Looking over my two recent pieces on Tom Jones, I saw that I addressed one issue but neglected to take on another.
When citing that Agnes” in I DO! I DO! wore “an eighty-five-dollar hat,” I also noted that an inflation calculator said that in 2023 dollars, that chapeau wouldn’t come cheap. It’d be more than $2,600.
However, the previous week, when I wrote about 110 IN THE SHADE, I stated that the musical took place in 1936 when Starbuck, the so-called rainmaker, demanded $100 from the Curry family. In exchange, he’d bring “a good Old Testament, wade-in-the-water and shoutin’ glory rain” to their parched Texas town.
But I neglected to disclose how much $100 would mean in today’s money.
So, I returned to the online inflation calculator and found that, in the ensuing 87 years, the inflation rate has soared to 2,108.08%. As a result, what was $100 then would today be $2,208.82.
That’s quite a bit of money for the Curry family to blithely hand over to a big-talking stranger.
Soon I was off checking other musicals that were set in long-ago periods and that mention dollars and/or cents. What would the sums that they originally cited would be worth today when adjusted for inflation?
THE MOST HAPPY FELLA takes place in 1927, where we hear from a quartet of men who spend time “Standing on the corner, watching all the girls go by.” They could do nothing but ogle because each guy was “so broke” that he “couldn’t buy a girl a nickel Coke.”
Today, that nickel is worth 84 cents. Trouble is, these days, you couldn’t buy a girl or anyone else a Coke for that little money.
In THE GOODBYE GIRL, Elliot tells Paula (in the song that lyricist David Zippel named after her) that “I’ll be your jukebox till dawn. I’ll give you three plays for a quarter” – reminding us that, yes, there was a time when playing each song on such a machine cost a dime, but buying three at a time would save you a nickel.
THE GOODBYE GIRL opened in 1993, but there’s been 112.5% inflation since then. Today, you’d have to put 53 cents into the slot to get a trio of songs.
Marvin Hamlisch and Craig Carnelia’s much-underrated score for SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS includes a jazz-infused number called “One Track Mind.” A nightclub singer admits to women everywhere that “I got nothin’ much; just a single and two fives.” That was in 1952, but chances are that today he’d still have trouble finding a mate, for he’d now only have $127.44 to his name.
THE PAJAMA GAME has Babe (Janis Paige in the original; Kelli O’Hara in the 2006 revival) and everyone else working at the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory desiring a raise of “Seven-and-a-Half Cents” for “every hour, 40 hours every week.”
The Tony-winning musical was set in its own time – 1954 – which means in today’s money, the employees would be getting an extra 82 cents an hour.
But the exuberant 11 o’clock number also had Babe and Company fantasizing what they’d have in their pockets five, 10 and 20 years into the future. Their estimates for 1959 would result in $852.74. The total would rise to $1,705.48 in 1964 and $3,411.96 in 1974.
However, they didn’t figure on inflation, did they? From 1954 to 1959, it rose 8.2%. From 1954 to 1964, it increased 15.2% and from 1964 to 1974, it shot up an astonishing 83%.
Yeah, those seven-and-a-half cents would sure add up.
In CALL ME MADAM, Mrs. Sally Adams, the ambassador to Lichtenburg, is so smitten with Cosmo Constantine, the country’s foreign minister, that she immediately asks, “Can You Use Any Money Today?” Out of pride, Cosmo gently turns down the offer, so Sally sweetens the pot by offering “Two million, four million, six million, eight million, ten!”
That was 1950. Today, those millions would have ballooned and respectively be equivalent to $25,479,336.10 … $50,986,672.20 … $76,438,008.30 … $101,917,344.40 … and, last but hardly least, $127,396,680.50, thanks to 1,174% inflation.
As fine a songwriter as Irving Berlin was – he won a Best Score Tony for CALL ME MADAM – we doubt that he could find a way to use those cumbersome amounts as lyrics. Therefore, he’d probably stick with “Two million, four million, six million, eight million, ten!” Unfortunately, that wouldn’t make Sally nearly as generous, for in comparison to 1950, she’d essentially now be offering him less than $157,000, $314,000, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera …
In ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, Oscar Jaffee and his henchmen are looking forward to seeing “Five zeros, preceded by a two, preceded by a dollar sign” on Mrs. Primrose’s check. That was in 1933, so that $250,000 today would be no less than $4,502,385.
The dear woman would have had to have sold plenty of Primrose Restoria Pills to make that check cashable. Alas, as the men must eventually admit, “She’s a Nut” for her “check is made of rubber and our hopes are going down the drain.”
Perhaps, but ask those who saw ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, and they’ll tell you that “She’s a Nut” ranks as one of the greatest production numbers in Broadway history.
The hardcover edition of HELLO, DOLLY! (and just try to find one) doesn’t tell us how old Horace Vandergelder is, but THE MATCHMAKER, Thornton Wilder’s play that inspired the 1963-64 Tony-winning musical, said that he was 60 in 1890.
That means that in 1850, he was a 20-year-old starting out with just a “Penny in My Pocket.” It’s a song that Detroit heard in 1963, was dropped by the 1964 Broadway opening, and thus didn’t make any of the first three DOLLY recordings with Carol Channing, Mary Martin or Pearl Bailey. However, it made a nice comeback in the 2017 Bette Midler revival, where David Hyde Pierce sang it to open the second act.
So, how much would that penny be worth today? While we’re at it, what would Vandergelder’s “half-a-millionaire” status now be, too?
Alas, every inflation calculator I found only went as far back as 1913. So, to quote another Jerry Herman lyric from his final show (LA CAGE, of course), “Who knows, who knows, who knows?”
RAGS starts in 1910, which predates the calculator, too, but it’s close enough to 1913 that we can make a reasonable guess on how much a “Penny a Tune” would sell for today: 31 cents.
From RAGS to RAGTIME: The Baron Ashkenazy married Mother in 1915, so let’s assume they met in 1913, when the first Buffalo nickel just happened to be introduced. Today that nickel translates to $1.48 – but it’d be worth much more to coin collectors. One in “good” condition” can get $15, but one in mint condition – meaning never circulated – would net $68.
June Carroll in NEW FACES OF 1952 reminisced that, as a kid, she bought “Penny Candy.” Given that Carroll was born in 1912 – and made her voice resemble a seven-year-old’s in the hit revue’s song –
we’ll estimate that she was eating those candies in 1919. Today they’d cost 30 cents, which – surprise! – isn’t obscenely far from what you would actually pay for a so-called “fun-sized” treat.
HAIR’s Crissy met a boy named “Frank Mills” on September 12th in front of the Waverly (which eventually became the Waverly I and II, of course, before it morphed into today’s IFC Film Center). Although Crissy and Angela don’t want the two dollars back that they loaned him, they might feel differently if they learned those 1968 bucks were now worth $17.65.
Lois Lane took issue with Jim Morgan – not the producing artistic director of the York Theatre Company, but a character in IT’S A BIRD … IT’S A PLANE … IT’S SUPERMAN. She disagreed that “We Don’t Matter at All” and that “chemically speaking,” each of our bodies is only “worth $1.83.” Our self-esteem may be at least slightly raised when we realize that that 1966 statistic now rings in at $17.34.
What hasn’t gone up at all? In THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE, Muzzie sings in “Only in New York” that coming here is “free admission to those who dream.” MILLIE is set in 1922, and in the 101 years that have passed, the city still offers free admission.
Once you get here, though …
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – BRAINTEASERS FOR BROADWAY GENIUSES – is now available on Amazon and at The Drama Book Shop.