By Peter Filichia
On Friday, May 16, when the Dow Jones average hit 16,491, I interviewed the woman who’d hundreds of times said that the Dow had hit 1,000.
She was lying. But that was Marlyn Mason’s job in How Now, Dow Jones. She was Kate, “The Voice of Dow Jones” who went on the radio each hour to tell analysts, brokers and investors just how well (or not so well) the Dow was doing.
Max Shulman’s book was set in “Time: Now” when the musical opened on Dec. 7, 1967. The Dow was then at 873. Problem was, Herbert had promised Kate that he’d marry her only when the Dow hit 1,000, for only that would make him feel financially secure.
Kate tired of waiting, met and was attracted to Charlie (Tony Roberts), had a one-night stand with him, became pregnant, had no idea where Charlie had gone and had to get Herbert to marry her. That’s why she announced on the radio that the Dow had hit 1,000.
Marlyn Mason played Kate from the show’s first rehearsal in August, 1967, not only through New Haven, Philadelphia, Boston but also in New York, where it received 1967-68 Tony nominations for Best Musical and Best Score. Although Mason now lives in Oregon, she came to town to be part of a Paley Center screening of the 1966 TV version of Brigadoon in which she’d played Meg. Noted Broadway critic and historian Jane Klain, the center’s research services manager, offered me the chance to speak to Mason, and I jumped at it quicker than Wall Street jumped to the conclusion that Kate was telling the truth.
Mason was pretty frank in saying such lines as “I was born in 1940” and “I’m 74 now,” so I don’t feel ungentlemanly in mentioning it. But she looks sensational with barely a wrinkle and a face that fully belies any lifting framed by unabashed gray hair. All this is atop a figure that resembles, to quote How Now’s opening song, “a slender piece of tape.”
Peter Filichia: So can you tell now how How Now happened? Marlyn Mason: Arthur Penn was going to direct it, so he called me and said 'Do you want to do a Broadway musical?' I had auditioned for him for the movie Mickey One a couple of years earlier and he’d remembered me. PF: Did you have to audition or did he cast you outright? MM: Oh, audition. But I wasn't even sure I wanted to do it. I was very happy living in my home state of California where I was an episodes queen on TV. I wound up appearing on everything from Bonanza to Father Knows Best. So I asked a friend who was a vice-president at Bing Crosby Productions what I should do. He told me to call Gene Saks, who'd directed some musicals (Half a Sixpence and Mame). So I called and a man answered "Hello?" and I asked "Is this Gene Saks?" only to hear "No, this is Bea Arthur” -- his wife at the time. PF: Although you made a bad first impression on her, did she let you speak to him? MM: Yes -- and Gene Saks said "If the show has one great song for you, take it." And the show did have that. PF: “Walk Away.” MM: “Walk Away.” Beautiful song. I’ve always felt that Streisand should have recorded it. PF: While you were actually auditioning, did you feel that you had the part? MM: I knew it was down to me and Dyan Cannon. I faced all these men out in the dark theater and sang "Look at That Face" (from The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd). And David Merrick, the show's producer, came roaring down the aisle saying "You got my vote! You got my vote!" But I kept singing three more songs before I finished with the one that goes "I've never kissed a man before -- before I knew his name." PF: "Confession" from The Band Wagon. My, that’s a pretty obscure one. MM: Oh, I knew Broadway music from way back. When I was on a local TV show in California in 1949 when I was only nine, I was singing "You Can't Get a Man with a Gun" even though at that age I didn't know what it meant. PF: My guess is that Merrick wanted to pay you next to nothing. MM: $250 a week! My manager had to haggle a lot to get him up to a thousand -- which was good money then, although not as much as I could have made doing episodes on TV. PF: What stands out most about rehearsals? MM: Madeline Kahn. She was cast as the nurse in the doctor's office where I’m told I’m pregnant. She was really funny to be around, so we all felt bad when they decided her part wasn’t needed. PF: She wasn't the only one who was let go. MM: No, when we were in Philadelphia, Arthur took Brenda Vaccaro (who played Cynthia, a Wall Street tour guide) and me to a coffee shop and told us he was goign to be fired and that George Abbott was coming in. He could never get my name right. He kept calling me “Merlin.” PF: How DO you pronounce your name? MM: Like the fish, marlin, or Marlon Brando. Well, if he wasn't going to get my name right, I wasn't going to get his right, either. The one thing they kept stressing was that you had to call him “Mr. Abbott” and not “George.” PF: So you called him George? MM: No -- "Honey." PF: And was he a honey to you? MM: Well, he did want to cut my number that opened the second act. PF: "One of Those Moments," where you tried to minimize your lie in saying that the Dow had hit 1,000. MM: Yes. He didn't like it, but I had so little to do in the second act that I didn't want to lose it. So I said "Can we just try it the way I'd like to do it?" And he agreed and I did my Eddie Cantor thing where I moved much closer to the footlights, and after I did, he said "Okay. Leave it in." PF: Gillian Lynne, the choreographer was fired, too. MM: Right. And Michael Bennett came in. I felt very safe in his hands and trusted him totally. PF: I saw the show twice in Boston, at the beginning and then near the end and saw a big difference in "Live a Little," where you and Charlie decide you’ll do just that. Bennett had reset it in a Your Father's Mustache, at the time a series of very trendy nightspots. MM: (Silence.) PF (figures she needs reminding): It was the type of place made to resemble restaurant in the late 1800s, so everyone wore a boater hat and a fake mustache and drank beer and ate popcorn while Dixieland music played. MM: Ohhhh, that didn't stay in. Michael would do a number and Merrick wouldn't like it so he had to come up with something new. This went on for days. New choreography, Merrick rejected it, new choreography the next day. I don’t feel the show ever felt frozen, even when we opened. And you remember what Clive Barnes (the critic for The New York Times) said? PF: “How to try at business without really succeeding.” MM: Yes, and about me he said that I was the only actress he ever saw who smiled with the corners of her mouth turned down. Don’t think I wasn’t paranoid about that! For the next few nights, I was conscious of every facial movement I made. And then I said the hell with it and just went back to being myself again. In fact, there were times I thought he might have even been talking about Brenda and got us confused. PF: Fond memories of Brenda Vaccaro? MM: She drove Chubby Sherman crazy. (A note: Marlyn isn’t being insensitive. Sherman’s real first name was Hiram, but, yes, Chubby was his accepted nickname. He played a Wall Street tycoon in whom Cynthia became romantically interested.) MM: Brenda was the type who liked to try different things without telling anyone beforehand and Chubby was the ultimate pro. In one scene with him, she entered wearing a completely different costume than the one she was supposed to wear. PF: And it really took him aback. MM: Finally, he told her off. I was in my dressing room which I shared with her, although there was a curtain separating her part from mine. But we shared the same counter and I still remember hearing her come in and slamming her hands on the counter which made the things on mine bounce up a little. And she started snarling – (I’ve decided to remove the expletives and homophobic slurs.) PF: Is that why he left the show early? MM: I heard that was why. She’d change timing, she’d move when people were supposed to be frozen. At the end of the show, Tony Roberts would be on his knees looking up to the old man big shot in a wheelchair who was supposed to save everyone. Tony became conscious that something was going on behind him, and it was Brenda doing something or other. I believe Tony called Merrick and insisted she stop it, and that’s when she did. PF: Memories of (lyricist) Carolyn Leigh? MM: She was a large woman who always wore a muu-muu or an A-line dress, but she had a different beautiful pin on it every day. Her hair was always done to perfection. PF: And (composer) Elmer Bernstein? MM: Well, there was such chaos getting this one on that Elmer told me he’d never do another Broadway show, and I told him I didn’t want to, either. Neither of us ever did.
PF: It’s a good score, though, representative of at a time when Broadway could boast, “Here’s where we separate the notes from the noise.”MM: Yes. One reason we closed was because of an actors’ strike, but what William Goldman wrote in The Season was right: theater parties were the things that kept us going, and we wouldn’t have done nearly as well without them. PF: Oh, you know that book?! MM: After someone told me about it, I got it because it was the first book in which my name appeared. I’ve been in several others since then simply because I was in an Elvis Presley movie called The Trouble with Girls. PF: And how was Elvis? MM: Fabulous. And I was prepared to hate him. I found that you could know Elvis for only five seconds and you’d fall in love with him – man or woman. I’m proud to say that I’m only one of three women to have ever recorded a song with him. He’s given me a lovely old age, too. Last year I was in Germany and England for Elvis contests, and in July I’m going to Canada for a big Elvis festival. I’ve been to Tupelo, where he was born and of course Memphis. Everything you could dream of in a leading man he was: professional and a gentleman with those beautiful Southern manners. But I’ll never forget the saddest thing he ever said to me: “I’d like to make one good film because people in this town all laugh at me.” PF: Well, for all those Southern manners, he certainly didn’t show them when dealing with another of your leading men: Robert Goulet. You’ve heard the story of how he once pulled out a gun and shot a TV set because he saw Goulet singing on it. MM: And here’s the thing -- Robert Goulet was wonderful to me, too, on Brigadoon -- and especially Carousel. One day the studio was so cold that my vocal cords might as well have belonged to a frozen shrimp. And this was the time scheduled for me to sing “Mr. Snow!” So I said to the director, “If I can go to my doctor in Burbank” – 30 miles away – “he can give me a shot and I’ll be all right.” Now Robert was to sing “Soliloquy” in the afternoon, but he said, “Sure, let Marlyn get her shot and I’ll do ‘Soliloquy’ now.” He could have said something like “I’m not changing anything. I sing better in the morning,” or something like that, but he didn’t. PF: You’re quite wonderful in both of those specials. MM: It is the type of music I love. One day in between takes on the set of The Trouble with Girls, John Rubinstein accompanied me on the piano while I sang show tunes. And Elvis came over and said “Cap” – he always called me “Cap” because I wore a little cap – “Cap, why are you singing that show biz shit?” And I said, “Wait a minute, Elvis. I’m not a fan of your music, so go easy on mine.” The next day, Joe Esposito, his road manager, came up to me with a little package and said, “I want you to know that Elvis actually went out and bought these himself, and he never goes out and buys anything himself.” He handed me a cassette player with six tapes: My Fair Lady, Camelot and four other shows. I wish I could remember the others. If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have paid more attention. PF: I would have LOVED to have been the clerk in the record store when Elvis approached the counter with Fair Lady and Camelot! So – what have you been doing lately?
MM: Making films. Some years ago, I read about this contest where you’d describe a film you’d make in 500 words or less. So I wrote a plot about an artist’s model, made it for $800 in two-and-a-half days, and Model Rules won a “Best Screenwriting” prize at a Rhode Island film festival, which, believe me, meant as much to me as an Oscar would. Since then I’ve done one called The Right Regrets, about my mother and what I thought was her right to die, and another called The Bag. I brought them all for you.
PF (looking at the three DVDs): Aha! I see here that your production company is called “Kissed Elvis Productions.”
MM: It wasn’t something I came up with, but something suggested to me. And that kiss Elvis and I shared was more of a comedy kiss.
(Of course, Mason’s admitting to kissing Elvis could have led to another question about her interaction with him. But I didn’t ask. I may not be a Southerner, but I have manners, too.)
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at http://www.kritzerland.com/filichia.htm and http://www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at http://www.amazon.com.