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Vintage 'Broadway'

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 6, 2004; Page WE33

"BROADWAY: THE Golden Age" is all chatter all the time, but that's a good thing. Scratch that: It's a great thing.

The chatterers, you see, are actors of a certain vintage. A Broadway vintage, that is. And the stories they tell in this warm, evocative documentary crackle with humor and glow with reverence. By listening to those stories, you'll glow too.

Rick McKay, who directed "Broadway: The Golden Age," with Carol Channing. McKay will attend some screenings at the E Street Cinema. (Dada Films)

Actor Julie Harris, winner of five Tony Awards, was incorrectly identified as Barbara Harris in the review of "Broadway: The Golden Age" in today's Weekend section, which is printed in advance.

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Filmmaker Rick McKay (who'll be on hand for some Friday and Saturday screenings at the E Street Cinema this weekend) visited four continents over five years to make the film, whose rather cumbersome title is "Broadway: The Golden Age, By the Legends Who Were There." He spoke with nearly 100 performers and other Broadway insiders to get these stories at a time, he says in narration, when "the only Barrymore left was Drew."

The participants are too numerous to list, but they include such onetime Broadway stars as Carol Channing ("Hello Dolly!"), Angela Lansbury ("Mame" and "Sweeney Todd") and Robert Goulet ("Camelot"), songwriters like Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the team that gave us "On the Town," "Bells Are Ringing" and "The Will Rogers Follies." And so on and so on and so on. And they all have stories, not only of struggling to make it as actors, but also their memories of the great evenings they spent, watching and listening, usually from the cheap seats.

Like McKay, you'll hear about a romantic Broadway that thrived for years before the age of $500 tickets for "The Lion King." The actors here remember the days when they were struggling and dreaming of rubbing two nickels together. Who bought last-minute tickets for 25 cents and 55 cents. Who remembered watching with horror as those prices crept up: $3.75, $4.40, $5.80 and so on, but still way shy of $10.

Coffee was 5 cents. No one had money. They snuck free food at wine-and-cheese dinners. ("I went to saloons like a crazy person," says Elaine Stritch.) They met for cheap at places like Gray's Drugstore. Carol Burnett recalls those impoverished times when she lived with three roommates and zero cash.

"Four of us bought a dress," she remembers. "A dress." They shared it for auditions and whoever sweated into it had to do the drycleaning. Luckily, she eventually made the marquee, in a sensational run in George Abbott's "Once Upon a Mattress."

The stories pile up and they're all fabulous. Shirley MacLaine literally had a "42nd Street" beginning to her career. When lead actress Carol Haney broke her ankle in a 1950s production of "The Pajama Game," MacLaine, in the chorus, had to star in the show. She was extraordinary. And Hollywood producer Hal B. Wallis was in the audience. He took her to dinner and a star was born.

Says MacLaine of that dinner: "I thought: 'Great, I can eat meat for the first time since I was 6.' "

Almost everyone seems to remember "second-acting," when they'd wait for audiences to pour on to the streets at the end of the first act, then sneak into the theater for Act II. And above all, they remember the great performers and performances that brought the magic home.

One was Laurette Taylor, in such plays as "The Glass Menagerie." When he watched her astounding natural acting in the 1920s and 1930s, composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim thought to himself "Only people do that." (McKay shows us an archival gem: Taylor performing a screen test in 1938 for David O. Selznick. Evidently, movies didn't work out for her.)

Others recall Geraldine Page in "Sweet Bird of Youth"; James Earl Jones in "The Great White Hope"; Kim Stanley in "A Far Country" and "Cheri"; Barbara Harris, the only actress to win four Tonys, in "Member of the Wedding."

Then there was Marlon Brando. A pacing tiger in the Broadway 1940s, he changed acting itself with sensational turns in "Truckstop Cafe," "Candida" and "Streetcar Named Desire." After conquering Broadway, he took Hollywood.

Plays end every night, in a sense, when the performance ends. Saturday night's performance will never be the same as Sunday's matinee. You have to see them all. Most of these magic evenings are lost now. So is a way of life. We're into big microphone-supported, pre-recorded music track productions now. But McKay has unearthed some precious scenes that were caught on film. We can watch and savor Kim Stanley and Laurette Taylor onstage. We can see a stunning Brando stage performance in "Desire." And McKay has captured, at least, these fond memories. And who better than actors to remember them? This is cinema as oral tradition. And one heck of a cheap-seat deal.

BROADWAY: THE GOLDEN AGE, BY THE LEGENDS WHO WERE THERE (Unrated, 111 minutes) -- Contains some risque comments, otherwise little that is objectionable. At Landmark E Street Cinema. Filmmaker Rick McKay will attend performances, Friday at 6:45 and 9:20; and Saturday at 1:40, 4:15 and 6:45 p.m.

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