By Robert Heide
In the mid-1950’s I was attending prep school—the Carteret School for Boys in West Orange, New Jersey—which was set on a hilltop with a spectacular view of Manhattan. There I met Todd Newberry, the son of the man who owned the J. J. Newberry dime store chain. Another student chum of mine named Dick Byrnes was the son of the mayor of East Orange. Dick had a girlfriend named Gloria Gerhardt who at one point changed her name to Gilbey Collins. She later became a TV weathergirl. Other socialite girls we knew were all preparing to come out as debutantes. For a time I dated one of them who came from the upscale town of Short Hills, New Jersey. Dick Byrnes had a chartreuse four-door Cadillac sedan and on weekends a group of us would head into Manhattan to a Greenwich Village cellar-dive bar at 183 West 10th Street called Lenny’s Hideaway which was run by a man named Lenny, an on-the-spot host who was open and friendly to his mostly gay clientele. Today it is a popular jazz club named Smalls.
We all had a blast at Lenny’s, laughing, drinking and carrying on often until 4 AM. Others who showed up for the night time revels included iconoclastic, bohemian, artistic clientele like Talullah Bankhead, socialite Peggy Hopkins Joyce, my Irvington, New Jersey hometown girlfriend Norma Edgar—who astonishingly later moved to Greenwich Village just around the corner from me on Grove Street and whom I am still in contact with to this day—and Ian Orlando Macbeth who was related to Cecil Beaton, always appearing there in Shakespearean garb, speaking in iambic pentameter and often sporting a live, squawking parrot on his shoulder. All of this ended when I went to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois to study theater. Later I continued my theater studies back in New York with Stella Adler. Around that time my parents moved to the Jersey shore, and that was the point at which I made my move to Christopher Street where I still reside.
During my early days in the Village I was only a block from Lenny’s Hideaway; and it became the place in which I began to hang out on a regular basis. It was there I first met Edward Albee with his then partner of 13 years, William Flanagan, who were there most nights wearing leather jackets and drinking bottled beer. Others I met there included the outrageous H. M. Koutoukas, who lived just across the street from me. Eventually Harry, as well as myself, began writing plays, which were produced at La Mama and at the Caffe Cino at 31 Cornelia Street. Prior to that I had written plays produced at the Cherry Lane and also at a theater called New Playwrights. Lenny’s regulars also included the composer Ned Rorem and a handsome young composer named Jerry Herman. Eventually, Edward Albee became a prominent dramatist beginning with The Zoo Story produced at the Provincetown Theater on MacDougal Street on a double bill with Samuel Becket’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Albee, as we know, went on to write Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and other plays, eventually winning three Pulitzer Prizes. Jerry Herman was hired by the great impresario David Merrick to write the book and lyrics for Hello Dolly!—based on Thornton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker—Herman’s greatest smash-hit success, which was followed by the top Broadway musical Mame starring Angela Lansbury and the wonderful gay-pride power musical La Cage Aux Folles which had a book written by Harvey Fierstein. Who can forget the lyrics, eventually to become a sort of gay anthem, when the two middle-aged male lovers screech out louder than loud, “I am what I am…”?
To my mind Hello Dolly! may be the greatest musical of the last century or any other for that matter. It opened in 1964 with the incomparable Carol Channing in the starring role of Dolly Gallagher Levi with dances choreographed by Gower Champion and ran for seven years with a line-up of other Dollys like Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, Phylis Diller and Ethel Merman. When Pearl Bailey took over with an all black cast, which included Cab Calloway, it won ten Tony’s. Of course it went on tour and since then it has undoubtedly been performed thousands of times around the world. A few years ago I saw a terrific production at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Milburn, New Jersey, starring Tovah Feldshuh. The movie starring Barbra Streisand in 1969 was nominated for seven Oscars. Revivals on Broadway of Hello Dolly! included Pearl Bailey again in 1975 and Carol Channing again in 1978 and 1998. A popular hit record by Louis Armstrong of the tune Hello Dolly! was on the top of the charts for weeks.
Recent revivals of Hello Dolly! starred Bette Midler, who won a Tony for her performance. And in 2018 when Midler was called back to Hollywood, it was an equally fantastic Dolly that took over—Bernadette Peters—who began her incredible career performing in Dames at Sea at the Caffe Cino (Bette started out at LaMaMa.) Jerry Herman certainly was ‘the tops’ but when someone once called him a genius, he demurred, “No, I’m just a tune-smith. I try to be direct, simple, and cheerful.” A sure to be theatrical memorial service is scheduled at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre (where two past revivals of Dolly! were staged) on February 3, produced by Michael Feinstein with Bernadette Peters, Kristin Chenoweth, Betty Buckley and many more performing.
For more on the 2018 revival of Hello Dolly! with Bette Midler and Bernadette Peters read Robert Heide’s February 2018 and July 2018 Westview columns: click the links