Friday, January 29, 2016

(January 25, 1901 - July 5, 1991)

The character actress, best known for her creation of the stage roles of Linda Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Big Mama in Tennessee Williams's Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, was a native of Baltimore.  She began her education in Baltimore's public schools and credits her interest in the stage to a Western High School English teacher who forced her to overcome her shyness to play the part of Gwendolyn Fairfax in Oscar Wilde's
The Importance of Being Earnest.

Her father overrode her theatrical aspirations and she began teaching which was considered the "only career besides marriage for a Southern girl."  While teaching she acted in her spare time with the Vagabond Players and the Johns Hopkins University troupe, where she played opposite John Van Druten in his The Return Half.  While pursuing a master's degree at Columbia University she became involved with Columbia's Morningside Players "just for fun," but in 1932 their production of Life Begins moved to Broadway.

She created the role of Miss Ronberry in Emlyn Williams's
The Corn is Green, which starred Ethel Barrymore (November 26, 1940); the role of the shrinking Lavinia Hubbard in
Another Part of the Forest which was directed by Lillian Hellman; Madame Tsai in Lute Song with Mary Martin (1945); Rose in
Foolish Notion with Talullah Bankhead; and Etta Hallam in The Hallams (1948).  She reprised her role in the film version of The Corn is Green (1945).

She won the coveted role of Linda Loman in Miller's Death of a Salesman after Lillian Hellman suggested her to the producer in spite of the fact that the producer didn't think the diminutive Dunnock was right for it. She auditioned anyway in full padding to match the playwright's description but played the role without the padding when the burly Lee J. Cobb was cast in the leading role.  Brooks Atkinson praised her performance. "Mildred Dunnock gives the performance of her career as the wife and mother--plain of speech but indomitable in spirit (New York Times,  1949).
          She reprised the role in the film and Bosley Crowther titled her Linda simply superb, as she was on the stage. She herself called Linda Loman "one of her finest experiences."

She followed Salesman with In the Summer House, directed by
Jose Quintero and starring Judith Anderson. In 1955 she returned to the
Morosco Theatre for the premiere of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  She was thrilled to exchange her image as a fluttering, timorous woman for the character of Big Mama. Critic Walter Kerr noted she was as "startlingly fine in an unfamiliar sort of role: the brash, gravel-voice outspoken matron": and Brooks Atkinson added  "an actress of modesty and great purity of spirit, Miss Dunnock has thus spoken the minds of the two leading dramatists of the forties."

Other characters included Vera in Williams's
The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, Mary Tyrone in
Long Day's Journey Into Nightand in May 1970 she played Sido to Zoe Caldwell's Collette at
Ellen Stewart's La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, New York.  She also appeared in
Ring Round the Moon at the Circle in the Square Theatre (NY) followed the next year by Madame Pernelle in the Circle's Tartuffe.

Film and television roles were substantial.   When asked which medium she preferred, she laughed and said, "I love to work!" However she added that on stage "the actor controls the medium much more than other forms...and it can only happen at that moment." (Cue Magazine, 1970).

She became a member of the Actors' Studio in 1949.  Because of her friendship with Lillian Hellman, Elia Kazan, and Arthur Miller she was briefly blacklisted in the 1950s.  Until the 1960s she taught at various schools including Barnard College and the Yale University School of Drama.

She believed that her acting and teaching careers were made possible "by an undemanding, encouraging husband...and my own energy and need.  It has given me many lives to live."
Reviewers often commented on her modesty, suggesting that the characters she played are always better known than the actress. To this observation she replied,"I like to play parts that are not like myself. I'm not in the least bit exciting. I'm an ordinary person in an ordinary life, but in my imagination there's no stopping me." (New York Times, September, 1976)

She received two Academy Award nominations: Death of a Salesman in 1951 and for her memorable performance in the film version of Williams's Baby Doll in 1956.

In 1976  New York Times writer Warren Hoge called her "an institution among first-nighters, the creator of several major characters in American dramatic literature, a performer studied and revered by younger actors and actresses."

Resource:  Notable Women in the American Theatre.  Stacy A. Rozek

Wednesday, January 27, 2016


                                 (January 25, 1896 – November 1, 1927)

“The Queen of Happiness”

Born in Washington, D.C., she performed in the homes of diplomats as  “Baby Florence” at an early age.   She made her first stage appearance when she was five in Bert Williams and George Walker’s Sons of Ham, a performance about which the Washington Star noted, “Baby Florence made a big hit and was encored for her dancing.”

In 1910 she joined her two sisters, Olivia and Maude, in a musical group called The Mills Sisters, touring the country in various vaudeville troupes.

After marrying Ulysses S. (“Slow Kid”) Thompson, she left her sister act to perform with him.


          Her breakthrough occurred when Noble Sissle and EubieBlake’s Shuffle Along, lost its leading lady Gertrude Saunders in 1921. 
She delighted audiences with the song “I’m Crazy for that Kind of Love.”  The show was presented at the Sixty-Third Street Theatre, since no Broadway theatre was available.  It became so popular that there were traffic jams on Sixty-Third Street every night.

Mills became known as “Little Twinks,” for she was a petite, delicate woman, described as “birdlike and beautiful,”  Poet James Weldon Johnson

said of her, “She could be whimsical, she could be almost grotesque; but she had the good taste that never allowed her to be coarse.  She possessed a naivete that was alchemic.”.   Mills’s talents as a mime, singer, dancer and comedienne became known to the theatrical world at large and she became an international star.

In From Dixie to Broadway (1924) she shattered the tradition that black musicals should have two male comedians as the central characters. As the lead in Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds (1926) she sang a song written for her which became her trademark “I’m Just a Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird.”

When she returned to Harlem after a whirlwind European tour, she checked into a hospital for an appendectomy she had previously postponed and died several days later.  Her funeral inspired one of the largest crowds and outpourings of grief in the history of Harlem. Five thousand people were packed in Mother Zion Church, while 150,000 waited outside for the funeral procession. 

A testimony to the stature of Florence Mills can be found in Ethel Waters’ autobiography, His Eye is on the Sparrow (1951).  She had replaced Mills in Shuffle Along but she wrote, “Broadway and all downtown belonged to Florence Mills.”

Resource:  Notable Women in American Theatre. 1989

Johnson, James Weldon.  Black Manhattan. 1968

Monday, January 11, 2016

(January 11, 1899 - June 3, 1991)

"She evokes another age...a time when Leonardo (Da Vinci) lay for hours watching one tiny flower unfold, when living itself was a fine art. It is quite possible to picture Miss Le Gallienne, five years from now, bending her slender neck over a book in some quiet garden. She will have heavy earrings of turquoise or carved gold in her ears and her own strange beauty like a pale little Russian princess...."
      Rena Gardner, reporter, Boston Herald

An actress, director, producer, translater, playwright and feminist, she was born in London surrounded by art and literature. Her father was the noted poet Richard Le Gallienne; her beautiful Danish-born mother, Julie (Norregaard) Le Gallienne left Richard and took young Eva and her sister Hesper to Paris.  Eva was drawn to the theatre at a very early age and was particularly impressed by the acting of Sarah Bernhardt.  Lacking the money to buy Madame Bernhardt's 800 page Memoires, she borrowed it from a friend and copied the entire book by hand!   The great British actress Constance Collier gave her her first acting lessons.
         Her first major disappointment (at age 12) occurred when she was forced to turn down an invitation from renowned actor William Faversham to travel to America and perform Lucius in Julius Caesar starring Ms. Collier as Portia.  A few years later she made her professional debut when she "walked on" as Collier's page in Maurice Maeterlinck's Monna Vanna.
                      Her studies continued at Herbert Beerbohm-Tree's Academy in London (it became the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art).  Hailed as a "brilliant new comedienne," she played the role of a cockney servant in The Laughter of Fools  aka The Rotters at the Prince of Wales Theatre (1915).

      She and her mother sailed to America in 1915. After minor roles in unmemorable plays and some bouts with unemployment she performed in a series of plays with such stars as Maxine Elliott and
Ethel Barrymore whom she admired and helped her develop her craft.  Her next major success was as a French girl (speaking only French) who was Elsie Janis's partner in the 1919 production of
Elsie Janis and Her Gang.

She had dreamed about playing Julie in a version of Ferenc Molnar's Liliom and finally in 1921 her dream came true. The play was so successful it moved from the Garrick Theatre to a larger theatre and it ran for over a year.  She toured in Liliom (1922-23). Following a period of rest, she returned to Europe, visited several cities, met Molnar in Vienna and returned to New York to perform in Liliom for another season.

One of her most memorable roles was the princess in Molnar's elegant comedy The Swan. It provided her with a wonderful acting opportunity as well as the chance to return to Europe to purchase her gowns.  In London she saw Eleonora Duse perform and was  so impressed  that she developed a close friendship which would ultimately lead to writing a  biography of Duse (The Mystic in the Theatre, 1966).
       .When the Actors' Equity Association strike curtailed the run of The Swan,  she decided to join Jasper Deeter's experimental Hedgerow Theatre in Moylan, Pennsylvania.  There she starred in her first Ibsen roles and became one of the foremost interpreters and translators of his plays.  The  Hedgerow Theatre inspired her to form The Civic Repertory Theatre at 107 W. 14th Street. Ocotber 25, 1926.


The opening ot The Civic Repertory Theatre was one of the major events in the American theatre of the 20th century. She renovated an old theatre which was affordable in its location. She produced as an actress and director such classics  as Chekhov's The Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard, and The Sea Gull; Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet; an adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland; Ibsen's The Master Builder, John Gabriel Borkman and Hedda Gabler and James M. Barrie's Peter Pan (in which she played Peter and took her curtain call by flying over the heads of the audience into the balcony.) Many of the plays were seen by American audiences for the first time.

Hedda in Hedda Gabler         Robert Lewis saw her play Hedda Gabler many times and reported that

     "When she said 'bored, bored, bored,' it shook the walls of the theatre."  She believed that Hedda should be played with "truth, pace, humor, and excitement."  In the preface to her translation, she wrote: "Try to imagine the impact of Hedda on an audience that knew nothing about it; an audience that had not been told for fifty years by innumerable critics what to expect, what to think, what to feel...The suspense must have been unbearable...The play is short, but when the curtain falls we are intimately acquainted with every one of the characters involved, this is typical of Ibsen's genius."
The Nation chose her along with Charles Lindbergh for its honor roll of 1927 and sponsored by the National Woman's Party who sent her a congratulatory telegram conveying their delight "that this honor has gone to a woman who is a Feminist as well as an artist."
           She had already won the Pictorial Review prize and a cash award of five thousand dollars, given for the most outstanding achievement by an American Woman in the arts, letter, science, industry, or social science, the first actress to receive the award.
          In her autobiography she wrote "In my speech of thanks I tried to make clear the fact that I had been completely and utterly selfish. I had done what I wanted to do, the way I wanted to do it."

Despite popular and critical success, there were financial difficulties and in 1933 the theatre was disbanded. Her first autobiography At 33 (1934) contains her passionate defense of the repertory system.
         "In the theatre there are plays which you cannot possibly understand or get full benefit from seeing them played just once.  You go to a play like The Master Builder or The Cherry Orchard or Hedda Gabler, you see it once and you say 'I have seen the Master Builder and I don't understand it, therefore there must be nothing in it.'  Go back. Think about it. After all the fruit of a man's life such as Henrik Ibsen cannot be devoid of everything. If you fail to get anything from it, it is your fault and not Henrik Ibsen's.  She fervently believed that "everywhere in the country there will be a People's Repertory Theatre, a theatre created by the people, so that in the lives of their children may flow some of the beauty that springs from knowledge."

For several years she had been planning to return to the repertory plan and in 1946 she co-founded the
American Repertory Theatre with her long-time friend Margaret Webster and producer Cheryl Crawford.  Unfortunately the absence of strong support from the critics and severe financial problems, repertory plans were abandoned.
The company revived Alice in Wonderland which played for a long run.

She wrote her second autobiography With a Quiet Heart in 1953 and wondered if "there is any longer a place for me in the American theatre..." However she continued to act in many productions and nationwide tours and in 1955 appeared on television including Alice in Wonderland for the Hallmark Hall of Fame. With undiminished energy she established the National Repertory Theatre in 1959 and toured until 1964. She also co-produced a number of plays at the White Barn Theatre in 1966; performed at the American Shakespeare Theatre Festival in Stratford, CT' directed Ibsen's A Doll's House at the
Seattle Repertory Theatre and at the age of 76 performed on Broadway with Rosemary Harris,
Ellis Rabb directing, in the revival of Kaufman and Hart's comedy about the Barrymores--The Royal Family.  In 1980 she starred in To Grandmother's House We Go in Houston, Texas and received a Tony nomination for her performance when the play was produced in New York (1980-1981). She amazed audiences when she revived Alice in Wonderland in 1982, playing the White Queen and made a flying entrance, reminiscent of her triumphant entrance as Peter Pan.
       She never hid her lesbianism inside the acting community, but reportedly was never comfortable with her sexuality, struggling privately with it. She even briefly considered arranging for a "front" marriage with actor Basil Rathbone (on whom she had a crush). During the early days of her career she often was in the company of witty, possibly bisexual actresses like Tallulah Bankhead and
Estelle Winwood.  In 1918 she began an affair with the great actress Alla Nazimova who was at the height of her fame.  Even though the affair ended, Nazimova introduced her to many influential people She was also madly in love with married actress Josephine Hutchinson and later with Margaret Webster.
       In Helen Sheehy's brilliant, detailed, well researched biography of Eva Le Gallienne, she quotes Le Gallienne's words of advice to her close friend May Sarton, also a lesbian. "People hate what they don't understand and try to destroy it. Only try to keep yourself clear and don't allow that destructive force to spoil something that to you is simple, natural, and beautiful."

      Her numerous honors include honorary degrees from ten colleges including Tufts and Smith. She was presented with a special Tony Award in recognition of her 50th year as an actress and in honor of her work with the National Repertory Theatre in 1964.  The National Endowment for the Arts recognized her achievements with the National Medal of Arts in 1986. And for her role in the film Resurrection she won the National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actress and received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.


On opening night  Eva Le Gallienne was weak and having difficulty breathing after suffering with bronchitis. A doctor gave her treatments in the wings between scenes. In black-and-white gowns designed by Helene Pons, a dark, curled upswept wig, and dangling jeweled earrings, she had a "majestic radiance and beauty."  She held nothing back and was rewarded after the performance with ten curtain calls, cheering with wild shouts of joy. "It was her own Lady of the Camellias," said one critic, "which did not mimic the traditions of Bernhardt and Duse...It was Eva Le Gallienne in the greatest performance of her career and the audience at the Civic Repertory Theatre, which stood three deep in the rear of the orchestra, applauded without stopping to remove tear stains from cheeks and nose."      Brooks Atkinson: "If you see a mob pressing impetuously about the portals of the Civic Repertory Theatre these winter evenings, you probably will find that the bill is Camille with Miss Le Gallienne expiring into sweet and silken limbo at the end of act four.  It is a major hit that turns 'em away at the box office."

There have been so many books, articles, interviews and discussions about her life and her work but there is one quote in which  Eva LeG (her nickname) defines her belief in art vs. commerce.
     "Actors should be free, rebellious spirits.  The insensitive and rapacious curiosity which has nothing to do with the true love of the theatre has done much to making creatures who should be artists mere peacocks without brains and without souls."

RESOURCES:   Wikipedia.  Notable Women in the American Theatre. 1989 Yvonne Shafer
Le Gallienne, Eva.  At 33, an autobiography. 1934
Le Gallienne, Eva.  With A Quiet Heart, an autobiography. 1953
Le Gallienne, Eva  The Mystic in the Theatre: Eleonora Duse. 1966
Schanke, Robert A.  Shattered Applause The Eva LeGallienne Story. foreword by May Sarton. 1992
Sheehy, Helen.  Eva Le Gallienne A Biography.  1996


Wednesday, January 6, 2016

(January 8, 1911 - April 26, 1970)

SING OUT LOUISE! Without her and her mother, GYPSY, the musical, would never have been born.

She was born Rose Louise Hovick; her birthplace was somewhere on the West Coast. When her famous Mama Rose Hovick divorced her father, she and her younger sister Ellen June (who became June Havoc) began to live with their grandparents in Seattle. Music and dance lessons upstaged a formal education. The sisters made their stage debut at a local Knights of Pythias lodge (their grandfather was a member) and the act was so well-received that their mother was encouraged to arrange bookings in other lodges in the area.

In 1922 they were on the Pantages vaudeville circuit, billed as Baby June and Her Pals. Within two years the act included six boys and various animals and became Dainty June and Her Newsboy Songsters.  Booked onto the prestigious Orpheum circuit  her sister Baby June, a talented dancer known as the "pint-sized Pavlova" was the STAR!  Next to June, Rose Louise looked overweight, but she was good-natured and sang "I'm a hard-boiled Rose," dressed in boys clothes.
      When June eloped with one of the newsboys, Mama Rose restructured the act starring Rose Louise  called Rose Louise and Her Hollywood Blondes.
     By 1929 with the fade out of vaudeville and the emergence of talking pictures, the Hovick company were without funds.  So, always a survivor, Mama booked the troupe into a burlesque house and  the newly named Gypsy Rose Lee performed her first solo strip at the age of fifteen.

Embarrassed by her height, general lack of grace and low self-esteem, she would end her act demurely, wrapping the curtain around herself. (The business with the curtain plus the tossing of a rose attached to a garter into the audience would become her trademark.)
     By 1931 she was a star, headlining at Minsky's burlesque house in New York and in 1936 she had starred in the Ziegfeld Follies.
She used her height to advantage, developing an imposing carriage and her costumes were expensive creations, which could be shed with a minimum of vulgarity.  Bernard Sobel in his A Pictorial History of Burlesque compliments Gypsy (and Ann Corio) for making "undressing a ceremony with a special technique and nomenclature. The number itself was a combination of posing, strutting, dancing and singing punctuated from time to time by thrusts and twists of the abdomen called "bumps" and "grinds."
He goes on: " The various steps were known in succession as the "flash" or entrance, the "parade" or the march across the stage in full costume; the "tease," or increasing removal of wearing apparel while the audience, lusting for bed and body, shouted "Take 'em off. More. More"; and the climactic strip  or denuding down to the G-string, followed by a speedy retreat into the obscuring draperies before the police could move in."

While reveling in her stardom, she never tried to conceal the fact that her education had been haphazard. She had a lively, inquiring mind and while touring the country in her vaudeville days became an avid reader.  The thought of a stripper who could discuss philosophy and literature delighted members of the intelligentsia both here and abroad.  Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart paid homage to this paradox in their classic
musical number "Zip!" in Pal Joey (1940).

Hollywood offered her a contract. Eager though she was to star in pictures, appropriate vehicles were difficult to find. She made five films in two years, none of which were successful.
     She appeared in The Streets of Paris at the New York World's Fair in 1940.  Two years later, she enjoyed her biggest stage success in Star and Garter.
     The publication of her first book, a mystery titled
The G-String Murders in 1941 became a best seller. She also wrote Mother Finds a Body in 1942 and her play
The Naked Genius enjoyed a brief popular run for a month before it was closed by its producer Mike Todd. She was able to sell the film rights to Twentieth Century-Fox while the play was still in rehearsal.

She made few successful films which included Stage Door Canteen and
Belle of the Yukon.  Although the heyday of burlesque was ending, she could still draw huge crowds in burlesque houses and night clubs.

She continued to write articles published in magazines such as The New Yorker and Collier's but her most successful literary effort was the publication of
Gypsy: A Memoir (1957), written with great warmth and humor, about backstage life on both the vaudeville and burlesque circuits.

In Stage Door Canteen
Producers David Merrick and Leland Hayward bought the rights and commissioned Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents to do the music, lyrics, and book. The result was Gypsy (1959) one of the best of the 1950s musicals which starred Ethel Merman as Rose Hovick.

June Havoc, her talented sister, was interviewed in the Grill at
The Players several years ago.  When asked about her sister she said,"Gypsy was magnificent. She was such a startling presence. Enormous wit. Brilliant with quick come-backs and very stylish, very elegant, very different, but she did it the hard way.
She was out there stark naked, bumping and grinding along with the rest of the babes in the beginning until she decided she wasn't going to do that.  It was her intelligence and I know how much it cost her.
In 1937 very glamorous
The image she created which was a wonderful, fabulous thing for the rest of the world, wasn't the image she wanted but the image overtook her.  She couldn't crack it, she couldn't get out of it and she couldn't change it.  It was part of her."

Though she retired from burlesque runways in the 1950s, she continued to be active professionally in several cameo screen appearances, guest stars in TV series, and as the hostess of her own syndicated talk show. Her down-to-earth outlook, warmth, and personality won new admirers.  She also had a long history of involvement in liberal causes. Like Picasso,  she supported the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, a stand that earned her a subpoena from Martin Dies's notorious congressional committee. It was rescinded and she did not have to appear.

The author in a full length portrait
While her sister did not like the way she was portrayed in Gypsy, she was eventually persuaded (and paid) not to oppose it for her sister's sake. The play and subsequent movie deal (which starred Natalie Wood and Rosalind Russell) assured her a steady income.

Her death from lung cancer in 1970 robbed the American entertainment scene of one of its true originals.  While it is easy to dismiss her simply as a successful stripper, she was much more. Like Mae West, she was one of the first women to be able to make people aware that an appreciation of sex and of the human body was both healthful and good.

According to June, visibly moved,  "Cancer. It was pathetic and very horrible, that she should have gone in her fifties like that. And I always thought that was a costly thing. She was so famous and so loved and so funny and so wonderful and so in agony and dying when she shouldn't have."

Gypsy and June in 1964 (NYC)
Samples of her wit and warmth-----

"It's not what you do. It's the way you do it-stripping or writing, or talking..or just breathing. Do it with an air, and never admit you're scared."

"Men aren't attracted to me by my mind.  They're attracted by what I don't mind."

"I used to come home at night full of inspiration, and sit up with a bottle of scotch.  As I wrote, the words seemed wonderful, just too wonderful to be coming from me. Next morning I always found they were terrible and I could never use anything I wrote."

"She's descended from a long line her mother listened to."

"God is love, but get it in writing."

Resources:   Wikipedia, Biography of Gypsy Rose Lee
Sobel, Bernard,  A Pictorial History of Burlesque. 1956
Notable Women in the American Theatre. 1989  William Lindesmith
Unpublished transcript of Interview with June Havoc tape recorded by Mari Lyn Henry