Friday, November 16, 2007

The Real Gypsy

[Forwarded message from The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts'
electronic eNewsletter - please feel free to repost where appropriate.]

Just about everyone who knows theater knows GYPSY, the
landmark 1959 Broadway musical based on the life of
Burlesque show stripper, best-selling author, and larger-
than-life personality Gypsy Rose Lee (1914-1970). The
Theatre on Film and Tape Archive (TOFT) has videorecorded
the show several times over the years, including
productions starring Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and, most
recently, Patti LuPone as Mama Rose (the character based on
Lee's mother), supported by various actresses in the title
role of GYPSY. However, some researchers may be surprised
to learn that TOFT also holds 76 episodes of Gypsy Rose
Lee's own talk show, taped in California in the mid-1960s
and hosted by the real article herself. Lee was making TV
appearances as early as 1949 and hosted her first talk show
in '58, but her most successful and long-lasting program
was the daytime series produced for San Francisco's station
KGO-TV from 1965 to 1968, titled simply GYPSY ROSE LEE.

TOFT's collection of this series was donated to the archive
several years ago by Erik Preminger, Lee's son by film
director Otto Preminger. The tapes do not represent a
complete run of the show, but nonetheless include a number
of fascinating episodes featuring an often surprising line-
up of talent. Lee, who began her career as a child
performer in Vaudeville, drew upon her extensive show
business contacts to attract colorful personalities from
the worlds of theatre, film, TV, popular music, and
elsewhere. Catalog records for all 76 episodes of the show
are in CATNYP , so by typing
the title of the show into the Title search field,
a researcher can summon up brief descriptions of the
library's holdings. Click on the title field of any
record, and a full description of that episode will appear.

For theater buffs perhaps the most intriguing episode is
the one featuring Ethel Merman, who introduced the role of
Mama Rose in the original Broadway production of GYPSY.
Merman reminisces about that experience as Lee shows home
movie footage of the rehearsals at the New Amsterdam
Theatre, giving us brief glimpses of composer Jule Styne,
director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, and lyricist Stephen
Sondheim. Other episodes of the show feature interviews
with the likes of Chita Rivera, Eddie Foy Jr., fan dancer
Sally Rand, Van Johnson, Yvonne De Carlo, Liberace, Flip
Wilson, Rosemary Clooney, Pat Morita, diarist Anaos Nin,
Star Trek's Nichelle Nichols, female impersonator T. C.
Jones, Pat O'Brien, the ill-fated Bob Crane of HOGAN'S
HEROS, and a very young Woody Allen. The musical guests
contribute numbers you won't hear anywhere else: Lainie
Kazan performs a sexy novelty tune entitled "Peel Me a
Grape," jazz vocalist Carmen McRae sings "Live for Love"
backed by her touring band, and Norman Wisdom performs the
title tune from Walking Happy while comedian Red Buttons
dances. There are also references to contemporary events
and cultural trends of the era, such as the war in Vietnam
and San Francisco's then-flourishing hippie movement. Lee
often refers to her own interests and causes, especially
animal rights.

The Gypsy Rose Lee collection offers a mother lode of
material for pop culture historians, and is one of TOFT's
little-known treasures.

Charlie Morrow
Librarian, Theatre on Film and Tape


Amy Lynn said...

I love Patti LuPone.

Anonymous said...

To learn more about Gypsy Rose Lee please go to and look at the new books by Karen Abbott, Noralee Frankel, Rachel Shteir and Robert Strom.

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