John Cullum crooned "On a Clear Day," Mel Gussow recounted his meeting with Irving Berlin, and Carol Channing memorably recreated the unique audition that landed her her first Broadway role. The occasion was an evening-long salute Nov. 3 to Playbill and particularly to Playbill columnist Louis Botto at the Players Club in New York.
The event also hailed the publication of a new expanded edition of Botto's book "At This Theatre" (Applause/Playbill Books), which tells the history of the 40 active Broadway theatres over the course of the 20th century. Botto, who is also celebrating his 65th year of theatregoing, brought along some two dozen rare and vintage Playbills, and told stories related to each.
The 114-year-old Players Club saluted one of the few theatre organizations that's been around even longer - Playbill, at 118 - in an evening of story and song at the legendary gathering place for actors, writers and other theatre folk.
Highlights included cute-as-two-buttons Gordon and Jane Connell singing a tongue-in-cheek Noel Coward ditty from Sail Away that introduced them as "a sweet old couple/ Who detest one another."
Channing, who sat next to Botto and chatted with him through dinner, took the stage to tell him, "Your book is just heaven for me," and proceeded to entertain him with her audition piece for legendary agent Abe Lastfogel, which consisted of a "funeral chant from Orestes" accompanied by the mimed pounding on a tom-tom, and a "Haitian corn-grinding song," which she claims to have assured Lastfogel was a favorite of her classmates back at Bennington College. Referring to stories in Botto's book about the ghosts that haunt various Broadway theatres, Channing claimed to have seen a ghost in the mezzanine at the Palace Theatre, where she performed Lorelei, and furthermore said the ghost rode a small elevator that had been installed for Sarah Bernhardt shortly after its opening.
Displaying the opening night Playbill from Oklahoma!, Botto recalled how he read the review the next morning in one of the newspapers sold by his parents from their candy store in Union City, NJ, which inspired him to commute into Manhattan and score tickets of his own. Botto then proudly brandished the original $2.75 stub, which remains among his personal memorabilia collection nearly 60 years later.
Botto spoke in between performances by Walter Charles, Joel Higgins, Peter Howard and Players Club President Michael Allinson. Host for the event was John Martone.
-- By Robert Viagas