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<strong>Frank Langella on Billie Burke</strong>

Frank Langella on Billie Burke

Film

Glinda high resWhen I was a young boy I was obsessed with Billie Burke.  If you think there is something odd about a six-year-old boy fantasizing about the image of a 55-year-old woman in a film that was then over 30 years old, then you don’t read Stargayzing regularly.  To me, Burke’s Glinda was the embodiment of everything that was good, gentle, and kind, plus she was covered in glitter and travelled in a bubble!  Perfection!  Her death in 1970 was the first death of a celebrity that I can recall and I remember feeling very sad, for it was apparent to me even at the age of six that there was something extra poignant about the yearly broadcast of The Wizard of Oz that, for many generations of young people, was a sure sign that spring had arrived.

So it was with great relish that I read the great actor Frank Langella’s anecdotes about working with Billie Burke in summer stock when he was quite young in his newish book Dropped Names, which I am presently reading and recommend highly to anyone who enjoys well-written stories about the days when people were celebrities because they were legitimately excellent at something.  Langella’s Billie Burke stories are so entertaining (and—for me at least—highly relatable) that I am sharing them almost in it’s entirety after the jump.  

Frank Langella high res

From Dropped Names verbatim:

In the summer of 1956, she was touring in a lightweight comedy entitled The Solid Gold Cadillac, in which she played a woman who outsmarts the corporate guys and ends up with the money.  Some of the touring plays had parts with one or two lines in them and these roles were played by the apprentices of the various theatres.  When it got round to the Pocono Playhouse, where I was apprenticing, I was lucky enough to get not one but two bit parts.  The first was that of a reporter holding a camera.  I think I said something like “Look this way please” after first picking up Miss Burke and sitting her on a desktop.  The sceond part was the goundbreaker for me.

If you were among the chosen few to get a small role in one of the tourning productions, it was anecessary to have a quick rehearsal with that week’s star on the day of the opening night.  They would have arrived the eveing before or even early that morning from their last performance in some other state.

Billie Burke young

There she was, seventy-two years old, dressed in a two-piece blue suit, wearing a hat and gloves in July, coming onto the stage after we had all been pre-rehearsed.  The voice was exactly as one would have hoped, distinctively tweety.  I was instructed to lift her on her right side, and another lucky apprentice would do the same on the left.  We were then to place her on the desktop, pick up our cameras, say our one or two lines, take a photo, and leave the stage.

She stood rigidly as we approached, and as I went to lift her she said politely to the older gentleman sitting at the edge of the stage:

“Mr. Director, would you kindly tell these young men to place each of their hands under my elbows, and I will grab them to steady me as I reach the table.”  She then turned to us and said: “I’m so old, my dears, that if you’re not careful I might break.”

And that is precisely what we did for the following eight performances as this delightful woman chamred and entertained the Pocono Playhouse audiences with her particular brand of inspired silliness; as she prowled her way around the stage, missing no laughs and playing her audience.  She did, however, have one serious problem:  her bladder.  At any given moment in any performance she would suddenly exit the stage and rush to the nearest bathroom.  The rest of the company, long used to these unannounced exits, ad-libbed their way around until she came back, blithely entering with lines like: “Oh, I just met the most delightful person in the hall and stopped to chat.  Sorry.  Where were we?”

Frank Langella young
Frank Langella in the 1970s. No wonder Noel Coward couldn’t keep his hands off him!

My second role in the production was actually much more exciting than the first.  I was to appear in the curtain call with Miss Burke.  At the end of the play, her character receives as a reward for her victory, a Solid Gold Cadillac; so, when she appears for her cutain call, she is to be brought on by her Solid Gold chauffeur.  I got that assignment because I was the kid who fit into the costume, which consisted of gold lamé pants, jacket, boots, cap, and gloves.  My face was smeared with gold makeup during the Act 2 intermission, and I was told to take my place in the wings during the final applause.  Miss Burke would come offstage, have a sip of water, grab my hand, and lead me out to warm, enthusiastic applause.  The stage manager told me that after I led Miss Burke out for her curtain call, I was to take a step back and, as she bowed, leave the stage.  As the week wore on, my step back grew slower, and my exit less rapid.  I finally ended up lingering in her light so long that the curtain was coming down with me basking in the glow behind her.  Miss Burke was totally unaware of my presence.

At the last perfgormance, the audeience’s enthusiasatic applause swelled even more than usual, and emboldened by the acceptance, I remained close to the star and reached out and took her hand as she rose from her slight curtsy and grandly led her off the stage.  She turned, looked at me with utter bemusement, and as we hit the wings she said, “Musn’t be greedy, dear.  Your time will come.”

You may also enjoy:

You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught:  The Wizard of Oz Tutorial for Youngsters

10 Comments

  1. Marc
    May 7, 2013 at 4:30 pm
    Reply

    Great book – I read it last year.

    • David Munk
      May 8, 2013 at 2:08 pm

      Hi Marc. Yes, I’m really enjoying it too. He writes well.

  2. Ed Miller
    August 14, 2014 at 11:21 pm
    Reply

    Personally, I found Langella’s highly imaginative “memoir” nauseating. I assume it was no coincidence that it was published hot on the heels of the deaths of Susannah York and Elizabeth Taylor, the last two of his victims to still be living. I find nothing to admire about a man who tells dubious tales about so many celebrities who have conveniently (for him) taken their final curtain call. In my opinion, Langella is just a short step above Scotty Bowers, who came out with his own version of the sexual habits of Hollywood greats around the same time that Langella’s smarmy book appeared. I can’t tell you how disappointed I was, since I’d been looking forward to “Dropped Names” for quite a while. Now I’m sorry that I made a contribution, however small, to Langella’s bank account. With the death of Lauren Bacall, just days ago, I’ve been wondering if Langella will follow Christina Crawford’s footsteps, and come out with new editions of his novel every five or so years. Christina’s excuse is that every once in a while new indignities that she allegedly suffered come back to her; with Langella, his reason would clearly be to accumulate enough names of deceased performers to make a new edition worthwhile.

    • David Munk
      August 15, 2014 at 11:42 pm

      Hi Ed,

      Thanks for reading Stargayzing and sharing your thoughts. I had a similar reaction to the Langella book. I thought it was well written but it made me feel uncomfortable at times. If memory serves I particularly felt that way in the Rita Hayworth chapter and other chapters with similar tone. I remember thinking that it was odd to me that he would characterize, for example, Hayworth as desperate and sad without examining his own desperation and sadness with the same scrutiny. I did, however, enjoy the Billie Burke chapter and did not find it upsetting.

      As far as Bowers goes, I disagree with you. My friends in Los Angeles who know him vouch for him and I feel inclined to believe much of what he says. Though his book is far from well written, there has been so much subterfuge regarding sexuality in Hollywood through the years that I felt his characterization of the town to be much closer to what I suspect the truth was. Of course, we’ll never know for sure. But you don’t need Scotty Bowers book to know the truth about, for example, Cary Grant and Randolph Scott. The photographs tell the story.

      Thanks again for checking in. I hope you’ll stay in touch and keep Stargayzing with me.

      David

  3. Grant Hayter-Menzies
    September 7, 2014 at 7:21 pm
    Reply

    In my biography “Mrs. Ziegfeld: The Public and Private Lives of Billie Burke” I tell a similarly charming story of Billie performing “Life with Mother” at Palm Beach Playhouse in 1954, from the perspective of Jim Crabtree, a child actor who made his debut with Burke at age 8. Billie was having trouble remembering her lines, and to Jim looked very much older than the character she would be playing. She seemed fragile in rehearsal, recalled Jim’s mother, Mary Crabtree; she fluffed her lines, appeared worried. Then, on opening night, the elderly woman who went into her dressing room and closed the door emerged completely transformed, totally on and ready for anything, into “the beautiful and charming Mother of us all”, as Jim told me. I also tell about Burke’s last turn in a play that ended up closing in Boston, before it ever got to Broadway, in late 1958 – Edward Chodorov’s “Listen To the Mocking Bird”, with Une Merkel and Eva Le Gallienne. A cat named Tommy was in the cast, too, trained to play “dead” after being poisoned during one of the scenes. In the tryout performances, Billie, who loved animals (she was the Betty White of her day), brought Tommy out with her for curtain calls. When the show closed, Burke heard that the producer was planning to have Tommy put to sleep. Horrified, Burke took Tommy with her to her plane for LA, and that evening settled him in a new bed in the Adrian-designed dining room of her house in Brentwood, to join the other cats she’d saved. More about the book here: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-3800-6

    • David Munk
      September 7, 2014 at 8:46 pm

      Hi Grant,

      Thank you so much for this wonderful story. I look forward to checking out your book. Let me know if you would like to contribute something to Stargayzing. I’m sure you have many stories to tell. David

    • Grant Hayter-Menzies
      November 7, 2014 at 10:17 pm

      You’re most welcome, David!

      All best – Grant

  4. john libby
    September 10, 2014 at 2:23 pm
    Reply

    My great uncle, atty john burke, represented National Amusements , owned by Mickey Redstone, who’s son Sumner is CEO of Viacom. During the HUAC my uncle hired Scotty Bowers through PI Fred Otash to spy on potential scandal fodder among the stars of that era. My late mothers files from her uncles law office is quite rebealing the politics and sexual proclivitied of the McCarthy Era. BTW Senator McCarthy wad right!The truth hurtd.

    • David Munk
      September 10, 2014 at 4:15 pm

      Hi John,

      This is fascinating. So you’re basically confirming the assertions made by Bowers in his book?

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