Hollywood Heyday at Carnegie Hall
There are two places to see the legendary stars from the Golden Age of the Silver Screen. In Hollywood, you go to A.A. meetings. In New York, you go to Carnegie Hall.
At a recent two-concert tribute, “Carnegie Hall Celebrates the Glorious M-G-M Musicals,” the joint was jumping. Every seat was filled with movie fans young and old, and as many stars from Louis B. Mayer’s logo heaven as they could find still walking without a cane paraded across the stage to a roar of approval louder than Leo the Lion’s. The old dream factory by the railroad track in Culver City that was home to Garbo, Garland and Gable may be gone with the wind now, but to millions who still thrill to the magic it created, M-G-M will always be part of the lexicon of cinema history.
The singing, dancing and reminiscing about the good old days rekindled the magic, and for two ecstatic nights New Yorkers felt like kids again. June Allyson is still dream-girl adorable in her trademark pageboy, Gloria DeHaven can still sing and Van Johnson still wears red socks. Seeing the three co-stars who adorned so many M-G-M movies reunited on the concert stage had a positively restorative effect.
June lost her reading glasses on the airplane, but that didn’t faze her. She was a charming and squeezable doll of a co-host, sharing her duties with Michael Feinstein. Gloria sang a smoldering “Who’s Sorry Now?”-which was originally introduced by her mother-with a blues-tinged passion that made everybody wonder why the lady they still call “Gloria DeHeaven” isn’t making records for today’s market. Mr. Johnson, who counted the number of World War II bomb missions he flew over June Allyson’s dressing room in M-G-M movies, quipped, “I’m 83 years old my next birthday, and still a virgin.” He called his salad days at M-G-M “the 20 best years of my life” and from the moviegoers who grew up with him there were no challenges.
Harold Nicholas, one half of the dancing Nicholas Brothers, watched film clips of himself and his brother Fayard doing somersaults with Gene Kelly and sang a jazzy, swinging “Taking a Chance on Love.” Nanette Fabray demonstrated why her years of Broadway training pay royal dividends by taking over the stage with polish and pizzazz on a lively arrangement of “That’s Entertainment” (from her legendary musical The Bandwagon ) and told amusing inside stories about Fred Astaire. Tony Martin’s dazzling baritone gleamed as he re-created his “All the Things You Are” number from the splashy Jerome Kern biopic Till the Clouds Roll By . He can still croon with the best of them.
Cyd Charisse introduced an excellent sequence of film clips celebrating the greatest dance numbers from 230 M-G-M musicals, but for the real thing it was up to the ageless, stunning and graceful Marge Champion, partnered by the elegant Donald Saddler, who stopped the show. Re-creating the famous “I Won’t Dance” number she originally performed with Gower Champion in Lovely to Look At , she glided, leaped, kicked, waltzed and boogied her way across the stage to tumultuous applause while time stood still. It was the biggest single triumph of the night and the only number that demanded two bows instead of one. Here was a senior citizen, nimble as spaghetti, who fits the label in only one respect-she knows so much more than anybody else!
Margaret O’Brien, once an Oscar-winning child star who displayed the emotional range of Garbo at age 7, has grown into a warm and gracious woman with a beautiful face and the same little voice that made millions of American children want to move their parents to Hollywood in the 1940’s. She introduced film clips of her own singing and dancing with Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis and recalled that when she was 6 years old her mother, a Spanish gypsy dancer, took her to Carnegie Hall and said, “My dream is that some day one of us will play on this stage.” One of them did,
and that accomplishment, decades later, prompted cheers from the entire audience, including Liza Minnelli, who knows something herself about both growing up in show business and playing Carnegie Hall.
Liza may have been less thrilled by what came next, as Ms. O’Brien laid to rest forever the popular Hollywood myth perpetrated by director Vincente Minnelli that the way he got the child star to cry in Meet Me in St. Louis was by telling her that her dog had just died. According to Margaret, it was her mother who said, “June Allyson doesn’t need fake tears for the camera. She cries real ones-and big ones, too.” From that moment on, June and Margaret became so famous for outcrying each other on the screen that everyone at M-G-M called them “the Town Criers.”
Later, the indefatigable Betty Garrett sang and danced a number she did with Frank Sinatra in On the Town . And last but never least, there was Esther Williams, queen of the underwater musicals and now something of a loose cannon, who knocked their socks off with her salty tongue and bawdy inside stories on chlorine, what Johnny Weissmuller was hiding under his Tarzan loincloth, and why the censors cut “Slow Boat to China” out of Neptune’s Daughter . “They looked exactly like Kenneth Starr,” she said when they claimed the word “get” was songwriter Frank Loesser’s euphemism for “the F word.” Then she proceeded to sing to the howling audience, “I’d like to F– you on a slow boat to China …” You had to be there, and I’m glad I was.
There were sound problems, mike problems, projection problems (Carnegie Hall is a terrible place to show film clips) and much of the evening seemed notoriously underrehearsed. I missed Mickey Rooney, Leslie Caron, Ann Miller, Jane Powell, Arlene Dahl, Howard Keel and Debbie Reynolds. But what there was, as Spencer Tracy used to say, was choice.
Backstage was, as Betty Garrett put it, “like being back on the M-G-M back lot.” June Allyson lost her luggage and Gloria DeHaven lost her keys, but they were roommates again, sharing combs and diamond rings and the same dressing room. Betty Garrett passed out tapes of her 80th-birthday party while Tony Martin vocalized, and Margaret O’Brien, now the mother of a 21-year-old daughter who is studying to be an attorney for the F.B.I., nixed an offer to sell her priceless collection of Margaret O’Brien paper dolls and coloring books. “I’m saving them for my grandchildren,” she said politely, “if I ever have any.” Not one of them had seen the new Star Wars movie.
During their stay in Manhattan, Esther Williams held court at Elaine’s until 3 A.M., caught Judi Dench in Amy’s View and met with Simon & Schuster about the September publication date for her controversial tell-all biography Million Dollar Mermaid , which promises such inside dope as the real skinny behind her marriages, divorces and love affairs (“Jeff Chandler was a cross-dresser”). Margaret O’Brien shopped Fifth Avenue, munched on sushi at Takashimaya and took in The Lion King . June and Gloria entertained diners, staff and each other at the Warwick Hotel, trading perfume, gossip and tips on important issues, like the value of good lighting.
No tails wagging dogs, no fence-sitting political agendas, just a reminder to all how much fun we used to get from the movies-and the people who made them. As usual, it was Esther Williams who got the last word when she told the screaming, cheering, standing-room-only crowd at Carnegie Hall, “You’ve made a lot of old dinosaurs happy.” But just think how happy the dinosaurs made us .
Lots More From McGovern
For music lovers, there’s more good stuff at the Algonquin’s fabled Oak Room, where Maureen McGovern is ushering in the first rays of summer with a warmth of her own, through June 19. Easy on the eyes, with perfect pitch, superb intonation and a range that knows no boundaries, this classic diva of the old school easily negotiates the bridge between jazz and pop styles, as she investigates a wide spectrum of songs with a heavy emphasis on standards. Foremost on her menu is a trio of birthday centennials celebrating Kurt Weill, Hoagy Carmichael and Duke Ellington. Expect the unexpected.
For Mr. Weill, she has dusted off the trenchant but buoyant “One Life to Live,” a song from 1941 that served as Gertrude Lawrence’s opening number in Lady in the Dark . For the great Hoagy, she brings a new brightness to everybody’s favorite parlor-piano song, “Heart and Soul,” even assisting ace accompanist Lee Musiker on the “Chopsticks”-style intro at the piano. Gazing up into a pin spot, her diamond earrings bouncing sparks off the wall, she then sings a perfectly modulated “Nearness of You” with haunting, mood-altering alchemy. For the Duke, her classic jazz riffs on “Caravan” emphasize the Moroccan mood of this instrumental classic, then she improvises the solo lines of “Take the A Train” in countermelody.
Another highlight of this unusual set is a rare Ellington jewel called “On a Turquoise Cloud,” where her voice takes on the sultry slur of a tenor saxophone in an arrangement transcribed from the original orchestration on file at the Smithsonian Archives. This girl has done her homework, and she has the chops to back up her enthusiasm and research.
But there is more. Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein, the Gershwins and Rodgers and Hart are not overlooked, and the acerbic phrasing on Stephen Sondheim’s “Could I Leave You?” from Follies renders the listener speechless. An exquisite “Skylark” is worth the cover charge by itself.
Quieter, more wistful and contemplative than I’ve ever heard her, Ms. McGovern is at the top of her form in this engagement. No dynamic inner struggle, no showy theatrics, no attempt to reinvent her material in her own image; she just gives you the songs, beautifully and directly, leaving you wanting more.