Ray Flynt runs a non-profit Social service association in Washington DC. He has been in the workforce about forty-five years. He is, as of this writing, sixty six years young. He lives in suburban Washington, in Maryland. He has been a theater fan since he first saw Hello, Dolly! Although he was a fan of theater before then, Hello, Dolly was his first Broadway experience.
He still remembers it as vividly as if it happened yesterday. It was February 14th, 1967. He was in college. He used to hang out in the theater department in college. He had friends that were theater majors. Ray’s major was political science. This was in Western Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, in a very small state college. One of his friends asked Ray if he would like to go see Hello, Dolly. Ray asked “What’s that?” His friend told him it was a musical. Ray asked, “You mean like an opera?” Ray wasn’t a big fan of opera. His friend told him no. “This is a musical comedy starring Carol Channing.” With some trepidation, Ray agreed to go with him.
This was Heinz Hall. They were in the second row from the very top of the balcony. These were the only tickets they could afford back then. Ray knew about Carol Channing from having seen her on the Ed Sullivan Show. This will tell you how naïve Ray was.
If you remember, the weekly headliner on the Ed Sullivan Show rarely appeared until the last ten minutes.
So, when Hello, Dolly was starring Carol Channing, and the show started, Ray thought it would be two hours before he saw Carol! The show began and there she was in the first number! His first thought was, again because of his naiveté, was that they were getting her out of the way so that they could really showcase her at the end. He had no clue that she was going to be on for the next two and a half hours. It was exciting to discover he was way off base. He was really captured during the Put on Your Sunday Clothes number when the train came across the stage.
Because this was Ray’s first experience at the theater, this was an appetizer. One month later, he was going with a bunch of students to a conference in New York City. There were six of them going. Prior to going, Ray asked if anyone was interested in seeing a Broadway show. There was a great one he could recommend. By that point, Ray was aware that Dolly was still running on Broadway.
They were in the rear mezzanine of the St. James Theater.
The St. James has two balconies. The mezzanine and rear mezzanine are on one level and then there is a balcony one level above it. They saw the show, this time with Martha Raye. It was March 16th, 1967. It was about a month after Ray saw Carol Channing. He was going to be in town for a couple of days. The next night, he got a ticket for himself in the first row. He saw Martha Raye again. The reason he remembers the date is that the second day was St. Patrick’s Day on the Seventeenth.
When she made her entrance in the opening number wearing the orange plaid outfit, she was also wearing a green corsage.
Ray was pleasantly surprised by Martha Raye. He had seen her on variety shows and specials as a really “cut-up” kind of comic. She never seemed able to do anything seriously. When Ray was at Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh, his view of Channing was from a hundred and twenty feet away. He couldn’t be further away. With Raye, he had a much closer view. She had a voice Ray never knew she had. He had only known her as a comic. She played the role pretty much straight except for a few portions in the eating scene in the Harmonia Gardens. She would cut up a little bit.
Ray, at that time, was not aware of Raye’s political leanings so it did not affect the way he looked at the show. She had become very well known with the troops.
Raye entertained in Vietnam. He WAS aware of that. The USO in New York at that time was giving away tickets to members of the military so they could see the show. There was that element of popularity she brought to the show. She was in the show from February 27th, 1967 until June 10th 1967, a little over three months. Then Betty Grable took over on June 12th.
Ray also saw Betty Grable. Ray liked her. One of the things that the show taught him early on was that this was the first time he had seen a show where he had the opportunity to see so many different people play the same roles and bring their own stamp to it.
It was the little subtle things more than anything else.
For example, during the Dolly number, Grable used to hike up her skirt to reveal those million dollar legs. When she began with the show, they started her out with a red wig.
They eventually changed to her more familiar blonde look. She WAS blonde when Ray saw her, the way he remembers her from movies and TV. After the show, he waited at the stage door. She was practically past him before he realized this “gray haired lady” was Betty Grable.
Before seeing his next Broadway Dolly, he saw a former Broadway Dolly. He saw Ginger Rogers in Cleveland.
Ray thought Ginger was a fine Dolly.
She didn’t necessarily knock his socks off.
She had a movie star persona about her.
The next Dolly for Ray was Pearl Bailey. He loved her in the role. She brought a new dynamism to the show. There was a renewed energy with the show that had been missing with subsequent Dollys since Carol. She brought her own personality to the show.
She and Cab Calloway were famous for doing their “third act.” That would happen immediately after the curtain calls. They would banter a bit with the entire cast still standing there. For the show that Ray saw, he was in the front row. During the “third act”, a woman in the audience started taking pictures. Ray seems to recall that it was a movie camera. She was sitting directly behind him.
Miss Bailey stopped and asked the woman if she was filming. She acknowledged the cast and said that if they had known there was a camera in the audience, they never would have done the show. She told the woman that she might as well give the camera to her because it was going to be taken as she exited the theater anyway. The woman never did hand over the camera. Ray never did see anyone come to take it. Although, at the very end of Miss Bailey’s banter with the audience, she said to the woman, “You can keep it. Just don’t show it to anybody.”
Prior to Bailey doing the show, the second costume for Dolly is a lilac blouse and an emerald green skirt.
Phyllis Diller is the only Broadway Dolly that Ray did not see. Ethel Merman was “ok” as far as Ray was concerned. Dolly was the only show he ever saw Merman do. He did see her do Dolly three times. The first time he saw her come out for her opening number that powerful voice blew him away. She didn’t need a microphone although at that time she was miked.
As everyone reading this knows by now, they reinstated the two numbers that had originally been written for her.
They were cut when Channing was cast. It was exciting to hear two new numbers the first time. However, the second time he saw the show, he thought both numbers slowed the pace. When Ray heard that the show was closing in the winter of 1970, with Merman in the show, he was in Western Pennsylvania at the time. He had to get back to see the show one last time. He was hoping that Merman’s standby, Bibi Osterwald, would be going on! He was really hoping to see Osterwald. Anyway, he went to the theater and got his ticket. He was standing outside of the theater.
The doorman for the stage door was standing outside the theater. This was in the morning. Ray had a ticket for the matinee. Ray got to talking with the doorman. Ray was telling him his stories about having seen the show so many times. Now when he sees the chat boards where some people have seen Wicked three hundred and eighty-six times, he can’t compare! He thought seeing Dolly seven times was a record! Anyway, he’s talking to the doorman. On the same street at the time, the marquee was up for Four On A Garden which was opening at The Broadhurst on January 30th, 1971 starring Carol Channing and Sid Caesar. Ray had seen that show in Pittsburgh at The Nixon Theater. It was Pittsburgh’s first pre- Broadway tryout since 1959. He knew as he was watching it, that it was not a very good show. Channing and Caesar gave it the good old college try but it didn’t work. Ray mentioned to the doorman that he had seen Channing as well as other Dollys in the show. He also mentioned to the doorman that the only Broadway Dolly he had not seen was Phyllis Diller. The doorman told Ray that he didn’t miss anything. The doorman shared a story with Ray involving Betty Grable’s run with Max Showalter. During the eating scene, she had reached a point where she was throwing food at Showalter with her fork. Max got upset with her about that, according to the doorman.
The movie is fine as far as Ray is concerned. He doesn’t feel, however, that Streisand was right for the part. He understands why “Hollywood” did what they did. She was very popular at the time and was going to be a big draw. It is nice to have Dollycaptured on film. The sets are great especially that huge New York Street built on the back lots of 20th Century Fox. For Ray, he just loves the Broadway show so much more.
Ray got to see the Carol Channing 1995 revival. He thought the show was good and that Channing was excellent. She was seventy five years young at the time! She was so full of energy. Ray remembers thinking, “ I hope I’m still breathing at seventy-five.” He first saw it at Wolftrap, outside of DC, as part of its pre-Broadway tour. He also saw it at the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh. Ray took his mother and her husband. Then he saw it twice after it arrived on Broadway.
He has also seen other Dollys, Betsy Palmer for one. He thought she was very good. He felt that she was somewhat in the mold of Carol Channing. It was at The Music Carnival outside of Cleveland. The MusicCarnival was in the round in a tent. It was a summer stock theater. It was the only time he ever saw Dolly in the round. They used the original costumes and a few of the original set pieces. He doesn’t recall how they handled the staircase or if there even was one. Overall, it was a very enjoyable production. Andrea Bell, who I have written about, was Minnie Fay in that production.
The other Dolly Ray saw, unfortunately, was his worst experience with the show. It was a bus and truck company in the early nineties and it was Mimi Hines and Phil Ford. Neither one was good. They were constantly going up on their lines. It was unbelievable to Ray that two professionals were so ill prepared. He has seen shows on Broadway where an actor has gone up on their lines. It happens. Phil Ford, on the other hand, did not know his part. It was very clumsy and there were holes in some of their forgetfulness that you could have driven a truck through. She was better at “covering” then he was. Ray knew the show so well that he knew their mistakes.
He wanted to yell their lines to them at times, particularly to Phil Ford. Ray’s wife knew of his love for Dolly. Her regret is that she never got to see the original Broadway production. Of course, the Carol Channing revival was very similar to the original. When they saw the Mimi Hines/Phil Ford bus and truck company in York, Pennsylvania at The Strand Capitol Performing Arts Center, Ray was so excited that his wife was finally going to get to see the show. They used the original sets and costumes. The look of the production was there. However, the production was very disappointing. Around the same time that Ray saw Martha Raye in Dolly, he saw Mimi Hines in Funny Girl. She had replaced Barbra Streisand. She was excellent, Ray thought. When he heard that she was doing a production of Dolly, he thought this was going to be great. He was once again in the front row.
Ray’s wife shares the same enthusiasm for the theater that Ray does. They actually met in community theater, as of this writing, thirty-eight years ago. Ray still does Community Theater ever so often.
Of today’s actresses, Ray thinks Christine Ebersole would make a great Dolly.
He also thinks Queen Latifah would be a great Dolly, in the mold of Pearl Bailey.
Between Broadway, and the Cleveland and Pittsburgh tours, Ray has seen Dolly around nine times between 1965 and 1970 when the Broadway production closed. Of course, Ray wasn’t just going to New York just to see Dolly.
He would see Dolly as well as other shows. He was able to see other great musicals and compare. Add into that mix, shows he was doing in Community Theater at the time. Dolly launched his love of musical theater.
He has such a soft spot for this musical. He would love to see a revival of it. Although he has to say, and he read this about Jerry Herman, that Jerry thinks the original is perfect in every way and that he would not to see a re-imagining of the show. Ray agrees with that. It was a nearly perfect show.
Ray loves Jerry Herman. On Broadway, Ray has seen a couple of revivals of La Cage and has enjoyed those. He loves the score to Dear World. Although the show was short lived, Ray got to see Angela Lansbury in her Tony Award winning performance.
Ray has a couple of theories as to why the Dolly number always stops the show. The first is the build up to it. The second is the choreography. It doesn’t get much better than that. The show is a star vehicle. The audience hungers for the star to be there.
There she is all through the show. Between the time when the curtain comes down at the end of Before the Parade Passes By and her next appearance at the top of the stairs, at least thirty minutes, if not longer has elapsed. The build-up to the reappearance of the star in the star vehicle is a major factor to the impact of the Dolly number along with the staging.
David Burns was still doing Horace Vandergelder when Martha Raye was in the show.
Ray thought he was quite good. That was the first and only time that Ray saw Burns on the stage. Ray also saw Max Showalter, Betty Grable’s Horace. He was also fine in the role.
Life Magazine did two cover issues devoted to Hello, Dolly, one with Carol Channing on the cover and the other with Pearl Bailey on the cover.
Ray Flynt feels that Hello, Dolly is a great hit of American Musical Theater. It’s optimistic. It’s upbeat.