Director/Choreographer Dennis Edenfield on Betty Grable's Hello, Dolly!
At the age of 19, Dennis Edenfield stepped aboard a Greyhound bus in his hometown of New Orleans and headed for New York City. His childhood dream of being on Broadway had begun. Just like in the movies! This was April of 1966. As a performer he has been fortunate to have performed on Broadway and in National Tours, appeared in several films and on many television shows. As a director/choreographer he has over 100 productions to his credit. As of this writing, he now wears a third hat as a producing artistic director for Premier Performing Arts, a professional theatre company. He has been lucky to work with every level of professionalism, from New York and Hollywood celebrities to early career talent who went on to great careers and accolades. It continues to be a great ride. Welcome to his story.
In 1966, he went to his first Broadway audition after a summer of stock. He was told that was the best way to get his Equity card. That show was Hello, Dolly! Gower Champion was actually at the auditions. Ah, those were the days!
At that audition, he kept two dancers: Sal Pernice and Dennis. Paul was cast as Barnaby’s understudy. He also played Stanley. Dennis was offered the position of the male swing in the Betty Grable Company in Chicago. Dennis had been in the business “ten minutes” at this point and didn’t know what a swing was! He was a gymnast and had seen the show and he remembered one of the dancers swinging on the rafters on the set of the hay and feed store during It Takes a Woman.
He thought, “Well, I can do that,” So, he took the position of swing not knowing what he was getting in to! When he arrived at the Shubert Theater in Chicago, he almost died when he found out what his job was. He wasn’t capable of doing it. He admits he is slightly dyslexic and a slow learner. He also had only been dancing three years at that point. Fortunately, Jack Craig, who was their dance captain caught on pretty quickly. He taught Dennis his track and when people were out, Jack would go into their track and Dennis would go into Jack’s until he got to learn people’s tracks. The company closed four months into Dennis’ contract.
There were nine dancers and five singers in this part of the ensemble. Dennis was the one swing for all of them. There was a female swing for the ladies. Nowadays, they hire three swings.
Three weeks after the show closed on the road, Betty Grable went into the Broadway Company to take over for Martha Raye. They called Dennis to come in and swing again. He guesses he was ok after all. He said no to what would have been his first Broadway show. He hated the job. He told them that if a role opened up, to please call him. He was never going to swing again as long as he lived. Every time he went on, it was a nightmare. He never did swing again!
Dennis was in the show a total of five months. Betty Grable is the only Dolly that Dennis worked with. Dennis thought she was terrific in the role. He grew up watching her movies; therefore, he knew exactly who she was.
Just like in the movies, when he first walked through the stage door at the Shubert Theater in Chicago, she was walking down the spiral staircase backstage and the first thing he saw were her show boots and those legendary legs. He knew immediately it was Betty Grable before he even saw her face. She always wore an over sized man’s dress white shirt backstage when she was having her make-up and wig put on. She also wore fishnet stockings. That was his first glimpse at Betty Grable. She was, at that point, ill unbeknownst to the company. A press release would be sent ahead to the papers in each city to the press alerting them of her vocal challenges. She had throat cancer. Her standby was Anne Russell.
Anne did go on for Betty a few times and there was one time in which Betty took a week off.
Dennis was in the show for two months before he was able to go out there and enjoy it and not have it be about “where do I go next”?
When he would do the hectic Waiters Gallop, the other dancers would just push him out of the way on stage.
As stated previously, Betty was very sociable with the cast. Several times, she invited the company up to her suite at the hotel. She would show one of her movies and regale the cast with stories of her past and career. Beyond these moments, Dennis really didn’t see a lot of her outside of the show.
Betty was seeing a younger cast member by the name of Bob Remick.
They ended up living together in Las Vegas and he took care of her at the end of her life.
Years later, Dennis did Irene on Broadway with Debbie Reynolds. After Debbie left that show, she went back to Vegas to do her club act. Dennis went with her. Betty and Bob were living at that time in a bungalow cottage behind the Desert Inn. In fact, when Betty died, Agnes Moorehead called Debbie to tell her. After the show, Debbie had the stage manager bring Dennis into her dressing room. She wanted Dennis to hear it from her before he heard it on the news.
In addition to Betty Grable, Dennis saw Mary Martin whom he loved, Martha Raye who really surprised him. Her speeches to Ephraim were incredibly moving. She was also very funny. Dennis also saw Pearl Bailey and Ethel Merman. The only Dolly he ever saw who he thinks missed the mark was Phyllis Diller. It was all about her and not so much about the show.
Dennis worked with Gower again when he came in to save Irene. Originally, the director was John Gielgud. God bless him, but he should never have been picked to direct an American musical. Debbie Reynolds got on the phone and called Gower in Malibu and said, “Help!” He cleared his calendar and came in and literally saved the show. Dennis was put into Dolly by Gower and got the opportunity to work closely with him again on Irene. Dennis is a director/choreographer now and he learned a lot from watching both Michael Bennett and Gower Champion. They were both geniuses.
Gower’s cleverness is what set him apart from other choreographers. He was clever with quick set changes. There was not one blackout in the show. He insisted on not having an overture. The original production did not have an overture. As a director, Dennis likes to avoid blackouts as much as possible. The audience enjoys seeing the transitions between scenes.
Dennis learned that from Gower.
Other than name recognition, it is the Dolly number that still resonates with audiences almost fifty years later. Again, that’s Gower. When he came in to direct Irene, they already had a choreographer, Peter Gennero. They actually worked together on the show.
Gower desired to create another Hello, Dolly type of number out of the Irene number.
While on the road, prior to Broadway, they would work on that number five hours a day except on two show days. They would go into rehearsal, and it would be a brand new number AND it would go in the show that night. Again, Dennis learned a lot from watching him do that. There are great numbers in his other shows, but Hello, Dolly is Gower’s signature number.
It is a real crowd pleaser. Even kids enjoy it. They love the characters. Dennis now as the artistic director of his own theater company always has Dolly on his list of shows to do.
He knows it will sell. Once again, there is the name recognition.
Dennis never second guessed his decision not to go to Broadway with Dolly. He actually had another job at the time, Hellzapoppin’.
It was a pre-Broadway tryout. This was the summer of ’67 in Montreal with Soupy Sales. It didn’t make it to Broadway. Dennis also injured his knee in that company and had to leave the show prematurely.
Dennis was already cast in this company when he was called for Dolly on Broadway. It was OK with him to be able to say no. Who knew what was going to happen with Hellzapoppin’? If he had been offered something other than a swing, he would have said yes.
Dennis has directed Hello, Dolly a few times and should return to Broadway. He thinks Debbie Reynolds would make a great Dolly.
Marge Champion concurs. However, eight shows a week is a heavy burden at any age. Carol Channing was seventy four when she played Dolly
in the 1995 Broadway revival.
Dennis loved the prestige of being in one of the most iconic shows ever. He also loved working with a big huge movie star. He was star struck. He loved her even though she chewed him out one night.
He was covering for either Danny or Manny. She sang, “Hello…” He was supposed to do a little cross step and lean into her. He didn’t do it because he didn’t realize that he was the character that he was supposed to be at that moment.
After the show, she requested Dennis in her dressing room via the stage manager. She wasn’t happy because she felt that she had been left standing there. She was supposed to react to that movement. He apologized, of course, and it never happened again.
As stated, Dennis learned that he never desired to be a swing again and stuck to that. He did learn, however, that he could learn quicker than he realized he could. He did have to learn all those roles. He also considers himself lucky being able to learn from a master like Gower Champion.
He didn’t realize some of this until he started directing. It was the same with Michael Bennett. Dennis also did A Chorus Line on Broadway. When Michael put Dennis in the show, he once told him that if he ever decided to leave the show, he should be a director. He watched Dennis and told him he had great instincts. Originally, Dennis was in the LA Company. When the show went to Chicago, they did a mini workshop like he did with the original cast. Michael asked Dennis to work with one of the Sheilas. He felt that Dennis had a very good eye.
On Dennis’ final night of Hello, Dolly, the company went out for drinks after the show. When he went back by the theater, they were loading the sets out of the theater. That made him sad.
Aside from being personally selected by Gower and working with Gower Champion, Dennis saw Mary Martin star in the show when she played New Orleans where he grew up. He ushered there and saw the show a few times.
He loved seeing Anne Russell go on a few times there. She used Martin’s arrangements. Betty Grable had her own arrangements but Martin’s were much more exciting since she was a singer. He once got tickets for his mom to see Martin in the show. Dennis’ mom, unfortunately, died in a car accident when he was in stock. When he was in Dolly, he would imagine his mom was in the audience. He wishes she had known that Gower had cast him in Hello, Dolly! Somehow, she knows!