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Making Hay in the Great White Way

By Lawrence Henley

Ever had to get creative in order to float a loan payment, dodge creditors, or stave off an impending foreclosure? Chances are you probably didn’t find much to laugh about while bobbing and weaving in avoidance of shutoff deadlines or an eviction notice. Once those troubles were behind you, perhaps you found some humor looking back on some of those situations. Still—those are times that can be highly destructive to nervous systems.

We’ve all likely been in situations like these, and cathartic it is to take an opportunity to have a good laugh at people whose financial entanglements make our own look miniscule. Room Service presents us with a grand opportunity for a good old-fashioned howl at a cagey Broadway producer faced with almost certain fiscal ruin: a madcap with a mob of loonies who stretch the ethical boundaries of theatrical finance back in one of Broadway’s most golden of eras, the 1930s.

Have you ever wondered what the life of a real Broadway producer must be like? In all probability, you would imagine it to be incredibly hectic, hurried, and stressful, right? Whatever chaos you might envision would pale in comparison to the insanity and havoc generated by the producing team depicted in Room Service, primarily by the quick-thinking lead character. Gordon Miller and his equally dexterous partners (Harry Binion, the director and Faker Englund, Gordon’s assistant) push their faith and their own agility, guile, and good fortune to the breaking point on an hourly basis. Everything in the world of Room Service rides on the spurious gamble that their new show will be the talk of old Broadway. The goal, of course, is to become filthy rich, wildly famous, and the envy of their peers.

They sleep, do business, and rehearse in digs the namesake of which is derivative of Broadway’s own nickname for its intensely bright sidewalk illumination. Miller’s entire crew are holed up at the White Way Hotel (which, ironically or coincidentally, has within its physical plant a theatre that has been “dark” for the past three years). These rapscallions have stretched the hotel management’s rubber welcome mat about as taught as possible. Like the straining mat, their careers are primed to snap at any time. Without a solid backer, the production’s prospects are rapidly sifting to the depth of a shrinking hourglass.

For the previous four months, Miller has raced toward the limits of his dwindling line of credit. A huge tab has been run up for the entire company’s room and board and for theatrical expenses. Miller’s brother-in-law, hotel manager Joseph Gribble, has sought to hide the hopelessly inflated bill and avoid the ire of his boss, Supervising Director Gregory Wagner. Gribble has been successful in his shell game right up until the instant the curtain rises on Room Service. And, of course, Miller and company are not the only ones with something to lose here: both Wagner’s promotion to vice president and Gribble’s continuing employment hang in the balance. Once the hotel’s auditors realize that Miller’s entire troupe is about to skip on a $4,000 tab, heads will certainly roll.

The production Miller and his cronies are trying desperately to cash in on has been given the grandest title: Godspeed, a Historical Fantasy. Sounds fascinating, does it not—almost as fascinating as, say, Springtime for Hitler? Adding to Miller’s already backbreaking pressures, Leo Davis, the naïve playwright of the “epic,” turns up at the White Way. Davis is expecting to be handed an advance on his share of the play’s profits, and anticipates that his masterwork is well on the way to showbiz immortality. Instead, the young “auteur” encounters Miller and crew at their dodgiest, and nearly at the end of their wits.
Alas, their bad luck turns to worse. When a backer is finally located (with Davis’s help), the financier’s representative (Jenkins) catches the scent of the production’s wobbliness via a not-so-subtle series of exchanges from the eternally-edgy Wagner, holder of the show’s expense tab. To Miller’s augmented horror, an order to stop payment is placed on the check which was to have brought salvation. The disenchanted Jenkins and playwright Davis ready plans to give Godspeed to a rival producer, Morton Fremont. Fremont is an established producer with a much loftier reputation.

The ensuing chaos and the Miller team’s rescue of Godspeed are pricelessly funny, and the last act alone is more than worth the price of admission. Thanks to their ability to survive a series of hair-clenching close calls, the gutsy production team save the day for one and all, and their show—at last—makes it to opening night. All debts are settled, the show is a hit, and an immigrant star is born. One of a number of deliciously funny characters in Room Service, Sasha Smirnoff is the immigrant waiter/would-be-actor working at the White Way Hotel. Sasha has continually extolled his extraordinary performance in Uncle Vanya at the Moscow Art Theatre, this prior to hitting the decks of a boat that brought him across the seas. He lobbies Miller for a role that will make him (or break him) as an actor in his adopted land. In return, Miller and his cast get to eat on extended credit.

Wagner, the big boss man, is also blessed with a marvelously explosive personality. Generations familiar with 1960s television will be reminded of the penny-pinching, behind-kissing banker Mr. Drysdale of Beverly Hillbillies fame (exquisitely played by Raymond Bailey), or perhaps Gale Gordon as Mr. Mooney on The Lucy Show. Still, the biggest scene stealers here are the zany and slippery Gordon Miller and his nimble accomplices. It is small wonder that the zany eyebrow-twitching comedic genius Julius “Groucho” Marx was selected to play Miller in the screen version.

Room Service was a smashing success at the Cort Theatre, running for 500 performances between May 1937 and July 1938. Later in 1938, RKO Pictures purchased the script as a vehicle for the incomparable Marx Brothers. Also featured in the motion picture were a young ingénue named Lucille Ball and leggy young dancer Anne Miller. Both ladies would become major Hollywood stars in the next decade. The show has been produced the world-over (professionally and non-professionally) and was revived on Broadway in 1953. Although authors Allen Boretz and John Murray were responsible for another half dozen Broadway shows between them, Room Service was, by far, their most successful venture. Boretz (1900-1985), later a screenwriter, was one of many artists in the entertainment field who found themselves blacklisted during the McCarthy years. Murray was also a co-producer of Charley’s Aunt.

Speaking of producers, what is truly admirable about Miller and his cohorts is the lengths to which they go (and depths to which they stoop) in order to keep their ship afloat. In avoidance of hunger, handcuffs, seeing their work on the play amount to a flop, and three box seats in the poorhouse, Room Service’s braintrust basically will stop at nothing in order to preserve the show, despite it’s questionable merits. In the course of the play, this infinitely versatile and elusive trio feign just about everything—identities, disease epidemics, and mortality itself! In theatre vernacular, they are “troupers” personified.

Although penned in 1937, Room Service makes for a very interesting and timely choice of production for the present day. Not coincidentally, today’s theatergoers have gone mad for Mel Brooks’ stage version of his classic 1968 film The Producers. That show’s lead characters bear some resemblance to Miller and crew. In a sense, Room Service serves the Brooks comedy as an ancestor—both shows have somewhat slippery, scheming Broadway producers who have taken leave of their senses in order to smell the sweetness of success. Both become completely immersed in situations made of pure desperation. And Max Bialystock and Gordon Miller have both undertaken last ditch attempts to save the day and join the ranks of Manhattan’s wealthiest moguls.

The primary message contained in Room Service, of course (however wacky its delivery may be), is not one that is weighty or philosophical. Nor is the show completely about the ethics of the Broadway producer. When you get right down to it, there is a strong theme that rings true in those of us who have toiled for years in the theatre, and continue to—despite a myriad of hardships, financial and otherwise, that only people in show business can fully appreciate. Friends, Room Service serves to reinforce that ironclad, age-old saw of the theatre which, even today, is written indelibly on the bottom line: no matter what may befall the onstage and backstage heroes that bring theatre to your lives—the show must go on!

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