JULE & ME (AND IRVING AND FANNY)
The gleeful readership that greeted my recent reminiscences about Stephen Sondheim got me to thinking about maybe writing some others. With a new production of FUNNY GIRL now in previews, the first name that came into my head was Jule Styne.
The curtain rose on our acquaintance in 1992 when I discovered him in his office high atop what was then no longer the Mark Hellinger Theatre on West 51st Street. For years I'd heard tell of Jule Styne's secreted aerie nestled there, deep inside Broadway lore and musical comedy legend. No-one could quite remember how long the composer of Gypsy and Funny Girl, Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Bells Are Ringing and so many other classic Broadway musicals, had occupied this backstage workspace. In fact, nobody was quite sure whether Jule was still actually up there. When I read about the outright sale of the Hellinger by its owners, the Nederlander theatrical organization, to an evangelical church of all things, I decided to go see for myself if Jule Styne was, in fact, still on the theater's suddenly desecularized premises.
Past the Hellinger marquee already emblazoned: "Times Square Church" in heavenly blue light, past the "God Comes To Broadway" window cards ("Come Experience The Excitement"), a narrow, unmarked side door way down the block held a taped handwritten note: "This is not the Stage Door." Up one back flight of iron stairs, a wooden board hung from a nail with a crudely pasted arrow on it and the printed name: "Jule Styne."
Pulling open the only door in sight, I found myself in an outer office dense with old desks (at least three), file cabinets and office machinery, its walls lined with theatrical posters spanning the entirety of Jule Styne's nearly fifty years on Broadway. Old scripts were everywhere in piles, also audio tapes, video cassettes, music scores, sheet music, a lot of empty boxes, and one young assistant packing it all up. Yes, they were moving, he acknowledged. The Times Square Church had taken title to the Hellinger and was in the process of evicting the building's sole remaining tenant.
Him I found further on, in an inner sanctum — a wedge-shaped cave of a room with a low, wood-beamed ceiling — feet up on a too-big desk opposite the tight doorway, a bare brick wall to his left, a tiny window overlooking West 51st Street to his right. Swaggering even in repose, Jule Styne wore a pin-stripped suit and running shoes.
"Come in," he barked. "Come in before we gotta get out."
I introduced myself. I wrote "Talk of the Town" pieces for the New Yorker then and he had been told to expect me.
"You know, I knew Mark Hellinger very well," Jule began, in a typical burst, recalling the former-sports columnist for whom the former-theater had been named. "Hellinger was quite a guy. Very bright. Spelled the dignity of Broadway, not the Guys and Dolls Broadway, though there was that Broadway too. This theater was called The Warners’ then; it was a movie house [The Jazz Singer premiered there] and the entrance was on Broadway. In fact, it was my idea to have the entrance moved to 51st Street. You see, in the legitimate theater, a house on Broadway was no good. It was good for movies, for revues, for girlie shows, but not for theater. For theater you needed a side street; a theater is a gentle place with a side street entrance. What a church is to a church, a theater should be to a theater.
"I'd come to New York from Hollywood around 1947, and I'd written High Button Shoes, which was a big hit,” Jule went on. “Tony Farrell, who owned the Warners’, was a good friend of mine. ‘Your marquee’s on Broadway,’ I told him, ‘but your audience has to walk half-a-block before they actually get into your theater. There’s so much space out front, there’s room enough for a big store.’ I had a tailor shop that I went to up on 51st, off Seventh Avenue, tiny little shop, good friend — Cy, I only knew his first name. Still don’t know his last name. It was a gold mine. But he couldn’t carry enough stock, the place was too small. So, I put him in touch with Tony Farrell and Cy came away with a store on Broadway and Tony moved the entrance around to 51st Street. It opened with a show of mine, Hazel Flagg!. Critics treated it as a big event, like it was a new theater. Tony was thrilled. He gave me this office when he retired.”
“My Fair Lady was the Hellinger's first big hit,” Jule recalled. “Rex Harrison would often come up to the office on his matinee days; he'd rest on that couch between shows and ask me to play some of my songs. Whoever played the theater eventually wandered up to my office, and anytime I wanted to hear somebody I'd take them right down to the stage of the Hellinger. Judy Holliday learned a lot of Bells Are Ringing in this office. Ethel Merman came up, Carol Channing, Mary Martin, Bert Lahr, Delores Grey, Phil Silvers, Nancy Walker, Barbara Streisand. There was always a congregation of people in this office. In fact, it sometimes stopped me from getting my work done. They'd all sit around and order corned beef and have a ball.”
A handsome art deco standup Steinway was buried in one corner behind Jule. Autographed photographs, in frames, were everywhere: Merman ("To Jule - From Your Greatest Admirer - With much love! -Ethel"), Streisand, Jerome Robbins, Sondheim. A letter from a Lady-In-Waiting to Princess Margaret hung by Jule’s desk, thanking Jule Styne in January 1962 for letting the royal family know that a preview of Gypsy had been postponed.
"I never worked with Stephen Sondheim in this office," Jule announced, as if just realizing it himself. "Steve, I had come where I lived on East 63rd Street. Steve was a loner, so I figured I'd make him feel like he's coming into a home. I had warm lunches and dinners cooked for him. We had a great time."
Jule suddenly looked pensive. "Frankly, in the last few years it's been a bit of a hardship for me to come to the office. There's the stairs and, honestly, I felt a little bit in jail. The theater industry has gone away from this neighborhood, there used to be rehearsal halls, dance studios, writers had offices, all up and down Broadway. When I was active I didn't care where I worked; it could've been a closet! There was never any room for me to think here, though — actually, I never thought of anything here. I had the piano and used to finish things up on it. Still, my whole career happened here at the Hellinger.
"So now the theater's a church," he mused. "At least if it was a synagogue I'd've been a customer. Yeah, it's sad for me to move. Though my new office does have an elevator." He eyed me conspiratorily. "Hey, you wanna hear something from my new show? Yeah, I'm working on something new. Have you got a minute? I'll play you one thing. Let me play you the ballad."
I subsequently visited Jule in his new, institutionally faceless office at 1560 Broadway, though he discouraged me from coming. "It's got nothing you need to see," he maintained. Eventually he invited me to visit him at home. Which I did, shortly before he died in September 1994, at the age of 88.
Jule's Fifth Avenue apartment reverberated with the brassy rapture of one of his signature Broadway overtures the afternoon I came through the door. "He's in there!" his wife, Margaret, hollered, nodding me down the wood-paneled hall toward the massive sound, as if to say, obviously.
I followed the music — Jule’s overture to Sugar, I soon realized; his 1972 musicalization of the movie Some Like It Hot. I found the composer himself in his study, his back to me, conducting with arm-sweeping majesty a floor-to-ceiling bookcase latticed with titanic speakers that were blasting.
Jule was always theatrically positioned for maximum affect. I waited. The overture climaxed: "Baawwwm! Bawm-Bawm-Bawwwwwm!"
The maestro dropped his imaginary baton and nonchalantly turned.
Jule's home study had a wood-toned gentleman's club ambiance at odds with his old Hellinger haunt, but still plenty heimishe (Yiddish for "homey.") In a low-hung place of honor was a gorgeous, gem-like oil painting of (it clearly appeared to me) Streisand in costume as Fanny Brice. I stopped in front of it.
"Ain't she a beaut?" Jule exclaimed. "You know who that is?"
"Streisand," I answered. "In Funny Girl."
"Ha!" Jule exulted. "You would think. That, my friend, is Fanny Brice in 1920-something. And you know who painted it?"
Jule didn't wait for my reply. "Irving Berlin! Irving painted it way back when. Irving adored Fanny, and Fanny adored Irving, who gave his painting of her to me. And that's show business."
In writing this, I discovered that Margaret Styne, Jule’s wife of 32 years, passed away in February. Another theatrical confluence. I had no idea. I’d like to dedicate this piece to her memory.