In 1966 the HallMark Hall of Fame presented a television adaptation of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's Off Broadway musical THE FANTASTICKS. Ricardo Montalban appeared as El Gallo and Bert Lahr and Stanley Holloway were the two fathers. The young lovers were played by Broadway's favorite ingénue, Susan Watson, and a clean-cut young man named John Davidson who had made a strong impression on Broadway audiences as Lahr's son in the musicAl FoxY.
As fate and irony would have it, John Davidson has just stepped into the role of Henry, the Old Actor in THE FANTASTICKS, which is currently in its 53rd year and still delighting audiences Off Broadway.
Meeting Davidson in a rehearsal studio finds the actor to be more mature than he was when he appeared in the television version. His hair has gone white and his face shows the maturity of his years, but his blue eyes still twinkle with a certain impishness and those famous dimples are very evident. He remains quite handsome but it's a handsomeness that's shed the wholesomeness of the past and reflects his survival in show business as well as the growth of a human being. He's sharp as a tack and has the agility that man half his age may lack. Heck, he's presently making his grand entrance in THE FANTASTICKS by climbing out of an on-stage prop box! He's also a pleasure to converse with.
"I came to New York after graduating from Dennison University in Ohio with a Bachelor of Arts in Theater," he recalls. "Nobody ever asks you if you have a degree, though." He pauses and adds, "Bob Banner, the television producer who had discovered Carol Burnett, saw me in FOXY and said that he wanted to develop me into a variety show host. He said 'We're gonna sign a five year deal and I'm gonna develop your career' and he did it the way the studios used to do years earlier. It was like signing with M-G-M. He managed me, he got me a Columbia Records contract, he taught me how to tell jokes, he told me how to wear my hair and what clothes to wear. He said, 'You don't move very well, let's give you tap dancing lessons,' he even helped me put together my club act for Las Vegas. In a very real sense, Bob Banner put me together and I have him to thank for my career." It was Bob Banner who produced the Kraft Summer Music Hall which Davison hosted. "I presented these new comedians like Richie Pryor, George Carlin, and Flip Wilson. That was the beginning of my career in '66."
The Kraft Music Hall became a very popular television show and it attracted a wide and mixed audience. Middle aged ladies viewed it regularly and younger people loved the comedians. One twenty-ish rake declared in a cafeteria that "John Davidson really has balls!" The reason for this declaration was the singer's habit of going into the audience to take song requests and then singing the songs that the people asked for. He never seemed to fudge a lyric.
"That's sort of become my 'hit record'. I've never had a hit record," Davidson laughs. "The one thing I do as if it were my 'hit segment' is what Bob Banner created. He came up with something called 'That Wonderful Year' for Garry Moore. When he signed me and developed me, he said, 'We're gonna give you a medley of songs from every year-at that time it was 1930 to 1960-and you'll go out in the audience and ask people what year they started dating or when you met your wife and I would sing a medley. There were lots of jokes connected with it. It's something that developed my audience technique and made me something more than just a singer. It made me into an entertainer."
Looking back on his first Broadway show, Davidson stops and ponders about his impressions of Bert Lahr. "He was a very worried guy…not a happy man. However, every performance was different. I would watch him from the wings and he taught me how to throw a punch on stage. In the show I had to knock him out and he taught me how to do it effectively. He was very nice to me but he was always worried that he wasn't getting enough laughs…that it wasn't funny enough. When I played his son again in THE FANTASTICKS he was the same thing, even though we had Stanley Holloway and Riccardo Montalban--who were well-known--Bert sat in the corner. He was never one to tell long stories to entertain the crowd like a Sammy Davis, Jr would do, he was a loner and very troubled. Personally, I found that very appealing because he really cared about the comedy and I worry and care about the same thing. It enabled me to become that concerned about my performances. I'm not the life of the party, either. I'm constantly thinking whether my performance could possibly be better. In a nutshell, I don't think Bert Lahr was ever good enough for himself."