By Peter Filichia
What a nice event at the Spiral Theatre Studio last Wednesday night. At Richard Skipper Celebrates, a chat-series helmed by the eponymous raconteur, the ever-charming Anita Gillette was the subject.
Granted, most Americans may remember Gillette from her 20,000 appearances on The $20,000 Pyramid and other game shows. Daytime mavens will recall her from her stint on that edgy soap opera The Edge of Night. But to musical theater aficionados, Gillette is known as the ingénue in All American and Mr. President, and as Betty Compton, the other woman and eventual wife of New York mayor James J. Walker in Jimmy.
Actually, Gillette’s first show was Gypsy as a 1960 replacement for one of Rose Louise and Her Hollywood Blondes. “Every night, I’d sneak down and watch Merman do ‘Rose’s Turn,’” she said.
In 1961, a small role in Carnival followed, although when producer David Merrick warred with star Anna Maria Alberghetti, he promoted Gillette to the leading role and the press. “His opening night telegram to me,” she recalled, “read ‘Don’t you dare make a fool out of me tonight.’”
Merrick also had publicity photos taken in which Gillette watched sign-painters superimposing her name over Alberghetti’s. Weeks later, Merrick sent Gillette a $90 invoice to pay for the paint-job. Gillette went to Equity, but the union honchos saw no way that they could get her out of paying – so pay she did.
She left Carnival to do The Gay Life, the penultimate show by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz (who finished up with Jennie), but her role was written out in Detroit. However, she returned to New York, auditioned for All American and got the part of Susan, the coed, as such a lass was called back then. Gillette blatantly called Susan, “a nymphomaniac,” for Mel Brooks’ book did have her climbing the ivy-laded wall of the men’s dormitory so she could get into the room of Ed Bricker, the school’s star quarterback.
Once she was grounded by school authorities, Susan sang “(I need some) Nightlife,” in which her non-grounded friends commiserated. As you’ll hear on the original cast album, Gillette proclaims “I want to Twist until I’m arrested!”
That, alas, was the only song she had. Charles Strouse and Lee Adams had written another one for her: “Animal Attraction,” in which she unabashedly told Ed of her “Lust! Lust! Lust!”
“During the tryout at the Erlanger in Philadelphia that was cut because Gwen Bolger – Mrs. Ray Bolger,” Gillette said, citing the show’s above-the-title star, “saw that it was getting a great response and it threatened her and him. It was just one of the problems. Ray wanted a serious musical, but Mel wasn’t writing one.”
Still, Gillette retained “Nightlife” and one theatergoer liked her and it so much that he caught many of All American’s eighty-six performances before it got eighty-sixed.
“Irving Berlin,” said Gillette. “His office was above the Winter Garden Theatre, where All-American was playing. He used to come down and watch me do the song now and again.”
That fall, Berlin would be returning to Broadway with Mr. President. And, he reasoned, wouldn’t Gillette be great for the role of Leslie Henderson, the daughter of President and Mrs. Stephen Decatur Henderson? Berlin even ensured that the casting notices would ask for “an Anita Gillette type.” “But,” said Gillette, “I had to audition twice to get it.”
This time Gillette got to do The Twist – specifically “The Washington Twist” — at a White House party. Yes, she was again a wayward youth, but a high-profile one who had to be watched by “The Secret Service.” As Gillette sang the august government bureau, “makes me nervous.”
Better still, Gillette got half of one of Berlin’s favorite types of compositions: the quodlibet. That’s where one person sings one melody, the second follows with another melody entirely, and then both sing their parts again with each melody nicely complimenting the other.
Berlin had delivered a quodlibet in Call Me Madam (“You’re Just in Love”) and would write another for the 1966 revival of Annie Get Your Gun (“An Old Fashioned Wedding”). For Mr. President, it was “Empty Pockets Filled with Love” – which the Secret Service agent offered Leslie, who, in her rejoinder, made clear that pockets need to be filled with substantially more. After he lost interest, Leslie changed her mind and decided “I’m Gonna Get Him.” Here she and her mom (Nanette Fabray) discussed the best strategy to win the guy.
On Jimmy, Gillette got to show a good deal of range. Hear “Oh, Gee!” a Charleston in which Betty auditions for nightclub impresario Texas Guinan. “That Old Familiar Ring” is a duet with Jimmy (Frank Gorshin) has her resisting his advances for an affair. She eventually succumbs, but lives to regret it in “The Squabble Song.” You know musicals: she eventually decides that he’s “One in a Million” and when he turns out to be worth far less, she got the title song as a torch song.
“Frank Gorshin was insecure, and there were nights where Julie Wilson,” she said, acknowledging the legend who played Walker’s first wife, “would take our bows and make this grand gesture that said, ‘Here’s our star,’ and he wouldn’t come out.” We didn’t have to take Gillette’s word for it: Wilson was in the Spiral Theatre audience to see her former castmate and corroborated. How nice to know that the short-run show led to a long-run friendship.
Had all gone well, we’d have another cast album with Gillette on it: Kelly. This was the musical that opened on Feb. 6, 1965.
This was also the musical that closed on Feb. 6, 1965.
If it had even run a little while, Columbia Records, an investor in the show, would have probably recorded it. But it was the first book musical in almost thirty-two years to call it quits after only a single performance. Executives understandably felt that a recording wasn’t warranted.
Actually, there was a twelve-page article about Kelly in The Saturday Evening Post a couple of months after the closing. I asked if the author had been accurate. “Very,” said Gillette. “The thing is, though, we didn’t know that that man hanging around was writing a story. He’d been introduced to us by the producers, and we all got the impression that he was learning how to be a producer, and that’s why he was taking all those notes. You could actually say that he was a spy.”
Louis Latham, the author of the article, described Gillette as “a small brown-haired girl with large, soft eyes” and quoted her asking dancer Tony di Vecchi, “Tony, am I on the way up or on the way down?”
To cite the name of another Broadway flop that Columbia would have recorded had it run, “Nowhere to go but up.” How many stage performers are acclaimed by awards nominating committees fifty-four years apart? This year, Gillette won a MAC Award for her recent cabaret act. (In fact, the award, now emblazoned with her name, was literally presented to her at this event.) But back in 1960, Gillette won a Theatre World Award as “a promising personality for her off-Broadway debut” in a revue called Russell Patterson’s Sketchbook. That she was noticed and remembered is all the more impressive considering that the show ran all of three off-Broadway performances.
By the way, Russell Patterson’s Sketchbook opened on February 6, 1960 – five years to the day of the Kelly debacle. Note to Anita: henceforth on each February 6th, simply stay in bed all day.
There have been other honors in between. In 2012, the Lucille Lortel nominating committee cited her as Best Featured Actress in a Play for portraying the grandmother in The Big Meal. In 1978, for her Jennie Malone (read: Marsha Mason, Neil Simon’s second wife) in the autobiographical Chapter Two, Gillette received a Tony nomination as Best Actress in a Play.
“That meant a lot,” she said, “because people had pigeonholed me as a musical theater performer, which means you’re good at song and dance, but not necessarily at acting. It was nice to show them what else I could do.”
Truth to tell, many of us knew that a long time ago, as we saw not just terrific pipes, but also solid characterizations in Anita Gillette’s Susan, Leslie and Betty in All American, Mr. President and Jimmy.