September 1, 2016: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
On this date, September 1, 1932, James J. Walker resigned as New York City Mayor, following charges of graft and corruption in his administration. Nothing terribly new here. A corrupt politician, ho hum. No, my interest in this scandal is that someone had it in mind it would make a terrific Broadway musical. Thus Jimmy was born, a plump turkey that opened in 1969, one month prior to Thanksgiving. And yeah, I saw it.
Though Jimmy lacked the exclamation point, the show it most hoped to resemble was Bock and Harnick’s Fiorello! about another New York City mayor. A smash hit of a decade before, Fiorello! not only beat Gypsy for Best Musical, but tied with The Sound of Music and ran for three years. The real Fiorello LaGuardia, the 99th Mayor of New York City, was both a cuddly and formidable politician, best exemplified in the musical by its opening with “The Little Flower,” as he was famously known, reading the Sunday “funnies” over the radio during a newspaper strike, in order that New York City children wouldn’t miss out on the fortunes of Little Orphan Annie and the rest of her ilk. It seems a mystery that Jimmy’s creators thought a womanizing boozer would endear audiences the same way as Fiorello. Yes, Walker was renowned for his charm and his soubriquet was “Gentleman Jimmy,” which was the title of a song in — yes — Fiorello! But this was 1969 and Walker had been dead for a generation. Most didn’t remember him and those who did wanted to forget him.
Now if it had been the intention to make a musical about what makes a good man go bad, or to raise cynicism to its heights and craft a satirical musical about a bad man being the antidote for troubled times (after all, New York City in 1969 was no picnic), then maybe a different sort of tale could have been told. But no such lofty goals were on the minds of the group responsible for Jimmy. They sought an entertainment that would bring back the 1920s and its free-wheeling days of Prohibition on stage. Flappers, speakeasies, bathtub gin! Sounds like fun, right? It wasn’t. Clive Barnes in the New York Times wrote that it was “a musical with only three flaws — the book, the music and the lyrics.”
My odd fascination with this show is similar to that of theatre historian and author Steve Suskin, who has written: “What is it that makes some bad musicals of the 1960s more listenable than more successful, later shows?” He’s right, and even though the score is decidedly sub-standard, there are elements of it that are highly enjoyable. For one, it featured two grand leading ladies of the musical theatre, Anita Gillette and Julie Wilson. The title role, however, was played by the not-so-grand Frank Gorshin, known at the time as a comedian with the ability to do uncanny imitations of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, among many others. He was also the comic villain, The Riddler, on the cult TV series, Batman. He wasn’t much of an actor, and truth be told, was far down on the list of actors approached first, as I recall, even after all these years, reading gossip columnist Earl Wilson in the New York Post reporting almost daily on everyone who had been asked (and turned down) starring in the show. Of course, it’s not as if they had gotten Robert Preston, or some other brilliant performer, would have made any difference.
The other reason Jimmy has stuck with me for years, is because as a freshman in college at SUNY Purchase I met a fellow classmate who had a strange obsession with the show. We hit on it almost immediately, like two survivors of the Titanic. We even tried to figure out if we were at the same performance as thirteen-year-olds. His name was Christopher Gorman, who became a lifelong friend, and who died way too early in 2001. I miss him every day and even have this framed picture that once hung in his home, happily on a wall in mine.
At Christopher’s funeral, his brother spoke about how as a teenager, Christopher had come home from Jimmy and taught the whole family, “The Walker Walk,” a Peter Gennaro choreographed “highlight” in Act One. Yes, it was a deep obsession. And when Christopher became a leading casting director at both Warner Bros. and later CBS, he managed to befriend Anita Gillette, who he eventually wrote a part for in a play that was posthumously produced in which she played his mother. This throwaway show had a world of meaning for Christopher.
You’ll notice I haven’t as yet mentioned the brain trust behind Jimmy. Its book was written by Melville Shavelson, a leading player in Hollywood as both a screenwriter, producer and director, for whom this was his one and only shot at the theatre. He was responsible for the 1957 biopic of Walker entitled Beau James, which starred a dapper Bob Hope. It’s not a bad movie and has a lively background score, uncredited for some reason. I listen to it on Spotify a lot. Jimmy’s music and lyrics were by a husband and wife team, Bill and Patti Jacob. The biggest credit in their Playbill bio stated that “their magic touch was felt on The Motorola Christmas Special.” ‘Nuff said.
As for the real James J. Walker, after his humiliation and humbling, he took off for Europe, married his mistress, and eight years later Fiorello LaGuardia himself appointed him labor arbitrator for the garment industry and thus Walker’s rehabilitation was born. Walker even returned to his former life in the music business (he had written a hit song fresh out of college, “Will You Love Me in December as You Do in May?”), as at the time of his death in 1946, he was president of the Majestic Records Company, which had bandleader and performer Louis Prima among its roster of artists.
As it turns out, while researching this column, I discovered that a park was named in memory of Walker a year after his death and happens to be around the corner from my favorite street in the entire borough — Commerce Street, home of the Cherry Lane Theatre. James J. Walker Park is on Hudson Street and if you care to check out the plaque dedicated to this invincible character and hum a few bars of “The Walker Walk,” first check out whether you can scrounge up a copy of the limited edition CD of the original Broadway cast recording of Jimmy that came out in 2009. Or you can borrow mine.
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