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May 21, 2010
The Jerome L. Greene Performance Space
Arthur Yorinks: WNYC’s the Jerome L. Greene Performance Space, in collaboration with the Yorinks Theatre Group, presents the Kanin Festival. And tonight we present a lively panel discussion about the life and work of the great American master storyteller, Garson Kanin. Moderator for tonight’s panel is Charlotte Booker. And here is Charlotte:
Charlotte: Thanks. Before I introduce everybody, I want to read this to you: John Barrymore, Justice Felix Frankfurter, Ginger Rogers, Arthur Rubinstein, Rene Clair, Somerset Maugham, Jean Renoir, Carol Reed, Robert Capa, Thornton Wilder, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Sherwood, Carole Lombard, Charles Laughton, David Niven, Lucille Ball, George Abbott, Samuel Goldwyn, Burgess Meredith, Jim Backus, Jose Ferrer, Dick Van Dyke, Van Johnson, Carroll Baker, Peter Lawford, Judy Holliday, Jack Lemmon, Shirley Booth, Fredric March and Florence Eldridge, Raymond Massey, Jan Sterling, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda, Olivia de Havilland, Jean Stapleton, Rosemary Harris, Cole Porter, George Cukor, Noël Coward, Robert Redford, Nancy Walker, Barbra Streisand, Barnard Hughes, Paddy Chayefsky, Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Mary Martin, Orson Bean, Ed Asner, Madeline Kahn, Phil Silvers, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Hume Cronyn, Otto Kruger, Paul Douglas, Susan Strasberg, Joseph Schildkraut, Peggy Cass, Ronald Colman, Dory Schary, Sam Levene, Shelley Winters, John Carradine, Dennis King, and Shirley Knight. Oh, and I forgot to say, Ruth Gordon and Marian Seldes. We’re not here to discuss any of those people. These are some of the friends and co-workers of Garson Kanin. People who influenced him and whose lives he influenced. Just a few of them.
My name is Charlotte Booker and I am joined tonight by an illustrious panel to share their insights about one of the most prominent figures in 20th century American theatre and film and one of my personal idols, Mr. Garson Kanin. Let’s start over here:
Mr. John Rubinstein is a Tony-winning Broadway, film and television actor, a composer and a director with a life-long connection to both Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, who was Garson Kanin’s wife for forty-three years.
Howard Kissel is the former theatre critic for the New York Daily News, who currently blogs on cultural issues for the Daily News website.
Philip Morgaman made his Broadway producing debut with the Tony-nominated Cry-Baby and recently produced Hamlet, starring Jude Law, on Broadway. Mr. Morgaman has also recently produced two of Mr. Kanin’s plays on Theatre Row as part of the year-long Garson Kanin celebration and is planning something so exciting: a revival of Mr. Kanin’s Born Yesterday for Broadway.
Jay Binder is a New York-based film and theatre casting director, whose office has cast over seventy Broadway shows, including The Lion King, Lost in Yonkers, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and all of the City Center Encores! productions and maybe Born Yesterday, too? We’ll talk about that.
So, welcome, gentlemen. Thank you so much.
I thought since [The] Rat Race is probably still in the minds of some of the people who were here last night [for the radio broadcast of the play] and just a few minutes ago [for the screening of the film], maybe we should kick off with that? It comes about mid-way in Garson Kanin’s career. The play is from 1950 but the film is from 1960. And I just wondered if anybody had seen the play before or a production of the play or the film and what your thoughts were.
Howard: I read it as a youth but John should speak—
Charlotte: John was actually in it.
Howard: —because John was in it.
John: Well, I was in it last night. I…I had never seen the play performed. I knew the movie and, to be truthful, I didn’t even know it had been a play. I learned that just a couple of weeks ago. I thought that he had written the screenplay; I thought the screenplay was original.
Charlotte: Well, the play was originally with Betty Field and a very young Barry Nelson and, oh gosh, Ray Walston, in one of his first—
John: Kay Medford.
Charlotte: Kay Medford was in the film. But Ray Walston in one of his first New York credits as the telephone man. Isn’t that sweet? Had you guys… Well, Philip, you knew The Rat Race well, right?
Philip: Yes, from my work with Martha, I had read it as a play, and then I had seen the movie on TCM a long time ago. And I was familiar with the film before I read the play, mostly as sort of an old film buff, was into it because it was the first time Debbie Reynolds showed a darker performance. A darker side to her acting versatility.
Charlotte: The jaded taxi dancer. And Tony Curtis played the Midwestern boy. Now, have you ever heard a Milwaukee accent like Tony Curtis’s?
The men laugh.
Howard: I’m from Milwaukee and I worked very, very hard not to sound like someone to the point of embarrassment a couple of years ago, when they did Boeing-Boeing, Mark Rylance had a perfect Wisconsin accent. I cannot even say… I mean, I worked so hard, I can’t even say “Wisconsin”. I can’t even begin… John, maybe—
Charlotte: (with accent) Wisconsin. Wisconsin.
Howard: Perfect. That’s perfect. I can’t do it anymore. The psychological block is too—
Jay: Well, neither could Tony Curtis.
Charlotte: Tony Curtis couldn’t either, just so you know.
The men laugh.
Jay: But Tony Curtis… Well, yes, he couldn’t.
Charlotte: What do you think about the casting, Jay, of the play versus the film? I mean, Betty Field was a huge star in the ‘50s, and she did lots of [William] Inge plays and, in the film, Debbie Reynolds was terrific but Tony Curtis, as the hayseed?
Jay: Well, in that era, just the way it is today, when someone was a major box office star… And in those years, Tony Curtis and Debbie Reynolds were clearly, probably—Tony Curtis, especially—among the top ten highest-grossing movie actors of their day. And so between the studio and the director and the writers, that’s the way films are still cast today. Although, what’s fascinating about Debbie Reynolds is that it came at a time in her life when she was going through a very highly visible… Today, it seems like nothing; then it was one of the first media scandals. Today, it would be a blip, but, you know, when her husband, Eddie Fisher, divorced her to marry Elizabeth Taylor, it shocked the world for the first time in a way that, you know, it had never been shocked before. And I think that they seized that moment in her public life, and she was no dummy—and she is no dummy—to take this opportunity to say, “You know what? I’m not just the girl next door. I’ve been bruised and burned and now I have a reason to play a part like that.” So the timing was actually fantastic.
Charlotte: Yeah, and what about Don Rickles as the bad guy?
Jay: Well, you see, Don Rickles, that, again, Don Rickles is in a lot of movies, you know, as a first-rate dramatic actor. And playing the same part. Playing virtually the same kind of parts in every film. But it wasn’t until much later that Don Rickles became a comic. He was a well-known character actor in films. But, fortunately, he became a star in another area.
Charlotte: Time Magazine said that [The] Rat Race was typifying a theatre—this is the 1950 play—where more and more clever playwrights write everything but plays. Does that sound familiar to you?
Howard: It doesn’t seem fair. And to think that a critic was unfair is upsetting.
They all laugh.
John: Well, that doesn’t happen anymore.
Howard: No, not anymore.
Charlotte: Thank god!
Howard: I’m not sure what that means. After all, there was no… I mean, I think it’s a stronger play than a lot of the fluff of previous decades. But I assume in 1950, that was a very learned man named Louis Kronenberger, and it wasn’t until the mid-‘60s or ‘70s that Time allowed its critic to go by his own name. And I think in the early ‘50s, as again a very learned, elegant writer, but he was perhaps too academic. But he wrote—no, no—Louis Kronenberger, I assure you, was a very sophisticated man so maybe, maybe his point of view was a little too Olympian because I don’t think that’s a fair assessment.
Jay: No, it’s not and I’m sure that Brooks Atkinson—I don’t know what Mr. Atkinson’s review of the play was—but I’m sure it was much better and fairer than that.
Charlotte: Well, now do you think the play could have been ahead of its time? Do you think that has anything to do with it? That the characters of Mac and Soda as sort of being the Greek chorus. I mean, today, that play seems beautifully constructed to me. I wonder—
John: I wouldn’t say ahead of its time. No, I think that sort of post-war, New Wave of theatre where the playwrights were breaking away from the typical three-act play and moving into the thing where people would talk to the audience and there were narrators. And Tennessee Williams did it. And many of them did it so, no, I think it was sort of in the spirit of things, and yet it had Garson’s particular sound to it—Damon Runyon-y kind of special, both sophisticated and slightly blue-collar New Yorkese that he and a few other playwrights… But he had a particular ear for that music, which in his best writing is priceless: the Born Yesterday scenes between the Judy Holliday and the Paul Douglas character are unforgettable, mostly for that reason.
Charlotte: Well, maybe—
John: And this has a lot of that actually.
Charlotte: It does. And maybe we should talk about Born Yesterday because 1950 was the year that that film, well, the year that Judy Holliday won the Academy Award for that film. 1949-1950 were really productive years for Gar. Actually, 1946 to ‘62 were the peak years. I hope I have that right. So let’s talk about Born Yesterday. Is Born Yesterday what brought all of you to become Garson Kanin fans?
Jay: Well, I’ve—speaking for myself—the films that he wrote with his then-wife Ruth Gordon, I think that’s when I first became aware of Garson Kanin’s comic genius because what they did so brilliantly, which very few writers have the opportunity to do today, they wrote specifically for their best friends. And because Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, they were—
John: When you have best friends like that, it’s good to write for them.
Jay: Right, right exactly.
Philip: Why not?
John: It makes sense.
Jay: It makes sense to me. But they truly were a foursome, you know, and incredibly close, you know calling, speaking most every day. And so just that specific way of writing so truthfully and so well for a specific actor, I thought, “This is an amazing, an amazing writer to be able to still have his own voice and also write so specifically for those actors.”
John: And what we were talking about, the music of the language… Katharine Hepburn’s way of talking was diametrically opposed to Spencer Tracy—
John: —and they as a writing team got those two different sounds perfectly.
Jay: Because Spencer Tracy was, indeed, that that sort of blue-collar sophisticate that Garson—that Gar—was, and Katharine Hepburn was, well, was Katharine Hepburn.
Charlotte: It’s interesting that you should bring up the musicality of this language already because, you know, he was a jazz musician—well, he wanted to be a jazz musician—when he was young and he found that people preferred his comedy to his music and that’s when he became an actor and a writer and director. But he loved Charles Ives and Gilbert and Sullivan, as well. He wrote the libretto and directed Do Re Mi, which was based on his novella about the music business. Peccadillo, one of his last plays, is about classical musicians. He did the libretto for Fledermaus, directed Streisand in Funny Girl, his first novel, Blow Up a Storm, was about jazz musicians, Smash is about a musical comedy on the road, obviously, [The] Rat Race, too. And, so, can we talk about music? I mean, he was very specific about music in his—
Howard: Well, I think comedy has rhythms. Unless you have a sense of the rhythm of the line, you don’t get the laugh. I think there has to be also character, which he was great at creating. I really do think Born Yesterday is one of the great plays—
Jay: It’s a perfect play.
Howard: —of the American theatre.
Jay: Having, you know… Philip and I working on it, and every time you come to any scene in the play, it is perfect. It is, you know… It has all the hallmarks of what [George S.] Kaufman and [Moss] Hart created. It is the pinnacle of that genre of play. And there is not a wasted moment anywhere, and we’ve heard it read recently—
Philip: Yes, several times.
Jay: —and, you know, what I call the “smart people” say, “Oh, it’s dated and it’s politically incorrect.” And we sat there, in this reading, and, politically, it is as spot-on today—it is more spot-on today—
Philip: Than it was.
Jay: —than it was then. And, actually, as far as the relationship with Billie Dawn and Harry Brock… First of all, this woman—this character—is so unbelievably smart, and because she wins so beautifully in the end, it’s not politically incorrect; it’s joyous that someone triumphs over true evil, you know?
Philip: Yeah. It’s almost liberating the way that, I think, and people don’t give it the credit for that. You know, some people—I don’t know whether they’re not familiar with it or pretending to be, but when you look at the play, the thing that I think a lot of people misinterpret—and it’s what makes it such a thrilling journey—is that Billie Dawn’s character is not dumb.
Philip: She’s just uneducated.
Charlotte: Well, like Garson Kanin.
Philip: And as soon as she’s educated, she realizes she can control everyone around her, and she’s actually the smartest one in the room. She just needed the information.
Charlotte: Exactly. Well, you know, Gar dropped out of high school and always felt uneducated and self-conscious about that and, apparently, when he met Thornton Wilder, he advised Gar to start keeping a journal and that’s when he realized really, I think, how smart he was and, kind of, in a way, he always seemed like both Paul and Billie to me: the story of the mentor educator and the student. He said about Born Yesterday, “I wrote this serious exposé of Washington based on experiences I’d had when stationed there in World War II. I hadn’t thought of writing a comedy but if I could define what is for me the ideal accomplishment, I’d say to treat a serious subject lightly. I feel I’ve succeeded with Born Yesterday. It’s a serious play and it’s funny. I’ve tried to do that again and again, and I’ve never succeeded as well as I did that time.”
Jay: Well, it’s fascinating. The one thing I was just going to say is what is so wonderful about this play is he was not afraid to write scenes that are not intended to get laughs. They are serious scenes in this play and they make their political points, they make their romantic points, and he was not afraid to play a scene without—that did not get a laugh. And having—on both ends of this panel, we’ve worked with playwrights that are petrified if you spend two minutes without a laugh.
John: That’s right.
Jay: And that was—
John: Throw the page out.
Jay: Yes and—
John: Bring in a new one full of jokes.
Jay: Absolutely. Within ten minutes. Looking at his work as a whole, that’s really the most impressive thing. A man that could write Born Yesterday and a man that could write A Gift of Time,  which to me is probably one of the most moving plays I have ever read, and I’m so sorry I never saw it. And the fact that we complain about the state of Broadway today, well, that play, starring Henry Fonda and Olivia De Havilland, who were two huge stars, and the big public could not accept that story is very sad because that’s a great play.
Charlotte: Well, it was based on a true story.
Jay: It was.
Charlotte: Talk about the subject matter that was difficult for people to deal with.
Jay: Well, it’s about assisted suicide His wife helps him die—he had cancer. It is so painful and, yet, so beautiful in the act of love that, I think, that in—what year did it open?
Philip: Sixty…? Sixty-two, yeah.
John: Did you review it, Howard?
Howard: John, I’m not that old.
They all laugh.
Howard: I was a paying customer.
Jay: I don’t think anyone wanted to deal with that, you know? But they were more than willing to deal with Tennessee Williams on a poetic, sexual… But this—
Philip: Was real.
Jay: This was real and—
John: What made him write that? Do you know the history of it?
Jay: No, I don’t.
John: Because I don’t.
Philip: It’s based on a book. [Memoir, Death of a Man by Lael Tucker Wertenbaker]
Jay: And I’m sure he knew them. I’m sure he knew them personally.
Charlotte: The Wertenbakers? [Lael and Charles]
Philip: Yes, he did. He knew the Wertenbakers, personally.
John: He knew everybody personally.
Jay: Right, exactly. And I think that it was really probably in honor of their lives and his life that he felt compelled to tell the world this story. And the fact that two big stars were willing to risk playing roles like that when people didn’t—
Howard: It was not well received by the critics? I don’t—
Philip: You know, the critics—we looked over the reviews—the critics were—it wasn’t across the board raves, by any means but… They were fairly positive, most of them. I think it was just the subject matter was too hard for people to take.
Howard: Because you’d think simply the announcement Henry Fonda, Olivia De Havilland…
Jay: I’m sure the advance was pretty good… Garson Kanin, Olivia De Havilland…
Jay: And I don’t know how important, if the book was a great success… you know, it was probably not well-known. But I think, again, it’s the subject matter.
Howard: I think you’re right.
Jay: The public did not want to accept it.
Charlotte: Well, do you think it would be successful now? Are we ready for it now?
Philip: Well, you also have another thing now, that, unfortunately, is a hazard with the changing times is that these plays, also, a lot of them were written for very large, expansive casts—
Philip: —and sets. Almost in a cinematic style and you could do a straight play in the 1950s with, you know, a cast of twenty-five people and make a go of it. That’s a very rare occurrence in this day and age.
John: That’s a tragedy that that’s no longer possible.
Jay: Because people can’t—writers are not—
John: They’re handcuffed!
Jay: That’s one of the things about August: Osage—it was so sensational—because that’s a lot of people for a play of our generation.
John: A play like that opens and makes a lot of money, like August: Osage, and wins the Tony and takes everybody by storm and has a big tour, which it had, and all that stuff… why can’t that be an inspiration to producers to say, “Well, if we have a good play and get some good actors in it, you can cast twenty, twenty-five people.”
Jay: Well, we’re trying.
They all laugh.
Philip: You would hope.
Howard: It also has to do with the way plays come to be. When Garson wrote, he had friends who would produce it and nobody asked questions about—I mean, I was always struck about six or seven years ago, there was a production—that came from the regionals—of Arthur Miller’s second play, The Man That Had All the Luck, with a cast of eleven, which for us now is big time. But it never occurred to Arthur Miller that he couldn’t do eleven people. If he needed eleven people, he got them.
Jay: Salesman has more.
Howard: Yeah, but all those plays, that was not even a consideration. But I think it has to do with the fact that nowadays we don’t have real producers… Forgive me.
Howard: Forgive me, Philip. But you have to put together a consortium of a million people—
Howard: —to raise the money. Max Gordon could do whatever he wanted.
Philip: It was Max Gordon.
Howard: It was Max Gordon. And so, nowadays, any serious play has to start in the regional theatre.
Philip: Well, you’re also dealing with the thing—I apologize for cutting you off—
Howard: No, no, no. I feel so guilty.
Philip: (laughing) No, no. Well, the one thing that’s different—and it’s a shame it’s not like this anymore, but as is the case with most of Garson’s plays, including Born Yesterday,  I believe—these were plays that were not fully written before they were decided to be done on Broadway. You know, Max Gordon said, “Great idea, let’s go. Let’s go out of town.” And it was completed on the road. It was completed when it was already in production and already aimed toward Broadway and how many times does that happen nowadays?
Jay: Well, it can’t.
Philip: You need to see it at a regional, then you need to say, “Well, how many people are in it? Well, can we cut two people out of it? Can we size it down?”
Jay: There is no such thing as “going out of town” anymore and, unfortunately, that’s why directors are not trained, writers are not trained, to actually know how to actually fix things—to go to the hotel after a preview in front of an audience—and that’s almost a lost art. The thing that fascinated me about Garson Kanin is—the period that fascinated me the most—is the period of [A] Gift of Time and Peccadillo and Come on Strong. These plays that when my parents, fortunately, started taking me to the theatre in the third grade, but these are plays that they would go to see. They wouldn’t take me because they thought they were not meant for someone my age, but I’d heard about these plays all my life and so now, having started to work with Philip and meeting Martha, it’s you know, “Give me this play; I want to read this play and I want to read this play.” And they’re fantastic plays, I mean, are they as well-structured as Born Yesterday? No, they’re not. But is he constantly a brave playwright, working within that form? He’s always brave. I mean, Come on Strong  is so remarkably constructed and, then again, there’s a character at the very end that he just—it’s a brand new character who comes on, basically, and—makes that entire play make sense, which has been so disjointed, purposely, throughout the entire evening, and then he does this thing, this trick—not a trick, but, you know, a penultimate moment when you go, “Oh…”
Charlotte: “Now, I get it.”
Jay: “It’s cohesive now.” You know, so he was really very innovative as a playwright, writing in what was then the traditional well-made play form.
Philip: Well, if you even look at Born Yesterday and the travesty of not being able to go out of town, Born Yesterday is a masterpiece, no doubt, but that masterpiece was created on the road, in front of other people, you know, complete with being initially written for a woman who didn’t perform it for more than a couple of weeks, if that.
Jay: If that.
Philip: And, you know, they brought in somebody else at the last minute and—
Howard: And an unknown, basically.
Philip: And an unknown and came in and, through her performance, as well as Paul Douglas’, shaped this play, but this play was shaped, Garson shaped it with these people on the road in front of Broadway-level-sized houses. It wasn’t in a reading and it wasn’t in a workshop. It was on the path—it was in commercial production from the get-go.
Charlotte: Will somebody tell the legend… the legend of the casting of Judy Holliday? It’s such a great story.
Jay: I know, I’ll just tell the base and then people may know more details. Jean Arthur—who was, of course, a huge star—was originally cast as Billie Dawn. And, for whatever psychological reason, Miss Arthur froze. And, out of fear, basically, could not perform. But, of course, you know, Broadway is such a bizarre place because this, and then almost twenty-five years later, somebody actually hired Jean Arthur to do another play on Broadway.
Jay and Howard: (in unison) And the same thing happened.
Jay: Same thing happened, exactly.
John: That was the play that opened the new… the O’Neill.
Jay: The Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake. 
John: The Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake. Neil Simon… that was when he’d just bought that theatre. And he tells the story of that whole episode of the opening of that play; he told it to me in a hotel room once with another man there. And the two of us, listening, laughed so hard—I have never laughed so hard at any movie or play or moment in my life as hearing Neil in painful—
John: Elongated detail, tell the story of the opening of that play. The one remark that just stands out is he said, “I sat there”—now this is his theatre for the first time, there’s a long story leading up to the actual opening, which I won’t tell but he said, “The moment the curtain rose, it was two inches off the ground and I could tell by the chintz on the couch that this was going to be the biggest flop in the entire history of the theatre.”
Laughter from panel and audience.
John: That was just one little detail but there’s way more about Jean Arthur.
Jay: But can you imagine…? And Philip and I were talking about this the other day—and, as a casting director—this play may never have been the classic that it is if Jean Arthur had played it because, clearly, any playwright, any director, will say people that you have in your play are a major part of what makes the success of and who knows what would have happened had she actually played the play?
John: I can’t imagine her saying those words.
Jay: And you look at her films and you could see sort of why…
Howard: You can.
Jay: You can see sort of why: she was hoydenish and, you know, but when you see Judy Holliday, it’s as if it could have been written—
Philip: For her from day one.
Jay: —for her from day one. But, as you say, somebody who had never finished high school, right? Somebody who was, you know, uneducated—
Charlotte: Well, self-educated, I guess.
Jay: —self-educated rather.
Jay: Judy Holliday, as a New Yorker, knew how to take who Billie Dawn was, whom he created, and Jean Arthur did not come from that world at all. And so it was a natural fit.
Charlotte: He had worked with Jean Arthur in The More the Merrier  and she was so brilliant in that that… I suppose he was hoping… but she would have been forty-six years old at that time. You know, Jean Arthur would have been.
Howard: We don’t think in terms of age when we cast, do we?
Jay: Well, uh—
Philip: No, never!
They all laugh.
Jay: No, but in those days, they didn’t. I mean, listen, Mary Martin at forty-something played a young roguish nun.
Philip: Maria Von Trapp at age forty-six.
Jay: Katharine Cornell played Juliet at sixty so, you know, times have changed a lot.
Philip: Well, the miraculous thing about Born Yesterday, too, is—correct me if I’m wrong—but I believe that performance Judy Holliday gave—which was pretty much the talk of the theatre world from the first night she went on—was created in four days.
Charlotte: Hmm-hmm, yeah.
Philip: She had four days of rehearsal before their—was it in Boston?
Howard: I remember reading—
John: Was the opening in Boston?
Howard: I remember reading about Garson saying, “Do you think you’re ready?” And she had had virtually no preparation, but she had the courage to say yes.
Jay: That’s when some of the great performances—excuse me—happen, when you don’t have enough time to really think yourself into a hole, you know what I mean?
Philip: Well, even, I heard, you know one of the things that, I guess, Garson or Max Gordon—I don’t remember which—if they had their druthers, they said, “Ah, well she could be a little… she could lose a few pounds.” And in the four days, learning that huge role, she was so nervous, she dropped something like twelve pounds in four days and then looked fantastic onstage because she was twelve pounds lighter.
Charlotte: Yeah, and she was fortunate to have, I think I read somewhere that John Houseman came to help her prepare.
Charlotte: Because they had known each other from, I guess, the Mercury Theatre.
Jay: I never heard that.
Philip: You know, this huge role that carries this show on its shoulders and this performance that is still iconically remembered—sixty-five years later—was created in four days.
John: But where did they find her? What’s the story of how she got even to do it?
Jay: Well, she had been part of the Revuers. [A cabaret troupe that included Judy Holliday, Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Leonard Bernstein]
Howard: The Revuers. Betty and Adolph…
Jay: Judy Tuvim—Tuvim is Hebrew for “holiday”—and so, amongst the New York theatre set, she was known as a young comedienne and so, fortunately, you know…
Philip: Someone had the good sense to call her.
Howard: And I suspect in those days, Garson did his own casting.
Jay: Or, yes, I mean, and Garson was a casting director at some point, when he assisted Abbott. And also, I seem to remember—now, this may be (wrong?)—but I seem to remember he worked for George Kaufman and worked in that capacity with Robert Sinclair, who was the stage manager and, ultimately, restaged all the Moss and George work. You know, like today, there were lots of tours but, in those days, yes, I think there was probably a stage manager helping but, yes, I’m sure he did cast it himself.
Howard: But you’re right: everybody knew the Revuers because they were very funny, as we know. They were also very talented.
Philip: And, you know, the other thing that shocks me when you read it, too, is that Judy Holliday did this performance and it was the toast of the town and it was before the Tony Awards were created but surely she would have won one, if they existed then. But she did this performance that was what was selling this—she was a star because of this performance—and she stayed in that show for three-and-a-half years. And when was the last time a Broadway star of a play stayed with it for three-and-a-half—
Jay: More than twelve weeks!
Philip: Or twenty-one.
Jay: It’s not about Garson Kanin but the reason that Michael Redgrave did not play Higgins [in My Fair Lady], he would not sign for two years. He would only sign for a year.
Jay: And Herman Levin said, “Forget it!” And then they went after Rex Harrison. Actually, Alan Lerner said, “Forget it.” And they went after Rex Harrison but first of all, you know, it was a whole different world. And then, to add insult to injury, Harry Cohn didn’t want to give Judy the movie. It was Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy that cast her in—and I can never remember the name of it—
Charlotte: Adam’s Rib!  Which was essentially her screen test.
Jay: And that’s the famous story where Katharine Hepburn, you know, insisted that in their first scene together, that Judy Holliday—Judy was in close-up and it was Katharine Hepburn’s back. But in those days—
John: Nobody today would—
Philip: And that was her screen test for Born Yesterday.
John: Can you imagine?
Jay: Being a part of the theatre in that era was when you had a group of professionals that were colleagues and, yes, I’m sure there were horrible stories that we don’t know about, but, in those days, when you were out of town, you know, Josh Logan or Moss Hart would come down to Philadelphia and see your play and, for nothing, say, “You know, here’s what we think.” And it was a collaborative—the theatre community was a far more collaborative—effort in the commercial theatre.
Howard: I think that’s absolutely true. I remember—it’s already twenty-five years ago or more—I asked Manny Azenberg, “Aren’t there people that you call who they watch the show and they say, ‘Well, you need to take that scene in the second act and do that...?’” Yeah, but Manny said, “You’re being nostalgic.”
John: Well, Neil Simon was one who did that—
John: —for so many different people.
Jay: Yes, and Neil was very instrumental in making A Chorus Line—not a hit, God knows, but he wrote quite a bit of it—and he still says all he got was “a set of sheets and towels”.
They all laugh.
Charlotte: Oh, dear.
Jay: And he still says, “I deserved a bit more than…”
Charlotte: Well, you know, it’s interesting—we can keep talking about Judy Holliday and she’s actually one of my personal idols, of course, but he—Garson—also gave Paul Douglas his start—
Charlotte: —in that play. He was a radio announcer. [Casting Paul Douglas was Ruth’s idea.]
Jay. And so, right, because then the movie where he played with Celeste Holm, where he becomes the opera singer and she can’t sing.
Charlotte: Oh, yes!
Jay: Is that after…?
Charlotte: I think so, yeah.
Jay: Because whatever that movie is called—
Charlotte: I can’t remember the name of it…
Jay: Because he was hilarious…
Charlotte: That was a terrific movie and I can’t think of the name of it. [Everybody Does It, 1949]
Jay: The interesting thing about looking at the play today and what constitutes sex appeal in that era, Paul Douglas was considered a sexy man. And, again, in casting, the myth of that part having to be a big bruiser, that’s not what it was at all.
Philip: Originally, yeah.
Howard: Well, that came from the movie.
Jay: Yeah, that came from the film. It was not the way it was originally intended in any way shape or form.
Howard: It would be interesting—can you imagine it being played that way now?
Jay: Oui, oui.
Jay: Talking about, you know, going back and talking about the subject matter that he chose to write about in the theatre, and the story about Do Re Mi,  which was, as a kid, I stared at this thing as if, like I’d never seen anything like it in my life. Well, first of all, it was Phil Silvers and Nancy Walker—
Howard: And Nancy Walker.
Jay: —who are beyond brilliant and it was Boris Aronson designing a very avant-garde set—
Howard: And Irene Sharaff doing colorful costumes.
Jay: And Irene Sharaff designing. But it was a very edgy story about a failure and so it had the patina of a big, splashy, 1960s, loud, big Broadway musical and it got rave reviews. And, again, Phil Silvers was amazing but, again, he was so—this story that he was telling about this man that strives so hard—
Philip: For success.
Jay: —for success and didn’t know how and then, suddenly, was indicted and he became known because of that. And, again, the public didn’t want to see that story. And it got rave reviews, and it was a fantastic musical.
Howard: It was a fantastic musical but, I think, it also had a disappointing ending—
Howard: —because it was like a male “Rose’s Turn.”
Philip: It didn’t succeed.
Howard: I did see it.
Charlotte: Oh, you did?
Howard: And it didn’t…
John: Eleven o’clock number.
Howard: Yeah, but everything—I mean, I still remember it very vividly because of the performances. And you had, I think, Nancy Dussault—
Howard: —and John Reardon. Everything about it was wonderful.
Jay: Listen, when we did it at Encores!,  it was one of our great successes because of Nathan Lane… And it was Heather Headley and “Stokes”—Brian Stokes Mitchell—played the—
Philip: Young lovers.
Jay: —young lovers. And so it really sort of—without doing anything—sort of, you were in one era and in another era all at the same time in, about the music business. And it was exciting… But just the show itself is so exciting and he took those wonderful, wonderful Mafiosos and, you know—
John: Made them sing!
Jay: —make them sing and then, with Jule Styne, “It’s Legitimate.” That song and those characters, even though they’re not big parts—
Philip: No, but they’re great roles.
Jay: —but they land as well as anything in Guys and Dolls and they’re just…
Charlotte: And the music, we should say, was Jule Styne and Comden and Green, but we have someone who can literally give us the backstage scoop on this. Tell us about that.
John: Well, Garson was a very good friend of my parents’ [Arthur and Nela Rubinstein]—that’s how I knew him—so I knew him since the day I was born. He had this exceptional way—and I saw him then do it with my children, a generation later—he had this way that not all adults of any sort have, much less people in the theatre—of taking children seriously, as human beings, not in a condescending way, not because they just think they’re cute and interesting, but because they valued, I felt from Garson—and I knew many of my parents’ friends and many of them very illustrious people, and I was star-struck and very, very happy to see and meet them—and, yet, he and Ruth, too, were two people who talked to me as though I were as interesting or as worthy as any of the other people in the room—
Philip: As a peer.
John: —which, when I was seven, when I was nine, when I was twelve… And when I said, in my early teens, like when I was eleven, that I wanted to be an actor when I grew up, they didn’t say, “Oh, how cute. Stay away from me,” they said, “Oh, really, Johnny? You want to be an actor? Well, then you gotta come see my rehearsal!” And Garson took me under his wing for no apparent reason. I mean, I guess he saw me play Macbeth when I was thirteen years old—
They all laugh.
John: —and he said, “Okay, you’re serious!” And the next year, I think, is when he was doing Sunday in New York,  and he invited me to sit with him at all of his rehearsals. So I went and I sat next to him; I saw Robert Redford and Sondra Lee onstage in rehearsal talking, going through the scenes. And when Do Re Mi opened, I was in school, I was a young teenager—I think I was fourteen-ish—and I dressed like this, you know, this is how you had to dress for school… you had to wear a tie every day. So I would come after school and he would allow me to sit—to stand—backstage next to Bernie Gersten, who was the stage manager, right there in the wings on stage left and watch the show from there. And I would come every chance I got: weekends, sometimes in the evening, if my parents would let me, and I saw that show probably forty times, got to know everybody but just standing next to Bernie there. But, you know, Nancy Walker would be sitting right next to me before she was slid on—on her little unit—and she would talk to me: “Hey, Johnny! What are you doing?… blah blah blah.” And we would have long talks. And at one of those performances—it was a matinee—and Bernie wasn’t running the show—Bernie was out front watching the show—and the assistant stage manager was calling the cues from that booth there, but I was standing there, as always, and Phil Silvers came behind me and grabbed me by both shoulders and said, “You’re going on, kid!” And he pushed me onstage and sat me in this little set in that, for the eleven o’clock number that you were mentioning, where he is in court being tried and he comes downstage and at the end of it, he sings this big song about “all of my life,” you know, the earlier scene in the courtroom, the jury is in these little witness stands and they go (singing), “Who is Hubie Cram? He’s a V.I.P. He’s an S.O.B.” And they’re getting up and down like this in sort of choreographed fashion, and he stuck me in the jury box. I don’t remember if there were twelve people but there were thirteen that day.
They all laugh.
John: And I sat next to a girl—chorus girl—who was, she was in all of the other scenes, but in this scene, she was the jury member. And I had my little tie and, although I was way too young, I was sort of okay, maybe, you know? I wasn’t eight. And so I sat there and the lights came on and there we were and I was on Broadway, you know? And I did the number; I knew it and I got up and I got down and I did everything I thought I was supposed to do. Then, when the scene was over, the lights went down, and those little semi-circular jury units started to roll around the stage to go off because that was when Phil went downstage to do his big solo. And I didn’t know what to do because the lights went out, and I couldn’t see. This girl got up and went to where she always went because you learn that stuff. You see in the dark, and you just do what you do. And I was terrified and I was sort of trying to get out of the unit but it was moving and I could see Phil going downstage and starting his number with a big spotlight on him and I was onstage with him, you know? And suddenly I feel [*he tugs at the back of his jacket collar and grunts*], you know? And it’s Bernie Gersten, who has come from the house and said, “That little son-of-a…” you know… “ran onstage, thinking he could just—he’s Garson’s friend—he could do whatever he wants!” And he thought that I had taken it upon myself to run onstage and be in the number. And he was furious and he dragged me into the wings and I said, “It was Phil! It was Phil! Phil did it!” You know, and he, of course, straightened it out later and we all became friends. But that was my Broadway debut.
They all laugh.
Jay: That’s a great story.
John: I’ll never forget it.
Charlotte: And you worked with him later on Moviola? [1980 TV miniseries based on GK’s novel]
John: Well, yeah, yeah, I played Irving Thalberg in Moviola.
Charlotte: “A very clever boy genius,” Sam Goldwyn used to call Garson Kanin. [He also called GK “Tallboy” because GK reminded him of Irving Thalberg]
John: Yeah. That was the only time I actually worked with him. He offered me to play the young English guy in Idiot’s Delight  in Los Angeles with Jack Lemmon and Rosemary Harris, but I had a movie that was shooting in Mexico and I couldn’t get back in time for rehearsals. So I suggested a friend of mine that I had gone to college with. I said, “Well, why don’t you hire”—because you had to do an English accent and I can do a very good one because I went to school among British teachers and so it was easy. But this was a friend of mine who was Australian, and he did a perfect British accent and he was a really gifted actor. And Colin Higgins was his name. And I said, “Hey, Gar, my buddy, Colin, could play that part in a second.” Well, by the time I gave him all that information and he followed it up, he’d cast a British kid to play that part. But he met Colin, loved him and gave him the part of an Italian soldier who came onstage and said, “Hey-ba-da-hum-ba-da!” in the last act. And he also made him assistant stage manager and gopher and he ran for coffee and stuff. But he got to know Garson and Ruth during that period, and he had written this screenplay he had been working on for some time in college that he had written, basically, for me and for Elsa Lanchester—
John: —whom he had never met but was an idol of his, called Harold and Maude.  And he wanted me to play Harold, and he wanted Elsa Lanchester to play Maude… that was his idea. And he lived in the pool house of a producer whose name escapes me now but he, ultimately, produced the movie. And the producer got that screenplay and started working on it and he was going to direct it. But Elsa Lanchester didn’t work out. Meanwhile, Colin had become very friendly with Garson and Ruth, and we would go over to their house for dinner all the time. And at one of those dinners, I said (whispering), “What about Ruth?” You know? And he said, “Of course!” And he gave the screenplay to Ruth. And she said, “I want to do this picture; this part is for me!” And, by gosh, on it went. I auditioned for it when Colin didn’t get to direct it, and they gave it to Hal Ashby to direct. He cast somebody else. But still—
Jay: It seems to have worked out.
John: It worked out. It was one of those wonderful things, you know, where all those connections worked that way.
Charlotte: Well, he gave a lot of young people their starts. I mean, he discovered—when he was working for Mr. Abbott—discovered Jose Ferrer. He gave Hume Cronyn his start and, speaking of the assistant director or second understudy, he—I guess it was Years Ago [a play written by Ruth Gordon which GK directed on Broadway, 1946], Julie Harris auditioned for it, and there wasn’t a part for her so he made her an understudy to the understudy… Julie Harris, if you can imagine.
John: He took people seriously who didn’t necessarily have huge résumés yet. And very few people do that nowadays.
Charlotte: Well, do you think maybe it was because maybe he had been treated so kindly by, for example, Mr. Abbott.
John: I don’t know what it was because he wasn’t indiscriminate.
Jay: It was that era. Moss Hart did the same thing. If somebody had talent—Abbott was the same way—if somebody had talent, didn’t matter what they had done or what they hadn’t done, they had talent and people took people—
Philip: Under their wing.
Jay: —you know, under their wing and supported them.
John: I learned more sitting in his rehearsals—I mean, I watched him direct Funny Girl.  I saw all the rehearsals. With Barbra Streisand and Sydney Chaplin and all those people. And I was just sitting there; I didn’t have anything to do with it, but I watched and watched and watched and watched, and I saw them change the numbers. And I saw them… And that was weird because Garson was sort of let go on that show.
Jay: Well, yeah, because—
John: They went out of town and when they came back, I checked in at the Winter Garden to say, “Well, I want to resume”—because I was in high school… They said, “I’m sorry but Mr. Kanin no longer works here.”
Jay: It was one of those—well, that show had nine hundred directors. Everybody in the world was a—
John: But Garson did the brunt of the directing.
Philip: Up until nearly the opening.
Jay: Absolutely. But Jerry Robbins had originally been the director and, you know, he was most—from the legend, it was her insecurity—
John: Who? Barbra’s?
Jay: Yeah. It was her fear and insecurity, you know, that was really driving all those decisions that had to be made. And Jerry came in.
John: That was a great show.
Charlotte: He said that his one contribution to her performance was—I think it was no small potatoes—is that he kept telling her—because he and Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, of course, knew who Fanny Brice was and Barbra Streisand didn’t exactly because she was of a different generation—and so he asked—this is in Tracy and Hepburn, which I re-read recently and it’s still such a good book—um, he asked Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, “What did Fanny Brice have that Barbra Streisand doesn’t?” And Spencer Tracy said, “Elegance.” And Katharine Hepburn said, “Oh, I was going to say sexuality but that’s very good.” So, he went to Barbra Streisand and he said—every day in rehearsal, he would say—the word “elegance” to her at least once and she was, like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And he said, eventually—and she’s very elegant and sexy—but, I guess, when she was young, she didn’t have that. He says that’s the one contribution he made.
John: She didn’t feel confident about it.
John: She felt much more confident in her shtick.
Charlotte: Well, he also said, “To trade on the obvious is cheap.” And he was trying to get her to do something—to acknowledge something in herself—that was not obvious. He said the same thing about himself, and I think he was an awfully elegant guy.
John: He was.
Charlotte: Well, gee, should we take some questions? We haven’t covered nearly enough stuff for me. Well, maybe we should take a few questions, should we? Does anyone have questions for us?
Man in audience [Mitch Ericson] asks question about Preston Sturges and whether Garson knew him.
Charlotte: Well, they must have met.
John: He knew everybody.
Charlotte: And Martha said he was a huge Preston Sturges fan, and so they must have. But did you notice that [referring to Mitch Ericson’s question] wasn’t in the movie [The Rat Race]?
Charlotte: The line about coffee? Yeah. But, you know, he apparently never wasted anything. From the time Thornton Wilder told him to keep a journal and, strangely enough, his first wife, Ruth Gordon, also kept a journal. But he did not waste anything; he would come back to titles he had thought of years and years before or incidents or tributes to someone he liked, like Preston Sturges. You know, even…
Man continues talking.
Charlotte: That’s right.
Man continues talking.
Audience Member [Steve Press]: I worked with Gar a long time ago and he mentioned directing style, and styles have certainly changed and Gar was the old-school, pre-Stanislavski. I played Peter in Anne Frank, and he let actors go. I consider it was more blocking than directing. And you talk a lot about casting. He cast right and that was ninety-seven percent of the work and the rest of it was traffic.
Howard: I think, did you come to Milwaukee? Because I saw Diary of Anne Frank in Milwaukee because everything, everything when it left Broadway came and toured the provinces and it built an audience.
Howard: Well, again, I was aware of Garson Kanin because of the movie of Born Yesterday, which I loved. But I went to see The Diary of Anne Frank  and I was very conscious—when you say “blocking”—of a kind of circular movement that went on and I thought, in retrospect, not at the time, the time I was just conscious of it, but, in retrospect, I suspect that had to do with establishing that they were in close quarters and they were like animals in a cage that circulate because there’s no place to go. But, yeah, but, again, pre-Stanislavski, let’s say, pre-that-girl-that-was-in-it, pre-her-father—even Stanislavski, after all, evolved in different ways and Stanislavski came out of an old-fashioned theatre. But, I think, we have lost a lot of the sort of formality, a lot of the structure of the theatre in our seeking the, perhaps, wrong-headed ideas of that girl’s father.
Audience Member: If I could add one story…
Audience Member: Gar hadn’t even started rehearsal when he’d give every actor a present, and we would open the box and what was in the box was every over-the-counter drug humanly possible.
They all laugh.
Audience Member: And then he’d say, “Okay, here’s your stuff. Come to rehearsal. No excuses, no nothing.”
Charlotte: That sounds like something from Smash. Doesn’t that sound like something from the novel Smash, the story of a musical comedy on the road? Actually, that sounds very familiar to me.
Jay: But that, you see, what’s missing in our world is wit.
They all laugh.
Jay: Yeah, that’s, you know, he was a wit. Offstage and onstage. And that’s witty. And, also, it told you exactly what he meant: show up and don’t get sick and be there.
Howard: Well, also—
John: He and Ruth were tremendously professional, professionally-minded. Ruth said there was absolutely no excuse to ever show up to the first rehearsal of a play—and she always played the starring role—without knowing all of your lines.
Jay: Oh but that was—
John: Every line.
Jay: Absolutely, I mean, Noël Coward was famous for it. You know, you walked in and you were off-book.
John: Off-book the first day and she always did that. Right through to the last thing that she did. And another funny thing, funny was surprising to me because they worked together so often. Sometimes she would write the play and he would direct it. Sometimes she would write it and star in it and he would direct it. Sometimes it was a little bit of both. And he and she both always said that when they went home, they never talked about it. They talked about anything else. They did whatever they did. They were very social. They were certainly, both of them, endless talkers. I think their marriage survived mostly because they never ran out of something fun to say to each other. But they didn’t talk about the play that they were working on all day. And I find that fascinating.
Jay: And almost impossible.
John: Almost impossible. I mean, I was never with them, obviously, when they were alone together but I think it was true. I don’t think they were making that up. They made that be as sort of a rule, you know, so that their marriage could be what it was, and their professional life was what it was and it wasn’t one giant ball of fame.
Jay: They were people that their entire lives were not just the theatre.
Jay: They had interests, you know, far-ranging interests, interests in a… They didn’t live in a vacuum of the theatre, which is why he could write about so many things in so many different ways and the same with Ruth Gordon.
John: And that’s reflected in Adam’s Rib.
John: That relationship.
Jay: Of course.
Philip: Well, if you look at their work, too, in the records they kept and, because he was such an expert record-keeper with his journals and everything, all the books he wrote, whether it’s Remembering Mr. Maugham or Tracy and Hepburn or even Smash, which is thinly-veiled fiction, he writes about all these things and all these relationships with people and these are beautiful books that have actually very little to do with show business. They’re just about life. And even if they involve show business figures, it’s about life and the pursuit of happiness or whatever it may be. You know, even when we just did Remembering Mr. Maugham at Theatre Row there was very—they [Kanin and Maugham] didn’t mention actual theatrical productions very much. It was more about other things between them and other points of conversation and correspondence with each other.
Charlotte: He also said that one of the reasons that they didn’t talk about business was when they did work together, when they collaborated, they fought so much that they had to keep their marriage together by, you know, that was—they wrote some successful screenplays together but they sort of took a pledge not to work together anymore and not to talk about that stuff anymore. But he also said, which I love, he said—and I’ll paraphrase it badly, of course—that he knew a lot of geniuses and even more talents but only five professionals, and Ruth Gordon was one of them. I think that’s wonderful. Well, gee, I think—does anyone else have any questions because we’re…
Audience member makes a comment. [unintelligible]
Charlotte: Does anyone have any final words? I’d like to sum up with my personal favorite quote from Born Yesterday and it just sort of sums up, I think, Gar’s philosophy: “I want everyone to be smart. As smart as they can be. A world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in.” Isn’t that heaven?
John: Why didn’t they listen?
Charlotte: And if you walk east on 41st Street, walking up to the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue where he sometimes wrote, there’s a plaque. If you look down, which is, you know, hard to do sometimes in New York, but if you look down, you’ll see a bronze plaque on 41st Street that says that as part of Library Way. Isn’t that terrific?
Howard: Yeah, it is.
Charlotte: A fitting tribute, I think. Well, thanks so much everyone.
Charlotte: Thanks, Mr. Rubinstein, Mr. Kissel, Mr. Morgaman and Mr. Binder.