Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Playhouse Square: November 5, 1973; Ben Bagley’s Decline of the Entire World as seen through the Eyes of Cole Porter

40 years ago today, Monday, November 5, 1973, Ben Bagley’s Decline of the Entire World as seen through the Eyes of Cole Porter opened in the Palace.
Above: Photos by William Gesten/Foto Arts Inc.

Late summer 1973 saw Brel in full swing in the State lobby, and work was beginning in the Palace. The success of Brel led to an attempt to try and duplicate that success. A lease, or some type of deal was worked out with the 1621 Euclid Corporation the owners of the Keith Building, which housed the Palace. Smitty was the first to be assigned to work on that project full time, followed by me. Most of what Smitty was doing involved rebuilding some of the smaller chandeliers replacing those that were missing. The Palace had been transformed into the International Trade & Fair around 1970, and had gone belly up the year before. The missing fixtures, for the most part, weren’t really gone as much as tossed into the mezzanine men’s rooms in a haphazard fashion. The lobby had been transformed into a wholesale showcase for their goods, and we needed to sort of transform the space in a dinner theatre type of operation.

Several major events took place at the Palace around this time. The first was the removal of the plywood that had covered the Euclid Avenue entrance since not long after the theatre closed in July 1969. At this time, the outside box office was removed, and new ceramic tiles were installed in the outside lobby. The other was removing the drywall that had covered the set of doors that lead from the outer lobby into the grand lobby. If I remember correctly Chuck Fleming handled this task.  I think pretty much everyone was astonished at what that outer lobby looked like. There was lots of marble, marble floor, and marble columns. There were also two box offices, both with lots of brass, and more marble. One was a larger main box office, with an upper loft, that had all sorts of stuff in it. Tons of deadwood for The Agony and the Ecstasy, old box office statements from Thoroughly Modern Millie, which showed dismal attendance. There was also a lot of stuff for the restroom vending machines, combs, soap, cigarette holders, etc. Passersby were also stopping and looking through the front doors wondering what was going on.

I got stuck with the task of removing hundreds of big eyehooks in the ceiling at the back of the auditorium. This space had been the Trade Fair’s - Gallery of Lights. There was a wall that ran across the back of the auditorium just on the stage side of the marble railing in the back. The eye hooks were time consuming to remove, they were in there pretty good. At one point Smitty suggested asking the Roth – Warren Pharmacy people if I could use the tool they had for their awning, they said no. Once they were all removed, hundreds of small holes remained.

Around this time a local contingent of Jaycees started to volunteer, led by Tom Alverson, in return they were allowed to use the theatre for one night. Sometime that August they threw a beer bash with strippers on stage. I remember Barbie Doll doing her famous trick of shooting ping-pong balls into the audience. The next day the Palace reeked of stale beer, quite the mess to clean up. After this was when the seats off the orchestra floor were removed. I always thought this was a bad move, contrary to the subsequent myth about the seats; they were in fine shape, better than the ones that were being used in the Allen at the same time. The end result was the Palace had no seats, and as subsequent events played out that sure would have come in handy later on. This was backbreaking work, unbolting them from the floor, hauling them down the street, in groups of 5 and 6, and then dumping them in the Ohio auditorium. This process must have taken at least two weeks, although it sure seemed longer.

For awhile I was using the Green Room as an office, but as was the pattern, that room was needed for something else and around the early part of October 1973 I started hauling various items up to the Palace projection room. I placed a big desk in front of the stereopticon port which gave me a good view of the auditorium. In the back room, which had a window overlooking 17th Street I put a few chairs and a wicker lounge thing. It was an out of the way spot.

With the seats removed, dining was to be on the main floor of the auditorium as well as on the stage. A few weeks before opening someone opened the fire vents on the skylight over the stage dumping a lot of dirt and debris down on the tables. I was the one who got stuck crawling on the grid above the stage, with a vacuum cleaner cleaning the area so dirt didn’t drift down upon the diners. I always suspected someone from the stagehands union IATSE 27 as the culprit. There was always some tension between us and the union over how many guys they could featherbed on shows. When Bob Rody first started he was cutting down some miscellaneous stuff that was hung off one of the battens, mostly rolled up curtains.  With the stuff cut off the battens, it became much lighter, and we were both almost hauled off the floor of the stage trying to fly at batten.  We were calling for help and Tom Terbrack appeared, asking if we needed help, and we’re yelling “yes, get over here!" It was quite comical. It was around this time that the five Voice of the Theater speakers were traded to L&M Stagecraft for some stage lights.

For a few weeks before the opening I was helping Smitty hang some of the fixtures he restored. It was a beehive of activity for a few weeks. One day I was hanging a fixture by the blue vase on the mezzanine stairs and got knocked off the ladder by a jolt of electricity. I guess those “Do not turn on signs” didn’t always work. I also recall one of the stagehands was burned by an electrical accident one afternoon. In that case I think it was Smitty fooling with something. Luckily none of us got killed in there, but to this day my back is screwed up, but that’s another story. Smitty built the set, when the lumber arrived from some lumber yard on West 25th Street most of it was warped beyond use. With the clock ticking that sent off a scramble to find another source of lumber. The stage was against the north wall of the lobby, where the candy stand used to be. Around three sides of the mezzanine wooden platforms were built so people could see down onto the stage. As it worked out these were rarely used after the first few weeks and would remain there through the run of Alice! the following year.

I remember the rehearsals for the show, Ben Bagley’s Decline of the Entire World as seen through the Eyes of Cole Porter. The show directed by Joe Garry didn’t quite have the pep that Brel did. The talented cast included Ron Newell, Susan Burkhalter, Bill Bourquin, C.C. Carter, Patti Rowe Jack Walsh and June Gibbons. Sometime in late October there was a bit of controversy one night, David Frazier from Brel wanted to switch shows. When that didn’t happen he stormed off in a rage, shattering the glass door on 17th Street, leaving me and Tom Dineen to board it up. The last hours before opening were the usual chaos of getting everything that was in the way tossed into the nearest closet, and running a vacuum over the floors one last time.

However talent does not a hit show make, and this collection of mostly obscure Cole Porter tunes was pretty dreadful, although the reviews were fairly positive. It did fairly well the first few weeks, then was pretty dismal. The week between Christmas and New Year was boffo, but otherwise pretty poor. The show limped through the next spring before closing on Sunday, April 28, 1974.
Above: Photo by William Gesten/Foto Arts Inc.

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