April 29, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
When I was eleven years old, I sat “up in the cheap seats” for the very first time. On that day, I spontaneously hatched a plan that would utilize the proceeds of my paper route to fund a way for me to see as many Broadway shows as I could possibly schedule. It was doable, considering the average ticket price for the last row in a Broadway house back then was around $3. What I didn’t know at the time was that this would begin a journey that came to encompass 200 shows in four years, or that nearly fifty years later, I would put it in a book.
With all the talk this week about the current Republican occupants of the White House and their first hundred days, I started to think about my first hundred days of theatre going. Luckily, I have the dates written down on my “Play Evaluation Sheet!” (I typed the exclamation mark myself). Preserved for posterity are not only every show I saw, but the seats I sat in, the price I paid, and brief plot recaps and reviews. Here’s one of my earliest and favorite examples:
Ironically, my first hundred days began two weeks into a new President’s first hundred days. Richard Nixon was sworn in on January 20, 1969, and February 1st was the day I came into Manhattan to see my first show without adult supervision. It was a satirical musical entitled Red White and Maddox, which I chose completely by design. Even at such a young age, I was a kid with a passion for politics, harboring a deep and sincere loathing of Richard Nixon. And it wasn’t hard to find additional animosity for the kind of segregationist politics championed by then-Governor Lester Maddox, on whom this musical was based.
I know. It’s hard to believe that a race-baiting, shallow, egomaniacal businessman with no political experience could get himself elected to office, but Maddox did it upon winning the governorship of Georgia in 1967. His national notoriety was due entirely to his decision to close the Pickrick, a restaurant he owned, rather than serve African-Americans after the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed into law. Personally standing out in front of his establishment, he wielded an ax if the color line was crossed. This was all the publicity Maddox needed for a launch into politics, eventually leading him to the Governor’s mansion. His style of racism rebranded as “populism” (again, sound familiar?) made his name and face synonymous with the kind of politics that had made it possible for his fellow southerner George Wallace to receive 13.5% of the popular vote in the 1968 Presidential election, in which he ran as a third party candidate.
A dark imagining of what “might” happen if Lester Maddox were elected President, Red White and Maddox was the creation of Jay Broad and Don Tucker. Debuting at Theatre Atlanta, a small regional company, no one could have predicted it would make a quick move to Broadway. This came courtesy of the Tony Award winning producer Edward Padula (Bye Bye Birdie), who saw in the show a chance for success much in the same way Lyndon Johnson had provided playwright Barbara Garson an Off-Broadway hit with MacBird, her reimagining of Macbeth with a fictionalized LBJ in the title role. With the war in Vietnam still raging and civil unrest in the streets, Padula was making taking a bold and risky chance. When I told my dad of my intention to see it, his response was, “It’ll never be a hit.” And he was right. Red White and Maddox closed after forty-one performances.
But that wasn’t the end of it. I don’t know what circumstances led to it being taped for television, but it was broadcast locally in New York City via Metromedia Television on local Channel 5, shortly after it had closed. I was thrilled that I was going to get the chance to see it again in my own home. For you see, I really loved the show. Maybe it had something to do with it being the very first play I was going to all on my own, but I had the time of my life on that Saturday afternoon, as you can see from my review:
“The best musical I’ve ever seen!” Please note it was play #4.
While researching Red White and Maddox just now, I found a clip of it on YouTube. Not only had I not laid eyes on it in nearly fifty years, but I didn’t believe it even existed until this morning. Nor had I ever seen it in color. My family was probably the last one in all of Great Neck to purchase a color television back in the late ’60s. Check out a little bit of Jay Garner as Lester Maddox singing “Hip-Hooray for Washington” as the end credits roll:
Incredible, right? And “Turn all your clocks back to B.C., we’re headin’ for D.C.” is pretty decent lyric. If you watch this clip past the finish, there is the added bonus of Garner, sans bald cap and makeup, telling the home audience that what they had just seen “does not necessarily represent the views of this station,” and that it was “part fantasy.”
No shit! — considering it ended with Lester Maddox detonating a nuclear bomb and being the sole survivor on the planet. I know … again a little scary considering what’s going on right now.
By the way, after hearing that snippet, would you be at all surprised to learn that the subtitle for Red White and Maddox was “A Thing with Music?” Although with the current mood of the country, I sure wish YouTube offered a clip of the second act number “The Impeachment Waltz.”
Damn! Will you look at this? … I’m at nearly a thousand words and I’ve only covered one show out of my first hundred plays. I guess I have my work cut out for me. Check in tomorrow for Part 2.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is available now, exclusively for sale by Griffith Moon Publishing: https://griffithmoon.com/cheapseats/