Mark Chapman on Betsy Palmer and Sylvia Syms’ Productions of Hello, Dolly!
There was a time when summer stock theaters were in virtually in every little resort town in the United States. Stars would spend their summers, for very little money, doing the great shows of Broadway. Unfortunately, most of those theaters have gone the way of drive-in movie theaters and that type of star no longer exists.
These summer stock settings were also great for kids to get their feet in the door of professional theater. Many would get their Equity cards and/or embark on great careers in the theater and/or film and television. For others, it was a chance to rub elbows with these stars.
For Mark Champion, he got to be around two productions of Hello, Dolly in stock starring two very different entertainers, Betsy Palmer and Sylvia Syms.
The first was 1971 at Cape Cod Melody Tent with Betsy Palmer. At that time, Mark was a staff person at the theater.
He was just coming out of his senior year in high school. He worked the grounds, he worked the snack bar at night, he grew up at the Cape Cod Melody Tent. He was involved with it from the very start. He wound up over the years doing everything from cleaning toilets to actually playing trombone in the pit on some productions. His last two years there, he was the operations supervisor overseeing the entire operation. There was a wide range of things he did there. In 1971, the primary task was cast transportation. That being said, he did anything and everything that needed to be done. His father was the advisor of the board and basically ran the theater.
That was his involvement then.
Betsy Palmer brought glamour to Dolly along the lines of Ginger Rogers and Betty Grable. She had radiance about her. She was a typical glamorous musical comedy lead. Mark was certainly familiar with Carol Channing’s original cast recording at that point. He had also seen Channing do a few numbers on TV from time to time. Betsy Palmer definitely brought a much different “feel” to Dolly. There was a little less “character” to it and a little more “sweetness.”
Mark also worked at the Chateau de Ville Theater. That theater was part of five theaters throughout New England. This was in the Boston area. That’s where Mark hooked up with a dinner theater tour of Hello, Dolly with Sylvia Syms headlining. Mark started off as the board operator. They ended up firing one of the stage hands and Mark moved backstage. The prop mistress left at the end of the Framingham run which was the opening of the run. At that point, Mark became prop master. He was prop master for the rest of the run, a circuit of five dinner theaters, three in the Boston area and one each in East Windsor, Conn., and Warwick, Rhode Island.
For a while, Mark was Sylvia’s personal driver which was a trip, pun intended. Mark was in line to get his Equity card and take over as assistant stage manager, but he was a late entry for that and someone else got that position for reasons that he will not go into. Mark never did get his Equity card. That is a regret. That is about as close as he came. He did go to an audition in New York several years later for Man of La Mancha. He actually played the captain of The Inquisition as the only non Equity actor at the Chateau de Ville Dinner Theater. He also auditioned in New York that Joe Lorden was directing. Mark was just too young.
Sylvia Syms was amazing. She did a curtain speech each night which summed it up pretty well. The curtain speech had become a part of the show once Mary Martin started doing it in her home state of Texas.
Betsy Palmer did not do a curtain speech. Sylvia Syms’ curtain speech was very straight forward for her. She talked about how she had brought the character back to Shirley Booth’s portrayal in The Matchmaker, being that “short, dumpy middle aged lady.” Some night, she referred to her as a broad who loved being alive. That was Sylvia in a nutshell; although Mark is not sure how much she was loving being alive at the time. Sylvia had just come off of recovering from a couple of nearly fatal incidents. She had had a big battle with lung cancer in the late sixties. She lost part of her left lung, her spleen, and part of her intestine. As she was recovering from that, she was in a horrific car accident at a toll booth. She broke both her legs and spent a year in a wheelchair. She had pretty much just gotten back on her feet and was doing the show although she was having a lot of trouble getting around. She had gained a lot of weight. She was also using oxygen a lot. She would come off stage a number of times and grab the oxygen tank and start inhaling deeply and strongly. She would go out on stage with her energy and movement and the audience never had a clue that she had these challenges. She was a real character.
|June Helmers was Irene Molloy|
Her Horace Vandergelder was a man named Bill Griffis. Bill was a nice man who was very talented. His Vandergelder was spot on. One of his other Broadway credits was Over Here! Where he had a featured role. He was also an amazing cook and wrote cookbooks. He also played Stephen Hawkins in the National tour of 1776. Max Showalter was Betsy Palmer’s Horace.
Max had an energy and a spark on stage. He was a good guy and always seemed upbeat around the theater. When he hit the stage, audiences knew he was there. He had a sparkle in his eye and a bounce in his step. He was Betsy’s equal on stage. Max was not going to be over shadowed.
Sylvia dominated the stage and Bill was second banana to her.
Sylvia had a habit of picking one person at each theater to make their lives miserable to take out her frustrations on. Bill was her target in Warwick, Rhode Island, to the point that one night he was almost in tears. In the scene that where she sings So Long, Dearie, she was jabbing him in the chest and shoulder so hard that he ended up with a deep purple bruise. Mark does not know where this mean streak came from. Mark was her target at one of the theaters. She just decided that someone was causing her some challenge or affront.
She had been appearing with Bill at this point for six months.
Perhaps she decided he didn’t have the energy she needed to play off of or he messed her up on a line, Mark has no clue. Bill never found out why, she never told him.
Sylvia received great reviews everywhere. These were 800 seat theaters. The tour definitely started out at full capacity. As time went on in each theater, attendance would be anything from half to full.
They would do six nights each week and a Sunday matinee. Mondays were dark.
Sylvia was a character and was very close with Frank Sinatra. Frank Sinatra considered her the "world's greatest saloon singer." Sinatra subsequently conducted her 1982 album, Syms by Sinatra. She talked about Sinatra frequently and her relationship with him. In later years, Syms made regular appearances at the Carlyle in Manhattan.
She would also be invited to Sinatra’s recording sessions. She had a little dog called Suzy.
They were appearing in Warrick, Rhode Island near the end of the run. Her good friend Rex Reed was sitting down front enjoying the show a lot. After the show, Eddie Goldsmith, who played Barnaby, Bill Mulligan, who was playing Cornelius, Rex, and Sylvia all went to the lounge in the theater. The following was relayed to Mark from Bill Mulligan. (Bill passed away in 2010 of Alzheimer’s.Bill actually worked with a number of the Dollys. He was a super guy.)
It was a disco type of lounge off the lobby. They were sitting there and enjoying their drinks and this guy swaggers over with a drink in his hand and says to Rex, “You’re Rex Reed?” Rex sits up, straightens his tie, and says, “Yes. I’m Rex Reed.” The guy said, “You suck!” and threw the drink in Rex Reed’s face! Eddie, Bill, and Sylvia immediately jumped to their feet and Sylvia started yelling at the guy. Eddie and Bill sat back down wondering what they could do. Meanwhile, according to Bill, Sylvia was pounding on this guy. She was a little over five feet. She called him every four letter name in the book and a couple of compound names.
The maître d, who could have doubled for Vince Fontaine from Grease, rushes over and gets control of Sylvia as this guy walks away laughing. The maître d is trying to calm Sylvia down as she is yelling and screaming.
She tries to follow him. She finally comes back with everyone trailing her.
The maître d said, “Don’t worry, Sylvia. He’s just a local hood.” She said, Hood!?!?! I’ll show him what hoods are about! All I have to do is make two calls and he’ll be floating in the river!” She stormed up to the stage manager’s office and picked up the phone and started screaming into the phone. Mark is not sure who she called but several weeks later after they closed, Mark went home for awhile before getting ready to do Man of La Mancha.
Sylvia’s dresser on Dolly was the assistant stage manager on La Mancha. The first day that Mark came back, she said to him, “Did you hear what happened to that guy who threw a drink at Rex Reed? He was killed by a shotgun blast through his apartment window!”
Mark was never able to independently confirm it but he was a local hood who was a mob wannabe. It may well have had something to do with something else. There was an irony there but Mark developed a greater respect for Sylvia, just in case.
She died on stage at the Algonquin Hotel in New York from a heart attack, aged 74, in a show that was actually dedicated to Sinatra.
Miss Syms was singing an encore after a performance at the midtown Manhattan Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room when she fell to the floor about 1 a.m.
Her publicist, Keith Sherman, said she was rushed to nearby St. Clare Hospital where she was dead on arrival of undetermined causes. The self-taught jazz and pop singer, who had been performing in clubs since the 1940s, was 73.
Her month long engagement at the Oak Room was titled Sylvia Syms Sings Sinatra, a tribute to her close friend whom she met nearly 50 years priorat a Billie Holiday concert.
Hello, Dolly does speak to Mark on a personal level especially as he has gotten older. In fact, Mark’s first cabaret show at Don’t Tell Mama was called Before the Parade Passes By, His Midlife Crisis…A Story in Song. Someone suggested that title to him. He opened the show with the beginning of the song a capella very rabato.
He did that from off stage. He entered onto the stage and began the show very upbeat. He ended the show with Open a New Window and Before The Passes By, two Jerry Herman songs. As he gets older, Before The Parade Passes By gets him every time! It says to him that it is not too late to be in the game. Be a part of it and savor it.
Watching Sylvia go out in spite of the shape she was in and in spite of everything and do that show and engage people the way she did by fusing her personality with the character and vice versa made a striking impression on Mark. He worked with her again years later when she was touring with Carol Lawrence in Funny Girl.
Sylvia played Fanny’s mother. It was at The Smithfield Theater in 1976. Mark was running the theater at the time. He greeted the cast before their tech and went over to Sylvia. He said to her “I don’t know if you remember me.” She said, “I remember you. There were a lot of things going on back then. I’ve changed a lot since then. ” Mark said, “Yes. I’ve grown up a lot since then as well.”
Mark calls himself an accidental journalist. He has been working as a journalist for the past thirty-five years. Over the years, he has done some performing. He even created his own cabaret show and performed it at Don’t Tell Mama in NYC.
Not getting the Assistant Stage Management promotion was a huge disappointment to Mark. Mark was very young at the time of these productions of Hello, Dolly and is not as sure that he appreciated it at the time as he does now in hindsight.
He grew up in the theater so it wasn’t like he was going in with stars in his eyes. He collected a lot of fun stories along the way. When he listens to the CD of the 1995 revival of Hello, Dolly which has some of the incidental music including the extended The Waiter’s Gallop, he tears up with memories flooding back to those two productions. It is the joy of Hello, Dolly that has audiences worldwide to gravitate to Dolly over the past fifty years. It is the celebration of life and the indomitable spirit of Dolly. It has a very positive message for multiple generations, Dolly and Horace are older and Irene and Cornelius’s meeting under their circumstances.
A shout out to Jerry Herman is also in order for creating that level of glory day Broadway work was just amazing.
Mark Chapman’s association with Hello, Dolly made him look at himself and entertainers differently. Everybody in those two productions were at such a high level and the shows were so good and had so much energy that it really picked him up. Working backstage, it also renewed his desire to entertain. It propelled him in that direction. Most people now look at dinner theater as cheesy. At that time, they had great names, June Helmers, Bill Mulligan, Virginia Seidel who played Minnie Fay, it was directed by Christopher Hewitt and choreographed by Jack Craig. Oscar winner Gloria Gresham did the costumes. This was a first class production. What saddens Mark is that that level of production is no longer seen in dinner theater and stock. It cannot be brought to audiences anymore.
Thank you Mark Chapman for the gifts you have given to the world and will continue to give!