Backward Glances

Backward Glances Playbill magazine senior editor Louis Botto recalls Broadway opening nights of yesteryear.
The Playbill for Bloomer Girl
The Playbill for Bloomer Girl

*

Years ago, Broadway opening nights were very glamorous affairs. The audience would dress to the nines and Playbill would send a fashion illustrator to sketch what the female celebrities were wearing. During the show it was fun to watch the reactions of the critics and try to discern from their facial expressions whether they liked it or not. (Today critics attend previews, which allows them more time to write their reviews.)

One more opening-night treat is missing: the presence of Mr. and Mrs. Ira Katzenberg, who were honored with a special Tony Award in 1947 for being such loyal first nighters. They always sat in the same front-row orchestra seats. As soon as the curtain rose, Mr. Katzenberg would spread a handkerchief over his bald head. I once asked his wife why he did that and she replied, "HeÕs afraid of catching cold."

I shall always cherish my first opening night. In October of 1944 I was home on furlough from Keesler Field in Mississippi, and a new musical, Bloomer Girl, was opening at the Shubert Theatre that week. It sounded promising. It had a score by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg and the cast included Celeste Holm, David Brooks, Joan McCracken and Dooley Wilson, the famed "As Time Goes By" singer from Casablanca. And Agnes DeMille did the choreography. I went to the Shubert Theatre in my Air Force uniform and stood on a long line. I kept hearing the woman in the box office say, "Sorry, we're sold out." When I finally arrived at the head of the line, I told her I was home on furlough that week. Did she have any tickets for me? She said, "How would you like to go to the opening night?"

"Opening night!" I exclaimed. "I'd love it!" With that, the woman who had been in front of me came charging back and said to the ticket seller, "You didnÕt offer me an opening-night ticket."

The woman in the box office replied, "Madam, when you come here in a military uniform, I'll have tickets for you."

The opening night was fabulous. Frank Sinatra attended with Carole Landis, and many socialites wore stunning gowns to the event. The musical, which ran for a successful 654 performances, featured some of Arlen's best songs ("Evelina" and "Right as the Rain," for example) and Dooley Wilson scored a hit with "The Eagle and Me."

After that I attended many Broadway openings Ñ some good, some disasters Ñ but by far the greatest occurred on December 30, 1948, at the Century Theatre: Kiss Me, Kate. It was a great comeback for Cole Porter, who had suffered several flops. The musical was based on a company doing Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew and starred Alfred Drake, Patricia Morrison, Lisa Kirk and Harold Lang.

The opening was truly a gala affair. Porter arrived with his friend Elsa Maxwell, Marlene Dietrich wore a chinchilla trench coat, and Kitty Carlisle arrived with her husband, Moss Hart, who, curiously, had told the producers to close the show. "It doesn't make it," he said.

Hart's critique notwithstanding, Kiss Me, Kate turned out to be Porter's greatest and longest-running hit, with 1,077 performances. A highlight of the opening night was the arrival of the Katzenbergs. When they walked down the aisle to their front-row orchestra seats, a spotlight was put on them and they received a standing ovation. It was an unforgettable night.