|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: October 19, 1993
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
When you walked out of the nature food factory and made a rather theatrical farewell speech, did you have any idea at all about what you were going to do next?
No, as a matter of fact, the only thing that I was committed to in New York was [that] as I was on a singing scholarship at the time, I didn't want to break that off very easily. I thought about going back to Boston, perish the thought. But I knew I could work in the pharmacies down there because after all I was a pharmacist now, so I worked in pharmacies and ultimately got to the point where I was managing one of the pharmacies in Pennsylvania Station, one of the Penn. drug company things, and I got out of that rather quickly because of an accident. The accident was ... a fellow came in asking for some help for an impending laryngitis. He said that he had an audition and was there anything I could do to help him? I said, ‘well, I can give you something that will tide you through the audition but you will lose your voice after that, probably for a week.’ He said, ‘I don't care I am desperate for the job.’ So I gave him some local anaesthetic lozenges and time passed and I was about to go off duty when he came back again. He said, ‘thanks, Doc, that was great.’ I said ‘see, you lost your voice.’ He said, ‘I know, that's alright, that's okay. I lost my voice now but I sang beautifully.’ I said, ‘you got the job?’ He said ‘no, no, no, see I am a tenor and they were looking for a bass baritone.’ I said, ‘I am a bass baritone.’ He said, ‘why don't you go down and audition for it?’ So I did and I left pharmacy, left chemistry, left all the worthy things behind, you know, save the world no more, get in on the stage and went into show business.
And did you know as soon as you got that break that you'd done the right thing?
I am not sure, I think I did the only thing. At least it gave me time to get my head together, but once I got ... once I could see what audiences were doing and how they were affected by show business, how much more they were persuaded ... you see the problem with the nature foods company was, we had the technologies but we didn't have the attitudes to go with them, they were being abused. I thought, let's get to the root, let’s get to the basis ... what is it with people. Well, they could have the greatest technology in the world but if their heart isn't in it or they are not willing or they don't want to do it, then the greatest chemical development in the world means nothing. And what I discovered with show business was that we were changing people's attitudes. They'd come in feeling morose and we'd send them out feeling cheerful. They'd come in believing one thing and we'd send them out believing something else. So I said this is where you really have to start if you want to change the world. So I justified it by staying in show business that way.
And this represented a shift in your attitude to science ...
Yes, yes ...
... which remained and you really did have this sense that you were operating now at a human and ethical level rather than in a technical way.
Yes, that's a good way of putting it. That's quite right.
What was the show that you joined?
Well, it was a stock company out at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, just about a half hour from New York, and they were experimenting. They had taken over an old paper mill and they thought they'd run for a few weeks. I think it was expected to run, oh I am only guessing, probably 18 to 20 weeks, and they found that the experiment took. The audiences were coming and they were able to do fortnightly musical rep ... and the thing ran on for 32 weeks, it ran on for the entire year, and it served as a good launching pad for a lot of people because the Broadway people come to stock companies, talent scouting and so forth, and I started out in the chorus and they gave me things to do fairly shortly after that and I was seen by Oscar Hammerstein who was looking for a villain. Now even though I was 21, I always disguised myself as something older and more sinister. I don't know why more sinister, I'll have to work that out. But I think he thought that there was a likely candidate for the sinister character he needed. So he sent for me and I walked in the office and he said, ‘you're young!’ I said, ‘yes.’ He said, ‘well, um look, we really need somebody older and anyway more experienced but read,’ and I read. He said, ‘well, we do need somebody more experienced but would you like to understudy?’ Would I like to understudy for the great Oscar Hammerstein! Sure. So I went into this show that everybody predicted would be a failure and it changed the nature of musical theatre. It was Oklahoma! — it was called The Way We Go — at the time and much ... oh it's an adventure story on its own.
So you were understudying, I guess, Judd, weren't you?
Judd, yeah, yeah, never had a chance to go on because Howard Da Silva was so healthy ... [laughs] ... but still ...
And you learned a lot. You learned a lot.
Oh yes, yes, look ... when you're curious, when you have a curious mind, you can't help but walk across the street and learn something, and here I was with the 'greats' of theatre — Rouben Mamoulian, you know, who could be a greater director than that, directing the thing, and Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers' music, and the theatre guild behind it, Celeste Holm and Alfred Drake, and people of this ilk feeling their way and sharing ideas and picking each other's brains, working together and harmonising. It was like suddenly seeing things around you by flashes of lightning, to coin the cliche. It was illuminating.
Did you ever finally get a role of your own?
Oh yeah. Yes ... not in Oklahoma! No. Immediately after Oklahoma! I went into the army after all. For a while I was being kept out of the army because of my classification, I had flat feet and also I was supporting my mother, but I went in, I went into the air force.
Did you volunteer or were you ...
No, no, I was dragged in. I didn't want to go. See, had the war occurred years and years before, I might have been eager to go because years before I had heard of things happening in Europe that didn't sound very nice.
When did you join the army?
In, I think, September of 1943. , the army joined me, I didn't want to go, I was dragged ... [laughs] .... I was thinking that if our part of the war had started years before, I think I might have been eager to go in, but by now me, with my sceptical, cynical mind, wondered whether this was the war I wanted to risk my life in, so I wasn't sure. Strangely enough, when I did get in the army I found myself in propaganda ... even before I left Oklahoma! I was kind of earmarked for a project which was going to be launched by the air force called Winged Victory. Moss Hart had written Winged Victory and was going to direct it and the stage manager of Oklahoma! was also going to be the stage manager of Winged Victory. So he went on first and told Moss, here's a kid who might be useful on the show. I went into basic training and I never completed my basic training, I was getting taught to come and audition for Winged Victory, and I got the thing and I had a little part in it. There were 300 people, everyone had a little part except Edmond O'Brien and Lee J Cobb and Karl Malden and a few of the others. But I found myself playing right next door to where I had just left. I'd left St James Theatre and here we were at the 44th Street Theatre ... so what we were doing with the show was really propaganda. We were propagandising the public to get behind the war effort. We were also propagandising the government to allow General Arnold to have an Army Air Force instead of the Army Air Corps. In other words, to divide the services, and we learned techniques of being able to bend people's minds, all the more, which is where I came into show business in the first place.
Yes, except you came to show business wanting to change attitudes but you'd also at the same time had this attitude to authority that was rather sceptical.
To put it politely.
So now you’re actually bending people’s minds to conform to some more established standard, how did you deal with that?
I felt like a prostitute. I felt that this was the thing that had to be done at this particular time and because, you know, for better or for worse, we had to get together and I think as part of a reaction to that feeling I approached Moss Hart to see if we couldn't use the people who got together to establish a sort of a training program, an in-company training program. Because the air force expected us to know about map reading and shooting and all that goes with being in the air force, but I wondered perhaps if this collection of people couldn't be used for sharing our information. After all we have the greatest lighting man in the country, the greatest scenic designer, the greatest musicians and conductors. David Rose was conducting the orchestra. We had the greatest arrangers, it was sort of the Noah's Ark of show business, in fact it used to be called Moss's Ark. I said, why don't we pick each other's brains, why don't we set up a program where we can learn from each other and then when the show breaks up we go our various ways and do things at various army camps. Based on rounding out our experiences. And he agreed and we set up a program where, David Rose did teach music and Earl Rogers did teach choreography and Louis Hippe taught make-up and the cream of everybody taught each other and I set up the lecture program. Moss Hart taught directing, Lillian Hellman taught playwriting ... one of our guest lecturers was Fredric March on acting, you know, we had whoever was around to come and contribute to .. preparing us for what happens after the show breaks up.
And this was your initiative?
Has it ever occurred to you that maybe this desire to teach and pass on ideas is a sort of compulsive thing though?
Probably is. It probably is part of the Messianic thing, you know.
But it also came from that experience that gave you both theatre, science, and teaching, at the Peabody House and of course here you were bringing the teaching into the theatre
Oh sure, sure, yes I think I was bitten early by a fellow by the name of Sir Norman Angell — a number of books and things have been rather influential I think. But Sir Norman Angell wrote a book called Let The People Know, the premise being that with informed backgrounds people can make their own judgements, they have a better chance of choosing wisely, and I think it was important for me to be able to think that if people had the wealth of information available to them, that whatever decisions they had to make would be based on sound footing. So if there was any problem arising I very frequently would say, yeah, but what's the root of it what's the basis of it? I get down to the origin of it and to a large extent I think this was the educational bug that still remains. I still believe that an informed society can be much more compassionate, it's a safer place to live.
So did your whole life in the army — as part of the propaganda machine, the information section — involve simply acting and being on stage? What else did you do?
Well I was kicked out of Winged Victory.
You were kicked out of Winged Victory?
What did you do?
Mutiny, that's what they said. No I did ... I stuck my neck out on behalf of a fellow who wasn't there to defend himself. He was the only black man in the company and he was, he was, kicked out because he defied orders. He marched with the troops when we got to Hollywood ... he had been forbidden to march with the troops because the troops were all white and he was the only black man there. So he marched anyway through the streets when we arrived in Hollywood, in LA. And shortly after that he was kicked out, and then a little kerfuffle started around his eviction and I became involved in it. So, having done my little protest or whatever, I was regarded as non-desirable and I got my transfer as well. So I went on to army bases: in one place I was a buck private or a PFC [Private First Class] by that time, in charge of the officers' club or handling special services at one other place where I provided recreation, entertainment for the troops and at the same time was given the orientation classes to take. Every fortnight or month, I forget, we'd get a circular, an army talk, which was the topic for discussion. It could be anything from how to avoid getting syphilis to how to keep your rifle clean, or some ridiculous proposition that I had to lead as a discussion, sort of thing. So these were the things that I found myself doing.
The fact that you'd been a troublemaker didn't prevent them from letting you loose on fresh recruits?
Well, it's a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. The ... I don't think the people who put me in charge of information, education and special services bothered to look at my record other than 'here is a guy that has been in show business, let's use him.’ It was after they sent me to special services school at Washington University in Virginia that I came back with good marks and they decided, ‘Hey, would you like to go to Intelligence school?’ I said, ‘Me? Intelligence? I hate spies but let's have fun.’ So they went in to get my records and this time they had a good look at them ... [laughs] ... The ... it was a lieutenant that came back pale, he said, ‘My God, what have we done? On your record is a little notation which says, “not to be placed in any position where he can influence the opinions of others.”’ So I didn't go to Intelligence school.
Maybe that isn't a bad comment on you generally, maybe you are a little bit powerful with the influence you bring to bear?
I am a stirrer, I admit it. I love stirring, of course. But then if you don't, people become complacent and they accept anything that is handed to them. It's like I said with the students, if I am an authority figure, if I am a teacher and I make some sort of pronouncement, people are going to take it literally, build a doctrine around it and that's how cults form. I think people who make up their own minds, who judge on the basis of whatever information is available, are the safe people to live with. I think this is something that makes people civilised and I can't say I'm being dedicated or altruistic about it, I am being very selfish about it. I don't want to live in a turbulent community. You know I love the quality of life, I don't want to feel that there are have-nots next door who are desperate, who are going to break my windows. So common-sense dictates that everybody lives companionably with each other, that's the meaning of civilisation, based on the word civic, meaning city. The ability to live in a city, live cheek by jaw with somebody in peace. And I like peace, so I suppose just to feather my own nest I think it's important to ensure people around you are not going to be in need or whatever.
So when the army realised they had somebody who'd been labelled as potentially dangerous on their hands what did they do with you?
Well, they just quietly gave me back my job putting on shows for them and still handling information and education.
Handling that information and education, did you get the chance to do any stirring there?
No, I think I was more on the receiving end of stirring because so many of the people I then began to deal with were people who ... were troops that came back. You see, before then, I was more in the position of saying, ‘get in there and fight, this is what you are fighting for, the right to eat strawberries and cream, the right to defend your women-folk from being raped,’ you know, we in the United States being threatened by that sort of thing, but after that, after, well later in the piece, I was dealing with troops that had come back from combat, and they were the ones who'd taught me ... one batch of troops I recall had come back from Europe and they were complaining about the fact that they hadn't had a chance to bomb the Krupp factories, and the excuse being that there was so much slave labour in the Krupp factories, and yet they bombed other factories, they bombed other places where there was slave labour and they couldn't quite understand it. Then one of them produced a cutting from a New York Times which said, 'The banks of England, the banks of America, the bank of Germany, the bank of Italy, etc, have all met in Switzerland to declare their annual dividends.' I said, how do you reconcile this? I couldn't, I didn't have any answers, but I got a little wiser from having dealt with them I suppose.
Was there any aspect of the work you did while you were in the propaganda area, information area, that you felt proud of, that you felt that you'd done something a bit special?
Yes, yeah, yes, unfortunately it cost a brilliant man his job, but you know we had been in the war for about almost four years and what it was that we were fighting for had never really been defined. We were fighting the enemy, we were fighting the nasties but what made them nasty, who were they? When I got to the school, the special service school, the fellow in charge of the school whose name was Colonel Herzberg — I'll never forget him — gave a lecture on fascism. For the first time I heard the definition of fascism and it was illuminating and then I knew that he was the one who circularised the army talks, and afterwards I said to him, ‘why isn't this in one of the army talks, because the troops think they are fighting for the right to eat blueberries when they want them?’ He said ‘ well, um ... um ...,’ anyway a couple of months after I got back to base, lo and behold, his lecture was there, ‘Army Talk 64.’ and the usual army talks were single folder sheets, four pages. This one was eight pages and it really went into chapter and verse defining fascism, defining the politics behind it, the economics behind it, the genesis behind it; the whole thing was the most illuminating political science lecture I'd ever seen. So I got onto the troops with this one, of course, and felt proud that I felt that I had stirred Herzberg to do it — except government, the Congress, erupted. People got up in Congress and said, ‘why, according to this here definition, some of us gentlemen could be considered fascist,’ and somebody else would say, ‘well if the shoe fits’ and then it would be on for young and old, something that parliament that is Congress rarely does you know. Listening to Australian parliament it's, it's ...
Debating philosophies and fears.
But Congress doesn't, they're very gentlemanly in Congress, but this really created a ruckus, and the consequence was that Herzberg was relieved of his position and sent somewhere to a safe post in Europe where probably he couldn't have influenced the opinions of others either, but I was rather proud of that.
What happened after the war, for you?
Well, immediately after the war, well when I was discharged, I came back to Broadway and went up to Hammerstein's office and he said, ‘Oh, what a pity, if you'd been here just a few days ago because we've cast everything.’ ‘Even the chorus?’ ‘Well there is one thing, there's a bit part in it, which means the chorus, but also a bit player but that's not cast, would you want to do that?’ I said, ‘I'd love to do it.’ He says, ‘unfortunately we have to have Jerry (this is Jerome Kern) look at everybody, approve everybody.’ I said, ‘well is it possible?’ and he said, ‘I'll get Jerry down tomorrow morning, he'll be at the theatre, at the Ziegfeld at 10 o'clock tomorrow morning, and I'll ask Jerry if he'll come over and have a look.’ He says, ‘I think it'll be all right.’ So I was down Ziegfeld at 10 o'clock the following morning and I waited, and I waited and 11 o'clock came and no Jerry. The accompanist was there, no Jerry. About 11:15, Hammerstein came in pretty breathless and he said, ‘they found Jerry in Park Ave, he had a heart attack — he'd decided to walk across town — he had a heart attack, they've taken him off to hospital, we don't know if he'll live.’ So of course, how would I feel, you know he came down expressly to audition me, anyway he died shortly after that, and Jerome Kern had come back to Broadway because Hammerstein wanted to do a production of Annie Get Your Gun and he thought Jerome Kern would be the one to compose it, compose the music for it. Well, with Jerome Kern dead, who was going to compose the music? So they went and got Irving Berlin instead. And for years afterwards I was told, ‘you bastard, if it hadn't been for you, we would have had a score by Jerome Kern, instead of Berlin. These silly things happen, but I got back into show business. During rehearsals, incidentally, my father died — he had a stroke up in Boston, I went up to see him. In those days in Boston if you had a stroke there was no special, specialised hospital where one could put you. They put him into the mental institution along with psychos and that's where I saw him last and he died. I came back to New York, I remember Hammerstein asking ‘how's your father?’ and I said ‘oh he died,’ and Hammerstein couldn't quite understand how I'd taken it with so much equanimity. I think he did understand in the long run because he knows that when one copes one puts on a cover, one even makes a joke of things, but that was pretty heavy-going. We played Show Boat for a year at the Ziegfeld Theatre during which time I'd heard that another show was going to be done, which might have been suitable for me. Auditioned for that, Brigadoon — the stage manager of Show Boat was a fellow who's now a very close friend, Bill Hammerstein, and Bill said there's a show coming up. We went out for coffee and hamburgers after the show, he said, ‘I'll tell you what, there's a show coming up you might be interested in, this Alan Lerner fellow occasionally has gone over to see dad to get some ideas for a script that he is writing, and it sounds interesting, it's a sort of a fantasy. You might like to go for that.’ So I as soon as I heard that Brigadoon was auditioning I ran down real quick and got into the show and found myself understudying the lead this time. And then when the lead went off I took over for a little while and in time went out on the road with the show for about a year. But before, between leaving Brigadoon on Broadway and going out on the road with it, I also did a few other shows, Sleepy Hollow, Small Wonder, Along Fifth Avenue. where now I was no longer understudying anybody, just somebody in my own right. My first star billing actually was in Sleepy Hollow. What a feeling that was to see your name up on the board there. Wow.
What was happening to other aspects of your life at this time you were a young man ... were there women in your life?
Careful, none of your business, except to say that yes, when I was at Paper Mill, I became engaged to one of the girls who was there. We married shortly after Oklahoma! opened and we had one daughter. I don't think Katrina [his wife then] would mind me telling you this aspect of it. In Winged Victory we were all on army pay and here we were living in New York, I'm going back now. And they thought it would be a good idea to augment the salaries a little bit, if there were any wives or husbands around, to have the wives join the Winged Victory company. So there was one part of it where the WACS [Women’s Army Corps] walked across stage and around that time there was a kerfuffle about WACS becoming pregnant and being kicked out of the army and so forth. Well, Katrina was one of the WACS who went across stage and about this time she was about four months gone, maybe five months, and when they went across stage of course the audience roared, so she had to be kicked out of the show. But my daughter was born in March of '44 and so consequently when I got out of the army, the family got back together again We broke up our arrangement, we are still good friends, but we broke up our marriage about '47, '48, I think. It was one of those things.
Did you continue to see your daughter?
Yes, I still do, I mean I see her on the telephone every few weeks. But she lives in New Jersey, she's a social worker, and she came out here a few times. There was a This is Your Life production that my wife sneakily organised. Helen [Terry] is a great organiser and I didn't know it but Kati was transported out here temporarily, she and my grandson, and I saw them here for one of those rare times. I've seen her a few times since having left New York.
Back in New York and your show business career really happening for you, you had a little family to support during this time you broke up, what was happening to your political ideas? Because you ... that was a fairly strong aspect of your young life.
Yes, well first of all, reflexively, one can imagine that whatever political ideas I did have would rather challenge authorities. The prevailing glow after the war was, we had fought for something and now let's see this something happening, and a lot of the veterans would ... ... [interruption] ...
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