from Funny Face to Eloise
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Kay Thompson
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Peter Filichia, theatermania.com, 11/10/2010: SPECIAL KAY THOMPSON “She was ahead of her time for nine decades,” wrote Rex Reed. “She was our Holden Caulfield,” said Marie Brenner. Liza Minnelli declared that she “conquered everything and moved on.” Jule Styne called her “One of the most talented people I have ever met in my life.” Donna Karan acknowledged, “I wouldn’t be here without her.” And Lena Horne referred to her as “the best vocal coach in the world.” Nice compliments all. But temper those with John Loring of Tiffany’s “She had the mind of a grasshopper” or fashion designer Eleanor Lambert’s quip that “She was too flighty and unpredictable to pin down for more than five minutes at a time.” Said Elspeth Grant, “She seems to have more teeth than usual – and all the better to bite your head off.” That’s in keeping with Cecil Beaton’s remark that she was “hatchet-faced.” But what can compare to the opinion from Joe Eula (the logoist for The Act and Timbuktu) who told author Sam Irvin, “She was a cunt. That was the only word and don’t be afraid to use that in the book.” Irvin wasn’t. The quotation appears on the 353rd page of the 416-page Kay Thompson from Funny Face to Eloise. It’s the most riveting biography of at least this year and certainly many more. En route, Irvin came to his own conclusions about the lady, whom he called (among many other things) “the red-nailed dominatrix of a vocal cord sweatshop.” All right, the former Miss Catharine L. Fink wasn’t a pretty woman, and she knew it; “I have a young face made of old materials,” she’d say. She had more rhinoplasties than Broadway has had revivals of Gypsy. (Five.) As far back as 1936, she was the first woman to wear pants and simple shirts. As Hedda Hopper reported, “Women she met in Boston were appalled at her slacks, and a week later, the same ladies were asking for the patterns.” (Columnist Earl Wilson still didn’t like them; “not my cup of she,” he said.) But what a career! Thompson revolutionized the night-club field with her astonishingly successful act with The Four Williams Brothers (Andy was one) at Ciro’s. She became the first performer to get $1 million for doing cabaret – because of, she claimed “my enormous sophistication, my thinness, my angular thing, purity, the simplicity of the Williams Brothers and their dear little eager eight eyes.” Her act even inspired the film Two Tickets to Broadway. No matter how hard everyone cheered at the act’s end, Thompson would only take one bow. Always leave them wanting more – and always make the brass at the rival Mocambo so jealous that they actually took out ads and billboards for Thompson “to get the heck outta town.” Thompson was quite the coach, too. She helped Noel Coward, Van Johnson and Marlene Dietrich on their club acts and Judy Garland for her famous 1961 Carnegie Hall gig. For Broadway, she coached Gloria Swanson (for Coco) and Rita Hayworth (for Applause), neither of whom worked out, but Alexis Smith for Follies did – although Thompson bluntly told her “You have no talent.” Irvin reports on her secret of life: “A lot of hard work, a lot of sense of humor, a lot of joy and whole lot of tra-la-la. You need to buy yourself a Jaguar XK120 and have a good time. I love love and I believe in divorce. Two great things!” She was married twice. Wedding Bill Spier (pronounced Speer) resulted in one of the book’s funniest stories. After Sam Goldwyn said to his underlings “Get me Kay Spier” they later showed up with a case of beer. Thompson had a long affair with singer Andy Williams when she was 38 and he was 20. She got him his first recording contract, but romance or no romance, Thompson demanded 50% of the royalties for her troubles. (Williams, by the way, was set to play Albert in the Bye Bye Birdie film, but then Dick Van Dyke became such a TV star that he was chosen to recreate his old role.) Irvin doesn’t believe the rumors that Thompson and Judy Garland were lovers. And while Garland referred to Thompson as “my best critic and severest friend,” Thompson proved she was a great friend: she and Garland were signed to be in The Barkleys of Broadway, but after Garland was fired, Thompson quit in support. And while Thompson had no children, she did dote on a dog named Fenice. He became infamous for the terribly loud way he broke wind. Once he even ruined a take at a Judy Garland recording session by coming out with a particularly piercing sound. Many blamed Thompson, for she liked to feed Fenice Chuckles, those jellied candies that come five to a tray. “He loves the green ones,” she cooed. Fenice later died of diabetes. She introduced 1) Lena Horne to Lennie Hayton, and encouraged their romance – especially impressive given that it was an interracial relationship in a time when such a union was highly discouraged 2) Liza Minnelli to Halston and told her “Stick with him and you’ll never go wrong.” 3) Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane: “I now pronounce you man and wife,” she said, and they did have quite the professional marriage for years to come. Martin wanted to pay her back by offering her the lead in the London production of his Look Ma, I’m Dancin’ but Thompson declined. The reason might well be traced to the 1937 Broadway musical Hooray for What? Thompson provided musical arrangements, coached the singing ensemble and had a featured role. She was disappointed when one her songs was lost in Boston – “I’m Hanging on to You” -- although composer Harold Arlen and lyricist E.Y. Harburg found use for it two years later as “If I Only Had a Brain.” But Thompson would lose more than that song. Harburg and co-bookwriter Russel Crouse both slept with chorus girl Vivian Vance who wanted Thompson’s role – and got it. Thompson never got over it and wouldn’t trust Broadway again. As the years went on, she was offered Early to Bed, Miss Liberty, Out of This World, Hazel Flagg, Mr. Wonderful and Sail Away, which Noel Coward specifically wrote for her. Thompson also rejected Coward’s invitation to appear as Madame Arcati in a TV version of Blithe Spirit  and the 1964 stage musical High Spirits. The only way in which Thompson returned to Broadway was by writing three song for Happy Hunting, including “Gee, but It’s Good to be Here,” which Merman used as her opening song countless times. For films, she wrote “Madame Crematante” for the Zigefeld Follies. It could be considered the first rap number – and a tremendous influence on “Me and My Town” in Anyone Can Whistle. “Stephen wanted me to be Kay Thompson,” said Angela Lansbury. Hollywood also offered Thompson Vera in both Auntie Mame and Mame. Jumbo made her an offer as did -- most astonishingly – Fellini for 8 ½. However, Thompson would have been in the film version of Billion Dollar Baby had the picture been made. Or maybe not; she accepted a role in The Pink Panther but was replaced when her wardrobe demands were too outrageous. That was Thompson for you. When supervising NBC’s most expensive special to date, she added to the cost by flying in Art Buchwald from Paris to do literally a half-minute’s worth of screen time. But what an eclectic series of accomplishments! She 1) starred in a film with Joe DiMaggio 2) was the first to think of hanging microphones from the ceiling during film shoots 3) revolutionized the fashion show by adding music while models came down the runway 4) directed John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball 5) released a record on which she told of visiting the Soviet Union and 6) even designed a bra. And yet, Thompson could have done plenty more. Her financial terms were steep and her artistic ones worse. As Irvin wrote “Negotiations hit the usual impasse.” So when Thompson DID decide that she wanted to play opposite Liza Minnelli in A Matter of Time, she lost the role to Ingrid Bergman because a big matter of time had passed and now people were saying “Kay Who?” As Irvin wrote, “If there were an Academy Award for acting in mysterious ways, Thompson would have certainly taken the prize. Annually.” Other people’s descriptions include “a dynamo, but nutty too,” “a monstrous control freak” and “the queen of cocaine.” But this line is all Irvin: “For Kay and certain species of sharks, it was all about forward motion.” Yes, but Thompson befriended a young Tennessee Williams, who was writing a folk opera of Billy the Kid for the Freed Unit. She coached Margaret O’Brien in “Under the Bamboo Tree.” But she didn’t like June Allyson and decreed “Never trust a woman who wears a Peter Pan collar.” Finally, Irvin quoted Louella Parsons: “What a story Kay’s sensation rise to fame is. Someday somebody’s going to write it, for it would make a fascinating story.” Irvin follows this with his own parenthetical observation: “(Ya think?)” Yes, indeed. I do. But the book is actually called Kay Thompson from Funny Face to Eloise. Those are her two most famous properties, and let’s save them for Friday. Peter Filichia, theatermania.com, 11/12/2010 From Funny Face to Eloise On Wednesday, I told about Sam Irvin’s magnificent new biography: Kay Thompson from Funny Face to Eloise. If you’re unaware of this terrific biographer -- and/or the dynamic composer-lyricist-arranger-author-actress-singer about whom he wrote -- do drop in on that column. Too busy? Then let this sentence tell you everything you need to know about Irvin the writer and Thompson the personality: “When she sat down to take her Greek exam (in college), the only thing she knew were her sorority letters.” While my synopsis of the biography took over 1,500 words on Wednesday, I now must spend almost 1,500 more on Thompson’s two most famous properties that are mentioned in the biography’s title. Funny Face was the illustrious 1957 film in which Thompson portrayed Maggie Prescott. How convincing she was as the absolutely impossible editor of Quality who insists that her readers “Think Pink.” She will now foist that color on her public as a fashion trend. Thompson truly had to act here, for she felt that “pink as a color is poison to me.” On the other hand, Thompson liked red so much that many alleged that she drank Coca-Cola just because of the can’s color. But the ‘50s were times when red meant the Soviet Union. Actually, neither pink nor red was the original first choice. Funny Face was initially planned as a Broadway musical called Wedding Day written by lovers Leonard Gershe and Roger Edens. For a while, it had a Vernon Duke-Ogden Nash score, but that was scrapped – along with their song “Hello, Yellow.” As was usually the case for Thompson, the lady had wardrobe issues with her costume designer. Here it was the famous Edith Head. When Thompson didn’t like the hat Head gave her, she simply threw it out the window. Her costume demands eventually caused Head to say “Go fuck yourself” – but she didn’t dare say it to Thompson, but to someone else. Meanwhile, Thompson was busy tricking director Stanley Donen into letting her chorus girls wear the shoes she wanted them to wear. If you watch the Funny Face film with the subtitles on, you’ll read the word “bazazz” and assume the subtitlists erred and meant “pizzazz.” No: Thompson invented the word that took “pizzazz” to a new level. (Interestingly enough, the prototype for Maggie – one Diana Vreeland – is credited with coining the word “pizzazz.”) Thompson had a volatile relationship to her co-star Fred Astaire. Audrey Hepburn said that Thompson once told her before filming “I’m going to wipe the floor with that man.” When the film was released, Paramount demanded that Astaire take Thompson to the opening; he refused and took his sister Adele instead. The reviews for both the film and for Thompson were excellent. The New York Times that said “Miss Thompson is of the type which not only would launch a thousand ships, but would design and build them, too.” The following week, The Hollywood Reporter noted that “Funny Face at Radio City Music Hall had the biggest first-week gross of any movie in any theater anywhere in the world in all history.” Thompson only made four feature films, and none of the other three had the cachet of Funny Face. As a result, she was proud of it until the day she died in 1998 at 89. One time when the movie was shown at a friend’s house, Thompson got up in front of the screen and performed her songs along with film. She was clearly a lady who wouldn’t let go too easily – and Irvin has perfectly captured those facets of her personality. The irony is that by the time that Funny Face opened, Thompson was world-famous as an author. Her Eloise, about a six-year-old who lived at the Plaza and could to wrap everyone on the staff around her very little finger, was a smash hit. Eloise started out as Thompson’s alter-ego. Whenever the lady got into a scrape with someone, she wouldn’t use the standard- issue feminine wiles of the day, but instead adopted a little girl’s voice and turned into someone else: “I am Eloise and I am six,” she’d proclaim. Thompson said that she developed the voice “to erase tension.” But a more accurate way of putting it is that she used the voice when she simply wanted her own way. The childish ruse worked amazingly well. More often than not, people were charmed and disarmed. Even in a court case, Thompson used Eloise’s voice on the stand, and the judge didn’t even tell her to cease and desist. Eloise became a book because, as Thompson said, “ideas pop out my head like grapes.” Irvin conducted several interviews with Hilary Knight, Eloise’s marvelous illustrator. (You may know and love him from his logos to Half a Sixpence, Irene and No, No, Nanette among several others.) But Thompson got Knight when he was just starting out, and made a deal that paid him far below what book illustrators traditionally received. The Los Angeles Times called Eloise “Alice in Wonderland for the Atomic Age.” Queen Elizabeth II read it to Princess Anne and Prince Charles. All this success led to a song about Eloise herself that reached Number 39 on the charts – allowing Thompson to constantly say that it was “a Top 40 hit.” But Thompson never viewed Eloise as a children’s book; she subtitled it “a book for precocious grownups.” As a result, she’d go into bookstores and move copies from the children’s section to the adult section. A Texas elementary school would in a sense agree with her; it banned Eloise from its shelves. And just as Thompson made many visits to the infamous speed-dispenser Dr. Feelgood, she even had Eloise get a shot. Although Bruce Vilanch has said that “My hair is inspired by Eloise,” little girls were indeed Eloise’s target audience. When they called the Plaza looking for the moppet, the operators had to make excuses, for the hotel wanted to keep alive the fiction that the lass lived there. Thompson eventually made a recording that was played to appease callers. In exchange, Thompson demanded -- and got -- free room, board and an office at the hotel. Once Eloise was a smash hit, the merchandising offers began. An Eloise doll couldn’t keep up with demand. Kraft wanted Eloise to endorse its caramels, but Thompson turned down the company, insisting that Eloise would never deign to eat such sugary atrocities. Eloise, she opined, would only devour Rosemarie Chocolates de Paris. Thus, she ordered her agents to make a deal with them. But Rosemarie was a mere mere et pere opération, and the proprietors weren’t in a position to pay endorsement money. Thompson did however say she’d mention Sabena Airlines on three pages of the upcoming Eloise in Paris if they’d fly her to that fair city. They did and she did. And while five months had to pass before the original Eloise sold 100,000 copies, Eloise in Paris hit that mark in only three weeks. Thompson also allowed Eloise to endorse a Renault Dauphine, which resulted in the company’s giving Thompson a car – which she promptly sold to Noel Coward. Francis Ford Coppola wanted to turn Eloise into a film. Thompson wouldn’t allow it. Jerome Robbins offered to adapt it into a film or a ballet. Thompson nixed that, too. What she did allow, however, was a TV version of Eloise. It was a disaster, which might have been predicted from what happened before Evelyn “Eloise” Rudie was introduced to the press; she needed to vomit, and Thompson calmly opened her purse to provide a discreet receptacle. The most astonishing thing about the TV special was that Thompson demanded that Rudie not speak during the entire broadcast; any time Eloise had to speak, she wanted Rudie to hold a book in front of her face and have Thompson provide the voice. “I am Eloise,” she said. “No one else. Ever. Not as long as I live.” Even when talk show hosts referred to “Evelyn ‘Eloise’ Rudie,” Thompson was furious. “Eloise is me,” she reiterated. “ALL me.” Thompson finally relented just before show time, but it was too late. TV Guide called Eloise “among the worst flops of the electronic age.” More disappointments were to come. Eloise at Christmastime got dull reviews, and suddenly there was book competition from Dr. Seuss and doll competition from the far more sophisticated Barbie. Eloise in Moscow went over, Irvin wrote, “like a lead Sputnik.” So that was that. Or was it? The books are all back in print, and one can actually get all the Eloises in a single volume. They’re certainly good reading, but I daresay that Sam Irvin’s Kay Thompson from Funny Face to Eloise will impress you even more.
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