Auntie Mame or Mame

Mame or Auntie Mame as she was originally called has had quite the impact on my life over the years.  Auntie Mame was originally a novel by Patrick Dennis, a pen name for Edward Everett Tanner, and  was published on December 1, 1955 to a grateful public.  To be honest the book itself is rather dark in places and funny yes, but at times black humor.  The novel came to the attention of Lawrence and Lee, playwrights, they saw the potential of the novel and turned it into a hit play starring Rosalind Russell which opened at the Broadhurst Theater on October 31st 1956.  It was a huge success.  Russel would go on to Hollywood to star in the film version of the play in 1958.  In 1966, Jerry Herman, after his major success with Hello Dolly, which was originally a play called The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder. Set his hand to turning Auntie Mame into a musical, he fought to have Angela Lansbury as his leading lady and won.  And as a song from Jerry’s Girls goes, “The Winter Garden was sell out, when she played the hell out of Mame.”  In 1974 Mame would have one more incarnation as a movie musical starring Lucille Ball.  This is where I come in.

No I was in none of those productions, but I would have liked to have been.  If I lived in a different world maybe my folks would have seen my talent at being an actor and started me early.  I could have played a young Patrick or even the older Patrick a few years later.  My folks didn’t think like that.  As I explained in another blog I came across the original Soundtrack album of Mame in the bargain bin at The Bazaar Record Shop. 

What was that question?  What’s The Bazaar? The Bazaar was a sort of a mall.  Built in 1960 it housed between curtained off walls many independent stores.  There was a shoe store and shoe repair store, there was a bookshop, a candy store, a fruit stand, an Amish Market, a bakery, toy stores and hardware stores and a pet shop and many more.  If you couldn’t find it at The Bazaar, honestly it wasn’t worth having.

I spent a lot of time at the Bazaar growing up as it was just up the street and short walk through the woods to get there.  At first it was the toy store and book shop.  I could get comic books there that were out of date, so they were half price.  As I grew older it became less the toy store and more the record shop.  Being an old soul, I found myself going thru the bargain bins a lot.  I’d find music by The Lettermen, Bobby Sherman others whose time had passed.  It was here that I found Mame.

Mame as noted above starred Lucille Ball, and I love that woman.  I make the claim that Lucy was my first babysitter.  Well… Lucy and Jack Benny.  After my brother and sisters left for school, to get her chores done, mom put me in front of the TV to watch these two shows.  I think they became part of my DNA because Lucy and Jack feel like family to me.  As I got older, I could start watching Lucy on prime-time TV and no one missed Lucy on Monday nights at 9.  I also found out that there was a whole era of shows I missed.  I had seen all of I Love Lucy and never missed an episode of Here’s Lucy, but The Lucy Show, which aired in those years I had to go to bed at eight, I hadn’t seen.  Thank God for reruns.  I was able to see The Lucy Show and much to my surprise there was an episode that guest starred Jack Benny.  It remains one of my great moments in TV history.  Fact, in real life Lucille Ball and Jack Benny were neighbors.

I bought that bargain bin album of Mame and brought it home.  I played it constantly.  Before the week was out I think I had every song memorized.  Jerry Herman’s music was fantastic.  It’s Today, Open A New Window, My Best Girl, We Need A Little Christmas and If He Walked Into My Life were songs that I felt deeply about and still do. I didn’t know the story behind the songs, I only knew the music and that was enough for that moment.

I would get the book, and as I said above, it was dark humor to me and I didn’t see how the music could have come out of that.  Eventually I would see the film starring Rosalind Russel and that made sense.  Here was joy and life and happiness here was a woman I wish I had as an aunt.

Auntie Mame is the story of a woman who is left in charge of her orphaned nephew Patrick.  Mame is not exactly the motherly type.  Her lifestyle was that of a rich flapper in 1920s New York City.  She gave elaborate parties and was friends with all kinds of people.  It’s into this world that Patrick finds himself.  He arrives in the middle of one of Mam’s parties.  Though a bit out of his depth Mame loves Patrick from the start and does her best to raise him, but her ways and the trustees’ ways are different.  Mame is a Modern and the trustee a conservative.  After Mame enrolls Patrick in a school where all the children and teachers are naked, the trustee snatches Patrick away and puts him in a boarding school.

At that exact moment Mame’s troubles multiply as the Wall Street Crash of 1929 wipes her out financially.  She can’t do anything about Patrick unless she can make some money.  She agrees to do a show with her best friend Vera Charles a current stage star.  Now this is where we will depart from the straight version and go to the musical.  Mame plays the one-line role of the moon lady.  She needs to sit on a quarter moon cut out and let her rise.  Between the costume and the seat, she begins to fall off the moon and when she finally gets settled she can’t remember her line.  So ends her career in show business.

Mame contuse to try.  She becomes a telephone operator and other jobs until she finally ends up at Macy’s selling roller skates.  She can’t do this right either as all she can make out is sales slips for Cash on Delivery payment.  Into Macy’s walks Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside, a wealthy southern plantation and oil well owner.  He wants to buy a pair of skates and Mame gets caught modeling them for him.  She is fired.  In the film we see her trying to get thru Macy’s on one skate because the lace wouldn’t untie.  Miss Ball plays this kind of comedy well.

Mr. Burnside tracks Mame down to her apartment, feeling sorry for having gotten Mame fired, he invites her as well as the two servants Agnes and Ito and Patrick who is home for the holidays out to dinner.  Mame has found her man and her savior.

Our next scene brings Mame and Patrick to Beau’s Plantation where Mame dressed like Scarlett O’Hara meets Beau’s mother, family and his ex-girlfriend.  Mame is not well received by anyone and when she asked whether she rides, meaning horses, she brags that she does.  Not only does she ride but side saddle.  Beau’s Ex sees her chance, she knows Mame is lying to save face and so arranges a fox hunt for the next day.  Mame can’t even get her feet into the riding boots she is provided with but somehow, she gets on the horse and takes off.  Mame eventually falls off the horse but at the same time finds the fox sitting next to her she picks him up and nuzzles him.  Mame become the toast of the south.

Beau and Mame are married and spend many years touring the world with Patrick joining them during his summer breaks.  Patrick is growing up and getting involved with eligible society girls.  Mame is a bit put off by this.  She decides to go home and tells Beau.  It is at this point that Beau has climbed a little too high on the Mountain they were on he falls and is killed.

Mame comes home to NYC a wealthy widow.  She finds Agnes and Ito still there keeping it all going.  She finds Patrick engaged to woman that probably never had a thought of her own.  She makes up with Vera and together she and Vera team up on Mousy Agnes and turn her into a femme fatale.  The next time we see Agnes she’s pregnant.

It’s with Agnes that Mame makes her philosophy of life clear.  Agnes is afraid of the changes Mame wants to make in her.  Mame tells her to stop being afraid.  To Live.  “Live Live Live Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.”  Agnes goes a little too far and get pregnant but that’s what living is about.  We make choices and changes and we have to live with the consequences.  That’s true for all of us.  But the choices have to be made.  Sure, you can stay in a safe little bubble, but what good does that do anyone.  So you go out and you do something and it falls apart, so what, you try again, and again or you try something else.  Live this life to it’s full potential.  Every person no matter how bad things get can make a choice to make it a little better.  Rich or poor, young, or old we can all change our lives and make them count.  That’s the message in Mame and coincidentally also the message in Jerry Herma’s previous hit Hello Dolly.

Mame does take on Patrick’s new fiancé and makes short work of her at the same time finding Patrick a suitable new woman.  All of this is done in funny outlandish ways.  At the end of the movie, play musical we see Mame now older trying to convince Patrick to allow her to take Michael, Patrick’s son, to India with her.  She wants to show Michael all that she had showed Patrick.  She wants her grandnephew to LIVE.

The story of Mame is funny, it’s a little irreverent and totally off beat.  Most of us though would feel lucky to have an Auntie Mame in our lives.  My cousin Joanne was like that to me.  She was about 18 years older than I and had endured the first open heart surgery in The United States.  She and her family lived next store and Joanne was always trying different things and going different places.  She took me to my first professional theater show which was The Wiz and also to my second which was 42nd Street.  She gave me the best Christmas gifts always to do with what I was interested in.  She was a devout Catholic and when Godspell became a film she took the whole neighborhood to that.

I would come home form school and go right over to her house.  We talked about everything, and she really helped me through my teen age years.  She was also the only person I ever knew who had real gold table wear.  The knives and forks and spoons all of gold.  It was only for formal dining, but it was amazing to me.

The songs from Mame encourage me.  Open a New Window.  An invitation to try something you haven’t done before and not to worry about what other people think.  We Need A Little Christmas, Christmas is the happiest day on the planet for most of us, and sometimes between January and November we need a little of that spirit in our lives.  In A Christmas Carol Scrooge makes it clear after his ghostly visitors that he would keep the spirit of Christmas alive in his heart all the year through.

If He Walked Into My Life is a song of regret.  And we all regret things we’ve done and said.  We wonder if we had the chance to do it all over again would we make the same mistakes, could we have done any better.  We have to examine our lives not only to see where we’ve been but to know where we will end up.  That sometimes means changing courses.

Mame said Life is a banquet and I believe it is.  I can back that up with Biblical text.  Jesus said “I have come to give life and abundantly.”  In other words, the man who I believe came to save people from their sins and from an eternity in hell also came to give abundant life.  He came to give a banquet one which everyone on this planet is  invited to.  They just must accept his invitation.  That abundant fulfilled life is not just what will happen after we die but its’s to be lived out here on earth.  Christians should be the most alive people on the planet and many of them are.  Some are not and they get all the negative media attention.  Christians should be alive and loving.  They should be in the moment as Mame Sings about in the opening song It’s Today!  Christians should be the front runners in science and innovation and social justice and loving our neighbors well.  Christians should be giving the best parties, serving delicious food and drink, Jesus went to weddings and parties and dinners all the time.  He also drank.  Not to get drunk but for the flavor and for joy of it. Christians should be opening new windows all the time.

Many of us don’t.  We live in fear of what may happen or if we will get it wrong.  I’m as guilty as anyone of doing that.  But I’m trying to change that.  I’m a writer and if I can’t get hired to write I’ll write this blog till someone sees it.  I’m an actor and director and it’s in my heart to produce and direct Mame on stage.  I don’t know how or where but I think it can be done if I don’t become afraid.  I must open doors and windows I’ve never tried before.  But this is life abundant, and this is life’s banquet.  It’s here, it’s now and it’s for everyone.

Angela Lansbury

Angela Lansbury started her career in 1944 in the film Gaslight.  She played a conniving maid who was helping to make Ingrid Bergman’s character think she was insane.  She would go on to play many other roles at MGM in many important and memorable films such as The Harvey Girls, Blue Hawaii and The Manchurian Candidate.  Though relatively young she was often cast as the mother of an adult child and never the star of the movie always the back up.  At least in the films she is most well known for.

I came to know of Angela Lansbury in 1971 when Disney released its now classic film Bed knobs and Broomsticks.  The film was a musical adaptation of the book with the same title written by Mary Norton.  The title was slightly altered by Disney.  The book is called Bed knob and Broomstick which is more accurate as there is only one of each in the book.

The score and the songs for the film were written by Richard and Robert Sherman the same two men who gave us the music for Mary Poppins.

The story centered around an apprentice witch, Miss Price, played by Lansbury, who is coming to the end of her mail in course on witchcraft.  At the same time she is forced to take in three war refugees from London. The film is set during WWII.  They find out she’s a witch and threaten to expose her unless she gives them something magical.  She enchants a bed knob which will enable the bed to take the children anywhere they wish to go.  At about this time Miss Price receives a letter from her instructor telling her that the school of witchcraft is closed.  Miss Price needs the next spell in the course, as she believes she can help the war effort with it.  She asks the children to allow the bed to take them all to London so she can get the spell she needs, and the adventures begin.

I was ten when this film came out and it was a delight.  My imagination understood more about good witches than bad witches.  I had grown up on Glinda from The Wizard of Oz and Samantha from Bewitched.  I could easily understand a witch wanting to help with the war effort.  I was also reading comic books at the time and Dr Strange from Marvel and Dr Fate from DC were both powerful sorcerers.  I reveled in the magic of Bed Knobs and Broomsticks, so much so that as soon as I got home, I tried out the spell that Miss Price used to bring inanimate things to life.  Much to my disappointment the spell did not work.

With in a few years of this, in the bargain bins at the Bazaar Record Shop I found the soundtrack for the musical Mame starring Lucille Ball.  Now I loved Lucy.  Still do, and though I knew nothing about the movie I bought the album and brought it home.  I loved the music and I loved hearing Lucy sing.  I had no idea of the story, that would come later, but I loved that album and wore it out.  Soon I was able to find a copy of the book the movie was based on Auntie Mame.  I had to special order it.  It may have been a best seller in the 50s but by 1977 it wasn’t sought after much.  I gobbled that down and then bought the original Broadway cast Album of Mame and Angela Lansbury was back in my life.

Angela opened in Mame in 1966 at The Winter Garden Theater in New York City.  She electrified crowds with her performance of Mame Dennis and brought the house down.  Miss Lansbury stayed with the Broadway production for 1500 performances and would head up two national touring companies.  In the 1980s she would bring the show back to Broadway for its first revival.

I love Lucy and I love Angela, but the truth needs to be written here.  As much as I love Lucy and was enchanted by the album of Mame because it was her.  She had no business playing that part, Lucille Ball was 62 when she played Mame.  To make her look younger they used filtered lenses on the cameras.  Mame could be played by a fifty something woman believably but not by a 62-year-old woman who was in fact showing her age.

Angela Lansbury should have taken the role to the big screen.  She had over 20 years of movie credits to her name when she opened Mame on Broadway.  People knew who she was and would have gone to see her.  The problem was Lucille.  Miss Ball bought the rights for the movie for herself and had every intension of playing the role on her own.  She basically stole that from Lansbury and the resulting film, though not totally horrible was mediocre at best.  When VCRs and VHS tapes became popular Mame was the first one I bought and though I love Lucy the film proved to be a disappointment.

Miss Lansbury was not in any way finished with her career.  Her next big stop would be, as far as I was concerned, as Mrs. Lovett in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.  She would engross audiences in song while she baked dead human bodies into pies.  Miss Lansbury would receive her 4th Tony Award for her portrayal of Mrs. Lovett.  The other three were for Mame, Dear World and the Revival of Gypsy.

After taking on the big screen and Broadway it was in 1984 that Miss Lansbury would conquer the small screen in the role of Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote.  It was at this time that Angela Lansbury’s career became a main interest to me.  I was able to watch her in all of her movie roles including Blue Hawaii which starred Elvis Presley.  Never being a Presley fan this one was hard for me.  I watched Murder; She Wrote every week.  It was one of the few shows my parents and I agreed on.

Murder, She Wrote became an important show for many reasons.  I think the first is that it settled around older adults.  The over 50 population had few shows they could relate to on TV.  Angela’s character of Jessica Fletcher was the first in a line of shows that spotlighted older adults as stars.  The Golden Girls would follow in 1985, Matlock with Andy Griffith in 1986 and Diagnosis Murder with Dick Van Dyke in 1993.  Angela paved the way for all of these shows to become hits.  All though Murder, She Wrote would go off the air in 1996 after 12 season Angela would reprise the role of Jessica Fletcher for four made for TV movies.

In 1991 Angela would come back to big screen but this time as an animated teapot in Disney’s animated classic Beauty and the Beast.  Miss Lansbury would sing the title song and generation of children would grow to love her character as the motherly Mrs. Potts.

Angela kept going.  So many wonderful projects would follow.  The Shell Seekers for The Hallmark Hall of Fame. Mrs. ‘arris Goes To Paris where she plays a char woman who dreams of owning a designer gown and sees her dream come true.  And Mrs. Santa Claus where she plays the wife of the great man himself in a musical with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman the man who wrote Mame.

She would go back to the theater and win awards for her supporting role in A Little Night Music and Blythe Spirit.  In her 90s Miss Lansbury toured Australia with   James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy.  She would come back to the United States to play Aunt March in The BBC/PBS adaptation of Little Women and then play the small role of The Balloon Lady in Mary Poppins Returns.

I don’t know where Miss Lansbury will turn up next.  I do know that she has inspired me for years.  Her songs that are so heart felt have comforted me as she sings Beauty and the Beast or inspired me as she sings Open a New Window or It’s Today both from Mame.

Rosalind Russell played Mame first on stage in the n the non-musical version Auntie Mame.  She was the first to emphasize this life philosophy.  “LIVE LIVE LIVE, life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.”  But Angela would repeat that same philosophy over and over and then go on to live it.  She has proven that life is a banquet if we choose to see that way.  She has proven that at any age you can meet any challenge and still come out the victor.  She has proven that every day is a gift and to squander that gift is perhaps the greatest of sins.

I’m grateful for the talent of Angela Lansbury and I hope you are too.  I hope that her films and recordings will fill you with the same joy they fill me with.  And though in her 90s I hope that we will still see her grace our screens large and small.