On August 7th, 1965, Carol Channing closed her original run in Hello, Dolly! This was a Saturday night.
Enter GINGER ROGERS: Opening Aug 9, 1965. This was a MONDAY night.
She would stay with the show until February 25th, 1967…a Saturday night.
Before the parade passes by
Before it goes on, and only I’m left
Before the parade passes by
I’ve gotta get in step while there’s still time left
I’m ready to move out in front
Life without life has no reason or rhyme left
With the rest of them
With the best of them
I wanna hold my head up high
I need a goal again
I need got a drive again
I wanna feel my heart coming alive again
Before the parade passes by…
When Hello, Dolly! premiered in Detroit on November 18th, 1963 with the original company starring Carol Channing, it opened to mediocre reviews, but with the addition of Before The Parade Passes By in Washington DC, it opened on Broadway to great reviews; receiving eleven Tony nominations, winning ten awards-including Best Musical- and ultimately, became the town’s hottest ticket. There are many who cannot think of Hello, Dolly! without thinking of Carol Channing.
Channing embodied the role like no other for over 5,000 performances; a feat we will never see again. That type of star no longer exists.
As Carol Channing and each subsequent leading actress left the show, Merrick got the bright idea of bringing in a new star to infuse new life into the proceedings. Each shot in the arm would regain momentum to carry the show a little further on to a then-record 2,844 performance run.
When it closed and for over ten months-until it was overtaken by Fiddler On The Roof- Hello, Dolly! held the record as Broadway’s longest-running musical. There have been many other Dolly Levis besides that of Channing; all bringing a unique spirit and life to the famed character.
Much of the success of Dolly is harbored by the larger than life personality who is lucky enough to make that descent down the stairs of the Harmonia Gardens; probably one of the most iconic moments in any show in the history of the theater.
David Merrick had had a success with the 1955 Thornton Wilder play, The Matchmaker, starring Ruth Gordon as Dolly Gallagher Levi. That, of course, was a revision of Wilder’s The Merchant of Yonkers-where the story predominantly followed Vandergelder’s character.
In 1963, Merrick decided that he wanted to incorporate a musical score and dance sequences into The Matchmaker.
The new wonder-kid on Broadway at the time was Jerry Herman. Once he got wind of this, he was in hot pursuit to get the job. Both Herman and Merrick were in agreement that this was to be the next star vehicle for Ethel Merman, who was still basking in the success of Gypsy.
La Merm, however, had other plans. She was tired to the bone from the two years of Gypsy on the road after having done it on Broadway for two years already! She was ready to retire from show business and have a “real life”.
For a brief moment, Nanette Fabray was a “serious” contender. There are various conflicting reports as to why this didn’t happen.
When Carol Channing heard about Dolly Levi: A Damned Exasperating Woman, as it was originally entitled, she KNEW this would be her comeback role.
Although she had worked almost steadily from her departure from Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes at the beginning of the 50′s up until this time, she had not been able to find a vehicle that could measure up to her previous Broadway success.
Channing was also aware that Dolly was to be directed and choreographed by her former director, Gower Champion. Champion had directed her to her first big hit, Lend An Ear, which then led to, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. After Blondes author, Anita Loos and Jule Styne (composer on Blondes) saw her as the cupie doll, Gladioli Girl in Lend An Ear, Carol says that Anita turned to Jule and said, “There’s our Lorelei Lee”…and the rest is history!
Merrick was not easily convinced that Channing, who he considered to be a superb comedienne, would have what it took to become the meddlesome matchmaker. He felt that Lorelei was so embedded in Channing’s persona, that she would not be able to shake it. As a matter of fact, she had developed a “flapper’s slouch” that worked so brilliantly for Lorelei.
Merrick saw her around this time in George Bernard Shaw’s The Millionairess and tried to convince Gower that Channing had what it took. Marge Champion took Carol under her wings and coached her on how to stand, how to hold her head, how to hold her arms, and how to speak with a lower East Side accent. Carol auditioned for Champion, Herman, and Merrick, and won them over with the “Money is Like Manure” speech as she recited: “It’s not worth a thing unless it is spread around encouraging young things to grow.” She won them over and won the part.
The “disaster” of this show in Detroit is legendary and will be covered in another chapter. I will say, however, that this is truly the classic tale of great artists coming together to create alchemy in the theatre. Jerry Herman, Michael Stewart, and director-choreographer, Gower Champion, gave the show the focus it needed by making Dolly Levi the CENTRAL character with EVERYTHING-for the most part-revolving around her. In recent years, Charles Strouse, Lee Adams, and Bob Merrill, have been credited with helping to conceptualize the First Act finale, “Before The Parade Passes By.” With the genius of Gower Champion’s careful direction (read what Stephan deGhelder has to say about that), and the brilliance of what Carol Channing – and every great actress who followed in her footsteps – skillfully brought to her soliloquy to her late husband, Ephraim Levi in the wonderful fusing of Thornton Wilder and Michael Stewart’s moving words.
Michael Stewart’s libretto focused on Dolly Levi and her elaborate plots to ensnare Horace Vandergelder, Yonker’s “well-known un-married half a millionaire!”
Oliver Smith’s sets framed the farce in high-style, depicting a turn of the century New York in flats splashed with vivid primary colors and backdrops resembling amber-hued stereopticon slides.
The title number, as staged by Gower Champion, begins with Dolly’s graceful and delicate descent down the red-carpeted staircase with a balustrade leading to the restaurant, concluding with the company wrapped around the orchestra on a runway surrounded by a glowing row of footlights. In the words of New York Herald Tribune critic Walter Kerr, the song’s effect was one of the “most exhilaratingly, straight-forward, head-on, old-fashioned, rabble-rousing numbers since Harrigan and Hart rolled down the curtain.” (Source: The Smithsonian Collection of Recordings: American Musical Theatre: Shows, Songs, and Stars by Dwight Blocker Bowers)
According to John Anthony Gilvey in his comprehensive book on Gower Champion, Before The Parade Passes By: Gower Champion And The Glorious American Musical, even after the success of the show and although he was “hysterical with joy”, he nonetheless continued to fidget over a few things he desired to fix: like that butterfly number, about which a couple of critics expressed deserved reservations.
When Ginger Rogers replaced Carol, he replaced the butterfly ballet with a brief polka contest; a modification that has stuck since.
Champion’s “salvage job” as Merrick called it, had cost $440,000 to produce!
It was a bonafide hit from the moment the curtain rose on January 16th, 1964 with Carol Channing leading the parade until the curtains closed on December 27th, 1970 with Ethel Merman; bringing down the velvety drapery on both the show and her Broadway career.
When Channing left the show to embark on her first National tour, a star of “equal” brilliance was needed to keep up the momentum. Ginger Rogers was a perfect choice! Ginger was a true legend AND a genuine movie star in her own time. She returned to the spotlight in 1965 with the lead role in this iconic Broadway musical. Carol continued to tour the country, breaking records everywhere she appeared. Two additional touring companies at that time were headed by Mary Martin and Betty Grable. The commercial Broadway musical hit reached its zenith with Hello, Dolly!, ultimately confirming Jerry Herman’s status as a later-day Irving Berlin.
Ginger Roger’s assistant, Roberta Olden discussed Roger’s involvement with Hello, Dolly! and recalls a time where Broadway was experiencing great reviews due to the production’s overwhelming success. Prior to having been cast as the next Dolly that would follow Carol Channing, Ginger Rogers was actively involved with a number of live theatre productions such as, Tovarich, Annie Get Your Gun, and The Unsinkable Molly.
Rogers was looking for a role with substance; a real character in which she could potentially bring a memorable life to. However the character of Dolly may be seemingly fit for Roger’s apparent quest for a substantial role, at the end of 1964 (when Carol gave her notice of leave), Merrick had offered the part to Ginger three times; twice she turned it down. Roberta Olden explains that Ginger had turned down the part because she simply did not want to play a “Carol Channing ‘part’. She wanted to do ‘Dolly Levi’.” Because Rogers had not read the script and had furthermore only seen Channing as Dolly, she was inclined to reject the role. It was nothing against Carol Channing, however. The two were mutual friends; after all, they had been in the production, The First Traveling Sales Lady together, as well as shared a mutual respect and following for Christian Science.
Roberta Olden was an adamant follower of Ginger Rogers and a true fan. Growing up in the San Fransisco Bay area, Olden was able to see Rogers perform on several occasions during a nightclub act. Eventually, she had accumulated enough courage to approach the actress, offering Rogers her secretarial services. As it had turned out, Ginger Rogers had just hired a new secretary, but advised her to “stick around.” Two months later, the new girl quit and Olden happily obliged; working with the actress for eighteen years.
There is no knowledge of an audition conducted by Gower Champion regarding Ginger Rogers’ part as Dolly; Olden suggests it was probably an arrangement made between her and David Merrick. Roberta further recalls that Ginger had about a month-or-so with the company of Hello, Dolly! before she would open the production on August 9th, 1965.
She knows for sure that Rogers actually hired one of her friends to read lines in order to help her memorize the script. Because of this, we can be certain that Ginger Rogers definitely knew what she was doing before her rehearsals with the full company.
Also, as far as Olden understood, Ginger Rogers could not have frequent rehearsals with the company because that would be a “double duty” for them.
Not only was Merrick allegedly unwilling to compensate for extra rehearsal time, Roberta recollects a time when Ginger told her about a verbal altercation she had with Merrick regarding a hairdresser. While Merrick wanted a chorus member to take on the title as Ginger Rogers’ hairdresser, Rogers absolutely refused. While all this happened right before the curtain call, someone had ventured out and found Rogers a professional hairdresser; a woman by the name of Cathy Engle. Engle and Rogers would become very good friends throughout the years and had even done Ginger’s hair for a New York performance at Radio City Music Hall in the 1980′s. Apparently, Cathy had her own disagreements with Merrick, as he refused to put her under contract in order to provide these professional services. Fortunately, she was eventually hired as Ginger Rogers’ hairdresser, and, as Roberta recalls: “she was overjoyed.”
According to Roberta Olden, Ginger Rogers premiered Broadway’s role of Dolly on August 9th, 1965 and stuck with the monumental character (on Broadway) for a year and a half. She would then take a short break from the role, but then hopped on the road, presenting Dolly to the country for about another year and a half; totaling about 1,116 performances as Dolly Levi! With the box office roaring with ticket sales and her fans benevolently waiting at theatre doors, Rogers’ mother, Lela, writes in her diary about the August 1965 Broadway opening night:
“Monday, August 9th, 1965:
Ginger opens in Dolly tonight. What an opening!! Ginger goes to rehearsal at about twelve, I got ready. Steve Daniels to call for me about 6:45…he was late. We stopped at Sardi’s for a light dinner.
Two friends stopped who were on their way to the show. Mr. Merrick stopped by our table to speak to me. He was very pleased. He said, ‘if he had the seats, he could have sold the house twice.’ How wonderful she was!! From her first appearance, the audience applauded for three minutes and, every number, every dance step, … they could hardly get the curtain down on the last act.
Then, at the Dolly number, then at ‘each number’, and then at the end a standing ovation with ten calls. What a night! Theatrical history! Telegrams, hundreds from everywhere, even Paris. Flowers, hundreds! Such beauty! The notices…simply the ‘last word’. Such notices no one ever got!.
There was an after-party at Mr. Chan’s restaurant in New York.
A very successful night.”
The following night, Lola would once again attend her daughter’s Dolly performance, where on that same night, Richard Rogers’ revival of Carousel was premiering. Roberta recalls the events surrounding that night:
“Phyllis was married to Bennett Cerf. Bennett wanted her to go to the party for Carousel and Ginger said, ‘no, no, I don’t want to step on anyone else’s opening night. That wouldn’t be right.’”
Overall, Ginger Rogers would bring such grace and energy to the role of Dolly Levi, while loyal audience members, fans, and critics alike, would keep on coming back. She had enjoyed a wonderful experience on Broadway and across the country; box offices booming with ticket sales. Her career, involvement with, and commitment to Hello, Dolly! cannot be considered as anything less than impressive. Thanks to the devotion and loyalty of Roberta Olden, we are able to relive the Dolly endeavors of Ginger Rogers through a first-hand account experienced by someone who was, indeed, there.
Ginger Rogers has certainly left her mark on not only the various productions of Hello, Dolly! but in the wider scene of the Broadway culture. There are thousands of pictures and snapshots of Ginger with not only Carol Channing but also with Angela Lansbury and Lee Newmar.
There also exists video footage (I myself have seen) of Rogers singing ‘Before the Parade Passes By’ from the Ed Sullivan show. It is unfortunate that more performances were not preserved in the form of video, however, Olden claims that Rogers was able to keep in touch with MaryJo Cattlett and Pat Finlay; these relationships will forever keep the Dolly legacy alive.
Immense gratitude goes out to Rogers’ assistant, Roberta Olden as we end our conversation with a light memory of Olden’s about Ginger Rogers and Lucille Ball in one of the Hello, Dolly! dressing rooms:
“There is a funny story, when Lucille Ball came to see her in the dressing room she had on a fur coat and said, ‘my God, it’s like an icebox in here’.
Ginger always kept it cold because she didn’t want to be overly hot before a performance. … When they were in Los Angeles, Fred Astaire and Hermes Pan came to see her so that was fun. She got to meet lots of interesting people from the localities… Mr. Hershey from Hershey Pennsylvania….”