May 15, 2013

Marlene Dietrich, Burt Bacharach, and my father

My father
Recently a friend of mine posted a video on Facebook of German movie & cabaret star, Marlene Dietrich, singing Pete Seeger's "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" Now, there's something funny about this very beautiful, if a little cold & stiff (not unlike Nico), Germanic woman singing folk & pop songs. And the accent always topped it off. I've always found it funny. But Dietrich was quite a recording & concert (especially cabaret) star in her time...

After the laughter subsided, I told him my father - who, before settling down as a writer was a real life Broadway stage manager - had stage managed Dietrich in the first of two Broadway stints in 1967. She'd repeat the show again in 1968 before bringing it to television in the 70's. Anyway, it got me thinking, and I asked my dad to share his memories about the show and working with Ms. Dietrich. I hope you enjoy this:

By Daniel Broun for Stupefaction

To be a star on Broadway – to see your name above the title of the show – means that your name will sell more tickets than the name of the show. In the 1967-8 season some of the biggest stars on Broadway included Judy Garland, Ingrid Bergman, Melvyn Douglas and Burl Ives. Then, on October 9th, perhaps the biggest name to appear on the New York stage that season opened for a limited run of six weeks. She was Marlene Dietrich, film star and international celebrity then sixty-six years old who, if you were close enough to shake hands with her, looked forty-five. I can vouch for her appearance because I was the stage manager for An Evening With Marlene Dietrich, and I’m sure I shook hands with her when we started rehearsals, just as I’m certain that I did not shake hands with her at the end of the run. By then we weren’t speaking to each other.

Dietrich was an international celebrity whose friends included Ernest Hemingway, Noel Coward, Orson Welles, Gary Cooper, and John F. Kennedy. Her 1967 show on Broadway was to consist of an hour-and-a-half concert of 21 songs, most of which she’d sung in films. Her performance was arranged and conducted by composer Burt Bacharach who called Dietrich his “girl singer“ and led a 30-piece onstage band.

Bacharach proved to be a charming, talented man who often got to the theatre early – before I or anyone else did, in fact– – and composed new tunes. New songs by Burt Bacharach were and still are surprising and delightful.

My job as stage manager was to oversee everything that took place during the show – to supervise light and sound cues, to maintain order and quiet backstage, to solve any emergency that arose during a performance, and above all, to keep Marlene happy. I was equipped with a headset that kept me in touch with stagehands all over the theater, and most of the time I succeeded at calling the cues and tending to Marlene’s wishes, one of which, quite properly, was to prevent pictures being taken by members of the audience, especially by anyone using flashbulbs which crazes actors and anyone who has paid big money for tickets. Notice of this prohibition is both announced over the public address system before the curtain goes up and is printed in the Playbill. Nowadays, notice to silence cell phones is also given. But such notices are sometimes ignored.

One night, someone in Dietrich’s audience decided to disregard the ruling and began to click and flash away which, quite rightly, infuriated her. When she came offstage for a moment during her curtain calls she stopped at my desk and screamed at me to go out into the audience and stop the person taking pictures.

As it happened, as stage manager of Dietrich’s show I didn’t need and didn’t have an assistant whom I could either send out front to handle the problem or hand my headset to properly call cues for the rest of the show. So I handed the headset to her so that she could call the cues herself. My job was not as important as hers; still, it was necessary and, if ignored, would certainly have been noticed.

This incident occurred a few weeks before the end of Dietrich’s limited Broadway run, and during this period she and I never spoke to each other. We never spoke to each other again. We communicated with each other, by way of her dresser, but that was all, until closing night when she gave me a pair of gold cufflinks inlaid with precious stones. I still have them but have never used them.

The following theatrical season, Dietrich performed on Broadway again, and asked the producer to hire me again as stage manager. I was busy, however, and said no.


Jay Petersen said...

I enjoyed this story. I'm currently in the throes of a MD obsession. This was satisfying.

Joseph Andrews said...

Thank you for sharing your father's story! If he has any recollection of the dresser's name, or any photos of the cufflinks, I would love to know/see.

Tim Broun said...

Joseph - I'll ask him about the dresser's name & see if he remembers. I have the cufflinks(!) but not with me now. When I have a chance I'll try to take a photo or two of them. They're quite cool.

Angela Sanchez said...

Would love to see those cufflinks! Great story.

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