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

entertainment

planned to augment the theater season. What surely must be the

unofficial

christening takes place when two endearing — and may I add

enduring

— 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

cabaret,

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

General"

with Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol." Everything that can

possibly

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

celebrities

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,

presumably

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

Street’s

artistic director David Saint, at the helm of "Inspecting

Carol."

It’s a reunion, as Saint directed Jane in a tour of the comedy

"The

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,

"Actually

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

out."

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

produced

"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

incomparably

zany couple with a half-century of scene-stealing experience.

Long before Sally Bowles sang that "Life is a cabaret, old

chum,"

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,

Wilderness."

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

traditional

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

pretentiousness,"

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

successful

summer circuit tour, and a less successful series of department store

jobs, the Connell’s entourage, that included their two year-old

daughter

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

Thursday?"

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

downstairs revues.

Jane talks about the occasional leave of absence from their

Off-Broadway

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

disenchanted

with one of the other performers and took Gordon off the

"plural"

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

Los Angeles.

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

musical

version "The Human Comedy;" and for two years appeared as

Mark Twain in "Big River."

After numerous Off-Broadway credits including the

legendary,

"The Threepenny Opera," Jane landed the plum role of the

myopic

Agnes Gooch opposite Angela Lansbury in Jerry Herman’s Broadway

musical

"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

it."

The Connells spent the ’70s doing television, with guest appearances

for Jane on "All in the Family," "Maude," and

"Bewitched,"

while Gordon guested on "Law & Order" and "As The World

Turns." Gordon has been sighted cavorting most recently in

commercials

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 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

answer.

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

Inspecting Carol, George Street Playhouse, 9

Livingston

Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. To December 27. $24 to $32.


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