Elsewhere in the world, people are fighting to preserve the whales, the redwoods, the Morrosco Theater, and the separation of church and state. In one half of a tiny brick bungalow in Queens that he has rented for $75 a month for the past 21 years, Ben Bagley is fighting to save the Broadway show tune.
Not showstoppers like "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" or "On the Street Where You Live" or "Tomorrow," which are doing just fine on their own. But songs that never got recorded in the first place, were dropped during the out-of-town tryout, or were simply tucked away in the composer's or the lyricist's trunk and forgotten.
"I'm not into nostalgia," Bagley insists, in a voice that approximates gravel in a Cuisinart. "I mean, I believe that looking back is all right, if you don't stare. But please don't say I'm into nostalgia. I'm just into good songs. My mother was a concert pianist, and she used to bring home sheet music from all the Broadway shows. She'd show me why, musically, the unknown songs were often better than the hits. When you talk about hits, you're talking about what the publishing companies decided to plug. Out of a score of 12 or 15 songs, they'd push only one or two that sounded good to them. The public never decided. I mean, Cole Porter's very favorite song of all those he wrote was 'After You, Who?' from 'The Gay Divorce.' Outside of a rare recording by Fred Astaire, it never received a major hearing."
As president, secretary and treasurer of the diminutive, but spunky Painted Smile Records, Bagley has masterminded 35 albums to date, dedicated to the lesser known -- or the not-at-all known -- tunes of such giants as Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Vincent Youmans, George and Ira Gershwin and Irving Berlin. Almost all of them carry the same general title ("Harold Arlen Revisited," "Alan Jay Lerner Revisited," or the two latest volumes in the series, "Kurt Weill Revisited"). But aficionados know them simply as "Bagleys" and enlightened record stores file them in their own special bin.
Assembling the material is only half the job. Getting it performed in the proper fashion is the other. For that, Bagley relies on such singers as Bobby Short, Blossom Dearie, Dorothy Loudon, John Reardon, Barbara Cook, Tammy Grimes and Katharine Hepburn.
"Well," admits Bagley, "I have more nerve than any human being on Earth has a right to have. I just called her up and asked her if she'd like to record three numbers for me. I offered her my going rate, which is $100 per song, although I try to get singers for less, if I can. She said, 'Mr. Ben Bagley, I have never worked for such a small amount of money in my life, even when I was a beginner. But I talked to George Cukor and he says your work is worthwhile. So for whatever it's worth, and it's not worth much, I'm yours.' "
Contributing her services gratis, Hepburn warbled "Thank You Very Much, Mrs. Lansborough -- Goodby," "A Woman's Career" and "The Queen of Terre Haute" for "Cole Porter Revisited, Vol. 4." Bagley believes it was her distinctive voice attacking such lyrics as "Why couldn't I be Whistler's Mother/Or any other woman of note?/Why did the gods decree/That I should only be/The Queen of Terre Haute?" that made the record, at 23,000 copies, one of his biggest sellers. (Most of his albums sell in the neighborhood of 10,000 each.) Not that Bagley is in this business for the money. Whatever he makes, he promptly plows back into the next record. If he anticipates big sales for "Leonard Bernstein Revisited," which comes out this spring, it's only so he can forge ahead with "Dorothy Fields Revisited," which probably won't fare so well.
That Katharine Hepburn is not exactly one of the world's foremost singers bothers Bagley not a whit. "People who write theater music shouldn't be that interested in perfect pitch and melodically bland voices," he says, inhaling one of the 60 or so Camels he smokes every day. "You're trying to create a mood with a song. That's why I like to work with actors and actresses. They know what the words mean." Among the six or seven singers who will turn up on each album, it is entirely possible to come across Gloria Swanson, Estelle Parsons, Ellen Burstyn, Tony Perkins, Lynn Redgrave, Maureen Stapleton or even Rex Reed, who tells people that the only artistic error Bagley ever made was hiring him to immortalize a Vernon Duke ditty called "Sugar Foot."
Bagley gave Parsons a newly translated Kurt Weill ballad of unrequited love, "I Don't Love You." When she asked him why, he replied "Estelle, you've never had a day's happiness in your life. The most you've ever known is melancholy. That's all you can ever hope for. Melancholy is your happiness." She was, he says, "stunned by the time she got in the booth, but she gave me a heartbreaking performance." Most of his singers appreciate his approach, which views a song as a small play, and come back for more.
Ann Miller will not be returning, however. Although Bagley is delighted with the three numbers she does for "Kurt Weill Revisited," she has taken umbrage over the illustration on the album. A standard feature of each Bagley record is the cover art by composer Harvey Schmidt ("The Fantasticks, "I Do, I Do"), who supplies stylishly naughty drawings of a woman or showgirl, usually in a state of classical dishabille. "Ann is very upset because she thinks I've attached her great name and reputation to a piece of pornography," Bagley huffs, as he brandishes the offending album cover. "Here's a woman who appears nightly in 'Sugar Babies' with Mickey Rooney looking up her dress or down her dress, and she's telling me I'm ruining her reputation. Some people have no sense of humor."
Bagley, it might be said, regularly tests the humor of the celebrated in his liner notes, which are apt to pass on such fanciful tidbits as the announcement that Schmidt is alleged to be writing "a musical based on the marriage of Julie Nixon and David Eisenhower and titled 'A Resounding Tinkle.' " He informed the public that Margaret Whiting's latest album was "Music to Listen to Carly Simon By," and aroused Liza Minnelli's wrath by writing that she put "a pair of odoreaters in her shoes and disappeared for three days." In remarks about an Oscar Hammerstein song, "Little Hindu Man," he felt compelled to air his views on the Yellow Peril, which he claimed was responsible for such worldwide disasters as "Pearl Harbor and 'Pacific Overtures,' " (Stephen Sondheim's 1976 musical about the Orient).
As a result there is not likely to be a "Stephen Sondheim Revisited." Bagley shrugs his bony shoulders with airy disdain. "Who wants to go to one of his musicals and be depressed?" he asks. "He just writes these smart--- negative songs for pseudo-intellectuals. I suppose there's nothing wrong with his work that couldn't be helped by the love of a good woman. But, please, give me some hope if I'm going to the musical theater. Tell me something positive. Give me Bobby Clark . . . showgirls descending a staircase."
If Bagley sometimes gets away with murder in his liner notes, he is careful to preface them with the admission that he is "incurably insane" and for years took the precaution of having the late show business lawyer Arnold Weissberger check over them for libel. Still, he takes manifest glee in violating good taste, as when he announced that singer Jane Froman (who nearly lost her leg in a plane crash) was making a comeback in a stock production of "Best Foot Forward." When Bagley passed on the news that Hepburn's newest film was "Love Slaves from Lima," however, the actress telephoned him to say, "Mr. Ben Bagley, that sounds like a very superior film."
Bagley may not be incurably insane, but at 48, he is defiantly idiosyncratic. His minute living room is decorated with 400 tiny oval mirrors, which he says he made when he was going "through a severe emotional problem," several gilt cupids suspended from the ceiling and a chandelier that would be more appropriate for Versailles. He has a dowager's zest for gossip, especially if it involves the sexual pecadillos of the famous. He was close to Montgomery Clift in his final months, hung orange curtains in Clift's New York brownstone, took him to Godard movies, and then after his death, supplied biographer Patricia Bosworth with some of the more intimate details of the doomed actor's life. Yet Bagley is also a devout Catholic and talks about recording songs with the fervor of a missionary saving souls. God, he asserts, put him on Earth for that purpose, and his records are his "children." His best friend, however, is Fogarty, a disdainful cat he rescued from an animal shelter and who now gets its photo on all of his albums.
Bagley was raised in Hardwick, Vt., mostly by a strong-willed grandmother who drummed the notion of superiority into his head with such tidbits of sampler wisdom as "Equality is a step downward." "I always thought I was special, even though I was flunking school, couldn't play the piano and had ears that rivaled Dumbo's," he admits blithely. He likes to recall that a woman in Hardwick once stopped him and his grandmother on the street and gushed, "Oh, what a sweet child!" Flush with indignation, his grandmother retorted, "It would take a detective to find sweetness in this child." Although plastic surgery has since taken care of Bagley's protruding ears, innocuousness remains a cardinal sin in his book. "Whatever you do, don't you dare make me sound nice," he begs a reporter.
On his visits to New York, his mother introduced him to Broadway shows, and when Bagley dropped out of high school at 16, he automatically made his way back to the big city, $75 in his pocket and dazzling ambitions in his head. Practicing what he called "the magic of deceiving" -- and what others call bald-faced lying -- he let it be known that he had a very wealthy father who was bankrolling him, and set about soliciting revue material from such then-unknown composers and writers as Charles Strouse, Lee Adams, Sheldon Harnick and Michael Stewart. The numbers eventually found their way into "The Shoestring Revue" in 1955, which took the town by storm. He followed it with "The Littlest Revue," in which Joel Grey made his debut, doing a spoof of Harry Belafonte, and then "Shoestring 57." They were eminently sophisticated, slightly demented entertainments, and Bagley was soon being tapped to stage nightclub acts for such "fabulous" people as Zsa Zsa Gabor and Marie "The Body" McDonald.
The rising career was stopped short in 1958 by the discovery that he had tuberculosis. "It can make you very sick, working with people like Zsa Zsa Gabor and Marie 'The Body' McDonald," he says now. Two years in a hospital depleted his savings, and after he got out it was clear that television was fast becoming the province of the theatrical revue. "Here I was 25. I'd never had sex, never been to Venice, never had any fun at all," he remembers. "I knew if I was going to stay healthy, I had to find something less strenuous than putting together revues, because I killed myself to make them work. But I also knew I would have to continue to create and reach out at the same time."
Recordings were the answer, the first being "Rodgers and Hart Revisited," which Bagley promptly and proudly sent off to Cole Porter. "Porter later told me, 'I'm very worried about you. I feel the little men in white coats are coming any minute,' " laughs Bagley. But the composer ended up giving him unlimited access to his trunk of songs, whih led to "Cole Porter Revisited," and, in 1965, another spiffy off-Broadway revue, "The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen through the Eyes of Cole Porter."
Initially, Bagley's recordings were issued by other companies, until he concluded that he had no temperament for corporate compromise, found a backer of his own, and launched Painted Smiles. It is now a company of two -- Bagley and an assistant -- with a small office in New York, and for storage purposes, the basements and garages of willing, but far-flung, friends.
Painted Smiles maintains a growing mailing list of 5,000 regular buyers, many of them former New Yorkers whose careers have taken them to small towns and who want to remain in touch with the theater. Bagley believes he's selling them sass and glamor, among other things, and a kind of musical sophisitication that is in short supply these days.
"I was on a television program once, being interviewed by an awful man who didn't know who the hell I was," Bagley says. "He was holding up one of my record albums as if it were a disease. 'Hey, buddy, what kind of people buy these things?' he asked. And, I don't know, an angel whispered in my ear, and I replied, 'Why the most superior people in the world, the masterbuilders of our destiny, the architects of our fate.' He tried to interrupt me but I couldn't stop. 'Creative people. Literate people. The world's finest. Not just in the U.S., but in Canada and England and France. Sometimes I meet them and we have dinner and not one of them is anything less than supreme.' Then there was a commercial break. When the program came back on, I was in the fourth seat down, and he was interviewing Eli Wallach and Ann Jackson. I never got to say another word."
Bagley pauses, before adding with a certain elfin charm, "You know, I like to think that's all true."