career as a concert artist. She’d appear with a full band in venues ranging from Lincoln Center to The Bottom Line from that point on, as well as such out-of-town locales as Wolf Trap, and recorded a second album, Spirit of ’76, as a celebration of the Bicentennial year. Here, while Brel interpretations were again evident, she and Blau worked with David Frank to develop such songs as “Mr. Williams” (for which Stone herself wrote the music), “Soft Shoe Routine,” “Snows of Fifth Avenue,” and “New Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Old Soldiers in the Chinese Restaurant” (both with music by the aforementioned Affoumado). Again, among her fans, the record sold like hotcakes. However, a year or so earlier, she and Shuman (and Joe Masiell) were cast in the film version of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which also featured a cameo by Brel himself. It has been a cult hit for years. And, she’s never seen the film.

Her last appearance on the legitimate stage came in 1977 at the Astor Place, in another Blau musical called The Cockeyed Tiger. But he started creating a new work and consequently stumbled upon composer/lyricist Elliot Weiss, who had only recently graduated from Juilliard and had written the music for a short song cycle. Blau wrote the lyrics and entitled it The 104 Bus. It premiered in 1982 as the second act of one of Stone’s concerts at The Bottom Line, and featured such vocalists as Joseph Neal and Kitty Hendrix. Later, when Stone premiered a concert at Symphony Space in ’83, it emerged as her opening act.

It was shortly thereafter that Stone drew the professional veil as a stage presence for the most part, and expanded her work teaching voice. She’d inherited valuable manuscripts that Lillian Strongin had inherited from her own teacher, William Earl Brown. These were the sayings and teachings of Giovanni Battista Lamperti, the nineteenth- century master, whose name is synonymous with Bel Canto. He and his father, Francesco Lamperti, are still revered as being among the greatest teachers of all time. Stone feels that in teaching and editing the manuscripts for publication, she found her calling.

She has also directed quite a few legit stage productions of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris for over the last three decades, including one at Town Hall in 1983 which starred Karen Akers. Another most notable of these was in 1986 at the Beacon Theater, where the show opened with her singing “My Childhood” as an unannounced surprise on the first night, and drove the crowd to stupendous ovation. And there was her handling of the twenty-fifth anniversary production of the show at the Village Gate in 1993, starring Karen Saunders, Gabriel Barre, Joseph Neal and Andrea Green.

Though Elly Stone will never confess to having no regrets, she does look back on her past with nonchalance. “It’s life,” she says. “All I did was live it.” And live it she has indeed. Thank goodness.

godspellexpI’m writing this piece in the first person, which many know I’m not usually wont to do. It simply isn’t my way as a journalist, because I was taught that the best way to express reportage was to keep oneself out of it completely, other than being the mechanism that moves the narrative along on its literary way. But this time around, I have no choice. As many know, in the late fall of 2011, I saw the publication of my first book, All for the Best: How Godspell Transferred From Stage to Screen. Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, this was borne from an article I wrote here on The Andrew Martin Report earlier that year. At the same time, an author named Carol de Giere was also very hard at work on a book of her own, entitled The Godspell Story: Inside a Transformative Musical (presented by Scene 1 Publishing) which, unlike mine, covered not merely the way the book transferred from a stage musical that began as a college play and became a worldwide cultural phenomenon before a cult film, but every possible aspect of the show from its earliest germination to how it’s viewed today. De Giere, it should be noted, is quite possibly the globe’s greatest expert on the work and life of composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz (her previous book, Defying Gravity, is also a masterfully academic glimpse into the career of this wonderful creator of musical theater for Broadway and beyond). And as such, besides including Schwartz to supply an in-depth Foreword, she has, through almost-unfathomable research, managed to create a tome that could best be described, pardon the pun, as the definitive Bible of the entire Godspell journey. I should note that I was among those persons singularly honored to be interviewed by de Giere for her project and I’m thrilled to have my book listed in the Bibliography as a resource. But this is, for me, small potatoes compared to the privilege of reading the book and soaking up such voluminous knowledge, to which I and so many others were so previously unexposed. Reporting from the very first nanosecond of the show’s development by John-Michael Tebelak in 1970, de Giere wondrously illustrates Godspell‘s conception and the winding path it took from Carnegie-Mellon University to Cafe LaMaMa to the Cherry Lane Theater to a planetary success which continues to this day. She has left absolutely no stone unturned, not merely by dint of her in-depth interviews with members of the original company and the creative team (including profiles of those who’ve since left us, including the late great Lynne Thigpen). But this doesn’t even begin to describe what the book delivers, namely an entire and oft-staggering treatise which at times can leave the reader gasping for air. DeGiere’s attention to detail is overwhelming, and whether the reader is a newcomer to the show’s flock of die-hard fans or a longtime member of same, it all transpires to be most brilliantly educational. In point of fact, Carol de Giere and The Godspell Experience are but two of all good gifts around us, sent from heaven above. So thank the Lord. Thank the Lord for all his love. And purchase a copy!

Bobby Banas (left) in "Let's Make Love, alongside Marilyn Monroe

Bobby Banas (left) in “Let’s Make Love, alongside Marilyn Monroe

A certain clip on YouTube recently went extremely viral on the Internet, showing a sextette of dancers in 1964 on Judy Garland’s weekly CBS Sunday night program engaging in an energetic routine to the novelty song “The Nitty Gritty,” as voiced by Shirley Ellis (also well-known for her recording of “The Name Game”). Featured front and center was a young male dancer, whose dark hair and black button eyes made him an immediate standout, aside from his impeccable rhythm and the fact that he was tearing into it like his last meal. His name turns out to be Bobby Banas, and besides how brilliant he was in that particular performance, before and after that he’d already made featured appearances in such films as West Side Story, The Unsinkable Molly Brown and as one of the chimney sweeps in Mary Poppins, besides being known as the boy who kissed Marilyn Monroe in Let’s Make Love and a plethora of television appearances, which included a famous episode of Get Smart! He’d also made his first initial click in Peter Pan on Broadway with Mary Martin and the subsequent television version on NBC. Banas later became a much-desired choreographer as well as dance teacher in the Los Angeles area, and counted numerous notable names among his students. He’s mostly retired now from the world of terpsichore, but occupies his time as a Rosarian (an expert on rose blossoms). And The Andrew Martin Report couldn’t be more thrilled that the gentleman, now in his very early eighties, found the time to grant us an interview.

ANDREW MARTIN: When you were growing up, did you always know you wanted to be a dancer? Or was it simply that you started in dance classes in any way reluctantly and eventually people came to see that you had a genuine talent for it? Where did the passion for it really begin?

BOBBY BANAS:  I must say that I didn’t know I wanted to be a dancer at that time. It wasn’t until 1941, when the war broke out. Both my parents decided to take jobs, and since they were both from Pennsylvania, my dad became a Military Chief Inspector for the steel mills in McKeesport while mom became a propeller inspector for Curtis Wright in Erie. They were wondering about what was to become of my sister and I, of course. Well, it so happened that our grandmother, dad’s mother, was widowed and lived on a small farm in Windber. Dad thought he could help his mother financially and that it would be a great place for us to grow up, and he and mom visited twice a month. And there was a dancing school in town. So on one of dad’s visits, he went to look it over and to see if Sis and I could take dance lessons. Well, that was the beginning. The teacher’s name was Agnes Shontz, and she taught just about everything; ballet, jazz, tap, acrobatics and ballroom. I guess she thought Sis and I would be a miniature version of Fred and Ginger. So Sis wore a beautiful pink gown, and I a black tuxedo, and we danced to Strauss waltzes at parties, weddings and recitals. It was fun. And as we got better at it, she taught us some lifts and spins. At the same time, my grandmother was a heavy churchgoer and she was Russian Orthodox, so we were obliged to go. I eventually became an altar boy for four years and thought of priesthood. But on Saturday evenings, the church had social gatherings at the church hall, and I was blown away when all of a sudden the music would get loud with accordions and violins and balalaikas. The crowd would start to chant when a couple of dancers headed for the room, flip-flopping, knee-spinning, jump-splits and coffee-grinders. I started jumping up and down and couldn’t stand still, because I wanted to join in. It seemed like every clan in Russia was there doing a ritual dance. When the last group finished, everyone in the room grabbed a partner and it was polka time. One Sunday on our way to church, as my Sis and I were walking through town, I heard this unbelievable sound of voices and hand-clapping. I stopped, and it was a storefront with painted windows, so you couldn’t see inside. Once again it was though I was struck by lightning. Here were these voices intoning, “Bless me, O Lord, Hallelujah!” in an infectious pounding rhythm, and my body responded as though someone had taken control of my limbs. I started to dance spontaneously. My sister was saying “Robert, we’re going to be late for church!” and I barely heard her. But I turned and reluctantly headed in her direction.

AM: I understand that your first real dance job on Broadway was in the chorus of Peter Pan at quite a young age. What was that experience like and what were the standout moments? Conversely, how did it differ from doing the television version later?

BB: Well, first you have to understand what led up to that. After the war ended, Dad headed to LA to search for a brother of his. He didn’t have luck tracking him down, but he fell in love with the weather and sent for all of us. Sis and I started dance lessons again, but she became interested in boys and completely lost interest in dance. I continued on, got a scholarship with the Michael Panaieff ballet school and also a scholarship to Hollywood Professional School. I was going to continue theater and dance at UCLA when I graduated, but I attended an audition for Carousel at the LA Civic Light Opera and got cast as Enoch Snow Jr. Then Kiss Me Kate, Annie Get Your Gun, Brigadoon, Plain and Fancy, and then Peter Pan. Which went to Broadway, and I loved being on Broadway. We played at the Winter Garden for six months, and then Mary Martin got tired, so we closed and did the TV version. But it could only be shown once, as NBC couldn’t get the rights to re-broadcast it at the time. They did eventually, though, and it still gets shown, which makes me happy.

AM: You did so many films as a dancer at the beginning of your career for which you were uncredited. Do you resent that at all? Or was it just sort of, “all in a day’s work?”

BB:  Well, I started in film and television in the 1950s, where first I did a lot of rock’n’roll movies for the producer Sam Katzman. As far as TV, I did Danny Kaye’s show, Dinah Shore’s show, Milton Berle’s show,  “Hollywood Palace,” and “Hullabaloo” later, and then even later I was on a special with Lindsay Wagner and a bunch of others. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. I worked all the time. And yes, it was unfortunate to sometimes not be credited. But I will say, Steven Spielberg always went out of his way to credit everybody. I was in both “Hook” and “Always,” and he was very generous about giving credit. At the time I was starting out, getting credit didn’t really matter to me. All I wanted to do was dance. But looking back on it now? Sure, I should have been credited. We all deserved it.  

AM: Can you describe what the experience was like of making West Side Story? How did you feel when it won the Oscar that year?

BB: West Side Story was a big boost to the cast members. Having worked with Jerome Robbins twice before, in both Peter Pan and the film version of The King and I, I felt confident that I had a good chance of getting the job.  But when I saw a lot of unfamiliar faces at the casting call, I figured he’d brought all of his Broadway cast members and this was a publicity stunt. After getting five auditions and getting picked with some other local guys, I was proven wrong about that. Up until the awards came out, I thought it was just another musical. Boy, was I wrong. All the doors started to open when you said you’d been in West Side Story. I was getting jobs right and left, and that’s when I started to choreograph and teach.

AM:  What was it like to work with Marilyn Monroe on Let’s Make Love, and did her death have a profound effect on you?

BB: Working with Marilyn Monroe was a dream. But to be choreographed to kiss her, at the end of the dance number…oh, I thought my heart would explode. What was so funny was, during the end of the dance number, she grabbed me and Alex by the hair before she was to swing around one of the poles. Well, I had a lot of pomade in my hair, and after grabbing it she flew around the pole and lost her balance. She turned to the director and said, “I think someone has too much grease in his hair.” OOPS! So they sent me to makeup to wash my hair. I returned, and the number began again. Now the end was approaching, and I was supposed to kiss her, so I hit her lips with mine but slid across her face. So I turned to the director and said in a low voice, “I think someone has too much grease on her face.” To which they both laughed. Of course it was sad to learn of her death. I felt the same when I learned about Natalie Wood. Both had unusual circumstances and questionable facts about the truth.

AM: Can you describe what the process was like of making Mary Poppins?

BB: Mary Poppins was a delight to work on. All of us sweeps were hired on a higher rate for the stunt-like dancing we were to be doing. DeeDee Woods and Marc Breaux were so nice to everyone, it was more like a family and made everyone feel at ease. I also worked with DeeDee on Li’l Abner and she was a gem there also. It was a lot of fun, with a lot of very energetic dancing originally choreographed by Michael Kidd.

AM: Do you have any one film performance of yours that you’d consider your very favorite of all?

BB: I guess I’d have to say working with Marilyn Monroe. I became the envy of all the other male dancers because of the kiss. but it was a great experience to work with Jack Cole, who gave me a lot of strength and posture to better my dance technique.

AM: Is it at all surprising that the clip of “The Nitty Gritty” from the Judy Garland show has gone so viral recently? What do you remember most about doing that show? And was that your choreography?

BB: I can’t BELIEVE what has happened with the “Nitty Gritty” clip. Several years ago a friend said he had a copy that he found somewhere. He gave me one, I looked at it and put it away. I didn’t think it was anything to get that excited about, and that was that. Then I guess someone else found a copy, and posted it on YouTube. Then someone else posted it on Facebook and the sh*t hit the fan. I was getting e-mail and calls, and questions about who was which dancer besides me, and all types of remarks wanting to know what type of dance it was. Yes, it was my choreography and my own interpretation of the song. Peter Gennaro was the choreographer for Garland,  but he had to go to New York that week for some reason and his assistant didn’t have any idea what to do with the tune, so the director asked me to come up with a dance and that was the result.

AM: I’m told that when you were teaching, one of your students (who adores you) was my pal Tracy Nelson. What other notable students have you had, and what do or did you enjoy most about teaching?

BB: I just started to teach and I enjoyed it so much. I started the Bob Banas Musical Dance Company, with young kids and older ones. We performed at City of Hope, the World Martial Arts Competition at the Sports Arena,  Rug Concerts, the Hollywood Press Club, the opening of shopping centers, and so many other venues. I’ve done lectures at different universities, I taught at the Dick Grove School of Music, and I’ve done a lot of work with disabled children. Some other students I’ve had were Cher, Barbara Hershey, Susan Clark, John Travolta, BarBara Luna, Charmian Carr and Bruce Lee, to name a few. Teaching is like giving back, helping and encouraging those who wanted the thrill of performing on stage with music and lights before a live audience. Some had the talent to pursue further, but for some reason had other dreams. But they took with them the great experience of having done it. And there were a few that went on to become professionals.    

AM: Obviously the world of theater-dance had lost a lot of wonderful people in the last thirty years. Who of your contemporaries do you miss the most? And who do you still treasure most as friends?

BB:  It’s so hard to name those dancers I worshiped most. I always thought Gene Kelly was great, but never had the chance to work with him. I did get to work with Bob Fosse and loved his work, Jack Cole had a great style, and I loved studying ballet with Michael Panaieff.

AM: What is an average day like for the Bobby Banas of today?

BB:  Well, I’m a professional Rosarian now, taking care of people’s roses. One of my clients is Debbie Reynolds, with whom I’ve been privileged to work on the movies Say One for Me and How the West Was Won besides The Unskinable Molly Brown. Usually I’m up at 5 AM to start with a client in Malibu, then off to Westwood, Beverly Hills and Studio City. My busiest time is just after New Year’s, when I get to prune all the roses back and prepare them for dormancy. Then in spring I get to revive them and prepare for the first bloom. I’m always at a nursery buying supplies, and checking out the new rose additions for the coming year.

AM: What advice would you offer to the average young man of today, no matter how talented or not, who wanted to try to make it as a dancer?

BB: To become a dancer today, I must say, is totally different from when I started out. Hip-hop and acrobatic tumbling seems to dominate the dance scene now.  The show “Glee” kind of represents the old style along with some hip-hop, but they add vocals to make everybody a triple threat. It does represent Broadway and in musicals in film and television, but in my day I had to study ballet, tap, ballroom, primitive, modern, acting and jazz. Now, it seems, if you can throw a back-handspring or a few coffee-grinders, you can call yourself a specialty dancer. Granted, any precision group dancing can be as effective as well as someone who spins on his head. Break dancing and hip-hop qualify as effective, of course. But I’d rather see West Side Story, Carousel, The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Mary Poppins.

And who wouldn’t? Bobby Banas is a national treasure. Please check out his rich legacy of dancing on film.

ethelsingsEvery once in a while, one happens upon an evening of theater that might be described as “a most unlikely formula.” So it goes at the heavenly Off-Broadway theater Walkerspace, at 46 Walker Street in TriBeCa, with Joan Beber’s new two-act piece Ethel Sings, directed by Jules Aaron. A superb play-with-music, the title initially makes one think of a one-woman evening showcasing the career of Miss Merman, possibly embodied by Rita McKenzie or Kristine Zbornik,  when it’s actually a riveting slice-of-life drama depicting the marriage, trial, conviction and ultimate execution of the husband-and-wife spy team of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. (Hence the play’s subtitle, Espionage in High C).

For those unfamiliar with modern history, we’re shown a true behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Rosenberg marriage and the raising of sons Michael and Robby, as well as their foray into Communism and eventually selling bomb-making secrets to the Soviets. The trial that ensued was one of the most sensational stories of the early 1950s (with prosecution by a young Roy Cohn and defense by Manny Bloch, who would die of a heart attack not long after the couple was executed). We also see the curious dysfunction of Ethel’s family the Greenglasses, including her very uninterested mother and both the brother and sister-in-law (David and wife Ruth), who turned key evidence against Julius and Ethel. Add to this that Beber has chosen Joan of Arc (Ethel’s personal heroine) as a sort of Greek chorus to help move the action along, and all of the brilliant musical compositions (ranging in a variety of styles) make this truly unlike anything the New York theater scene has experienced in many a moon.

The actors herein are not merely a top-notch team of thespians, but a true ensemble.  As Ethel, Shelby Kocee could not be more perfect, embodying a woman alternately defiant but vulnerable, cunning but oblivious, and above all else completely in love with her husband at all times. Dan Sykes similarly brings spectacular passion to his portrayal of Julius. Ben Goldsmith (who also composed the string music and provides the guitar accompaniment) and Ross Alden provide performances as the Rosenberg sons Michael and Robby, and are never less than utterly purposeful. As Mrs. Greenglass, Julia Silverman does a job that is never less than riveting. Alan Aymie’s David brings just the right touch of odiousness to the character, and Penny Peyser (in her triumphant return to Off-Broadway after nearly forty years on the Coast in film and television) is equally sensational as Ruth. Manny Bloch, interestingly enough, is portrayed by Greg Mullavey, who most remember as husband Tom on the 1970s Norman Lear series “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” and proves himself equally at home on a stage as in front of the camera. And as Roy Cohn, Richard Chassler’s work borders on other-wordly; there are moments it’s almost possible to forget that we’re watching an actor. Rounding out this incredible bunch is Stasha Surdyke as Joan of Arc; she’s a lithe beauty with definitive presence who simply owns every moment of her time on stage.

Producers Linda Toliver and Gary Guidinger (who also designed the impeccable sets) have also chosen the best crew imaginable, including  Max Kinberg on sound design (and music), the lighting by John Eckert, and Michele Young’s costumes.

Ethel Sings: Espionage in High C will continue to run at Walkerspace through Sunday, July 21st. This most unlikely formula would have a much longer run in a just world.

marieannIt was an unusually-warm Wednesday night in April of 1990 when your humble reporter stumbled into the now-defunct Broadway Baby, a wonderful piano bar on Amsterdam Avenue between 79th and 80th Streets on the Upper West Side, and met singer Marieann Meringolo for the first time. There was already scuttlebutt about her; she was known for having the potential to become the likes of another Jane Olivor for her incredible vocal precision and carriage on a stage. Like the aforementioned, she wasn’t exactly the prettiest peach on the tree (although undeniably glamorous) and in fact was quite aloof and somewhat mistrustful of someone she’d just met for the first time. But when she sang…oh, when she sang…she transformed instantly into a Botticelli angel. It was a mere two seasons later that she had a bonafide cabaret hit on her hands with the brilliant Wonderful, Wonderful: The Songs of Johnny Mathis in New York City besides Fire Island and beyond, and has since gone on to phenomenal glory in the arena whether at Feinstein’s with a wonderful evening of the music of Michel Legrand, or her Ladies tribute concert honoring the ouevres of such giants as Streisand and Warwick. However, it is with her most recent offering, Orchestrated!, which features her alongside a seven-piece band replete with lush ornamentation including a full section of brass, that the lady has completely come into her own as a major cabaret star with which to be reckoned. In point of fact, if this show doesn’t cement her success and elevate her to the stardom previously achieved by someone along the lines of the late Nancy LaMott or Eva Cassidy, there is simply no justice in this world. Yes, it’s THAT good.

It should be noted right off the bat that the majority of Meringolo’s selections mostly comprises material she’s done in previous shows, which (as she explains, are being done because while she’s been making her most-recent living as a headliner on cruise ships, are showcased with a full orchestra in tow, and she wanted to bring the beauty of the sound to the cabaret world) are really not the sort of catalog that others might choose to bring to a new cabaret act. This, however, is no obstacle to the miraculous Meringolo; it’s material that might otherwise crumble in the hands of a lesser-accomplished artist and yet somehow she’s owning every moment. In the more-than-capable sight of musical director Doyle Newmyer, she manages to take such songs as “Thou Swell,” “The Windmills of Your Mind,” “Fever” and “I’m a Woman” and transform them instantly into personal anthems. And a favorite old standby of hers, “Italian Menu,” is rendered into genius. More than this is her tribute to Dionne Warwick in a medley of no less than eight songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and a tribute to Streisand that features a coupling of “Where Is It Written?” and “I’m the Greatest Star.” And Meringolo does include new music, notably two tunes by Marsha Malamet, “Crazy Love” and “I Am Blessed.” In point of fact, she couldn’t possibly have gotten any single element of the show more pointedly correct. It was certainly no secret in the nightlife world that she was already on a path to greatness, but Meringolo now possesses a maturity previously unwitnessed, not to mention an ability for sustaining an important note in a song, that trumps every possible ace .

And then there’s the band. Oh, goodness, where to begin? Aside from the aforementioned Newmyer, she’s got the legendary John Loehrke on bass, the brilliantly-animated Ayodele Maakheru on guitar, Sipho Kunene doing a wonderful job on percussion, Richie Vitale blowing on the trumpet, Jonathan Kantor on alto sax (who is REALLY outstanding), and the terrific Charlie Gordon on the trombone. The fact that JP Perreaux is loaning his eye to technical direction is merely the icing on the cake.

Marieann Meringolo and Orchestrated! will return to the Metropolitan Room, 34 West 22nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, on Friday, August 2nd at 7 PM for one night only. Run. Do not walk. And run QUICKLY!!!