Fynsworth Alley: Dorothy Loudon: She’s Still Here

Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.

dorothy loudonWe often hear stars referred to in hyperbolic terms, but Dorothy Loudon is the real thing: a Broadway legend. Best known for her Tony-award winning performance as Miss Hannigan in the original cast of Annie, Dorothy’s career has spanned radio, television, cabaret, theatre, and film. Recently, Dorothy shared with me some of her showbiz memories and discussed her track on THE STEPHEN SONDHEIM ALBUM, “I’m Still Here.”

David: How did you get your start in show business?

Dorothy: After my sophomore year at Syracuse University, I left – on the advice of my drama coach – and came directly to New York City. I lived in a girls’ club and auditioned for anyone who would listen. My first job was in a tiny club called “Jimmy Ryan’s,” where I sang and accompanied myself on the piano. One night, Jackie Gleason came in with his musical conductor, Ray Bloch. I guess they were impressed, because Mr. Bloch put me on CBS radio, where I was heard nationally every Friday night. From that time on I never stopped working. That was before television. That was fifty years ago. I was a very lucky girl.

David: You were a fixture of the 1950s cabaret scene in NY. Has the cabaret scene changed much? How? What was it like back then, doing shows in the boites?

Dorothy: The cabaret scene has changed tremendously since the fifties and sixties when I was there. People “dressed up” for the occasion. Tuxedos, gowns, “the works”.

On a typical night at “The Blue Angel,” I would appear on a bill with Johnny Mathis (opening act), Jonathan Winters, Phyllis Diller, Mike (Nichols) and Elaine (May) – and Bobby Short was playing in the lounge!

Television came along and literally wiped out the supper clubs. Now, people could sit at home, turn on their sets and see all those people in their own living rooms. What’s more, they could watch in their pajamas, and there was no cover charge.

David: How did your role on the Garry Moore show come about?

Dorothy: One day I got a call from the Garry Moore Show – Gwen Verdon was to have been their guest star, but she had the flu and couldn’t make it. It was two days before the show and they were desperate. I had auditioned twice for the show — and was turned down. I jumped at the chance. In two days I learned the sketches, songs, choreography… and went on for Gwen. That night, after the show, Garry offered me a three year contract.

David: Was that your “big break”?

Dorothy: It turned out to be the biggest break of my career. 

David: You brought Broadway all over the country in countless national tours. What was life on the road like?

Dorothy: Before my own theatrical break-through (Annie – an astounding success, where I was given the gift of “Miss Hannigan” and my first Tony Award), I toured with National Companies starring in roles that other women had made famous. Two exceptions were West Side Waltz, where I was blessed to share the stage with Katharine Hepburn and create the role of Cora, and Noises Off, where I was on stage nightly with the most marvelous ensemble of actors in American theatrical history. Actually, that was a direct quote from Michael Blakemore, the unmatchable director, who cast me in the part of Dotty Otley. What a part!

David: Luv is a personal favorite of Bruce Kimmel’s. Can you share any memories from that show?

Dorothy: Luv was my first tour, a marvelous play by Murray Schisgal. My fondest memory of touring was of that play. There were three of us: Tom Bosley, Herb Edelman, and me.

We arrived on a bus in Indianapolis during a blinding snow storm. The huge truck carrying the sets and props was stranded somewhere in the snow outside the city. So, we performed the play on folding charis, by candlelight, in this packed auditorium. It was a resounding success, a testament to the astonishing structure and strength of this play.

David: You have performed Stephen Sondheim’s work on many occasions – most memorably as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd on Broadway and singing a medley of “You Could Drive A Person Crazy” and “Losing My Mind” at Carnegie Hall. What draws you to Sondheim’s work?

Dorothy: As for being drawn to Sondheim’s work – who, with any dramatic sense, wouldn’t be? He satisfies every theatrical bone in a musical actor’s body.

I remember George Hearn and I were given just two weeks of rehearsal to replace Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou in Sweeney Todd. Opening night I remember running into George back stage, in the dark, and saying “Do you think we’re getting away with this?” We did.

David: Are there any of Sondheim’s shows you would like to do (or like to have done)?

Dorothy: Yes – all of them! Including Passion and Assassins. You know, with a little make-up…

David: Tell us about “I’m Still Here.” Does this song have personal significance for you?

Dorothy: It’s a song I’ve always wanted to do, always identified with it from the first time I heard it.

I’ve always thought fame to be a frightening thing. If you don’t attain it, you’re miserable. If you do attain it, you’re miserable because you don’t know how to handle it. There is one line, “At least I can say I was there.” And I was. And guess what? I’m still here.

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