1959 was a banner year on Broadway. Ethel Merman opened in the smash hit, “Gypsy.” Young Carol Burnett made her debut in “Once Upon a Mattress.” Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft portrayed Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan in “The Miracle Worker.” Judy Garland was sold out at the Palace. And Rogers and Hammerstein gave the world “The Sound of Music.”
It was also the year Dexter Coleman cast Vivica Landers to play the lead in “Look Out For Love!” which the legendary Mr. Coleman had adapted from a classic French farce. Ms. Landers had originally turned down the role as she was making her television debut in a show filmed in Hollywood. But filming ended early and she ultimately accepted the opportunity to work with her old friend and theatrical giant.
Rehearsals began on a wintery February 1st despite frigid New York weather and light snow blanketing midtown Manhattan. Mr. Coleman arrived at the theater in a taxi to find a note handed to him by the stage manager. A telephone message from Ms. Landers stating she would be late.
“Crank up the heat in this old barn,” Coleman ordered the house manager. “And get us an Olympic size urn of hot coffee. It’s going to be a long day.”
Known as a witty but relentless taskmaster, Dexter Coleman prided himself on his versatility as an actor, singer, songwriter, playwright and director. He’s not in the cast of “Look Out For Love!” but as playwright and director he demands perfection in every aspect of the production. His affection for cigarettes and coffee were acquired on his first trip to America in his 20s. His London upbringing bred him on tea and biscuits prepared by his doting mother. But America quickly corrupted such refineries and today he’s ready for his first fag (a British term for cigarette) and cup o’ joe.
“All right, everybody, let’s get started.” He takes his seat at the head of a long table at the center of an empty stage, followed by the dozen members of his cast taking their seats, scripts in hand. “Miss Landers will join us shortly,” as he lights his first of many cigarettes. “Mack, who do you have to sleep with to get a cup of coffee around here?” he bellows at the resident stage hand.
“Coming, chief,” the old stage hand responds. The cast members open their scripts as their director begins to describe the setting and various characters’ personalities and motivations. Moments later, Mack walks over and delivers a steaming cup to the theatrical icon.
“You’re a dear,” Coleman thanks him. “Remind me to put you in my will,” which get a laugh from the cast.
“I’ll do that, Mr. Coleman,” Mack responds as he exits.
Coleman takes a nice, satisfying sip from his cup and declares, “Is there anything better than a good laugh and a strong cup of coffee? Let’s start at the first scene. I’ll read Vivica’s part until she gets here.” And so the rehearsal begins.
Two hours later and half way through the second act, the elegant Vivica Landers breezes through the stage door and onto the stage, her long mink stole trailing her. “Darlings! I am so sorry. This dreadful snow is wreaking havoc with everyone. My driver is sick. My husband is stuck on the coast. And I haven’t even had breakfast. I’m starving!” She takes her seat at the table.
Calling out, “Mack, brings Miss Landers some coffee, please!”
“Oh Dexi, no. You know I don’t drink coffee,” she retorts.
“Oh, that’s right,” Coleman responds. “Herbal tea for Miss Landers.”
Mack calls out from the wings, ”You got it, boss.”
“It’s ironic that you don’t drink coffee when the after-dinner scene at the end of the first act is all about drinking coffee,” the director reminds his star. “I’ll make a note to tell the prop master to color some tea extra dark. The audience will never know the difference,” he assured her.
The rehearsal resumes and while Vivica Landers is an old pro, she seems to be off to a slow start. She’s having trouble grasping her character and asks Coleman many questions causing the reading to stop and start to the annoyance of some of the cast members, as she sips away at cup after cup of her tea.
The show opens in a month and during that time the sets are built on stage and rehearsals had moved to an upstairs rehearsal hall. With an 8:30 curtain, the show can run no more than two and a half hours including a 15 minute intermission or union crews must be paid overtime after 11 p.m., which producers are loath to pay.
Trouble is, after three weeks of rehearsals, the show is almost 15 minutes longer than two and a half hours and no matter how much prodding Coleman directs his cast to speed up things, his star resists. The rehearsals move back onto the stage with a beautifully decorated and furnished set.
With only five more rehearsals to go before opening night, Dexter Coleman’s patience is growing short with the sluggish pace and starts to lean on his cast, focusing on the star, whose herbal tea drinking has stopped as the cast is now “on its feet” without scripts as their director blocks their movements on the actual set.
When it comes to the after-dinner scene ending Act 1, Vivica Landers’s character is charged with serving three dinner guests with a pot of coffee. But each time she pours a cup she does so with nervous precision that is taking too long. “Come on, darling,” calls out an impatient Dexter Coleman from the fifth row, “we aren’t at a retirement home. You’re the confident hostess seducing your prospective lover with spiked coffee. Put some elbow grease in it!”
“Look, Dexi, do you want me to spill this all over?” she protests.
“All right, just sit down and start drinking,” he directs. The scene proceeds and Vivica playing the hostess is oozing with comic seduction of her handsome prospect, unaware he is being fed an aphrodisiac coffee cocktail. The scene ends and Coleman turns to his assistant director with a stop watch, who whispers in his ear. Dexter Coleman bellows, “It’s running long again.”
“Oh Dexi, cut some of their lines or just pay the flipping overtime,” Vivica stands impatiently and exits.
“We’ll have to make up for it in the second act,” Coleman says quietly to his assistant. “I have an idea,” he adds as he leans in and whispers.
Opening night is always a nerve-racking but exciting time in the theater. A black-tie and evening gown audience joins the critics who will either launch a success or sink a ship. Vivica is dressed and made up, sitting in her dressing room, looking over her script for one last time. She refuses a cup of herbal tea just as her name is called to go onstage.
The performance is going as expected when the after-dinner scene begins. Vivica brings in the coffee pot, pours everyone cups, then sits and they all begin to drink as the dialogue continues. Vivica takes her first drink, which is a big one to comically prompt her prospective lover to drink, and she is suddenly taken back a bit. But she goes on with the scene, gets the laughs in the right places, and finally, the Act 1 curtain falls.
Vivica makes a beeline to the wings where she corners the stage manager. “Did you put coffee in the coffee pot?” she demands. “I’m not in charge of props, Miss Landers,” he huffs as he turns and disappears. She looks around and grabs another stagehand by the strap on his overalls. “Who’s in charge of props?”
“I am,” he answers.
“Did you put coffee in the coffee pot?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he answers nonchalantly.
“Hm. It was pretty good. I haven’t had coffee in years,” she adds cheerfully.
Remarkably, the second act concludes at 10:56 p.m. and the audience appears to have had a successful evening of Dexter Coleman’s latest frothy comedy starring one of their favorite divas. Friends come backstage to congratulate the creative team and the night ends wondering what the critics will write.
The next morning, Mr. and Mrs. Dexter Coleman (she’s number four) sit at the breakfast table when the morning papers arrive. They both scan through them and are relieved and delighted to read the favorable reviews. But Mrs. Coleman reads The New York Post with curiosity. She puts the paper down and turns to her husband, “That’s funny what Earl Wilson wrote about you.”
“What did he say?”
She continues, “He asked you what you attributed the success of the show to. And you answered…”