Robert Hocknell auditioned for Gower Champion and was placed in the Mary Martin international company which toured cross-country, ending in Portland; went to Japan, closing on September 9, 1965 in Tokyo, asking “Louie, would you please tell these dear people how welcome they have made us feel in Tokyo.” then went on to Okinawa and then Vietnam for eleven shows, and then on to Korea.
The UNITED STATES FORCES/ KOREA news release details the tour under the headline: “Curtain Rings Down on Hello, Dolly!” After the fifth performance Miss Martin offered: “We, the cast of DOLLY!, are not only saying goodbye to Korea tonight, but goodbye to each other as well.
After more than 22 weeks on the road, most of the cast is returning to the U.S. while the principals will open HELLO, DOLLY! in London. We have shared many ups and downs in the air and on stage. But most important we have shared the wonderful experience of being able to entertain.
And no one deserves to be entertained more than our troops overseas.
We are so proud of you all.” Robert played Rudolph and sometimes, as you will see below, Cornelius Hackl. David Hartman, who was playing Rudolph on Broadway, actually replaced Robert in My Fair Lady. They ended up becoming close friends. When the road company auditions were being planned, David called Robert and suggested his auditioning for the role of Rudolph. David arranged the audition with Gower.
At the very first performance of Robert’s, Jerry Herman was in attendance. Robert said he never felt Rudolph required too much of him. The lines were few. If anything, his arms got tired of constantly waving around conducting the waiters.
The rehearsal process took about seven to eight weeks.
Robert would go on to play London with Mary Martin for four months at The Drury Lane Theatre. At the Drury Lane, Carleton Carpenter, who was playing Cornelius, fell off the ramp and injured himself pretty badly. They were going to bring someone else in to replace him. Mary suggested Robert since he had done the role a few times before as you will see later. Mary and Richard Halliday argued with Gower that they did not want anyone else.
They wanted Robert. However, it did not work out. Gower said he needed Robert as Rudolph.
He came back to the United States and went immediately into the Betty Grable company at The Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas for about seven or eight months, then went on tour with that company for the rest of the year. This was 1967. Then he went with Ginger Rogers on her national tour which took him back to Las Vegas, once again at the Riviera Hotel. That was an interesting run. Ginger alternated with Dorothy Lamour!
There was a short break between going from production to production.
Each of these women put their own stamp on the role of Dolly. Mary Martin, off-stage, was a very staid person and was very definite in her likes and her dislikes. She also had medical issues that she was always battling. She had diverticulitis. She was almost always in constant pain although you would have never known this. Her husband, Richard Halliday, took control of her. He didn’t let her go out much during the day. He made sure that she got plenty of rest. Again, a very staid person.
Betty Grable was probably the most “fun” of all of the Dollys that Robert appeared with. A lovely person, “one of the guys”. She would often go into Robert’s dressing room wearing her opening hat, a merry widow, and her opening boots and always ask the guys, “What are we going to do tonight, fellas?” They would go out practically every night with Betty and have something to eat after the show. They did two shows a night, seven days a week, in Vegas in those days.
After that show closed, Betty and Robert went to the Virgin Islands together with six or seven others from the cast. She stayed at a hotel at the end of the island. The rest of the guys stayed in a guesthouse on the island. They would go out daily to have lunch with Betty on the beach. There were only two girls.
Dorothy Lamour was a “non entity” as far as Robert was concerned. At one of her rehearsals, after singing through “So Long, Dearie”, she quipped, “That’s how a no talent does it.” She was always self-deprecating.
Ginger Rogers, and Betty Grable among the chorus girls in Follow the Fleet, 1936
Ginger Rogers was a STAR. Absolutely a wonderful lady. Robert became close with Ginger but not as close as he was with Betty. Robert and his partner, George, became very close with Betty. She was almost like a mother to them.
Ginger would step out of her dressing room each night in her opening costume pulling a silver fox behind her and asking everyone how she looked. Robert told her she looked just like Ginger Rogers! Her response was that she would have to do something about that. He remembers one time in an airport where someone walked up to her and said, ” I know you! You’re Betty Grable.” Ginger looked up at her and said, “No, my dear. I would be younger and prettier.”
He remembers going out once with Ginger. She had a limousine pick them up. They were supposed to be going to going to a fancy restaurant. When they got in the car, Ginger informed that she had changed her mind as to where they were going. It was a restaurant called a “deli”! There was about six inches of snow as they made their way into this “new” establishment. They went into this deli which was always packed after the show. Robert went in and told the owner that Ginger Rogers was waiting outside in the car. The owner said, “Bring her in”. They walked in, past the crowd of people, and up the stairs to another area and they were all seated immediately.
Robert remembers being in New Orleans. Carleton Carpenter was playing Cornelius at the time. He wasn’t feeling well and was not going to do the show. Believe it or not, Carleton did NOT have an understudy. Robert spoke up and said, “I can do it.” He told them he knew it backwards and forwards having seen it so many times. He had never rehearsed it, of course, but he picked up a few things from seeing it performed so many times. He had never even performed any of it! It was all in his mind!! They gave him the chance. However, at that night’s performance, he realized that he did not know how to get on and off stage. The stage manager led Robert around to all of his entrances and exits. He didn’t screw up any lines or any of the songs. He would go on to play Cornelius about 20 times during the course of the run of this tour. Robert considers the first time he played Cornelius as his “best” moment with Dolly! He was terrified and yet he was exhilarated. After the show, Mary Martin brought him out on the run way and introduced him to the audience and said, “Isn’t he wonderful? He’s never been on stage before!”
Meeting the Queen of England was also another thrilling moment backstage at the Drury Lane. Being in Vietnam and entertaining the troops. They were told not to go out into the audience as it would put them into danger. They could see “enemy flashings” in the background. They went out into the audience anyway. Robert told me the sounding of the cheers of those troops will never leave his ears.
According to Robert, Gower Champion was a splendid man. Very, very generous with his time. His smile would light up the stage anytime he was directing anyone. He never ever lost his temper or his cool. Robert remembers a particular rehearsal in Minneapolis before the show opened around Easter time 1965. They were rehearsing on Good Friday. Lucia Victor, Gower’s assistant, came over and told Robert that Gower would like a tuna fish sandwich and a chocolate milk shake. Robert said he would go and get it. He went over to the hotel which was behind the theatre. He was told at the theatre that because it was Good Friday, the restaurant was closed. Robert told the manager, “If you will not serve God on Good Friday, when will you?” He got the sandwich and the milkshake.
Dolly was the end of Robert’s show business career. When he finished with the Rogers company, he had several operations. He then went to the Virgin Islands and lived in St. Thomas for 28 years. He went into the jewelry business. The one thing he learned from his “Dolly” years was how to be with people. He always thought his destiny was to help other people, to help them live their lives. He also leaned a lot from Gower from watching him work.
The worst experience he had with the show was when they were in London and Carleton Carpenter and Marilyn Lovell, who played Irene Molloy, decided to go to Paris one day. Robert was the Equity deputy at the time. He had to report them because this caused a great uproar in the English theatre.
Other than the women who appeared with, the only other portrayal of Dolly that Robert has ever seen is the movie which he doesn’t like at all. Danny Lockin who played Barnaby in the movie also played Barnaby in the Vegas company. As far as Robert is concerned, Danny is the best aspect of the movie. He feels that Michael Crawford was wrong for Cornelius. He feels that Barbra Streisand is Barbra Streisand as opposed to being Dolly Levi.
Robert’s thoughts on Jerry Herman are all wonderful. Robert has great respect for all of his work and wishes that he had gotten to know him better. Jerry had a friend in St. Thomas named George Morris who also happened to be a friend of Robert’s and they would see each other from time to time.
The biggest changes in the industry since Robert did Dolly are pay scales and Equity being a little bit more stricter with schedules, rehearsal, etc. The music has changed and the world has changed.
Stanley Holloway, who played Alfred Doolittle, once said “Trained elephants on roller skates could do My Fair Lady; it’s that foolproof.” Carole Cooke has a similar comment about Hello, Dolly! She said “an orangutang could come down those stairs and make it work because of the brilliance of Gower Champion.”