Dancing with the Stars, 1960s Version by
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(115 Stories)

Prompted By Fame

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My all-time favorite, Tony Randall, signing autographs, 1970

It is so true that, as Andy Warhol famously said, “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.” During the summers of my freshman and sophomore years of high school, I indulged my interest in theater by becoming an apprentice at Northland Playhouse in the newly built Northland Mall in a suburb of Detroit. Summer stock was a huge deal back then, and the playhouse needed free labor to cater to the stars who performed there. Many of them were actors I didn’t know who were actually, quite famous in the past. The few I did know left me star struck.

I may not have known who Walter Pidgeon or Arlene Dahl were, but what girl from my era didn’t know Ozzie and Harriet? Not only were their “adventures” on television every week, but they were also responsible for giving me teen idol Ricky Nelson. I would have been more excited to meet him, but I doubt he was into summer stock in 1960.

Similarly, Eve Arden was famous to me because I watched Our Miss Brooks, the television show about a zany teacher that may have inspired me to become an English teacher. And Robert Horton was really cute. He played scout Flint McCullough on Wagon Train from 1957 to 1962. He also had a career in musical theater, so that may explain how he ended up doing summer stock at our local playhouse.

My absolute favorite actor was Tony Randall. He was a genuinely nice guy who took the time to talk with me and the other apprentices. At the time, he had appeared on Broadway and as a supporting actor in many films. He had played a teacher on Mr. Peepers, a television series I watched as a kid. Shortly after appearing in summer stock at Northland Playhouse, he landed the role for which he became famous as Felix Unger in The Odd Couple. Here’s a factoid I never knew. His original name was Aryeh Leonard Rosenberg, clearly Jewish. I followed his long career and always adored him for his kindness and for treating us with respect.

On the other hand, Gypsy Rose Lee was my least favorite actor. Perhaps because my parents told me she was most famous for being a stripper, I was a bit scandalized and fearful of her. Her life was the basis for the musical Gypsy, but I have no idea how she ended up doing summer stock at a small theater in a suburb of Detroit. She was rude, demanding, and condescending. I still clearly remember her asking me, a fourteen-year-old, to iron her cashmere skirt. I was so terrified of ruining it that I never plugged in the iron.

The biggest crush of all the actors I met was James Garner, who was also pretty nice and friendly. I loved him on the TV show Maverick on which he played a wise guy gambler. I couldn’t believe someone that famous (at least to me) was performing at Northland Playhouse. In retrospect, he had just quit the popular series after three years and was not quite the movie and television star he went on to become.

Joan Fontaine, whose playbill is pictured next to his, was a movie star of my parents’ generation, so I was not terribly impressed. Looking back, I wonder why someone who was still making popular films like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Tender is the Night, as well as appearing on television, would want to perform summer stock. Perhaps actors were not that well paid back then. The same applies to Zsa Zsa Gabor and Martha Raye, also performers my parents regarded as famous. Zsa Zsa must have been between marriages (she had nine of them) and television guest appearances. Martha Raye, most famous for the size of her mouth, her USO tours during WWII, and a television variety show in the mid-fifties, was also fond of being married, as she did it seven times.

I regarded Mae West as somewhat famous because I knew the line she said to Cary Grant, “Why don’t you come up some time and see me?”  She was actually quite controversial and interesting, an early feminist and foe of censorship, but by the time she hit the summer stock circuit, her career was in decline. She never bothered to share her stories with any of the apprentices, which is too bad.

Of course, I should have been impressed by Ginger Rogers. She was actually quite famous and I had seen her dancing with Fred Astaire. Her career as his partner was over by the time she showed up at Northland Playhouse. She was also fond of marriage (five times), but I wish I had known the caption attributed to Bob Thaves’ 1982 cartoon (sorry Ann Richards) when I saw her, “Sure he [Astaire] was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did… backwards and in high heels”. Here was a truly famous woman in the decline of her career, which explains her summer stock appearance.

Being an immature girl with little sense of who these stars had been, I was most impressed by people I knew from television. Darren McGavin was ruggedly handsome and had been on Mike Hammer and Riverboat. Apparently, he disliked being in a television series and had left that for movies and guest starring roles. Thus, Northland Playhouse probably caught him in a career transition. At any rate, like James Gardner, he was cute and thus, I had a bit if a crush. Raymond Burr, best known to me as Perry Mason, was actually famous for this role, which he played from 1957-66. Later, he had a popular series, Ironside, from 1967-75. He was also a successful film star. What he was doing at Northland Playhouse that summer is beyond my comprehension.

Perhaps fame for actors in 1960 did not equate with the enormous incomes of today’s stars? Maybe doing the summer stock circuit was something actors, even famous ones, liked to do to hone their craft? As I look back on my experience, the main lesson I can take from it is that fame is fleeting. Many of the stars I met who were doing summer stock at Northland Playhouse had been very famous but were on their way down. Others would go on the achieve some degree of fame in the future. Perhaps Marilyn Monroe said it best from the perspective of a celebrity who was, and still is, a famous person:

“If fame goes by, so long, I’ve had you, fame. If it goes by, I’ve always known it was fickle. So at least it’s something I experienced, but that’s not where I live.”

I invite you to read my book Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real and join my Facebook community.

Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

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Characterizations: right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    This is just great, Laurie! As another native Detroiter, I’m trying to imagine where the Northland Playhouse was (we used to go to Northland all the time). I never heard my parents talk about it perhaps because they would vacation (for a week or two) up north, or when I was VERY little, they’d drive with their neighbors to Cape Cod! I remember the Cherryland Playhouse in Traverse City. Those fading stars would come to camp and visit with drama majors, but that is gone now too.

    You have an incredible collection there. I LOVE James Garner. He’s always reminded me a bit of my father (nice smile, thick eye brows), so that’s part of the attraction, and one of my favorite movies is “The Americanization of Emily”.

    I agree with your assessment of Tony Randall, a real nice guy. I have a personal story too. About 38 years ago, we bought two early 20th century paintings by a French cubist painter named Andre L’hote; not very well known. A few years later I was flipping through “Architectural Digest” and saw a layout on Tony’s New York city apartment. One shot showed a painting that looked just like one of our L’hotes. I was SO excited. I took a snapshot, got the roll developed (this was before digital) and sent the photo with a note, in care of the magazine, to Mr. Randall, asking for information about the painter, as we couldn’t find much about him. I got a personal note back, with his home address, which said L’hote was more known as a teacher and critic. Braque said, “I don’t have to study L’hote to paint Braque”. I thought it was very gracious of him to answer, loved the quote, of course kept the note, tucked into the magazine and the painting is still in our front hallway.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Betsy, your story about Tony Randall confirms my impression of him when I was a young teen. Gracious is the perfect word to describe him. Most of the stars ignored the help, which was what we were. He always took the time to ask our names and talk to us. I can’t picture where Northland Playhouse was located in relationship to the shopping center. My brother sent me a book written by Gerald Naftaly, longtime mayor of Oak Park, called “Northland Mall.” In it, he describes the location of the theater as a dome in the parking lot, but I can’t spot it in the arial views of the mall included in his book. But near the end of the book, guess I should have read the whole thing, he has a picture of the geodesic dome that housed the theater, which was open from 1959-66. After that, it was a teen club called The Mummp. I was in college at that point, but maybe you remember it?

      • Betsy Pfau says:

        Sorry, Laurie. In 1966 I was in 8th grade. Wasn’t paying much attention to where I went or how things looked. That doesn’t sound familiar at all. My brother went to Mumford for two years, before we moved to Huntington Woods, but certainly would not have gone to any club. He just wasn’t the type.

  2. Marian says:

    This is a fun walk down memory lane, Laurie. I echo Betsy’s comment about James Garner, and love all the autographed photos. What a wonderful opportunity you had as an intern. In New Jersey we had the Paper Mill Playhouse, which my parents went to, and also down the shore was the Surflight Summer Theater, where I saw my first “grown up” musical. I don’t recall them ever having an intern program, but would have loved it if they did.

  3. John Shutkin says:

    Great story, Laurie. And a really perceptive view of fame, both now and then. Fickle, indeed.

    Unfortunately, I also have a Tony Randall story and it is not a flattering one. When the Museum of Natural History proposed to rebuild the Haydn Planetarium in the 1990’s, there was a lot of opposition from their neighbors, particularly those across 81st Street at the very posh Beresford. Tony, a resident there, was one of the leaders of the opposition. As the project was my then-wife’s “baby,” it is hard for me to be objective about this, but most of the opposition seemed to be of the typical NIMBY variety — complaining about all the disruption during the construction and not moved by the fact that the Planetarium’s technology was about fifty years out of date and millions of people would benefit from the new Planetarium when finished.

    As you can imagine, this being New York, the battle lasted through dozens of public hearings, but was ultimately approved and the new Planetarium was built and opened in early 2000. As luck would have it, during a vacation with another family the following summer, we ended up staying at the same hotel in Florence that Tony and his wife were staying at. When my wife saw Tony in the lobby, she decided that she should do her best to make peace with him, so we went over to him and she — very graciously, I thought — said hello, apologized for the disruption during the construction but hoped that he liked and enjoyed the new Planetarium now that it was done. Tony said nothing, but gave my wife a nasty look, turned on his heels and stalked away. His wife, who was clearly embarrassed by him (and seemed lovely, by the way), called after him to please come back and be civil, but he ignored her and left the lobby. She then apologized to us for his rudeness.

    As noted, fights like this are legendary in New York neighborhoods, and maybe that is all there is to it. But, sadly, whenever I think of Tony now, it is this episode that sticks in my mind.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Sorry about your bad experience with Tony Randall. Since he was born in 1920, I’m guessing he was up there in years when this happened. By the time you encountered him in Florence, he was close to his death (2003). So who knows who was the real Tony? Some folks don’t age well.

  4. Good one, Laurie. I’ve always loved Tony Randall, and had no idea that isn’t his real name. He was a frequent guest on talk shows, and I admired his sharp, erudite observations. He was on The Merv Griffin Show once when a novelty act came on — a young woman who played the bass violin while soaking her feet in a tub of water. The audience laughed, and when she started to cry Randall stood up from the sofa and walked over to her, put a hand on her shoulder and said, “A little respect for the artist, please.”

    • Laurie Levy says:

      That’s the Tony I knew, but John’s comment paints a very different picture. Perhaps as an old man, Tony no longer had the same generous spirit I knew. I think I’ll hold on to my memories of a kind, empathic man who found time to talk to a very unfamous teen volunteer.

  5. Such wonderful memories to have, Laurie!! I think actors just like to act…there’s often so much time between roles, and being on stage allows them to connect with the audience in a special way.

    I wish Marilyn had stuck around…I would have loved her at any age.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Yes, Barb, when I found that quote I was struck by Marilyn’s understanding of fickle fate. Her early death froze her forever as a sexy actor involved with many famous men. I remember my shock when her death was announced on the car radio program my family was listening to when we drove somewhere. At that stage of my life, I didn’t think famous people could die that young. Boy did the next few years teach me that they could and did.

  6. Suzy says:

    This is a great story, Laurie! I know who all these actors are, except for Robert Horton, and would have been so thrilled to see them up close like you did. I got some autographs at stage doors on Broadway, but it’s not the same. I would have loved to do an apprenticeship like yours, even if it was just basically running errands. I’m amazed that you still have all these autographed Sketchbooks from the Northland Playhouse, since you just moved and did a lot of purging. Did you keep them because you knew this prompt was coming up?

    • Laurie Levy says:

      I actually took the photos as part of the purge before we moved. Then, I couldn’t bring myself to throw them out, so they made the final cut of things I’m sure my kids will toss in the end. They are somewhere in a box in our storage locker here. Maybe they can be sold on eBay? I doubt my kids will have heard of any of these famous folks, although there is always Google.

  7. Wow Laurie, what a wonderful
    way for a star-struck 14 year-old to spend the summer!

    Can’t wait for the world to heal and we can get back to live theatre!

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