Before signing to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Carpenter was a magician and an actor on Broadway, beginning with David Merrick’s first production Bright Boy in 1944, followed by co-starring appearances in Three to Make Ready with Ray Bolger, John Murray Anderson’s Almanac and Hotel Paradiso with Bert Lahr and Angela Lansbury. He was featured in the racial film Lost Boundaries and then signed with MGM, where he had roles in Summer Stock with Judy Garland, Father of the Bride with Spencer Tracy, Vengeance Valley with Burt Lancaster, The Whistle at Eaton Falls with Lloyd Bridges, and the war dramas Take The High Ground and Up Periscope.
He was teamed with Debbie Reynolds in the musicals Three Little Words and Two Weeks With Love, which featured their million-selling recordings of “Aba Daba Honeymoon” and “Row, Row, Row.” His starring roles included Fearless Fagan with Janet Leigh and Sky Full of Moon with Jan Sterling. (Source: Wikipedia)
He has had a various theatrical and film career. For the purposes of this book, I am focusing on his involvement with the international Mary Martin company of Hello, Dolly!
THE DAY! Either December 27, 1943 or January 3, 1944.
Bus from Bennington, Vermont to Albany, NY, train to NYC, arrived at 1 PM. Checked bag at Grand Central Station. Walked over to St. James Hotel on 45th Street. Bought ‘Actor’s Cue’ (5 cents) and went to lunch at Child’s (Mac and cheese).
Read A. C and saw they were looking for 16 – 17 year old boys for a play called “Bright Boy”. Carleton thought he’d go over to the Mansfield Hotel, 44th Street, top floor, and get a part. It was really cold and Carleton was wearing his new, heavy overcoat.
Took elevator up to top floor. Carleton could hear a group talking. He opened the door and saw the room was jammed with guys.
A man with a clipboard came over to Carleton and said, “You’re too old”. Carleton started out the door and a guy grabbed his coat tail and said “He told me that six months ago and I’m still reading for a part”. Off came the coat. Carleton scrunched down beside him, lit a cigarette and waited. The guy’s name was David Graham. Years later, in California, Carleton ran into him somewhere and he said he’d been responsible for Carleton’s career. Carleton agreed.
After maybe thirty five minutes the same guy with the clipboard came over to Carleton and said, “Okay, You’re next”.
Carleton went into another room. There was a long desk with three people behind it. Arthur Beckhard, Helen Shields (her husband was the author but was then in the Navy), and David Merrick, a young lawyer from St. Louis. They asked Carleton about his experience and he told them all the plays he’d done in High School. “Big Hearted Herbert”, “Iolanthe”, et al.
Big question: how old was Carleton? “Seventeen”, he said. “When will you be eighteen?”. “July 10th,” he said.
He read five different roles.
Mr. B handed Carleton a script and said, “Go in there and read the play”. He did. It took about one and a half hours to read. Carleton thought it was terrific.
Mr. Beckhard opened the bedroom for where he was reading and said to come out.
He asked what he thought of the play.
Carleton told him it was the best thing he’d ever read. All three of them smiled.
Then he said, “We’ve decided that we want you for the show, but don’t know for which part yet, and would I come back next A.M. at ten”? Carleton said he would.
Carleton picked up his suitcase at Grand Central and took the D Train out to Brooklyn to his Mother’s second cousin’s who was just headed for his front steps when Carleton arrived.
He said, “you back again?”.
Carleton said “yup, and I think I’ve got a show”. He said, “that’s nice”.
Next day, Carleton arrived at the Mansfield a bit early.
First thing Mr. B said, “What part did you see yourself in”? “Shake” I said. ( was his name, Shake was his nickname ).
“So do we” they all said. The part was described as a tall, lanky blond boy who wants to be an actor.
They shook hands and Carleton signed a contract for $57.50 a week.
The World Is Full of Wonderful Things!
Move ahead to 1965.
Carleton is doing “Your Own Thing” in Boston.
Helen Nickerson, Merrick’s secretary, called and told Carleton he had the part of Cornelius (and to) get back to NYC! He got back! And he got a box around his name in Hello, Dolly! as all the Cornelius’ did.
Carol Channing was leading the Broadway company at the time but Mary Martin would be taking it around the world.
Mary Martin performed in the International company:
Before the international tour, the show would travel the United States.
The DALLAS [Texas] MORNING NEWS of May 31, 1965 chronicled the tour which had begun in Minneapolis, Minnesota in April 1965 and continued to Kansas City, Missouri, and New Orleans, Louisiana. For its first week in Dallas, Texas, the show set a box office record and that milestone was broken in the final week.
The next stop would be Memphis, Tennessee, where the run was already sold out.
Here is the Variety Review from Minneapolis dated April 21st, 1965
Minneapolis, April 20.
David Merrick presentation of a new musical
comedy in two acts (16 numbers), by Michael Stewart, based on original play by Thornton Wilder.
Staged by Gower Champion.
Scenery, Oliver Smith; costumes, Freddy Wittop; lighting, Jean Rosenthal; dance and incidental music arrangements, Peter Howard; musical director, Jay Blacktoni orchestrations, Philip J.Lang; vocal
arrangements, Shepard Coleman; assistant to the director, Lucia Victor; dance assistant, Lowell Purvis.
Stars Mary Martin; features Loring Smith, Johnny Beecher, Coco Ramirez, Beverlee Wei, Mark Alden,
Robert Hocknell, Carleton Carpenter. Opened April 19, ’65, at the Orpheum Theatre, Minneapolis; $7.50 top.
Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi…Mary Martin
Ernestina… Judith Drake
Ambrose Kemper… Mark Alden
Horse… Eileen Barbaris and Debra Lyman
Horace Vandergelder Loring Smith
Ermengarde… Beverlea Weir
Cornelius Hackl Carleton Carpenter
Barnaby Tucker Johnny Beecher
Irene Molloy… Marilyn Lovell
Minnie Fay Coco Ramirez
Mrs. Rose… Charlise Mallory
Rudolph Robert Rocknell
Judge… Skedge Miller
Others: Eileen Barbaris, Alberta Barry,
Eileen Casey, Polly Dawson, Elisa De Marko, Susan Freeman, Barbara Gregory, Caryl Hinchee, Kathryn Humphreys,
Debra Lyman, Charlise Mallory,
Ellen Mitchell, Susan Mora, Diane Nela,
Jane Quinn, Julie Sargent, Robert Avian, Alvin Beam, Wayne Boyd,
Gene Cooper, Byron Craig, Norman Fredericks. Ed Goldsmid, Mickey Hinton, Jim
Hovis, Robert L. Hultman, Robert Lenn,
Alexander Orfaly, Rudy Rajkovich, Bob
Remick, Ross-Miles, Rec Russel, Kirby Smith, Charles Vick, Lou Zeldis.
National and International company’s version of “Hello, Dolly!”
should – prove that “Dolly” Isn’t
Carol Channing’s exclusive property or Louis Armstrong’s either
Mary Martin gives title role her own interpretation and Miss Martin has never been known to take a backseat to anybody. As Mrs. Dolly Levi, Mary Martin is a knockout. Her “Dolly” is perhaps more whimsical, less boisterous than Carol Channing’s but it’s a rousing delineation of the role.Another apparent difference is that Miss Martin doesn’t completely dominate show. Except for her gaudy strutting of the second act’s title number, she seldom overshadows rest of the company.
She isn’t the whole show by any means. Supporting parts have been adroitlycast. From top to bottom, company is loaded with class. Loring Smith is standout as the tightfisted Horace Vandergilder.
Carleton Carpenter is bright, light and likeable as the downtrodden, still aspiring Cornelius Hackl. Marllynn Lovell’s good looks and nifty warbling make her a winner in the role of Irene Molloy. Coco Ramirez, Johnny Beecher and Judith Drake also turn in fine performances. Direction and choreography bear same Gower Champion stamp of excellence as did his previous touring version of “Bye Bye Birdie”. Oliver Smith’s settings are far more intricate and imaginative than those seen in most road shows.
Freddy Wittop’s colorful costumes are top drawer too.
Show rates as a smash road hit.
“Hello Dolly’s” advance sale in Minneapolis was nearly $250,000, believed to be a record for a fortnight engagement of any Broadway attraction.
“Dolly’s” $7.50 top is highest ever in Minneapolis. After closing here, “Dolly” will play 11 other cities before going overseas for
State Dept. engagements in Moscow, Tokyo and Hong Kong.
The United States tour would end in Portland, Oregon, as detailed by the OREGON JOURNAL: “Portland is the last stop the show will make before… Tokyo.”
At the September 9, 1965 closing curtain in Tokyo, Martin reprised the title song in Japanese and ended with “Louie, would you please tell these dear people how welcome they have made us feel in Tokyo.”
The show would not go to Moscow. The Russian government was not happy about the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam war. Merrick retaliated by sending the show to Vietnam.
The guys were very disappointed that the show would not be going to Russia.
They had gotten their shots.
Gower and Mister Merrick joined the company and they took a vote. If ONE person in the company objected to going to Vietnam, they would not go.
When they were in Vietnam, they stayed about a block and a half from the state department.
The Associated Press confirmed the Opening day in Vietnam as October 9, 1965. Merrick detailed the preparations on October 20 in the HERALD TRIBUNE: “The trouble always started at dusk.
They wanted us off the roads then. We would line up six Army convoy trucks, which are absolutely flat, to form the stage and then we would build our ramp around them and use a kind of framework overhead for a proscenium.” The tour played Vietnam for eleven shows. Okinawa and Korea followed. The UNITED STATES FORCES/ KOREA news release details the tour under the headline: “Curtain Rings Down on Hello, Dolly!”
After the fifth performance Miss Martin offered: “We, the cast of DOLLY!, are not only saying goodbye to Korea tonight, but goodbye to each other as well. After more than 22 weeks on the road, most of the cast is returning to the U.S. while the principals will open DOLLY! in London. We have shared many ups and downs in the air and on stage.
But most important we have shared the wonderful experience of being able to entertain. And no one deserves to be entertained more than our troops overseas. We are so proud of you all.”
When they were in Korea, they froze all the time because they didn’t bring the proper clothing.
I asked Carleton what the toughest part of this tour was and he said when British Equity would not allow a lot of the dancers who had been with this tour all along to continue on to London. Before going to London, the last two performances were in Okinawa and the entire company was bawling. They were a family and very close.
They were in Japan for six weeks.
Carleton had befriended a guy in Japan who invited him to his home. This was the first time an American had ever been in their home. They had lost family members during the war.
Of course, Carleton was a major part of all of these performances until they got to the Drury Lane in London, which became the Dreary Lane. According to John Anthony Gilvey in Before The Parade Passes By: Gower Champion and the Glorious American musical, ” Depite Gower’s instructions to the contrary, it was incorrectly constructed and its surface was waxed.” At the first rehearsal in the theater, Carleton and Johnny Beecher (Barnaby Tucker) were on stage when Carleton lost his footing and fell off the ramp into the orchestra pit. The netting had not yet been put up and Carleton’s fall resulted in a broken pelvis. He would spend the next ten days in the hospital. He endured the pain and refused treatment of any kind in fear of it impairing his opening night. He was bound and determined to return to the company. He worked with a nurse who helped him maneuver himself.
After ten days, he returned to the theater to show Gower and Mister Merrick how he could work around this. For example, in the “It Takes A Woman” number, if there was a stationary broom in the Hay and Feed Store, he could jump up, grab it, and swing around it. Gower and Mister Merrick were ecstatic. However, the owner of the theater did not share their enthusiasm. He was afraid of further injury to Carleton and refused to give the go ahead for him to continue with the show. Carleton, Gower, and Mr. Merrick sat on the steps of the theatre and had a good cry. Enter Garrett Lewis to replace Carleton AND record the London cast recording.
Opening night, Marge and Gower and Carleton sat in a box seat and watched what was for all of them, a bittersweet performance. The show was never as good as it would have been with Carleton. I have heard this from various cast members. Gower said that out of all the Cornelius’ that he had seen that Carleton was the ONLY one who ever got a consistent laugh on “Neapolitan ice cream”. It really isn’t a laugh line but Carleton got it. It truly was bittersweet. When Gower signed his contract in London, his contract was actually longer than Mary Martin’s. Dora Bryan eventually replaced Mary Martin in that company in August of 1966. He would have stayed an extra six months beyond Martin. He had a movie name which helped. Goodbye, Dolly! The next day, the Champions and Carleton returned to the states as Mr. Merrick stayed behind to deal with business matters.
Gower was very proud of this company and followed them to each of their stops along the way.
Returning to New York, Carleton stayed with someone from the New York company for a couple of weeks. And then this person went out with the Betty Grable company. They were in Omaha when Carleton went out to see the production. He knew Betty from his Hollywood days. He was sitting in the back row of the theater. The show was just about to start when the guy from the box office came over to him and told him that Gower was on the phone and wanted to speak with him. He said you’ve got to get back to New York. He was actually having trouble with Ginger. He was directing the scene in which she says, “I think I’ll have these walls re-done with blue wallpaper.” He wanted Ginger facing up stage. She responded by saying, “Miss Rogers does not turn her back on her audiences!” Both Jim Brochu and Stephen Crowley in his interview with Pat Tolson have shared this same story with me.
Carleton felt that Loring Smith as Vandergelder was “pretty good”. He also loved David Burns, “The dirtiest old man who ever lived.” The first day he was in the theatre with David, David walked in and his first words to him were, “You want your joint cocked?” He only got to do a few weeks with David.
Carleton LOVED Mary Martin. Carleton says she was an absolute dream to work with. “She played right to you!” A favorite moment of Carleton’s always took place in the Harmonia Gardens. Johnny Beecher (now Sheridan) told me the same thing. As Cornelius, Barnaby, Irene, and Minnie are sitting behind the curtains, Mary Martin always had some sort of hijinks by crossing her eyes or muttering something under her breath when she peeked. This was always, of course, never seen or heard by the audience.
Another favorite moment for him was in the hat shop scene where Dolly is teaching him to dance. With Mary, it was always frivolous fun. After his first performance with Ginger, he was called in for a rehearsal with Ginger the next day. It was rehearsed within an inch of his life. He said the joy was gone when it was over rehearsed. He only played a few weeks with Ginger. Mr. Merrick originally wanted him to open in Chicago with Carol.
Everything worked out and Carleton went to Chicago for the Channing company. The last performance that Carleton gave in Dolly was in Chicago.
He did not like the actress who was playing Irene Molloy, Joanne Horne. He says she was not fun to play opposite. She was a good singer but not an actress. He felt like no one could compare to Marilynn Lovell. He did, however, love playing opposite Jerry Dodge who he would also direct later in How To Succeed.
At one point, Carleton says he was in a room with reps from Actors Equity and Mr. Merrick’s attorneys because Mr, Merrick had Carleton under both a Broadway AND a Chicago contract at the same time!
He remembers Ginger’s curtain speech which would always begin with, “While I have your attention…” By this point, the rest of the cast would already be backstage getting out of costumes and make-up as Ginger spoke to the audience for an additional fifteen minutes. Mr. Merrick even went so far to say at one time that if Carleton had originally opened in Dolly, they would have won eleven Tonys out of eleven nominations (The only Tony that Dolly did not get that it was nominated for was featured Actor in a musical. It went to Jack Cassidy for “She Loves Me.”) Carleton thought Charles Nelson Reilly was marvelous in the role. Gordon Connell said they had black bunting all over Reilly’s dressing room when they returned to the theater. Reilly was not amused. With all of the cuts and changes that were happening on the road to Broadway, Reilly became more and more disenchanted with the show. Jerry Herman once told Carleton that Reilly HATED “It Only Takes A Moment”. He didn’t like that scene at all. Carleton felt just the opposite. “Isn’t The world full of wonderful things” is pure Wilder.
“Coco Ramirez was heaven. Johnny Beecher was marvelous.” Gower also changed the look of Cornelius and Barnaby for this production. Barnaby was now the one with glasses. As Sondra Lee told me that Gower’s real forte was casting. When Carleton first began, he told the musical director, Jay Blackton, “I’ll never hit that top “D” in ‘It Only Takes A Moment’”. Blackton said “Of course you will”…and he did.
Years later when Carleton was doing his club act with John Wallowitch, he would do the entire scene of “It Only Takes a Moment” and John would always say, “Aren’t you a little old for that?”
One major contribution that Gower made to the theater, according to Carleton, is the moving of scenery. Up until that time, the unions possessed that. He wove the moving of the sets into the action of the play. Carleton says Susan Stroman has adopted that. When he was doing Crazy For You with Karen Ziemba, he had a whole section of I Got Rhythm was right out of Gower’s style.
I asked if he has seen any other women play Dolly, he told me that in Chicago one night, Dorothy Lamour came backstage and said, “I have to play Dolly!” He said, “Don’t worry, Dottie! You will”…And she did.
He also saw both Bibi Osterwald and Thelma Carpenter play Dolly. Thelma was a close friend and he called her his sister. He loved Merman in the role. Bailey was naughty. She would not go on on a whim. Thelma ended up doing all the matinees.
Carleton knew of Jerry Herman long before Dolly when Jerry was doing Parade at the Showplace before moving to the Players Theatre and greatly admires him
The biggest change that Carleton has seen in the theater since starting out is that everyone is miked now. Of course performing at a venue like St. Louis Muni, it is a necessity. He was doing Cinderella there and that was the first time he was miked. It was because of the immense size of the venue. Otherwise, is it really necessary?
Thank you Carleton Carpenter for the gifts you have given and continue to give to the world!