Remember the time when Washington saved ‘Hello, Dolly!’?

Well, hello again, “Dolly!”

It has been nearly 50 years since Carol Channing and a dazzling cluster of high-stepping waiters found their footing in the pre-Broadway tryout of a shaky new musical called “Hello, Dolly!” at the National Theatre. The premiere had just fizzled in Detroit. Producer David Merrick threatened to close the show rather than watch it crash and burn in New York.

Luckily, “Dolly!” stopped at the National first.

“It was a makeover,” says Marge Champion, who was then married to the show’s director and choreographer, Gower Champion. (The two were an acclaimed dance team at the time.) “Really, I would say more than half the show was made over between opening in Detroit and in New York.”

A new production will parade onto the Ford’s Theatre stage Friday, and the co-producing team at Ford’s and Signature Theatre knows what Champion and composer-lyricist Jerry Herman proved: The show works.


Playbill for the 1963-1964 production of Hello Dolly! (COURTESY NATIONAL THEATRE ARCHIVES)

“It all happened at the National,” says Herman, 81.

The tuneup was a triumph from the first night – Dec. 19, 1963, only a month after John F. Kennedy was assassinated — even though major changes were still being rehearsed during the four-week stand. In Washington, Champion devised new staging. Herman and book writer Michael Stewart continued to sand their adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s play “The Matchmaker,” a charming comedy about a matchmaking widow who thaws the heart of the stingy widower Horace Vandergelder. “Before the Parade Passes By,” a big new number for Channing, was put in to end the first act.

The historic result was 2,844 Broadway performances, a record when the show closed in 1970. Also a record was the 10 Tony Awards “Dolly!” collected — a mark that stood for nearly 40 years. Winners included Herman, Channing, Champion, Stewart, costume designer Freddy Wittop, and set designer Oliver Smith, who would spearhead the redesign of the National’s interior 20 years later. (It’s the same design you see today.)

The prickly Merrick-Champion relationship continued through several more shows, ending when Champion died in 1980 (at age 59) the afternoon that his “42nd Street” opened on Broadway. Notoriously, Merrick announced Champion’s death from the stage during the ebullient curtain call, stunning the cast and audience alike. Merrick, a publicity-wise theatrical titan known widely as “the abominable showman,” died in 2000.

Nearly a dozen people involved on stage and behind the scenes recently took time to recall the turning point for “Dolly!”

Jerry Herman

Role: composer-lyricist

Where he is now: Miami Beach

“In Detroit, I took a deep breath and realized how much work there was to do to straighten out pieces that were individually very good. The opening number was always very right, and of course the title song was a smash from the first time we put it on stage. There was wonderful dialogue by Mike Stewart that needed no help at all. But they were pieces. And at the National we were able to put it all together.

“Detroit was terrible. It truly was. That’s why the experience at the National was so extra wonderful, because we even softened David Merrick.”

Carol Channing

Role: Dolly Levi

Where she is now: Rancho Mirage, Calif., recovering from a fractured vertebrae. Channing, 92, replied to e-mailed questions.

“I was so crazy in love with the script. Now, I was nervous about my own performance . . . I wanted to give Jerry everything he wanted from me. I measured everything by his opinion.

“ ‘Before the Parade Passes By’ was very important and became the spine of the show. Jerry called me late at night to his room to hear it and then we woke Gower and Marge up around 2 a.m. to come to Jerry’s room to hear it. They were as thrilled with it as we were.

“Americans desperately needed a feel-good moment, an escape, and ‘Dolly!’ was it. In fact, Mrs. Kennedy would eventually bring Caroline to a ‘Dolly!’ matinee at the St. James Theatre in New York. I believe it was their first non-political public appearance. They came backstage, and Caroline was in awe of the train and Dolly’s prop carpet bag. I made them give it to her. I received a thank-you note from Jackie saying that Caroline was going door to door with the bag, offering services like Dolly does in the show.

“You never know if ‘this’ audience is going to ‘get it.’ The performances at the National gave us all a secure feeling, and enough encouragement to face New York.”

Marge Champion

Role: Gower Champion’s right hand; she helped coach Channing in movement. “I worked with her before we even went in to rehearsal,” says Champion, 93. “She was able to stand up straight and come down those stairs.”

Where she is now: New York, and still an active board member with Jacob’s Pillow and the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

“Ah, yes, I remember it well. The first act had ended on [character Horace] Vandergelder, and Gower just knew that that was wrong.

“Gower had several other people in mind [for Dolly]. When he got the idea for the Waiters’ Gallop (dance scene in which the waiters perform cartwheels as they set tables) is when he decided that it really needed a larger-than-life person. It was such a change from Lorelei Lee [Channing’s role in ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’] and all those flapper things. And she came in and they worked until five in the morning. That’s when he decided to have other people who could be larger than life, as well.

“David Merrick was always explosive. When he came to Detroit, Gower went to Ypsilanti and told the stage manager to tell Mr. Mustache that when he leaves he’ll come and fix the show. Gower knew how to handle him by then.

“It was all very fortuitous, and it seemed like everybody wanted it to be a success. And it was. Thornton Wilder always said it was. He really made some money on it.”

David Hartman

Role: Rudolph, the head waiter; it was his only Broadway appearance. “If you’re going to do one Broadway musical, do one of the top 10 of all time,” he says. In the 1970s, Hartman became the first host of ABC’s “Good Morning, America” and star of NBC’s drama “Lucas Tanner.” Hartman, 77, also helped stage-manage the show for two years.

Where he is now: Durham, N.C. In recent years, he has narrated for the North Carolina Symphony and been host of the “Walk Through” neighborhood documentaries with New York’s WNET.

“We came to Washington and rehearsed changes every day, besides doing the show at night. It was a real work in progress. ‘Parade’ didn’t go into the show until that last week in the National Theatre, and there were no costumes for it until we got to New York.

“Gower was a perfectionist. He wanted people’s attention to stay on something specific for a period of time, then dart to something else. He wanted your attention to keep dancing around the stage. You were constantly energized and in motion as you were watching it. He was brilliant.”

Mary Jo Catlett

Role: Ernestina, chorus

Where she is now: Los Angeles, playing the voice of Mrs. Puff on “SpongeBob SquarePants,” with recent appearances on “Glee” and “2 Broke Girls.” “I’m basically retired,” says Catlett, 74. “But as Dolly said, I put my hand in.

“In Detroit, we all just were crestfallen because we really thought we had a show. ‘Before the Parade’ was a tremendous amount of money at that time to change the whole number and costumes. I loved being Brunhilde in the parade. It was beautiful, but a whole lot of work. I didn’t get to sightsee much in Washington.

“Carol was just amazing. I remember the audience standing up after every show, clapping, and tears in their eyes, some of them. When Carol came out in white dress and white hat, they went crazy.”

Ronald Young

Role: Waiter, chorus

Where he is now: Oklahoma, where he grew up and whence he returned after more than 48 years living in the same Greenwich Village apartment.

“In 1995, I decided no more showbiz,” Young says. “I was always very usable to play opposite star ladies. I looked good, I was competent and they could get me cheap.” He has since worked as a marketer and archivist for Merrill Lynch, and as a professional organizer. He still sings concerts and national anthems locally: “Now my voice has a freedom it never had before because I don’t need a job with it.” See his book, “The Only Boy Who Danced.

“It was a biggie for me. My first show, my first audition. I didn’t know we were in trouble in Detroit, and that they’d brought other composers to work with Jerry, or any of that.

“I wanted to see the Washington Monument. I climbed all the stairs, only to discover when we came in for rehearsal we were doing ‘Parade.’ By the end of the day, my thighs were just screaming.”

Sondra Lee

Role: Minnie Fay. Lee also played Tiger Lily in the 1954 “Peter Pan” with Mary Martin.

Where she is now: New York, still directing, teaching acting and painting. She wrote the 2009 memoir “I’ve Slept With Everybody.” “The title is just a catchy tune, that’s all,” says Lee, 75. “It’s a loving book about the theater.” Lee is working on the sequel, “As I Was Saying.”

“I had a history with David Merrick. In every show I would go up to his office and say, ‘Mr. Merrick, you have to let me go. I really can’t do the part. And he’d say, ‘Sondra’s here again; the show’s going to be a smash!’ ”

“At one point, they wanted Minnie Fae to play the accordion. I hated it. I tried once or twice to learn. I said, ‘I can’t do this. I won’t do this. And my boob gets caught in it.’ And that was that. It never got in.

“Gower wasn’t a huggy guy. He was rather reserved. But as a choreographer, he worked very much like an abstract painter. He saw big movement. And he had a great sense of theater.”

Joan Leonard Iacino

Role: Dancer. Her married name is Iacino, but during “Dolly!” she was known as “Buttons” Leonard, a nickname she picked up as one of the June Taylor dancers on “The Jackie Gleason Show.” She signed her name “Buttons” on the audition sheet, hoping Champion would remember her.

Where she is now: Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Iacino, 68, has run dance studios in that area for 44 years.

“In Detroit they said ‘Hello, Dolly!’ is ‘Goodbye, Dolly!’

“Gower was probably the nicest person to work for, definitely very genuine and very caring. He liked new young talent. He liked freshness. Ron Young was just in from Oklahoma. I had worked for a year on the Gleason show.

“David Merrick was tough. I never really spoke to him, but everyone was scared when he was around.”

Bonnie Mathis

Role: Dancer

Where she is now: Tucson, retired for two years. Mathis ran a ballet school in Minnesota for 23 years, and recently worked with the Boston Ballet and the Boston Lyric Opera; at one point, she was a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre. Among her dance routines in “Dolly!” she also played a dancing horse.

“I was the back end of the horse,” says Mathis, 70. “Jan LaPrade was the front end. We were on ‘What’s My Line?’ together.

“It was my only Broadway show. Gower was very kind to me. They knew I wanted to be a ballet dancer, so I had a special clause in my contract that would release me if I got work with a ballet company. And that is what eventually happened. Gower was so supportive, and he came to see my performances.

“David Merrick wanted more women on stage. We weren’t out there like showgirls. All the big numbers in second act were all men. He wasn’t very confident in that idea.”

Joel Craig

Role: Dancer

Where he is now: Retired after performing into the mid-1990s, when he began working on music for “Sesame Street.” Craig, 71, now splits time with his wife (also a performer) between Florida and upstate New York.

“At the end in Washington, we learned ‘Parade.’ What they neglected to do was put it in a key that the cast could sing in. We’re singing in a key that only dogs could hear. You could see Michael and Jerry and Gower at the back of the house, howling with laughter.

“Gower and David Merrick gave a party at the Willard, and at that party they played the not-yet-released Louis Armstrong record of ‘Hello, Dolly!’ We all heard that and looked at each other and said, ‘We’re going to be a big hit.’

“In Washington, they made an announcement early in the run: No one in the company is to get their hair cut anymore, except for Joel, because my hair was long. Channing turns to me in the wings and says, ‘My uncle was a barber. I know how to cut hair.’ She did a terrific job. She cut my hair for the next two years, until she left the show.”

Nicole Barth

Role: Dancer

Where she is now: In New York, still dancing occasionally, including in the 2007 movie “Enchanted.”

“I still go to class,” says Barth, 75. “I have to. Mentally, I need it, and physically it keeps you in great shape.” She works with “Dancers Over 40,” and a recent YouTube video shows Barth talking about Champion in a panel moderated by Hartman.

“Gower was great. In Detroit, he would count the walkouts, and the next morning he said, ‘I know what I have to do to fix this.’ The dance numbers always worked. He was so creative, but also he let you put in your own feelings. He didn’t steal from you, but he took what you were giving and worked with it.

“He always had a plan. He never came in cold. He didn’t believe in dancers standing around. I got close to him; he claimed I had his style down. During down time in rehearsals he would waltz me around. He said it was relaxing for him, and it sure was relaxing for me.”

Barth, reached in Florida, passes the phone to:

Artie Siccardi

Role: Carpenter with the stage crew. (Barth and Siccardi have been seeing each other for a couple of years.)

Where he is now? New York. Last year, the longtime production manager of more than 200 Broadway shows received a Tony Award Honor for Excellence in the Theater.

“It was very busy, especially with Gower changing things. But you never brought in the same show you went out of town with. For ‘Dolly!’ just the one scene changed, that’s all. We used the whole set otherwise. Gower knew what he wanted, and Oliver Smith designed it for him. It was more about costume changes than the set.

“Nicole and I are looking at each other. Fifty years? My God.”

“Hello, Dolly!”

Book by Michael Stewart, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. Based on “The Matchmaker” by Thornton Wilder. Original production directed and choreographed by Gower Champion. Friday through May 18 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 9th St. NW. Call 202-347-4833.

Nelson Pressley has been writing about theater and other arts – but mostly theater – for the Post since 1999.
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