Deborah Savadge contacted me after seeing my letter in the Equity Newsletter in February regarding my Hello, Dolly! book project. She appeared as Irene Molloy in the Allenberry Playhouse’s production of Hello, Dolly! starring Mary Ellen Ashley whom I’ve already written about.
This production took place in 1975. The artistic director was Ed Aldredge. Deborah was a favorite of the audiences there and Ed Alredge’s as well. She had already done several performances there. She does believe it is Mary Ellen’s only production there. Deborah shaired with me that once Ed cast you, IF he liked you, he tended to be very loyal and book those same actors time and time again. She was one of those lucky ones and had done several productions prior to Dolly! She does admit without going into too much detail that if Ed liked you, it felt as if you were walking on water. If he didn’t, it couldn’t have been that much fun. Deborah has directed a lot since doing Dolly! in ’75, and she believes that it is a director’s obligation to “pretend” that he likes you even if he doesn’t.
The actor who played Cornelius Hackl in this production had a gorgeous voice and was very handsome but was somewhat lacking in the acting department. Unfortunately, he was not very popular with the company and even less so with Ed.
One night as the courtroom was being staged, Deborah was instructed to move at a very specific moment. “Cornelius” started gesturing for Deborah to move sooner. Ed called the rehearsal to a halt and reprimanded “Cornelius” somewhat brutishly in front of the entire company. Deborah bristles about that to this day. Ed’s strengths as a director come from his experiences as a Broadway stage manager. They always started on time. He knew what he wanted. She doesn’t feel it would have been the same experience if they were working on a brand new play that they had to get on its feet. He cast really well and wasn’t into a lot of “exploration” of the show. He had a really good eye for actors. Because of his casting choices, he rarely had to make up for “deficiencies”. He knew when to “leave somebody alone”. If you knew what you were doing, he didn’t “muck around” with you a lot. He knew what he wanted and if the actor and he were on the same wave length, that was fine. Since Mary Ellen had done the show before, he gave her free reign to do what she did.
After the show opened, Ed gave a few notes the first few nights and then focused on their next show.
He wasn’t a “pep talky” kind of guy but he loved the women in the company and would come by the dressing room each night with encouraging words for everyone.
This was one of the few musical roles there. She did mostly comedies which is what the Allenberry Playhouse mostly did. They did two musicals every year. Mary Ellen had already racked up several productions of Dolly! prior to Allenberry. Mary had actually sent along to the musical director all of her music in her keys which were different from the original keys. Ed Aldredge directed this production. He was the assistant stage manager in the original production of Cabaret on Broadway as well as other productions. Hello, Dolly! was the second musical production to be produced at Allenberry Playhouse.
That run ran about three weeks. Stephen Rogers on Radio station WHYL, out of Pennsylvania, had this to say about Mary Ellen Ashley, “ Mary Ellen Ashley exhibits a very strong leading character with an equally impressive voice. She runs the show from beginning to end with the flare and finesse of a seasoned professional. Even at the curtain call, she offers fame with a lavish new costume.” Jim Lockhart played Horace Vandergelder.
The only other Dollys that Deborah has seen are Pearl Bailey and Barbra Streisand. Being first and foremost an actress, Deborah actually prefers The Matchmaker over Hello, Dolly! She feels that sometimes, Dolly! gets away from what Thornton Wilder has in mind. She feels, however, that when Mary Ellen did it, she absolutely captured what Wilder had in mind.
Deborah feels that Dolly!, as opposed to The Matchmaker, is a personality dominated vehicle. She feels that Dolly! has become somewhat of a “cult musical” and sometimes gets stretched beyond its original based on the portrayal of the personality leading the production. With all due respect to other women who have portrayed Dolly, with Mary Ellen in the role, there was nothing “freakish or weird about it.” Deborah feels that Mary Ellen was fabulous in the role and should be doing it everywhere! She went on to say that “Everyone who loves the theatre should see Mary Ellen do this role.”
Deborah never saw Carol Channing play Dolly. However, there are so many iconic images of her doing the show, that she almost feels as if she did. For Deborah, there are two types of actors: those who inhabit a role; those who get the character and play that character as the playwright intended. Then there are those that bring THEIR personality to a role and that informs everything they do. Deborah feels that a “personality actress” can often be very entertaining. But for Deborah, that is not as thrilling as it is to see the playwright’s character brought to life through the craft of acting. Mary Ellen falls into the “craft” category. No one, that includes Pearl Bailey and Barbra Streisand, embodied the role the way Mary Ellen did, according to Deborah.
Deborah had a great time doing this show. Ed Aldredge, having a stage manager’s background, always ran a pretty tight ship. She feels despite it being a summer stock show, it was pretty grand. Musical theater, once again, really is not Deborah’s world. She believes she was cast because Irene Molloy is a very “realistic” character. A character with realistic hopes and dreams. Deborah also happens to be an actress who sings. She loved her terrific costumes. Hat shop scene was loads of fun. Ed Aldredge was always a pleasure to work with. She and he belong to a “mutual admiration society”.
Deborah is now a teacher and there is a certain part of that show that she often refers to in her teaching, Mary Ellen’s curtain call. Mary Ellen did the most generous curtain call that Deborah has ever seen. She tells her students that they have two choices in making a curtain call. One she calls the Russian way of taking a curtain call, “Wasn’t I magnificent!?!?!” and then bowing as if you felt you were magnificent. The other is the Mary Ellen style. “Isn’t this a wonderful company that I have been lucky enough to appear with?” She was rather extraordinary and gave her bow over to the company. Deborah tells me the audience was dying to applaud for Mary Ellen because of the performance she gave and she shared that very graciously with her company. Deborah has carried that moment through the rest of her career.
Favorite moment? Ribbons Down My Back , Elegance and Put On Your Sunday Clothes.
Thoughts on the Allenberry Playhouse: A beautifully owned, family run…which sadly is now non-Equity. The Heinz family although she doesn’t think they were THAT Heinz family! It was a gorgeous old styled barn theater. It had about 400 seats. There were restaurants on the grounds and a swimming pool. The nearest “metropolis” is Carlysle, Pennsylvania where Dickenson College is. Again, lots of fun. The company was very close. They ate meals together. They stayed in people’s homes in the town. Deborah stayed with an older woman by the name of Marge Lyon and her cats. Deborah had a gorgeous room there. This was in Boiling Springs. This was not within walking distance of the theater. Rides were provided for most of the cast members to and from the theater from where they were staying. Since Deborah was spending a great deal of time at the theater, she bought a car which was a big deal for her. As is true with many summer theaters, they rehearsed one show during the day while doing another at night. Jim (Horace) Lockhart also wrote plays for the theater. Deborah appeared in that, as well. It was called Honeymoon Caper, which pretty much tells you what the show was about. Additionally, Deborah appeared in Wait Until Dark, Private Lives, In One Bed and Out The Other, Ten Nights in a Barroom…somewhat of a mixed bag. Deborah seems to recall Hello, Dolly! playing back to back with Cabaret.
On their downtown, the cast would congregate at a local restaurant and order chicken wings or at the pool.
Her only regret is that the actor playing Cornelius opposite her was not a very “generous” performer and did not give her lots to work with.
Deborah’s thoughts on Jerry Herman is that it is really great material.
Since appearing at the Allenberry Playhouse in 1975, one of the biggest changes that Deborah has seen is the death of so many theaters, theaters that she would love to see come back in her lifetime.
The music, the songs are pretty surefire. If a Dolly is not as lovable as Mary Ellen was, it won’t work. The audience is rooting for Dolly to get Horace, who doesn’t always seems like a prize. Thorntom Wilder’s material is extraordinary.
Unfortunately, many of Deborah’s photos are gone. She had a portfolio that were stolen.