George Abbott; Legendary Broadway Producer, 107
George Francis Abbott, the cowboy, telegram deliverer, salesman and swimming coach who became the actor, director, producer and playwright of such epochal Broadway shows as “Pal Joey,” “Pajama Game,” “Call Me Madam,” “Damn Yankees,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and more than 130 other theatrical celebrations, died of a stroke Tuesday night at his Miami Beach home.
“It was a beautiful, peaceful exit,” said his wife, Joy.
The grand old man of the American stage was 107, and he was a veritable microcosm of theater in this century, staging both dramas and musical comedies.
At 6 feet, 3 inches, he cut a stunning figure on Broadway, first as an actor (“The Misleading Lady,” 1913) and more recently as a revivalist (“On Your Toes,” 1983-84, which he, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart and George Balanchine had first staged in 1936.)
He directed a revival of his 1926 hit, “Broadway,” that opened on his 100th birthday in 1987, and in 1989 he wrote and directed “Frankie,” an off-Broadway musical adaptation of “Frankenstein.” In 1994, he helped revise the book for a Broadway revival of his ‘50s hit “Damn Yankees.” Through all his productions ran the Abbott brand of no-nonsense professionalism that made him a godfather of Broadway whose Midas touch produced commercially and artistically successful theater.
And when it came time for Abbott to tell how the steady stream of his hits had spilled from him, the title of that 1963 book could only be “Mister Abbott.”
Over 70 years, he was the director who guided such budding acting talents as Gene Kelly (“Pal Joey”), Carol Burnett (“Once Upon a Mattress”) and Liza Minelli (“Flora, the Red Menace.”)
During that span he also produced or co-produced “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” “Brother Rat,” “Brown Sugar” and scores of other shows. And then he was author, co-author or script doctor of “The Boys From Syracuse,” “Where’s Charley” (a musical based on “Charley’s Aunt”) and “Damn Yankees.”
If at his death he had become a mega-force of things theatrical, his beginnings were far less auspicious.
Abbott was born June 25, 1887, to a father who drank too much to ever succeed with his political pretensions and a mother who scorned pretense in any form.
The family moved from New York to Wyoming after the father’s business failed, and Abbott was forced to repeat the fifth grade. That experience, he wrote later, ended any interest he had in academics and the remainder of his real education (although he was to attend high school school and college) consisted of the novels and biographies he read for pleasure. Young George helped supplement his father’s oil-promoting income by working as a fledgling cowboy on nearby ranches.
Yet another business failure sent the family back east where George, fortified by his years on the open range, had by then added muscle to his scrawny frame, enough so that he became captain of the high school football team in Hamburg, N.Y. He was also the best actor on campus. During the summer he worked in a steel mill and later as a delivery boy for Western Union.
Encouraged by his mother, he entered the University of Rochester, ostensibly to become a journalist. But that plan soon gave way to drama. And his goal was not to be an actor, but a writer. His first play, “Perfectly Harmless” was produced by the university’s dramatic club. His summers were spent as a swimming instructor to help defray his school expenses.
Abbott graduated from Rochester in 1911 but decided to spend an additional year at Harvard, studying playwriting with George Pierce Baker. Abbott later called it one of the most important years of his life.
Baker, recalled Abbott in his autobiography, emphasized the pragmatics, not the aesthetics of theater. “He gave you no nonsense about inner meanings and symbolisms.” It was a credo Abbott applied well many years later when he trimmed mountains of symbols out of failing plays.
In 1913 Abbott made his foray onto Broadway and emerged with the part of the drunken college boy in “The Misleading Lady.” That minor role led to more work, and by the time Abbott was content to leave acting to others (more than two decades later), he had achieved a loyal if not overwhelming following.
Next Abbott went to work for producer John Golden, where he pursued his main interests--writing and staging. He wrote and directed “The Fall Guy” in 1925 (a moderate success) but then, for Jed Harris, wrote and directed “Broadway,” one of the biggest hits of the 1926 season.
Abbott came to Hollywood in 1928 to begin a two-year association as director for Paramount. He made film versions of “Broadway” and “Coquette,” remade Cecil B. DeMille’s classic “Manslaughter” as a sound picture and contributed dialogue to “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which for many has come to be one of the finest war/anti-war films ever made.
He returned to Broadway, complaining that making movies was “bits and pieces stuff,” but failed to get the accolades he had received earlier.
Abbott also was undergoing a personal metamorphosis. His first wife, a former high school teacher from Hamburg, had died in 1930 and Abbott began to live the Roaring 20s existence he had written of earlier. He forsook convention professionally as well, producing his first farce, “Three Men on a Horse,” in 1935.
His Bohemian ways made for one of the more lasting Broadway legends:
After writing the book and directing “On Your Toes” for Rodgers and Hart, Abbott returned to his beloved Miami Beach home with its citrus trees and nearby golf course. But the director who took the show for a shakedown run to Boston had tampered with Abbott’s original work and Rodgers placed a frantic call to Florida.
Could Abbott come and fix it? Yes. When? Right away.
Abbott saw what needed done and told the worried composer to relax.
“I’ll fix it in the morning,” was the now legendary response. “But first let’s go dancing.”
The ‘40s saw Abbott in top form with “On the Town,” “High Button Shoes” and “Where’s Charley,” among others.
His triumphs of the ‘50s (“Call Me Madam,” “Wonderful Town,” “The Pajama Game”) were offset by the dismal flop of his production of Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Me and Juliet.” But “Pajama Game” alone would have satisfied most directors for at least a decade. It ran for 1,063 performances and made such songs as “Steam Heat” and “Fernando’s Hideaway” national treasures.
Next Abbott took a flyer on a strange comedy about a bewitched baseball team. Abbott put the magic in the show, and by the time “Damn Yankees” culminated its New York run, it had been given 1,109 performances with Gwen Verdon as the witch. It also brought Abbott a second Tony (the first was for “Pajama Game”). A third Tony would follow for “Fiorello” in 1960, which also earned him a shared Pulitzer Prize in drama.
By 1962 “Mr. Abbott” was concurrently directing three Broadway triumphs: “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (for another Tony), “Take Her, She’s Mine” and “Never Too Late,” which was Abbott’s longest-running non-musical at 1,007 performances.
All bore the Abbott brand of simplicity. Asked once what he thought of method actors, Abbott replied that message dramas consistently failed to excite him and that his answer to mumbling actors was to “make them say their final syllables.”