Alfred Drake; Broadway Singer, Actor

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alfred Drake, the multitalented singer and actor who soared to fame in the original Broadway production of "Oklahoma!" and followed that with a Tony Award for his role in the 1954 production of "Kismet," died Saturday. He was 78.

Drake, known for his debonair good looks and rich baritone voice, had suffered heart trouble and other ailments for several years and died at his apartment in New York, according to his nephew Art Kent of Houston.

"He was probably the most compelling, dynamic leading man I have ever seen on the stage," Kent, said of his famous uncle. "His stage presence was incredible. He had a marvelous voice. And he was a very warm and wonderful man.

"He's the last of a kind. It's the end of an era in Broadway."

In a prolific career marked by stunning versatility, Drake starred in stage, television and movie productions, doing everything from musicals to Shakespeare. He made his stage debut in the chorus of "The Mikado" in 1935, a year before graduating from Brooklyn College, where he studied English.

His Broadway debut came two years later in "Babes in Arms," and he sang his way to stardom in "Oklahoma!" in 1943.

In that musical, the first Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein II collaboration, Drake introduced theatergoers to such enduring Broadway show tunes as "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," "Oklahoma!" "People Will Say We're in Love" and "Surrey With the Fringe on Top."

Five years later, Drake introduced the role of Fred Graham (Petruchio) in Cole Porter's "Kiss Me Kate," the musical version of Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew." He won a Tony in 1954 for his performance as the wily Hajj, the public poet who becomes Emir of Baghdad for a day in "Kismet."

Born Alfred Capurro on Oct. 1, 1914, Drake began singing as a child member of the choir at Brooklyn's Our Lady of Good Council Church. Drake credited its choirmaster for fueling his love of music with performances of unorthodox Masses by Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms.

His other credits, musical and non-musical, included: "One for the Money" (1939), "The Straw Hat Revue" (1939), "Out of the Frying Pan" (1941), "Yesterday's Magic" (1942), "Sing Out, Sweet Land" (1944), "The Beggar's Holiday" (1946), "The Cradle Will Rock" (1947) and "Joy to the World" (1948).

He played Iago in "Othello" and Benedick in "Much Ado About Nothing" at the American Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford, Conn., and starred opposite Katharine Hepburn in a touring version of "Much Ado About Nothing."

Drake also appeared in such 1950s TV programs as "The Billy Rose Show" and "Celanese Theatre," as well as the 1983 movie "Trading Places."

He is survived by his wife, E. Harvey Drake, two daughters and two granddaughters.

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