Gene GeBauer comes from a small town in Oregon and confesses that he wasn’t the brightest guy in the world. He wishes that he had met people back in Oregon who said, “Aim to be a star.” He didn’t have that knowledge when he arrived in New York. He got his first show within a short time of arriving in New York.
It was Once Upon a Mattress. He was thrilled, of course. He felt, however, that he had not set his sights high enough.
Gene was thirty at the time of starting in Dolly. He got to New York late in life. He didn’t discover dancing until he was in his late teens. He started as a tap dancer and then someone told him that nobody tap dances anymore and he would have to learn ballet.
He had one desire: to be in a hit Broadway show. It was that simple. Boy, did he get his wish!
Gene GeBauer ended up in the ensemble in the original Broadway Production of Hello, Dolly! When Dolly opened at the St. James Theater on January 16th, 1964, the show received ecstatic reviews. He knew that it was a big hit and he was now in the biggest hit on Broadway. It would run for seven years. That, in itself, makes Gene have a special feeling for this show.
He had gone to the audition for Dolly Levi: A Damned Exasperating Woman, as Hello, Dolly was originally called. At the audition, Gower Champion gave everyone a combination across the floor. After doing this a couple of times, Gower asked Gene to stand off on the side.
Before Gene even did anything else, Gower picked him to be in the show. Everybody else had to audition. That was a thrill for Gene, Gene thought Gower must think he was sensational. Gene had just left No Strings, Richard Rodgers’ first show after Oscar Hammerstein died. It was about Gene’s “type” that Gower wanted him in the show. Gene was a rather masculine dancer. He was big and strong looking. He even had strong facial features. Gower wanted that in the show and that’s what Gene brought to the production. That’s how it happened.
Gene remembers early on some of the kids in the show saying this show was going to be a turkey. He always thought it was going to be a hit.
In those days, there were two choruses, one of dancers and one of singers. For the first couple of weeks, they rehearsed separately while Gower was working with the principals. Finally, when they all started rehearsing together, and a number or two got dropped out of town. The numbers did not fit in with the direction the show was going in.
|Come and Be My Butterfly (Cut)|
Gene was in the chorus and appeared in every ensemble number except Come and Be my Butterfly which Gower was never satisfied with. The number was cut from the show completely when Ginger Rogers took over for Carol Channing. It was replaced by The Polka Contest. He did understudy Charles Nelson Reilly at one point. He never went on for him. Gene says that was his fault, he didn’t think he was that good. Once the show was up and running, by his own admission, he didn’t continue to tweak his performance. He was always very sure to do what he was told to do. Gower liked that. He never slouched and he never said, “I don’t feel well tonight.” He always gave one hundred percent. He knew what Gower wanted from him and he put it out there every night. It never occurred to him to create a “character.”
Speaking of characters, Gene tells me he never saw David Merrick behaving badly. Gene does remember that he didn’t seem to have a great sense of humor. He seemed to always be grim, all business. He had the reputation of being a difficult man. Gene did not see it.
Gower was amazing. He used to stand in the middle of the stage and you could see him thinking and he would say, “OK, Gene, you go over there and kneel, and Amelia, you go up on that platform, and Joe, you go over there.” Gene doesn’t know how he did it, but, he would have it all worked out. He never hung the company up at rehearsals while he was trying to come up with an idea. Gene ended up doing a couple of shows with him and found him nice to him, personally. He seemed to like Gene. He had an ability and an authority. Gene once called the entire company on stage. Eight or nine of the company didn’t show up. They were in a room where the speaker had been turned off. When they came on stage, Gower, obvious to the company, was displeased. It should not have happened. A singer spoke up, “Gower, the speaker was off.” Gower said, “What was that, Will?” That’s all he said and everybody got that there was a certain line you just didn’t go over with him. Nobody ever did go over that line with him. He was so in charge, so able to put together dance numbers that were always entertaining. As he used to say, “I’m not afraid to use old hackneyed steps.” He did and he did them well.
Jerry Herman was also a very nice guy. He would come down into the boys dressing room and talk with everyone. He would give them gifts on special occasions. He didn’t seem to have an ego born out of his success. He just seemed like a regular guy, a nice guy.
Gene was with the show until they were replaced by the Pearl Bailey Company in November of 1967, a total of four years. After four years, Gene was glad to move on. He was kind of glad that the show would pick up and become a hot ticket again. Gene never saw it with Pearl Bailey. Of course, before Miss Bailey, there were four preceding Dollys.He appeared along with Carol Channing, Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, and Betty Grable. He eventually got tired of being in the chorus. During that time, he started studying acting. He made a vow that when Dolly closed, he would no longer be a dancer and go to dance auditions, he would be an actor. He stayed with the show and studied acting all that time. Out of all the Dollys he appeared with, Channing was the most personable offstage as well as on. She was also the one he enjoyed being on stage with the most.
Dolly was a show that lifted people up, up, up! The show starts on a happy note and continues throughout. Gower was very good at that. The next number would lift you up a little more. The number after that would top that and so on until the audience was truly vested in the show and having a really good time. Gower also had that ability within a song. He would make it go higher and higher and higher. Hello, Dolly is an all out number.
After Dolly, there were a number of shows with a female star. Gene thinks that Dolly was a major reason for that. There was Mame, then there was Irene starring Debbie Reynolds, Sweet Charity, there was a series of shows with these big flashy stars.
Gene’s thoughts on Carol Channing are that she was pretty likable. She was always on top of everything. She was a friendly person. She was exuberant. He always admired how she could play an audience. She was so skilled at that. She could take them in any direction she wanted. She was a very giving actress. She wanted the audience to have a wonderful time.
Gene says that Broadway people are sort of snobbish. They sometimes feel that they are superior to movie actors. When Ginger Rogers came into the show, as far as they were concerned, she was NOT a Broadway person, she was a movie person. Many of the cast had a “mean attitude” towards her. They were not supportive or nice towards her. She played the movie star. She had two dressers that followed her around all over the place. Many of the cast, some of them Broadway veterans, had ever seen that before.
Gene always felt that Martha Raye had this enormous need to be liked. She would often do behaviors and things so that people would like her. He did like her. The first time he ever rehearsed with her, they rehearsed the Dolly number. In the song, when Dolly sings, “Find me an empty knee, fellas”, he would drop to one knee, and Dolly would sit on his knee. At the rehearsal, Raye dropped down to his knee, and turned to him and said, “Ah, shut up!” She was trying to be funny, but it felt a little odd.
Gene didn’t get to know Betty Grable as well as he did with Ginger Rogers. He liked her. He thought she was ok. Grable had entered into a relationship with a dancer in the company. Bob Remick, several years her junior.
Bibi Osterwald was backstage a lot and she did gone on. Bibi was a pro. She had been in the business so long. She was very friendly to everyone. She would tell stories and was a very likable lady. He doesn’t remember any problems with her.
Then there was David Burns who was very funny. Gene would go into the theater and run into David. He would say, “Hi, David!” David would hesitate a beat and say, “Do you really mean that?” It was so simple and yet when he said it, it was funny. Or, if you said Hello, David, he would say, “I want to talk with you”, little things like that, and he was funny on stage. He would sometimes turn his back to the audience and utter obscenities to the cast. They were not in anger, but rather to be outrageous and funny. It was one of his ways of keeping it fun for him and he would do that frequently.
Gene never understand how Charles Nelson Reilly did what he did. He did moments that Gene never would have thought of doing what Charles did with his character. There were things that came right out of him. He was not right down the middle. There was strangeness to him, the way he talked and the way he handled his body. He was funny, but he’s appealing.
Jerry Dodge was the third choice for Barnaby Tucker. The first, Jimmy Dybus, who was fired on the third day of rehearsals, to be replaced by Christopher Walken’s brother, Glenn, who would be fired in Detroit. It was Gower’s decision. The images didn’t coincide with what Gower was seeing in his mind. Glenn Walken wasn’t IT. The rest of the cast didn’t think of that. One day, he was gone. Rehearsals were so new and Gower knew what he wanted so Gene never questioned those decisions.
He loved Eileen Brennan. He thought she was extremely talented. She was funny and he got to know here fairly well. He even went out with her a few times. She did really well in the movies, but he thought she was so talented, she should have done better. She should have done more roles.
The only other Dolly that Gene has seen other than the ones he has shared a stage with, is Barbra Streisand in the movie. To Gene, it never got going. It just wasn’t very good or exciting to him. It wasn’t very funny. It was just loonnngggg. He didn’t like it.
Dolly is definitely among the top five shows of his career. He wishes, as stated at the top of this chapter, that he had been more ambitious in his career desires.
It gave him a confidence that he didn’t have before. It was neat to go to a party or have dinner with someone and be able to say, “I’m in Hello, Dolly!” It gave him a lot of status. It made it feel like he had arrived. After that, he was also able to go to other auditions and so forth with knowledge that he had reached a certain level of accomplishment and skill.
There were a couple of things that Gene learned on Dolly that he took forward with the rest of his career. The first came when he was asked to understudy Charles Nelson Reilly. He never got to go on and he realized that he wasn’t really good. He never worked on the part so that he would be one hundred percent ready and could step into the role and do a good job, and so he resolved that that would never happen again and it didn’t. It became very apparent to Gene during Dolly during Dolly that the chorus people were like siblings. There was a sibling rivalry and they were sometimes not nice to each other. It wasn’t envy or jealousy exactly, but a need to not let someone else get noticed more or if somebody else was standing out a little more to maybe pick on them. It is very similar to when brothers and sisters pick on each other and put each other down. It was in this show that Gene noticed it so clearly. He was able to kind of step out of that. Unfortunately, he participated in it somewhat. In the time the show was running, he finally learned Don’t do that. Don’t go there. It was a very valuable thing to learn.
As of this writing, Gene GeBauer is seventy-eight years young. He left New York in 1981. He still gets a surge of pride when he says, “I was in Hello, Dolly!” He thought it was a wonderful show. He still does. It was the highlight of his career.