In an earlier story on James Michael Curley we met Kate and Matt Jameson, a couple in their early 20’s. We also met Kate’s aunt and uncle, Kelly and Brendan McGrath, a sophisticated, successful and well-connected couple in their late 40’s. As we saw, Kelly and Brendan were mentors and role models.
The McGrath’s lived in and worked out of Boston, but spent considerable time out of town, especially in New York, Chicago and L.A. They had urgent business in Manhattan; and since it was the Jameson’s first anniversary, they asked them along to check out the nightlife.
The story that follows is part one of four episodes experienced on one not-soon-forgotten night in mid-1950’s Manhattan. A few years back, one of my relatives, a skilled diarist, showed me the stories to use as I wished. They are a poignant look at New York nightlife from a bygone era. Adaptation of style is limited; the story lines as originally written remain the same.
Kate and Matt schlepped their mismatched suitcases up out of Grand Central and down 44th Street. They checked in at the antique desk and creaked up six floors in the ancient elevator. Despite the brick-wall view and cot-sized bed, the room was cozy and the price was right. They were off to a good start in Gotham.
They met Kelly and Brendan in the lobby at seven. Kelly summoned a white-aproned waiter by smacking a service bell fastened to the oak table. The ring also brought out the storied Algonquin marmalade cat who got a good stroking from Kate. They sat in overstuffed furniture sipping drinks and picking fancy nuts from a silver dish. A piano in an adjoining room tinkled show tunes while Kelly regaled them with witticisms from the fabled Algonquin round table of Dorothy Parker, et al: “Brevity is the soul of lingerie.” “Tallulah, your show is slipping,” and so on.
Kelly then spread on the table four, sixth row center-orchestra, tickets for the musical The Pajama Game. Brendan said, “It’s convenient you’re so well-linked, Kelly.”
George owed me one; not being shy, I collected.”
On the way out, Kelly and Brendan were stopped by people at a nearby table. While they waited near the hotel entrance, Kate said, “I shouldn’t have done it, but last month when we were at Kelly and Brendan’s their appointment book was open near the telephone. While dialing a call, my eyes drifted helplessly. Not being nosy, just curious you understand I peeked. You should have seen the names, the meetings: George Abbott, who’s directing The Pajama Game, Lillian Hellman, Billy Rose, Averell Harriman. These two operate in the rarefied zones. As Margo Channing said, ‘Fasten your seat belts, this is going to be a bumpy night.’ Summon your savoir faire, Matt, this is New York headfirst.”
“Charm I can trot out. It’s the loot that has me worried. That round of drinks could have paid for the train tickets.”
Kate breathed, “Oh well, it’s only money.”
“Listen to Lady Astor.”
“Hey, we’re paying for real estate, plus the bowl of nuts, the cat entering on cue. Ambience ain’t cheap in this neck of the woods.”
“Right, you need a shoe box full of greenbacks. By the way, what’s The Pajama Game about, fooling around?”
“Sorry, no beds, it’s about life in a pajama factory.”
“I read in the Times that it’s a smash, good numbers and dancing. That song ‘Hey There’ that we heard on the radio is in it.
The four walked down 44th Street to the St. James Theater. The lobby was a swirl of fur-coated women on the arms of big butter-and-egg men. They pressed through to the good seats, opened their playbills and saw a notice stapled inside that stand-in Shirley Maclaine would play the female lead that night. People groaned and groused, but that ceased when Shirley appeared with her palpable talent, impish grin and the longest legs until the New York Motown lawyer gave them first-row tickets to Pippin twenty years later with lead dancer Anne Reinking front and center stage. (Holly wood discovered Shirley Maclaine in The Pajama Game and Jill Clayburgh through her role in Pippin.)
Eddie Foy Jr., in a sort of stage manager role, capered and sang patterish songs displaying all the loosey-goosey nonchalance that comes from growing up in vaudeville. Kelly said that John Raitt, the male lead, debuted on Broadway at age nineteen as Billy Bigelow in Carousel. If the St. James’ doors were open on this night, they would have heard Raitt’s sonorous, unamplified voice over the city din and all the way down Shubert Alley.
The dancers’ swivel-hipped body attitudes in the “Steam Heat” and Hernando’s Hideaway” numbers was like they had never seen before. Long after, they learned that Bob Fosse had been the choreographer and also one of the dancers. Later in his career, Fosse directed Pippin among other hits.
Dinner reservations next door at Sardi’s followed the curtain. The maitre d’ recognized Kelly and Brendan with head cock, arched eyebrow, flourish of menus and blandishments. After the performance, they were led to a choice banquette on the left side of the room. Vincent Sardi came by to kiss Kelly’s cheek and whisper a message in Brendan’s ear.
Kelly pointed out the caricatures of show people lining the walls: Alfred Drake in Kismet ; Rosalind Russell in Wonderful Town; Ethel Waters in Member of the Wedding; Tom Ewell in The Seven-Year Itch; Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer in Bell, Book and Candle; Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner in The King and I.
Kate and Matt were nose deep in their menus when Brendan suggested that he knew the house specialties and had a good idea of what they all liked. Matt and Kate jumped at that offer. Kelly said, “You can order anything you want for me, Brendan, just as long as it’s shad roe.” The junior members wolfed their meals while Brendan and Kelly carried the conversation. Brendan talked while eating at least as well as Spencer Tracy.
As they strolled up 6th Avenue walking off the gluttony, Brendan said to Kelly, “I wonder what Toots is up to? Joe may be there.”
Kate mouthed to Matt, “Who’s Toots? Who’s Joe?” Matt shrugged.
(To be continued in Part Two: Toots Shor; Joe DiMaggio.)
Noyes is the co-author of Larceny of Love, a print and e-Book novel.