Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
“I wanted to be surrounded by women I’ve known most of my life, who I’ve worked with and loved,” declares Walter Willison. This show is doubly personal for the host/writer/director. Not only does it fall on his birthday, but the performer knew and worked with Wright and Forrest over 15 years. (He peppers the concert with illuminating facts and anecdotes.) This retrospective was the single unrealized project on the collaborators’ bucket list when they passed.
Robert Wright (1914- 2005) and George Forrest (1915- 1999), musical theater composer-lyricists, worked together over 70 uninterrupted years beginning in high school. At 14 and 15 respectively, Wright had accompanied Ziegfeld’s Helen Morgan in an illegal speakeasy and Forrest had entertained aboard cruise ships. Setting their caps for film, the two played clubs from Miami to Los Angeles landing a job at MGM as songwriters. “In those days,” Willison reminds us, “You had to go to one of those beautiful, gilded movie palaces” to hear the music. He sighs.
An evocative “A Bag of Popcorn and a Dream” (also the name of a CD celebrating the partners’ oeuvre), begins a parentheses of Hollywood-era songs exuberantly performed by our host, a showman to his toes. It was “The Donkey Serenade” that cinched the writers’ status with Louis B. Mayer recognizing success when he saw it. There’s a song in the air/But the fair senorita doesn’t seem to care/For the song in the air/So I’ll sing to my mule…Go figure. With music by Rudolf Friml and Herbert Stothart, the partners took Mayer’s advice and adapted classical material.
George “Chet” Forrest, Walter Willison, Robert Wright, 1989 Tony Awards (Photo by Henry Grossman)
Song of Norway was based on the life of Edvard Grieg. Attractive, young vocalists Katie Dixon, John Drinkwater and Matthew Drinkwater rendered “Hill of Dreams” from the show. For most of Janet -they called her Janet, not Jeanette-MacDonald and Nelson Eddy’s tunes, Wright and Forrest refashioned folk songs.
As many of their Los Angeles Civic Light Opera musicals traveled to Broadway, Wright and Forest followed. In New York, they also penned special material for The Copa- cabana, a venue one would hardly associate with the team. Nightclub selections are offered by Lee Horwin and Marcy DeGonge Manfredi whose droll “I’m Going Moroccan for Johnny” gives us a glimpse into the collaborators’ humor: I’m facing the East/And salaaming all over the place…
Kismet, adapted from the music of Alexander Borodin, was reviewed as having “not a song in the whole show.” Its score included “Baubles, Bangles and Beads,” “This Is My Beloved,” and “Stranger in Paradise.” Willison and Heather MacRae offer a medley from the show- the duet balances enthusiastically-while DeGonge Manfredi performs “Beloved.” Kismet was followed by Kean, Timbuktu! (another take on Kismet), and Broadway’s first Anastasia represented by Katie Dixon’s “Think Upon Something Beautiful” with the singer more conscious of notes than lyrics.
Diane J. Findley
Vocalist Diane J. Findley, whom Wright and Forrest appropriately recognized as adding class to any vehicle, sings (and acts) two numbers. “Has Madame Had It?” was written for Marlene Dietrich hoping she would star in At the Grand, the first iteration of what would later become Grand Hotel. Part monologue, part song, it arrives phrased like musing. Has Madame had it?…Is Madame slipping?…Should Madame chuck it?…Findley asks hesitating, one eyebrow aurally raised.
The unquestionable highlight of the afternoon is A Grand Hotel Suite. The musical, with the help of composer/lyricist Maury Yeston and director Tommy Tune, scored more than 1,000 performances and a Tony nomination. It was Wright and Forrest’s last collaboration. Three of the show’s original cast members successively take the stage.
Lynnette Perry, Karen Akers, Liliane Montevecchi
Lynnette Perry appealingly resumes her role as pretty young typist, Flaemmchen, with “Flame Girl” describing film star aspirations, a song that was cut in Boston. Perry’s charming gestures and low key delivery land well. Karen Akers, who played Raffaela, confidante/secretary to the famous ballerina, performs the difficult “What You Need” with unexaggerated investment, palpably creating the character. And the great Liliane Montevecchi (as ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya) inhabits Maury Yeston’s moving “Bonjour Amour.” This artist’s signature flair and credibility are bracketed by wicked, onstage humor.
We close with a lively version of “We’ll Take a Glass Together,” the right song with which to exit in cheer and end this season’s Ziegfeld Society’s shows-which resume in September.
Unfortunately, we also leave with ringing ears. Consistent over-loudness, often inappropriately stressing lyrics and voices, may have been a boon to those hard of hearing, but the rest of us (and performance) suffered.
Finale: Back Row-MD Jose Simbulan, Stage Manager Mark Lord, John Drinkwater, Matthew Drinkwater, Executive Producer Mark York
Front Row: Katie Dixon, Heather MacRae, Diane J. Findley, Karen Akers, Liliane Montevecchi, Writer/Director Walter Willison, Lynnette Perry, Lee Horwin, Marcy DeGonge Manfredi
Photos by Steve Friedman Opening: Walter Willison
The Ziegfeld Society presents We’ll Take A Glass Together!: The Songs of Wright and Forrest From MGM to Grand Hotel Hosted, Written & Directed by Walter Willison Musical Direction/Special Arrangements/Piano – Jose Simbulan Lang Hall Hunter College June 24, 2017 The Ziegfeld Society
The New York Public Library for The Performing Arts is currently host to a small, gem of an exhibition featuring the art/design of nonagenarian artist, Hilary Knight. Those of you aware only of Knight’s most iconic creation, the irrepressible Eloise (authored by Kay Thompson, illustrated by Knight) should treat yourselves to this glimpse into his utterly stylish and inventive world. Meticulously designed and constructed by the honoree himself, the show unfortunately lacks documentation. I recommend the two recordings offered through earphones for illumination.
“What’s amazing to me is that I still do it. Most people my age are playing golf or under ground.”
Hilary Knight’s parents, Clayton Knight and Katherine Sturges, were successful illustrators/designers across diverse fields. Surrounded by taste, talent, and pleasure in craft, he never thought of doing anything else. A sampling of the couple’s work includes Sturge’s charming circus murals painted in the boy’s childhood room. “At four or five,” Knight drew over his mother’s own circus drawings in one of her sketchbooks. A lifelong enchantment with the big top ensued. Pristine, accomplished silhouettes in his oeuvre are inspired by her work for Oneida Silver. (Second floor)
The Circus is Coming by Hilary Knight
Movies – especially musicals and theater – enthralled him. “I never paid attention to the plots, just the sets and costumes.” The elaborate production of Billy Rose’s Jumbo at The Hippodrome, Adrian’s costumes for The Great Ziegfeld, Gertrude Lawrence in Lady in the Dark – “The dream sequence was so beautiful I can see it now” – and Sabu films were particular favorites. “…This kid my age who was riding almost naked on an elephant – I thought, that’s a good idea…” (A fantasy achieved later in life.)
The young man studied with Reginald Marsh at The Art Students League then enlisted in the navy, preferring its uniform to that of the army. Irreverence showed itself with his painted mural of naked Geishas in an officer’s Okinowa Quonset hut.
Prestigious theater designer Jo Mielziner facilitated a season as assistant at the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine. Knight found scenic design “too big.” He’s always striven for control. “With books I could do exactly what I wanted.” The New York School of Interior Design added to multifaceted awareness and skill. He painted murals, built packaging maquettes and illustrated. No aptitude went to waste.
Two Vitrines – Vanity Fair Drawings; Portraits – Note Julie Wilson, upper right
Knight credits watercolor drawings of misbehaving children in Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel’s 1887 book of children’s manners La Civilité as very early inspiration. (He pored over it as a child.) Later, he was taken with Ronald Searle’s St. Trinian’s girls in British satirical magazines. (St. Trinian’s was a popular series featuring uncontrollable boarding school inhabitants.) Other influences include Lautrec, Mucha, Erte, Rockwell, and Hirschfeld.
In 1952, inspired by Searle’s pen and ink art, Knight drew “a strange little girl” with her mother for an article on bad little children in Mademoiselle Magazine. Its caption was “I think I’ll throw a tantrum.” (First floor). Eloise by any other name.
The artist lived in a bohemian brownstone filled with people “on their way to becoming important in their fields.” DD Dixon, an editor at Harper’s Bazaar under Diana Vreeland occupied the top floor. While doing a photo shoot with MGM vocal coach and nightclub performer Kay Thompson, Dixon overheard and was addressed in what Knight calls Thompson’s “funny little girl voice,” conjuring a character in the third person. This, the editor thought, should be a book…and I know just the right illustrator. Kismet. “DD is completely responsible for Eloise.”
The original Eloise book
Eloise’s appearance was based, in part, on Knight family friend, Eloise Davison, food writer for the Herald Tribune. “…a funny, pudgy little woman with messy hair I pictured as a child.” Thompson had definite ideas about her charge’s life. Like the author, she would live at The Plaza Hotel. There would be no interfering father (she had hated her own) or even a male dog (Weenie has no weenie). “With all her brilliance and sophistication, Kay was curiously prudish…”
Thompson also insisted the girl’s mother should be perpetually absent, therefore never aging. The only drawing of mother and child and Knight’s favorite Eloise art is an unpublished depiction of our favorite mischievous girl choosing her puppy at “an elegant pugery.” Her elegant mother sits, legs crossed, wearing an enormous Audrey Hepburn chapeau and classic sheath. She watches the proceedings with, of course, her back to us. Knight says her body represents that of Uma Thurman.
Three sequels followed before Kay Thompson lost interest and pulled everything but the original book from print. “She wanted to do it all herself and couldn’t.” The incalculable loss to Knight is compounded by ours.
Hilary Knight’s silhouette self portrait with theater posters
“I was going to the theater a great deal.” Knight started designing theater posters with Harry Rigby’s production of Half a Sixpence in 1965. Some of those that followed were No, No Nanette, Good News, I Love My Wife, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Makin’ Whoopee, Mame and Sugar Babies. These and more are on display. Many were tailored to a particular, always identifiable star. Julie Wilson looks as if she might step out of the page, Ray Bolger as if he’ll dance off it.
Some of Knight’s theater poster designs
The artist apparently created endless designs for Timbuktu and La Cage aux Folles securing neither commission. His interpretation of La Cage, however, was rejected by Alan Carr “for showing drag queens instead of a relationship.” (Ironically the final choice, by another illustrator, emulated Knight’s viewpoint.) Knight also enjoyed working with dance companies. The array of styles, each befitting its vehicle is marvelous.
Portraits are showcased in carefully arranged vitrines: Lena Horne and Billy Strayhorn as Dr. Ferway de la Fer and Her Assistant Sweepa Truehorn stand in frame. (Horne played de la Fer in the film Broadway Rhythm.) Knight purchased some beaded, French Victorian leaves at a Doyle auction of the vocalist’s possessions. The two figures are bead leaf hunters. She holds a tiny trowel. Like many of the portraits, the piece is a contained diorama, part photography, part collage, part assemblage.
Billy Strayhorn and Lena Horne
We see Sabu; Martha Raye (on an ersatz bootleg album cover); Kaye Ballard;, a 5’ Kay Thompson; full page appreciation of Liliane Montevecchi; Isabella Blow; Barry Humphries, with whom Knight collaborated on years of priceless Etiquette Pages in Vanity Fair Magazine; and Ann Miller with Stephen Sondheim. “Ann was doing Follies and couldn’t get the lyric …An imitation Hitler/But with littler charm… so Stephen was in the booth helping her.” (“Can That Boy Foxtrot!”) Knight can’t wait to start a portrait of his friend, Gloria Vanderbilt.
Feathers, Fur Fins and Fans: Isabella Blow “Birds” portrait under glass – wearing Philip Treacy’s Andy Warhol feather hat; above her, the original drawing for a MAC LIPSTICK carton; top right- 1946 oil painting ”the SEA NYMPH”; Righthand photo includes a costume for the film Frog and Nymph worn by Knight’s assistant Wilson Lopez. Performance artist Phoebe Legere played the sprite. (A frog falls in love with a water nymph).
Upstairs, there are costume sketches for one of the artist’s significant dreams Tail’s : An “Exotic, Erotic Revue” inspired by The Crazy Horse and Sugar Babies. He’s even designed a theater for it. (Music, he tells me, would be that of Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim.)
Hilary Knight has illustrated more than 50 books and authored nine. He’s designed theater posters, costumes and sets, makes props, furniture and décor, illustrates for magazines and special projects, and is a collage/assemblage portrait artist. I’m sure I’ve left something out. He rises between four and five a.m., feeds his guppies (no kidding), and works almost every day. Energy, enthusiasm, and warmth are palpable.
Barry Humphries ‘A Moon Bed for Dame Edna’
“To me the most interesting thing is what I’m working on now.”
All exhibition photos and those of Hilary Knight courtesy of Hilary Knight All quotes are Hilary Knight
Hilary Knight’s Stage Struck World The New York Public Library for The Performing Arts – First and Second Floor 40 Lincoln Plaza (between 64 and 65 Streets) Through September 1. 2017 WATCH FOR: Eloise at The Museum at The New York Historical Society June 30-October 9, 2017
Hilary Knight with his niece, Lily Knight
Publishers are slated for: Hilary Knight: Drawn from Life, a Memoir and Olive and Olivier, a graphic novel about eccentric twins separated at birth – Olive will be written by Hilary Knight’s twin nieces, Olivier by Knight.
Lena Dunham’s appreciative 2015 documentary It’s Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise is available online.
Ziegfeld Follies of the Air – The New 1934 Live From Broadway Broadcast Revue
The Ziegfeld Society’s first full-fledged fundraiser comes to us a live radio broadcast direct from Heaven’s WHVN. Replete with period microphones and an on stage sound effects man/announcer Arthur Nichols (Ian Whitt) brandishing an APPLAUSE sign, the star-studded revue features many of Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld’s top performers, some undoubtedly there on special leave from lower depths.
The 1934 Ziegfeld Follies Quartet: Jamie Buxton as Judith Barron, Taylor James Hopkins as Jack Pepper, Chelsie Nectow as Vilma Ebsen, Matthew McFarland as Buddy Ebsen
With Paul Whiteman (Mark York) at the piano, 1919’s “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” forever associated with the slow descent of Ziegfeld showgirls down an inevitably elaborate staircase, is offered by The 1934 Ziegfeld Follies Quartet: Vilma Ebsen (Chelsie Nectow), Buddy Ebsen (Matthew McFarland), Judith Barron (Jamie Buxton), and Jack Pepper (Taylor James Hopkins). The able, young singers intermittently deliver commercial jingles like Buster Brown and Atlas Elevator Shoes, as well as providing harmonized backup.
Our well turned out Host, actor Eddie Dowling (Walter Willison), introduces each vocalist with sweeping appreciation. All are attired according to character by Costume Designer Mitchell Bloom.
Walter Willison as Eddie Dowling
Ruth Etting (Candice Oden) and Marilyn Miller (a sparkling Erin Cronican) arrive in tandem with excerpts from too many songs, leaving a choppy impression. Billie Burke, Mrs. Ziegfeld (Carole Demas) sings:.. You can do any little thing that you’ve a mind to, but you must do it with a twinkle in your eye…with flirty class. Later Burke is inexplicably interrupted by Marilyn Miller while performing “Look For the Silver Lining” , at first infuriated and then reconciled during the number. Clearly the writers know something we do not.
David Giardina as Will Rogers; Lee Horwin as Libby Holman
“In 1934, the #1 female box office star was Shirley Temple, the #1 male was Will Rogers. As Rogers, David Giardina sings a couple of laconic western songs with a little patter between. Both look and vocal style reflect the original without imitating. During the Quartet’s evocative rendition of “Limehouse Blues,” we have the unexpected pleasure of dancers Renee and Tony DeMarco (Heather Gehring and Lou Brockman) giving the radio audience time to refill cocktail shakers. Tango-ish choreography designed for the small stage is a marvel of sinuous winding and draping. Ms. Gehring reminds one of Cyd Charisse.
As Helen Morgan, Shelly Burch excels at Morgan’s warble, unstable octaves, and drunken spaciness. (Does the audience know Morgan was an alcoholic?) Lee Horwin’s scandalous Libby Holman has the right, deep, almost singing style. “Moanin’ Low” and “Am I Blue?” emerge with apt cynicism. Enough biographical monologue for its own show, however, tips this event’s balance. “You’re all wondering if I did it. (murdered her young husband). I take Jeanne Eagels’s advice, Keep your trap shut and become a legend.”
Carole Demas as Billie Burke; Erin Cronican as Marilyn Miller
Sheila Wormer plays Mr. Ziegfeld’s secretary Matilda “Goldie” Glough at first passing through the audience reminding us about cell phones and then in a ba-dump-dump conversation with Dowling. Ms. Wormer is good, the material not so much. Fanny Brice (Loni Ackerman), with nasal tonality, sings the unfamiliar “Becky is Back at The Ballet,” a strange choice considering the star’s signature numbers. Her last purposefully awkward turn lands the vocalist in a decidedly humorous, Brice position from which she has to be hoisted up. Dowling/Willison’s excellent, infectiously happy “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart” and tender reprise of “A Pretty Girl…” are highlights.
Heather Gehring and Lou Brockman as Renee and Tony DeMarco
Also, indisputably a highlight, is the appearance of Mistinguett (Liliane Montevecchi) whom Ziegfeld pursued for his extravaganzas but never secured. Head to toe in flame red velvet (with boa), Montevecchi launches “Je Cherche Un Millionaire” and “Mon Homme” (“My Man”, a 1916 French song, then popularized in translation by Fanny Brice in 1921) with bravado, showing her fabulous legs, sharing anecdotes. (She once dined with Mistinguett and later played the veteran on stage.) “I was a star of The Folies Bergère for 10 years. I was covered in feathers. This is what’s left,” quips the famously wry artiste.
Mark York, Founder of The Ziegfeld Society and Artistic Director Walter Willison then surprise Montevecchi with its first annual Lifetime Achievement Award. The packed house erupts.
Mark York as Paul Whiteman; Liliane Montevecchi as Mistinguett
Mark York’s Musical Direction/Special Arrangements/Piano are symbiotically with performers every step of the way. Treatment of classic material is authentic and appealing.
This is an ambitious show with failings and successes. Talent is a mixed bag. Research is impressive. The Ziegfeld Society celebrates a link in entertainment history which should be supported, preserved, and enjoyed:
“The Ziegfeld Society of New York City, a not-for-profit organization, aspires to enlighten, entertain and educate current and future generations of theatergoers and young artists about the legendary performers, songwriters and creators of our vast musical theater heritage.”
Photos by Steve Friedman
Opening: Liliane Montevecchi receiving her award from Mark York
The Ziegfeld Society presents Ziegfeld Follies Of The Air- The New 1934 Live From Broadway Broadcast Revue
Devised and Directed by Walter Willison,
Musical Direction/Special Arrangements/Piano by Mark York
Broadway at Birdland
315 West 44th St. (With Thanks to Jim Caruso)
January 30, 2017
NEXT ZIEGFELD SOCIETY EVENT: Call On Dolly! A Celebration of the Broadway Hit Musical Hello Dolly starring Richard Skipper February 25, 2017 3:30 Hunter College firstname.lastname@example.org
FOR RESERVATIONS – Call Lucy 917-371-5509
For eight years in a row, we have featured outstanding women on our website. The trend continued this year as we were able to tell our readers about 45 amazing women who are making a difference in other people’s lives. They are Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen X-ers, and Millennials. They come from various areas of the country and represent many different ethnic groups. Some work in business, others in the arts. They have positions in corporations or work for non-profits. Among the group are many entrepreneurs, women who have gone out on their own to follow a dream.
We are honored to have told their stories on Woman Around Town. Click on the slideshow to view photos of each woman. Click on a name in the tags that follow to be able to read an individual story.
In a few short days, we begin a new year, a new chance to spotlight even more women who inspire us all. Do you know someone who should be on our radar? Let us know!