Peter Walker (Cornelius Hackl: Betty Grable, Carol Channing, Dorothy Lamour Companies)
Peter Walker was in the first show that Gower Champion ever directed; it was a show called Hemingway and All Those People at the Avondale Playhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. Marge and Gower and Peter became good friends. Marge also heard Peter sing at that time. Peter had a lilting voice.
In 1966, a friend of Peter’s, Arthur Bartow, was playing Cornelius Hackl in Vegas with Betty Grable and Max Showalter. Peter Walker (also a lyricist) was working with Max Showalter on a musical at that time. It was called Touch the Sun, about the Virginia City Silver Rush.
Bartow was leaving Dolly after Vegas and a replacement was needed. Since Max and Gower were good friends, along with Peter (they had gone out to dinner many times), Peter requested an audition and he got the job.
Peter had a week of rehearsals with stage manager, Pat Tolson. Peter didn’t really work under Lucia’s direction. Pat got him up and running and Gower came out to Chicago to look at it. Pat was a great supporter of all the companies that he presided over. Whatever company he was with, he was very protective of that company.
Peter had total freedom to bring his own personality to Cornelius.
The show was so brilliantly conceived that you couldn’t help but dance it. Peter also had a background in ballroom dancing. The actor came into the notion of him not knowing how to dance. That gave him another dynamic. Nancy Walker did it brilliantly in Look Ma, I’m Dancin’! one must know how to dance well in order to know how to dance badly. It was a lovely thing to see.
Peter has heard the stories about Mr. Merrick. They are overblown. He was a “brilliant beast. ” When they were in Montreal, Merrick came up to see the show. Merrick and Peter ate together and hit it off. Peter liked him. He was a nice man. They got along one on one. It was obvious he had an evil side.
So what? He was the best producer in the business at that time.
He has been very fortunate in his life of work and travels and he has never been in the “awe” arena of being in awe of people. He has had extraordinary encounters with notables of the world from Olivier to Picasso to extraordinary people.
He doesn’t know if it’s ego or stupidity but he belonged there and it was nice to belong there. He knew he belonged because he was confident of what he could bring. He loved playing Cornelius and would like to now go back and visit Vandergelder.
Speaking of Vandergelder, Max Showalter was an amazing man. Max and Peter had a long life together. They were friends and professional partners for forty years. He was a great big Kansas guy. He didn’t want to be a Kansas Guy. But one of the greatest roles he ever played was in a film called My Six Loves directed by Gower Champion and starring Debbie Reynolds. Everyone is in that film…Hans Conreid, Alice Pearce, Jim Backus, and an incredible cast beyond that! Max is at his best in it because he played himself, “a big ol’ Kansas farm man”. ‘Max’s sister and Peter Walker are still close today. She is like a sister to Peter. She was born when Max was twenty-one years old and away from home. Their parents were killed in a tragic car accident. Their mother died instantly and their father shortly thereafter. Max tried to take over as a father.
She didn’t need a father, she needed a brother. At the time of the accident, Max had been doing some work with Oscar Hammerstein II, and they had become close. Hammerstein sent a beautiful letter to Max about the tragedy.
Those who knew Max best, his sister Dolores Quinton, and Peter were huddled up in a corner at his memorial service for about six hundred people, which Peter arranged, and they mused that they were truly the only three people at the memorial who probably even really knew the real Max all. That jovial man was very solipsistic, with a great inferiority complex. When that is combined in a single human being, it is a very difficult combination. He was a good man on his terms. Gower and Max were close friends. It was Gower’s decision to have Max replace David Burns.
He had a raucous HA HA HA laugh. Michael Price at The Goodspeed Opera House would invite him to opening nights because of that laugh. He had a great jovial laugh.
When Peter and Max were working together, Peter became aware of Max’s need to always be number one in the spotlight and press. Dolores Quinten was always saying, “Peter, no one knows you’ve done the lyrics, so speak up.”
From that moment on, when they performed their songs at Hollywood homes, he would announce, “I did the lyrics and Max did the music.”
He felt it was boring, but it was also the only way for people to know. Years later, Marge Champion was instrumental in getting Jerry Herman to hear their songs. That meeting resulted in Harrigan ‘N Hart. For this musical, Peter busted his ass on a lyric called We’ll Be There to be sung by Harrigan and Hart about the sounds an actor hears which are connected to and around the theater. As we all know, the Show Business anthem is There’s No Business Like Show Business. Where do you go from there?
There’s a Whir from the wind in the alley
There’s a tick from the clock by the callboard
And a squeak from the cracks in the floor
There’s a purr from the cat in the basement
Making music for the magic in the air
And we’ll be there. We’ll be there.
-Harrigan and Hart
Max’s brilliance as a composer is that he could read a lyric, sit down and write the music in five minutes. That was his great ability. Ethel Merman and Max Showalter were friends and Ethel was over one night and Max played it for Ethel.
She belted it out in her usual fashion. Years later a book was written on Ethel Merman. The author asked Max if he had anything to share. Max told the story. The book comes out, Peter gets the book and reads, “I had just finished a song called We’ll Be There and Merman says, ‘Honey, when I sing it, it’ll be called I’ll Be There.” Peter Walker’s name was not mentioned. It changed Peter’s direction of believing in Mr. Showalter. That hit Peter hard and changed the dynamics of their relationship. Peter still loved him but grew not to trust him professionally. He had too many years invested in him and his family.
Peter thinks Hello, Dolly is the greatest transference from play to musical since My Fair Lady. Peter believes everything about Hello, Dolly is brilliantly conceived. Michael Stewart’s treatment of Thornton Wilder’s book was brilliant.Gower did an incredible job directing it. Channing was marvelous. Charles Nelson Reilly was ridiculously good. The score was marvelous. Every nuance, the characters alone, Dolly, Horace, Cornelius, Barnaby, Minnie Fay, Ermengarde, Ambrose,there has never been a show with better character names!
Peter loved doing the show. His voice was just right for It Only Takes a Moment. He was able, for an untrained voice, to make it work. Not only does he feel that it was one of the top five experiences of his career; he also feels it is one of the top five musicals of all time.
Marge Champion, who is responsible more than anybody for Carol being in Dolly, also brought many ideas to the show. For instance, in the Harmonia Gardens eating scene, it was Marge’s idea to use cotton candy, which melts quickly in the mouth.
Charles Nelson Reilly and Eileen Brennan were cast because they were close to matching Carol’s outrageous use of extraordinary persona and character though they had to rein it down a bit. Charles Nelson Reilly brought a manic talent, without question. Peter brought an intensity that was more in line with Irene. His Irenes were June Helmers , Joanne Horne, and Dran Hamilton. Hamilton and her sister were well known, even gracing the cover of Life Magazine.
Peter feels that his strongest point as Cornelius was that he didn’t overdo it and that his weakest point was that he didn’t overdo it.
There is a very fine line.
Peter rehearsed in Las Vegas. His first performance was in Chicago. They played the Shubert Theater for several months.
And would go on to play several cities across the country. Peter was with the show for seven months. They had a great tour, they were a family, and Betty Grable was wonderful.
Betty was a very warm, vulnerable lady and how she loved her mom! One evening, it was hot as hell in Chicago. There was static coming over Betty’s body mike along with police calls were also coming over. When she came off the stage, she was obviously was feeling the effects of the evening. Also, at that time, she was having a complicated affair with one of the company’s young dancers, Bob Remick.. Her exit was Peter’s entrance and on that night, Peter overheard her anguished cry to herself, “Oh, God, I wish my mommy was here.” It broke Peter’s heart. She was a very lost and tired soul at that moment.
Peter tweaked his performance every time he was on stage. After the eighth month, you say, “Hey, that’s perfect.” And then you start to add things, which can be dangerous. That’s the marvelous thing about playing a role over the course of time.
Hello, Dolly had a significant impact on Peter’s career, starting with Lucia Victor, Gower’s assistant.
He received pleasant reviews.
Hello, Dolly was the first time that Peter had a long run. He learned a discipline of keeping every performance as fresh as if it was the first night.
Every night before going on, he would say to himself, “This is the first time I’ve ever done this and this is the first time the audience is seeing it.”
It’s a very strange thing in this business. Timing and the luck of the draw is everything. Once in a passing conversation with Yul Brynner, Brynner said to
Peter about being discovered, “You know, Peter, I was discovered seven times before it stuck with The King and I.”
Peter believes anyone who says they don’t read reviews is lying through their teeth. He scoured his reviews. Once, a reviewer in Chicago said Peter sounded like Jimmy Stewart, which he did not like.
Carol Channing brought an “over the topness” that secured her position as the “top” Dolly. She had an ability to maintain that level of madness with honesty behind it.
He thought Grable was the loveliest of the Dollys he did it with. He also thought that it had a lot to do with the vulnerability she brought to the role.
Rex Robbins was leaving his role of Cornelius Hackl.
He would also go on to do it with Dorothy Lamour. The rhythms he learned with Betty were not the same that he would have with Carol.
Peter had worked seven months beautifully with Betty. His first night with Carol, he had no rehearsal; he had to go on cold. He had played Cornelius with a whole different orchestra of rhythms. When he says to Dolly, “Look, I’m dancing”, always a huge laugh. His first night with Carol, when he said the line, there was a huge silence. Charles Lowe wanted him fired right away. Lowe called Gower after the first performance with a request to fire Peter. But Peter stayed. And found the rhythms of Carol’s cadence after a couple of rehearsals. Dorothy Lamour was put in when Carol took a short vacation. Dorothy Lamour and Peter were actually supposed to go into the show at the same time.
Charles Lowe never warmed up to Peter. Charles kept Carol in a bubble. She never even spoke to Peter until two months into their run. They were in Cincinnati. A friend of Peter’s cousin, a Gary Cooperish type of a fellow, who was a distinguished Midwest critic for theater and what have you, came backstage to see Carol, of course. Then, because he was a friend of Peter’s cousin in Cincinnati, he asked to see Peter Walker. This was the first time Peter heard Carol utter his name. She yelled, “Peter, darling, come down! We have friends.” He was “darling” for that one evening. There was no question that she was “protected” from everyone by Charles.
On closing night, The Company was instructed by Pat Tolson NOT to touch Carol during the curtain calls, as it would be a very emotional night for her. At curtain calls, Cornelius is on one side of her and Horace on the other. No one knew how to anticipate how she would react.
He grabbed her hand and squeezed it very hard. She didn’t pull away. He knew it hurt but it also took her mind off the emotion of the moment. Peter is not a dis compassionate man.
(Carol even murmured “thank you”) When they were in Montreal, Carol tried her best to speak in French during her curtain call. It was really kind of a disaster. Being bilingual, Peter would throw the words to her knowing what she was trying to say. It happened the second night as well. The audience loved it, BUT it was a shared spotlight at that moment. Peter suggested to Charles, “Look, I’d be happy to help her out there and it is very effective. But Charles said, “NO! We’re going to learn the whole thing.” And they did.
When the The Mechanic Theater was built in Baltimore, it opened on January 15th, 1967 with Betty Grable’s Company of Dolly. The people who ran the theater went to see Betty’s company, which Peter was still in, and Carol’s company. They chose Grable’s company. Charles was not a happy camper. At a January 17, 1967 dinner honoring Vice President Hubert Humphrey, House Speaker John McCormick and Chief Justice Earl Warren, and the Johnsons invited Carol Channing and the Hello Dolly! cast to come down and do excerpts of it for them and guests on the small stage which Mrs. Kennedy had built for performances in the East Room. Of course, all the headlines were about Channing’s Dolly as opposed to Grable’s Dolly. January 17th was the OFFICIAL opening for Grable’s company!
There is no question that it was a difficult transition coming into a pre-existing company. It was much more of a family with Betty Grable. Betty was the “earth mother” of her company. Carol was a recluse, and though Dorothy was wonderful, she was only there a month or two. They had a few evenings out together. In Betty’s company a big birthday party was thrown for Betty, and everyone loved it. The Betty Grable company, prior to Peter, had been in Vegas for many months. It was easy to mix into the folds of that company. Of course, there was also Peter’s partnership with Showalter. It was perfect.
When it comes to the film, Peter feels that Danny Lockin is the finest performance in the film. It was honest, joyful, and perfect, and had everyone else been as perfect, it would have been a different film. Judy Knaiz, who played Ernestina Money (Gussie Granger in the film), was badly cast. Streisand was obviously too young. It was marvelous Streisand but miscast. Walter Matthau missed the mark as Vandergelder. The best Vandergelder, to Peter, was Paul Ford in the film version of Wilder’s The Matchmaker. He was superb, every nuance, every movement. Shirley Booth was a friend of Peter’s. He also
knew Wilder from the Westport production of Our Town, Booth, and so many people connected with The Matchmaker and Hello, Dolly. Peter also did The Matchmaker with Ann B. Davis, more known as Alice on The Brady Bunch.
She brought “Schultzy” to the role. She was nothing exciting, but when you have a great play with seasoned performers, it’s tough to ruin it.
Lucia Victor was an extraordinary talent. As a director, Peter thought she was extremely keen. Lucia and Peter were very close. They had been working on their own musical,Touch The Sun, with music by Max Showalter.
They were already financed by Harry Masterson, a wealthy Texan, who put money into Broadway shows. Peter and Max’s show came unfortunately to a screeching halt.
Peter believes that Jerry Herman is one of the most under rated songwriters in America. You look at his output of Mame and Dolly and Milk and Money and La Cage Aux Folles, his songs are superb.
The biggest change Peter has seen in the business since he first began is music, the songs themselves. These days, while watching television, he feels he’s just come from Jurassic Park. Though he likes Taylor Swift and thinks she looks like a baby Ilona Massey! But mostly Peter is stunned when the camera zooms around today’s audience and the audience is actually mouthing the lyrics to a melody that he can’t even discern! The title song, Hello, Dolly, number always stops the show because of the staging and the repetition of those lyrics.
It is set up brilliantly, Gower staged it superbly.
Peter’s closing night was also the closing night of the tour. It was in Columbus, Ohio. Carol gave a midnight party. There were programs made up that read graduating class of Merrick University. Dishes were named after Marge and
Gower Champion and other dignitaries involved. That was also the last time Peter saw Carol professionally.
Sometime after that, Max threw a party for his cast.
Carol was there. She wanted to know why Peter was there.
He said, “I live here.”
Financially, Hello, Dolly was wonderful for Peter Walker. It paid the bills for a year and a half. He loved it and he learned a great deal. It is one of the classic roles in classic American Musical Theater history.
He was proud to do it. He is happy to have it as part of his history in his “yellowing reviews.” It means a great deal to him. It taught him the joys that can happen. The next National tour that Peter did was Into the Woods.
The flavor and feeling was the same, this great joy of having to prepare for another opening night in every town you go to is a treat. It is fun. “We are constantly playing. Hell, they don’t call us players for nothing.”
It almost killed him, but he stayed with it. Peter has always loved live theater.
For him, it’s a lot more fulfilling than film. There you are!