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Mary Jo Catlett

Mary Jo Catlett: Bridging The Gap With Dolly!

David Burns and Mary Jo Catlett Hello, Dolly! 1964

Mary Jo Catlett is notable for her role as housekeeper Pearl Gallagher on the television sitcom Diff'rent Strokes, and currently for her role as Mrs. Puff in SpongeBob SquarePants, which she has held since the show's debut. She was also in the original Broadway production of Hello, Dolly! starring Carol Channing as Ernestina Money. Mary Jo and I sat down to talk after the opening night of Bette Midler's Hello, Dolly! Prior to this production opening, Mary Jo was talking with a friend of hers and she said, "Oh, they're going to do Dolly with Bette Midler and she's perfect for it. She truly is the most perfect Dolly since Carol, in my opinion." Then in came off the top of Mary Jo's head, "Wouldn't it be fun if they invited some of the original cast members." Mary Jo's friend said, "That's a perfect idea!

You should talk to somebody." Well, that planted a seed and the wheels started turning. Mary Jo's dear friend, theatrical attorney Mark Sendroff, who is a great guy, after speaking with Mary Jo, said, "Let me forward this on to Scott Rudin and see what he thinks." Shortly thereafter, Mary Jo received an email from Scott Rudin saying, "I wish I had this idea! I think it's a terrific idea and we;re going to make it happen." Then the waiting game began. Mary Jo didn't hear and she began to think, 'It's not going to happen.' She resolved herself to the fact that that opening night ticket was next to impossible to obtain.

Charles Nelson Reilly, Eileen Brennon, Jerry Dodge, Sondra Lee Original company

She kind of wrote it off.
Just about three weeks prior to opening night, the email came in that she would have a ticket. She received a follow up email telling her that she would have a ticket plus one. She got excited that she would be able to bring a best friend with her.

She followed up with very appreciative e-mails. Mary Jo credits Sendroff for really getting things in motion.

Mary Jo from Different Strokes

In addition to Mary Jo, David Hartman (Rudolph), Sondra Lee (Minnie Fay), and Ron Young (ensemble) also attended.  It was a great reunion.

Mary Jo knew going in that she would probably start to tear up seeing the dancing once again from Before The Parade. What really got her, however, was Put on Your Sunday Clothes (choreography, by the way, for this production is by Warren Carlyle with a huge homage to Gower's original choreography).
Out of all of the choreography for this current revival, Mary Jo feels, repectfully, that Sunday Clothes came the closest to Gower's original concept and you just can't go wrong with that.

Mary Jo missed the original choreography from Parade. When Gower choreographed the original, there was a wonderful musical interlude in which Dolly sings "Look at that crowd over there' and the curtain rises to reveal one fireman,

David Hartman and Mary Jo Catlett opening night

'Buttons' Leonard in the original, starts prouncing out as the leader of the parade and little by little the rest of the parade emerges with a big build. As much as she loved Carlyle's choreography and Jerry Zaks direction in that number, there were aspects from the original that she missed.  Sunday Clothes was the 'take you away' number!  She turned to her date, Rodney, and said, "I keep seeing ghosts up there". It was reminiscent of Follies for her!

Eileen Brennon and Sondra Lee Original production

"It was thrilling, exciting, and a bit scary." As of this writing, it has been 53 years since the original production of Dolly opened on Broadway.  Since the original production, Mary has seen subsequent productions with Channing and she also caught Pearl Bailey and Ethel Merman during the original run. She also worked with Ginger Rogers and Dorothy Lamour in their productions.

When Mary Jo originally auditioned for Dolly, she auditioned to be in the chorus. She was required to audition with '8 bars'. She wracked her brain trying to figure out what she should do. She chose Everything's Coming Up Roses. She started with, "Goodbye to blueberry pie..." and went on from there. Carnival! He came to a club where Mary Jo was performing at the time.

Mary Jo celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Dolly at Sardi's

They said, "Thank you", and she left. She felt satisfied because she got to meet Gower Champion whom she had long admired.  She had met him once. Mary Jo is from Denver and he came to Denver with

After her audition, she went about her business as most actors/actresses do, reading Back Stage, and auditioning for other shows.  One such audition that she wanted to go after was Jerry Herman's Milk and Honey. She was able to tell this story to Jerry Herman later. She got the audition and then got scared. She felt she was too young. They were casting older actresses.
with Jeanne (Lehman) French

She got called back for Dolly...FOUR TIMES!  One day she was walking down the street and an actor came up to her and said, "I heard you got Dolly!" She said, "I did?" That's how she found out! She was surprised. That's how news traveled in those days.

She ran home and to her answering machine. Indeed there was a call from the Merrick office. Lucia Victor, who was the stage manager, had left a message. She was cast as a chorus member. In the original concept, during I Put My Hand In, there was a crossover of four ladies, called the four biddies, very a la the Pick a Little women from Music Man. It never made it beyond the rehearsal stage. It was just a cross over bit in which they would talk to Dolly.

Mary Jo heard years later that Merrick said to Champion, "We have to fire that heavy set girl." It's not easy to acclimate her into the other chorus numbers. Gower, thank God, said "Let's not be too hasty.Maybe I can figure something out for her." Lucia came over to Mary Jo one day when she was still being a biddie and said, "Gower would like you to read for Ernestina. That role had already been cast so Mary Jo thought it would be to understudy her. Lucia asked Mary Jo to keep it under her hat and not tell anyone.

The original concept of Ernestina had her more glamorous. Gower felt that it should go in a different direction and be more comical. He wanted more of a sight gag. He also wanted someone who could sing.

Renee Taylor came in to audition for the role and Mary Jo found herself in the hallway with her. Renee said to Mary Jo in that inimitable style of hers, "I think you're perfect for this."  Mary Jo went in, read for it, and she got the part!

In the early stages, a lot of actors came and went. Several Barnabys were fired before they settled on Jerry Dodge. In was in Washington DC when Mary Jo felt that they were in a hit. This was, of course, after Detroit. In Detroit, there was a show that preceded Dolly called Bravo, Giovanni.

with Patricia Morrison

For some reason, it didn't capture an audience and there was a sort of hatred for this musical that surrounded it.

One review in Detroit began it's review of Hello, Dolly, with, "Not since Don Giovanni have I seen a worse show!" The entire company was crest fallen because they truly felt they had something. Gower decided to take chunks of the show and redo them.  There were approximately thirteen people replaced at that time, maybe even more. It was a sad time. Working with a company like this, it is very much a family and close bonds do form. For some, it was the best thing that could have happened because they went on to better things. Always at the center, however, was Carol Channing who was a comedic genius.

When they got to Washington, Richard Coe, who was THE top critic with The Washington Post, raved about the show. There was a swing in Dolly, Alvin Beam, he said, "We can get a new refrigerator! We can get anything on time payments. We are a hit."

Opening week was a tragic week. The first performance was on November 18th, 1963 at The Fisher Theater in Detroit. On November 22nd, President Kennedy was assassinated.  Trying to be excited for a show against the backdrop of a worldwide tragedy was horrible and forever burned into Mary Jo's memory. She shared a dressing room with three other women and they were just sitting around talking when Charles Nelson Reilly came in to break the news. Now, please take into account, that every few days he would come into the dressing room with something hilarious and they would be screaming with laughter.

Carol Channing was always a trouper!

On this particular day, he came in and said, "They shot Kennedy."  The women responded with, "That's not funny." They could not believe this could be real. He said, "No. It's real." These little black and white TVs were brought in. They were placed in the dressing rooms. Everything came to a complete stop and they gathered around these TVs and couldn't stop watching everything as it was unfolding. Everyone from Gower on down were so terribly down. Of course, the show was cancelled that night. This was a huge deal. That just didn't happen.  It was a good thing because the entire company was awash. Even Carol, who was a trooper, couldn't go on. It was unbelievable that something like that could happen. The next day was dark as well. They did go to rehearsal that second day. Gower sat down and addressed the entire company. Everyone consoled each other and they all knew they had to go on. Because of the shape the show was in, they also knew they had to keep working to ensure the show's success. "It is amazing that theater folk are such heroes. There are many times that we have to go on when tragedy strikes."

The biggest change Mary Jo saw, which is still no longer a part of the show is the Come and Be My Butterfly number. That was in place of the polka contest. Jerry Herman says that it is one of his biggest regrets that it was cut. Mary Jo says it was a beautiful number. There are a few pictures around. There were women scantily clad with these extensions like gossamer butterfly wings. Look at Tessie Tura in Gypsy. This was popular in that day. It was artistic. Unfortunately, critic Walter Kerr told Gower Champion after a smashingly successful opening that he didn't think Come and Be My Butterfly was on the same par as the rest of the show.  In the number Horace is chasing Barnaby and Cornelius and they are getting caught up in the wings. 

David Burns warns the women, Watch those feelers, Miss!"  He was brilliantly funny in this number. This number was cut after Carol Channing left the company and Ginger Rogers stepped in. It went into the Mary Martin company and has been there since. This was probably at a loss of $30,000 which was a lot of money then. It probably cost $100,000 for all of the costumes of Dolly.   These numbers cost a lot of money and time.    When Before The Parade Passes By was added in Washington DC, it went in even before costumes were constructed!  It was a mishmash and the audience was on their feet.  It really is Dolly's show. It's called Hello, Dolly!Audiences were so in love with that character as they are now with Bette as Dolly.

The first time Mary Jo heard Louis Armstrong's version of Hello, Dolly!was New Year's eve 1963.  In December 1963, at the behest of his manager, Louis Armstrong made a demonstration recording of "Hello, Dolly!" Gower got an advance and played it for the company. The company was a little modest about it. How wonderful of him to sing that song. He's well known! Then that recording exploded! 

It was good for Louis Armstrong and it was good for the show as well. Everybody was singing that song. Jerry Herman was over the moon.  Next stop, St. James Theater on Broadway! One preview and then opening night, January 16th, 1964! Compare that to the current production, five weeks of previews with no out of town try out.  The music started at the top of the show for Call on Dolly and the audience is roaring. Gower, who was very cinematic in his staging, had the back drop moving from stage right to left which gave the illusion of the cast moving. The company was standing in place but moving their feet. It was an incredibly brilliant way of staging it. Carol then made her entrance on the horse cart with the 'twins'. The moment she said, "Dolly! Levi...Born Gallagher", there was pandemonium in the theater. The same thing happens nightly with Bette. As Mary Jo, watched the opening with Bette, it immediately took her back to her own opening night. 

Alice Playten

Working with Carol Channing was a terrific experience for Mary Jo. "She's such a wonderful person. She was always so nice to me and Alice Playten. She was a brilliant Ermengarde. She found a wail that was uniquely her own. What an actress." Carol, Alice, and Mary Jo became buddies. Alice and Mary Jo used to go to Carol's apartment which was in an upscale hotel.  Carol and Charles (Lowe) would say, "Come over! We'll have a slumber party." The three of them would do each other's hair and other similar things that young girls do on slumber parties. They had so much fun and Carol was great with all of this.  They laughed a lot. Mary Jo also recalls the strange diets Carol was always on. Carol mostly ate chicken and turkey at that time. She would bring her silver containers with her to dinner parties. 

Igors Gavon and Alice Playten

The cast were always being invited to these fabulous parties and Carol would always bring her own food.  She would say to Mary Jo, "Now, Mary Jo, taste that and tell me how it is." It was just a beautiful time! Mary Jo was very star struck and it was her first Broadway show. All the greats came to see the show. Mary Jo met Jackie Kennedy, Audrey Hepburn, all these people that you just dream about.  She would be looking down the stairs as they came back stage. From time to time she would meet them but she was too shy to approach on her own. Carol got on to this and she would always let Mary Jo who would be attending that night. 

"Oh, Mary Jo, tomorrow night, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor are going to be here!" Mary Jo was so excited and she came in early to get ready for the show in case she got to get a glimpse of this god and goddess. Then she heard, "Mary Jo Catlett to Miss Channing's dressing room." She went down and Carol said, "Oh, Mary Jo, I'm so sorry. Richard and Elizabeth are not going to be here tonight." Mary Jo said, "Oh no! What happened?" Carol responded, "Elizabeth is under the weather." Mary Jo responded, "I'm so sorry. " Carol answered, When Elizabeth called, I told her Mary Jo Catlett is going to be disappointed." 

Mary Jo asked, "What did she say?" Carol responded, "She said,'who'?"  Mary sayed with the Broadway company for eighteen months. She then went on the road with Ginger Rogers and Dorothy Lamour. All told, Mary Jo was with Hello, Dolly! for three years.  Ginger had a wonderful hair dresser named Kathy Engel. She had wonderful kids and Mary Jo bonded with her family. Ginger wanted Mary Jo on the road with Kathy and it was all negotiated and they had a great time. Looking back, Mary Jo doesn't think it was one of the best career moves she ever made. 

Looking back, she would not have done it.  She feels that she should have stayed in New York and kept auditioning. When you're in a Broadway show, it gives you a little entree into having a little advantage to go to another Broadway show. Being on the road for as long as she was, she came back to New York,for lack of a better word, 'cold'. She did get into other Broadway shows but it did take a while. She feels that if she had stayed that it would not have taken as long which would have been better for her career.  There were no negatives, otherwise, working with Ginger. Her Dolly was very different from Carol's. She was an adorable Dolly. So Long, Dearie was the max. She did a little tap break and the audiences went wild! She was always great to work with. When Mary Jo first worked with her, she looked into Ginger's eyes and could not get over the fact that they appeared turquoise with gold flecks. 

She doesn't feel that film did those eyes justice. They were so beautiful. Nice lady AND the best she had ever seen with fans. She would sign every autograph. She would wait till the very last person and this would be, sometimes, a hundred people waiting! She would stick around and sign every single one after matinee AND evening. She was so wonderful to her fans.  When she was doing Dolly on Broadway, a white stretch limousine would pull up to the stage door, and she would come out and stand on top of the stretch limousine and sign autographs for everyone. Marlene Dietrich used to do the same thing when she did her one woman show. This was a very clever idea. It gave fans a chance to see them. However, she wasn't the same with autographs. At least fans got a chance to see their movie goddesses. 

Dorothy Lamour

One of Dorothy Lamour's regrets was that she didn't do it on Broadway. Dorothy Lamour brought Dorothy Lamour to Dolly. People just came to see HER. They had loved her in all the 'Road' movies. She was a 'sweet' Dolly. She delivered the humor but there was an underlying kindness in her performance.     Great to work with. Mary Jo only worked with her in Vegas. When Mary Jo went to Vegas with Ginger, they were scheduled to do twelve shows a week. This was a tab version of the show which emphasized the songs more so than the dialogue. They would do two shows a night. Mary Jo doesn't believe they had a day off. Not positive about that. Ginger, as is Carol, is a Christian Scientist. She could not do Sundays. She told them they would have to get someone else and that's how they got Dorothy Lamour. It was decided that Dorothy would do four shows a week and that Ginger would do eight. It wasn't as difficult a schedule for the two stars. They did not lose audiences. As a matter of fact, some people came to see both. 

The major names of the world came to see Carol Channing in Dolly

The biggest change that Mary Jo noticed years later when seeing Carol in later revivals and tours was that her tempos had slowed down.  It was slower, but in a way, it was more meaningful. She really looked at the people she was talking to in the Dolly number. A lot of her performance was also now played out front to the audience, which is what they came to see. It didn't hurt the show at all. She was such a good actress that within each stage of her aging, she was true to herself. 

Mary Jo's memories of seeing Pearl Bailey's Dolly was that she was 'real fun'. She was Pearl Bailey first and Dolly Levi second casting asides to the audience. When Mary Jo saw Bailey's production, Cornelius' understudy went on that day. After all the bows, Bailey called him center stage and said, "I think this young man deserves extra applause." He had done a brilliant job and she gave him a star bow at the end. Mary Jo thought, "Now, that's a giving star. Very nice."  Bette Midler..."What can you say? She's fabulous and I hope everyone will see it and tell their friends to see it as well. Please do everything you can to go see her while you can. She's awesome! Awesome! Awesome!!! And so Beautiful as Dolly!"  There's an adage. Always leave them laughing. On opening night, during the curtain calls, she got two huge bouquets of white roses. There must have been four dozen white roses. She was laden with these bouquets. She mocked surprise at receiving the roses and then staggers off! GO GO GO SEE Bette Midler! You have only until January 14th, 2018! 

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