Skip to page content

The phenomenon of "reality" entertainment may have gotten out of hand over the past few years, with contestants in game shows required to go to outlandish places and do implausible things, invited to court supposedly rich and eligible objects of affection and/or attention, encouraged to endure humiliation and submit to atrocious makeovers of nearly every imaginable kind. Hateful and heinous as this situation might seem, though, it's really nothing new. The best fables have always been grounded in "reality."

Patrick Dennis (a pseudonym for Edward Everett Tanner III) made "camp" an acceptable part of American culture with his series of short stories about an irreverent, life-loving woman named Mame, injecting just enough "reality" into his aunt's outlandish adventures to make them convincing. After being declined by publisher after publisher, Dennis was advised to turn these "memoirs" into a novel. When Auntie Mame was finally published in 1955, it soon made him a millionaire (the novel spent 112 weeks on the bestseller list of The New York Times).

The first of the two stage incarnations of the audacious aunt came along quickly. Screen veteran Rosalind Russell starred on Broadway in the 1956 play, which was adapted from the novel by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. This same writing team was already enjoying a huge success with their collaboration on another stage classic of quite a different sort: Inherit the Wind (Broadway debut, 1955; film adaptation, 1960). With Russell repeating her stage triumph in the leading role and Tony winner Peggy Cass reprising Agnes Gooch, Auntie Mame became a successful Warner Bros. film in 1958.

The musical version, Mame, opened at the Winter Garden in 1966 and was filmed, with less success, in 1974. (Although Beatrice Arthur recreated the Tony Award-winning role of Vera Charles, Lucille Ball was Mame, and the critics and the public were not impressed.)

Composer/lyricist Jerry Herman, who had begun his Broadway career with words and music for 1961's Milk and Honey (starring Molly Picon and Robert Weede - creator of the leading role in Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella) and followed that three years later with the smash hit Hello, Dolly! (starring Carol Channing, with David Burns and Charles Nelson Reilly), turned the exploits of Auntie Mame and her wide-eyed nephew into another signature triumph. (Never underestimate the value of good source material. His subsequent shows have been successful, but neither Mack and Mabel (1974) nor La cage aux folles (1983) can approach the iconic status of Mame or Hello, Dolly!)

Angela Lansbury had enjoyed a distinguished career as a motion picture actress (Gaslight, The Court Jester, The Manchurian Candidate), but her only musical experience on Broadway before Mame was the complete nine-performance run of Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle in 1964. Singing roles have since become a regular part of her distinguished career, including Sweeney Todd on Broadway and Beauty and the Beast for Disney.

The competition for Tony Awards that season was intense: The other musicals that opened included Man of La Mancha, Sweet Charity, and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. Although Angela Lansbury won as Best Actress in a Musical (over Gwen Verdon and Barbara Harris) and Beatrice Arthur was Best Featured Actress in a Musical, Man of La Mancha took the awards for Best Musical and Best Score. Herman did win a Grammy Award for the original cast album (one of the last of those produced by the legendary Goddard Lieberson of Columbia Records).

Auntie Mame was not the only Patrick Dennis work to reach Broadway. In 1962, his Little Me, a brilliant parody of the celebrity autobiography, adapted for the stage by Neil Simon, with music by Cy Coleman, as a vehicle for TV legend Sid Caesar, opened on Broadway, but without anything like the success of Auntie Mame.

The wild ride begins innocently enough in December of 1928. Into a Manhattan night two lost souls seek out No. 3 Beekman Place, the residence of Miss Mame Dennis. Patrick is being delivered by his nanny, Agnes Gooch, to his only living relative. The houseboy, Ito, announces the arrivals as Mame is hosting a lavish party for an eccentric assemblage of royalty, newsmakers, and other elite types, including Mame's close friends, the imperious actress Vera Charles and publisher Lindsay Woolsey ("It's Today!"). As the party winds down, Patrick and his Auntie Mame begin to get acquainted. A trustee, Dwight Babcock, has been appointed by the Knickerbocker Bank to ensure that Patrick receives a conservative education while in the care of his eccentric aunt; he is fooled by Mame into believing that she agrees with his views. As soon as he leaves, however, she proceeds to expand Patrick's world ("Open a New Window"). Before long, the boy is exposed to modern dance, a nude artist's model, and a nightclub raid. When Babcock discovers the youngster in a progressive school learning about fish families, he promptly relocates the lad to his own alma mater in Massachusetts.

Just then, the stock market suffers its famous "Black Monday" and Mame's fortune is wiped out. Her friend, actress Vera Charles, offers Mame a chance to earn some money appearing as the Moon Lady in one of Vera's new shows. She accepts, but the play's tryout in New Haven is a fiasco ("The Man in the Moon") and Mame is humiliated. Patrick, who has come to see his aunt, assures her that she will never be a failure in his eyes ("My Best Girl").

Mame tries out job after job, but seems to have no luck. After a male customer to whom she is attracted is stabbed by the over-earnest Mame during her attempt to give him a manicure, she is consoled by her loyal staff (the unpaid Ito and Gooch). It is still early in December when Patrick comes to visit them, and Mame declares an early holiday ("We Need a Little Christmas"). As they share their meager presents, the wounded customer, Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside, arrives to apologize for Mame's losing her job on his account and takes them all to dinner.

Beau is smitten and wants to ask Mame to marry him, but she will have to meet his Southern family first. Off they go to Peckerwood, where Mame is introduced to Mother Burnside and the rest of the family. Sally Cato, an earlier girlfriend who resents Beau's newfound love, goads Mame into boasting of her riding prowess. A hunt is organized in her honor, with Mame forced to ride an especially unruly horse, but she manages to keep her seat and bring the fox back alive. The result is general rejoicing when Beau proposes, Mame accepts, and she is welcomed to the family ("Mame").

Patrick's contact with Mame and Beau is reduced to a series of letters exchanged with the newlyweds as they travel the world. As the years pass, Patrick grows older, making his way through prep school and on to college. The sad news that Beau has accidentally fallen off an Alpine peak means that Mame will finally return to Beekman Place.

Vera and Lindsay determine that Mame must begin a new life. They decide that she should write her memoirs, and Agnes is to take dictation with her new shorthand skills from the Speedo class in which she has been enrolled. Mame and Vera begin to reminisce, reminding each other that only true friends can be honest enough to acknowledge the harsh realities of each other's faults ("Bosom Buddies").

Anxious to share the fast life with the less fortunate among them, they decide to give Agnes a makeover and send her out to partake from life's banquet. Glasses off, lipstick and red dress on, Agnes is ready ("Gooch's Song"). Six months later, she returns, pregnant and disconsolate. Mame, of course, takes her in, but this awkward situation worries the grown-up Patrick (who is becoming a bit of a snob). He is now in love with Gloria Upson, whose parents invite Mame to their Mountebank home (Upson Downs), where she is offered daiquiris made with honey and hors d'oeuvres made with tuna, peanut butter, and clam juice. She is equally startled by the Upsons' forthright expressions of haughty bigotry. When the hosts are out of earshot, Mame expresses her own opinions ("That's How Young I Feel").

When Gloria's father suggests to Mame that the property adjacent to the Upsons' would be a perfect wedding present for Gloria and Patrick, Mame wonders whether her nephew really wants this sort of life. Patrick's answer disappoints her and she does not hesitate to say so. Patrick leaves her to ponder the situation ("If He Walked into My Life").

Back at Beekman Place, Mame welcomes the Upsons to her world, which includes a variety of outlandish eccentrics and a very pregnant Agnes Gooch. Mame reveals that she herself has purchased the property next to Upson Downs and will open a home for single mothers. The Upsons are outraged, and Patrick is relieved to have been saved by his Auntie Mame. His affections are now directed toward Pegeen Ryan, who has redecorated Mame's apartment.

After the passage of several years, Mame is preparing for a trip to India, and she seems intent on taking Peter, the young son of Patrick and Pegeen, with her. The saga seems unending ("Finale").

- Dennis Bade is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Associate Director of Publications.