Anita Gillette Remembers Broadway With Stories From Gypsy, Carnival, and The Gay Life

Seth Rudetsky   Anita Gillette Remembers Broadway With Stories From Gypsy, Carnival, and The Gay Life
 
This week, Seth chats about the '60s with Karen Morrow, Penny Fuller, and more.
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Anita Gillette Joseph Marzullo/WENN

I’m on my balcony at the lovely Anchor Inn in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where I can see the signature Pilgrim Monument (Provincetown is where they landed before Plymouth Rock FYI). I’m winding down with my Provincetown concerts but still have Beth Leavel coming up on Labor Day weekend and then Krysta Rodriguez September 24. On September 12, I’m going to do a preview performance of the show I’ll be running this fall called Seth’s Broadway Breakdown. It’s a celebration of Broadway coming back filled with my deconstructions. More details later, but for tickets get thee to Asylum NYC. If you have never seen one of my deconstructions, here’s a little Dear Evan Hansen

On Stars in the House we have a fun week coming up with a reunion of Dogfight (with Lindsay Mendez, Derek Klena and Nick Blaemire) September 1 (featuring a matching donation to the Actors Fund from Julia Rhodes) and then a reunion of Jennas to coincide with the opening of Waitress. That will feature Shoshana Bean, Nicolette Robinson, Betsy Wolfe, and Jessie Mueller, who originated the role. You can watch it on our YouTube or at StarsintheHouse.com.

(l.-r.) James Wesley, Seth Rudetsky, Karen Morrow and Paul Castree
(l.-r.) James Wesley, Seth Rudetsky, Karen Morrow and Paul Castree Photo by Mark Sendroff

Speaking of SITH, we celebrated 1960’s Broadway with some of the women who were starring in shows back then. We spoke to the incredible Karen Morrow who was fantastic in a string of shows that didn’t run like The Grass Harp and I Had a Ball. She felt her teeth weren’t great in the early ‘60s. When she’d do TV shows, she’d keep her smile contained. Then she paid to get her teeth redone and began smiling with both rows of teeth. Check out this photo from a past Chatterbox. She is proud of what she paid for.

If you’ve never seen her stellar performance in I Had A Ball, please watch this. Her voice has such incredible power. It’s amazing that she gives a stage performance that has to fill a theatre with not only her voice but her physiciality, yet it works amazing in closeups as well. This number will make you filled with joy. P.S. she’s still annoyed that she didn’t get to fully take in her applause at the end because Buddy Hackett came out in the middle of it. #Upstage

She always excelled at comedy (she was in the 1970’s sitcom Tabitha, a sequel to Bewitched) and I found this crazy number she did back in the ‘60s with the craziest ending. She had no memory of it. It’s basically a comment on how wide you have to open your mouth to get a big sound (pre-body mics). So surreal and hilarious.

Also on the show was Anita Gillette. Yes, she’s known for tons of amazing TV game shows and films like Moonstruck, but she began on Broadway. Her first Broadway show, you ask? How about Gypsy…with Ethel Merman! She played one of the Hollywood Blondes (and understudied Dainty June) whose first entrance is in Act 2. And that’s how she got her signature hair color. The other ladies decided she should dye her hair, so during Act 1 when they had nothing to do, they dyed it. She arrived that night at the theatre as a brunette and left as redhead. When she got the job, she didn’t know she was pregnant. When the powers-that-be found out, they were going to fire her. Instead, her job was saved by the star. Ethel told them “So what, she can’t do the cartwheel anymore. She can do the splits instead. Let her keep the job!” and she stayed in the show.

Her next big gig was understudying Anna Maria Alberghetti in Carnival. A few weeks into rehearsal, Gower Champion, the director called her over. This was their “conversation” which was had as he was directing Kaye Ballard. “Hi, Anita. Wait a second, Kaye! You enter from stage left. Anyway, Anita, we don’t think you look Italian enough for the part you understudy so- Kaye! Cross the entire stage! Anyway, Anita, we’re going to fire y- Kaye! All the way across–we’re going to fire you. Thanks, Anita.” Yes, she was fired, but she was asked to stay in the show until they found a replacement for her. She was, of course, devastated, and wanted to quit right away. Her husband (at the time) told her that the business was often going to be difficult and she was either going to be able to take it or she should leave altogether. So, she decided to stay in the show. Well, they didn’t want to pay for an audition pianist, so they auditioned her replacements during her understudy rehearsal. Yes, she was in the theatre every week watching other women try out for her role.

Barbara Cook in <i>The Gay LIfe</i>
Barbara Cook in The Gay LIfe Friedman-Abeles

Finally, before they found anybody, she got another job. A featured role in The Gay Life understudying Barbara Cook. She gave notice and right after, Anna Maria got sick. During Anita’s final weekend in the show, she went on and nailed it. Suddenly, they wanted her to stay. Well, she already agreed to the next show and had told Carnival she was leaving. Thus followed a series of late-night phone calls from notoriously boundary-less bully David Merrick. She told us that he would call at 2 AM demanding that she tell Kermit Bloomgarten (the producer of The Gay Life) that she was staying with Carnival.

Anita told me Merrick told her that if she didn’t come back to his show he would kidnap her baby. She didn’t believe him and took the other job. Well, later on, Anna Maria had to miss two weeks of the show and they asked Anita to come back and take over the role. Her agent negotiated her name above the title and David Merrick arranged for a photographer to come and take pictures of her on a ladder next to the new Marquee that stated “Anita Gillette in Carnival.” Well, her agent wasn’t specific enough. Yes, she got her name above the title, but two weeks later Merrick sent her a bill from a New Jersey sign company for $200. That’s right, she had to pay for the new marquee. You can read all about his chicanery in the book The Abominable Showman. It’s fascinating—and very reminiscent of a certain ex-government office holder. Merrick would have people do jobs for him, and then, when it came time to pay, he would not pay them anything. Eventually, they would sue him for the money they were owed. Because he was rich and loved lawsuits, he would hold out until they settled…usually for half of what he promised to pay them. Back to Anita, here she is back in the ’60s on the Bell Telephone Hour.

Lee Roy Reams, Lauren Bacall and Penny Fuller in <i>Applause</i>
Lee Roy Reams, Lauren Bacall and Penny Fuller in Applause Friedman-Abeles

And finally, we had the lovely Penny Fuller. I asked about Applause (the musical version of All About Eve) and she told me she auditioned for the role of Eve Harrington but didn’t get it. Then, while she was in Los Angeles doing a TV pilot, she got a call telling her that the show was doing its out-of-town tryout and they wanted her to replace the woman they cast. She flew to Baltimore, watched the show and realized that they had cast the role too young... the actress didn’t seem like a believable threat to Margo Channing (played by Lauren Bacall). Penny spent a few days rehearsing and was on that weekend. The show wound up being a huge hit. So much so, that when Bette Davis (the film’s Margo Channing) wanted to see it, she couldn’t get a seat. Penny remembers doing the show and hearing a weird jingle-jangle sound offstage. It was so odd. After her scene she found out why: Bette couldn’t get a seat in the house, so she was watching the show from the wings—and the jingle-jangle was her bracelets. Here’s Penny doing the 11 o’clock number where Eve shows her true colors.

Peace out and Happy Labor Day weekend!

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