The Time Mary Martin Got Taxi Signals Onstage

Categories: Theater

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The late James Kirkwood's 1986 play Legends!--about two feuding old movie stars who are comically reunited--developed its own legend thanks to a mass of on-the-road problems, including the contrasting antics of its stars, the passive-aggressive Mary Martin and the just plain aggressive Carol Channing.

But one of the most famous things about it is how Mary--who just couldn't seem to retain a word of the play--had to wear an earpiece so she could be prompted on most of her lines, and at one performance she actually heard traffic reports, which she repeated, in character!

Stuff like "There's a pileup on LaBrea, but traffic's moving on Wilshire..." as the audience sat there, even more stunned than if she'd said the play's actual dialogue.

That kind of story makes for great cocktail chatter for theater queens, but alas, it's not what really happened.

But what really happened is still pretty good!

In Diary of a Mad Playwright, Kirkwood's breathlessly readable book about the play's inception, tour, and ultimate death, he remembers that when the show was trying out in Phoenix, Mary's hearing device started misbehaving and picking up taxi cab dispatches while she was onstage!

Her hills were alive...with the sound of car alerts.

That threw Mary even more than usual--though thankfully she didn't repeat the dispatches to the audience--so of course, they frantically took the device out of her ear at intermission.

And the weird thing is, she then did Act Two perfectly!

After that, Mary amazingly retained all her lines and did OK.

All because she couldn't take a chance on hearing stuff like "Cab 302, please pick up Mrs. Campbell in Scottsdale."

I love show biz.

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6 comments
BetteD
BetteD

OMG, Carol Channing's head looks twice as big as Mary Martin's in that pic! 

 

"Car 54 where are you?"  (I couldn't resist!)

 

musto
musto moderator editor

 @BetteD Or Studio 54, where are you?

CafeMuscato
CafeMuscato

At one particuarly odd point in my always odd career, I spent a fair amount of time working for a Legend of the Theatre and sidekick, both of whom required earpieces to carry out their act (which, even though they'd been doing it for decades, had started slipping their minds.  Well, actually, their minds had started slipping, ever so slightly, but that's another story). 

 

It was terrifying, as I had to cue both of them.  I will never forget the night the script went missing, and I had to ad lib the first ten minutes of the second half until someone came running up with another copy.  Onstage, they were flawless (although the show definitely took a slight turn toward the Dada), but in my little booth off stage left I died a thousand times.

 

Both deeply resented any comparison, as we traveled about, to Legends ("poor Mary," the star would say, "so brilliant and totally gaga.  I just need a reminder now and then..."), and my presence was meant to be a deep dark secret, which it mostly was, except for the other memorable evening of the tour, when a wire somehow got crossed and in the audience you could hear me whispering just under the actual dialogue ("Xxxx, stand up and say 'Broadway has been very good to us...'").  Good times...

 

bwaybill
bwaybill like.author.displayName 1 Like

Yeah, Carol would say stuff like "Gee, thanks, Mary! You blew the laugh!" A great book.

crooner27
crooner27 like.author.displayName 1 Like

This book is a classic!  And one of the things I love about it is that in spite of all the shenanigans, I still finished the book empathizing with and admiring both actresses.  Some of the best scenes in the book, for my money, were when Carol Channing would break character on stage to grouse at Mary Martin in full view of the audience.

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