They closed my favorite "Whorehouse" Saturday night after almost four years and 1,578 performances on Broadway--a record that places us 16th among the all-time long-runners that have finished their box office business to date, just ahead of "Mary, Mary" and a blink behind "Born Yesterday."
A great four years, right. Still and all, it kinda hurt to see it end.
I'd had visions, see, of getting up there in the All-Time Broadway Top Ten: Another six months and we could have knocked "Pippin" from the 10th slot. Then we might have taken dead aim on the real champeens--such old untouchables as "Oklahoma!," "Grease" and "Fiddler on the Roof." The secret dream was to become No. 1, assuming someone could find a way to kill that goddamned "Annie." Personally, I never have understood the public's preference for small children over full-grown whores.
On learning that "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" had worn out its Broadway welcome, I began to solicit sympathy from my friends. "Oh, come on!" said Celia Eckhardt. "You're getting as greedy as Ronald Reagan and his friends." Well, yes. What's wrong with that? How we gonna trickle it down if it ain't there to trickle?
At the big cast party Saturday night at O'Neal's Times Square in the Big Apple, my coauthor and the codirector, Peter Masterson, tried to put a good face on the recent turn of events: "Who would have thought that we would have run longer than 'The Sound of Music,' 'Guys and Dolls' and 'The King and I,' for God's sake?"
Well, of course, nobody would have thought that way back yonder when Jerry Ford was president and we were first putting the show together. But even knowing that, we stood around Saturday night rattling the ice in our glasses and looking glum. A wake is a wake, no matter how wonderful a life the deceased has lived or how well-spoken the final words over the corpse.
A bit of indiscriminate blame-placing went on. Producer Stephanie Phillips blamed the musicians union for having invoked a formula having to do with size of the theater and the cast, which required us to pay 16 "walkers" (nonperforming musicians) above the seven we actually used in the show. "That has cost us 10,000 unnecessary dollars a week for four years," she lamented.
Several actors complained that Phillips had not moved the show to a smaller theater four months ago. This, they felt, would have caused savings in rent and percentages to the theater owner and might have reduced the number of useless walkers, stage hands and other craftsmen demanded by union formulas.
Still others grumbled about the passive public relations firm in charge of the show's publicity and advertising.
I can't help but believe, however, that prevailing general economic conditions played a role. And--face it--we have played 236 cities and towns in America with touring companies: There simply may not have been any available audience left. I kept those heretical thoughts to myself on closing night, it being obvious that many connected with the show needed someone to blame.
All day Saturday telegrams arrived at the 46th Street Theatre from "Whorehouse" alumni and from members of the two surviving touring companies. Others who had been in the show jammed the stage door, halls and staircases to lend moral support and weepy goodbyes.
Becky Gelke, in the show since it opened, had a wry complaint: "I gave notice I was leaving the show, and the next day they posted the closing notice. It took a little drama out of my departure." Gelke was headed for a house trailer she owns on a remote stretch of North Carolina beach.
Carlin Glynn, who won a Tony for creating the role of Miss Mona on Broadway--and, later, the British equivalent in London's West End--was letting no grass grow under her feet. She was packed to fly back to London, where she ocean-hops to teach 30 actors and actresses enrolled for study in Carlin's Method Group. "It has its roots in Actors Studio," she said.
Her husband, Peter Masterson, said he is readying an off-Broadway play he will direct--"The Last of the Knucklemen"--and preparing to produce a movie based on the life of Abbie Hoffman.
Codirector and choreographer Tommy Tune was the only member of the troupe who will not leave the 46th Street Theatre: His new show, a musical called "Nine," is to open there May 10th. Tommy got a few dark looks from actors who felt the theater owner might not have put them on the street had Tune's new show opted to open elsewhere. "But, hell, that's show business," shrugged "Whorehouse"-ex Don Crabtree. Crabtree could afford to be casual: He's well-ensconced in the hit "42nd Street."
Henderson Forsythe, a Tony winner in 1979 for his role as the cussing-and-stomping old sheriff, Ed Earl Dodd, showed up to hug his former cast mates and tell them to keep their chins up. Gil Rogers, the final stage sheriff, was heading for Laredo, Tex., and a role in a Kirk Douglas movie, "Eddie Macon's Run."
Delores Hall, the black maid Jewel, fretted backstage before her final performance: "Honey, I just know I'm gonna cry me a river out there. I've been a member of a family for four years and now the family's breaking up." She got through her solo number with only damp eyes. But safely backstage, afterward, she collapsed into the arms of the dancing whores and, sure enough, cried herself a river. Later, at a final curtain--during which the cast received a standing ovation--I found myself biting my lips and trying to grin under the handicap of wet eyes.
Despite instructions to the contrary from stage manager Paul Phillips ("We're not going to do anything silly; we're going to do the show as it's written"), certain loose innovations crept in.
When Carlin Glynn, who returned to the show three weeks ago as the whorehouse madam, fired a shotgun into the air to disperse a mob, a rubber chicken fell at her feet--unerringly tossed by steel-guitar player Lynn Frazier from a platform in the wings.
The three creators of the show--Masterson, composer-lyricist Carol Hall and your present hero--unexpectedly appeared in small spear-carrier roles in different scenes.
At intermission, novelist and screenwriter William Goldman took bows as the first person who'd predicted "Whorehouse" would be a hit. That was in 1977 when he saw a run-through rehearsal at Actors Studio. "Pete," he'd said then to Masterson, "don't get in the way of this damn thing or it'll run over you. I don't think you'll be able to kill it with a stick."
Now, on the night the Broadway version finally was being killed, Goldman said: "This show is a once-in-a-lifetime freak. None of you people had written a show. You had no stars. It was bucking against an unacceptable title and a country music score. The major critics were apathetic. But, by God, it had life. It insisted on living."
At the long and lively cast party, most of the players asked each other about their prospects for new work-- an abiding concern among thespians, since about 90 percent of Actors Equity members are unemployed at any given moment.
Paul Phillips cheered the out-of-work actors by announcing that he is putting together two summer stock companies of "Whorehouse" to star Loretta Swit and Barbara Eden. That perked the party up.
Having no job didn't scare Cheryl Ebarb, who played the awkward country whore, Shy, for about three years. "The fates took care of me last time," she said, "and I'll trust them again."
The fates did, indeed, take care of Ebarb last time. She had auditioned for the Houston company, and the show's powers-that-be wanted to cast her. Someone lost her resume', however, and didn't know how to contact her. Another girl was cast in the role.
A week later, Ebarb called in to see if she had won the role. "No," she was told, "but come on in. We want to talk to you." When a dispirited Cheryl Ebarb arrived at the Tower Theatre--"Figuring I was to be offered some kind of backstage job"--she was told she was being shipped to New York to replace Joan Ellis, who'd quit the Broadway company.
Twenty-year-old Ebarb opened on a Broadway stage the first week she was ever in New York, in the meaty, crowd-pleasing role of Shy. Now she isn't interested in returning to her small-town east Texas home: "Shoot, man, I'm gonna stay in the Big Apple until the party's over. This city life is great!" Ah, but she's never stood in an unemployment line in snowy February . . .
Clint Allmon, who played the villainous TV man Melvin Thorpe, and who was the oldest cast member from the standpoint of unbroken service, summarized as he stood backstage: "I paid all my debts, lived better than I ever have, bought a new car, invested $10,000 in oil, and saved about another $5,000. It's been a fine run."
As my wife, Barbara Blaine, and I left the 46th Street Theatre for the cast party, I took one final look at the marquee--and did a double take. All the blown-up photographs of scenes from "Whorehouse" had already been removed, and two guys were approaching the marquee itself with a pair of stepladders. It seemed to me they were in a mighty big hurry.
All now standing between Larry L. King and starvation is two touring companies, several summer-stock productions, the upcoming Universal movie starring Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton, and his about-to-be-released book, "The Whorehouse Papers."