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 retires in September after having written for Playbill since 1971. At one time he authored three columns simultaneously for the Broadway programs: "Backward Glances," filled with stage legends and vintage glamour; the chatty "Passing Stages"; and his masterwork, "At This Theatre." The latter, which tells the story-packed histories of each Broadway theatre, remains the single most popular regular Playbill feature.
Botto has 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. And he was on a first-name basis with many of the greatest stars of the period, and is 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 flop 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: 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 called "A Canful of Trash" for Leonard Stillman's Broadway revue, New Faces of 1956, which also featured work by Neil Simon and Ronny Graham. Of all the glittering bygone traditions of old Broadway, Botto said he most mourns the passing of the great topical revues.
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When Look folded in 1971, Botto transferred his typewriter to Playbill. Appropriately enough, his first story was about his already-huge Playbill 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 still lives in the New Jersey house his parents bought in 1978. He never married, but has friends who take care of him and his many cats, who are his children.
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.