In the midst of The Great Depression, a teenage boy from The Bronx dreams of becoming a famous actor. Not so much for the glamor or the money, but for the opportunity to have sex with numerous Hollywood starlets. He fantasizes about Greta Garbo trying to reach him at his beautiful mansion in the hills, only to to have her call answered by his butler, a tall, distinguished, barrel-chested man with a deep, rich voice any Elizabethan actor would envy. When she demands a chance to speak with the master of the house, the butler replies singing a sprightly waltz...
He's screwing Dolores del Rio.
That's why he cannot speak to you.
He's screwing Dolores del Rio
And may not be disturbed 'till he's through.
No, he can't call you back at five-thirty.
At five-thirty he humps Alice Faye.
Then Jean Harlow at seven, Mae West at eleven
And somewhere between them, Fay Wray.
Ezio Pinza had "Some Enchanted Evening". Richard Kiley had "The Impossible Dream". George S. Irving, who will be appearing this weekend in a one-man show celebrating his 60 years in musical theatre entitled George S. Irving -- Still Carrying On, has "The Butler's Song."
Although the name "George S. Irving" has rarely appeared above the title on a Broadway marquee, he has long been beloved by theatre-goers as one of the quintessential musical comedy character men. Beginning with the original production of Oklahoma! in 1943 and ending (for now) as a Tony nominee for Me and My Girl in 1986, he has appeared in 31 Broadway productions, mostly as a featured player in musicals. Whether in a smash hit like Bells are Ringing or Can-Can or in a short lived effort like Anya or So Long, 174th Street (where he introduced his aforementioned signature tune), George S. Irving could always be relied upon for a vibrant, funny performance full of musical comedy zest and bravado.
He played opposite Carol Channing the night she became a Broadway star in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. He received a death threat for playing Richard M. Nixon. He's performed on stage with Gwen Verdon, Bette Davis, Jackie Gleason, Lillian Gish and Liv Ullman, has been directed by George Abbott, Gower Champion, and Jerome Robbins and at 81 years of age is still a frequent performer in regional theatre and off-off Broadway. He's even had a day named in his honor by the City of New York.
As "Sir" in "The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd", Paper Mill Playhouse, 1990.
Photo: Gerry Goodstein
But despite his imposing presence and impressive accomplishments, Irving is described by those who know him as a quiet, modest man. Chatting with him over a couple of hamburgers at Cafe Mozart ("You know I've lived in this neighborhood for thirty years and this is the first time I've been here.") he seemed happier talking about the wonderful people he's worked with, rather than any personal achievements.
So how did the idea for this one-man show come about?
I used to have a sign over my telephone with the two letters "N-O". It got lost. And my dear friend Donald Saddler, who is associated with the Lucille Lortel Theatre asked me to do a weekend about my career. So I said "yes" to Donald and just pulled all this material together. He's staging me in it. I have a wonderful pianist, Mark Hartman. It's material I've been living with for about fifty years.
And how did it all begin?
When I was 13 or 14 I sang in synagogues and churches when I was a boy soprano, if you can believe that. We had a very good dramatics teacher in high school. We did Julius Caesar and Chekhov. In my last year of high school there was a notice on the board that a dramatic school in Boston was offering a scholarship. This was 1940, and they were looking for young men who were not quite draft age and who were tall and had deep voices, so I got a scholarship right away.
After a year in Boston I got chorus work in St. Louis at the Muny Opera in 1942. A different show every week. Well, one afternoon we were getting ready to open Show Boat and one of the actors lost his voice. So another actor had to go on for him and I went on for his replacement. Oscar Hammerstein happened to be there and he took the rehearsal to put us in. So I wrote to The Theatre Guild when they were casting Oklahoma! and asked them to remind Oscar Hammerstein that he knew me a little, and I got an audition and was cast in the chorus.
Could you tell from the start that this was going to be a special musical?
I was nineteen. Everything was special. We all gathered upstairs at The Guild Theatre and Dick Rodgers played the score for us for the first time. Oscar was there and sort of mumbled the lyrics a little. I thought Dick Rodgers was the snappiest dresser I ever saw. I guess I thought it was pretty good. We played in New Haven for a week and then played in Boston. You could do that in those days. Costs weren't so prohibitive. In Boston we were sort of well received but Mary Martin was there in a show called Dancing in the Streets and that was expected to be the big hit. But that show failed and we became the toast of America.
But you left the show after only a few weeks.
I was drafted right away! So I gave my notice and after they got someone to replace me the draft board said "We're full up. We don't need you." So I went up the street to Lady in the Dark and auditioned for Moss Hart and got a job in the chorus. They made these gorgeous costumes for me. But the day I went in the draft board said "We want you now." I said "We can't do that to these people." so they gave me two or three weeks. But they were furious with me for leaving. The stage manager said to me, "Don't forget, we'll be around after this war!" What a thing to say to a kid going out there. (For the record, Lady in the Dark was not on Broadway after the war, but George S. Irving certainly was.)
I reported to Ft. Dix, the replacement center, and I sat there for a month doing nothing. Finally I was rounded up with a bunch of other guys and we went to an airplane hanger waiting for our names to be called. And when your name was called you'd go to a desk and see a lieutenant who'd evaluate you and stick you into some kind of outfit. Well, my lieutenant, just by some pure fluke, was Celeste Holm's husband! And he said "My boy, you are going into a special service." Any other lieutenant would have asked if I knew any languages, and since I went to a progressive school I was pretty good at languages. So they would have sent me to Europe or North Africa. But I got into a special services company in the South Pacific. It was relatively peaceful. We were behind the lines and only got bombed once.
Going back a few years, you actually were in Washington when the U.S. entered the war.
I was in the chorus of The Student Prince in Washington D.C. and the night before Pearl Harbor was attacked they were looking for the Chief of Navel Operations, a man named Admiral Stark. They couldn't find him anywhere, and they knew something was afoot. Turns out he was in the audience watching us in The Student Prince.
And rather appropriately, your first Broadway job after the war was in Harold Rome's Call Me Mister, a musical review about soldiers returning to civilian life.
That's where I met my wife, Maria Karnilova. She was the original Tessie Tura in Gypsy and the original Golde in Fiddler on the Roof. We were married for 52 years. (Ms. Karnilova passed away in 2001)
Betty Garrett was a big hit in that show, but her career was severely affected by McCarthyism.
Yes, her husband was named and that affected her career. That was an awful time. We had to sign these damn pieces of paper saying we were not now nor have ever been a member of the Communist Party just to get work. It was required. I was married with little kids in the house. What could I do?
Another early show in your career was Along Fifth Avenue with Jackie Gleason. What was he like?
He wasn't famous yet. He was a nightclub performer and a walking encyclopedia of jokes. You can say just one word; "waiter" -- and he would do a dozen waiter jokes.
You've also worked with several movie stars who you wouldn't think of as musical comedy performers. Among them, Bette Davis in Two's Company and Vivien Leigh in Tovarich.
Jerry Robbins choreographed Two's Company and he and Bette just did not get along. I like to call it a Mutual Aggravation Society. But Bette was a marvelous actress and she did sketches very well. Vivian was incredibly beautiful and they gave her songs with only three notes.
Another person you normally wouldn't associate with musicals was Sir John Gielgud, but before he was replaced by Gower Champion, Gielgud was directing you in Irene, the musical for which you won your Tony.
He had seen some Noel Coward. He was a lovely man but he really hadn't a clue about musicals. He sort of gave up. He'd leave his script on the stage after rehearsals instead of taking it home with him. The stage manager would be chasing after him trying to give him his script. But he helped me with my part. I came in as a replacement for Billy de Wolfe, who had become ill. This was just before were about to begin previews in Toronto. And he was so nice. He quickly put me in and asked "Would you mind if I gave you some readings?" Like God asking if he could help you with your Bar Mitzvah speech.
In 1972 you played the title role in Gore Vidal's An Evening With Richard Nixon and....
It was all Nixon's own words. But Gore arranged them so they gave a pejorative view of the man. The critics didn't like it. We only lasted two weeks. But the drama was outside the theatre. There were crowds marching in protest along 44th Street. I got a death threat. They were going to kill me as I walked out the stage door. Something about "disgracing this great man". I have the letter up in the country. I'm going to bring it down and read it for my show. It was signed by "The Young Americans for Law and Order." Gore Vidal was originally going to play Kennedy, but he decided not to because he thought they'd be gunning for him. My wife would come to the theatre every day and walk with me out the stage door. She said "If they're going to kill you, they'll have to get me too!" We would scurry to 8th Avenue and quickly hail a cab. After a week the detectives came by and we told them how we would scurry out of the theatre. They said "We know. We've been tailing you."
Before that you were in another controversial show, Shinbone Alley. This time there were complaints about the mixed race casting.
Eddie Bracken and Eartha Kitt starred in that one. And he would get these disgusting letters. "How can you kiss that ---" Disgusting. I was in Irma La Douce and there was a black actor in the company, Osborne Smith. And on opening night in Washington they had a party for us at one of these exclusive clubs and they wouldn't let him in. So we went to the management and we complained to our management and they finally let him in. But these smiling bastards... "I'm sorry. We cannot let him in." Disgusting.
Let me just mention a few names of people you've worked with and give me a story or two. Starting with Gwen Verdon.
She was a hard worker. I did a number with her in Can-Can when I replaced Hans Conried. I sang a verse, then she would sing a verse and stomp her foot on the floor and cross to other side of the stage. Well, one night she stomped on my foot. And I thought I was going to pass out. She had beautiful legs but they were like oak trees.
He was a courtly man and really expert in developing clarity in your performance. He said the audience has to know every second who you are and what you're about otherwise they'll fall asleep. "Don't forget, they got up at six o'clock this morning and went to business. They came home, had dinner, came to the theatre and they're tired." He would drill us on diction all the time. He was a wonderful director. Anything you wanted to try, he would say "Alright, show me."
I was coming out of my "small part" period and he said to me "You never know what a small part might lead to. Probably another small part." But he was a smart man. He was a lawyer. He never practiced, but he got a law degree just to protect himself from other lawyers. We were in Philadelphia for the opening night of a show and there was a party at the hotel where we were staying. And this big coffee urn malfunctioned and sprayed hot coffee all around. One of the chorus girls got burned and while everybody else was trying to get a doctor, David was downstairs asking to see the hotel's insurance policy.
Aside from the classic hits you've appeared in, you also had your share of short runs. What do you think was the most under-appreciated musical you've done?
There was So Long, 174th Street, which I thought was wonderful. But the director became ill and things fell apart. That's where I got to sing the "Dolores del Rio" song. I was in L.A. recently doing The Royal Family with Marion Seldes, Kate Mulgrew, Charles Kimbrough... Wonderful cast. And one night the cast and crew decided to have a little cabaret night just for ourselves. And Kitty Hart was there and she asked me to do "Dolores del Rio". Well, it was a tremendous hit. Later in the run Stan Daniels, who had written the score for that show, came by and I was introducing him around to the company. And when I told them, "This is the man who wrote 'Dolores del Rio'", well they were genuflecting! They were kissing his feet! "Oh my God, that's the greatest song!" And he was absolutely taken aback. But delighted.
You've seen so many changes in Broadway throughout the years. What would you say is the major difference for an actor starting out today from how it was early on in your career?
There was always work available. Every year you had shows by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Frank Loesser, Cole Porter... all the greats. And every show would hire eight boys and eight girls for singing and eight girls and eight boys for dancing. Now they want kids who can sing, dance and act. Which is good. It raises the bar. But there aren't so many shows around. I really feel sorry for the youngsters now. There's so little work. I went to the Oscar Hammerstein Award Ceremony honoring Carol Channing. There were superb performers there. I had never heard of most of them. There's no place for them to do it.
I can't let you go without bringing up your voice-over work in Underdog.
Every show I do, the kids say "I know your voice, but I can't place it." And I just go "Tune in next week for another exciting episode of Underdog." and they go "Yes!"
The first time I remember seeing you was in those commercials you did for White Owl Cigars. You had that catch-phrase "We're gonna get you!" I thought that was the funniest thing.
That was in the early '70's. And while those commercials ran I could walk into any saloon in America and never have to spend a cent. The barflies would buy me drinks all night. But I did a dumb thing. A reporter from Esquire was interviewing me and she asked if I really like White Owls. I said I got used to them but I really preferred a nice Havana. Well, she printed it and the next day I was fired. "How dare you bite the hand that feeds you!" I was an idiot!
Although you haven't appeared on Broadway since the 1980's you've still been very active. Last year you played Merlyn and Pellinore in Camelot at The Paper Mill, and Sir in The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd for Musicals Tonight. What's next?
I'll be doing a reading at the John Drew Theatre of a new musical by Judith Shubow Steir called Only a Kingdom. It's about the romance between the Duke of Windsor and Mrs. Simpson. I'll be playing Winston Churchill. I understand I have a song, but I haven't seen it yet. I have no idea how Churchill would sing! Then in October I'll be doing She Loves Me at The Paper Mill. I always wanted to do that musical.
And on a personal note I understand congratulations are in order on your recent engagement.
Yes, my dear Isabel. We met in the cast of Harold Rome's That's the Ticket. That one never made it to Broadway...
The stories could go on forever. But they're better told live by Mr. Irving.
George S. Irving -- Still Carrying On plays June 18, 19 and 20 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. For ticket information visit Telecharge.com
For Michael Dale's "mad adventures of a straight boy living in a gay world" visit dry2olives.com