Sunday, November 1, 2015

All the World's A Stage With JK - Pt II :)


"I've Got My Straw Hat, I've Got My Cane..."
Undated candid slide of JK
 
I've discussed Jack Kelly's summer stock performances before in TDS, but since I've discovered so much more new information about this topic, it's time for a re-visit.
 
JK was a very busy performer on the "straw hat circuit" in the early 1960's. After Maverick went on permanent hiatus in 1962, JK toured in The Music Man,  The Moon is Blue and Under the Yum-Yum Tree.


JK starred in the latter play at the O'Hare Inn Theatre, which was located in a 400-room motel that was only minutes away from Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. His co-star was Brigid Bazlen, a young actress who had gone from being a local TV and stage star in the Windy City to appearing in Hollywood epics such as King of Kings and How The West Was Won

Joan Mette, drama critic for the Arlington Heights (IL) Herald, dubbed JK's performance as a lecherous landlord in Under the Yum-Yum Tree "delightful" and said that he "out-Mavericks his TV role". Ms. Mette added, "In this age of Freud, the sex-oriented play might be termed a 'sophisticated comedy', but it's really an old-fashioned farce. And Kelly plays it as a farce--with all the stops pulled out. He cut loose a bit too early, however. His performance would have been better paced if he had given himself a little room to develop his role of 'Hogan' in the first scene. However, by the last scene, all is forgiven. Kelly has a way with grimaces, posturing and timing that is most beguiling."  

In 1963, JK sang and danced in The Pajama Game in Anderson, Indiana. The Hoosier state was a hotbed of summer stock activity at the time. In July 1964, JK appeared in Indianapolis as "Sky Masterson" in the Starlight Musicals production of Guys and Dolls.


Masterson is a smooth gambler (sound familiar?), but JK looks ruggedly handsome on the cover of the Guys and Dolls program:


Indiana didn't have a lock on summer stock, however. The following month, JK traveled north to appear in the farce Petticoat Fever at Prudhomme's Garden Centre Theatre in Ontario, Canada.


This theatre, located in a resort setting, was a rather unusual venue. According to the "World Theatre" website, owner George Prudhomme removed the seats each winter to convert the theatre into a curling rink! The seats were returned in the summer so audiences could watch celebrities such as JK and even a young Liza Minelli (who appeared in The Fantasticks) tread the boards.

JK made another jaunt to Prudhomme's in July 1965 to star in Love and Kisses, a comic play he'd done in Chicago in 1964. He also portrayed Rick Nelson's father in the film version, which was released in 1965. 
 
JK revisited Indiana as well in 1965 to appear in The World of Suzie Wong at the Avondale Playhouse (a.k.a. Avondale-in-the-Meadows) in Indianapolis from August 24 through August 29. The play's program states that JK broke box office records at Avondale when he'd starred in The Moon is Blue in 1962.
 

Suzie Wong, the popular "East meets West" love story, originated as a novel by Richard Mason. It was adapted into a play by Hoosier-born Paul Osborn and debuted on Broadway in 1958 with William Shatner as the male lead. It became a film starring William Holden and Nancy Kwan in 1960.
 
At Avondale, JK portrayed "Robert Lomax", a struggling artist who falls in love with Hong Kong prostitute Suzie Wong, played by Lisa Lu. (Ms. Lu's program bio lists her credits, but oddly doesn't mention the role she's probably best-known for: "Hey Girl" in TV's Have Gun--Will Travel.)

Marshall Pitler, a guest writer for The Kokomo (IN) Tribune, gave JK's performance a glowing review: "Kelly's television fame drew the largest opening night crowd in the history of Avondale last Tuesday, and the audience was well-rewarded for its support. This week's star proved once again that [Avondale's] star system, with the proper vehicle, can work. Jack Kelly is a handsome, well-poised, natural actor who has learned his trade well through years of television and movie experience. His performance as Robert Lomax, the artist, was superb--an adjective not easily applied to Avondale stars this season."
 
Suzie then ran August 31-September 5 at the theater's sister venue "Avondale-on- the-Mall". An ad in the program says this theater could be reached via "a short trip through colorful Southern Indiana, across the beautiful Ohio River, to Louisville, Kentucky". It was located in "'THE MALL', one of the nation's newest and largest Closed Mall 'Shopping Centers'", the ad proclaimed.
 
Avondale-on-the-Mall was an ambitious attempt to expand the Avondale brand to other cities. Unfortunately, the gambit was such a failure in Louisville, that, according to the website "indianahistory.org", the Playhouse board was forced to liquidate Avondale's assets. 
 
JK wasn't a failure, however, especially with Jane Marlow Willis, the editor, publisher and entertainment columnist for the weekly Meade County (KY) Messenger. On 9/16/65 she wrote, "Miss Rose Grinnell and I went to Avondale Playhouse for the last production of the season, THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG, starring Jack Kelly. Mr. Kelly is a most interesting person and quite gracious about posing for pictures. His performance as Robert Lomax was great. Although most of us know him as Bart Maverick and expect him to be typed as Maverick, he is a versatile actor, and as at home in the role of Lomax as he was on Maverick...THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG is a rather difficult play for an arena theatre, but the Avondale players did it quite well. The summer is usually a slow theatre season, but Avondale has made summer a good season for theatregoers in the Louisville area."

In 1966, JK co-starred in the comedy Mary, Mary at the Music Theatre in Houston, Texas. A reviewer in the Bellaire & Southwestern Texan newspaper wrote on 10/26/1966 that the production was "delightful" and continued, "There's a keen cast: Jack Kelly (remember when he was Bart Maverick) and Marjorie Lord (she from The Danny Thomas Show) are a divorced couple who have a hilarious reunion...[then] a fading Hollywood actor tries to woo Mary to New Orleans, only to make her [former] husband furiously jealous...The Jean Kerr comedy is light, but highly entertaining as performed by these actors...Every scene clicks and that's because of good timing and expert line readings."

By this time, JK had also became an annual fixture at the Summer Arena in historic Canal Fulton, OH, located in Stark County near the cities of Akron, Canton and Massillon. The Arena began as the Canal Fulton Summer Theatre in 1954 and later moved into a renovated barn next to a pond. The Theatre's founder, David Fulford, staged productions with one "name" star per play and filled the supporting roles with local actors. This formula was such a crowd-pleaser that in 1959, the barn was upgraded into the air-conditioned Canal Fulton Summer Arena. (The pond was upgraded into a swimming pool.)

Undated postcard view of the Canal Fulton Summer Arena (courtesy CardCow.com)

JK first appeared at the Arena with The Moon is Blue (which a reviewer in Massillon's Evening Independent described as "exceedingly risqué") from September 4 through September 9 in 1962. The reviewer felt that some of JK's mannerisms in the play "rang a little off-key", but added this may have been due to the fact that JK had just arrived from performing the play in Traverse City, MI, and "could hardly be accustomed to the Arena setting yet".


 
JK would have plenty of time to get used to the setting, though. He was brought back "by popular demand" to star in Neil Simon's Come Blow Your Horn in 1963. (Julie Sommars, later seen in TV series such as The Governor and JJ and Matlock, portrayed one of his girlfriends in this play.) According to the Evening Independent, advance ticket sales were so strong for this show that an extra Sunday matinee performance was added to the run before the play even opened. JK also served as grand marshal of the Edgefield Volunteer Fire Department's 12th annual homecoming parade while in town for Come Blow Your Horn.

A review of the production in the Daily Times of New Philadelphia proclaimed "Jack Kelly Play Is Seen As Hit Of Fulton Season" and lauded JK's performance as "suave, sophisticated and assured".

JK starred in A Thousand Clowns in 1964 and Goodbye, Charlie in 1965. He headlined Tunnel of Love in 1966. The latter play was reviewed by an uncredited writer for the Dover OH Daily Reporter. While describing JK as a "bit paunchy", the reviewer also noted the actor's obvious appeal to the ladies: "The predominately female audience punctuated his love scenes with little squeals and one eager matron even broke the house rules and snapped a flash bulb in his eyes. Undaunted, but not unaware of the adoration, he treated the audience to one his best acting roles at the Arena. Thoroughly poised and articulate, he was believable in his difficult role...This is a good play! Jack Kelly has risen to the full height of his potential and with a first-rate supporting cast has made this an outstanding night of theatre." 

Arena audiences obviously loved JK and the feeling was mutual because he is quoted in the program for Simon's The Odd Couple (where he starred as slobby "Oscar Madison", 6/27-7/9/1967) as saying, "I hope I  never have to miss a season at Canal Fulton Summer Arena because it has become my second home. The Arena represents the gateway to the many friends and activities I have enjoyed over these recent years in the general area."


Incidentally, JK's bio in the Odd Couple program also contains some amazing information that I've not read elsewhere about a couple of tantalizing TV roles which unfortunately never happened:

"Jack Kelly once more is making his only summer appearances of the season at The Arena, where he has become one of our most popular repeat performers. Preparation of his new television series, Tolliver's Travels, is consuming most of his availability. Tolliver's Travels is geared for September production and January or mid-season release. The setting is Hawaii and all exterior photography will be shot in the Islands. Kelly, under contract to Universal for the past five years, has again had a very busy TV schedule, the past season having completed three Chrysler shows for Bob Hope [and] Run for Your Life for his old Maverick producer, Roy Huggins. Immediately upon completion of The Odd Couple he will return to Hollywood for another Run for Your Life segment that Huggins has lifted from the shooting schedule until Kelly is available."

A reviewer for the New Philadelphia Daily Times bluntly described JK as "chubby", but pointed out that "the extra weight is put to good use" in his role as Oscar in The Odd Couple.

At the Arena, JK also appeared in proven laugh-getters such as Under the Yum Yum Tree (repeating his 1962 Chicago role as "Hogan", 9/10-22/1968); Cactus Flower (as "Dr. Julian Winston", a dentist who stays single by pretending he's married, 6/24-29/1969); and other productions including that old standby The Moon is Blue (6/5-10/73).

 In July 1973, JK co-starred with Gale Storm in a political comedy called Affairs of State at Florence State University's summer theater  program in Alabama. The supporting actors were students at the University. JK participated in an engaging press conference with Ms. Storm. The play (and the actors) received a very nice review.
 
But sometimes, life onstage wasn't everything nice...stay tuned and learn about the play in which JK appeared that was so awful the audience demanded its money back! It's coming up in Part III.