By Robert Viagas
and Louis Botto
10 Oct 1996
The New York Times, where he was a critic from 1966 reported that Broadway theatre marquees would be dimmed at 8 PM Oct. 10 in his memory. One of the them will be on the 48th Street theatre named for him, where Seven Guitars just closed, and where a revival of Present Laughter begins previews Oct. 25.
Kerr won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1978. One of Kerr's greatest gifts was his ability to capture theatrical moments in his descriptive prose.
In describing the villain in a 1974 production of Sherlock Holmes, Kerr wrote, "Countenance drained of blood beneath twin tufts of white hair, he rather resembles an ostrich being born upside down. Or perhaps the Phantom of the Opera with a facelift. I am certain he has no eyelashes, possibly no eyelids. There is a baleful glare at the center of a void, and it is approximately as alarming as a pair of headlights coming directly at you on a one-way street. It is not surprising to see him rising in solemnity on an iron elevator to his heavenly perch on a balcony; once he has finally been handcuffed there is something the martyred saint about him. He has been a spiritual fellow all along, just misguided in his profession."
In a review of the 1974 Gypsy revival, he wrote, "Miss Lansbury is not really to be compared to Miss Merman; there is no way of doing it, Miss Merman is a natural force, like the Colorado River. (I have never seen the Colorado River; I don't feel the need to, having seen Miss Merman.)"
In the same review, he wrote, "The crucial sequence -- the moment when we do understand that Gypsy is capable of unexpected but apparently limitless dramatic expansion -- probably comes in an alleyway, outside a stage door, while Louise sits with desperate eyes fixed on a male dancer. The dancer is in the process of building his own act (Mr. [Jule] Styne has done him a fine variant on that stock period hymn to silk vests and striped ties, ending with the notion that "all I need is a girl.") The girl who would like to be the girl is right there, her taut tomboy's face composed, her neglect entirely without self-pity. As the quite remarkable Zan Charisse plays (and refuses to primp) her, she seems to have had the braces removed from her teeth just yesterday, to be as sexless and as patiently pensive a s Roualt clown. Without the boys noticing, she is at last impulsively on her feet behind him, and joining him exuberantly in a "flash finish"." But, dancing perfectly, she doesn't look like his partner. For one thing, she is still wearing the brown felt trousers assigned to her in Baby June's act: she plays the hind legs of a cow. When we learn, a scene later, that the boy she has matched step for step has promptly run off with Baby June, we realize -- through our quite genuine dismay -- how perfectly we've been set up for the fall. Playwright, composer and librettist have, for us, glued two people together in the number, then ripped them apart."
Kerr was born July 8, 1913 in Evanston, IL, where he began reviewing films at age 13. He attended DePaul University and Northwestern University and later taught at Catholic University. He was a drama critic for Commonweal (1950-52), the New York Herald Tribune (1951-1966) and on the New York Times from 1966 until the early 1990s. He started on the Times as chief critic, covering opening nights for the next day's paper, but found that the deadline gave him inadequate time for the kind of reflective writing that was his specialty. He became the critic for the Sunday Times, writing his impressions of plays that had opened during the previous week, and kept up that regimen -- with one brief return to overnight reviewing -- for most of the next quarter century.
Kerr had extensive experience in the theatre before becoming a drama critic. At Catholic University of America in Washington DC in the 1940s, he taught playwriting, he wrote a directed plays and musicals that he wrote (some with his student Jean, whom he later married).
Some of these productions -- Count Me In, Thank You, Just Looking and Song of Bernadette made it to Broadway. Thank You, Just Looking was renamed Touch and Go on Broadway and was produced by George Abbott.
Jean and Walter Kerr were avid moviegoers. One of the funniest sketches in Touch and Go concerned the making of a jungle movie in which a gorilla in the film thought that the dialogue was so bad, he sat down at a typewriter and wrote new lines.
Another sketch showed how Cinderella would be if directed by Elia Kazan. When the Prince calls on Cinderella, she's in the john. It was the first time on the American stage that flushing was heard.
The Kerrs also wrote a musical -- Goldilocks-- about silent movie making. It was not a success, despite stars Elaine Stritch and Don Ameche, and a lovely score by Leroy Anderson.
Kerr became the drama critic for the Herald-Tribune in a bizarre manner. The Tribune critic (Howard Barnes) showed up for the opening of Billy Budd under the weather. Kerr, who was then the critic for Commonweal, was hastily called in by the Tribune. Barnes had no idea of this. Barnes went ahead and wrote a rave review; Kerr, whose review ran in the Tribune, panned it. (Another classic he disliked as a play.) Barnes was fired; Kerr was hired.
Perhaps because of his academic background, Kerr often seemed to dislike musicals based on literary classics. He was not enthusiastic about West Side Story and called Candide a "disaster."
At opening nights, his wife Jean, would whisper things to him during the performance, causing a furious David Merrick to accuse Jean of influencing her husband's reviews. When Walter wrote of Jay Robinson's hammy acting in Buy Me Blue Ribbons thus: "Mr. Robinson has delusions of adequacy," many were certain that it was one of Jean's acerbic lines. Mrs. Kerr went on to write the megahit Mary, MaryPlease Don't Eat the Daisies.
In his playwriting classes , Kerr stressed one basic rule for successful playwriting: a play should entertain -- not deal with messages.
Broadway's former Ritz Theatre was renamed the Walter Kerr Theatre in 1990.