That amazing time machine, video recordings, is at it again! Theatre lovers have a new opportunity to revisit the 1950s and 1960s when network television offered performances by some of Broadway’s biggest stars singing some of the great songs of the American musical stage.
A company called Video Artists International is building an impressive catalogue of DVDs of both black and white and color television programming of note. The company isn’t exactly new, it has been doing this now for nearly three decades. (It is hard to believe that three decades ago some of these television treasures were already three decades old!) The catalogue has begun to assume something of a critical mass.
One of VAI’s newest gems offers over an hour of color telecasts from the Bell Telephone Hour dated between 1960 and 1966. Half of the segments feature Florence Henderson, a Broadway star before she was the mother on TV’s sit com “The Brady Bunch.” The other half offers Shirley Jones, that stage ingenue who became better known through Hollywood versions of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals Oklahoma! and Carousel and Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man before going on to similar TV sit com fame on “The Partridge Family.” With guest stars such as Keith Andes, Gordon MacCrae and Jones’ husband, Jack Cassidy, the disc is a document of just what the image of a Broadway leading lady was as the Great White Way neared the end of its “golden age.”
Perhaps a better view of the Broadway mystique, however, came from a single Bell Telephone Hour, the one telecast on January 28, 1964. It was an “All Star Tribute” to Cole Porter in which Ethel Merman and her “guests” John Raitt, Gretchen Wyler, Peter Nero and others race through 52 Porter songs in 54 minutes (leaving time for commercials). To fill out the disc, VAI tacks on a 1960 appearance of Merman’s which featured half a dozen non-Porter songs as well as some out-takes from that earlier production.
Another frequent featured performer on the Bell Telephone Hour was Carol Lawrence, who will always be remembered as the original Maria in West Side Story. Her stage career covered a much wider range, from dancing in Plain and Fancy in 1955 to starring in Kiss of the Spider Woman forty years later. Guest stars on her segments included Howard Keel, her West Side Story Tony – Larry Kert, and her husband Robert Goulet, demonstrating both an undeniable charm and a marvelously resonant voice. Together, Lawrence and Kert perform re-staged scenes from West Side Story. A truly delightful segment has Lawrence being wooed by Keel with an assist from young Eddie Hodges, the original Winthrop Paroo from The Music Man.
The Bell Telephone Hour also had Barbara Cook as their Broadway ingenue on multiple occasions between 1960 and 1965. In 1960 she was joined with the barbershop quartet, the Buffalo Bills, for songs from The Music Man. This was taped shortly after Cook had left the cast of that mega-hit and the Buffalo Bills were still warbling in the show at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway. Those who look longingly at prior seasons of Broadway musicals will salivate at the “Salute to the 1962 Broadway Season” in which Cook and Robert Goulet work their way through “Lovely” from Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood” from Frederick Loewe’s Camelot, “The Sweetest Sounds,” “Loads of Love” and “Nobody Told Me” from Richard Rodgers’ No Strings and “That was Yesterday” from Jerry Herman’s Milk and Honey.
As delightful as the material from the Bell Telephone Hour is, and much of it is quite wonderful indeed, it is a DVD from VAI that isn’t from that series that stands out as the find of the moment. It runs only 27 minutes in somewhat hazy black and white as it dates from before magnetic tape captured video images. (Thank goodness for the kinescope, the process of pointing a movie camera at a television screen and – through synchronizing the shutter with the “refresh rate” of the telecast, capturing the action without a vertical role that would drive even the most die-hard fan of the material batty.)
This particular kinescope captured the appearance of Mary Martin and Ethel Merman on the Ford Motor Company’s “50th Anniversary Show,” an event that was so extraordinary that it was telecast on not one but two major networks, NBC and CBS! That wasn’t because the two networks decided to cooperate, however. No. Ford Motor Company bought the time on both in order to get coverage to most of the population of the United States. It was, after all, 1953 and the country hadn’t been straddled by communication satellites in synchronous orbit. (Nothing had reached near-earth orbit yet, but that’s another story.)
While the Ford show had many highlights, including that of Oscar Hammerstein II co-hosting with Edward R. Murrow, the thing most people remembered the longest was a duet between Mary Martin and Ethel Merman. They sat on stools and sang a series of famous songs, many from Broadway but some from Tin Pan Alley’s pop songbook. The rapport between the two of them was memorable and shines through on this disc. In addition, there are two shorter bits that are worth getting to know. In one, Martin and Merman perform a classic vaudeville routine recorded in 1952 by The Happiness Boys, Billy Jones and Ernest Hare. Martin and Merman lip synch to the recording’s songs and jokes.
The real find of the entire package, however, has just got to be Mary Martin’s mime routine dreamed up by Jerry Robbins (who was the entire show’s director.) She wears a tube dress which she pushes, pulls, folds, doubles, stuffs, zips and unzips as a narrator explains the changes in women’s fashions decade by decade through the half century 1900 — 1950. It highlights a side of Martin’s talent that was probably a big factor in her overall charm, a flair for physical comedy. It is worth viewing all by itself.
Video Artists International DVD’s can be ordered by phone at 1-800-477-7146 or online at vaimusic.com.