Behind the Scenes: “Belle of 14th Street”

October 8, 1967

by Allen Rich

drawing of Barbra Streisand as the Belle

Vaudeville may be gone, but when producer-director Joe Layton and writer Robert Emmett began researching material for Barbra Streisand's third CBS special, Belle of 14th Street (Wednesday at 10 PM), they discovered that the dear departed left behind a thorough record of its life and times.

Layton and Emmett, who both worked on Miss Streisand's first two specials, agreed with their young star that since she had appeared solo on those two shows, her third should surround her with other talented performers.

“We were all determined that the show not be just a variety format,” says Layton. “We wanted something different. So we hit upon the idea of restaging a vaudeville performance. All the acts, songs, skits and specialties had to be derivative of the period between 1895-1912.”

Emmett haunted the New York Library's famous Theatre Collection and the Museum of the Performing Arts, collecting voluminous notes on the period.

In Lincoln Center's huge music division, Emmett found collectors' items recorded by Nellie Melba, Nora Bayes, Madame Schumann-Heink and other “belles” of the day. Barbra spent many afternoons in the listening booth. From this music research came the basic idea for the special's finale, which features Miss Streisand as the “Belle of 14th Street,” a vaudeville headliner in all her star-spangled glory.

Research also turned up the famous Billy Watson and his line of well-endowed dancers, the Beef Trust. To recreate the personable Watson, they lured dramatic actor Jason Robards into his musical comedy debut. A national talent search turned up six beefy beauties to accompany him.

Why re-create if you've got the real thing occurred to Layton. John Bubbles, one of vaudeville's all-time great stars, in still very much around. With the venerable entertainer's guidance, they fashioned an authentic “in-one” song-and-dance turn that would have been quite at home at Tony Pastor's.

And so it went. Every act on the bill was carefully researched and checked.

Because of the time, effort and loving care put into its preparation, Belle of 14th Street is a unique accomplishment for television: an authentic re-creation of another era's reigning form of show business starring a young lady who would have been a headliner no matter the time in which she lived.


Related: The Belle of 14th Street TV Show

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