Ralph G. Allen, Theatre Scholar Who Loved Burlesque and Co-Conceived Sugar Babies, Dead at 70

Obituaries   Ralph G. Allen, Theatre Scholar Who Loved Burlesque and Co-Conceived Sugar Babies, Dead at 70
Ralph G. Allen, the theatre professor and historian whose passion for the American burlesque form led to the creation of Broadway's Sugar Babies, died Sept. 9 in Manhattan, The New York Times reported.

Mr. Allen was 70 and recently fought diabetes and heart disease, his wife Harriet Nichols told the Times.

Mr. Allen earned degrees from Amherst College and Yale School of Drama, and was a respected scholar and professor at such schools as University of Tennessee, New York University, UCLA, Queens College and the University of Pittsburgh.

One of the subjects that fascinated him from his boyhood days in Philadelphia was burlesque — the lower-rent, bawdy cousin of vaudeville that boasted comedian emcees, scantily clad girls and popular songs.

Mr. Allen was a retired professor and translated such comic playwrights as Carlo Goldoni and Moliere. He also penned the farce Horse of a Different Color, staged at the Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival. Most tellingly, he lectured at various universities on "The Rhythm, Style and Meaning of Jokes."

With producer Harry Rigby he conceived Sugar Babies in the late 1970s, a time when burlesque (and a perceived audience for it) was thought to be dead. The Times reported that, at a conference, Mr. Allen read pieces of a revue he wrote that borrowed material from long forgotten burlesque routines. Rigby was in the audience. He approached Mr. Allen about the material, and the seeds of the 1979 hit Sugar Babies (billed as a "burlesque musical") were sown. The musical gave Mickey Rooney his Broadway debut, and also starred Ann Miller. With Rigby, Mr. Allen was Tony Award-nominated for Best Book of a Musical, and among its other Tony nominations were Best Musical, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, Best Direction of a Musical and Best Choreography.

Sugar Babies ran 1,208 performances on Broadway and enjoyed a successful tour.

In recent years, Mr. Allen tried to make lighting strike twice as he continued to develop another burlesque musical, Scandals, which played Richmond, VA, in 1999.

Mr. Allen previously characterized his Scandals this way to Playbill On-Line: "It's like the sketches in Sugar Babies, which were based on standard burlesque sketches. It recalls the days when the comic was king, before burlesque strip tease or erotic performances [were] connected with it. It's centered mostly on comedy."

Scandals played a popular run Nov. 17-Dec. 18, 1999 at TheatreVirginia in Richmond. TV star Dick Van Patten headlined the show, which featured new tunes by Mr. Allen, Hal Hackady (Goodtime Charley, Minnie's Boys), Brad Ross (Little By Little), David Campbell and Michael Valenti, Terry Waldo and Peter Howard, along with pop traditional or patriotic numbers such as "Shine On, Harvest Moon," "Anchors Aweigh" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Musical and dance arranger Howard (the Chicago revival) and director choreographer Danny Daniels, a Tony winner for The Tap Dance Kid, were attached to Scandals.

Daniels and Mr. Allen had been working on the Scandals project (at one point tentatively titled The Mother of All Burlesque) since the mid 1990s, although Mr. Allen said he had the notion for a second burlesque show during the seven-year New York and touring life of Sugar Babies. The wealth of material from the era of burlesque could support a second show, he told Playbill On-Line.

"It did occur to me that people liked to be amused in this way," Mr. Allen said in July 2000. "The Scandals material is not from Sugar Babies: I tried to avoid that. It's new-old material — some of it is written from scratch."

He defined "burlesque" as songs and scenes that are linked by the appearance of the same comedians throughout the show, and "vaudeville" as a variety of performers on a bill. Burlesque, he said, is working class theatre — proletariat music hall.

Mr. Allen grew up in Philadelphia and met burlesque comedians such as Billy Hagen, who would play the Trocadero there. "I met a lot of the comedians then," he said. "In my legitimate life, I taught theatre history and ran regional theatres and worked at the Kennedy Center. My main interest was classical drama, but I always loved low comedy."

By the 1940s, burlesque was synonymous with seedy halls, lewd jokes and, eventually, "pornographic" routines, Mr. Allen said.

Sandals, despite the title, had an innocence about it. "The dancing is a little sexier than Sugar Babies, but the sketches are cleaner," Mr. Allen said, adding that some of the classic sketches have been adapted and some required "punching up." Although they are products of their time, they still work brilliantly, he said.

(Mr. Allen pointed to a successful bit in the evening that reveals the roots of the famous "Who's on First" routine: It's called "Who Dyed," from 1890, about man who runs a cleaning and dying shop.)

The Virginia cast of Scandals included Mylinda Hull and Darrin Baker

. At one point, Mr. Allen and Jackie Mason hoped to collaborate on a version of Scandals, but parted ways. Mason showed up on Broadway in 2003-04 in a flop burlesque-style musical called Laughing Room Only.

As a producer, Mr. Allen presented a revival of Ibsen's Ghosts (adapted by Arthur Kopit) at the Kennedy Center and on Broadway (John Neville, Liv Ullman and Kevin Spacey were among its players), and co-wrote book and lyrics for a 1986 Broadway musical called Honky Tonk Nights, a project with his Sugar Babies director and choreographer Ernest O. Flatt.

The show, set between 1912 Hell's Kitchen and 1922 Harlem was subtitled How Billy Sampson and Company Left Hell's Kitchen for the Promised Land and What They Found There. Michael Valenti penned the music.

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