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  • Looking back on three show business legends and the woman long, long associated with the American Theatre Wing and the Tonys:

    The Tony Awards have had many sensational moments. Three that come to mind featured the late Dorothy Loudon, who passed away in November at 70. Two of those were on the same telecast.

    Miss Loudon had been a major cabaret star and plugged around Broadway for years. She was often side-lined by short-lived musicals, temper tantrums with directors and bouts with alcoholism. She came into her own in the 1973 Broadway revival of The Women. When she won the Tony for her 1977 comeback role as Miss Hannigan in Annie, she couldn't believe the audience response. By the time of Ballroom, she was adored. [Noises Off, following Angela Lansbury in Sweeney Todd and starring opposite Katherine Hepburn in West Side Waltz came later.]

    Miss Loudon was a master comedienne, but capable of great pathos as she displayed on the 1979 telecast as a Best Actress nominee for Ballroom [nominated for Best Musical; oddly, Alan Bergman/Marilyn Bergman/Billy Goldenberg's score wasn't]. She sang her the poignant "Fifty Percent," which had the house in a hush.

    The 1983 telecast at the Uris featured an all-star salute to Gershwin [for whom the theatre was renamed at broadcast's end] featuring Ginger Rogers, Jack Lemmon, Diahann Carroll and producer Alexander Cohen's "Tony Awards Repertory Troupe." Miss Loudon was a charter member. She made her entrance down a long flight of stairs to the music of an onstage pianist. She sported a sequined Royal Blue gown and black boa, accessorized by a sparkling tiara.

    As she slinked to the piano, she threw the boa onstage and told it "Wait in the car!" Miss Loudon began, in that famous growl of a belt, an obscure Gershwin/Herbert Stohart song from 1925's Song of the Flame, "Vodka," frequently stopping the orchestra, conducted by Broadway veteran Elliott Lawrence, for such dialogue as: "Many important people hereÖCould mean a combackÖIn the Russian Tea RoomÖI'm not too good for this dress!ÖI'm too good for this song."

    By the time she took her bows, plopped on the stage floor, the audience was rolling in the aisles. The applause was thunderous. Backstage, Miss Loudon, still a bit flushed, exclaimed, "I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I was on Cloud Nine and could have floated offstage!"

    Then there were the twin Loudon showstoppers from 1984's Tony tribute to Broadway's tunesmiths. In yet another tiara, Miss Loudon entered onto the Gershwin Theatre stage in a spectacular white gown dotted with rhinestones and a mink-trimmed plunging neckline - it was worthy of Catharine the Great! Standing atop a silver Rolls Royce, she was serenaded by Robert Preston, Tony Randall, Tony Roberts, Robert Guillaume, Larry Kert and a male chorus - all in red riding outfits - with "Mame."

    Miss Loudon didn't sing, which made the bit fall a bit flat, but some of the dialogue was hilarious: "Don't look in your programÖIt's me!ÖJerry, think of me for the sequelÖI was thinking of keeping the gown, but I got one just like it at home so I'm gonna keep the carÖand the boys."

    Moments later, she brought the house down again with a rendition of "Broadway Baby" from Follies.

    [Chris Cohen, son of Alexander Cohen and Hildy Parks, of C&C Visual and producer of Broadway's Lost Treasures, was the stage manager and well remembers helping to push that Rolls onstage. The second installment of his BLT includes Miss Loudon's "Broadway Baby." It premieres August 8 on PBS, when it will also be available to the public.]

    Miss Loudon, who had a delicious, devilish sense of humor and could be "bawdy" beyond belief, was one of the gals who was just one of the boys. She left us with unforgettable moments that are the pure definition of Broadway pizzazz.

    M-G-M musicals legend Ann Miller of the long-legs, raven-hair actress and machine-gun-style tap dancing won stardom in the golden age of movie musicals and in the hearts of millions, but was never nominated for an Academy Award. However, her showstopping turns in Sugar Babies earned her a 1980 Best Actress Tony Award nomination.

    "It was a thrill when [associate producer] John Bowab brought me to Broadway in Mame," said Miss Miller, "but I came in long after my old friend Angela Lansbury. I always considered Sugar Babies my big moment. To be in a show nominated for Best Musical was, well, quite a big deal. And, then, to be nominated!"

    SB press agent Terry Lilly says it was, indeed, a big deal. "Mickey [Rooney] and Ann were nominated [as was the show, directors, book, score, costumes and the choreographer]. Here was a musical with two beloved stars. Mickey and Ann! No one like them today! They stopped Tony telecast with their Sugar Babies medley. They were amazing; genius, really -- Mick with the comedy, and Annie with the taps. It was incredible how they breathed new life into that vaudeville and burlesque material."

    Miss Miller, who left us in January at age 81, had the wardrobe, make-up and hair crew from Sugar Babies to help get her into her Tony mode. That year, the awards were being telecast from the Hellinger, which was where the show ran. "There were so many stars and Indian chiefs running around," recalls Lilly, "that we were almost dispossessed from our own theatre."

    The fact that Miss Miller's long-time friend, Dolores Gray [whom she'd known since they did 1956's The Opposite Sex, the musical re-make of The Women], a Tony winner and Broadway belt legend, was in the audience delighted the star. "However," Miss Miller related, "in the year of Barnum and Evita, I didn't have high hopes for our show. Or myself, being in the running with Patti Lupone. As they say in Hollywood, it was a thrill just to be nominated! And really it was - especially for something I loved doing all my life - tap dancing. What made it more wonderful was being recognized by the Broadway powers-that-be."

    Larry Kert of West Side Story fame [who, amazingly, has never been induced into the Theatre Hall of Fame], wasn't nominated for a Tony for his performance as Tony in WSS. However, he holds the distinction of being the only cast replacement to be Tony-nominated. Kert was nominated for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance in Company (1971) over original star Dean Jones, who a little over two weeks following the opening and after recording the cast album, announced he was leaving due to illness.

    It was contended that not enough members of the Tony Awards Nominating Committee were able to catch Jones, whose reviews as Bobby could have established him as a Broadway star to be reckoned with. Press reports explained that he had hepatitis; however, through the years, all sorts of rumors have floated and recollections of events by those close to the show have changed. Jones had graduated from dramatic features to playing goofy leads in several Disney features [That Darn Cat, The Love Bug, The Shaggy D.A.] to star in the groundbreaking Sondheim musical - replacing Anthony Perkins, who'd been announced to star.

    One theory floated as to why Jones left what could have been the defining role of his career is that he was going through a traumatic divorce from his wife of 17 years and found a show about hard-edged, unromantic relationships too painful.

    When Kert opened in Company on the West End, Columbia Records took him into the studio and had him record all of Bobby's tracks for the London Original Cast album, however, listen closely, and you can hear Jones on the duet harmony takes. On Columbia's re-mastered CD, Kert is featured on a bonus track, singing "Being Alive."

    Kert died June 5, 1991, three days after the Tony Awards.

    For 33 years, Isabelle Stevenson was president of the American Theatre Wing, the organization co-founded by Antoinette Perry. The Wing was the presenter and later, with the League of American Theatres and Producers, the co-presenter of the Tonys - named in honor of Miss Perry.

    In 1998, I sat next to her beloved husband John Stevenson at the press conference when she announced she would be stepping down as Wing president to become Chairman of the Board [the first time since Miss Perry's death in 1946 that position was filled]. Jaws dropped among those present, as no one ever thought she'd give up her iron-fist running of the Wing. I turned to John and said, "Now you'll have more time to travel." He looked at me in amazement and replied, "She'll never let go until they put her in the grave." That was the truth. She was still running things in December when she died at age 90.

    Isabelle to many, many people was the face of Broadway; and, oh, how she loved everything connected to New York theater. She was always the first to offer encouragement and was an unstoppable booster of the Wing, its programs and anything show business.

    Aunt Izzy, as I grew brave enough to call her once we became friends, loved being in the media and cherised her on-camera appearances during the Tony telecasts when she spoke on what the Wing was all about. The public persona of Isabelle was always grace under fire. That was generally true except when it came to finding something to wear for the Tonys.

    Her look during those few moments onstage led to quite a bit of pandemonium in the preceding weeks as Isabelle would cajole various designers into letting her borrow or buy quite inexpensively one of their outfits. Then when a selection was made, she drove those poor fitters crazy!

    Mrs. Stevenson was passionate about theater and in 1999 was honored with a Tony for Lifetime Achievement in recognition of her Wing leadership. She can be credited for broadened the Wing's focus from being an insider club for women of theater to a service organization. Among her numerous innovations were the Theatre In-Schools Program, the Hospital Program and the Introduction to Broadway Program, which secured Broadway tickets at steep discounts so students could attend theater.

    Under her leadership, the Wing, greatly abetted by her late husband, presented grants to Off and Off Off Broadway theatres. She also created the lively Working in the Theatre Seminars, which were televised, with panels of not only actors from the top shows but also their creative, producing and marketing teams.

    Interestingly, on several occasions, she told me she felt the Tonys should in some way include recognition of Off Broadway, but it was never possible to find a method that pleased Broadway and Off Broadway.

    Mrs. Stevenson had many Tony memories, but three stood out. One was Anne Bancroft's win in 1958 for Best Actress in a Play for Two for the Seesaw. "Anne excitedly ran the gauntlet of tables and chairs to the stage," recalled Mrs. Stevenson. "She arrived breathlessly to take her Tony from the hands of Laurence Olivier. She stood there looking into his gorgeous eyes and, finally, sighed, ëI wish you came with it!' It brought down the house."

    Another memorable moment was in 1976, when A Chorus Line, with 12 nominations in 10 categories and nine wins including Best Director, swept the Tonys. "Early on, when Michael Bennett and Bob Avian's names were announced as winners for choreography," remembered Mrs. Stevenson, "Michael bounded out of his seat and kissed his partner. That was a first, and for the rest of the evening the floodgates opened. Everyone was kissing everyone!"

    Her most cherised moment came with the late Michael Jeter's 1990 acceptance for Featured Actor in a Musical for Grand Hotel. "It was an emotional moment," she said, "as this tiny man leaped to the stage and stood there so humble. He said, ëI was an alcoholic. I was a drug abuser. I was the lowest thing you can imagine. But I came back to win this and if I can do it anybody can.' He was clutching his Tony as if he'd never let it go. You could hear a pin drop.'"

    Mrs. Stevenson had unbelievable stamina. Immediately following the 2000 Tonys, she was felled by a massive heart attack. It didn't stop her. She was back in the office quick as a wink, and at the gym several days a week.

    It was no secret she had a fierce temper. I'll never forget being on the phone with her one morning at the office when suddenly she told me to hold on; but she didn't put me on hold. I don't know what had gone wrong, but her response was akin to bombs bursting over Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor.

    I often wondered if Mrs. Stevenson, a nice Phily Jewish gal and a former showgirl in the Josephine Baker mode who, during her tenure with the Earl Carroll Vanities and as a dancer in Paris, was known as "the Blonde Bombshell, was taken a bit too seriously. She didn't expose her personal side easily, but "off stage" she possessed a quick intellect and quick wit.

    In a 1995 interview, when she spoke of how delighted she was seeing the reactions of students experiencing their first Broadway show, she jokingly said, "Sometimes I feel like Mother Teresa of the Theater!" We had a good laugh and I never let her forget she said that.

    For a feature in the 50th Anniversary [1996] Tony Awards Playbill, I got up the nerve to ask: Could it be that you're very imperial? She broke up laughing, then replied, "I've thought I must be, but I should say not. I want to be Isabelle, but I guess I have that, that reputation."

    On her death, Broadway dimmed its lights. She would have loved that.


    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

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