The National Theatre unveiled its new show Monday night -- not a play or a musical but a movie about itself, underwritten to the tune of $250,000 by Beatrice Cos. Inc. in honor of the theater's 150th anniversary last Dec. 7.
The hour-long film, which according to Jeffrey Gabel of the Public Broadcasting Service will be aired as a special next fall, was coproduced by former White House aide Joe Canzeri and producer David Osterlund. The funding was arranged through former White House presidential assistant Rich Williamson, now senior vice president for corporate and international relations for Beatrice, and National Theatre Board member Carol Laxalt, wife of the Republican senator from Nevada. Thus it may not be surprising that Monday's audience was dotted with administration types and that the film prominently features the Reagans, whose contribution to the theater's history consists of having attended it once when it reopened two years ago. But then that sort of myopia is part of the movie's problem.
The National Theatre portrayed in this film is the theater of presidents and mink-clad first-nighters arriving in limousines. As far as anyone would know, the only person who ever sat in the balcony is the young Helen Hayes, who describes -- sitting on the site -- her first visit to the theater as a child and its magical effect on her. The emphasis is on stars as opposed to plays or acting, and the fact that the National is in Washington and presidents have attended shows there is trumpeted as its main achievement.
The film also contains some inexcusable errors. In the opening moments, for example, host Debbie Reynolds calls the National "the oldest theater in America," a claim also made by at least two others, the Walnut in Philadelphia (1809) and the Dock Street in Charleston, S.C. (1736). Normally the National claims only to be the oldest "continuously operating" theater, which it probably is, aside from the four years it functioned as a movie theater because the actors' union refused to allow its performers to work in a segregated playhouse. Pearl Bailey says she would have been forced to sit in the balcony in those days (1948-1952) when in fact she would not have been allowed in the theater at all, aside from a few selected performances.
The film uses the predictable device of displaying old stills from musical comedies while a sound track keeps the mood buoyant. Unfortunately this technique gives the impression that Rex Harrison, for example, played the National in "My Fair Lady," when in fact the road company lead was Michael Evans, or that Ethel Merman played here in "Gypsy," when she played the National only in "Call Me Madam," a performance well-covered in the film. Or that Mary Martin was here in "The Sound of Music" (she was here in "I Do! I Do!"). Indeed, Martin herself is a bit confused, saying that she appeared in "Lute Song" at the National; in fact the part was played by Dolly Haas here. But an astute director would never have guided Martin into that error. Nor would he have used this reminiscence to segue into footage from a tribute to Martin last year in New York, where Nancy Reagan, once a bit player in the show, warbled a song from it. What this excerpt has to do with the National Theatre is anybody's guess. Equally perplexing is a vintage reenactment of Abraham Lincoln's assassination at Ford's Theatre; the point seems to be that if Lincoln hadn't been shot at Ford's he might have been killed at the National, which is stretching the Theatre of the Presidents idea a little too far. Canzeri and Co. can just thank their lucky stars for Carol Channing, the only person funny, witty and personable who manages to explain to the uninitiated just what is so great about the theater, and this theater in particular. She speaks in her inimitable breathless fashion of the closeness of the front row and how you can reach out and touch someone in the first boxes, and how that leads an entire theater to an intimate relationship with the performance on stage.
She also talks about her visits here in "Hello, Dolly!," a favorite of several presidents. "We had Johnsons galore," she says at one point. Former president Jimmy Carter, who rather quaintly reminds the audience that he was president when he lived here, notes that when he came to the theater the audience was very friendly and applauded him, and it was "sometimes sustained applause," a comment Monday's audience found particularly amusing. He and Channing, filmed separately, also recall how he came to her dressing room after one performance to pay his compliments and found her wearing only her "Nederlander tights" (a reference to the producers Channing likes to twit for being tightfisted), scanty attire that revealed "both cheeks" of her derrie re.
"When you're exposed to the president of the United States and he doesn't care, that's democracy," she says.
Channing is a lot better than the film's editing, which at times is so crude the same long shot of the theater as it is today is used several times, each time with the same bus passing. But we do discover the National Theatre has a ghost, an actor named John M'Cullough who was supposedly murdered backstage during a production of "Hamlet" and is buried beneath the stage. If that is truly his grave, the poor man was probably turning over in it Monday night.