15 Vandam Street
Photo by Carol Rosegg
The cast of “Room Service” at the SoHo Playhouse
Nearly seventy years later, ‘Room Service’ still delivers
By Will McKinley
One of the great injustices of modern American popular culture is our collective lack of appreciation for the classics.
Case in point: I visited my parents in Florida recently and, after an early bird dinner at Applebee’s, we decided to make it a Blockbuster night. Once inside, I was overwhelmed by what seemed like hundreds of DVDs of “You, Me and Dupree,” a rather unfunny-looking comedy from last summer. I looked further and noticed that almost every movie available for rent had been released within the last few years. So I ambled over to the checkout counter and asked the teenaged attendant where I could find the “old movies.”
“You mean, like from the ’90s?” replied the young woman with the crispy perm.
“No,” I smirked. “I mean, like from the ’40s.”
“Oh, I don’t think we carry any of those,” she said in between snaps of grape Bubble Yum.
“Well you should,” was my witty reprimand. Then I went back to my parents’ house and switched on Turner Classic Movies.
There are more movie channels on digital cable than I can shake a remote at, but only one of them consistently airs films produced in glorious black & white. I live in constant fear that the bean counters at Time Warner will yank my beloved TCM in favor of a channel devoted entirely to the “American Pie” movies. I even promote the TCM lineup to friends and co-workers in a desperate effort to carry the monochromatic torch and preserve the art form that I have loved since childhood.
New York City’s Peccadillo Theater Company has a similar mission, but with classic works of the American Theater. Now in its second decade of producing what they call “forgotten American classics,” Peccadillo’s current project is a revival of “Room Service,” the 1937 farce about a shady Broadway producer and his efforts to outwit the management of the hotel in which he and his cast are living.
There was a lot of gray hair in the audience on a recent Monday night when I saw “Room Service” at the SoHo Playhouse. There were also a number of bald heads, and at least one toupee. As the creaky crowd slowly filed into their seats, I wondered if the Peccadillo brain trust had ever considered touring Florida with one of their revivals. The residents of my parents’ 55-plus community would eat this show up like complementary Jell-O.
It’s doubtful, however, that even the eldest of the audience members at the SoHo Playhouse was there when “Room Service” opened at Broadway’s Cort Theater on May 19, 1937, where it ran for 500 performances. Early the next year the movie rights were sold to RKO Radio Pictures for the then-record sum of $225,000, and RKO paid the Marx Bros. $100,000 to star in the film. The story was awkwardly adapted to fit the familiar stock characters of fast-talking shyster Groucho, conniving immigrant Chico and madcap mute Harpo. While the film was a critical success, it was a box office disappointment and a disappointment to the Marx Brothers.
“We can’t do gags or play characters that aren’t ours,” Groucho said at the time. “We tried it and we’ll never do it again.”
Six years later, RKO attempted to recoup their investment by turning “Room Service” into a musical comedy vehicle for a young, blue-eyed crooner by the name of Frank Sinatra. “Step Lively” rejiggers the story, turning the young playwright character into the romantic lead and transforming him from a small town rube into a tough guy with a killer voice. It also features some addictively hum-able Sinatra tunes by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, including “As Long as There’s Music” (with co-star Gloria de Haven), “Where Does Love Begin” (with lovesick Anne Jeffreys) and “Some Other Time,” the love theme to Frankie’s first big screen kiss.
My introduction to “Room Service” was the Marx Bros. film, which I first saw on Channel 9’s “Million Dollar Movie” sometime in the late 1970s. (Yes, not so long ago, a broadcast television station ran black & white movies in primetime, and nobody called the cable company to complain.) But the most enjoyable version of “Room Service” and easily the most enjoyable film I have seen in recent memory is “Step Lively.” It’s a sharp satire of the entertainment industry with a hip edge lacking from the claustrophobic Marx Bros. movie. Unlike that version, “Step Lively” brings the show-within-a-show to life and features some inventively-staged dance routines and a pitch-perfect performance by George Murphy, out-Groucho-ing Groucho in the role of the crooked producer. Tragically, “Step Lively” has never even been released on DVD. (The Marx Bros. film is currently available on a double feature disc with 1939’s “At the Circus.”)
I wondered if Peccadillo’s production of “Room Service” would be better than the Marx movie (which I consider to be among the weakest of their canon) or if it would top the top of the heap, “Step Lively.” The answer to those questions is (in order) yes and no.
Director Dan Wackerman keeps the action tightly staged and fast-paced in this blast from the theatrical past. The competent cast is led by David Edwards as the fast-talking con man Gordon Miller. And no, he does not sport a greasepaint moustache. This producer owes more to Nathan Lane than Groucho Marx. Edwards is a veteran of touring productions of “The Producers” and, when the Broderick-esque Scott Evans shows up as naïve playwright Leo, I half expected the two actors to break into a duet of “Leo and Max.”
The standout of the cast is Dale Carman as the nervous Nellie manager of the hotel, Mr. Gribble. Carman seems to be channeling the spirit of the great character actor Franklin Pangborn, who perfected the archetype of the prissy, perspiring sourpuss in dozens of classic films.
As the smiling crowd poured out of the theater after the show, their step seemed just a bit more lively. I even caught one older couple doing a few dance moves to the 1930s-era walk-out music. Maybe when the Peccadillo Theater Company is done with their current run of “Room Service,” they could produce a stage version of “Step Lively.” I guarantee they would take that one straight to Broadway! Or at least to the Savannah Club in Port St. Lucie, where my parents and their friends are sure to be in attendance.