PBS, Thank You for Broadway: The Golden Age

Last night, I happened to catch the final half-hour of a certain fund-raising drive on my local PBS channel – and they were showing an absolutely MARVELOUS documentary called Broadway: The Golden Age. It’s eventually going to be a 3-part extravaganza – and last night the first part was shown – which talks about “the golden age” – Broadway in the late 40s and 1950s. When there were sometimes 80 new plays a season. What??? Some of the interviews were just absolutely classic – I am so glad I caught just a tiny bit of it. I made my pledge (I always need to be reminded – I am on a newsletter that lets me know when these fundraising drives occur) and sat back to just REVEL in the damn thing.

Stevie – Alex – Mitchell – Curly – have you seen this documentary? I know I saw the huge one on the Broadway musical (Broadway: The American Musical)- that was ALSO on PBS, and it was something like a 10-part extravaganza – and it was unbelievable. It was on a couple of months ago, and I was home on a Saturday, and I watched the whole eniter THING.

But back to “The Golden Age”: First of all, the people they interviewed are just GIANTS to me. Angela Lansbury – talking about Mame – and how it was really the only part she could remember really wanting. And she really had to convince them that she could do it. She didn’t have a big enough name. But of course she ended up giving the performance of her life – a performance that is now seen as iconic. Lansbury said, near the close of the special, “I will never … ever … get a part like that again.” And she knew it at the time. She needed to come out of this enormous comfort zone to play that part (even though she was already VERY successful) – and boy did she ever.

Gena Rowlands! My own personal idol. She said, “We were live – there were no mikes on the actors – I remember watching a play with Ben Gazzara – who had the best speaking voice on Broadway – and I was sitting in the balcony, and he was whispering – and I could hear it. We had trained voices then!” Then – the next clip was Ben Gazzara (who, please. I just absolutely love that guy) saying, with a wry little grin, “I remember whispering during some show I did – and being heard …”

What I wouldn’t give to see Ben Gazzara live. Those performances he gave in the 50s … I mean, they’re also iconic. People still reference them. They’re still seen as kind of IT. Here he is with Barbara Bel Geddes in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof:

It also basically brought tears to my eyes to hear how many times Laurette Taylor was referenced. She is the guiding light – she’s “the one” we all aspire to. I didn’t even SEE her performance as Amanda Wingfield in the original Glass Menagerie – of course I didn’t! It was in the 1940s!! But still. It’s a landmark. A high-water mark for everybody. Funny and weirdly gratifying thing: I am now #1 on Google for “Laurette Taylor” because of this post. I wrote that over 2 years ago. And slowly, without my knowing it, it has been climbing the Google rankings … I can’t tell you how many people have written to me because of that post. Laurette Taylor really MEANS something to people who know who she is. And most people don’t know who she is. One of our greatest American treasures – and no one knows who she is. Shame, shame, shame. Well, I am proud of the fact that my little post is up there at the top of the list – because it’s a tribute, basically – a tribute to this giant of American theatre. She should be remembered. And since that post is now #1, more and more people have been finding it (I can see in my traffic reports) – and that makes me feel even better.

People in the PBS special last night even say her name differently … it’s iconic. It means something. All you need to do in certain crowds is say “Laurette Taylor” and people just KNOW.

Elaine Stritch is just amazing, I love her crotchety honest old self. What a phenomenal performer. Truly.

Tommy Tune was interviewed and he said something about how he felt like it was a shame that “revivals” were taking up so much space – when there were so many NEW plays and musicals that should be nurtured! Then they cut immediately to Elaine Stritch and she says, “There are new generations who should see Kiss Me Kate – who should see Guys and Dolls – one of the greatest musicals ever written – I think the revival trend is great!” Wearing her little wool hat, with her pissed honest eyes. Love that woman. Love Tommy Tune, too. I can see both views …

There was a big section on Marlon Brando which was absolutely awesome. They interviewed Karl Malden – who worked with Brando many many times, also in Truckline Cafe which was Brando’s big break. At least in the theatrical community. That’s when he became known to THEM. Streetcar was when he crossed over into the public’s consciousness – but Truckline was almost a bigger break, because it made Streetcar possible. There are multiple eyewitness accounts (Pauline Kael, for one) of his performance in Truckline – and how exciting it was. People literally thought they had found some guy off the street and put him on stage – it was that believable. Malden said something very interesting – that Brando “shattered the transitional period between two different styles of acting.” There was already a trend towards a more “realistic” style of acting – Montgomery Clift, etc. – and Brando basically trashed the old world with one performance. He didn’t set out to do that. That was not his goal. He just was a genius – it was his destiny, that’s all.

I did a Google search for photos of Brando in Truckline – but nothing came up immediately. I did, however, find a page of his notes that he made for The Godfather on the back of the pages of his script. It’s an insight into the mind of a great actor. I love stuff like this because it is evidence that Brando wasn’t just a freak-talent – who worked on instinct. He was a craftsman. He thought about his work. He made choices based on script analysis. The things all competent actors should do. It’s just that his instrument, his emotional instrument, was 100% available to him when he got “in the moment”. Most actors are lucky if they get to 80 or 90 percent, and they cherish those rare moments when they are 100%. Brando just got out of the damn way when he was acting. No barrier between himself and his impulses. Very very rare.

But look at his notes here:

#Nose broken early in youth to account for difficulty …

Gives me chills.

They interviewed Kim Hunter who said, “When you act opposite that kind of truth – it makes you better than you think you are. You are in a whole new world.” Then there was a still from the Broadway production of Streetcar – black and white – Marlon, in his sweat-stained T shirt, holding onto Kim Hunter’s arms, and yelling at her. It was a still: And my God. It was so damn real – Humphrey Bogart always said that, in acting, “Truth should be 6 feet back in your eyes.” That photograph of Marlon Brando is exactly what he was talking about.

Kim Hunter said something really interesting. She said, “Brando made bad choices onstage. Brando made mistakes, and he made wrong choices. But one thing he never was – was a phony.”

And that, my friends, is an acting genius.

They interviewed Jerry Orbach quite a bit. I miss that man, I really do. What a career.

Basically, the whole time I was watching last night – I yearned for a time machine. I would literally kill to be able to see Brando as Stanley, or Gena Rowlands in Middle of the Night, Ben Gazzara in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Lansbury as Mame, Gwen Verdon in pretty much anything … these giants. Giants of the American theatre.

I am certainly hoping that there is a repeat of Broadway: The Golden Age – I missed the beginning of it. And I look forward to the next 2 installments which apparently take us up to the present day. Through the revolutionary theatrical moment that was Hair … up to now.

Oh, and Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson joined the telethon host in the studio – to talk about their experiences in the New York theatre throughout the years. They have seen it all. They were THERE. It was great – Strange. Seeing the two of them is somehow like seeing an old friend. Their work, and not just their work, but their LIVES – have been such an inspiration to me personally.

It’s funny: I admire these people SO MUCH for performances I have never seen. I think it was John Gielgud who said that acting in the theatre was like “sculpting in snow” and it is very true. We have eyewitness accounts. And for the more recent shows, we have video of it. But there is nothing like seeing it live. Nothing. It’s sacred to me – live theatre – and so seeing these people – like Wallach – who gave performances on Broadway during the 50s and 60s that people STILL talk about – hell, look at me, I’M talking about them and I didn’t even see them – is very moving to me. Their work means so much to me.

I grew up on public television (zoom-ah-zoom-ah-zoom-ah-zoom And, of course, Masterpiece Theater. COME ON!!). Supporting public television is kinda engrained in me. Last night was a gorgeous moment when I remembered why! Money well spent.

Beautiful documentary!

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26 Responses to PBS, Thank You for Broadway: The Golden Age

  1. amelie says:

    i wish i had seen this — it makes me want to watch more and more older movies, and i already loved older movies to begin with!

    and man, do i miss Jerry Orbach…

  2. red says:

    Me too!!

    He had quite an illustrious Broadway career as well – just one of those hard-working guys who never ever stopped working. Working up til the day he died. I love him.

    Have you ever seen Crimes and Misdemeanors, amelie? He’s got a fantastic part in it – 2 scenes – He was called in as a last-minute replacement for some other actor who dropped out, he had no time to prepare – but Woody Allen just knew that he could be relied upon to show up and do a great job. He NAILS it. He almost steals the movie.

  3. I haven’t seen it yet but I’ll definitely be on the lookout. I’m sure it will be rerun. The B’way programs usually spark pledges so they’re often run on Channel 13 in addition to NJN and Channel 21 (the PBS affiliate out on Long Island). Having 3 PBS stations in the area is such a blessing! I was a lost soul until I discovered Great Performances.

    I’m due for donation, I admit. Thanks for the reminder and the heads up! I can’t wait to watch this!!!

    P.S. PBS has also been showing Personal Best, a collection of clips selected by each of the Monty Python members. I’ve seen the Eric Idle and Terry Jones episodes so far. HILARIOUS!!

  4. red says:

    I haven’t seen the Personal Best series – I will have to keep my eyes open for it!

    Also, apparently – they’re doing a 6 part Bleak House – which I’ve heard really really good things about.

  5. Mr. Lion says:

    Arrrrg. I can’t believe I missed that.

  6. red says:

    Check the local listings, Lion – I bet they’ll run it again!! It was great.

  7. red says:

    I’m thinkin’ that Part 3, whenever it launches, will be of particular interest to you. Just guessing!!

  8. Betsy says:

    I saw it the other night – I was particularly busy but I could not move, and then threw all aside to watch it. I learned so much…

  9. red says:

    Bets – me too. So much information!!

  10. amelie says:

    sheila —
    no, i haven’t seen that! now i’m going to have to.

    i knew he had a great, long career, though, like many people, my most frequent contact with him was/is Law & Order. when they got a new guy, i refused to watch. just gotta have Jerry, you know?

  11. red says:

    amelie – Yup. Crimes and Misdemeanors is a great film! One of my favorites of Woody Allen’s.

    The whole Jerry Orbach on Law & Order thing was SO great – because – he had been doing good work for years, and successful work too! But not big money-makers – you don’t make any money working in the theatre.

    So it was so validating that at the end of his life – Jerry Orbach got to be part of Law & Order – an enormous cash COW for the actors involved (every single time that show is shown in repeat – he got a check for it – think about it!!) – a great show, too – It just seemed so fitting and right. He really deserved to get nice regular TV-series level paychecks. Happy for him.

  12. amelie says:

    you’re absolutely right, sheila. love that show, love him in it. took a while to convince some of my friends that he’s the same guy who did the voice of Lumiere in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast — they all go, “he can sing?!” heh heh..

  13. red says:

    I know! hahahaha I grew up listening to the original soundtrack for The Fantasticks – and he was on that.

    How about him as the dad in Dirty Dancing? the one trying to “put Baby in a corner”.

  14. mitchell says:

    sheil…Alex and I saw the documentary in the movie theater last year…I loved it so much I went back again the same week! So many gems..the Laurette Taylor stuff killed me..and anything that comes out the mouth of the criminally under-appreciated Angela Lansbury is pure joy. What a career!!!

  15. red says:

    Mitchell – “criminally under-appreciated” hahahahaha

    I loved the story of Angela Lansbury’s audition for Mame! And how amazing it was – how she pretty much blew everyone away. There was no question that she was “the one” after her audition. Amazing!!!

  16. amelie says:

    original Fantasticks, mmm…

    i actually haven’t seen Dirty Dancing — is that bad?

  17. red says:

    amelie – it has cheesy moments, but it’s kind of become a classic. I saw it 6 times in the movie theatre when it first came out.


  18. red says:

    Oh, and it stars Patrick Swayze as the hot and rebellious dance teacher who shows her the hot new moves … SO ENJOYABLE!!!

    It stars Jennifer Grey before she got a nose job, a cheek lift, an eye lift, and completely changed her face so that now nobody would EVER know who she was. Why she did that I will never know!! Ruined her career.

  19. amelie says:

    sure that’s what killed her career? getting a new face? i haven’t seen her in anything, i don’t think, so i don’t know how good / bad at acting she otherwise is… :P

  20. red says:

    amelie – did you see Ferris Bueller? She plays his bitchy sister – she’s got a very asymmetrical face, with a big nose – really intersting looking but not a classic beauty. She became a HUGE star with Dirty Dancing – WITH THAT FACE – and thenn promptly resculpted her entire look and hasn’t had a decent job since.


  21. I love when Jennifer Gray tells Charlie Sheen to stick his thumb up his butt in Ferris Bueller. And when she kicks Rooney in the face repeatedly with her pastel-colored wrestling sneakers! (I rewound that part a million times and watched it over and over again, which is why I remember the details. Plus, I had a pair just like them that I got at Thom McCan).

    Oh, Jennifer… what happened to you? She really made a mess of things, huh? I love her dad though! :)

  22. amelie says:

    oh, then i have seen her in that. not classic beauty, you’re right, but there was something about her facial arrangement… and now you’re telling me that’s out the window with her career. *sighs* silly.

  23. Stevie says:

    Yes, I heard about this DVD and rented it from Netflix about a year and a half ago, and absolutely loved every minute of it. The DVD has “behind the scenes” stuff about the guy who made it – a genius fan who just decided to start doing these interviews, mostly in his tiny apartment, and after years of pestering, one by one these great luminaries came to his place and told stories about themselves, the performances they had seen that shaped them, etc. It is the ONLY footage I have ever seen of Laurette Taylor, so what a thrill it was to have so many of my favorite performers say that Laurette was THE reason they went into theatre.

    There’s footage of both the Broadway and Los Angeles premieres of the movie on the DVD, and there’s lots of touching, awkward moments of these LEGENDS who, one by one, have been ignored or forgotten along the way.

    One amazing (and timely) interview is with Maureen Stapleton, probably the last interview she gave.

    I’m glad you saw this film, Sheila, and I knew you’d love it.

    Essential, brilliant movie.

  24. dick says:

    What I would love to see them bring back on TV is the old Playhouse 90 and Hallmark Hall of Fame stuff. I think they have kinescopes of a lot of them. I would love to see the Requiem for a Heavyweight with the two original casts (Ed Wynn/Anthony Quinn and Jackie Gleason/Jack Palance) and all the other shows that the greats of Broadway and Hollywood made live. Wonderful stuff!! We were truly blessed in those days in what was on the boob tube, flickers, snow and all.

  25. Alex says:


    YES! YES! YES!

    Oh BOY I can’t WAIT to get famous.

    SEE this??? I sat through it three times in the theatre. I was the only one there with a group of old ladies and their dates.

    All three times.


  26. Rick McKay says:

    Hi folks, I am Rick McKay, the guy who made the film you are talking about. I was sent to this thread by a friend who stumbled upon it and just wanted to let any of you who are interested know that there are a lot more dates coming up for Broadway: The Golden Age. It will be on in NYC area on WNET/13 on April 27th at 8 PM and again on the 29th at 2 AM or something. Then it will be back in a LOT of cities for June pledge drive. If you don’t want to wait, you can get the DVD for a GREAT price (on sale for $12.99!) right now on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000649YA2/ref=nosim/broadwthegold-20

    But, I really wanted more than anything to tell you all that your posts mean a LOT to me. The film played like 135 cities around the country the summer of 2004 and the DVD has been a big hit for the last year or so – but the PBS run has been huge for them and I am getting a lot of mail from real people who just stumble on the film – people that never actually get to live theatre – and that’s exciting!

    I am hard at work on the two sequels (www.broadwaythemovie.com), as well as a documentary about Fay Wray that I am doing with Peter Jackson. Thanks for spreading the word about Broadway: The Golden Age, and watch for the next one with Robert Redford, Liza Minnelli, Glenn Close, Dick Van Dyke, Al Pacino, Ben Vereen, Ruby Dee,Sidney Poitier, Cloris Leachman, Morgan Freeman, Lou Gossett, Diane Keaton and a lot of other people who all started on BWAY in the 60’s & 70’s. Thanks again to Sheila who took the time to see the film and pay so much attention to it. Best, Rick

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