THE BOOK SHELF: Dick Van Dyke's "My Lucky Life," a Biography of Horton Foote and the New "Theatre World"

Special Features   THE BOOK SHELF: Dick Van Dyke's "My Lucky Life," a Biography of Horton Foote and the New "Theatre World"
 
We page through Dick Van Dyke's autobiography, "My Lucky Life in and Out of Show Business"; "Horton Foote: America's Storyteller" by Wilborn Hampton; and the new 66th edition of "Theatre World."

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There is a tendency to expect a performer — especially a living legend whose persona is tied to an era — to talk, think and act like the iconic character he or she played. Even though the picture we carry of said icon might have been painted some 50 years ago. It was a character, after all; the actor in question was playing a role, written and directed by others. How can anyone possibly expect the character — comedy writer Rob Petrie, say, of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" — to be more or less a twin of actor Dick Van Dyke?

"My Lucky Life in and Out of Show Business" by Dick Van Dyke [Crown Archetype] disproves this thesis, and how. Van Dyke — who seems to have written this book by himself, without a ghost-writer — sounds, and seems to think, precisely like we would imagine Rob Petrie at 85. Sure, the role was modeled after Van Dyke; while Carl Reiner originally wrote the part for himself and appeared in the pilot, he reconfigured things after seeing Van Dyke in the original Broadway production of Bye Bye Birdie and casting him. As the first season progressed, Reiner took note of the exceptional players he had selected — Mary Tyler Moore, Rose Marie, Morey Amsterdam, and other smaller-but-invaluable fry — and developed the characters to suit the personalities. Which is one of the reasons "The Dick Van Dyke Show" remains as good as it was, all five seasons and 158 episodes worth.

It's a long road he traveled, starting in 1925 in smalltown Danville, IL. Where his classmates included Donald O'Connor and Bobby Short, and his best friend's younger cousin — who always wanted to tag along — turned out to be Gene Hackman. Van Dyke started with small touring acts and radio, first hitting it big (to his own surprise) singing and dancing on Broadway, with Birdie.

He won a Tony, but nobody told him. He had already left the show for Hollywood, to film the first episodes of his sitcom. Birdie castmate Charles Nelson Reilly accepted the award and had such a good time with his acceptance speech that he neglected to call Van Dyke. Back then, the Tonys were only telecast locally; Hollywood was a world away. Several days later, Van Dyke's housekeeper — sweeping the porch — found a congratulatory telegram stuffed under the welcome mat.

Dick Van Dyke and Birdie co-star Chita Rivera
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Van Dyke, as portrayed on the pages of "My Lucky Life," is just what you'd expect if you could sit down for a chat in the Petrie living room (only don't trip over that ottoman). What makes the book so readable, and so enjoyable, is the level of honesty. Van Dyke describes his career with a hint of surprise; a small town radio announcer, he seems to have aimlessly drifted from one opportunity to the next. He never quite realizes that these opportunities presented themselves not as a matter of luck. Van Dyke showed up in the right place at the right time, yeah, but it was his unique combination of talent, charm and integrity that attracted the opportunities and caused the various auditioners to snap him up — to Van Dyke's, and their, benefit.

That honesty extends to his failures. Not that he had many failures; but the actor goes through just about every job he ever had, and he is the first to point out things that he feels didn't work. Van Dyke naturally spends a good deal of time on Birdie, "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "Mary Poppins." These chapters are as interesting and enjoyable as you might expect. But there are other Van Dyke projects that I — as a casual observer, all these years — never quite warmed to. Starting with "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," the 1968 Ian Fleming-based movie musical that was intended to surpass or at least equal "Poppins." And here is Van Dyke explaining that the film, and the performance, don't work for him. (Over almost 300 pages, Van Dyke doesn't seem to have a bad word to say about anyone except "Chitty" producer Cubby Broccoli.)

While I never cared to analyze "Chitty," he puts his finger on precisely what bothers me about it. Van Dyke does so again and again, as he goes through his various features and TV series; he even gives an apt description of his less-than-compelling Harold Hill in the 1980 revival of The Music Man. He was likable but wrong in the role; how refreshing to have the actor himself tell you that.

Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins.

The failures come offstage as well as on. If you want to consider them failures; over 85 years, everyone is bound to have a setback or two. Van Dyke is more than candid, openly discussing the breakup of his marriage and his struggles with alcoholism; but he doesn't rail, and he doesn't bluster, and he doesn't preach. He just owns up to it all, offering truth and guidance. Such as when he notes the stunned response he got in 1972 when he — Rob Petrie, after all — showed up at a Phoenix hospital and had himself placed in the psych ward with "other alcoholics and drug addicts."

All told, Van Dyke tells a wonderful story about himself and his times. And — in an often surprisingly relevant manner — our times. We've always liked the performer — it's hard not to like Dick Van Dyke — but this book will make you admire him. "My Lucky Life" leaves you wanting to sit down over a coffee table to just chat with the man. But watch out for that ottoman; and make sure he doesn't trip over it either.

"Horton Foote - America's Storyteller"

Books come in and I thumb through 'em, determining which to review. All too often, I magically open directly to something that reads wrong. That was the case with "Horton Foote: America's Storyteller" by Wilborn Hampton [Applause]; for instance, a reference to "the Broadway producer Alfred de Largo Allegre." Nowadays, when shows regularly have 30 or 40 names over the title, just about anyone can describe themselves as a Broadway producer. But back in 1944, there were infinitely more Broadway productions but not quite so many producers. So when I read about a '40s producer named Alfred de Largo Allegre, I thought — who? I gotta look this guy up.

Now, this Alfred de Largo Allegre had nothing to do with the life and career of Horton Foote; he was just a passing mention. But where on earth did the author come up with Alfred de Largo Allegre? I would have to guess that he means Alfred de Liagre, Jr., producer of dozens of shows including the 1943 hit The Voice of the Turtle (at the time en route to the No. 4 slot on Broadway's longest-running play list) and the 1978 hit Deathtrap (which eventually surpassed "Turtle" and is the present No. 4). It's hard to accept "Alfred de Largo Allegre" as a typo for "Alfred de Liagre," or the result of some deranged wordcheck; nor could Hampton have confused Alfred with some other Mr. Largo Allegre. Some errors sit slyly indecipherable on the manuscript page, avoiding detection no matter how many times you reread the thing. (This I know all too well!) But you'd think that anyone proofing the manuscript with a knowledge of Broadway history circa 1940-70 — be it the author or an editor — would pretty quickly think: Hmmm. "Alfred de Largo Allegre" doesn't look right.

This has little to do with the overall worth of "Horton Foote: America's Storyteller," mind you. But it points to the fact that Hampton — a former foreign correspondent who moved over to the culture desk at the New York Times, for which he frequently reviewed Off- Broadway plays — writes about Foote as a theatrical outsider. De Largo Allegre was the second such problem I came across, actually; the first came in the form of a rejection letter Foote received from a Theatre Guild play reader named Molly Thatcher in 1945. Thatcher went so far as to write Foote a personal letter in which she "lectured him on what was missing in his play and . . . advised him to work harder at writing plays 'that will attract, will give pleasure, or a belly laugh.'"

Gerald McRaney and Penny Fuller in Dividing the Estate
photo by Joan Marcus

Whether this criticism was apt or not is at this point unknown (although Foote saw fit to keep the letter); the play in question, Marcus Strachen, has long disappeared. What Hampton doesn't tell us, however, is major; this Molly Thatcher was well known in the theatre as a perceptive dramaturg and writer. In fact, she was actively involved with the original productions of plays by Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and William Inge. What's more, she was later one of the founding members of the Playwrights Group of the Actors Studio.

At the time of the rejection letter, Thatcher's husband had directed four important plays in quick succession, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Skin of Our Teeth; he would go on to such items as the Pulitzer-winning A Streetcar Named Desire and the Pulitzer-winning Death of a Salesman. And it was no secret that he — yes, Elia Kazan — worked in frequent consultation with his wife Molly. (When they were married in 1932, Kazan was an actor playing small roles; Thatcher chose to continue to work under her maiden name.) Mr. Hampton has industriously rescued this rejection letter, and seen fit to quote from it: "the play was too grim, too cold, too gray, and lacked attractiveness of whatever kind." Wouldn't this opinion of Foote's early work be more interesting, and more relevant, if Hampton indicated that this rejection was not just from some low-level script reader that nobody ever heard of again? Little things like this don't matter, much; they do, though, make you wonder what else the author might be missing. At any rate, Hampton does give a good picture of Foote and his times and his struggles. Despite his several successes — most notably the screenplays for "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Tender Mercies" — Foote seems to have mostly struggled. Of his more than 50 plays, only six reached Broadway; these averaged runs of a mere six weeks each. (The Young Man from Atlanta, his Pulitzer winner, led the pack with 84 performances in 1997, followed by 50 for the 2008 Dividing the Estate. This compares to 1,557 for Alfred de Largo Allegre's Voice of the Turtle.) Foote's one musical, Gone With the Wind (based on you-know-what), played the West End but closed during its pre-Broadway tryout.

Yes, there was a lot of quality work in this career; those of us who were enthralled by The Orphans' Home Cycle at the Signature Theatre in 2010 can attest to that. But while Foote led a long life and received a measure of acclaim in his final years — he died in 2009, at the age of 92 — he never enjoyed the artistic or financial success of Williams, Miller, Hellman, or Inge, or for that matter Maxwell Anderson, Robert Anderson or William Gibson. Foote's career was filled with years of struggling to earn a living, as Hampton's book makes clear.

"Horton Foote: America's Storyteller" — which was first published in 2009, before the New York production of "Orphans' Home Cycle" — has now been released in paperback. Mr. Hampton's book has obvious attributes, and certainly enlightens us about this most industrious writer. But one can only wonder what the researcher missed. And it would be infinitely more readable with a list of Foote's plays, hopefully noting when they were written — and when and where (and if) they were produced.

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Readers who haven't kept up with the "Theatre World" series might well have a surprise in store. "Theatre World Volume 66: 2009-2010" by Ben Hodges and Scott Denny [Applause] has arrived. This annual, which started back in 1944-45 — with Laurette Taylor, of The Glass Menagerie, on the cover — has always been of great value to those of us interested in the Broadway theatre. Other books provide credits and cast lists, sure; and you can nowadays get much of that information over the Internet (although the Internet sites don't necessarily have their information correct).

What has always made "Theatre World" stand out, though, is the photos. Daniel Blum, who started the series, was canny enough to enlist the participation of the theatrical press agents and photographers; while "Theatre World" is not in any way an "official" record book, it might as well be. (Let us hear an appreciative hand for the photographers, who continue to generously and gladly contribute their work — for which they elsewhere earn hundreds of dollars per use per photo.) The result is that "Theatre World" doesn't just tell us about the shows — cast, credits, and dates — but gives us a visual taste of what the show looked like.

"Theatre World" went through a rough stretch in the 1990s, for a variety of reasons, but always managed to hang on and keep publishing. John Willis — who assisted Blum from the beginning, and took over following Blum's death in 1965 — died last June after a long illness. Ben Hodges, who became co-editor in 2001 and now runs the operation, has of late been enhancing and expanding the book.

New design elements, instituted over the last couple of volumes, have revitalized the format. "Theatre World" is now, to begin with, significantly longer; what used to be 300-400 pages is up to 600 in the 2009-2010 edition. This means more shows; while "Theatre World" has always boasted complete Broadway and Off-Broadway coverage, regional theatres and Off-Off-Broadway has often been spotty. (This had to do, to some extent, with the amount of energy expended on canvassing farflung productions for information.) Each section in the new edition is preceded by a comprehensive overview from an outside contributor; the Broadway roundup comes from Adam Feldman of Time Out New York.

The awards section has been expanded, running 50 pages; and Hodges also gives us a listing of shows that ran 500 or more performances, with Broadway and Off-Broadway in separate sections. (Instead of a boring columnar list, this is set in an invitingly designed manner and punctuated with photos.) The book finishes, as always, with a section of obituaries; these are carefully written and considerably more extensive than in older editions.

As always, the book is overrun with photographs — 600, they say in the press release, although Hodges estimates that they wound up with more than 900. These include 42 color shots, highlighting the Broadway season. (In the "One Photo's Worth 1,000 Words" department, consider the vibrant photo of Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne of Red on page 20.) What's more, this 2009-2010 "Theatre World" hit the streets prior to the 2010-11 Tony Awards cutoff, which is to say that we got last season's "Theatre World" prior to the end of this season. Which in this day and age is impressive.

Daniel Blum had a good idea, back in 1944, and somehow managed to get it off the ground. Sixty-six volumes later, "Theatre World" continues to be an invaluable annual record of the professional theatre.

(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's On the Record and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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