First of all, let’s set the scene: It is opening night at Detroit’s grand old Fisher Theatre. A new musical based on the classic 1950 Bette Davis movie, All About Eve, is about to be unveiled. It’s titled Applause, and it stars Lauren Bacall, Bogie’s baby, in her first Broadway musical. .
The show is trying out in Detroit, on its way to New York with a book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, lyrics by Lee Adams, and music by Charles Strouse, no one connected with the show exactly a slouch in the musical legend department. To say anticipation is running high, particularly around Bacall’s appearance, is to severely understate the case.
My pal Ray Bennett has convinced the Toronto Telegram to allow us to cover the show–not quite a couple of wide-eyed kids awash in pre-Broadway glamor and excitement.
But pretty darned close.
The show razzles and dazzles in its way, mostly supercharged by Lauren Bacall’s performance in the Bette Davis role of the aging Broadway star Margo Channing, whose place in the firmament is threatened by a young and duplicitous newcomer.
If the audience doesn’t exactly leave the theatre humming the show’s tunes, everyone is delighted with what they have seen. Invited guests hurry to a reception being thrown to celebrate the show’s opening. A couple of young reporters are among those allowed in.
There is no sign of Bacall, so I escape to the men’s room. Exiting in a hurry, I wheel out into the lobby just as Lauren Bacall wheels in. There is a momentary blur as famous star somehow tangles with the foot of intrepid reporter. She lurches forward with a gasp, caught at the last moment by the gallant and quick-thinking Ray Bennett.
I am, of course, horrified. Bacall is calm and apologetic. Bennett is the glowing hero of the moment. I want to slink away in abject shame, but then we begin to chat with the show’s co-star, Canadian actor Len Cariou. He plays Margo Channing’s squeeze. Leaning against the bar, we are three Canadians bonding over drinks.
Eventually, Lauren Bacall saunters over and takes Cariou’s arm. He formally introduces us. I babble more apologies. Bacall is generous in her forgiveness. She is obviously delighted with the show’s reception and with Cariou, with whom, it turns out, she is having a relationship.
As we all chat away, I have to remind my youthful, highly impressionable self that here I am standing beside the woman who had besotted the great Humphrey Bogart, who had starred with him in such classics as To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, and Key Largo, the sultry screen siren who had whispered the immortal, “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”
At this point she is regarded as somewhat reclusive in the wake of Bogart’s death, impatient with the constant questions about him, and not easily available to the press.Not this night, though. Tonight she is Betty, smiling and relaxed, totally accessible.
Finally, Bacall announces that she is tired, and she and Cariou exit together, leaving two reporters lost in her afterglow.
Applause went on to Broadway where Bacall triumphed and won a Tony for her performance.The show, which also received an award for best musical, revived a career that had been sputtering in Hollywood. If there was any doubt about Lauren Bacall’s legendary status, Applause cancelled those doubts.
The memory of that long-ago brief encounter came back last night when I heard that she had died at the age of eighty-nine, perhaps the last link to a golden movie age when a teenage model named Betty Joan Bacal could take the train out to Hollywood, nervously keep her head down on camera while looking up, have it mistaken for the essence of sensuality, and become an overnight star.
By the time of her death, Bacall and Bogart were the stuff of such movie mythology–fueled by two volumes of her memoirs– that it was hard to believe she really existed except in luminous black and white on the silver screen.
But she did. Flesh and blood. Why, she could even get tripped up by an oblivious young reporter stumbling out of the men’s room.
Accidentally. It was an accident. I swear.