“All my life I’ve wanted to make an entrance like this”, the renowned film & theatre critic Rex Reed told us, as he shimmied down The Pheasantry’s spiral staircase. “Tonight, I’m going to revisit some of the great songs of the past. It’s important to remember the people who wrote, produced and sang these songs, which represent an art form which is virtually obsolete.”
Amen to that, and Reed went on to sing a selection of songs, some famous, some less so, which perfectly sum up his extraordinary career – and the friendships he’s forged throughout it.
“The first time I came to New York, from Nowhere-ville, Louisiana”, he mused, “I had no money and took a cheap hotel in Manhattan. I was so green.”
“I was never a normal child. I wanted to go to The Blue Angel, a very chic nightclub in New York. The first time I went, I ordered a chicken sandwich, which cost $10 (today, the equivalent of $100). I had to order water to go with it, as I had no money left over for a drink. I was so excited that Harry Belafonte was the star performing that night – and then he was sick. Instead, Mike Nichols and Elaine May performed: they were great, but I knew none of my friends would care.” Smiling, Reed remembered: “Their piano player took pity on me and sent me an ‘Old Fashioned’: Cole Porter’s favourite drink.”
That same piano player had written ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ and “We became great friends”. Evidently, that gentleman relayed the happenings of that night to Harry Belafonte, because when, years later, Reed was introduced to Belafonte at an awards ceremony, the actor humorously stuffed a crisp $10 bill into Reed’s pocket.
I loved the next couple of songs: Ethel Merman’s ‘Make It Another Old-Fashioned, Please’ and Marlene Dietrich’s ‘No Love, No Nothin’. Of the former, Reed told us that he learned the lyrics in the back seat of a limousine “…from none other than the legendary Alice Faye, one of the best movie stars in the world. It became a theme song for all the boys at sea and all the girls waiting for them to come home.”
Reed and Faye subsequently became “great friends”. She had starred in the first movie Reed ever saw, aged two: Gone with the Wind. Years later, when Faye opened in Good News in Philadelphia, prior to its Broadway run, Reed went along. Alas, it was a “big flop” and Faye returned to California “hugely disappointed”.
When Alice came to New York, “I took her to The Carlyle to see Bobby Shaw, who she loved. Then we went to another bar, where we saw Jack Lemmon, who was a great piano player and he and Alice performed together.” Smiling, Reed concluded “I loved Bobby – and none of those people who claim to be like him today can touch him.”
Reed has a never-ending supply of celebrity stories and thrilled us with his memories of the legendary Betty Grable: “You can’t find anyone with a bad word to say about her.” However, “Betty wanted to win an Oscar and found this film set in a factory, called The Shocking Miss Pilgrim. She told the producers they weren’t allowed to film her legs, because she was sick of being known for her figure. However, the fact that they didn’t show her legs lost the film company about $1 million in the film’s opening week! They had to go back and film Betty climbing a ladder…even then the film wasn’t a success, but Ira George Gershwin’s score was” – and with that, Reed sang us ‘Changing My Tune’.
Visibly sad, Reed continued “We suffered an enormous loss last year, when Doris Marianne van Keppelhof – Doris Day – passed away. Doris began her career as a band singer in New York who went to Hollywood, eight months pregnant, to try and break into radio. Doris was chirpy and cheerful in public, but in real life she was anything but; she experienced many traumas.”
“Doris’s rendition of ‘Embraceable You’ got her an audition for Romance on the High Seas, her movie debut. Its director, Michael Curtiz, was a tough Hungarian who’d directed Casablanca and he was very nervous about making a musical – and even more nervous about hiring an actress no-one had heard of.” Reed then treated us to the beautiful ‘It’s Magic’; watch Doris Day perform it below – and weep.
Reed got to know Doris “very well” and clearly loves reminiscing about her: “In her last years, Doris was an animal rescue devotee. You couldn’t make a cup of tea in her kitchen, because it was given over to animals; Doris was a very down-to-earth person, who travelled everywhere by bicycle.”
Reed once asked the actress whether there existed a song she wished she had sung and Doris’s response was immediate: “Yes. ‘A New Town is a Blue Town’, from The Pyjama Game.” I haven’t been able to track down any clips from the film, so am sharing Harry Connick Jr’s glorious version with you, instead.
As for Reed’s own inspirations, he cited Nat King Cole, bravely singing ‘When I Fall in Love’ for us, barely pausing for breath before confessing “I don’t much care for the music of today: the songwriters aren’t writing songs anymore. So, I’m bringing some songs back. We lost another great writer this decade: Cy Coleman. City of Angels opens soon in the West End: do go and see it if you can.” There followed a delicious Cy Coleman medley which included the fabulous ‘It’s a Nice Face’, from Sweet Charity.
As our spines tingled, Reed introduced us to a song that “No one has heard of but which comes from one of my favourite shows: See Saw, whose music was written by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Field.” He was referring to ‘Big Fat Heart’, which was cut from the infamous musical during its troubled pre-Broadway try-out period – and I think you’ll enjoy this version.
Reed then sang us another little-known song, taken from 1946’s Park Avenue – which, like See Saw, was a flop. The show was about divorce, but the song was Ira Gershwin’s valentine to his brother, George, whose sudden death in 1937 had affected him greatly and prevented Ira from working for a long time. Park Avenue would, sadly, be his farewell to Broadway – but what a farewell ‘Goodbye To All That’ proved to be. This is Gloria DeHaven doing the song the justice it deserves.
“The first person I ever interviewed for the New York Times”, Reed reminisced, was “Anthony Newley, here in London. This was when he was married to Joan Collins, who I’m good friends with to this day, and he was on his way to the U.S. to do Stop the World. The day I met Tony he played this for me and I thought it was one of the most beautiful songs I’d ever heard. No one else performs this song, and it’s called ‘There’s No Such Thing as Love’.”
As we neared the end of the night, Reed confided “My other favourite singer-songwriter, Mel Tormé , could do anything: play drums; act in movies. When he wrote songs, they were memorable. We became great friends and this is typical of the bluesy, jazzy stuff he wrote”:
“Mel wasn’t addicted to drugs or alcohol…but he loved chocolate. He would go to a clinic, lose weight and then gain it all over again. Yet, his voice remained perfect.”
I could’ve listened to Rex Reed talk all night. He’s mixed with the great and the good for many decades, yet takes it all in his stride: “I’ve always been attracted to unusual people who have enormous talent, like Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote, two of the greatest southern writers. Neither of them cared about how much money they had.”
“I love actresses, too, and I’m lucky enough to have known some of the greatest. Jacqueline Susann’s books were made into movies and Capote was so nasty about them. He set me up on a blind date at the Beverley Hills Hotel on April Fool’s Day and my date turned out to be no other than Barbara Stanwyck. We had a great evening – and until the day she died, I received a card and letter from her every Christmas.”
As we were absorbing this, Reed continued “I got to know Bette Davis when I went to interview her. She was a real character and did exactly what was done to her in All About Eve.”
Smiling at his agog audience, Reed continued “The first time I met Marlene Dietrich was when she was opening in her one woman show in Broadway. Everything I said, she was very negative about. I always remember that, when we met in London, she was scrubbing her toilet with Ajax; I reported it in my article – and the newspapers called her ‘The Queen of Ajax’.”
As the evening drew to a close, Reed performed Tony Bennett’s ‘I Was Lost, I Was Drifting’, concluding “Today, we’re drowning in mediocrity. Boring plays, three-and-a-half hour long movies. This song illustrates how I – and maybe some of you – feel”.
It was Tony Bennett’s ‘Where Did the Magic Go?’.
I’ve dreamed my dreams in blues and grays
Happy timeless yesterdays
The blues in sea and Lady Day
Ellington and Hemingway
Candlelight and Courvoisier
Where did the magic go?
I loved the age when movie stars
Had fancy furs and foreign cars
Spencer playing Katherine’s beau
Bogie in a gangster role
Fred and Ginger dancing slow
Where did the magic go?
Where did the magic go, my friend
Since that lovely time
When Rodgers found a melody
And Hart made up the rhyme
Walking miles through the snow
To hold that one girl’s hand
When life was all illusion
All illusion grand
But now there’s too much empty space
Too little style, too little grace
Louis’ sound cannot be found
Byrd and Tatum aren’t around
And who remembers Dorsey’s sound
Where did the magic go?
We gathered at the Avalon
To hear the late great tunes
And Francis Albert sang to us
In lonely dark saloons
Gershwin played his Rhapsody
Garbo spoke a line
Ella gave us ballads
By Kahn and Jule Styne
The lights have dimmed on names I’ve know
The stage is dark, the dreams have flown
The memories of songs by Bing
Benny was the King of Swing
Basie on a one-night stand
Artists dream by Kenton’s band
I remember everything
And great music never dies
These were moments through the years
The sounds that brought us joy and tears I remember every scene
We’ll never let it go
This magic that’s in our souls, my friend
When magic is in your soul, my friend
This magic will never die.