“I met my future husband over an autopsy.”
Now there’s a phrase that you’d never hear in a Broadway song. But in the early ‘50s, medical stenographer Anita Luebben was assigned to a post-mortem with Dr. Ronald William Gillette.
And that’s how she became Anita Gillette, whom we’ll be able to see in her one-woman show next Sunday, March 25th at 6 p.m. and Monday March 26th at 7 p.m. at Birdland.
Although Gillette sang “Oh, Gee!” from the 1969 musical Jimmy in which she played Mayor Walker’s mistress in her last cabaret act — Sin Twisters with lookalike Penny Fuller — we won’t hear it at Birdland. This show is called Me and Mr. B.
“B” stands for Berlin, as in Irving.
“Barry Kleinbort,” says Gillette, citing her director (who’s probably won as many cabaret awards as Harold Prince has won Tonys), “said not to give too much away, so I’ll stay quiet about it.”
Okay – but we may infer that Me and Mr. B deals with Mr. President. Berlin’s final musical in 1962 had Gillette as Leslie Henderson, the First Daughter of the Land.
Despite her being the second female lead – Nanette Fabray was first-billed – Gillette had plenty to sing: two solos, one reprise, two cameos, one production number and two duets – one of which was a quodlibet, a Berlin trademark. (One person sings a melody, a second sings a different one and then together they both repeat the melodies – which the composer had managed to fit together nicely.)
Two are required for a quodlibet, so will we hear it in this one-woman show? Well, many solo cabaret acts have had its pianist sing when needed, so perhaps musical director Paul Greenwood will do double duty and let us know that he has “Empty Pockets Filled with Love.”
In Mr. President, Pat Gregory, the Secret Service man assigned to protect Leslie, sang that he couldn’t help falling in love with her. Leslie’s feelings towards an empty-pocketed man? “You can’t eat love, you can’t drink love …”
Besides, Pat’s been a pain in the gluteus maximus, for Leslie feels he’s been too protective of her. “The Secret Service makes me nervous,” she sang in one of her two solos. The other, citing the 1962 dance craze, was “The Washington Twist.”
Me and Mr. B might sport them – as well as “I’m Gonna Get Him,” which came after Leslie changed her mind about Pat. She shared it with Fabray, but a cover recording by Vicki Belmonte (who decades later would originate Sister Mary Hubert in Nunsense) proved it can be done as a solo.
Mr. President was directed by Joshua Logan, who auditioned Gillette twice before giving her the part. That’s not so out of the ordinary, but considering that Berlin wanted her – to the point where the trades described Leslie as “an Anita Gillette” type — you’d think she’d be an immediate lock.
Berlin wanted her from having seen her in a previous Josh Logan musical: All American, where she played college student Susan Thompson who was less interested in studying than in “Nightlife.” As Gillette exclaimed mid-song “I want to twist ‘til I’m arrested!” (You’d think from that line alone that Logan would deem her right for “The Washington Twist.”)
This, however, was not The Golden Age of Joshua Logan. “He wasn’t yet on lithium,” she says, which Logan later fully admitted he needed for manic depression. Recalls Gillette, “He didn’t like the baby doll nightie I was wearing in All American, so he sent Nedda (Mrs. Logan) all around Philadelphia to buy a bunch of nightgowns. She brought in plenty of them, all longer than what I was wearing but ones that showed more up top. I changed into one, came out on stage; Josh didn’t like it, so I went back, put on another that was more ill-fitting than the previous one while Josh stood in front of the pit like Captain Queeg with change in his pocket.”
(Don’t get the reference? In The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, Captain Queeg rolled ball-bearings in his hand when he became nervous.)
“What Nedda bought were regular nightgowns which couldn’t pass for costumes,” says Gillette. “So Josh rejected them while saying things like ‘You have the most unfortunate shoulders.’ I finally burst into tears.”
The original one stayed. Perhaps a longer one – even if it did show more up top – would have mollified her husband. “He’d get awfully jealous even when I kissed a man on stage,” she mourns.
(This may be the only time in history that a baby doll nightie was a correspondent in a divorce.)
“Ron never wanted me to perform, anyway,” she admits glumly. “Soon after we were married, I thought about auditioning for a production of Finian’s Rainbow; he said ‘Yeah, you should go and get this out of your system.’”
That’s what they all say — and that’s what never happens. However, Gillette’s performing career did seem to be ending when her husband was offered a job in Terre Haute, Indiana. Now Gillette would have to follow in those whither-thou-goest ‘50s.
Gillette still shakes her head in disbelief at what happened next. “Just as we were putting the letter in the mail saying that Ron would accept the job, Cornell Medical said they’d love to have him. So we got to stay in New York. Otherwise, now I’d probably be the mother of ten children
She quit her job and landed regional productions of Roberta and The Desert Song before the 1960 off-Broadway revue Russell Patterson’s Sketchbook. It ran all of three performances. So we can forgive her for hanging up on Daniel Blum when he called to say he’d be giving her a Theatre World Award as one of the season’s twelve most promising personalities.
Gillette puts her hand on her heart when she recalls “My agent phoned and said ‘Do you know what you just did?!?!’ No, I didn’t, but I’m very grateful that Mr. Blum didn’t take back the award after I’d treated him as a stalker.”
She might have had one or two, given that she was now coming out a Broadway stage door. For only two days after Sketchbook closed, Gillette was in Gypsy as a Hollywood Blonde; later, she was Dainty June.
“One of the things that endeared me to Ethel Merman was that she’d been a stenographer, too. That I came from a background similar to hers helped too,” says the native of suburban Maryland who says she literally grew up next to a pig farm.
How deep was Merman’s love? When this Dainty June became undaintily pregnant and presumably would have to leave, Merman said “The kid stays in the show.” And whatever Merman wanted, Merman got.
A year later, David Merrick, Gypsy’s co-producer, called Gillette to audition for Carnival. She was cast by director-choreographer Gower Champion who later asked to see her. “And,” she says, “while he was rehearsing, giving direction to the cast — in between his talking to them — he matter-of-factly told me that ‘We’re not going to need you anymore.’ I was ready to give up show business.”
As it turned out, she was able to keep her job, understudied star Anna Maria Alberghetti and succeeded her when the diva had a spat with Merrick. If you haven’t heard the story of Merrick’s summoning photographers to take pictures of Gillette on the marquee as her name replaced Alberghetti’s – before he mended the feud with his star and charged Gillette $90 for the sign-painting — well, you ain’t no Broadway Baby.
“Even so, David was furious when I gave my notice to go into The Gay Life,” she says.
Don’t look for Gillette’s name on the original cast album. “I was written out in Detroit,” she adds. “I played a young woman about to commit suicide because ‘I Lost the Love of Anatol,’ as the song went. (Costume designer) Lucinda Ballard was very angry: ‘You can’t fire her! She’s got the best costume in the show!’”
That’ll also be true when she does Me and Mr. B next week.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.