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Broadway Bound

Episode 39


Legendary Leading Lady
Drema Paige
Takes Last Curtain Call at 89
21 - SEPT - 98

Drema Paige, whose name was synonymous for 76 years with the great tradition of touring theatre throughout America and the world, and who gave many well known actors and actresses their first jobs in show business, died Saturday night, in a place she, herself, might have chosen; a theatre. She was 89.

Drema Paige was born in the Lower East Side of New York City, the illegitimate daughter of an immigrant Irish piano teacher, Irene. She is generally credited with having raised the quality and frequency of legitimate theatre tours in this country by setting an example with her own productions, which were successful both artistically and financially. For decades, from the 40s until only last year, to many in the Midwest and South, the rare event of seeing a play meant seeing Drema Paige. With her insistence on choosing to produce and star in only the highest quality comedies and dramas, she brought intellectual substance and grand theatrical style to isolated rural communities from Maine to New Mexico at a time when an evening at the theatre was a once in a lifetime event.

Her early years of taking a second-hand bus filled with costumes, scenery, and out of work actors and driving off into the sunset, with no idea of when she would run across another town in which to perform - in effect, reestablishing, without knowing it, the pre Civil War theatre touring routes throughout the heartland - still fascinates theatre historians. Yale University maintains in its theatre collection grainy black and white photographs of the Drema Paige troupe performing Hecht and MacArthur's The Front Page by the side of a dirt road for an audience of half a dozen farm families circa 1931.

Aside from her tours, Drema Paige also managed to appear in at least one Broadway play each season between 1927 and 1974. George S. Kaufman praised her as "the only damn actress in New York you can depend on" and identified himself as one of the dozens of suitors who proposed marriage to her at least once a week.

Her work as an actress has withstood the test of time in the minds of stage veterans who have worked with her or seen her perform. Betty Comden and Adolph Green, writing in The New York Times in 1957, said she belonged to that rare breed of actors "who can take a piece of dialogue or a song and instinctively make it sound new, fresh, and better than it really is. Drema is also dangerous; she can charm us into rewriting lines or adding a song for her before we realize what we've agreed to. Of course, she knows what she's doing and she's always right about what she wants. You want a hit show? Hire Drema and then give her what she wants."

Her touring productions were innovative and ground breaking in the late 20s and 30s. Documented proof exists that she hired a light-skinned black actor, K. Neeson Harmes, to play the lead in her tour of The Desert Song in 1928, though this fact was not advertised at the time, or known to but a few of her company. And she scandalized New York in 1934 by starring, the only white performer in an otherwise Chinese cast, in Slave Trade, a tale of white slavery, drug smuggling, assassination, and political intrigue, set in New York's Chinatown at the end of the last century.

According to reports, Drema arrived late last Saturday night at the Drema Paige Theatre, with only enough time to hand out presents to the cast and crew, and quietly climb a backstage ladder to find a comfortable seat on one of the catwalks above the stage. She apparently intended to watch the American debut of her granddaughter, Robin Paige, in the first preview performance of Wilbur Valentine's The Rehearsal from this vantage point. The police coroner estimated the time of her death, from natural causes, at approximately 8:10 pm, just moments before the curtain rose on the performance. This time was oddly confirmed by her granddaughter, Robin, who is quoted as saying "as the curtain went up, I felt an incredibly strong, ice cold draft from the flies. I remember looking up, but I couldn't see anything because of the lights. I remember feeling so cold. I don't remember anything after that."

Drema's body was only discovered after the performance, and then only because a flower she was holding - a white orchid - fell from the catwalk onto Robin Paige's shoulder during the curtain call.

At a general meeting of the cast and crew of The Rehearsal Sunday morning, the producers canceled the remaining preview performances, though the play will open as scheduled on September 24. On leaving the meeting, Robin Paige told reporters "I argued against canceling any of the previews. The show must go on. Drema would have understood and wanted it that way."

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A chorus of more than 100 voices - including stars, celebrities, producers, costume designers, critics, sons and daughters of Broadway greats - lend It Happened on Broadway: An Oral History of the Great White Way the heady excitement of a blockbuster show. "The first time I ever set foot on-stage was in grammar school," begins Carol Channing, the book's first speaker. The remembrances that follow - of Broadway debuts, of its richest era following World War II, of famous musicals and comedies, stars, hits and unexpected flops and a string of laments over what "Broadway no longer" is today - move so seamlessly. Charles Durning remembers the first laugh he got on stage. John Raitt describes almost not getting to replace the lead in Oklahoma! because he couldn't fit into Alfred Drake's costume. John Lahr says his comedian father "could get a laugh on a conjunction." Interspersed with stage and backstage photos, caricatures, playbills and posters, the hundreds of magical, informative, never boring stories Myrna and Harvey Frommer, who teach at Dartmouth and specialize in oral history, have gathered demonstrate what it took to fill those seats.

HAL HOLBROOK: Theater was mainstream, riding a wave of tradition that was vital and essential to the entire entertainment process in the United States. We had actors who lived in the theater. That was all they did. We had playwrights who were writing good plays, sometimes astonishing ones. In 1947 and 1948, I came into town and saw A Streetcar named Desire and Death of A Salesman. I saw King Lear for the first time at the old National Theater. I saw Katherine Cornell, Helen Hayes, Frederic March, Florence Eldridge, the Lunts, Louis Calhern.

MANNY AZENBERG: Olivier, Scofield, Gielgud, Albert Finney, Peter O'Toole, Alan Bates . . .

HARVEY SABINSON: Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Arthur Miller, Kaufman and Hart. There was Irving Berlin, Jule Styne, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Frank Loesser - great shows every year.

MERLE DEBUSKEY: You had continuing producers; it was their life. Kermit Bloomgarten would produce a play every year or two.

SABINSON: There was a hard-core audience that had to see everything in a season.

FREDDIE GERSHON: Going to the theater was an event. It was very carriage-trade.

MORTON GOTTLEIB: I loved the glamor; I don't mean just the dressing up, but the whole feel of how lucky you were to see a Broadway show.

TONY WALTON: Jerome Robbins had named names during the McCarthy era. Jack Gilford's wife, Madeline, was one. Zero Mostel was another.

CHARLES DURNING: Zero Mostel didn't work for ten years. He told me he went from making a thousand dollars to one hundred a week. "What kind of secrets was I giving away," he'd ask, "acting secrets?"

WALTON: Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford were cast for A Funny Thing Happened on The Way to The Forum. George Abbott had become the director, and I was doing the set and costumes. We were floundering out of town, and absolute disaster. When we opened in Washington, George Abbott gave an interview saying "I think we could save the sucker if we threw out all the songs." Steve Sondheim made a big pitch to Hal Prince to bring Jerry Robbins back in . . . Hal phoned Zero to ask whether he would be prepared to work with Jerry Robbins. "Are you asking me to eat with him?" "I'm just asking you to work with him." "Of course I'll work with him," Zero said. "We of the left do not blacklist." . . . But when Jerry first came in, we were all terrified. He was already a daunting figure. This was, after all, well after West Side Story. We stood on the stage of the National Theater in Washington. Jerry Robbins ran the gauntlet, shaking everyone's hands. When he finally got to Zero, everyone held their breath. The tension was palpable. Then Zero boomed out, "Hiya, loose-lips." And everyone burst out laughing - including Jerry.

CHARLES DURNING: A Chorus Line is an actor's play about actors. When that girl starts singing "What I Did for Love" it has nothing to do with sex. It's the love of the theater; the horror, the heartbreak, the disappointments. We've all had our share. When I saw A Chorus Line, and I saw it several times, I broke down and cried. My wife does not understand why; she hasn't gone through what I have.

RONNIE LEE: The curtain went down, the lights came on. Everyone had left the theater, and I was still sitting there weeping. My wife was holding me in her arms. I was remembering the cattle calls. Hundreds came. They'd teach you one step, everybody would do it, and they'd eliminate. Then they'd teach you another step, perhaps two steps, and eliminate again. They would eliminate for size, for looks, for color, you name it. What we did for love; A Chorus Line really caught it.

CAROL CHANNING: It wasn't until a year or two ago that I learned Ethel Merman was offered the original role of Dolly and turned it down. All I knew was that Mr. Merrick told me he was going to have a musical version of The Matchmaker written for me. Thornton Wilder told me he wrote The Matchmaker about a woman he knew who had sandy hair like mine. "She was a tall, handsome figure of a woman, like you," he said to me. "You even look like her."

LEE ROY REAMS: Everyone thinks to be in the theater you have to have such an ego. I think you have to have a lack of ego to be up there. You're constantly receiving rejection, constantly being judged and criticized. To succeed, you have to be passionate about your work. And it's that commitment that makes us so verbal and indulgent in the craft.

ROBERT WHITEHEAD: Strangely enough, when the musical theater was at its most exciting and most expressive of us as a country, our theater had a kind of world influence. A lot of plays were being done, and out of them grew the great musicals. But then the volume of productions went down, down, down, until there was practically nothing. And when the serious plays began to disappear, the great American musicals began to disappear. One fed off the other.

HOWARD KISSEL: The Andrew Lloyd Webber shows and the like fulfill many people's idea of what an evening in the theater is supposed to be: spectacle, constantly changing panoramas, theater as movie. The average person doesn't know that something should happen to him while he's watching a play. He gets beautiful stage pictures and he thinks he's gotten his money's worth.

ELAINE STRITCH: As I am in the autumn of my life, I am finally able to say that it is the work that satisfies. It is in the moment. A movie star doesn't hear a "Bravo" from the seventh row. I have gone back and forth from musical theater to straight plays. One year I did Noel Coward's Sail Away and the next year I did Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I went straight from Showboat to A Delicate Balance. It's a kick for me to do everything. Still, I must admit that preparing for a play is such a difficult adventure that every time I wonder why in God's name I choose to do this. It's my version of nine months of a difficult pregnancy: morning sickness and evening tears, misunderstandings, a long, long trip.

FOSTER HIRSCH: The 1996 revival of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance made me hopeful. Here was a revival of a great play originally produced about thirty years earlier that got wonderful reviews and a decent run. It's a very demanding play, with lots of dialog that requires you to listen in a way we're not used to listening in this era of spectacle shows. Its success means there is still a desire for that kind of theater. The glitter can come back.

It Happened on Broadway: An Oral History of the Great White Way is the only history of Broadway told by those who lived it and made it happen.The trials and triumphs, the battles and betrayals, the dedication and drudgery are all here in a collective memoir that is filled with the light, the magic, and the stardust of Broadway. Not only, actors, directors, producers, composers, lyricists, and playwrights, but also critics, publicists, set designers, and stage managers take us through more than half a century of Broadway history. There are accounts of the towering dramatic successes of the post-war years, the great mid-century book musicals, and the spectacular megahits of today. There are evocations of the great theatrical personalities, comedians, and dramatic actors who possess that certain something that sets them apart from the rest. Together, they tell the saga of Broadway. It is the stuff that dreams are made of.

It Happened on Broadway: An Oral History of the Great White Way
by Myrna Katz Frommer, Harvey Frommer
List Price: $35.00
Harcourt Brace
ISBN 0151002800


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