Josh Ellis: A True Hello, Dolly Aficionado!
Josh Ellis was a theatrical press agent for thirty years during which he represented over 100 shows and numerous individuals.
He is now an InterSpiritual minister who specializes in wedding ceremonies and disaster chaplaincy. He is currently developing a solo performance piece called “Riding Camels Down Broadway,” based on his adventures as a theatre publicist.
Josh considers himself a “Dolly-ophile.” Opening in 1964, HELLO, DOLLY! set a record for Tony Awards (ten) and … Betty Grable, Pearl Bailey, Ethel Merman and even Phyllis Diller all got a chance to descend those famed stairs at the Harmonia Gardens.
He worked with Carol Channing a number of times through working with Solters and Sabinson starting in 1973, then Solters and Roskin. There were pictures from the original production over the elevator bank at Solters and Sabinson for years at 62 West 45th Street, seventh floor. Until the Solters office moved to Thirty-fourth Street, that’s where those pictures were.
These were the photos that hung over the doors at the St. James Theater. Every time he used the elevator, there was a gentle reminder of how it all began. He has also seen quite a number of Dollys over the years. He has made some interesting contacts in this business.
Hello, Dolly! changed Josh’s life. He calls March 25th, 1964 Dolly Day! He was a frequent theater goer before seeing Dolly.
That date, however, is the day he says lighting struck. He came into New York loving the theater. He left Dolly feeling he had to be part of the theater. Gratefully, within nine years, he became a press agent. It is all because of Dolly Day. He has celebrated that day with Carol Channing several times over the years.
Josh grew up in Philadelphia and he and his sister, Jill, saw every tryout in town. In March of 1964, they saw Funny Girl at the Erlanger Theater, which also happens to be the original name of the St. James Theater, Anyone Can Whistleat the Forrest Theater, and High Spirits at the Shubert Theater. Before seeing Dolly, he had already seen two musicals that month with parade songs, Don’t Rain on my Parade from Funny Girl and There’s a Parade in Town from Anyone Can Whistle. Little did he know when he went to see Dolly that it would be his third big musical with a parade song.
David Merrick used to sell standing room day of performance tickets. He changed all the clocks at his friend’s grandparents’s house so he would get up earlier than usual in order to make it into New York before eight o’clock in the morning. They got into line at the St. James Theater at seven fifty AM. They were the third and fourth persons in line. They were there early enough to see the marquee for Jennie (which had closed on December 28, 1963) coming down at The Majestic Theater as they were replacing it with Anyone Can Whistle (which opened on April 4, 1964).
There used to be two separate marquees there. By eight thirty, there were no other standing room only tickets. A few minutes later and they would not have gotten in. By ten AM, there were hundreds of people in line for regular tickets.
The line made its way down to Broadway. The St. James Theater is located at forty fourth and eighth. Those were the days before TKTS and on line and phone ticket ordering. They got their two standing room positions. He considers that sacred ground. They saw the matinee and went back after the show. No one gave them trouble about going backstage, they just went back. There was chaos going on. Robert Kennedy and his family happened to be at the same show. There were tons of photographers back stage. There were easily one hundred people backstage.
Josh was the press agent for Lorelei and he and Carol became friends. Carol Channing always referred to herself as a clown. In the original Hello, Dolly!, she was surrounded by an astonishing array of clowns, larger than life clown performers: David Burns, Sondra Lee, Charles Nelson Reilly, and Eileen Brennan. Interesting that in all subsequent casting choices, they got away from that formula. That is what changed every other production from the original. Subsequent companies went for better singers than in the original. In the original production, the scenes without Dolly were as fabulous as those with her. You weren’t sitting around waiting for the Dolly scenes. You cared about Cornelius and Barnaby and them getting their adventure in New York.
The original production of Dolly was a separate entity unto itself that has never been replicated, the original company, the original sets, the way that the show bounced off the walls of the St. James Theater. It was all larger than life. The ramp THRUST itself into the audience and the orchestra pit is not very deep there. It was a very intimate experience. As we all know, Carol can give a performance and make it feel as if she is giving it only to YOU.
Of course, he came to know that many have shared that experience. In the original production, Channing was surrounded by larger than life personalities. It’s amazing when you think of the time span? All of the action takes place in one day. It Only Takes a moment. It goes back to the play, A Day Well Spent. John Oxenford’s 1835 one-act farce A Day Well Spent had been extended into a full-length play entitled Einen Jux Will Er Sich Machen by Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy in 1842. In 1938, Wilder adapted Nestroy’s version into an Americanized comedy entitled The Merchant of Yonkers, which attracted the attention of German director Max Reinhardt, who mounted a Broadway production. Tom Stoppard’s On The Razzle is based on this as well.
Josh has heard many a theater legend that Ruth Gordon was at the opening night of Dolly! I have not been able to substantiate the fact that she was there and sat in the front row refusing to applaud. Another theater legend says that she took singing lessons in hopes of revisiting the role of Dolly Levi in Dolly!
In the Thornton Wilder Diaries, he does state that Gordon very badly wanted to do it.
Nothing ever compared to the original production…including revivals starring Channing. Joshua attributes that to casting choices and time passing. It is akin to capturing lightening in a bottle. There is something also about seeing a show that’s new.
The week that Josh saw the show, Dolly was the number one record. You couldn’t go anywhere without hearing that song. It was both a familiar and new song. Everyone knew Louis Armstrong’s version, which was a honky tonk take on the song, but had no idea how it would be worked into the context of the play, which takes place at the turn of the century. Josh didn’t know about the staircase when he bought his ticket. He didn’t know about the runway. It was all new. He was fifteen years old and seeing something that didn’t seem like anything else he had ever seen. With a revival, you know what to expect. You know where to look. It’s not the surprise anymore. He did not see Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, or even Bibi Osterwald. After Carol Channing, he didn’t want to see anyone else.
He was pretty firmly set not to see anyone else do it. After seeing the definitive, why see anyone else? In the summer of 1966, Josh found himself in Chicago where Eve Arden was filling in for Carol Channing, who was filming Thoroughly Modern Millie. This was at the Shubert Theater. He had no desire to see any other Dolly, but this WAS Eve Arden!
So he went to see her. He felt that she was miscast because he felt her Dolly never seemed like she needed a man in her life. She seemed perfectly capable of taking care of everything on her own. She was a fully bodied take charge kind of gal. There was no vulnerability in that. There was no longing in that. She really didn’t need a partner. To him, it didn’t work.
Bob Hope was in the audience that night. Needless to say, her third act lasted at least a half hour when she brought him on the stage. She was one of Josh’s least favorite Dollys. He thought she was exaggerated.
With Bailey, it had no resemblance to the original production. It was in the same theatre but it didn’t have its quirkiness. The leads were capable but not quirky.
It is done enthusiastically. Dolly should have rough edges.
Charles Nelson Reilly and Eileen Brennan is not a smooth pairing. That is what them interesting and fun. Having nice baritones play the part make the songs pretty, but it sometimes takes the fun out of the character. Tovah Feldshuh, on the other hand, chose the Pearl Bailey album as a source of inspiration in her pursit of the character of Dolly when she played it at the Paper Mill Playhouse in 2006. It grabbed her because Bailey made Dolly her own. That was important to Tovah. It has to be about ownership. Josh, on the other hand, feels that Bailey’s approach was a detriment to the show. He feels that Carol Channing’s performance in the original was in service to the entire show. Bailey’s performance was entirely in the service of Pearl Bailey.
Josh was also at Ethel Merman’s opening night on March 30th, 1970. That night, local New York television critic Stewart Klein offered: “Ethel Merman in HELLO, DOLLY! is a marvel and should be seen by everybody.”
The role of Dolly Levi was originally written for Ethel Merman. Josh said that night was the most enthusiastic audience that ever, ever, ever was! The cart rolled in, the newspaper was up, and the audience was screaming because they knew who was behind the newspaper. When she put the newspaper down, the audience was on its feet cheering and would not let her talk for two minutes. She finally got out the first part of “Doll…” and they cheered even more. She got a standing ovation after World, Take Me Back. She got another standing ovation after Before the Parade Passes By. It was breathless. Everything worked that night. For the title number, the curtain at the top of the stairs revealed Ethel Merman and the entire audience stands up. The number continues but the audience does not sit down. When she sang her solos, she sang solo.
When the chorus came back in, the entire audience sang along with them. When the “waiters” put their hands behind them and swayed with her, so did the entire audience. When Ethel sang, the audience shut up and listened. They knew when to join in.
By the time the show was over, the audience was drenched. On top of the two additional songs that were put back in for Ethel, because of the audience’s enthusiasm, the show went an additional seven minutes. There was no question in Josh’s mind that everyone in that audience had already seen Hello, Dolly at least once prior to that night, probably many times before and everyone loved it.
The fact that everyone was hearing two songs they had never heard before sung by Ethel superseded any other quibbles that anyone may have had. It didn’t matter. It was such an overwhelming experience that nothing else really mattered except that it was a night to remember that would last your whole life, and it has.
Merman ended the original run of Dolly on December 27th, 1970.
It had played 2, 844 performances. This evening is also recounted in Brian Kellow’s biography of Ethel Merman, a life.
Dolly truly didn’t end there. In 1970, Molly Picon toured with a production that also featured Beth Fowler as Irene Molloy. Josh saw it at Playhouse in the Park in Philadelphia. A friend of his, Jonathan Sand, was selling souvenir programs in the lobby and Josh saw the show five times that week. She was the most “haymesha” which means homespun, warm, loving. It was the sweetest purist Dolly there could ever be. She was so loved by the waiters. Every last bit of it worked.
That was the only change she made.
The worst Dolly Josh saw was Edie Adams. This was at the Bucks County Playhouse.
Let’s start with the fact that she didn’t like the Dolly gown designed for her, so she decided to wear her own caftan. It wasn’t period but it was what she wanted to wear. In the Motherhood March, she substituted Stonewall Jackson with Stormin’ Norman which was not only a bad improvisation, but also an anachronism since Norman Schwartzkopf wasn’t alive then!
Josh also saw Karen Morrow who was “delicious”. The audience loved her as much as the waiters, you could just tell. Everybody was thrilled. World, Take me Back was added for that production.
Josh also saw Danny LaRue portray Dolly in London in 1982. He thought Danny was delightful. It was the first time Josh saw Dolly with a completely different set and choreography. It wasn’t the Freddy Wittop/Oliver Smith look. Danny improvised a lot. At the top as he was throwing out cards to the audience, he said to a woman in the front row, what a lovely frock you have worn this evening.”
It was a very inclusive performance with the audience. You couldn’t take it seriously as Hello, Dollythat you knew and loved, it was a different show.
Josh also saw a production of Dolly at the Starlight in which the song Penny in My Pocket was put back in the show.
Penny In My Pocket is Vandergelder’s song which was cut at The National Theater in Washington DC prior to Broadway. To my knowledge, no other company has ever put that song back in.
Josh finally broke down and saw the film in Paris.
He felt that by seeing the French words on the screen, it would distract him.
He has never seen it on television or at a revival house. The closest he has come to seeing it again is because of the excerpts used in Wall-E.
The future of Dolly will depend upon who is cast in the title role and how it is done.
“Any actress who can do Prada and Mother Courage in one year is tops in my book.” She can do anything. She has done musicals.
Josh doesn’t feel that Dolly is one of the top five best musicals ever written but he does consider it among the top five best productions he has ever seen.
Josh’s all time favorite memory of the show is Carol on the runway. There was something she was able to do when she spread her arms wide and spoke to the audience that made you feel as if you were physically being embraced in your seat.
The music, the lyrics, the choreography all join forces to create the greatest showstopper in musical theater history. It builds. There is a middle section that brings heart to it. It’s not just production number, production number, production number. You understand she’s been away from the lights of Fourteenth Street. In that number, you get a lot of the back story of her being away for some time.
Although Josh has seen various Horace Vandergelders, the only one that has made an indelible imprint in Josh’s mind is David Burns. The others tend to blur out. What was Jack Goode like with Ethel Merman? Josh has no idea.
On May 15th, 1977, Mary Martin and Ethel Merman came together for a special one night only benefit performance at the Broadway Theater where Merman had triumphed in Gypsy. It was hosted by Cyril Ritchard. Martin and Merman made their entrance, as Dolly, coming down duel staircases. That moment was equal to Merman’s opening night.
Josh would go on to be the press apprentice with Mack and Mabel which reunited all of the Dolly creative team (Champion, Herman, Michael Stewart). To see them working in action, although on a show that didn’t work as well, and never did work through all the problems was an honor.
42nd Street: The black and white of Mack and Mabel. There is Champion and Merrick yet again with Michael Stewart. The shows are completely parallel. It was the world of dames.
It was a very interesting way of creating a show.
Then there is Channing Art! Charles Lowe had a collection of pictures that they used to think of as Carol standing next to every famous person on the planet. Charles called it Channing Art. Anytime someone died, they had to go to the files on the upper floor of the same building, 62 West 45th Street, and find a picture of Channing with the person who had just passed away, hand deliver it to The New York Times and the Associated Press.
They would be told that Miss Channing would be available for interviews regarding the person who died.
They did this over and over and over again. Josh worked with Carol on Lorelei, Legends, and The Bed Before Yesterday in 1977. He helped out but did not really do the 1978 revival of Hello, Dolly! There was a “two headed” theater department within the Solters, Roskin, Sabinson office.
They would help each other out if anyone got overwhelmed with an opening, for example.
For the most part, it was pretty separate. At the time of the 77 Dolly revival, Josh was handling The King and I starring Yul Brynner. Charles Lowe would call him every day to see how The King and I was doing. “What was the box office gross yesterday? What was the audience last night? Ect?” Lowe was keenly aware of what was happening with The King and I while Dolly was in town and running simultaneously. It taught Josh about attention to detail. Lowe was involved in every aspect of Channing’s career and life to the extent that it was difficult to decipher where Lowe ended and Channing took over and vice versa. It was always Carol and Charles. It was never Carol or Charles. They were like one person, like Chang and Eng, famed Siamese twins. Carol was the one on stage, but he was there leading the applause at every performance.
Gower had him removed from the St. James Theater during the original run when he got wind of that. Lowe used to hire other people to join him in this practice. Director Dennis Courtney sustained himself financially during the 1978 revival by getting $20.00 per show, $160.00 a week by being paid to help lead the applause. He would have “plants” in two different sections of the theater. Channing never played to an empty seat.
From a press agent’s point of view, the biggest change that Josh has seen in this business since first starting is multiple producers, whether they be rich individuals, corporate organizations, or decisions being made by committees. Josh got the last taste of “one show, one producer” with David Merrick and Morton Gottlieb. Where is the next David Merrick? At least we had this!