- The Washington Times - Friday, August 6, 2004

“I feel like a cross between the last vaudevillian and Willy Loman,” quips Rick McKay, who wrote and directed “Broadway: The Golden Age,” the exceptionally evocative theater chronicle that opened yesterday at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

Mr. McKay was on the road as we talked, communicating by car phone while driving to Palm Springs for another opening of “Broadway,” which he frequently books from his own office and Web site in Manhattan (http://www.broadwaythemovie.com).

Patrons can join the conversation today, since Mr. McKay plans to be on hand for the entire day of showings at E Street.

An enthusiastic art-house grapevine keeps bringing inquiries from exhibitors who think their patrons would warm to a show business documentary. Far-flung dates around the country are confirmed through November.

Mr. McKay has a sneaking suspicion that the theatrical distributor, Dada Films, is more inconvenienced than thrilled by his enterprise. “I think they’d prefer to make a nice DVD sale and be done with it,” he says.

The movie should be an ideal holiday gift for people with an enduring soft spot for the lore and legend of the theater, especially musical comedy. As a result, Mr. McKay is certain a deal will be concluded soon.

He plans to augment the theatrical version with about 40 minutes of interviews that update impressions a generation beyond the period recalled by scores of interview subjects in the movie, fondly and memorably immersed in the decades of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

Mr. McKay introduces himself as a small-town boy from Indiana who migrated to New York in 1981 in pursuit of an acting career. The sort of thing he dreamed of doing — the romantic baritone roles that earlier theatergoing generations identified with John Raitt and moviegoers with Howard Keel — had been supplanted by spectacles in the “Cats” or “Les Miserables” vein.

Nevertheless, he did get to play many of the roles he was seeking in summer stock and dinner theater and on boat cruises. He also created a successful nightclub act and helped write the acts of other performers.

By the middle 1990s, Mr. McKay had gravitated into production, shooting segments for WNET, the Public Broadcasting System affiliate in New York. This association led him into more ambitious projects for his own production company, Second Act.

In recent years he has been a frequent contributor to the “Biography” series on the Arts & Entertainment cable network. “Broadway” grew out of an abandoned segment for the WNET cultural series “City Arts.”

“I had done a short piece about a mural on Times Square that was commemorating legendary Broadway performers,” Mr. McKay recalls. “The ‘City Arts’ people decided they were looking for something more hip, but they urged me to expand on this 6-minute segment because the subject was clearly down my alley…I began approaching famous and not-so famous people about recording their memories of Broadway while I interviewed them on digital video.

“It was just me. No camera crew or sound crew. The project became sort of self-breeding. One interview subject led to others. As it kept going, I discovered that the material was not only accumulating, it was dictating its own subtopics and structure. I shot the last interview, with Ben Gazzara, who had been a holdout for a long, long time, in January of this year.”

The names of three actresses seemed to haunt Mr. McKay’s subjects: Laurette Taylor, Kim Stanley and Geraldine Page. The legendary Miss Taylor had her last Broadway triumph as the original Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.”

Mr. McKay couldn’t exhume TV footage to illustrate that landmark, recalled with abiding reverence by several participants in “Broadway.” He did locate an extraordinary Taylor screen test, circa 1938, thanks to Jane Klain, an archivist with the Museum of Television and Radio.

While this audition never won Miss Taylor a belated Hollywood career as a character actress, it does confirm the subtlety and command that so many actors who saw her Amanda swear by.

Another find is particularly gratifying to Mr. McKay because it testifies to the prowess of one of those inspirational baritones, John Raitt. A re-enactment of his “Soliloquy” number from “Carousel” on Ed Sullivan’s original TV variety hour, “The Talk of the Town,” is proving the showstopper of the McKay compilation.

“I can’t tell you how many people cheer at the end of that scene,” he observes.

The performer himself owned a rendition of the song done on another telecast, while garbed in a sleek suit and framed by a modernistic set. He even thought he was in better voice.

Mr. McKay disagreed and held out for the “Talk of the Town” version, done in costume as Billy Bigelow, even though the rights to Sullivan material can be budget-busting. “He hits the high B-flat in the Sullivan appearance,” Mr. McKay argues.

A note to patrons: Don’t head for the exits prematurely, because several of Mr. McKay’s subjects have delightful encores during the end credits. In a similar respect, theaters need to be vigilant about playing the show to its conclusion. Indignation has reigned at engagements where the house lights came up early and obscured these encores.

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