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Obscure Videos: Two Revues

Scrambled Feet was something of a precursor of Forbidden Broadway. Although Scrambled Feet's music was entirely original, and although it featured a couple of serious numbers, it shared with the Gerard Alessandrini perennial the goal of spoofing all things theatrical.

With music, lyrics, and sketches by John Driver and Jeffrey Haddow and direction by Driver, Scrambled Feet opened off-Broadway at the informal Village Gate in Greenwich Village on June 11, 1979, and remained there for two years 831 performances. The original quartet of players featured Driver, Haddow, Roger Neil, and Evalyn Baron. Their replacements included Jim Walton, Jonathan Hadary, and Faith Prince. During the run, the show's live mascot, a duck, underwent a name change from Hermione the original duck to Gingold the replacement duck.

Scrambled Feet won excellent reviews. In New York Magazine, John Simon called it "always good, pointed fun, overflowing with laughter, and now and then high praise, indeed! genuine satire." In The New York Times, Walter Kerr described Scrambled Feet as "bright, sassy, and wonderfully good-natured."

Scrambled Feet was another of those early-'80s New York theatre pieces that was snapped up by cable TV during its brief period of interest in presenting theatre to its subscribers. In 1982, Showtime aired a ninety-minute version of Scrambled Feet, and the tape was later released commercially by RKO Home Video. Although the order of material has been shaken up, the show is performed as it was at the Village Gate, with an audience seated at tables. For the TV taping, the three original male cast members were retained. Obviously in search of a name, though, Baron was removed in favor of the always droll Madeline Kahn. Also seen in the TV version: Buster the Duck.

The program begins outdoors, as the members of the cast assemble from different parts of town. But thereafter, it sticks to the stage, and one sees that Scrambled Feet is more of a conventional revue than Forbidden Broadway, featuring non-musical sketches along with songs and varying the mood from satire to affectionate tribute.

Right at the top, we're taken to the Theatrical Olympics, which include a wrestling match between the disabled heroes of The Elephant Man and Whose Life Is It Anyway? both shows current during the run of Scrambled Feet. There are infomercials for an avant-garde playwrighting kit and another kit that enables members of the industry to get revenge on critics. There are salutes to the theatrical superiority of all things British; theatre-party ladies with the men in drag; child stars; and working with animals.

A sketch is devoted to the art of "sham dancing," recommended for performers with limited terpsichorean abilities. Jesus auditions for Pontius Pilate, and we hear the interior monologue of a spear-carrier in a Central Park Julius Caesar. There's a sketch about a duplicitous agent, and another imagining an Elizabethan dinner theatre. And there's a straightforward, wistful number about a pair of civilians who believe they "Could Have Been" stars.

The mockery here is far less stinging than that of Forbidden Broadway. Indeed, viewed today, the TV Scrambled Feet seems almost distressingly mild, too kindly to draw blood. It's actually Kahn's sometimes self-indulgent performance that gives the tape its greatest interest.

By the '50s, television had begun to kill off the Broadway revue. But in the late '40s and early '50s, there was still room for a good one. One such was Lend an Ear, which came to Broadway after a run in Hollywood, to open on December 16, 1948 at the National now the Nederlander Theatre, later moving to the Broadhurst, for a run of 460 performances.

Lend an Ear is best remembered as the show in which the comic gifts of young Carol Channing were first made apparent to critics and audiences. Her work here led directly to her next job, the leading role in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1949. Joining her in that musical was Lend an Ear co-star Yvonne Adair.

Lend an Ear was choreographed and staged by Gower Champion, with whom Channing would reunite for Hello, Dolly! fifteen years later. Champion would win his first Tony for the Lend an Ear choreography. The music, lyrics, and sketches for the hit revue were almost entirely the work of Charles Gaynor, who would later write the material for another Channing revue, Show Girl.

Lend an Ear's most celebrated sketch was the one that ended the first half, entitled "The Missing Road Company." This is the imaginary lost touring troupe of the 1925 musical hit "The Gladiola Girl," allowing for a spoof of '20s musicals that was a direct precursor of The Boy Friend as well as of Channing's Blondes.

It's often written that Channing won the role of Lorelei Lee in Blondes on the basis of her performance in the "Gladiola Girl" segment of Lend an Ear. But a check of the Lend an Ear Playbill indicates that Channing was but one of four girls in the ensemble of the "Gladiola Girl" sketch. Perhaps later in the run she inherited the central part of Rosalie in the sequence. Or perhaps the imposing Channing was able to make a big impression even in the background.

Highlights from Lend an Ear made it to television on October 28, 1954, in the form of one of CBS's TV's Shower of Stars programs, a monthly hour that emphasized variety spectaculars. For the telecast, the star was Gene Nelson, the gifted dancer-singer-actor who had appeared in the ensemble of the Broadway Lend an Ear but on Shower of Stars moved up to leading roles in several sequences.

No cast album of Lend an Ear was made, so the Shower of Stars Lend an Ear is the only place to hear a few segments of the score. The program begins with "After Hours," a typical revue opening number, led by Sheree North I Can Get It for You Wholesale, who does a sinuous dance. That's followed by Nelson and North in the number "Neurotic You and Psychopathic Me," a satiric look at the goings on at an analyst's office, with the doctor evincing as many symptoms of neuroses as the patient. One lyric seems to be cleaned up for TV: North sings, "I'm often impolite with/men I've met and spent some time with."

The next sketch from Lend an Ear is called "All The World's," in which we watch the effect of various movies on the behavior of a young couple on three successive Saturday nights. This one retains the concept from the stage but has been rewritten and updated for television. It's performed by North and ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy.

The next song-dance-dialogue sequence is one of Lend an Ear's highlights, "Friday Dancing Class." Here, a youth is forced by his mother to attend a dance class. He misbehaves and is singled out by the teacher to dance alone, but he's saved by one of the young ladies. In this nostalgic number, Nelson, who was one of the classmates on Broadway, moves up to the leading role of young Henry Jones.

Finally, we get the "Gladiola Girl" sequence, with Beverly Tyler The Firebrand of Florence as heroine Rosalie. In the first half, set in a garden in Bronxville, there's the opening chorus, "Join Us in a Cup of Tea," followed by wealthy playboy Larry Van Patten Nelson in "Where Is the She for Me?" He soon gets his answer, and we get the Rosalie-Larry love duet "I'll Be True to You." Soubrette Ginger O'Toole North is so elated that she celebrates by "Doin' the Old Yahoo Step." If a couple of these titles are familiar, that's because Channing recycled a few of the "Gladiola" numbers in Show Girl, which was recorded.

At the end of the first act, Larry is arrested for rum-running. For the second act, we move to the Long Island estate of Skiddy Tyres Bergen. Larry saves Rosalie's life, leading to their reunion duet, "In Our Teeny Little Weeny Nest." And the sequence ends with a reprise of "The Yahoo Step."

For the record, let's mention that this episode of Shower of Stars also includes an appearance by popular tenor Mario Lanza, who sings arias from Tosca and The Vagabond King that have nothing whatsoever to do with Lend an Ear.

I believe that a few Shower of Stars programs have been marketed on VHS and DVD, so it is possible that the Shower of Stars Lend an Ear will also become commercially available.

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