A feature by Paul Steiner from a 1970 playbill for Company (with Larry Kert as Bobby):
Edmund Kean, the famous British thespian, believed that diet was important in preparing a role. Consequently, when he was to play a tyrant he ate pork. If he was to be a murderer, he leaned heavily on raw beef and when he was rehearsing as a lover, he always ordered boiled mutton… Claudette Colbert had a theory that what one wore next to the skin was significant. As a result she chose black lace for her glamorous part and homespun when she was a down-country heroine.
Arthur Godfrey broke into vaudeville by trying to sell a cemetery plot to an old trooper, who didn’t buy the plot but signed up the salesman… Don Ameche made his stage debut in a grade school Christmas tableau in which he played the part of the Virgin Mary… Danny Kaye’s very first public performance was in a PS 149 production in which he played a watermelon seed… Gregory Peck worked as a barker at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair.
Act I, Strike 3
Ethel Barrymore, a rabid baseball fan all her life, used to have an extra come onstage on matinee days when a game was in progress and whisper the Giants’ score in her ear.
Close to the Heart
W.C. Fields listed contributions to churches in the Solomon Islands and depreciation on his lawn mower on his income tax forms… Although unable to cook, Joanne Dru has always been an inveterate collector of cook books… The late Gypsy Rose Lee once smuggled her Chinese hairless puppy onto an airline in her bra in order to avoid having her beloved pet ride in the baggage compartment.
Months ago, I asked this question regarding this somewhat obscure but enormously talented lyric soprano who performed in musical theatre, opera and concert. Much to my delight and surprise I received an email from someone who knew Ms. Venora and had relayed my post to her. Most graciously, I received an answer to my question. Ms. Venora decided to retire in 1978 while her voice was still in its prime in order to spend time with and focus on her family. Throughout her career she had seen too many relationships suffer from the physical and emotional absences that are required when working as a performer. I am happy to report that Ms. Venora has been healthy, happy in her marriage and in her life and lives in pleasant retirement with her husband near their daughter and grandchildren.
If you ever have a chance, you should check out her shimmering soprano on the cast recordings of Kismet, Kean, or The King and I. She is the definitive Marsinah and the definitive Tuptim. There’s also her work on Leonard Bernstein’s recordings of Bach’s 2nd symphony with the NY Philharmonic and Bach’s Magnificat in D. You will not be sorry.
As I listen to my ipod shuffle, Lee Venora‘s renditions of various songs from the Lincoln Center revivals of Kismet and The King and I keep popping up. I begin to wonder whatever happened to her. Her voice is a thrilling and grand operatic lyric soprano that just somehow manages to surpass that of Doretta Morrow (being a remarkable singer herself, no disrespect is intended), the singing actress that originated the roles of Marsinah and Tuptim. Hearing Venora take on the final ascending line of “My Lord and Master” is nothing short of breathtaking; or listening to how she takes the final solo reprise of “And This is My Beloved” and completely makes you forget anyone else ever in existence ever sang that song.
Her musical theatre record credits aren’t many: she recorded these two albums, the OBCR of Kean (on which she sings “Willow, Willow, Willow”, Wright and Forrest’s haunting musical setting of Othello’s “Willow Song”) and as Carrie on a studio cast album of Carousel, with Alfred Drake and Patrice Munsel in the leads. (The latter has never been released on CD). There’s also an easy-listening album of Show Boat, but I wonder if anyone’s ever heard that. My searches online are coming up with absolutely nothing, except that she has sung the role of Mimi in La Boheme and was also a soloist on various classical recordings, most notably Leonard Bernstein’s Mahler’s Symphonies.