Mention the name Ben Bagley and you may elicit a quizzical look -- especially from the young.
Back in 1955 and 1957, Bagley, who was in his early 20's, dazzled critics with two brilliant Shoestring Revues produced Off-Broadway. Reviewers were mesmerized by the young man's uncanny ability to discover bright new talent (Beatrice Arthur, Chita Rivera, Dody Goodman, Arte Johnson, Paul Mazursky, Dorothy Greener, etc.) but also by his unerring taste in selecting their hilarious, sassy sketches and songs by future titans Sheldon Harnick, Michael Stewart, Charles Strouse, lee Adams, Tom Jones, Harvey Schmidt and Arthur Siegel.
A highlight of the Shoestring Revue (1955) was an uproarious parody by Sheldon Harnick and C. Lloyd Norlin called "Medea in Disneyland," in which Bea Arthur played a cheery fairy godmother to a bubbly Medea (Dorothy Greener) who sang a typical uplifting tune called "I'm Gonna Take A Lesson From the Bluebird."
Of Shoestring '57, critic Walter Kerr wrote: "It's funny before you take your coat off." No wonder. Ben had the devilish idea to start the show with the overture to My Fair Lady. When Lerner and Loewe found out, they threatened to sue, so the prank came to an end.
Eccentric behavior was nothing new to Ben. In his earlier years he was fired from the firm of McGraw-Hill. It was his duty to write the obits of departed employees and he took a fancy to drawing a mustache on their photos. He was soon sent packing. In between his Shoestring Revues, he managed to conceive and cast The Littlest Revue for the downtown Phoenix Theatre and peopled it with the likes of Joel Grey, Tammy Grimes, Charlotte Rae and Larry Storch. The score was mostly by Vernon Duke and Ogden Nash and one of the sketches was by the distinguished writer Eudora Welty.
But Ben's longest - running hit was his 1965 revue with the marathon title of The Decline and Fall of the Entire World As Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter Revisited, in which Kaye Ballard, Harold Lang, Carmen Alvarez, William Hickey and Elmarie Wendel, with the aid of clever visuals, gave new life to Porter's memorable catalogue of songs.
In 1971, Ben embarked on a new and impressive career. He founded Painted Smiles Records and since then has produced 47 highly distinctive albums of show tunes -- many of them never before recorded.
For information on Painted Smiles, visit its website at http://www.showmusic.com/paintedsmiles/index.htm.
Beginning with Rodgers and Hart Revisited, he focused an album on each of the major Broadway song writers. Among the unusual talents he used to sing these songs were Katharine Hepburn, Gloria Swanson, Anthony Perkins, Richard Chamberlain, Rex Reed and many others. A striking feature of these albums (now available on CD) is their outrageous liner notes. On one of them he wrote: Katharine Hepburn's latest film is titled Lust Slaves of Lima. Ms. Hepburn was vastly amused. On another he called Mary Martin and Ethel Merman "the two old bags of Broadway." Stephen Sondheim has been less than amused by Bagley's barbs against him.
In addition to the Revisited CD's, Ben has also recorded some Broadway musicals that were never before preserved on disc: Too Many Girls, Make Mine Manhattan, Hold On To Your Hats and The Grass Harp. For his archival achievements, he has received grateful thanks from such late titans as Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, Arthur Schwartz, Noel Coward and Vernon Duke.
Bagley currently lives happily in Jackson Heights, NY with his beloved cat Emily, whose picture appears on the back cover of his CDs, above the catty liner notes.
[Ed. note: In the course of doing this interview, Bagley offered Playbill On-Line Club members a discount on CD versions of his recordings. To check it out, please click on the Playbill On-Line Club on the home page of our website.]
-- By Louis Botto