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Beth Fowler: Irene Molloy in Molly Picon’s Hello, Dolly!, Summers of '71 and '72

Two time Tony Nominee Beth Fowler: Irene Molloy in Molly Picon’s Hello, Dolly!, Summers of '71 and '72

Beth Fowler: Courtesy: Beth Fowler and The Gage Group

Beth Fowler was born in Jersey City, New Jersey. She trained as a vocal teacher and as a music major in a small Catholic college. She really just trained to teach, which she did for eight years before coming into the theater. She got right out of the class and did a little bit of summer stock. She then got her Equity card in one of those theaters where you do eight shows in nine weeks. She decided to audition for Gantry in 1969 starring Robert Shaw and Rita Moreno. That was her very first audition in New York. She auditioned to be in the ensemble and got into the ensemble AND was also asked to understudy Rita Moreno. In previews, she was put on opposite Robert Shaw for two performances with no rehearsal. The nuns taught her well. She never saw Rita do the performance on stage because she was always working on her ensemble work. She found herself in the theater preparing with the stage manager at nine AM the day that she first went on. At Eleven thirty AM, she was rehearsing her regular chorus part. The show, unfortunately, closed on opening night. She had better luck with her next outing, Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. Additional Broadway credits include 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Peter Pan, Baby, Teddy and Alice, the 1989 revival of Sweeney Todd, in which she portrayed Mrs. Lovett, Beauty and the Beast, in which she originated the role of Mrs. Potts, Bells Are Ringing, and The Boy from Oz where she portrayed Peter Allen’s mother Marion. Beth had never seen the original production of Hello, Dolly with Carol Channing when she auditioned to play Mrs. Molloy in a summer stock touring company in the summer of 1971. She did see the 1995 Broadway production later on directed by Lee Roy Reams at the Lunt-Fontaine Theater. All she really knew of Dolly in 1971 was the music of Dolly. Nobody could get away from it! The title song was always on the radio. Beth also saw Carol appearing on numerous TV specials of the day, sometimes performing songs from the show. She also was familiar with her due to Thoroughly Modern Millie. Everybody knew that song. Beth doesn’t have any vivid memories beyond that. Beth ended up in the Molly Picon production the usual way, she auditioned. Her agent at the time got her an audition as Mrs. Molloy. She had only been in the business two years at this point. She auditioned for it and got it. It was first done at North Shore Music Circus in the summer of 1971. They also did it in the summer of ’72. Peter Lombard produced it at North Shore and the following year it was produced by  Art Kassul and David Christmas. Beth’s Minnie Fay was Isabelle Farrell, Vandergelder was Mickey Deems, Wayne Cilento was Cornelius. Rick Atwell was Barnaby. Wayne and Rick were electrifying. Wayne was in his early twenties and was in love. Everyone went to his wedding in ’72. Wayne and Rick were magnetic together on stage. They were fantastic dancers. They glowed on stage and Molly rode on that. She loved them. Beth knew Molly Picon from Come Blow Your Horn and her reputation in New York. Diminutive superstar of Yiddish stage and screen Molly Picon over her course of eighty years as an entertainer had an enormous impact on Jewish culture in Europe and Israel as well as in America. Until she was well into her forties, her typical persona was an adorable but streetwise waif of twelve, often dressed as a boy, capable of executing headstands, somersaults, cartwheels, and flying stunts while singing, dancing, and playing all sorts of musical instruments. Most of Picon’s vehicles were written, produced, and directed by her husband, Jacob Kalich, who sometimes performed as well. Beth thought at first that it was an odd choice. Molly was so little. How was she going to do this? She would get lost in the middle of this production. She was dynamite! She was feisty. She was cute. She was adorable. She was incredibly energetic and she was always a crowd pleaser. The audiences adored her which just pumped the show up so much. Beth hasn’t seen many other actresses play Dolly, but she can’t imagine anyone doing the Ephraim speeches as poignantly and as touchingly as she did. She went right from this dynamic rolling through character getting things done, smacking her hands together and moving on the next task to and then she would give her Ephraim speeches. She would become transformed and speak to him as if he was sitting on a ladder just above her, not in heaven. She would look up and talk to him as if he was right there. The show remained true to the script. Molly had her own moments in the curtain speech. These performances were performed both in the round and proscenium. They did transfer to a proscenium when they were in Kennebunkport and Corning. North Shore and Philadelphia were in the round. There were restaging issues. Molly Picon as a child Beth got to know Molly those two summers. It was the first time since marrying Jacob Kalich “Yonkel”.  Picon had auditioned and was hired by Yonkel and the two married in 1919 when she was twenty-one. Their honeymoon was spent traveling through Eastern Europe collecting scripts of the Yiddish theater. Molly Picon and her sister They came back to the Lower East Side in New York and produced Yiddish theater here and he produced all these shows for her. That’s when she became a star of the Yiddish Theater.

When they were doing Dolly, he was recovering from very serious surgery and couldn’t travel. He still wasn’t able to travel the second summer. He was recuperating at home and she was so homesick. Beth’s apartment was right next to her and she would sit and hear her through the wall and hear her have her morning meeting with Yonkel over the phone.

She spoke to him as if they had just fallen in love and they were going to get married. Beth had her car and often asked Molly if she would like to join her for lunch. She was always happy to get out. She often felt trapped in the hotel. They would go shopping. They would go to lunch. Molly would present Beth with her credit card at the end of lunch. She would tell Beth, “You’ve treated me and traipsed me all around.

Now, I’m treating you. But I have to tell you a little secret. I’ve never signed a credit card receipt in my life. I’m always with Yonkel at my elbow.” She did not know how to take care of herself. All she knew what to do is what she did. He was so attentive to her and took care of her. Those Ephraim speeches were reflective of what was going on in her personal life. She would come to tears when she spoke of Yonkel. She was afraid she was going to lose him. She didn’t know what she was going to do. When she did those Ephraim speeches, you could hear a pin drop in the house. Then she would pick herself up, and GO! Beth’s favorite recollection is standing at the top of the aisle each night at the end of the curtain calls with several cast members at the end of the show while their dressers waited for them. Molly would do the requisite Dolly curtain speech. The second year, they also played Playhouse in the Park in Philadelphia and Corning and Kennebunkport as part of that little tour. She would give a curtain speech. Philadelphia was also a home to her. She was very famous there. Part of the reason for watching this curtain speech is that they were learning how to charm an audience. She had them in the palm of her hand. She nailed it every time with little stories she shared with the audience. She wore these beautiful gowns with huge hats. She had a beautiful figure for a woman of her age, trim and dainty and cute as a button. She carried around this huge purse of satin and beads. She had tremendous physical vitality. She would say to the audience, “I know what you’re all waiting for and you’re all wondering if I can still do it.” She would then take her hat off with great stage aplomb, starting with the removal of her hat pin with great stage business. She would set this on the side. Remember, they were performing the round. She would roll up the sleeves of her gown and she would do a one hand cartwheel holding the train with the other hand!

Beth remembers Molly as vividly as being so dear. She would go out for a beer with the cast after a show. She didn’t want to be alone, she hated that. When she first started doing shows in Yiddish theater and have an opening night, Yonkel would take her home after the party and read aloud to her from The Rise and Fall of Western Civilization to put in context what the evening in the world, that it’s just a little something, that in the scheme of things, it’s not ALL that important. It’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t go well. Beth will never forget that Molly told her this. He was quite a guy. The second summer, these costumes were going to have to be worn by Julie Wilson who was going to take over for the last week of the tour when they were in Corning. Molly had another commitment at the end of that summer.

She was carrying around that Julie Wilson, who was about eight inches taller, would be taking on.

This was not a happy time for Julie. Due to personal issues, Julie was not prepared for this show. Julie Wilson She was in the thick of a very nasty divorce which involved a child custody battle.

Julie was also offered the Australian Company of Dolly prior to Carole Cook taking over several years earlier. Her husband told her she would have no marriage if she went off to do it. It is one of her biggest career regrets. Beth first met Julie in the dressing room in Corning. She was absolutely beside herself emotionally.

She could barely put together a whole sentence, she was so flustered and so nervous and so terrified. She was literally in the thick of a terrible mess at home with lawyers and the like and was constantly on the phone dealing with this at the time and had been in the midst of this for some time. Beth remembers that everyone was working overtime to get Julie through that run. She was being led around. She wasn’t terrible.

Julie Wilson couldn't be terrible but she didn’t know her lines.

She was mortified and was constantly apologizing to everyone. She is very strong physically woman. Beth remembers her grabbing on to her arms. Julie Wilson (today) She was thanking Beth for being there for her. The rest of the cast had been together all summer. Beth is a huge fan of Julie’s and this was heartbreaking to her. That was the most nerve-wracking part of this tour. That was a scary time. It was an emotional time for everyone. They had had such a wonderful time with Molly. It is such a fun show to play. The audience is having so much fun. It is up to the actors to have fun. When you do a show like Dolly, the casting is so much fun. Fun people are required. It was fun to be with on AND off stage. It was summer stock and everyone got attached and playing bridge at night and drinking wine and just having a great time. The Official Website for Julie Wilson citycabaret.com The way the tour ended was not the way everyone wanted the tour to end. Molly wasn’t there and the show was kind of shaky. Actually, the theater in Corning was also kind of yucky. Dorothy Churnik was the producer there. Beth, being absolutely honest with me says she is not “in love” with Hello, Dolly and or Dolly Levi, although she did fall in love with the Dollys.

She pictures Dolly’s success based on someone iconic playing her. She thinks it’s a very difficult role. The audience has to love “Dolly” in order for the show to be a success. You have to KNOW Dolly from her first entrance. She does also love the love story between Cornelius and Irene. It also has to do with that woman of a certain age who realizes that life is passing her by. The man she had is gone and she really hasn’t been looking for anything else. Then this surprise arrives in the form of this young man. It brings out the “ribbons down my back” girl in her. It brings out her youth again. Beth was thirty-one years old when she played Irene the first time and she was single. She could relate to Irene on a certain level. The fun part that first summer was that Beth also had a wonderful Minnie Fay, Isabelle Farrell.

She had played Minnie Fay before on tour in 67 with Channing. She was dynamite. She did national tours of Irma La Deuce and Sweet Charity as well. Beth brought her sense of humor and her voice to Irene Molloy. Audiences loved it when she sang Ribbons Down My Back. It sat beautifully in her voice and it was her moment. Beth loved performing that as well as the hat shop scene. Beth had a background in comedy and that served her well. The following summer, many in the cast had been replaced, and therefore, everything had to be readdressed. Professionally, there was nothing carried forward throughout the rest of her career from this tour. Personally, great friendships were formed. Rudolph was played by Douglas Marland who went on to become Emmy nominated for writing soap operas in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. When Beth married her husband, Jack, Richard Grissom who appeared in both productions was their best man.

Isabelle Farrell and Beth remained friends for years. In fact, they did 42nd Street together years later in Elmsford, New York. Life happens and careers take actors in different directions and they have since lost touch with each other. After Dolly, Beth and Molly continued to stay in touch and correspond with each other for a few years. Beth thinks Broadway is ready for a Dolly revival. She won’t venture a guess as to who might do it. Hello, Dolly has given audiences a sense of community as time has gone on. When you go to see a show that you know has seen virtually by everyone in the English speaking world in one form or another, you feel part of that community. You love that feeling of familiarity and universality in the music and the score. That is what is wonderful about this show. When Beth did Hello, Dolly in ’71 and ’72, she was very new in the business. She had had some experience. She had stood in for a Broadway star in Gantry. She was not treated as “new”, but she still felt like she was the new kid on the block. She was thirty-one years and only had been doing it a few years professionally. She was still learning. She learned from Mickey Deems about timing. She picked up a lot of tricks from him. She watched Molly all the time and learned comedy timing from her, as well, to take your time and listen and use the audience. They are a member of the cast. She used them and they played their part. Beth learned from her as she would years later with Hermione Gingold. They were old pros. Beth did not do it with deliberation. It was an awareness she had. “Don’t forget this, Beth. Pay attention to what she is doing”, she would say to herself. Although she doesn’t know him very well, Beth loves Jerry Herman. The only time she had the privilege of performing for him was when a tribute was done in his honor at Carnegie Hall with the Gay Men’s Chorus. Beth sang If He Walked into My Life.

Jerry was sitting in a box seat house left to stage right. David Krane played a special arrangement that he had written for Beth. Piano was the only accompaniment that she had. She was very nervous. Jerry was sitting on his feet. By the time she got to the second verse, he was sitting with his hands on the edge of the box, by the time she got to the last part; he was virtually hanging over the box. He was crying and that is Beth’s quintessential recollection of Jerry Herman responding to her singing one of his songs. She saw him at the party afterward and he was very gracious. Beth has had and continues to have a rewarding career. When something comes along that gets her juices going, she grabs it. She now says no a lot. This year (2012), has been a busy year for her. At the time of this interview, Beth was very excited about an upcoming production of Flashdance, the musical. She recently did a workshop production which is about to go on tour. Several of the principals from the workshop will be going into the production when it hits Broadway. Everything is crossed that everything is a go in 2013. They did a brilliant workshop at the Baryshnikov Center.  Directed by Nikolai Foster and choreographed by Arlene Phillips, it is going on a six-week tour starting in January 2013. It will then go into rehearsals in August for a Broadway opening. It’s a wonderful part and a reworking of the Flashdance that was done on the West End in London and toured in London. They have totally restructured and reworked it. They were approaching it in a whole new way and Beth was looking forward to that. She also had a recurring role on Orange is the New Black in which she played a nun in jail. Beth is sorry to see Gossip Girl closing because she was called in from time to time to play the mistress of ceremonies at the debutante balls. She had a wonderful time playing opposite Richard Kline for the second time up at Joe Brancato’s Penguin Rep up in Stony Point, New York. They chewed up every stick of wood in that barn! They had entirely too much fun. It was hilarious. Beth feels that she has a responsibility to share with the next generation the theatrical tradition that she came out of. There is not a feeling of tradition for most that are coming up in the business these days. There is a sense of entitlement now. It’s not easy and you don’t just jump in and become a star because that’s the way they’ve seen it done on TV.

Everyone has to pay their dues. Beth had plenty of jobs that were a pain in the butt, but she had a good time. When she got out there on that stage and she was with good people, she was having a good time. She has been in shows that closed opening night. She still gave her heart and soul. June 14, 2010. Tristan Fuge theatermania.com When they closed, it hurt her. It was like a piece of heart was ripped out, but you do it. When the revival of Take Me Along closed, Beth said she was going back to teaching. theatermania.com She just couldn’t do this anymore. A couple of years later, Baby came along. In closing, Beth loved her experience with Dolly. She loved Molly. Everybody did. Molly Picon was so funny and sang really well. She was also a great dancer and really danced those numbers.

It was a special heart-warming time for Beth. She found herself surrounded by wonderful and talented people, all led by Molly. There was a lot of heart in that production. Beth doesn’t know if it was as a result of the casting, but it was just a happy, warm experience that she wishes she had also experienced with a lot of other shows that she did. It truly was a happy time.

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