"Frankie threw back her kimono, Took out a big 44, Root-a-toot-toot, three times she shoot Right through that hardware door. He was her man but was doing her worng."
When the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo revived the Ruth Page-Bentley Stone ballet "Frankie and Johnny" for New York in 1945, critic Edwin Denby observed dryly that the work was "no bawdier than Nedick's orange drink."
Scandalized by the portrayal of a lesbian couple, by the sight of beerguzzling over a coffin and other alleged "indecencies," however, New York's license commissioner sent a squad of police to the theater, denied Life magazine and the newspapers permission to take photographs and turned the whole affair into a cause celebre on the issue of censorship.
Even three years later, ballet historian George Amberg, who liked the Page-Stone opus, was still writing that "this bawdy and violent melodrama is decidedly odd company for 'Swan Lake' and 'Giselle' and its legitimacy on the ballet stage is debatable."
As it happens, you can judge for yourself tonight when Channel 26 airs an engaging production of "Frankie and Johnny" out of WTTW-Chicago, featuring not only Frederic Franklin's contemporary staging of the ballet, but also an interview with Page and nostalgic film clips showing her and Stone in bygone performances of the ballet.
It goes almost without saying that from the vantage point of the '70s, "Frankie and Johnny" would be unlikely to offend an archbishop. But it does retain its pungency as early, smart-alecky Americana, and its historic interest as a pioneering venture in vernacular ballet.
Originally created in 1938 in Chicago under the aegis of the WPA Federal Theatre project (with the help of public funds, no less), and inspired by the anonymous doggerel Carl Sandburg called "America's classical gutter song," it's a genuine token of its times.
The Franklin staging nicely preserves the flavor. The plot, of course, is that of the ballad: Frankie, the harlot, shoots her pimp Johnny when she finds him two-timing with Nelly Bly. A trio of "Saving Susies" (i.e., Salvation Army lasses) sings the verses, interpolated between Jerome Moross' honky-tonk numbers like "Bawdy House Stomp" and "Beer Parlor Rag." The choreography is no great shakes but its cartoonish idiom and jazzy urban veneer make the ballet look like a direct ancestor of the Jerome Robins-Leonard Bernstein 1944 hit, "Fancy Free," about three skirt-chasing sailors on shore leave in Manhattan.
Ruth Page, now in her 70s and still choreographing, already had danced with Pavlova and the Diaghilev troupe when "Frankie and Johnny" came into being. She always had a strong maverick streak-in 1933 she created a ballet, "La Guiablesse," in which she appeared as the only white in a cast of 50 black dancers. She explored American popular imagery in dance as early as 1925, in "The Flapper and the Quarterback."
"Frankie and Johnny" was born during the socially conscious Depression years, and by then others had gotten into the act-American mores and themes could be found in the choreography of such modern dancers as Martha Graham, Charles Weidman, Helen Tamiris and others, as well as in a rash of ballets with titles like "The Great American Goff," "Barn Dance," "Filling Station," and "Billy the Kid." "Frankie and Johnny" is a charming and still lively memento of those days, and PBS is to be thanked for returning it once again to a wide public.