Pearl Bailey in Hello, Dolly! at the Kennedy Center

Pearl Bailey in “Hello, Dolly!”

Pearl Bailey in Hello, Dolly!

It Only Takes a Moment

Perhaps my mummy knew more about me than I thought. One day she announced it would be a good idea to take me to watch a musical show.   Not even a teenager yet, I vividly remember being dragged ‘pushing and screaming’ into attending my first professional musical, Hello, Dolly! at the Opera Theatre sitting in the presidential box at the Kennedy Centre, Washington D.C.

At the time I thought this was a horrifically boring idea but of course I had no choice… Off we went to the theatre.  BUT, it was apparently halfway through the stirring Jerry Herman overture of Hello, Dolly! that I was seen leaning forward in my seat with my arms perched on the box railing listening intently while taking in the temple that was the interior of the Opera Theatre inside the Kennedy Center.

From the moment of the reveal of Dolly Gallagher Levi sitting on her luggage at the train station I became enthralled by the uplifting songs, movement, costumes and scenery — it was a revolutionary, fantastical and wonderland experience for me. By the end of the show, I wanted more.

After the curtain call vaudeville show, we were escorted backstage to meet Miss Bailey and co-star Mr. Daniels.

As we walked backstage towards the dressing rooms after the show, we passed the various scenery on stage that I had seen in the show. From the upstage side (the rear of the stage), I was fascinated looking at the “Harmonia Gardens” set pieces which were actually just wood and canvas and only an inch thick, yet 30 minutes before I thought it all was massively real.

I think it was at this very moment that the magic and excitement of live theatre determined my life’s path.

Thank-you Jerry Herman, Michael Stewart, Pearl Bailey, Martin Feinstein and whomever designed those sets!

In later life, I went on to work on Hello, Dolly! productions for the Queensland Theatre Company in Australia and the tour of Hello, Dolly! starring Carol Channing in her final revival in the mid-1990’s.  I also enjoyed a friendship with dinners and copious drinks at his Hollywood Hills and Florida homes with composer Jerry Herman since the ’90’s as I evolved into his male (and my female) alter ego Auntie Mame — but that story is saved for a future post.

Thanks to my mothers memoirs, the flashback of long-ago events are preserved via an extract:

As part of Max’s farewell festivities as outgoing Australian Defense Attache, and in advance celebration of Australia Day, the embassy had coordinated for us to attend the Kennedy Center to see Pearl Bailey in “Hello, Dolly!”. The director of the Kennedy Center, Martin Feinstein, kindly organized for us to sit in the “Presidential Box” in the magnificent Opera Theatre.

It was a long show and when it was over Pearl Bailey and Billy Daniels, the male lead, gave a vaudeville show for about half an hour. After the performance we were invited back to her dressing room to meet her, and Mr. Feinstein escorted us backstage. Toby was intrigued at the backstage areas of the theatre, and was difficult to get him to continue to the dressing room. Pearl Bailey has the most marvelous and exciting personality and spent a long time chatting with us, particularly with Toby who sat on her lap for a long time, whom she seemed to adore.

Bronze Statue of President John F. Kennedy at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC in 1976As we left backstage, Mr. Feinstein gave us a quick tour of the Eisenhower and Concert Halls too — a magnificent facility, with a regal hall of flags at its entry with flags of all states of the USA. The highlight however is a huge craggy, rough-textured, 8-foot-high, 3,000-pound Bronze sculpture of President Kennedy’s head by the artist Robert Berks in the centre of the grand foyer. Mr. Feinstein told us a fascinating story about how the artist made the sculpture in Italy, and then flew to Washington with it on an old bullet-hole ridden airplane from the Pakistani air force. During its flight, the aircraft was hit 3 times by lightning bolts as it flew through a thunderstorm over the Atlantic.