Roberta Olden: Assistant to Ginger Rogers

Before the parade passes by

(Courtesy Roberta Olden)

Before it goes on, and only I’m left
Before the parade passes by
I’ve gotta get in step while there’s still time left
I’m ready to move out in front
Life without life has no reason or rhyme left
With the rest of them
With the best of them
I wanna hold my head up high
I need got a goal again
I need got a drive again
I wanna feel my heart coming alive again
Before the parade passes by…

Hirschfeld of The Matchmaker starring Ruth Gordon

The 1964 production of Hello, Dolly! opened in Detroit to mediocre reviews, but with the addition of Before The Parade Passes By, it opened on Broadway to great reviews, received eleven Tony nominations, won ten awards-including Best Musical- and became the town’s hottest ticket. There are manywho cannot think of Hello, Dolly! without thinking of Carol Channing. She embodied the role like no other for over 5,000 performances. A feat the world will never see again. That type of star no longer exists.

Original program at St. James Theater for Hello, Dolly!

As each leading actress left the show, Merrick got the bright idea of bringing in a new star to infuse new life into the proceedings. Each shot in the arm would regain momentum to carry the show to a then-record 2,844 performance run.
For over ten months-until it was overtaken by Fiddler On The Roof- Hello, Dolly! held the record as Broadway’s longest running musical. However, there have been many other Dolly Levi’s…and the great thing is that they are all unique to the actress that makes it her own. Much of the success of Dolly is based on the larger than life personality who is lucky enough to make that descent down the stairs of the Harmonia Gardens, probably one of the most iconic moments in any show in the history of the theatre.

The Matchmaker, 1955
David Merrick had had a success with the 1955 Thornton Wilder play The Matchmaker, starring Ruth Gordon as Dolly Gallagher Levi. That, of course, was a revision of Wilder’s The Merchant of Yonkers-where the focus was on Vandergelder. In fact, Dolly doesn’t even exist in this play! Dolly Levi in The Matchmaker is totally a Thornton Wilder creation as he created it as a star vehicle for Ruth Gordon.

David Merrick with two of his leading ladies, Florence Henderson and Carol Channing

In 1963, Merrick decided that he wanted to musicialize The Matchmaker. The new wunderkid on Broadway at the time was Jerry Herman. Once he got wind of this, he was in hot pursuit to get the job. Both Herman and Merrick were in agreement that this was to be the next star vehicle for Ethel Merman who was still basking in the success of Gypsy.
La Merm had other plans, however. She was bone tired from two years of Gypsy on the road after having done it on Broadway for two years! She was ready to retire from show business and have a “real life”.
For a brief moment, Nanette Fabray was a “serious” contender. Read the interview with Marge Champion as to why this didn’t happen.

Gower then thought of Carol Channing whom he had brought to Broadway in a highly successful revue called, Lend an Ear.

After Blondes author Anita Loos and Jule Styne (composer on Blondes) saw her as the cupie doll Gladioli Girl in Lend An Ear, Carol says that Anita turned to Jule and said , “There’s our Lorelei Lee” and the rest is history!
Although she had worked almost steadily from her departure from Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes at the beginning of the 50s up until this time, she had not been able to find a vehicle that matched her previous Broadway success.
Merrick was not easily convinced that Channing, who he considered to be a superb comedienne, had what it would take to become the meddlesome matchmaker. He felt that Lorelei was so in Channing’s persona that she would not be able to shake it. As a matter of fact, she had developed a “flapper’s slouch” that worked so brilliantly for Lorelei.

At Gower’s urging, Merrick and Gower went to Long Island to see Carol in George Bernard Shaw’s The Millionairess. Marge Champion took Carol under her wings and coached her on how to stand, how to hold her head, how to hold her arms, how to speak with an lower East Side accent. Carol auditioned for Champion, Herman, and Merrick and won them over with the “Money is like manure” speech “It’s not worth a thing unless it is spread around encouraging young things to grow.”

The “disaster” of this show in Detroit is legendary and will be covered in other chapters/interviews.. This is truly the classic tale of great artists coming together to create alchemy in the theatre. Jerry Herman, Michael Stewart, and director-choreographer Gower Champion gave the show the focus it needed by making Dolly Levi the CENTRAL character with EVERYTHING, for the most part, revolving around her. Michael Stewart’s libretto focused on Dolly Levi and her elaborate plots to ensnare Horace Vandergelder, Yonker’s “well-known un-married half a millionaire!” Oliver Smith’s settings framed the farce in high style, depicting turn of the century New York in flats splashed with vivid primary colors and backdrops resembling amber-hued stereopticon slides.

The title number, as staged by Gower Champion, begins with Dolly’s elegant descent down the red-carpeted, balustraded stairs of the restaurant and concludes with the company wrapped around the orchestra on a runway surrounded by a glowing row of footlights. In the words of New York Herald Tribune critic Walter Kerr, the song’s effect was one of the “most exhilaratingly, straight-forward, head-on, old-fashioned , rabble-rousing numbers since Harrigan and Hart rolled down the curtain.” (Source: The Smithsonian Collection of Recordings: American Musical Theatre: Shows, Songs, and Stars by Dwight Blocker Bowers)

According to John Anthony Gilvey in his comprehensive book on Gower Champion, Before The Parade Passes By: Gower Champion And The Glorious American Musical, even after the success of the show and although he was “hysterical with joy”, he nonetheless continued to fidget over a few things he desired to fix-like that butterfly number, about which a couple of critics expressed deserved reservations. When Ginger Rogers replaced Carol, he replaced the butterfly ballet with a brief polka contest. That is the way it has been performed ever since.

Champion’s “salvage job” as Merrick called it, had cost $440,000 to produce!
It was a bona fide hit from the moment the curtain rose on January 16th 1964 with Carol Channing leading the parade until the curtain came down on December 27th, 1970 with Ethel Merman bringing down the curtain and her Broadway career.

Richard with Miss Rogers' Dolly gown

August 7th, 1965, Carol Channing gave her last Broadway in the original production of Hello, Dolly! Ginger Rogers will be the first of her replacements opening on August 8th. Ginger Rogers was a true legend in her own time. … She returned to the spotlight in 1965 with the lead role in this hit Broadway musical. Carol continued to tour the country and broke records everywhere she appeared. Two additional touring companies at that time were headed by Mary Martin and Betty Grable. The commercial Broadway musical hit reached its zenith with Hello, Dolly!, which confirmed Jerry Herman’s status as a later-day Irving Berlin.

Ginger Roger’s assistant, Roberta Olden, (thanks to Paul Brogan!) discusses Ginger’s involvement with Dolly. Here is that interview: The art work you see are painting’s Ginger did during her stint in Dolly.

Roberta Olden on Ginger Rogers

January 15th, 2012
Palm Desert, California

Richard – When Ginger was approached to ‘do’ Dolly, had she done a lot of live theatre prior to that?

Roberta – Yes. Quite a bit. She had been doing things in summer stock; She had done TovarichAnnie Get Your Gun, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, shows of that nature. As she says in her book, she was striving for something of real substance to do. She opened in August in Dolly. Maybe in end of ’64, when Carol gave her notice or they decided to go on the road with that show, Merrick was scouting around for someone else. He approached Ginger three times. Twice she said “no”.

Richard- Why did she say no?

Roberta- Because she had only seen Carol Channing in the part and had not read the script, and in her eyes that made a big difference. She did not want to do a Carol Channing ‘part’.  She wanted to play Dolly Levi.

Richard – Were Carol and Ginger friends? I know they had done the First Traveling Sales Lady together.  Did they remain in touch over the years?

Roberta – Over the years, subsequent to that, yes. They would see each other at parties… Carol Channing was a really good friend of Ginger’s cousin, Phyllis Wagner and they would see each other for dinners at her house, and things of that nature.

Richard – And they were both Christian Scientists…

Roberta – Ginger was, yes …

Richard – Carol was too… Do you know the story?
Carol’s father, George Channing, was a lecturer and speaker and spoke all over the country on behalf of Christian Science. I remember reading that Ginger was very religious.

Ginger rehearsing with Gower

Roberta – Yes.

Richard – How did you and Ginger meet?

Roberta – I was a very ardent fan and got an opportunity to meet her in San Francisco where I’m from (the Bay area) and saw her show several times, when she was doing a night club act and got up the courage to approach her to ask if she needed a new secretary. She wrote back, ‘I just hired one, but stick around’. Two months later, that one quit.

The next time I saw her she said, ‘my secretary just quit, do you still want the job?’. I moved down to the desert two months later and I was with her for eighteen years.

Richard – Did you ever hear of her relationship with Gower Champion?

Roberta – No. Other than he was the director and choreographer.

Richard –Was there an audition process for Ginger?

Roberta– I don’t think he would ask Ginger Rogers to audition. It was probably between her and David Merrick. I reread her mother Lela’s diary from 1965 while preparing for the Ginger 100 exhibition (at the Howard Gottlieb Center at Boston University) and there is nothing in it that says that Ginger auditioned for Gower Champion.

Richard – Do know what the rehearsal process was like for her?

Roberta – I imagine that she had at least a month or so with the company. I know from what she has said that she hired a friend of hers to read lines and memorize te script so I know that she knew what she was doing by the time she got in there with the company. From what I understand, she could not rehearse a lot with the company, because that would be double duty for them, and Mr. Merrick was not the most generous man to…(pay for extra rehearsal time).

Richard – Do you have any comments on her relationship with David Merrick?

Roberta– Only from what she told me about a fight she had with him about her hair dresser. He wanted to have a chorus girl come in and be her hair dresser. She put her foot down and said “No”. This was right before ‘curtain’. Someone went out and found a genuine hairdresser and that lady became a very good friend of Gingers throughout the years. I knew her pretty well.

Cathy Engle was her name. She was in New York, and the last time they worked together Ginger was doing her show at Radio City Music Hall in the ‘80’s. Cathy also had her issues with Mr. Merrick in that he refused to put her under contract or sign her directly to Ginger to provide this service.

He expected Ginger to put her hair up under the wig and ‘shut up’, but she wasn’t going to do that. It was a long process, but I remember Cathy saying she was overjoyed when she actually got hired to do Ginger Roger’s hair.

Richard – I know that Gower Champion had an assistant named Lucia Victor working with him. Do you know if Ginger actually worked with Gower? Did he actually come in and direct her?

Gower Champion

Richard – She worked with David Burns on Broadway. Milo Boulton went on the road part of the time with her. I do recall another name in her phone book of a man who took over the role when David left. I can’t remember his name.

Roberta-Ginger came into the role on Broadway on August 9th, 1965. She did the show (on Broadway) for a year and a half.

She took a little break and then she did about another year and a half on the road. All totaled, one thousand, one hundred and sixteen (1,116) performances.

Richard – wow. She stayed with the show for a long time! And the box office stayed up, and everyone was there to see her .

Roberta – Exactly. I can read you Lela’s comments from that night… from her diary.

Lela writes;

“Monday, August 9th, 1965
Ginger opens in Dolly tonight. What an opening!! Ginger goes to rehearsal about twelve, I got ready.

Steve Daniels to call for me about 6:45…he was late. We stopped at Sardi’s for a light dinner. Two friends stopped who were on their way to the show.
Mr. Merrick stopped by our table to speak to me. He was very pleased. He said, ‘if he had the seats, he could have sold the house twice.’

Martha Raye followed Ginger in the role of Dolly

How wonderful she was!! From her first appearance the audience applauded for three minutes and, every number, every dance step, … they could hardly get the curtain down on the last act.

Ginger with David Burns (Horace Vandergelder)

Then, at the Dolly number, then at ‘each number’, and then at the end a standing ovation with ten calls. What a night! Theatrical history!

Telegrams, hundreds from everywhere, even Paris. Flowers, hundreds! Such beauty! The notices…simply the ‘last word’. Such notices no one ever got!
There was an after party at Mr. Chan’s restaurant in New York.
A very successful night. ”

Jerry Herman's two Mames (Ginger in West End) and Angela on Broadway

The next night Lela went to see the show again. Richard Rodger’s show, “Carousel” had just opened that night (Revival of course). Phyllis was married to Bennett Cerf. Bennett wanted her to go to the party for Carousel and Ginger said, “no, no, I don’t want to step on anyone else’s opening night. That wouldn’t be right”

So that’s the first hand account.

Richard – Do you have anything of her closing night?

Roberta – I’d have to look ahead in the diary…

Richard – (Well, that sounds like a grand opening night)

Roberta – Well, I think that he (Mr. Merrick) was trying to infuse some new life into the show…

Richard – The truth of the matter is, that the box office did drop. When Ginger came into the show, from everything that I’ve read, it did ‘spike’. Being the impresario that he was, he was able to do that with each of different Dollies that he brought in. Each time a different Dolly was announced, boom, the box office just went crazy.

Roberta – Sure, I can imagine that. I know she had a really good time. She rented Katherine Cornell’s house up in Sneden’s Landing. (later she mentioned the paintings that Ginger did while staying here)

Richard – Oh, that’s Bill Murray’s house now. So, overall, the experience with Ginger Rogers in Hello Dolly! was very positive?

Roberta – Oh yes. She had a great time. She received wonderful reviews, traveled all over the country with a great company and was very well received.

Richard – Are there any stories of people who came to the show or to the dressing room?

Roberta – There is a funny story, when Lucille Ball came to see her in the dressing room she had on a fur coat and said, ‘my God, it’s like an ice box in here’. Ginger always kept it cold because she didn’t want to be overly hot before a performance. … When they were in Los Angeles Fred Astaire and Hermes Pan came to see her so that was fun. She got to meet lots of interesting people from the localities… Mr. Hershey from Hershey Pennsylvania….

Richard – I know there are thousands of pictures of celebrities with Carol over the years.

Roberta – Oh, yes. There are snap shots. There are pictures of Ginger with Angela Lansbury who was doing Mame at the time,… and Lee Newmar

Richard – I have a ‘45’ of Ginger doing Hello Dolly! Have you ever heard it? Just a ‘45’ of the title song.

Richard – No.

Richard – I have seen video footage of her singing Before The Parade Passes By

Roberta – from the Ed Sullivan Show.

Richard- It is a shame that more performances were not preserved. Maybe at the Lincoln Center library there is information as well.

Were there any people that she remained in touch with from the show, that you know?

Roberta – Mary Jo Cattlett and Pat Finlay, she lives here now, in the valley.

Roberta, thank you for generously sharing so much with me. You epitomize the generosity of spirit that Dolly is all about!

“I never met Astaire, but did come to know Ginger Rogers when she came to New York to take over the starring role in “Hello Dolly” and well remember, on her opening night, her kicking up her heels in the title number as she danced above the orchestra on the runway. When she came to the line, “Look at the old girl, now, fellas,” the so-called sophisticated audience jumped to its feet in a cheering outburst of love. All that practice of Ginger Rogers paid off.” Voice of North Carolina