STAGE TO SCREENS: A Chat with Mary Testa and the 1953-54 TV season

Stage to Screens   STAGE TO SCREENS: A Chat with Mary Testa and the 1953-54 TV season This month we chat with two-time Tony nominee (On the Town, 42nd Street) Mary Testa, who plays the recurring role of Sophia in the Whoopi Goldberg sitcom, "Whoopi" (NBC, Tuesday, 8:30 PM ET).
Mary Testa and Whoopi Goldberg in
Mary Testa and Whoopi Goldberg in "Whoopi" Photo by Carsey/Werner/Mandabach

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"I auditioned [for Sophia, the diner-owner]," says Mary Testa. "I also had known Whoopi, because we worked in Forum together [when Goldberg succeeded Nathan Lane as Pseudolus, and Testa continued in the role of Domina: "Carry my bust with pride!"]. I was put on tape, and I got it. I think that Whoopi had a lot to do with that."

Most of Testa's scenes are with Goldberg, "smoking in front of the hotel [that Whoopi runs]." Is Testa a smoker? "I quit eight years ago, and they are allowing me to smoke herbal cigarettes, so I won't get hooked again. We've had about three shows with the women playing poker — and smoking up a storm. During a poker scene, I mistakenly picked up a regular cigarette, and the smoke hit the back of my throat. 'Hello!' I don't think I'll ever smoke again. The act of smoking is very pleasurable, but [the herbal cigarettes] don't taste very good."

On hiatus after appearing in 11 of the 13 episodes shot thus far, Testa returns to sitcom duty Jan. 6. She regards TV "like a vacation! On Wednesdays, we do a table read for an hour, from 12 to 1. Then, we work Thursdays and Fridays, from 9/9:30 to 2, 3, sometimes 4 in the afternoon. We have Saturdays and Sundays off. Mondays, we work from 9:30 to as late as 4. Tuesday's a long day; we come in at noon, start tape at 7 o'clock, and work until 10:30, sometimes 11. As opposed to doing eight shows a week [on Broadway], it's really wonderful." TV pays better, and isn't it everyone's goal to get more money for fewer hours?

"The one bad thing about working in the theatre is that you really don't have a normal life. You can't do a lot of things. To have nights free is fantastic! I'm starting to see shows. I have a lot to catch up with; I still haven't seen Hairspray. There will come a time when I'm dying to do a show [onstage] again." Sitcom work has made up somewhat for being let go, along with Jonathan Freeman, from 42nd Street, in which they played the married team of writer-performers, Maggie Jones and Bert Barry.

"They did not renew our contracts. There were two reasons: first, Mark Bramble [who co-authored the book for the 1980 original, and directed the 2001 production] had been trying to get rid of us for a long time. And they then reached the point where they didn't want to pay [her and Freeman] anymore. So, they let us go, which I found really odd. Frankly [if she were in charge], I would want my original cast to be in the show as long as possible.

"I don't want to speak for Jonathan, but we did the show for two years, which is plenty of time [to be in a show]. But I never wanted to walk away from a job. It was a surprise, and a little shocking. I'd never been let go.

"Then, I got a movie [playing Sister Clare in "Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding," a 2004 release]. I worked on it for five weeks, and then I got 'Whoopi.' [The termination] turned out to be a lovely thing for me, probably the best thing in the world."

Born in Philadelphia, Testa is the younger of two daughters. At four, she moved (with her family) to Rhode Island. Some years later, she had to choose between pursuing a career in law or entertainment. "I'd have to go to school way too long for law, so I chose show business."

At first, she thought of being a mime. "I was big into Marcel Marceau. I saw him a number of times. That's what I really wanted to do. Then, I thought: 'You know what? I can't talk in [pantomime]. Forget it!' That went by the wayside very fast."

Her New York stage debut occurred at Playwrights Horizons, as Miss Goldberg (not Whoopi) in In Trousers, a musical by William Finn, whose work Testa has often performed. "[Later,] I was doing [Finn's] March of the Falsettos at Playwrights, and making $75 a week.

"I was asked to be a swing for six roles [and to understudy the role of Joice Heth] in Barnum on Broadway for $400 a week. I had bills to pay. I was hired about two weeks before the opening, and it turned out to be a nice job."

Next came the part of movie columnist Hedda Hopper in Marilyn: An American Fable. "It was the longest rehearsal process, but the show only lasted a couple of weeks." When Lenora Nemetz left The Rink, in which she'd stood by for Liza Minnelli, Testa took over the assignment, "and went on for two weeks [prior to Stockard Channing taking over the role]."

In the dozen years that passed before her next Broadway stint, Testa "was completely busy, doing all sorts of different things. People see you on Broadway and think you're successful. I think you're successful if you work. I did a lot of Off-Broadway and a lot of concert work — a lot of things that taught me a great deal. When you sing with an orchestra, it's just you in the spotlight. You've got to be interesting — and sound good."

Off-Broadway credits include Scapin; Lucky Stiff; Hello, Muddah, Hello, Faddah; From Above; A New Brain; Tartuffe; The Knife; Daughter; The Wax; and The Vagina Monologues.

She returned to Broadway in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Claims Testa, "I got good after awhile. It took time to incorporate my own performance into that — about three or four months. She then went from farcical times in ancient Rome to World War II Manhattan, appearing as Madame Dilly in On the Town, first at the Delacorte and then (with some cast changes) at the Gershwin. As the tipsy ballet teacher, Testa received her first Tony nomination.

Marie Christine was a particular favorite. "It was my kind of music, my kind of work. I love dark, interesting pieces. I've known Michael John [LaChiusa, who wrote book, music and lyrics] a really long time. I loved working with Graciela [Daniele, who directed]. I've worked with her a number of times, and would work with her any time. And I loved working with Audra [McDonald, who starred]. It was a combination of wonderful people. That's the thing — getting a group together that works."

Among Testa's cabaret appearances have been shows featuring the songs of William Finn, Barry Kleinbort, Bolcom and Weinstein, and Michael John LaChiusa. On PBS-TV, she performed in a 2002 "Evening at Pops" evening that saluted Richard Rodgers, and performed a memorable "The Gentleman Is a Dope."

At the end of October, the York's "Musicals in Mufti" presented a concert version of Lucky Stiff, with Testa, Paul Kandel, Stuart Zagnit and other members of the original cast. "Lynn and Steve [Ahrens and Flaherty, who wrote the score] are the nicest people in show business. We did five shows and recorded it [again]."

Upcoming is a February benefit appearance, in which she and Whoopi Goldberg will do a number together. Testa looks forward to resuming shooting of the sitcom at New York's Kaufman Astoria Studios. "I've been extremely lucky; it's a dream job." Says a jubilant Mary Testa, "I don't know how many of the nine [remaining] episodes I'll be doing, but I'm sure I'll do a few — and I'm sure I'll love it."

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Back in the 1953-54 TV season, sets were sans cable and stereo — and, for the most part, color. (The first network color telecast took place on "The Colgate Comedy Hour," November 22, 1953.) If you had a 12-inch screen, you were living "The Life of Riley" (rated No. 13 that season).

TV language was strictly guarded then; now, anything goes. Lucille Ball couldn't use the term "pregnant" on "I Love Lucy"; today, viewers wouldn't notice it — and, on a lot of channels, they're able to see how one gets "in the family way." In those days, apartment dwellers had to use "rabbit ears" (an antenna) to try to get a good picture, and there usually was trouble with the vertical hold.

As it had been the previous season, "I Love Lucy" was the No. 1 show. Over the next three seasons, it would remain in that position, except for 1955-56, when it took second place to "The $64,000 Question." Originally, the network wanted the sitcom to be done live in New York City, and an actor other than Ball's husband, Desi Arnaz, cast as Ricky Ricardo. Ball won out in filming the series (thus making episodes available for endless reruns), shooting the show in Hollywood in front of an audience, and in having Arnaz play Ricky. In 1960, Ball made her Broadway debut in the musical,Wildcat, but reviews were not what she expected, and eventually Ball took "ill."

Perhaps the most successful crime drama ever on television, "Dragnet" — "Dum-de-dum-dum" — ranked as No. 2. The series was created for radio in 1949 by Jack Webb, who starred as Sgt. Joe Friday, Badge 714: "Just the facts, m'am."

Arthur Godfrey, who won fame on radio, had the No. 3 show ("Talent Scouts") and the No. 6 entry ("...and His Friends"). The former presented new talent, including, over the years, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Steve Lawrence, Leslie Uggams, and Pat Boone, with the winner chosen by an applause meter. (Incidentally, among those rejected in auditions was Elvis Presley.)

The latter show was an hour variety program with regulars such as Julius La Rosa, the Chordettes, Marion Marlowe (who later created the role of the Baroness in Broadway's The Sound of Music) and Haleloke. Later, Godfrey fired them and hired as replacements Pat Boone, the McGuire Sisters, Carmel Quinn and Miyoshi Umeki (later a Tony nominee for Flower Drum Song and an Oscar winner for Sayonara). Tied with "Talent Scouts" in the No. 3 slot was "You Bet Your Life," starring Groucho Marx. It had been a radio success, with the quiz-show format secondary to the irrepressible Marx and his humor. A presenter at the 1968 Tonys, Marx handed out the award for Best Actress in a Musical. When Leslie Uggams won for Hallelujah, Baby! (tying with Patricia Routledge, Darling of the Day), she claimed, "I don't know where my feet are tonight." Quipped Marx, "Want me to look?"

In the No. 5-rated slot — the No. 3 tie precluded a No. 4 — was "The Milton Berle Show." Due to his tremendous popularity, Berle was dubbed "Mr. Television" in 1948. After his small-screen success, "Uncle Miltie" rejected the role of Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and returned to Broadway (for the first time since Ziegfeld Follies of 1943) in Herb Gardner's short-lived 1968 play, The Goodbye People.

"Ford Theatre" placed No. 7. This live anthology series ran as an hour on CBS from 1949 to '51, presenting (from New York) such dramatizations as "Twentieth Century," starring Fredric March and Lilli Palmer, and in October 1952 moved to NBC as a half-hour (from Hollywood). For its last season (1956-57), it played on ABC. Among its stars were Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis, making their first appearance together, in a February 1953 episode, "First Born."

"The Jackie Gleason Show," a variety hour, was No. 8. Between 1940 and '49, Gleason appeared in four Broadway shows, the most successful of which was Follow the Girls. In 1959, Gleason returned to Broadway in his last show, Take Me Along, for which he won a Tony.

Supposedly, the day after the opening, Gleason called producer David Merrick and asked how soon he could be replaced. (His eventual replacement was William Bendix, star of "The Life of Riley.") Two of Gleason's competitors for the Tony were fellow cast members Walter Pidgeon and Robert Morse; the others were Andy Griffith (Destry Rides Again) and Anthony Perkins (Greenwillow).

Rated No. 9, "Fireside Theatre" was an anthology series hosted (1953-55) by its frequent star, Gene Raymond (who was succeeded by Jane Wyman). It had started in 1949 with a comedy, "Friend of the Family," co-starring Virginia Gilmore and (husband) Yul Brynner, pre-King and I, and among the revues presented was Leonard Sillman's "New Faces."

Tied as No. 10 were "The Colgate Comedy Hour" and "This Is Your Life." Competition for Ed Sullivan's "Toast of the Town" on CBS, "The Colgate Comedy Hour" featured rotating hosts, including Eddie Cantor, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Donald O'Connor, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, and Jimmy Durante. Occasionally, they would present book musicals, such as (on February 28, 1954) "Anything Goes," starring Ethel Merman, Frank Sinatra, and Bert Lahr.

"This Is Your Life" was created for radio in the late 1940s by host Ralph Edwards. This biographical series, which surprised its subjects, came to TV in 1952 and remained nine seasons. Exceptions to the surprise element included Eddie Cantor, who had a heart condition, and Lillian Roth, who had battled alcoholism. Roth had appeared on Broadway in three shows as a child, and three more as a young adult. Roth returned in I Can Get It for You Wholesale in 1962, and again in 1971's 70, Girls, 70.

One series that season that did not reach the top 10 was "Bonino," which lasted from September to the end of December 1953. It starred Ezio Pinza, the Metropolitan Opera star who became a matinee-idol sensation — and won a Tony — in 1949's South Pacific. MGM tried to make Pinza a movie star in two 1951 releases, "Mr. Imperium," co-starring Lana Turner, and "Strictly Dishonorable," opposite Janet Leigh. However, neither film was a success.

A live sitcom, "Bonino" presented Pinza as a world-famous concert singer whose wife died, leaving him with eight children. In November 1954, Pinza returned to Broadway in his only other musical, Fanny, co-starring (a Tony-winning) Walter Slezak and a pre-"Brady Bunch" Florence Henderson.

That was all a half-century ago, but some of those shows seem superior to today's choices — even with a multitude of channels.

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Last-Minute Gifts: The DVDs, both from Image Entertainment, of "Elaine Stritch: At Liberty" (the best one-person show of the century) and Hugh Jackman (the best Curly I've ever seen) in the 1998 London production of "Oklahoma!"; the books, "Colored Lights" (interviews with Kander and Ebb), as told to Greg Lawrence, "The Girl Who Fell Down" (a biography of Joan McCracken), by Lisa Jo Sagolla, Ted Chapin's "Everything Was Possible: the Birth of the Musical "Follies"; Barbara Cook's new Christmas CD (her first) on DRG, "Count Your Blessings." Best wishes for a happy holiday season to all the column's readers.

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END QUIZ: On December 29, 1975, CBS-TV showed a rejected pilot for a sitcom based on the play, "The Owl and the Pussycat." Co-starring were Buck Henry and which of the following actresses: a) Madeline Kahn; b) Bernadette Peters; c) Tammy Grimes? (Answer: Next column, January 18)

The November 26 question was: Who originated Ben Shenkman's role of Louis Ironson in "Angels in America" on Broadway: a) David Marshall Grant; b) Dan Futterman; c) Joe Mantello? The answer is c). (Mantello was succeeded by Dan Futterman; David Marshall Grant portrayed Joe Pitt.)

Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com and The Sondheim Review. He may be reached at mbuckley6@nyc.rr.com

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