by Frank Gagliano

So I’m throwing out boxes of stuff from my garage (summer of 2009 project) and I decide to explore one box before I dump it and –LO! –I find it: The lost souvenir program from the American Theatre Wing’s 1957 “Command Performance–Serenade to the White House. . .Musical Highlights from the Nineties to the Fifties” –a souvenir program glossy booklet I’d been looking for for decades–a program booklet that would prove that I was there–actually there– at the Ball– and I automatically give out the famous Jimmy Durante cry: “I found it–My Lost Chord!”

Jimmy Durante was a famous eccentric comic during most of the 20th century (even warranted a line in a famous Cole Porter song, “You’re the Top:” “. . .you’re a rose/you’re Inferno’s Dante/you’re the nose/on the great Durante. . .” Jimmy was a little guy and, indeed, had a magnificent nose. And a belligerent swagger. He was a hell of a piano player; wrote surreal songs like, “Inka-Dinka-Do;” had a gravelly voice; mangled the English language (“It’s a catastrastroke!”), always seemed angry — but the anger was a sham: He somehow exuded sweetness. Everyone loved Jimmy.

(Now watch: I’ll be inundated with Facebook reminiscences of Jimmy Durante being a son-of-a bitch in his private life)

At one point, way back in the day, there was a rage for a churchy, serious, (in my opinion) pompous piece, in the classical music mode–for the organ, I believe: “The Lost Chord,” by Sir Arthur Sullivan, the composer who was half of the successful musical theatre team of Gilbert and Sullivan. Sullivan was always chagrined for not being lauded as a serious composer and, on the side, as it were, he wrote “serious” music. Thus: “The Lost Chord.”

Jimmy durante could not let that one go and he developed one of his classic, zany, musical numbers, “I’m The Man Who Found The Lost Chord,” and de-pompoused Sir Arthur’s earnest “Lost Chord.”

Here’s the content of Jimmy’s number: He’s noodling on the piano one night, “Improvising symphonies” and masterpieces like “Hav’a Banana” from Carmen, and the Sextet from “Luigini’s,” while cracking nuts with his bare feet (“You see I hadd’a eat, too”)–when he finds it: “The Lost Chord.” He riffs on this discovery for a few minutes and plays the miraculous chord over and over again — then loses the chord! (“It’s a catastrastroke!”). He calls out the Marines, amidst gunfire and bugles, and in his frustration, Jimmy sits down hard on the piano keys — and finds the lost chord again! “That’s strange,” says Jimmy, seriously perplexed, “I always thought I played by ear.” The crowd goes wild.

Anyway. When I find the souvenir program booklet, I really do cry out, “I found my Lost Chord!”

Here’s the story about that just-found 1957 souvenir program booklet for the American Theatre Wing Ball–that may be the only proof that that event actually happened:

–so, I’m a graduate student at Columbia University, in the MFA Playwriting program, back in the day, and I see on the bulletin board that a researcher is wanted for a fund-raising Ball that The American Theatre Wing is giving. I don’t know what The American Theatre Wing is (I later discover that they produce, among other things, the annual Tony Awards show), but I figure It could be a good credit for my beginning resume. At the Columbia U drama department, I had been working crew that day on some show, so I exchange my jeans for trousers and jacket from John, a classmate. My clothes are too tight for him, his are too baggy for me–but what the hell! I rush downtown to Tex McCrary’s office (PR for the event, and who was, then, a television personality with his fashion model wife Jinx Falkenberg). I get the job and I meet the producer, Arthur Schwartz, in his law office. I know that Mr. Schwartz wrote the great song standards, “Dancing In The Dark” and “You and the Night and the Music,” but I didn’t know he was a lawyer. (Of course, later, I came to understand that Arthur Schwartz, along with his lyricist, Howard Dietz, had written some of the most elegant songs in the history of Musical Theatre (especially during the heyday of the Broadway Musical Revue), and that Dietz also was PR head at MGM and had developed the MGM Lion logo). Schwartz is an elegant, friendly man who tells me that the theme of the show for the Ball will be “supposed musical Command Performances from the various presidential administrations, moving backwards in time, through American History.” My job will be to gather material — photos and headlines and interesting trivia from the archives and — get this! — I am to report to Oscar Hammerstein II, who will be Master of Ceremonies for the show and, I believe, will write the narration. I meet Mr. Hammerstein — I can’t recall where, but I do recall that he is a tall man with a pock-marked face. And friendly. Very friendly.

These are a few — very, alas, few– of the other things I remember:

Spending a great deal of time in the New York Public Library on West 42nd Street and photo copying photos and news stories (I can’t imagine what primitive photo-copying method was available then). The only story I remember making an impression on me in my research is the history of the Chautauqua circuit. I had known nothing about it.

I recall, too, delivering material to various people, including Robert Rounseville, who was then starring in the original production of CANDIDE on Broadway, and to the famous choreographer Helen Tamiris (one of the founders of American Modern Dance and choreographer for Broadway’s ANNIE GET YOUR GUN).

I also recall a rehearsal of bits and pieces of the COMMAND PERFORMANCE show at some midtown rehearsal studios–must have been a stagger-through of sorts because all the artists are there and I am allowed to stick around.

There is some kind of an outer room where the artists wait before entering the main studio. Skinny, small, Sammy Davis Jr. is there, wearing tight black fitted slacks and black jacket with a black turtle neck and black socks and black shoes and he never stops moving, tap dancing all the while he talks. He’ll be Sporting Life in the PORGY AND BESS segment of Command Performance.

I also remember walking into the main rehearsal room when Lena Horne is running through her set and when Ethel Merman is rehearsing HER set. All I remember of the actual show is the huge Ball Room at The Waldorf Astoria and sitting at a table a great distance from the stage. I recall seeing Comden and Green and Leonard Bernstein somewhere in the room (was I at their table?) and watching Judy Holliday on stage singing (in period costume), “Rose of Washington Square.” But her number — amazingly — is all I remember of the show.

Some days after the show, Arthur Schwartz, again in his office, thanks me for the good job I did and asks me if there’s anything he can do for me (I had received no pay). I say, “introduce me an to an agent. If you would.”

What Arthur Schwartz does next is something I’ll never forget (and, I suspect, is a rare showbiz occurrance): He — right there and then — picks up the phone and dials the then biggest playwright’s agent in the theatre, Tennessee Williams’ agent Audrey Wood of MCA, Music Corporation of America. Audrey herself picks up and tells Arthur Schwartz to send me around the next day to MCA. The next day, at MCA, I meet Jack Phelps, an assistant to Audrey Wood and an aspiring agent, and he asks to read my new play. I give him a copy of THE LIBRARY RAID (later to be produced Off-Broadway as, NIGHT OF THE DUNCE). He calls me soon after and says he wants to represent me–and does.

I keep the Gala event souvenir program in my files. Then one day I want to check something from the program and I can’t find the booklet. Two decades go by (I even call The American Theatre Wing, but they can’t find a copy) and I look and look and despair of ever finding it again — and then, on 5 June, 2009, while throwing out boxes from the garage, I find it!

The program booklet is in excellent condition and when I review it, my jaw drops. This is what that program for the Command Performance shows me:

The title page features a “Programme” (with two m’s, that outlines the evening):

The Champagne Dinner;
Special Drawing for a 1957 Chrysler Imperial;
The Command Performance;
–and, finally,
dancing to the music of Meyer Davis and his orchestra–the famous “Society Orchestra.”

The food menu consists of Paupiettes of Channel Sole (I thought Paupiettes were short, French Rockettes), Champagne Sauce, Golden Fleurons; Hearts of Celery, Ripe Green Olives, Salted Almonds and Nuts; Prime Ribs of Beef, Potatoes Champs-Elysee and Asparagus Tips Polonaise; Anniverary Dessert Glacè Surprise, Brandied Cherries Flambe; Petits Fours; Demi Tasse.

Judging by the program, the Command Performance was a full-fledged musical revue featuring Musical Highlights of the last twelve Presidential Administrations from 1956 to 1890. It had costumes and orchestrations and vocal arrangements by the likes of Robert Russell Bennett, Hugh Martin, Don Walker, Lennie Hayton, Milton Green and Milton Rosenstock. It had an opening number, “Command Performance” (would I could get my hands on it), written specifically for the occasion by Schwartz and Dietz (the same team that had written “That’s Entertainment,” for the MGM musical THE BANDWAGON).

And all I remember of it is one number performed by Judy Holliday!

As listed in this fabled “programme,” here’s how the show breaks down:

The Eisenhower years’ segment feature Janet Blaire and Art Lund, doing a montage of hits from the fifties.

(If you don’t recognize any of these names–google them –or visit my Web site, www.gaglianoriff.com, where I’ll be elaborating on this piece in my “memoir” link. Believe me, these were big stars of the period).

For the Harry Truman years, Shirley Jones and Stephen Douglas perform a scene from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s CAROUSEL — and Lena Horn (Lena Horne, for Christ’s sake! — who I had a crush on at the time) sings songs from the forties, orchestrated and conducted by her then husband, Lennie Hayton.

For the Franklin D. Roosevelt period, Peter Gennaro and Ellen Ray dance the “Carioca,” and Ethel Merman sings (what else?) Cole Porter Songs. In that same section, Steve Allen, Skitch Henderson and Louis Nye perform in a sketch: “Who’d You vote for?”

The Herbert Hoover era follows, with Julie Andrews singing Rodgers and Hart songs (Rex Harrison is listed, but it’s not clear what HE does) And Daniel Nagrin and a company of four dance to “Frankie and Johnny.”

The Calvin Cooledge section has Edith Adams singing “You Oughta Be In Pictures,” with a Vocal Arrangement by Hugh Martin (composer of “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”); Sammy Davis and Company do a scene from PORGY AND BESS; Allyn McClerie and Peter Palmer perform a scene from the musical, GOOD NEWS and — get this — ELLA FITZGERALD (Ella–for Christ’s sake!) sings Irving Berlin songs.

It goes on:

In the Warren G. Harding era section, “Dancies of the 20’s” are listed, with additional lyrics by Howard Dietz and staging by Rod Alexander.

The Woodrow Wilson era follows, with Sid Ceasar and Carl Reinar doing the Professor sketch and Judy Holliday performing the aforementioned “Rose Of Washington Square”–the only number I specifically remember.

Then comes President William H. Taft and a song performed by David Wayne.

And in the following Theodore Roosevelt section, W.C. Handy (still alive then, apparently) plays (and sings?) his famous “St. Louis Blues,” and Janet Collins sings “Glow Worm,” — (the olde timey version, or the hip Johnny Mercer version, I wonder?) — backed up by a dancing ensemble, with choreography by Helen Tamiris.

For the William McKinley section, Bill Tabbert (the man who introduced the song, “Younger Than Springtime” in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s SOUTH PACIFIC) sings something called, “Little Lost Child,” assisted by a number of other entertainers — and with the use of slides ( “donated by Mr. Herbert Marks.”
Was my research responsible for finding those slides, I wonder?)

The Grover Cleveland next-to-the-last segment features 12 top performers performing, “The Floradora Sextette”: Stephen Douglass, Bill Hayes, Johnny Johnston, Art Lund, Robert Rounseville, Bill Tabbert and Janet Blair, Dorothy Collins, Virginia Gibson, Florence Henderson, Doretta Morrow and Jo Sullivan.

The Benjamin Harrison presidential segment closes out the show with the great clown Bert Lahr (The Cowardly Lion of THE WIZARD OF OZ and Estragon, in the first Broadway production of WAITING FOR GODOT) singing, “After The Ball” — assisted by the entire ensemble.

Again–these were biggies in musical theatre– and the numbers must have been stunning — and Oscar Hammerstein’s narration, brilliant and witty–but the only sketch I’ve ever been able to remember was Judy Holliday performing “Rose of Washington Square” (the old Fanny Brice number)!

Incredible! And depressing! That I can’t visualize the complete show.

But I was there! I know now that I was there, because I’m listed in the “staff” section for COMMAND PERFORMANCE. Even John, the fellow student who switched clothes with me at Columbia University, is listed as my assistant.

Important find, this. For me. Because, finally, at my age, one begins to think that it’s all been a dream–one’s life. Then once in a awhile you find something that validates the realty. An elaborate souvenir program, say. You lose it for awhile. Then you find it. And part of your life is validated again. At least this part. But, God, I wish I could remember. . . FG