By Robert Viagas
05 Nov 2012
Here is an expanded version of a piece Playbill published on the occasion of Mr. Botto's recent retirement.
If you saw a Broadway show any time during the past 40 years, you've probably heard Louis Botto's distinctive writer's voice piping in your ear.
Botto had been an unparalleled resource for Playbill — a time traveler from Broadway's golden age. Having seen his first Broadway show in 1937, Botto was able to write with the perspective of someone who attended the original productions of Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, West Side Story and just about every other classic you can name. In his 75 years of theatregoing he attended literally thousands of shows. He was on a first-name basis with many of the greatest stars of the period, and was always ready to share a yarn about their hijinks. Here is a sample:
The late Tallulah Bankhead was noted for her stage shenanigans. In the 1920s, when she was the toast of London, she starred as a dancer in a play called Conchita. She made her entrance carrying a small, live monkey and wearing a dark wig over her blonde hair. On opening night, when the monkey spied the audience for the first time, it panicked, pulled off the actress' wig and waved it frantically. She was so amused she started doing cartwheels, further shocking the audience because Miss Bankhead never wore underwear.
Botto was born Feb. 10, 1924, in Union, NJ. His parents ran a candy store there, and were fans of the opera. "In 1937," he recalls, "I saw in the newspaper that there was a big spectacle on Broadway called White Horse Inn, with Kitty Carlisle and William Gaxton. I read that it had real rain on the stage, so I insisted that my parents take me to see it."
They did, and Louis was hooked. He studied writing at Catholic University, where his teachers included playwright Jean Kerr and her husband, critic Walter Kerr. Botto started at Interiors magazine before moving to Look magazine in 1961.
Botto maintained a deluxe side job for many years: hotel spy. Some of the finest hotels in the country would pay him to stay free as a guest and make sure the accommodations were up to snuff and the staff was properly attentive.
Botto also once crossed the footlights to write a sketch titled "A Canful of Trash" for Leonard Stillman's Broadway revue, New Faces of 1956, which also featured work by Neil Simon and Ronny Graham. Among those who appeared in Botto's sketch was Maggie Smith. Of all the glittering bygone traditions of old Broadway, Botto said he most mourned the passing of these great topical revues.
When Look folded in 1971, Botto transferred his typewriter to Playbill. Appropriately enough, his first story was about his already-huge Playbill program collection. "My favorite," he said, "was the Playbill from a 1923 show called Parisian Doll, which starred Anna Held. The program says, 'Due to the length of this play we have eliminated the plot.'" Botto became a popular character in the Playbill offices — often heard belting out a few lines of opera and chuckling to himself as he pounded out his columns on a typewriter. He was the only employee never required to switch to computers or email.
Among Botto's responsibilities was updating the column "At This Theatre," which had appeared in various forms in the Playbill since the 1930s. The column listed the many distinguished (and sometimes infamous) stars and productions that filled the great playhouses of Broadway, offering what Botto called "instant nostalgia" for theatregoers.
On the occasion of Playbill's centennial in 1984, Botto was asked to expand these columns to chapter length and assemble them into a book, also titled "At This Theatre." Updated in 2001 and 2010, "At This Theatre" became one of the best-selling theatre books of its era.
Botto loved to stroll through the old theatres, in later years employing a cane to support him in his appointed rounds of opening nights. He revealed that of all the theatres he wrote about, his favorite had been the opulent Empire Theatre, which once stood at 1430 Broadway (between 40th and 41st Streets) about two blocks from where Playbill offices are today. It was built in 1893 and demolished in the early 1950s to make way for an office tower.
Botto lived until the end of his days in the New Jersey house his parents bought in 1978 atop the Palisades Cliffs with a majestic view of Manhattan's West Side. He never married but had close friends who took care of him and his many cats, who were his children.
A primary source for Botto's columns was his theatergoing diary, in which he listed not only the shows he saw, but whom he saw them with, where he ate, what he thought of the show, and any anecdotes about the show he collected in his conversations with its stars and creators. His diaries are echoed in the format of Playbill's new website, the Playbill Memory Bank (PlaybillMB.com). Botto's exhaustive collection of vintage Playbills was more extensive than the one maintained at Playbill itself, and he generously allowed Playbill to scan the covers of his collection for another of the new websites, the Playbill Vault (PlaybillVault.com), where they can be viewed by a whole new generation of theatre fans--including the Playbill cover from that first show, White Horse Inn, which he carefully preserved for 75 years.
Another reflection from Botto's pen:
The late Van Heflin once told me that when he was starring with the brilliant Ina Claire in S.N. Behrman's memorable 1936 comedy End of Summer, Claire was supposed to cross the stage to turn on a lamp. At one performance, the lamp went on before she got there. She turned to the audience and whispered, "Magic." They loved it.
A wake for Mr. Botto will be held 6 PM-9 PM Nov. 6 at A.K. Macagna Funeral Home, 495 Anderson Ave., Cliffside Park, NJ. The funeral will be held there at 8 AM Nov. 7, followed by a service at Epiphany Church in Cliffside Park at 9 AM that day.