Tag Archives: Humphrey Bogart

‘Dead End’: Reviving a Bogart classic in a space with history of its own

In 1935, the play Dead End by Sidney Kingsley debuted on Broadway, arriving with great anticipation as Kingsley had just won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama the previous year with his play Men In White. Today this is probably the least interesting detail about Dead End.

You probably know Dead End for one of two reasons. The first is its talented Broadway ensemble cast featuring, among others, Huntz Hall, Bobby Jordan, Bernard Punsly and Leo Gorcey. The young actors would carry over into a Hollywood film version of the play in 1937, then act as an ensemble in several movies, including their own series.  They were known as the Dead End Kids, then the Little Tough Guys, then the East Side Kids and finally — the Bowery Boys.

There’s another reason you may know the film. It features an early screen appearance by Humphrey Bogart, in a performance transitioning him from his two-dimensional supporting gangster roles to characters of greater prominence. One year later Bogey would join the Dead End Kids (and James Cagney) in the classic Angels With Dirty Faces.

The Axis Theatre Company is mounting an intriguing new production of Dead End this month at their West Village home on Sheridan Square. Its a sleek and even bare-boned production, replaying the tale of life on an economic fault line — the kids of the slum against the residents of a new luxury apartment on the east side. (Reminder: The play was written in the 1930s, not the 2010s.)

Broken dreams, corrupted youth, fallen women, fallen men  — the stuff of Great Depression melodrama!

Another historical tidbit which may enamor you to this production. A year after Dead End opened in movie theaters, the nightclub Cafe Society opened, employing Billie Holiday who eventually debuted the song “Strange Fruit” upon its stage. The Axis Theatre’s home is the former Cafe Society room!

Jake Murphy, Lynn Mancinelli, Regina Betancourt, Emily Kratter, Spencer Aste and Jon McCormick in Dead End (Pavel Antonov photographer)

 

Dead End
Axis Theatre Company
Directed by Randy Sharp
Through May 20, 2017
For more information and tickets, visit their website

Bogie and Bacall meet Basie and Billie

This actually happened.

For the debut of the new film Key Largo — starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall — the exhibitors at the Warner Strand Theater (at Broadway and 47th Street) has a special treat in store.

from the New York Times, July 17 1943
from the New York Times, July 17 1943

The Strand Theatre, which opened in 1914, has already made history a few times in New York. Considered the first theater built exclusively for motion picture exhibition, the Strand was the first New York job of Samuel ‘Roxy’ Rothefel (who would move on to his own Roxy Theatre and, then Radio City Music Hall).  On July 6, 1928, The Lights of New York, the first all-talking feature in history, premiered at the Strand.

In 1948 came the fourth (and what would be final) movie collaboration between Bogart and Bacall, and its debut on July 16th deserved something out of the ordinary.  For six weeks, the Strand presented the film on an exhaustive bill of music and comedy, featuring two of the biggest stars in jazz music, Count Basie and Billie Holiday.

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The two greats had recorded and toured with one another a decade previously, but much had changed since then.  Holiday had only been released from prison that March, serving time on a charge of heroin possession.  The big band era was ending, leaving Basie struggling to mold his music to the new styles of bebop, rock and  rhythm and blues.

While both would continue with their celebrated careers into the 1950s, the six-week Key Largo stint would remind many of earlier, more jubilant phases of their careers.

Billie Holiday, Count Basie
Basie and Billie from a film still

It was the longest theater run of Lady Day’s career although she fretted the fact that many were there to see her “get all fouled up,”  according to author Donald Clarke.

As you can imagine, it broke box office records for the Strand. According to Basie’s autobiography, “I think we went in there on a contract for three weeks with an option to extend for another two weeks, and I think they revised it and made it five weeks with options to make it six or seven weeks.”

They were joined by the black comedy team The Two Zephyrs (with legendary comic Slappy White) and tap dancing duo Stump and Stumpy.

I hope that Billie sang “Moanin’ Low,” made famous by the film in a mesmerizing performance by Claire Trevor (who won the Academy Award).

 

Was Lauren Bacall the world’s most glamorous newsie?

The answer to the question in the headline is absolutely, without a doubt, yes.

This story begins with a Minnesotan named Leo Shull, who moved to New York in the 1930s to become a playwright. He never wrote anything of note for the stage, but he wrote plenty about the stage, various guides to playwriting, “how to break into showbiz” style books, and eventually, directories of entertainment contacts.

In 1941, Shull rented out some mimeograph machines in a basement below a Walgreens at 44th and Broadway to produce a newspaper called the Actors Cue, a daily guide to auditions, agents and producers. (Actor’s Cue was similar to today’s Back Stage. That currently operating publication was spun off by two former employees of Shull in 1960.)

But this was no ordinary Walgreens. According to author John U. Bacon, this was the very first Walgreens in New York, in the basement of the grand Paramount Building.

It opened in 1927, the same year that Sardi’s Restaurant opened its current location just around the corner. Both were associated with the theater business, with show folk. In fact, this Walgreens was often called the ‘poor man’s Sardi’s’. There was even a wall of caricatures, just like Sardi’s, lampooning the most famous faces of Broadway.

In his biography, Eli Wallach called that particular Walgreens a “hangout for actors,” a place for out-of-work actors to spend their last dime on a sandwich at the lunch counter, wiling away time before an audition.

So then, obviously, it made sense for Shull to create his daily directory here. And he not only sold the paper to actors; he often hired them to spread out around the theater district and sell the newspaper on the street.

So who should walk in but an attractive young actress named Betty Joan Perske. She was born in the Bronx and currently lived on a ground-floor apartment in the West Village, making ends meet by modeling and ushering in Broadway theaters. But she hoped to soon be on the stage, not in the aisles.

At some point, she met Shull and began selling his newspaper on her lunch breaks. In her own words:

I spent most of my lunch hours rushing to Walgreen’s to grab Actor’s Cue and look for a job in the theatre. …….  Leo had a table in the basement of Walgreen’s where copies of Actor’s Cue were piled up and sold for ten cents apiece. I prevailed on him to let me sell some. He finally said okay — to get me off his back, I think.

She took her papers to the sidewalk outside Sardi’s, where powerful producers and agents frequently dined. From there, she hocked the paper, not to make money, but to initiate conversations. “I kept my eyes peeled for a recognizable producer, actor, anyone who might help me get a job.” At right: Bacall, actually in Sardi’s Restaurant, courtesy Life Magazine

Her gumption eventually paid off. In 1942, with a slight name change (to Betty Bacall), she made her Broadway debut in the short-lived “novelty melodramaJohnny 2 X 4 at the Longacre Theatre.  However, her fame would be made on the movie screen, cast in 1943 (after yet another name change, to Lauren) opposite her future husband Humphrey Bogart in the Howard Hawks’ classic To Have And Have Not. She never needed an Actor’s Cue ever again.

I wonder if Winchell, a regular at Sardi’s, remembered that when he wrote an entire column that year called “The Bacall of the Wild,” raving about the young starlet.

Actor’s Cue is still being sold today — presumably not in front of Sardi’s — under its more descriptive new name of Show Business.

Booze and death in Gramercy Park


Ian Schrager’s refreshed and modernized Gramercy Park Hotel might seem a respite from the shock and scandals of his early years. But as far as I know, nobody ever jumped to their death from the roof of Studio 54.

It happened in June 2002. The legendary Hotel had been controlled by the Weissberg family for over fifty years, retaining its throwback charms in the face of New York’s high-end modernization. A few blocks down, the W Union Square had recently moved into the 1911 Guardian Life building. But the Gramercy Park Hotel was buttressed from change by its location near the private park that lends the Weissberg property its name. Its charm was its refusal to change.

Celebrities like Leonardo Dicaprio and Matt Damon still occasionally haunted the piano bar downstairs, a reminder of the days when the Gramercy Park Hotel was the swank stop for most of the bold-faced set.

Two notable homes once stood on that prime bit of real estate, on the northwest corner of Gramercy Park. Edith Wharton was born in a townhouse on this very spot; later, that was torn down and replaced by the lavish home of flamboyant architect Stanford White. In 1924, that too was torn down — less than twenty years after his murder at near-by Madison Square Garden — and replaced with the current occupant, designed by Robert T. Lyons and opened by the brothers Alexander and Leo Bing.

Up at the penthouse, Humphrey Bogart got married to his first wife, Helen Menken, in 1926. Later in the 30s, Babe Ruth spent many an evening at the hotel bar. Although never reaching the notoriety of, say, the Chelsea Hotel, the Gramercy was frequented by rock stars over the years, including Bob Dylan, David Bowie and the Clash.

The Weissbergs had owned the hotel since the 1950s and were in the midst of a post-9/11 slump when in 2002, David Weissberg, the troubled younger brother of the CEO Steven Weissberg, leapt from the hotel roof after an argument with wife. Soon after, the family sold to Schrager, who reopened two years ago after a respectful renovation, hiring Damien Hirst of all people to design many of the interiors.

FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER: El Morocco


(Top and bottom photos: Garry Winogrand – taken on the El Morocco dance floor – 1955)

To get you in the mood for the weekend, every Friday we’ll be celebrating ‘FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER’, featuring an old New York nightlife haunt, from the dance halls of 19th Century Bowery, to the massive warehouse spaces of the mid-90s. Past entries can be found here .

Has there ever been a place in Manhattan more glamorous than El Morocco? Probably not.

John Perona opened El Morocco as a speakeasy at 154 East 54th Street, moving down the street to 307 East 54th Street in its later days. (Both locations have been destroyed; the Citicorp building stands where the original once stood.) “Elmo”, as the socialites would utter it, transitioned into post-prohibition losing none of its glamour or appeal.

Along the way, it set the standard by which all other nightclubs of the 30s through the 50s were to be judged. (Only the Stork Club and possibly the 21 Club would rival it.) It was the first to use a velvet rope. The ruler of the rope, Angelo Zuccotti, was so revered that the New York Times ran his obit when he died in 1998, a doorman
“who wielded the velvet rope at El Morocco with such authority and finesse that he helped define the very line between cafe society and social Siberia.”

And via Perona’s official photographer Jerome Zerbe (who also worked the Rainbow Room), this midtown speakeasy turned celebrity hotspot was one of the first to employ photographers to snap candids of its famous clientele. Yes folks, you can actually trace the scandalous club photos of Lindsey Lohan and Britney Spears back to their less shameless beginnings at El Morocco.

According to an account by Zerbe, “From 1935 until 1939, I was at the El Morocco and I invented a thing which has become a pain in the neck for most people. I took photographs of the fashionable people and sent them to the papers.”

One key element was Elmo’s signature blue and white zebra-striped banquettes, which popped from the corners of every snapshot. Photos running the next day would easily be recognized.

The other, of course, was the who’s-who list of stars that would traipse through. And who exactly showed up at El Morocco’s doorstep? I can throw some names at you — Clark Gable, Cole Porter, Ingred Bergman, Truman Capote, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe. Humphrey Bogart, God bless him, was banned from the club for life. (The story is so incredible, I’m saving it for the end.)

But I think Zerbe says it best: “They were really the top, top social — and what you mean by society, that’s difficult again to define. These were the people whose houses one knew were filled with treasures. These were the women who dressed the best. These were the women who had the most beautiful of all jewels. These were the dream people that we all looked up to and hoped that we or  our friends could sometimes know and be like.”

Scour any recollections of Elmo, and you’re bound to spend half the night picking up all the dropped names. “Errol Flynn would either sit at Perona’s table or cruise the room,” says Taki Theodoracopulos. “On a normal night Aristotle Socrates Onassis would be there, more often than not without his wife, Tina, who would come in later with the then young Reinaldo Herrera.”

And from Nannette Fabray: “One entered, and there was a hierarchy of where one sat. The first table on the right was the best; the second was reserved for the owner, John Perona. You didn’t dare go unless you were perfectly turned out.”

Human beings were not allowed in El Morocco. It was the place where film stars mixed with European royalty, where a poor Southern girl could be wooed and courted, as long as that poor Southern girl was Ava Gardner.

Sadly, like an aging film actress long past her prime, El Morocco lasted well into the 90s, dissolving into less alluring variants until it took the final step of becoming a topless bar in the mid 90s, under the name Night Owls.

Celebrity hotspots these days rarely have the elegance or the prestige. I can only imagine if Britney Spears turned up at Angelo’s velvet rope, that he would turn her away.

Oh, and why was Humphrey banned from El Morocco? Well, one night in 1950, Bogart dropped off his wife Lauren Bacall at home, and he and a friend went out for the evening. Heavily inebriated, Bogart thought it would be funny to bring two 22 lbs. stuffed panda bears into Elmo as their ‘dates’ and proceeded to prop them up on a chair.

Two drunk young women attempted to pick up the pandas, but, depending on who you believe, were either pushed by Bogart or tumbled to the floor by the shear weight of the heavy toys. Later, in a flurry of half-truths, it was believed Humphrey and his friend violently assaulted the young women for attempting to steal the panda bears. Not helping matters — the boyfriend of one of the women then began throwing plates at Bogart.

The next day Bogart received a summons to appear in court. The man who would become the greatest movie star of all time, on that day, had to convince a judge that it was his excessively large stuffed pandas, and not his fists, that had felled the young women. The judge eventually threw it out of court.

When asked by reporters if he was drunk that night, Humphrey replied, “Who isn’t at 3 o’clock in the morning? So we get stiff once in a while. This is a free country isn’t it? I can take my panda any place I want to. And if I want to buy it a drink, that’s my business.”