Snapshot 09: On Broadway, Part 1 …

Snapshot is an irregularly-scheduled series featuring reminiscences of places and experiences in my life. To read all my Snapshot posts, please click here.

Click on the images in this post to see them larger on your screen!

All Playbill™ images are from my original copies.

My brother and I started visiting New York City on a regular basis in July 1971. We went to the country’s largest—at that point in time—comic book convention, Phil Seuling’s New York Comic Art Convention. It became a yearly thing for us, and in fact, we started going up more and more each year, also going to other cons, like Creation, which was held over Thanksgiving weekend. We’d get up early, queue up for the Trailways bus that would pass through our tiny hometown, Tamaqua, PA, and take the two and a half-hour ride to Port Authority Station in the heart of midtown Manhattan.

Around year five or so, I started to get more and more curious about the city outside of whatever hotel we happened to be in, surrounded by wall-to-wall comic books and fans. I started to roam more. I realized what a big, vibrant city New York was, even in the 1970s, when it was crime-ridden and the area around Times Square and 42nd Street was a literal cesspool. Around 1977, I got curious enough to go to a play. Over the next 30 years or so, I went to 15 plays. I’ve saved every one of my Playbill magazines—and even some of my ticket stubs—and over the next couple months, I’m going to try and tell the story of my love affair with the Great White Way—Broadway—in New York City.

You can tell me you’ve seen some of these plays or performances when they came to the city you live in, but let me tell you this: Nothing compares to a Broadway production. You’re literally sitting on top of history in some of the most beautiful theatres in the world. I think I have been in theatres that the Marx Brothers played in, that were the homes of numerous prize-winning plays, and one that was where they taped The Merv Griffin Show in the 1960s, when it was syndicated by Group W (Westinghouse). Hell, I’ve even seen a one-woman show in what was the most famous disco in New York City, Studio 54.

But the first time I ever visited a theatre in New York was not for a play; it was for an extended musical performance, one near and dear to my heart. I grew up in the era of the Beatles, loving their music and watching their evolution. At the time, we called it …


Winter Garden Theatre (Seen May 1978)

I saw Beatlemania at the Winter Garden Theatre, one of only three NYC Broadway theatres that is actually on Broadway. It was a multimedia production—featuring projected images, including film and video and newspaper headlines—playing behind four look-alike mop-tops who performed 29 of the Beatles songs, roughly in their chronological release order. It ran from May 1977 through October 1979 (1006 performances in all), and I saw it in May of 1978, although I don’t quite know what I was doing in NYC at that time; the comic cons we went to were usually held close to Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. There was no script—or “book” as they call it in a play—just the music and some unscripted onstage banter. There is, unbelievably, a cast album, recorded live at the Winter Garden. I mean, wouldn’t you want to listen to the real thing and “Not the Beatles, but an incredible simulation,” as the advertisements stated? I remember being impressed by how much this fake Fab Four sounded like the real thing, though, and I was so impressed with being in such a storied Broadway theatre … I couldn’t wait to go back.

They’re Playing Our Song

Imperial Theatre (Seen Wed., April 2, 1980)

They’re Playing Our Song was written by Neil Simon, the master of American comedies who wrote The Odd Couple, Barefoot in the Park, Plaza Suite, and so many other plays and films. When it started it starred comedian Robert Klein and Lucie Arnaz, Lucille Ball’s daughter. By the time I saw it in 1980, it was starring Tony Roberts (most famous for his appearances as Woody Allen’s pal in some of his movies) and Stockard Channing, whom I loved. Unfortunately, Stockard evidently heard I was coming and bombed out of the Wednesday matinee, replaced by her understudy Rhoda Farer. My friend Barb and I got up early one morning and met at Rita’s Lunch in beautiful downtown Tamaqua and took the long bus ride to NYC to go see a play. I don’t recall if we decided on this one in particular, or just roamed around and found one that was both mutually acceptable. I enjoyed this play a great deal, even though I’m not a big musical person, play- or movie-wise. I liked it enough to buy the original cast album, which featured the music written by Marvin Hamlisch and Carol Bayer Sager, whose relationship Simon based the play on. It was a whole bunch of catchy tunes, even if Klein and Arnaz were not the world’s greatest singers (neither was Roberts and Farer, as I recall).

On a sidenote, I do remember we ate dinner at a really nice restaurant (I think it was called “Charcuterie”), located in the bottom floor of what used to be called “Black Rock,” the former home of CBS on 52nd Street and Avenue of the Americas. And the other thing I remember is we came to NYC on the second day of a major transit strike that paralyzed the city when all the buses and subways shut down (it didn’t effect national business like Trailways and Greyhound). Luckily, both the Imperial Theatre and Black Rock were within easy walking distance from Port Authority. We were on our way back home on the 7:05 bus and safely back in Tamaqua around 9:30 PM.

My original ticket stub for They’re Playing Our Song. I’m not a hoarder, honest.

Gilda Radner Live from New York

Winter Garden Theatre (Seen September 1979)

I fell in love with Gilda Radner the moment I first saw her on Saturday Night Live. She was one of the original cast members—the first generation of “The Not Ready for Primetime Players.” This show featured skits based on some of the characters she played on SNL, like Rosanne Rosannadanna, Emily Litella, Judy Miller, and Lisa Loopner, kind of a summer camp edition of SNL. Gilda brought along some of her friends from the show, like musical director Paul Schaffer and Father Guido Sarducci (Don Novello), who talked to the audience while Gilda was doing costume changes. (I always remember his bit about dying and going to heaven and how St. Peter meets you at the pearly gates with a bill for all the sins you’ve committed, including masturbation. The charge for that particular sin was relatively cheap—like 35 cents for each offense—but as Father Guido said, “Let me tell you, it really adds up.”) Gilda was warm and wonderful and totally engaging in this show, which ran for only 51 performances (plus five previews) from July through September 1979, basically during the off-season for SNL. I’m not sure what I was doing in NYC in September of ’79, but I might have gone up just to see her show. Soon after, I moved back to Pittsburgh, and the rest of my life began. There was an album that was recorded at the show, which I had and played to death; feeling nostalgic while writing this I checked eBay and found it for cheap, so I’m looking forward to listening to it again. My original copy was a victim of numerous moves.

I was in NYC another time, just roaming around as I was wont to do, and I cut through the NBC Building in Rockefeller Center and lo and behold, who’s walking towards me but Gilda herself. The look on my face must have been one of slack-jawed amazement, and she just looked at me and laughed and made a beeline (can’t be too careful, I guess) to the guard station, where she scanned her badge in for the staff elevators. I wrote her a fan letter—the only one I ever wrote to a celebrity—when I got home, mentioning I saw her and a few weeks later a postcard arrived in the mail. I’m not sure if that pink signature on the back was real or pre-printed, but I loved it and still have it, as you can see below.

Gilda left us way too soon. I can only imagine what her career would have been like all these years. I miss her. Don’t we all?

Not exactly my finest photographic moment, but I was both surprised and pleased to see I had snapped this pic of the marquee back in the day.

A Day in Hollywood A Night in the Ukraine

Royale Theatre (Seen July 1980)

I had seen an article in New York magazine about this play, which was two-two-two plays in one. The first part (A Day in Hollywood) featured the Marx Brothers in a movieland spoof, with lots of great old songs from films. The second part (A Night in the Ukraine) was based loosely on Anton Chekov’s The Bear, and was—I think—a parody. I don’t remember much about this one, other than the Marxian connection (which is what drew me to it) and a memorable poster by artist James McMullan, who did many memorable Broadway posters. I do recall Priscilla Lopez, who had some fame in movies and on TV, played Chico; she won the 1980 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for this play. It ran for 588 performances, with 9 previews from April 1980 through September 1981, so it was a popular play. If I saw this in July, it means I was in the Big Apple for the Seuling con, one of his last, I believe.


Biltmore Theatre (Seen November 1983)

Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip was a big thing in the 1980s, with its mix of politics and its most famous character, Duke, a thinly-veiled parody of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Trudeau wrote both the book and the lyrics for this play, and I honestly don’t remember much about it, except some of its stars. It included Kate Burton (Richard’s daughter, who most recently appeared in the first season of Bosch: Legacy), Mark Linn-Baker (most famous for the movie My Favorite Year and the TV sitcom Perfect Strangers), Keith Szarabajka (The Equalizer series from the 1980s), and Lauren Tom (Friends). I was probably in town for a November Creation con, or maybe just flew up for a book-shopping weekend, since this was the hay-day of People Express, the budget airline—and occasionally horrifying experience—that flew from Pittsburgh to NYC for $99 each way. This play only ran for 104 performances with 20 previews from November 1983 through mid-February 1984.

Broadway shows circa 1977 with this poster display in Shubert Alley.

Coming soon: Part Two featuring Arsenic and Old Lace with an all-star cast; The Nerd with Mark Hamill and Peter Riegert; Inherit the Wind with Tony Randall and Charles Durning; The Cocoanuts starring Frank Ferrante; and Miss Saigon … watch out for that helicopter!

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