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Dorothy Loudon's Luv Letters
Life on the road was a hard-knock life for Dorothy Loudon, who spent much of the sixties traveling to far flung locations all over North America to perform in her cabaret act and, later, in the touring companies of Luv and The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. A guarded person whenever she wasn't "on," Loudon hated leaving her beloved Manhattan, but—in the days before Annie made her a Broadway star—it was the most lucrative way to ply her trade.
A breakdown of the Luv tour shows just how grueling those ten months of Loudon's life were. Opening in Miami in August 1965, the show moved to Wilmington, Delaware and then Toronto in September, and then to Cincinnati and St. Louis in October. Those were one- or two-week engagements, but during November the company did shorter runs (sometimes one-night stands) in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Milwaukee, Columbus, Indianapolis, Louisville, and Cleveland. The load lighted a bit after Thanksgiving, as the show moved through the larger cities: Boston in December, Washington in January, Denver and Los Angeles in February, San Francisco in March, Detroit in April, and finally Chicago in May.
A Broadway hit in 1964, Murray Schisgal's witty, dialogue-driven Luv ran for 901 performances, into the early days of 1967. The three-character piece starred Alan Arkin as suicidal schlub Harry Berlin, Eli Wallach as Milt, the old friend who schemes to unload his wife on Harry, and Anne Jackson as Milt's wife, Ellen Manville. When the road company was formed, Loudon was at the peak of her pre-Annie stardom following a series of high-profile appearances on The Garry Moore Show, although she had been mostly idle in the year since Moore's program was cancelled. Her co-stars were Herb Edelman as Harry and top-billed Tom Bosley (who had been in the cast of Loudon's Broadway debut, Nowhere to Go But Up, in 1962) as Milt; both were busy but not particularly well-known stage actors who would achieve some fame as television character actors in the seventies.
Although Luv was not one of Loudon's most noteworthy productions, it does represent one of the highlights of the New York Public Library's Dorothy Loudon Papers, portions of which are accessible in the Library's on-line exhibition devoted to Loudon. Along with her usual comprehensive scrapbook, the collection contains a set of letters written from Loudon to Arthur Gorton, a friend who was minding her East 83rd Street townhouse during the tour. Like most of us, Loudon generally did not keep copies of her own letters, so while her papers contain many missives addressed to Loudon, the Luv letters represent the only substantial record of Loudon's own epistolary efforts. As you might expect from a performer known for her ad libs, Loudon's letters are barbed, frank, and detailed—an invaluable snapshot of life inside a Broadway touring company at that time.
Loudon's chronicle begins at the beginning, in August, but becomes more loquacious in January 1966, after members of both Loudon's family and Gorton's came to Boston to watch the show. Late in life Loudon was very close to her father, who saved many of the clippings in her scrapbooks and spent his last years at the Actors' Fund Home in Englewood, New Jersey. But the Boston engagement appears to have initiated a rapprochement between daughter and father after some unspecified break between them. Loudon "wasn't ready to believe again in the family thing" until her father saw the play three times and "surprised—shocked—the hell out of me. He understood and loved the play—came backstage and comported himself like a regular Sol Hurok."
Traipsing through northern cities in the dead of winter, Loudon in her letters laid out a list of travel travails: a blizzard in D.C., missing props and costumes in Denver (with no alternative, the cast improvised until the trucks caught up with them), and "airflight terror" in between. Loudon obsessed
over her reviews and worried over the audience's reactions. She wrote: "The [critic] from Oakland hated Tom Bosley—called him Roly Poly—even I took offense at that. Tom took it well—he said, 'Well—obviously—the man talks through his ass.' Sweetly put." Loudon sensed that the play might have been too New York-centric to work in the provinces. "People stood up—only to make it easier for them to walk out. And they do," she wrote from Washington. "The reviews were marvelous—but they do not like the play much." In Cincinnati, Loudon joked that "at the matinee I said 'lesbian'—and all the ladies grabbed their white hats and rushed for anything that had EXIT written on it."
Loudon also wrote about her insecurites, and of finding her performance as the tour went along. Three days after the opening in Miami, she wrote: "Tonight I really felt as though I had lost it completely. No—that's not true—actually I'm getting more into it—I think somehow I'll make it and forget what I said about how anybody could play these parts. It's a tough play—oh Christ why couldn't I have done a summer of The Trial of Mary Duggan?" Even by the midpoint of the tour, Loudon was still struggling with some of the more difficult scenes. For one of them, she followed Bosley's direction, but his version "simply laid there." Eventually Loudon ignored him and worked out her own approach to the scene, winning a round of applause—for which Bosley cheerfully took credit.
The high point for Loudon's morale came in Los Angeles, where Mike Nichols—director of the original Broadway production—was a guest at the first performance. Although Jack Sydow was credited as the director of the touring production, Loudon's letters never mention him; clearly, it was Nichols's approval that she sought. Nichols turned on the charm, telling Loudon that "[y]ou are absolutely brilliant in this part. I don't have one note for you. Everything you did tonight was perfect. You did all the things with this part that I have ached to see." And it wasn't just empty flattery, since Nichols then paid visits to Edelman and Bosley in their dressing rooms and gave both of them notes in the presence of their guests. Bosley told Nichols to "go fuck himself." Even Loudon, still basking in the glow of Nichols's compliments, had to concede that his etiquette was dubious. (Later that night, cast and crew adjourned to the Brown Derby for a party, where Loudon's date was agent Milton Goldman—one of the "walkers" whom she would favor as escorts before and after her marriage to Norman Paris.)
Another reason Loudon could barely conceal her delight over the contrast between Nichols's reactions to the cast was that, by Los Angeles, she had taken a fairly acute dislike to both of her co-stars. "Tom Bosley has fits ... and Herb Edelman believes his notices," was her judgment in August, and it went downhill from there. Although Loudon seemed to respect his work as an actor, Bosley emerges in the letters as something of a blowhard and a sourpuss: "Tom and I went to a pizza place. First of all he summoned the waitress and complained about the pizza being stale. How can a pizza be stale? I just kept staring ahead and drinking my wine. Then he proceeded to tell me what I was doing wrong in the second act."
And Loudon liked Edelman even less, depicting him as the "company ass-kisser who has done nothing but bitch and bellyache all through this tour about his meagre salary." Loudon was incensed when Edelman lobbied producer Claire Nichtern for special treatment in his travel arrangements, and complained that he was chronically late and never made eye contact with her during performances. In Washington, Edelman arrived at the last minute one night, after his understudy, Jack Heller, was in costume and make-up. The stage manager declared that Heller would go on, but he was overruled after Edelman telephoned Nichtern. "Everyone was shocked," Loudon wrote. "How much can you get away with?" According to Loudon, Nichols was especially dismayed by what he saw in Edelman's work. "Has it always been like this?" he asked after the Los Angeles performance. "Sometimes worse," Loudon replied.
The last page of Loudon's Luv scrapbook is a page of pull-quotes from positive reviews of the show: "Miss Loudon's over-educated self-absorption is in the fine tradition of James Thurber and Jules Feiffer females" (Richard P. Coe, Washington Post). Just before that, though, Loudon mounted a handwritten draft of a farewell speech that rang some discordant notes amid the expected tributes to the company. "It has been a weird floundering ship," she wrote, "and in most ways unfulfilled sailing." Spoken like someone ready to get off the road and go home. Loudon kept a low profile for the next few years, making a handful of television appearances and shorter runs in summer stock (including a 1967 reprise of Luv opposite Mickey Rooney and Robert Murray), until Sweet Potato (1968) inaugurated her infamous string of Broadway flops leading up to Annie. Murray Schisgal went on to co-write Tootsie and Luv, opened up considerably for the screen, became a movie in 1967, with Elaine May as Ellen. May was the fourth actress to play the role: in February 1966, Barbara Bel Geddes had taken over for Anne Jackson in the New York production. One suspects that Loudon was miffed that she wasn't called in from the tour to join the Broadway cast.
Along with the inner workings of the Luv road company, Loudon's letters also provide some candid insights into her personality. She enjoyed swapping corny jokes with Gorton, including a few that go on for pages. Loudon always claimed to be a film buff, a fan of the movies that were popular growing up, and her correspondence reveals that she wasn't putting anybody on. The letters are suffused with movie references. Visiting Arlington National Cemetery while in Washington, Loudon somehow knew that Constance Bennett is buried there ("she was married to a military man"). Finding herself listed in the 1966 World Almanac, Loudon noted that her entry fell between those for Tilly Losch and Anita Louise (both forgotten screen actresses of the thirties). In attendance at one of the Los Angeles productions was Cathleen Nesbitt, an aged character actress (then appearing on television in The Farmer's Daughter); Loudon was delighted when Nesbitt told her she had "talking eyes" and that Loudon should cut her bangs to make them more visible.
Even the itinerary was relayed in cinematic terms. "Next comes St. Louis," Loudon wrote from Cincinnati. "Maybe I'll see Margaret O'Brien there."
Update: Arthur Gorton passed away on April 26, 2013.