Arthur Bartow, Cornelius Hackl: Betty Grable Tour and Vegas Run
Like most of the people I have interviewed who became part of the Hello, Dolly!family, they simply auditioned. Arthur Bartow is no exception. He auditioned, ended up getting the role of Cornelius Hackl and ended up touring for eight weeks before ending up at The Rivera Hotel. At the Riviera Hotel, they did a grueling one hundred minute version of the show fourteen times a week! Arthur loved being on the road. He loved the show, but after five or six months, you need a day off. They lived in an apartment complex behind the Riveria. He would wake up and stagger out to the pool around ten or eleven AM. It was a very happy time for Arthur. He had a baby that was born shortly after getting Dolly!
Arthur left the show slightly under one week shy of being with the company a full year. When he left the company, he was replaced by Peter Walker, a close friend of Max Showalter. After Vegas, the company was going to go to Chicago for two months and Arthur really didn’t want to go on the road again. Having a wife and a baby, he wanted to get to them. They then asked him if he would shorten his contract so that Peter Walker could go immediately into the show.
He was happy to do that. He was eligible for a week’s vacation after doing the show almost a year. He asked for his two week’s vacation pay. They didn’t want to do it. They got very pissy with him. He speculates that it could have had something to do with him falling asleep in the closet.(See below). Then he suggested, that if they didn’t want to give him his vacation pay, that he would go to Chicago to play a week to play out his contract. He told them that a plane trip for his wife back to New York costs less than a week’s pay or a paid vacation. He told them that he would gladly take that instead. They didn’t want to do that, but they did. It was to their benefit. Peter went on, but Arthur regrets that he never got to see him do it. Peter Walker was a very handsome actor from film.
He had made a western film with Sterling Hayden.In addition to an impressive list of American film, theater, and television credits, Mt. Walker has the distinction of having appeared on the French stage and in films made in France.
Johnny Beecher took over the role of Barnaby Tucker, from Danny Lockin, six months into the Vegas run so that Danny could play Barnaby in the film version. Johnny had previously done the Mary Martin international tour. Arthur said his heart was broken because he loved working with Danny. Johnny was also wonderful. Danny used to call Arthur around three in the morning several sheets to the wind. Arthur asked him what it was like to work with Gene Kelly. Danny said, “He hit me!” Arthur said Danny could be quite difficult and he suspects Danny wasn’t doing what Gene Kelly wanted.
Billie Hayes could steal a scene. Arthur doesn’t feel that she did this out of meanness. When he would say, “Look, I’m dancing”, he would get a big laugh. She, out of her enthusiasm, would clap her once breaking the laugh. He knew that if he went to Billie and asked her to stop it, it would not go over well. One night he said, “Look I’m dancing” and clapped his hand once before she could respond. She understood what he was doing and she never did it again.
Betty Grable was forty nine/fifty at the time of this production and Arthur believes that she was at her most beautiful. She also brought a very special sweetness to the show. Her legs were great and she really didn’t want to emphasize her million dollar legs as she told Lucia.
Arthur doesn’t recall that Jerry ever saw this production. In fact, they only met very briefly many years later. Jerry was close with Max Showalter. Max knew EVERYBODY. He was a man about town.
So with Peter now in the show, Arthur went back to New York. Good thing he left. As sometimes happens with a company that has been together a long time, there was a lot of infighting. June and Billie (Witchipoo!) Hayes, who played Minnie Fay, had to have a partition between the two in their dressing room! It also happened on Broadway with Sondra Lee and Eileen Brennan.
His agent set up the audition. He always thought he was right for the part.
He felt that he had never really been well represented but Martin Gage was his friend and got him the audition. He says they were not very happy with him at first. He was being very stubborn. Jack Schlissel; Company Manager and Arthur were at ends over money. Arthur says he was screwed financially when he was in the national company of Fiorello! He wanted fifty dollars more a week than they were willing to pay him. He wanted and needed the job. His wife was “with child” as they said in those days but he was going to stand his ground. He doesn’t know why he won out. Perhaps Gower wanted him. He feels that he had the qualities needed to make a great Cornelius. He may have even reminded them somewhat of Charles Nelson Reilly. He was tall, had a great singing voice, and was a good actor. Looking back feels that he played it too much as a jerk. He feels that he played it a little too much. He feels that he was a little overboard. The critics didn’t agree with that assessment, he received great reviews. Whatever show he was in, he usually got great reviews for his voice.
He had done high holy days services for some synagogue out in Long Island, came home and fell into bed and the phone rang. It was someone from Merrick’s office, calling to say, “Hi, Arthur! We are offering you…” It was the original offer. Arthur told her to speak with his agent, that he had already requested fifty dollars more. He then asked, “Didn’t you start rehearsals today?” And she told him that they had started without a Cornelius. He knew at that moment that he had it. He told her to call his agent and he went to bed. The next morning, his agent Martin called him at nine am and said, “Get out of bed and get to the theater.” He was exhausted but was off and running. He loved this company.
At the time, Ginger Rogers had just replaced Carol Channing on Broadway. The international company with Mary Martin was splitting up before going to London. The principals went on to London, but because of British Equity rulings, the ensemble came back to the states. That ensemble became the Betty Grable ensemble almost on opening night! They were not too happy. There was a certain feeling among the ensemble that they were slumming after doing Dolly! with Mary Martin. Betty Grable and Maz Showalter (Horace Vandergelder) were the only two “known” people in the company and everyone else was a cast of unknowns. Until they went on and performed, they didn’t loosen up. They were stepping into what was already a tight knit family. June Helmers, Irene Molloy, joined the company two weeks into their run.
The tour opened in Chatanooga, followed by performances in numerous cities including Omaha, Atlanta, and Denver before arriving in Las Vegas. They played six theaters, a week in each, before playing at the Rivera Hotel opening on December 23. With two shows a night, it ran until autumn of 1966, and then it played in Chicago at the Schubert Theatre for two months. Finally the show closed on June 12, 1967. Betty then replaced Martha Raye on Broadway in Hello Dolly and stayed with the cast until November.
Of course, it was a TAB show. A condensed version of Dolly. But still Dolly was on stage all the time, naturally. Now, when Ginger and Dorothy Lamour did it in Vegas, Ginger would do the early show and Dorothy would do the late show. But then Ginger found out that the late show had a bigger audience than the early show and she suggested to Dorothy that she’d do the early show, “and I’ll do the later show”.
Arthur says he was young and strong. Many people broke down vocally. He had a strong voice. From time to time, after doing the show for a while, his mind began to wander. One night, he practically fell asleep in the wardrobe in the hat shop scene when he is hiding from Vandergelder. This actually happened twice. He didn’t sneeze when he was supposed to and Grable was left with egg on her face. It bothers him still today. It WAS a tough schedule. Equity has since changed and actors now get a day off. They certainly needed it. He was so “sick” one night that he couldn’t go on and he called in sick. One night, Betty called in sick so she could go see Frank Sinatra. Lucia Victor and someone from the Merrick office was there and saw her. She thought at the time that it was the last time he would play Vegas.
Once the show was up and running in Vegas, it pretty much froze. June Helmers did take off for one week and an actress from New York was brought in to replace her, so there were pick up rehearsals.
June Helmers, who played Irene Molloy, would go on to Broadway, with Betty. She, unfortunately, died of cancer at a young age. That was her last professional gig before becoming an acting teacher at SUNY Purchase. When she came down with cancer, she did not want anyone to see her. Arthur regrets not seeing her in her final days. She died not long after that. He adored June and says that her life was tragic. He auditioned with her and at first thought, “Oh, just another ingénue. I hate her!” However, he went on to fall in love with her (not romantically). They were in rehearsals in New York for the tour (three weeks). One morning June showed up to announce that her husband had died suddenly in the night. He was playing Ambrose Kemper. They had just married. He had a pain in his gall bladder, went to the hospital, and died. Judy took some time off to deal with this tragedy and did not join the company until they were in Atlanta.
I asked Arthur how his experiences with Dolly compared with other shows throughout his career. His response is a recurring theme. It was a closer knit family. They were together all the time. He had done Ben Franklin in Paris on Broadway with Robert Preston in 1964. On Broadway, after a show, you usually go back to your home or in summer stock, back to your hotel room. On the road, you seem to spend more time with your company. With Fiorello!, they would either travel by bus and truck or fly first class depending upon where they were going to play. With Dolly!, leading to Vegas, they always flew. He still vividly remembers the flight from Denver to Vegas. The company manager waited too late to get them a jet plane. They took a four motored plane which flew lower over the Rockies. They bounced all the way and he could already see the headlines, “Betty Grable killed with unknown cast.”
One of Arthur’s favorite moments in the show was the Dancing number with Betty. He admits that he was not a dancer. He showed me a metronome that Betty gave him as a gift with a plaque attesting to that fact! Cornelius is supposed to be a terrible dancer and Arthur WAS. Betty was always good and wonderful to Arthur.
Another favorite moment was performing It Only Takes A Moment with June Helmers. It’s a beautiful song and combined with Cornelius’ speech was something he looked forward to nightly. When the show got to Vegas, the show was cut to an hour and a half with no intermission. It meant that the company practically never left the stage.
He remembers a party one night at Betty’s house in which Liberace wandered over from next door. Vegas was Betty’s. He loved going out with Betty because when they went out with Betty, they were treated like royalty. They always had the best seats and there was never a bill! She was treated like a STAR. Being in a show like this, you could never see any of the other shows on the strip. Most shows were two a night. Andy Williams was opening at the time at Caesar’s Palace which was huge. He did a third show that all the Vegas companies could attend. There were banquets around the stage. Betty and company got the best seats in the house. He said they tried to invite her out a few times because he knew how they would be treated, but she didn’t fall for it.
Jack Timmers, the stage manager, kept a tight rein on the show. He only recalls Lucia coming out once to see how things were running.
He would have loved to have seen Elaine Stritch’s take on Dolly! He feels she could do anything and would have had a very different take on Dolly.
After the show closed, June married Alex Orafale of the ensemble. They did not have a happy marriage. They divorced and shortly afterward was killed in an automobile accident. There was definitely a dark cloud over her.
Arthur, later on, joined Theater Communications and he was going out to see shows that she was connected with.
Outside of Betty, the only other person that Arthur saw play the role was Ethel Merman. They had worked together in the national tour of Call Me Madam and he wanted to see her play Dolly. Ethel Merman was Ethel Merman. He felt that Merman was funnier. Grable was soft and sweet. He never saw Channing or Bailey do the role. He vaguly thinks he saw Rogers do the role prior to starting rehearsals. He feels that their company was a very first class operation. Lucia was wonderfully faithful to Gower’s intent and did a great job of putting it all together. The company was first rate. Bob Avian was the dance captain. Arthur was happy to see the success Bob achieved with Michael Bennett. Arthur was at the closing night performance of A Chorus Line before it moved to Broadway and he says what a night that was! It was so exciting and packed that extra seats were set up in the aisles. An amazing night.
Betty would go on to do a bus and truck company of Born Yesterday after doing Hello, Dolly! on Broadway from June 12, 1967 – Nov 5, 1967. In 1972 Betty was dignosed with lung cancer. She had been a life-long heavy smoker. As she had no health insurance she had to work to be able to pay the cost of her frequent hospitalization. She had several hospital treatments in St. John’s Hospital in Los Angeles but on July 2, 1973 Betty Grable died. She was 56. After cremation her ashes were interred at Inglewood Memorial Park.
Arthur tells me that although she smoked a lot, they did not see any early signs of cancer during their run of Dolly! He doesn’t think she had any clue.
I asked Arthur what he has carried throughout the rest of his career from Dolly. He says as you get older, you remember all the stupid things you did. He did do a stock production of Dolly! later on with Marilyn Maye and said that it gave him an opportunity to “fix” all that he felt he had done wrong previously. This was at Kansas City Starlight. (Check out my chapter on Marilyn Maye).
The biggest change that Arthur has seen in this business since doing Dolly is that the nature of the shows has changed. This started with Hair. The theater is more youthful with a heavy emphasis on dance. Not being a dancer, Arthur doesn’t feel that he would be hired in today’s market. You have to be a triple threat and proficient in all areas. There used to be a dancing ensemble, a singers ensemble, and the principals. That doesn’t happen today. Also, Dolly was the first show to be totally miked. Anna Maria Alberghetti was the first to be miked in Carnival due to the fact that she is facing upstage in most instances. There is a famous story of her going to the toilet and forgetting to shut her mic. When Merman came into the show and had trouble adjusting to the mics. None of her previous shows had been miked.
Having not really seen other productions other than Merman’s which stands out, Arthur has no gauge other than the experience of their production. He thought Max Showalter was a great Horace. He also did it with Carol Channing. He was a very close friend of Gower’s. He never saw David Burns do the role although he knows all the wicked stories! When he thinks of Gower’s seamless transitions from scene to scene, it’s just brilliance.
Many of the photos in this chapter courtesy Arthur Bartow.