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John Webster III

John Webster Calder III (Stage Manager, Madeline Kahn’s Hello, Dolly 1992)

John Webster Calder III
John Webster Calder III had been on the road for five years with A Chorus Line when Dolly Levi really came knocking on his door in 1992.
He had encountered her a few times prior. He first fell in love with Dolly like so many before him with the original cast album.
As a cast album collector, John has over ten thousand LPs.
The first cast recording he ever bought was The Music Man because he had seen that as a child. That started his collecting. John’s father loved musicals so he is sure that his parents probably purchased the original cast of Dolly shortly after it came out in 1964. HELLO, DOLLY! was recorded the Sunday after its Broadway opening John remembers the jacket opening. He would sit in front of the record player watching the album play.
Source: Dori Berenstein's Carol Channing: Larger Than Life
John has Hello, Dolly in almost every language. However Carol Channing, that unique and absolutely American icon, you can understand the character just by listening to the Lp and looking at the pictures.
He did not see it until he actually did a dinner theater production back in North Carolina in the eighties and it was in the round and it was a bad Dolly and it sort of soured John on the show. For the most part, he has totally blacked out that production from his memory. The problem is they didn’t have a leading lady playing the part. John is not sure HOW she got the part. She was not a New York actress. She was somebody in that dinner theater circuit.
She was somebody who knew somebody.
She was not the director’s OR the choreographer’s choice.
John was the production stage manager of that theater at the time.
That role has to have the backbone and TAKE the stage and make it their own.
This person was a nice lady who just didn’t have the stature to come on to a stage and capture the audience’s imagination and make them theirs.
She kind of disappeared into the scenery in the round. They tried everything they could to enhance her performance and give her a background that was positive. Ultimately, it was for naught. The audiences STILL loved it, he must admit. Even the critics liked it.
They did not rave about her. They raved more about the ensemble. It was a disappointing experience because John had such hopes for that show.
John also did a thesis on Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker and that whole story in college.
It was his final college paper and the reason why he wrote it the way he wrote it.
It also covered Thornton Wilder’s rep companies. Wilder was enamored by those “roll drop” or wing and drop shows.
John’s professor at Florida State University did a production of The Matchmaker that year based on that paper, just doing the classic painted drops show.
John loves that story, the whole Dolly Gallagher Levi and her whole idea of living life full of vitality.
Being soured on the dinner theater production and finally getting a chance to see it live with Carol Channing on the road was just magical and opened all the doors.
His love came from the cast album, but his appreciation and understanding came from actually seeing Carol Channing in it.
Since Irving Berlin, there has never been a greater hit maker than Jerry Herman. John met Jerry Herman and Carol Channing when they were given Lifetime Tony Awards the year that Sunset Boulevard was nominated for a Tony Award.
John was a talent wrangler for the Tonys. He went over to get them to escort them to the theater. It was sheer joy! Of his shows, John has only done Dolly and Mame. Every opportunity that John has to see a Jerry Herman show, he seizes.
Shows that are lesser known outside of theater aficionados like Dear World and Make and Mabelalso touch the soul and lifts our hearts.
John really is a great fan of Jerry Herman.
Every year when John would go to his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, he would tell Theater Of The Stars that if they ever needed a stage manager for their summer season to please keep him in mind. Every year they would tell him they were all set.
He would continue out on the road and every year there would be A Chorus Line layoff and he would find himself sitting in New York  without a job. Eventually, Chris Manos, the producer of TUTS in Atlanta called John and said they would like him to do an upcoming show with them. John did two shows the first season.
They liked him enough to bring him back a second season. The show that he was going to be doing was Hello, Dolly starring Madeline Kahn. It was fortuitous. He had gotten involved with the theater just in time.
In the rehearsal process, John’s obligation is, to put it in simple terms, is to create a safe environment for the actor to feel comfortable to explore where it is non judgmental and that it is good, humorous, and healthy experience, that they are given a space where both the actors and director feels safe.
Creating security is John’s job in the rehearsal process. Keeping a safe playground is how he describes it. It is an exploration time.
Madeline Kahn
In summer stock, that time is very short. It has been John’s experience that stars don’t require more.
They appreciate when things are done right. They become more upset when things are not done. Preparation is the key.
When it comes to the things that John had control of, looking back, he wouldn’t change a thing. To be quite blunt, he was warned by people in New York City about working with Madeline Kahn.
They said that she was difficult and that it was going to be a miserable experience and that he was going to hate every minute of it. It was absolutely the opposite.
He had the best experience with her. He found her a consummate professional and, like most stars, he found her to be insecure about what she was doing.
It was a new role that she had never played before. Lee Roy Reams was the director. He made it a warm experience because he knew the show so well. It was also John’s first time to work with Conrad John Schuck who played Horace Vandergelder. They all made it an environment that was joyous and they had great fun in rehearsal as well as when they got into performance mode. John has worked with Conrad John Schuck on eight productions. Hello, Dolly was the first. John has worked with every time he’s done Annie. Anytime anyone is doing Dolly, John recommends him. “He is absolutely the best Horace Vandergelder.”
Conrad John Schuck
That is a hard part in that you need a man to play him hard, but at the end, he has to be a lover. That is why he is such a great Daddy Warbucks.
From the beginning, he is this stiff Warbucks character, but he loves this little girl. He and Madeline had a great time together. There was such joy playing off of each other and such fun. The last scene of the two of them on stage together, the wallpaper scene, is such a fond memory.
John wishes he had a video of that production. It was classic.
The only thing that John would have wanted differently is for them to rehearse in New York as opposed to Atlanta.
Marge and Gower Champion
John is lucky enough to have also seen the original Dolly, Carol Channing. This happened in Florida.
He was working in a dinner theater in St. Petersburg.
On his day off, he drove up to Orlando to see Channing in Dolly at the Carr Arts Centre. It was an enlightening experience and John had a better understanding by seeing Gower Champion’s way of doing the show.
This was around 1981 or ’82.
As for Madeline Kahn, John found her a joy to work with. She came in on time and prepared. She was also conscious of her film identity. The thing about Dolly was that a lot of it, she didn’t understand.
There are certain conceits about Dolly that were created by Gower Champion and Channing and the original production that until you work with someone who has been through that process, it’s hard to explain. Lee Roy was just a joy in the way he was able to share with Madeline how and why scenes were set up the way they were, for example, why Dolly is sitting at a table eating while everyone is in the courtroom, those sort of “inside stories” as to why things are the way they are.
It was sometimes hard for Madeline to grasp.
John wouldn’t call her a method actress, but she needed a reason as to why she was doing things. She was constantly asking questions as to why she was doing this or that. Ultimately, in one of the tech rehearsals on stage, she was sitting at the table downstage left, and she said, “Lee Roy, I have a question.”
He said, “Yes, Madeline, what is it?”
Then she said, “Never mind. I get it. I’m doing it because it’s funny.”
That was her understanding and comprehension as far as the process. Only twice did John ever encounter any difficulty with Madeline and both times were justified and well within her right to express her dissatisfaction.
They were things that were outside of John’s control but affected her and her performance.
Lee Roy was wonderful with her. It was remarkable to see how well he appreciated the show and how he was able to take Madeline’s interpretation and meld it with Gower’s original concept and make it unique as well as identifiable and iconic in its own way.
The first time John heard Madeline sing her songs, he KNEW this was going to be a great Dolly. Her So, Long Dearie was wonderful and great fun. Christopher B. Manos, artistic director of Theater Of The Stars in Atlanta, first came up with the idea of her playing Dolly and it was an inspired choice. At first, a director other than Lee Roy was going to do it. That director felt that he was not the right director and suggested Lee Roy.
Lee Roy really had it in his grasp as the Gower Champion version. He did not alter Madeline’s persona and her identifiable mannerisms. As far as blocking and staging, they really maintained the original staging. The sets were in place. Costume wise, everything was scaled down because Madeline’s stature is smaller. They addressed everything to give her a statuesque look.
Madeline Kahn in What's Up, Doc?
She made it her own in her own way, her meter, her dialogue, the way she spoke. Other than that, Lee Roy was very accommodating.
Her let her try things. He provided her with an environment of trying things in different ways.
They spent as much time as possible, with a limited rehearsal period, on the dumpling eating scene. They tried several alternatives but went back to the original Carol Channing trick. They tried cotton candy, but went back to tissue paper.
John has worked with Lee Roy three times and his experience with him each time is pure joy, “the funniest man ever. For God’s sake, somebody should do Dolly with him as Dolly!”
The wonderful thing about Lee Roy as a director is that he is an entertainer and he appreciates the position that the cast is in.
With this production, he had both a Dolly and a Horace who had never played the parts before. A lot of time was spent with them separate from the company working  and he was always sympathetic with what their positions were. He listened to Madeline and what her needs were. Madeline was not one to be reticent about her questioning of why something was the way it was.
Lee Roy Reams
Lee Roy was so in tuned to that and was able to express to her not only why her character was doing or saying what she was but also in the realm of the entire production of when, where, and why it was taking place.
That gives an actor such strength in order to build a firm foundation. That also makes it easier for a director to express to an actor what he desires and where he wants it.
That also gives them a sense of security that they are not being abandoned. John has been in those situations in which the director says, “Go there because I say so.”
That creates a tension and a failure to be trusting. Lee Roy was always the captain of the ship and it sailed smoothly. John did 42nd Street with Lee Roy.
He also did Anything Goes with Chita Rivera, directed by Lee Roy. All three times of working with Lee Roy, there was always a sense of stability about him on stage and as a director. He provides that stability to the actors to give them the freedom  to leap and feel like they’re going to be caught. That is what John found very rewarding.
According to John, she was absolutely as hysterical off stage as she was on. She was a funny lady. John has a recording of one of their performances and says she sounds like Shirley Booth from the original movie version of The Matchmaker. She played it very much that way. It wasn’t the over the top portrayal in the style of Carol Channing.
"Ernestina Money", Tony Parise, Madeline, Colleen Fitzpatrick: Courtesy: Tony Parise
Channing is a big woman as well as most of the leading ladies who have taken on this role. Madeline was small and made it her own unique Madeline Kahn version of Dolly. In the recording, during the Hello, Dolly playoff, after the transition back into the Harmonia Gardens eating scene, she sings, Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life as the guys are duck walking her back to the scene which is taking some liberties with the score but it was something that was so identifiable with her and the audiences just loved it.
It was her fun take on herself in the show.
Colleen Fitzpatrick was Irene Molloy in this tour. John thought she was glowing and wonderful. He also had a wonderful time working with her. James Darrah was great as Cornelius Hackl. They were young, great voices, and great chemistry.
John regrets that he has not worked with James Darrah again. John has seen his work over the years. They both, in addition to Madeline, made this production great fun, both on and off stage. There were no negative experiences. In a star vehicle, priorities lean towards the star. Other principals have to step back and understand that appreciation. There was a lot of scenery and the short tech times were the real killers for everyone.
He can’t remember any major challenges, however.
For John, working with this cast was like a fairy tale type of adventure. Once in a while you find yourself in a production that is nightmarish.
Madeline Kahn rehearsing at The MUNY Courtesy: Tony Parise
Everything should work. It’s a great show, everybody is perfect for their roles, and yet, everyone is unhappy. Dolly was just the antithesis of that. The stories are legendary about her experiences with On The Twentieth Century.
This was not the case on this production. This was a love fest. When he is involved in a production that is not like this, he calls back on those memories. He may not know what the problem is. Just let it go and move on. After it’s over, figure out what went wrong.
Once again, John found her a joy. A year later, indicative of the kind of lady she was, John was a talent wrangler on the Tony Awards (as he had done for the past three years), Madeline was chosen to be the celebrity hostess at a restaurant across the street from the Gershwin Theater where the Tonys were being held that year.
John was the talent coordinator for all the winners and all of the presenters after they left the broadcast.
In doing his security, and walking through the restaurant, Madeline who was in the back of the restaurant saw him and yelled at the top of her lungs,” John Calder! What are you doing here?” She came running over to him and it was the most touching moment he ever had with a star. She was a sweetheart and they had a lovely reunion there. They were both working very hard but she made the effort. This was just prior to her becoming ill.
It is a very fond memory of her. He is jealous of anyone who had more time than him to work with her because he was most fortunate.
 Hello, Dolly, the show, is pure joy. The romance of those three couples represents a time long gone by. It is wholesomeness and happiness without guile. Then there is the scene with Dolly and the guys learning to dance.
Then, there is the slapstick of Mrs. Molloy’s hat shop which you don’t get to see much anymore, that kind of Feydeau running in and out of cupboards and slamming doors. Audiences miss that.
 Turn off your head. There’s no message. It’s not about politics. It’s only about having a grand time and that’s what it is.
The one thing that John learned with Dolly that he has carried forward in his career since then is a true appreciation of a star, a movie star who steps into a role that they’ve never played. He also appreciates the fragility of a star. Tony Parise and Conrad John Schuck have already weighed in on the load in tech in Atlanta. They built the passarelle for Dolly and the Waiter’s Gallop to go around the orchestra pit.
When they built it, they neglected to attach it to the wall of the stage.
What they did was build it independent of the stage. They put it on the elevator of the orchestra pit and put the orchestra pit in underneath the passarelle. The failure to attach it, John regrets that he didn’t walk it…he looked at it, it looked structurally sound. However, when Madeline stepped on it, it was like a skateboard.
It rocked forward. There was enough give that it didn’t feel like a solid platform, it moved. The platform swayed and she felt like she was falling and collapsed there on the stage. She grabbed on to it. John had to come on and help her and she went into her dressing room. It was that moment that he knew she was experiencing true fear. She never had a temper tantrum about it. She simply said it has to be safe. She was not going back on it until she was assured of her safety.
Tony Parise performed the Dolly number on the passarelle for her to prove its safety.
This was John’s only bad experience with the show. It was a failure on his part to check someone else’s job. He regrets that to this day. It certainly scared her at that moment. Other than that, John had no other bad moments unless you count the night that “Rudolph” got sick in St. Louis and Tony Parise had to go on. It was Tony’s home town so many townspeople were happy to see him on stage again!
This production of Dolly was a great jumping point for John for other opportunities.
The following year, because of his work with Madeline, he was hired and went on the road with Dreamgirls with Jennifer Holliday. That is one of the ultimate challenges that people like to talk about. Again, he had a great experience despite complications. It is another memory he cherishes. He would not trade these memories for anything.
About five years ago, as of this writing, he got a phone call that Debbie Reynolds was considering going out with Dolly. John thought it was an inspired choice. He got a call from her management that they desired to know certain details about the show. He gave them all the details. Ultimately, she decided against it.
He would LOVE to see Bette Midler take on Dolly. He thinks she would be a great fun Dolly. He’s not sure she would be willing to do it, but it’s one of those things that has the image of Carol so indelibly etched on it that no one wants to take it on as their own. It is a part of everyone’s psyche just as Yul Brynner is. It’s iconic and unbreakable image that all of us have to fight. The person who comes in has to brave and bold and the choices made need to be vivid. John hopes it happens and that it happens soon.
He may be booed off the stage, but John is not a fan of the movie. He’s not sure why but it doesn’t give him that visceral experience that the stage production does. He is not terribly overwhelmed with most movie versions of Broadway shows.
He is more overwhelmed by original movie musicals than he is by “remakes” of Broadway shows.
It could be that he is such a theater fan that it doesn’t have that “click” for him. It is more of an “I appreciate it.” The craftsmanship of the film version of Dolly may be great. He looks at all the huge production values that Gene Kelly did, for example, like the parade sequence, but it doesn’t have the “click” that the stage show has. He doesn’t see those real people that he sees on stage.
It is a show that audiences love and it just takes that woman, that dynamic unique woman to carry it.
Even though it has been many years since he did this show, it still has a very special place for him. It is still on his bio and his resume and this is the show that most people comment on. They desire to know about her and they want to know about that show.
It’s such a strange combination and people are always wondering how it turned out to be that way. She took this leap of faith doing something she had never done.
He has also worked with numerous “difficult stars.” What he provides is a balanced and compassionate appreciation of the star’s position.
What he gives them is an opportunity without tension or pressure so that they can focus on their work as opposed to other issues. He is level headed and doesn’t get crazed. The last thing needed in a technical situation when the scenery is flying in and out and off and on is for a stage manager to lose control of the situation. It’s not about yelling. It’s not about haranguing or pointing fingers. It’s about addressing challenges as they come along, dealing with them, being compassionate and understanding, and often, understanding that what somebody is upset about is not always the cause of their anger. Sometimes there are other issues and this is just an “out”. Once again, John understands their position. One of the times that Madeline became upset happened when they went into Kansas City. They gave everyone in the company a T-shirt.
It was supposed to read Madeline Kahn starring in Hello, Dolly! They misspelled her name. She was not angry upset but it was one of those things that John perfectly understood. John had all the shirts taken away and redone. Someone had not done their homework. It was upsetting to her to be a star above the title and have her name wrong. She became concerned that it would be spelled right in the programs and/or posters. He appreciated that and understood why she felt the way she did. As much as we do it for money, her billing and credits is what she is judged by and what people see.
It was resolved very quickly and she never mentioned it again.
Fox Theater
That was the third city of a three city tour that also included the MUNY in St. Louis.
Lee Roy did not go on with the tour beyond St. Louis. Tony Parise, choreographer, pretty much took over directorial duties. They played July 21st-28th in Atlanta. Lee Roy stayed, of course, through opening night. They had three different sets in three different cities.
They flew John to Dallas, Texas, to see the sets of the bus and truck sets which was owned by Randel Wright Scenery. Randel had bought all the scenery. He and John looked over everything. He had set up all the sets in the studio there. They went through Horace’s Hay and Feed Store and how it moved as well as the other scenes.
They were making every effort to make this a good show. When you go from the Fox stage in Atlanta, where they opened, with a forty foot opening, which is a little larger than a Broadway house, (Broadway houses are usually thirty-five to thirty-six), and then on the MUNY with a sixty-foot opening, and Madeline with her size, has to make due with the same amount of timing, it’s problematic.
THE MUNY in St. Louis
The spacing has almost doubled. It complicated things but audiences loved her.
She was a trouper in that she got it done. St. Louis’ MUNY theater has 11,000 seats. The next stop, Starlight Theatre is a 7,947-seat outdoor theatre in Kansas City, Missouri. Madeline filled all three venues. It was a big hit for her. The audiences were well satisfied.
He feels the producers put together as great a cast as they possibly could. They left Lee Roy to do what he needed to do. His biggest memory when it comes to the production in was making the set work in each venue.
The curtains for the Harmonia Gardens had a tendency not to work which made life miserable for everybody.
In Atlanta, they had the national bus and truck set. The last stop was Kansas City and they had their own interpretation of the sets. They had certain things that traveled with them like the booths for the Harmonia Gardens.
Dolly’s entrance is on a horse cart at the top of the show. At the MUNY, they had made arrangements to get the double decker car for Dolly also horse drawn with the spiral staircase for Dolly to make her entrance.
It was so huge that Madeline looked like a munchkin on it. It was just startling how it lost the impact of her entrance. However, it was a marvelous piece of scenery. You wouldn’t be able to see that anywhere else. Madeline had to ride on holding on for dear life.
His only memory of closing night in Kansas City was that it was sad that this chapter in his life was coming to a close. He remembers thinking, “Oh, God, I hope there all as good as this one.” The good ones are great experiences and the bad ones are horrid. It was quite a  thoroughly rewarding experience for John in his career.
He wishes that he had done Channing’s last national. He keeps suggesting to Chris Manos that they revisit Dolly. As of this writing, they still work together from time to time.
The character that John Webster Calder III identifies with is Dolly Levi. He will not allow the parade to pass him by. He is also spreading the manure encouraging young things to grow!
That has been his motto in life. It is giving as much as you get and providing for the next generation. We should not appreciate these messages just on the stage, but life, in general.
Hello, Dolly is one of the classic American musicals. It is a valentine to a time long gone but with a message as current today as when it was originally given. Life is to be lived and appreciated. Don’t let the parade pass you by!

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