Corrections or additions?
(This article by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
December 2, 1998. All rights reserved.)
Endearing, Enduring Cabaret Couple
The intermission lounge at the George Street Playhouse
is being given a new look to suit a new series of cabaret-style
planned to augment the theater season. What surely must be the
christening takes place when two endearing — and may I add
— veterans of cabaret and the legitimate stage, Jane and Gordon
Connell, walk through the entrance for our Wednesday morning meeting.
For this long-time fan there is a sense of instant gratification.
To my regret, they tell me that they are not going to be part of the
opening cabaret bill. Perhaps, before our interview is over, I can
convince the Connells to revive one of their classic routines.
They explain that as much as they would like to be part of the
they are busy performing nightly on the main stage in the holiday
production of "Inspecting Carol." This blend of slapstick
and farce by Dan Sullivan and the Seattle Repertory Theater Company
is a backstage comedy that mixes Gogol’s "The Inspector
with Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol." Everything that can
go wrong does, Jane explains. One of the show’s gimmicks is to have
a rotating group of New Jersey arts celebrities perform the pivotal
role of the National Endowment for the Arts evaluator. These
will include New Jersey Theater Group executive director Laura Aden,
George Street Playhouse associate artistic director Wendy Liscow,
and Isabel Nazario, director of the New Jersey Center for Latino Arts
and Culture. At press time, Governor Christie Whitman had not said
yes to the playhouse invitation, but neither had she said no.
"No, we’ve never played New Brunswick," Gordon says,
thinking about those early cabaret years, as Jane adds "I couldn’t
think of a nicer place to spend part of our 50th wedding anniversary
year." The man responsible for the Connell’s visit is George
artistic director David Saint, at the helm of "Inspecting
It’s a reunion, as Saint directed Jane in a tour of the comedy
Foreigner" with TV star Bob Denver, which included a stop at Paper
Mill Playhouse back in 1986.
"David and I are part of a mutual admiration society," Jane
confesses. But, do I believe Gordon when he chimes in with,
I’m part of a lottery. David plays a lottery in which he gets a list
of names of possible actors over a certain age? I just lucked
Jane can’t contain her laughter, as Gordon sheepishly and in his best
stentorian tone confesses, "I’m sorry. That was pure twaddle."
"The truth is," says Jane, "we’re probably the oldest
couple around." Jane explains that they are type cast as an old
couple who coach an almost professional theater company that has
"A Christmas Carol" one too many times. Although the Connells
are not billed above the title in this holiday-designated comedy,
the other leading players, TV’s Dan Lauria, Kelly Bishop, and Denny
Dillon have presumably been warned that they are up against an
zany couple with a half-century of scene-stealing experience.
Long before Sally Bowles sang that "Life is a cabaret, old
the Connells were all about living that life.
Gordon and Jane first met in 1943, as undergraduates performing in
a University of California at Berkeley production of "Ah,
They graduated in 1946 when satiric cabaret revues were beginning
to find a front in sophisticated supper clubs, and established their
talented troupe of satirists, The Strawhatters. "We wanted to
make a living in the Bay Area," says Jane, "and luckily San
Franciscans were receptive to our troupe for seven years."
Gordon, who wrote the music as well as performed in
what would eventually tour as "The Straw Hat Revue," recalls
that their style was noted for being more academic than the
Judy and Mickey show business style. Much like Princeton’s Triangle
Club shows, the Connell’s format was really, as Gordon describes it,
an offshoot of the university’s "Mask and Dagger" revues in
which Jane and Gordon had performed. "We shot holes in
says Gordon, "and made a living at it." "There was nothing
like it in Berkeley in the late 1940s," says Jane.
By 1953, the couple decided it was time for their 13-member troupe
to "turn the Eastern seaboard upside down and show them what we
can do. We’ve got good stuff." Following an unexpectedly
summer circuit tour, and a less successful series of department store
jobs, the Connell’s entourage, that included their two year-old
Melissa (a second daughter later joined the clan), returned to the
San Francisco, the city where they had left their heart.
Working as a couple, they adapted their revue material for a club
act that played for a full year at San Francisco’s famed Purple Onion.
"Would you believe that Maya Angelou was on the same bill singing
all of Harry Belafonte’s calypso songs," Jane recalls. Comedian
Pat Carroll caught their act there and suggested that they audition
for New York revue and supper club producer Julius Monk. On borrowed
money, they flew back to audition for Monk who, as Gordon says, pushed
his mustache back in his face and asked, "Can you open on
They opened in 1955 at the Ruban Bleu. Then rival producer Ben Bagley
signed Jane for his "Shoestring Revue of 1955." Monk had to
wait to use Jane and Gordon together in a series of "sheets and
pins" (Monk’s term for unpretentious) revues at the venue known
as the Downstairs Room at 51st and Sixth Avenue. In 1958, loyal and
new fans were following the Connells and such other budding talents
as Tammy Grimes, Alice Ghostly, Ronny Graham, Ellen Hanley, Gerry
Matthews, and Mary Louise Wilson to the Wanamaker mansion on 56th
Street for the increasingly popular Julius Monk’s upstairs at the
Jane talks about the occasional leave of absence from their
revues. One such departure was her first big Broadway show, Leonard
Sillman’s "New Faces of 1956." In his World-Telegram & Sun
review, William Hawkins wrote, "Jane Connell can similarly turn
herself into various assorted moods and people, ancient TV contestant
or heroine of African films, all with the greatest of ease." Jane
recalls how, at the end of Monk’s stay at 56th Street, he became
with one of the other performers and took Gordon off the
pianos and put him onstage solo. "Probably a monumental mistake,
who knows," questions a chortling Gordon, adding, "I’ve been
getting away with it in a big way ever since."
The Connells contributed their unique musical and comedic talents
to skits that are remembered as classics by those of us who attended
season after season, and by those who have their recordings. Jane
is quick to point out that at the same time that she and Gordon came
East, all New York’s headwaiters went West to become big stars in
Broadway was inevitable for the Connells. Gordon covered for David
Burns as Horace Vandergelder opposite Ginger Rogers in "Hello
Dolly;" played the avuncular alcoholic Willie Grogan in the
version "The Human Comedy;" and for two years appeared as
Mark Twain in "Big River."
After numerous Off-Broadway credits including the
"The Threepenny Opera," Jane landed the plum role of the
Agnes Gooch opposite Angela Lansbury in Jerry Herman’s Broadway
"Mame." By now part of what Gordon refers to as composer Jerry
Herman’s "dynasty," Jane appeared again with Angela Lansbury
in "Dear World."
"By 1968, everyone was fleeing New York to make money in L.A,"
says Gordon. "There was truly an exodus, and we were part of
The Connells spent the ’70s doing television, with guest appearances
for Jane on "All in the Family," "Maude," and
while Gordon guested on "Law & Order" and "As The World
Turns." Gordon has been sighted cavorting most recently in
for Velveeta cheese and Pringles Potato Chips.
Along with the traditional road tours and regional stints, Jane landed
in a series of long runs on Broadway that included her Tony-nominated
performance in "Me And My Girl," "Lend Me A Tenor,"
"Crazy For You," and "Moon Over Buffalo."
They agree that there is indeed "a family" of theater people
who want to and look to work together. Although the Connells have
no trouble recalling working together in a West Coast production of
"Mame," they are temporarily stymied when I ask them if they
ever worked on Broadway together.
"Yes, we have," answers Gordon. "No, we haven’t,"
insists Jane. "Yes, we have," continues Gordon adding a
ho ho." "It was in a production of `Lysistrata’ directed by
Michael Cacoyannis and starring Melina Mercouri," says Gordon.
"How could you forget, I ask?" "Easily" is Jane’s
Currently Gordon is composing, working with lyricist William Engvick,
who is best know for his collaboration with Alec Wilder on "While
We’re Young." Currently in New York, jazz pianist and cabaret
entertainer Ronny Whyte can be heard singing Gordon’s newest song
"Or, What," featuring Engvick’s lyrics. Hearing the song title
invites Jane to voice her small regret that Gordon, had he not been
so lucky getting stage parts, "might have had more time to pursue
his music, which is his major gift."
"It’s instant gratification I’m after. I hear the applause after
I’ve written only eight bars of music," says Gordon. Like I said
up front, it will be instant gratification for all of us out front
when the Connells make their George Street Playhouse entrance.
— Simon Saltzman
Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. To December 27. $24 to $32.
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