[Note: Monsanto, the sponsor of Barbra's television show, The Belle of 14th Street, sent this magazine to its shareholders in 1967. The author is not credited.]
The Dancing Duncans wound up their vaudeville stint with a stirring patriotic number and smiled breathlessly as the audience broke into wild applause. Men in cutaways and brocaded cravats leaped to their feet, and women wearing gowns with flowing trains of satin clapped their jeweled hands. The candy butcher prepared to start hawking his wares in the lobby.
And the big CBS television eye saw it all.
This anachronistic scene was the culmination of four long days—and nights—of taping the new Barbra Streisand TV special, Belle of 14th Street, sponsored by Monsanto to advertise Wear Dated apparel of Acrilan acrylic fiber and of Blue “C” nylon, and Actionwear clothing of Blue “C” nylon. The big color show is scheduled for the CBS network from 10 to 11p.m (EDT) on Wednesday, Oct. 11. It will be the first of several “Monsanto Nights” on TV, to be seen by an estimated 32 million viewers.
Taping was actually completed last April, before Miss Streisand left for Hollywood to recreate in the movies her stage hit, Funny Girl. Since then the TV show’s producers and directors have been distilling, from some 50 hours of actual taping, a single hour’s worth of nostalgic, turn-of-the-century fun and music. The TV special, which also features actor Jason Robards and dancer John Bubbles, is a stylish reconstruction of the good old days of vaudeville. The Dancing Duncans is just one of the “acts” in which the captivating Miss Streisand again demonstrates her versatility.
The gala atmosphere of the final night’s taping was heightened by the presence of a live audience in Gay Nineties costumes. It was made up of Monsanto customers and friends, playing “extra” roles in the production prior to attending a gala dinner at Luchow’s, a famous old 14th Street restaurant whose 19th century patrons included headliners from the golden days of the music halls.
But until that final night, the atmosphere in the big CBS studio on Manhattan’s West 57th Street had been considerably more tense and earnest. It takes long hours, great patience and real physical stamina to produce a TV special. Particularly so when everyone connected with it is a perfectionist.
At about 1:45 one working morning when the coffee had run out (and so had most tempers), one of the actresses said, “Sometimes I wonder why I’m in this crazy business.” She’d been working, in full Gay Nineties apparel, since 11 o’clock the previous morning. But then Miss Streisand started singing again in her sure, clear way — just as though she, too, hadn’t been working all day toward these four or five minutes of perfection in sight and sound.
The exhausted actress sighed resignedly, “But most of the time, I know why,” she amended.
One observer described the taping session as organized confusion. With as many as 150 people in the studio, a maze of cables and wires, lights, cameras and microphones, props, stage children and mothers, actors and actresses, technicians, musical instruments, television monitors, painted scenery, and studio guards, it was difficult to see how order could be maintained. But by Saturday night all the scheduled taping had been completed and the show was “in the can,” with editing to follow later at a comparatively quiet and peaceful pace.
In the course of the entertainment, the talented 25-year-old singing star does a modified striptease (more comic than sexy, as parts of her carefully wired Alice blue gown fly apart); plays three different roles opposite Jason Robards in a quick-change vaudeville version of The Tempest; impersonates a German opera singer; and in a dramatically costumed “single” (see cover) sings some famous songs — Everybody Loves My Baby, I’m Always Chasing Rainbows, and Some of These Days, among others — in the way no one in the Gay Nineties ever heard them sung. It’s a real virtuoso performance.
This is Barbra Streisand’s third special for Monsanto. The first two, My Name is Barbra and Color Me Barbra, were among TV’s all-time highest rated, both critically and with the public. The former won five Emmy awards, and both garnered rave notices and an ever-increasing audience of fans for the young singer with the haunting face and the moving voice.
In Belle of 14th Street she again has her producer Joe Layton, who staged her earlier specials. Layton, a tall, thin, sad-looking young man with enormous vitality, is as much at home on the stage and in motion pictures as in television. His behind-the scenes counterpart, Director Walter Miller, spent most of his four days back in the control room; but the two of them virtually wore a groove in the floor running back and forth between stage and monitors.
The other top talent in the show is more visible, and thus better known to the public. Jason Robards is a well-known dramatic actor, both on the stage, where he made his name as an interpreter of O’Neill, and on the screen (A Thousand Clowns, Divorce American Style). It’s quite a different Robards to be seen in Belle, however. He sings and dances and generally hams it up with the rest of the cast.
Behind the scenes during the taping, it was often Robards and the ladies of the Beef Trust chorus who kept the troops laughing. These hefty chorines were hand-picked from hundreds of applicants. Producer Layton had specified that they must sing, dance, be under 45 (years) and over 45 (bust), and weigh over 200 pounds.
The six sturdy girls finally chosen are not in every scene — they only seem to be. Whether garbed in flowing chiffons for the Tempest ballet, or in lacy-pink baby-doll outfits, they are a ubiquitous group of performers, both on and off stage. One of them, Harriet Gibson, is a concert pianist who likes to eat. Since her “act” included biting into an apple while the TV camera trains on her, she laboriously went through seven separate “takes” just to get everything in proper sequence. It went like this: Enter smiling; remove sign for last act, put up sign for next act; catch apple thrown from orchestra pit; sit down; bite into apple; eat apple.
This is typical of the kind of patient attention to detail that makes taping long and tiresome. Another actress, Nell Theobald, who once won a measure of unwanted fame when she was clawed by a lion during a modeling job, sat with her back to the camera as a member of the theater “audience” and removed her hat 12 times before everything was just right.
The feathers in Miss Streisand’s white boa caused a delay of several minutes on one occasion. So did a stray lock of her otherwise sleek coiffure on another. At this point a slight young man who looked more like a theology student than a hairdresser came from the wings to do the tucking up.
And so it goes, hour after long hour. There’s nothing really glamorous about it. These are people hard at work. Like professionals in other fields, they attend to business in a deadly serious way. Perhaps the most serious of all is the star herself, for she knows that everything depends on her. And her insistence on perfection rivals that of Producer Layton.
Backstage there may be some frivolity. But the minute the producer calls for quiet, there is quiet. And do you know who are among the most devoted television watchers of a Barbra Streisand show? You guess it: the people in a Barbra Streisand show. Whenever the monitor played back what had been taped, they crowded around hushed and breathless, not missing a beat.
It’s a form of quality analysis. Not everyone is as lucky as show people, who can pick their own performances to pieces, thanks to the wonder of color videotape. Chances are when you see Belle of 14th Street on your own screen Oct. 11, you’ll be far less critical than the earnest group of costumed performers gathered around the monitor on four successive days last spring.
Page credits: Pictures & article scans courtesy Craig Dickson, from his collection.
Related: The Belle of 14th Street TV Show
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