Sunday May 21, 1967
A Bird? A Dame? It's Barbra!
By Gerald Jonas
THE ceiling of CBS Studio 41 looked as if it had been designed by a charm-bracelet manufacturer. Catwalks criss-crossed about 25 feet above the floor, and from the intricate web of metal scaffolding dangled an array of klieg lights, TV monitors, "Please Applaud" signs, loops of electrical wiring, and a single strand of braided steel airplane- cable, one end of which was connected to a length of hemp rope that in turn was connected to a burly stagehand. The other end was connected to a leather harness worn by a pretty girl in black mesh stockings who was standing in for the star of the show. ("So this way, if anything happens, it happens to her," the burly stagehand said, pointing at the girl in the harness.) Someone gave a cue, the stagehand heaved at the rope, pulleys spun, and the girl was yanked five feet into the air. For a moment she dangled there, like one more charm on the bracelet, while the pulley system and harness were checked and double-checked. Then the stagehand released the rope and the girl landed lightly on her feet. The flying-rig was pronounced safe for use by Barbra Streisand — entertainer, entrepreneur, wife, mother, and one of the most valuable properties in show business today.
A few minutes later Barbra herself appeared at the door of the studio. She was wearing black tights, black polo shirt, and black boots; her hair was short, her face pale, her tummy slightly protruding. A disembodied voice called out from a hidden loudspeaker: "Hi, Barbra." She answered with an uncertain "Hi," and waved to the crowd of technicians who were preparing to tape another scene for her third television special, "Belle of 14th Street," a nostalgic salute to the golden age of vaudeville, which CBS will show on home-screens sometime this fall. To help create a turn-of-the-century atmosphere, a full-scale mock-up of a vaudeville theater has been constructed in the middle of the cavernous TV studio, on West 57th Street and, in a departure from her two previous shows, Barbra will share this stage with a roster of guest stars, including John Bubbles, a veteran of 57 years in the song-and-dance game, and Jason Robards, a legit actor making his debut as a hoofer. Barbra and Robards will be seen together as The Mungers, a team of "quick-change illusionists," in a slightly abbreviated version of Shakespeare's "The Tempest," with Robards playing Prospero, Ferdinand, and Caliban, and Barbra playing Miranda, Juno, and Ariel.
Barbra sat down in the wings of the mockup stage, and watched her stand-in demonstrate the use of the flying-rig for the Ariel number. The girl bobbed up and down like a yo-yo, and swung back and forth like a pendulum. Joe Layton, the producer and choreographer, watched Barbra watching the stand-in. "Want to try it?" he asked. She nodded, but not very enthusiastically. While the stand-in was being unharnessed, Barbra checked her color-image on a monitor that had been wheeled into the "orchestra pit" in front of the stage. "Awful," Barbra said. She sucked in her cheeks.
"We can give you less shadow," said the loudspeaker (speaking now in the voice of Walter Miller, the television director, who presided over a massively complicated four-desk control room behind one of the studio walls).
"I like shadow," Barbra said. She narrowed her eyes. "I look sort of . . . blue. Do my lips bother, you? I have no lipstick on top, and pink on the bottom. No, that's my bad side. Why don't you get me from the other side? I have pink eyelids — can you see them?" The voice assured her that the effect was just right. "I have false eyelashes in my dressing room. Do you think I should get them?"
She rushed out of the studio, and returned in five minutes with long, dark lashes stuck to her pink eyelids. Peter Tofts, the man in charge of the flying-rig (and the husband of the intrepid stand-in) was waiting to strap Barbra into the harness. "It hurts," she said, when he had finished cinching the straps between her legs and tying the laces up her backbone and hooking the overhead wire to an eyelet between her shoulder blades.
Jason Robards wandered into the studio, wearing a dirty-brown trenchcoat over what looked like a baggy orange gym-suit. He gave Barbra a kiss for strength, and then sat down at the other end of the stage, looking tired and just a little bored with the proceedings, very much the old experienced vaudeville trouper.
"Do I do anything to make it easier?" Barbra asked in a nervous, high-pitched voice. "A plié, or something?"
"Just let it take you," Tofts said. He hauled on the rope, and Barbra swung high across the stage, her legs bicycle-pedaling under her, and landed with a thump and an "Ugh" on the other side. Joe Layton rushed across the stage to help her up. Executive producer Martin Erlichman, who was observing from the darkened studio floor, winced. "When Joe told me she was going to fly on that thing, I thought he was crazy. That's a lot of property to risk up there." Erlichman explained that Barbra's own company, Ellbar (the "Ell" stands for her husband, actor Elliott Gould), was producing this special as part of her long-term contract with CBS; if the contract lasts the stipulated ten years, it will be worth "in excess of ten million dollars," he said. (Immediately after the taping, Barbra, who had just celebrated her 25th birthday, flew to Hollywood to star in the movie version of her stage hit, "Funny Girl," but she is due back in town on June 17 for a free concert in the Sheep Meadow in Central Park, which will be filmed and presented at some future date as her fourth TV special.)
If Barbra Streisand's specials look smooth and slick (and over- produced) compared to most television offerings, it is not by accident. "Belle of 14th Street" employed the talents of more than 100 performers and technicians, and took four days to tape.
Despite her anxious pout and the air of a rookie chorus-girl afraid she is about to be fired for incompetence, Barbra managed to dominate the set, insisting on perfection in every detail — especially those details directly bearing on the way she will look and sound on millions of television sets next fall. "She's completely responsible for her whole image," another of her close associates commented during a coffee break. "The way she looks, sings, talks, moves — it's all a conscious achievement; she decided what she wanted, and then she put together her own team to bring it off. And they do."
But backstage —waiting for the actual taping of her Ariel bit, after a series of bruising test-flights— the only thing Barbra wanted to talk about was her baby, Jason Emanuel Gould, born on Dec. 29, 1966. He's 26 inches long and weighs 13 pounds, 4 ounces. "The doctor says he'll probably grow up to be six-foot four; I'm just afraid it'll be seven feet!" She had changed into a pink-and-gold Ariel outfit, with gold-sequined stockings, pink boots, and a pink fairy hat with a white plume. She looked terrified. Was she afraid of the flying-rig? "No, I love things like that." Do her specials get any easier with experience? "No, harder." Her maid brought her a bottle of cough medicine and a laryngitis pill.
Out front, Robards —dressed in a magnificent green and yellow Prospero robe—was lounging on a painted stage-rock, trading wise-cracks with the dolly operators and cameramen, and breaking them up with his funny faces. "What the hell is this 'Tempest' all about, anyway?" one of the dolly operators said to a stagehand. "I don't know, some kind of comedy, I think" the stagehand said. Joe Layton jumped up onto the stage and asked everyone not directly connected with "The Tempest" scene to clear the set. Robards got to his feet and took up a position on a previously arranged mark at stage-right. Barbra climbed up onto a wooden box in the wings at stage-left, just of view of the imaginary audience. A stagehand hooked the wire to the back of her harness.
"Oh, I'm afraid," she said.
"Oh, c'mon now," Layton said.
"I have to wait till I feel the tension, right?" Barbra said.
Peter Tofts nodded. Barbra took a deep breath; the cameramen adjusted their cameras. "Quiet, everybody. Tape is running," the voice on the loudspeaker said. "'Five, four, three...' The voice cut off. Robards gestured grandly and declaimed a quasi-Shakespearean speech, ending with the words: "Come, Spirit! Com-m-m-m-e!" Tofts took his cue and pulled down on the rope, and Barbra sailed across the stage in full view of the color cameras, her legs spread gracefully, her arms outstretched in a ballerina-perfect line, her head cocked saucily, a radiant smile on her face. The wire holding her up was barely visible.
Related: The Belle of 14th Street TV Show