While I was appearing as Cornelius Hackl in Carol Channing’s First Broadway Revival of HELLO, DOLLY! at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, Michael Stewart (who wrote the book) told me he was writing a new musical based on the Warner Bros. musical film, 42ND STREET.  Of course, I knew the film because I had seen it on late night TV and that it starred Ruby Keeler & Dick Powell.  Since Michael had told me I was his favorite Cornelius, I jumped right in and told him I’d love to play the Dick Powell role in the musical.  We never discussed it again.

About a year later, I got a call from my agent informing me that I had an audition for 42ND STREET.  The producer was the infamous David Merrick and the director/choreographer was the legendary Gower Champion.  I was told it was the role of Andy Lee.  I asked if that was the Dick Powell role and it wasn’t.  Andy Lee was a choreographer in the story about 40 years old, on the tough side and didn’t have a solo number.  The casting director thought I was too old for the Dick Powell role of Billy Lawlor.  Needless to say, I was so disappointed and didn’t want to take the audition.

As I was talking with my agent, my partner, Bob, who is now my husband kept writing on a piece of paper ‘take the audition’ and underlining it.  I hung up the phone and asked Bob, “Why should I audition for a role I don’t want to do?”  He answered, “Just go in and show them what you can do!”  It was good advice.  I booked the audition.

The audition was on the stage of the Winter Garden Theatre on 50th & Broadway where the show would open in August.  I told my accompanist that I would start with an up tempo song, It’s Today, go right into a ballad, I Only Have Eyes For You and then a dear friend of mine, Toni Kaye, would walk out and we would go into a big tap dance that I had previously choreographed for us in a Rodgers & Hart Revue, This Can’t Be Love.  I emphasized to her, “Whatever you do, don’t stop.  They’ll have to throw me out!”

When I finished, there was a deafening silence.  Down the aisle walked a silvered haired, tall & handsome man, it was Gower Champion.  He motioned me to the front of the stage & said, “You’re not right for the role of Andy Lee.”  I bent over and replied, “Yes, I know that.”  He then smiled and said, “You’re very right for the role of Billy Lawlor.”  And I got the part!!!!!


Prior to the official rehearsal date of the Broadway musical 42ND STREET, Gower Champion requested a week’s rehearsal with me, Wanda Richert (who played the ingenue role of Peggy Sawyer) and his two dance assistants, Karin Baker & Randy Skinner.  He casually mentioned during that period that he had an anemic blood condition and once in awhile he would have to take a morning off to have his blood cleansed which was part of the treatment.  Later, we learned it was Waldenstrom’s Disease which is a cancer of the white cells.  However, at the time, we didn’t know and he seemed to be in good physical condition and was still a handsome man.  He also mentioned that he was in the process of finalizing his divorce from his wife, Karla.  Once we were in Washington, DC at the Kennedy Center during the out of town tryout, Gower had begun an open affair with Wanda.

42ND STREET was supposed to have opened at the Palace Theatre on Broadway around the second week of August 1980.  However, Producer David Merrick didn’t feel the show was ready because the show had received mixed reviews at the Kennedy Center.  He had also bought out the only other investor telling him that they may not be making back the original investment.

Merrick employed security guards around the Winter Garden Theatre and we had to wear name tags to be admitted to rehearsals.  Gower had grown weary with the delays and stopped attending the complete dress run thrus with full orchestra that David had demanded.  During one of those run thrus the ensemble brought dolls & teddy bears to put in the front two rows so we would have an audience.

Merrick arranged a partial audience one night and Cliff Jahr of the NY Times had managed to sneak in.  When David found out, he stepped in front of the curtain and told the audience the performance had to be cancelled because there was a rat in the generator of the theatre.  When the audience had cleared the theatre, we did another run thru with only David in the audience.

Finally, we were given one ticket for a small arranged preview performance.  The audience loved the show!  As I was leaving, I passed Wanda’s dressing room and Gower was there.  We had not seen him for awhile.  We hugged and I said, “Well, Gower, you heard from your first New York audience.  You have a hit!”   Wanda added, “And, it’s all because of you.”  He put his arms around the two of us and pulled us into a tight embrace and whispered, “No, it’s because of us.”  I was moved to tears and left without saying a word.   It was the last time I ever saw him.

On the day of our opening, August 25th, we received a call from stage management telling us that we had to come to the theatre that afternoon for a 3:00 rehearsal.  Everyone was upset because we had limousines ordered and plans with our family & guests.  However, it was par for the course with David Merrick!  We were, literally, locked into the theatre and didn’t rehearse.  We knew that Gower was in the hospital and would not be attending.  Our mantra was “We’re doing it for Gower!”

The opening was spectacular!  We had about fifteen curtain calls.  The press ran down the aisles of the Winter Garden and flash bulbs were blinding us.  It was like a Hollywood movie!  David Merrick came out on stage.  I thought he was going to thank Gower Champion in absentia.  Instead, he held up his hands and muttered, “This is tragic.”  It got a big laugh from the audience.  I thought, what’s tragic about fifteen curtain calls?  He continued, “No, you don’t understand.  Gower Champion died this afternoon.”  The audience gasped and the cast was frozen in shock.  David turned upstage and embraced Wanda.  Thank God, our leading man, Jerry Orbach, had the presence of mind to shout to the stage manager, “Bring in the curtain!”

As the curtain hit the stage, I had a flash back to a conversation I once had with Gower.  I  told him I was an old fashioned song & dance man and I always felt I was born too late because I always wanted to be an MGM star!  He said he understood completely because he was there at the end of the Golden Era and that 42ND STREET would be his MGM present to me.

He continued to tell me that during the 70’s, he tried to get with it.  He went to the discos, tried to do the dances, did the drugs and woke up one morning realizing that he, too, was just an old fashioned song & dance man.

Therefore, when David Merrick asked him to do 42ND STREET….although his doctors advised against it because of the difficult & stressful past he had experienced with Merrick doing HELLO, DOLLY!, CARNIVAL & MACK & MABEL…..he sighed, “I had to do it because I don’t want to be remembered as a ‘has been’.

Our emotions did a re-run and we went to the opening night party.  It was a sit down dinner with an orchestra at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.  After all, we only had one producer.  It was so elegant & first class all the way, even though it was kind of a funeral wake.  It was probably the only opening night party in Broadway history where the cast was served sitting down!

When I arrived at the party, the first person who greeted me was the great Broadway Director/Choreographer, Bob Fosse.  I had worked with Fosse & his genius ex-wife, Gwen Verdon, in SWEET CHARITY & a Bob Hope TV Special.  With an amazed look on his face, he said, “That son of a bitch!  I filmed my own death in ALL THAT JAZZ and he still had to do me one better by doing it on opening night!”  We howled and I added, “If there’s a heaven, Gower is looking down and laughing with us!”

42ND STREET was a smash hit.  Our picture was on the front page of newspapers around the world the next day with that captured look of horror on our faces after Merrick’s announcement from the stage.  David was criticized for what he did but I don’t agree.  He lived up to his legendary reputation and took advantage of the situation.   He had called the press media that afternoon and told them if they didn’t publicize Gower’s death, he would allow them into the theatre that night and let them record his announcement from the stage.  It was a brilliant strategy.

The reviews were raves and an obituary to Gower’s career.  We all benefitted from the eight year run which broke HELLO, DOLLY’S longest running Broadway record, especially, the Gower Champion estate.   At one point, David Merrick made headlines in Variety as the only producer in Broadway history to be receiving one million dollars a week in personal royalties from his three running productions of 42ND STREET!  That’s what makes Broadway history!

Check out the digital collection of the NYPL below with photographs of 42nd street by Martha Swope:

42nd Street Photos