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BROADWAY

Click to EnlargeThe Corn Is Green (1940):
In the fall of 1940 Tommy was chosen to sing in the chorus of a new Broadway show The Corn is Green. Starring Ethel Barrymore, the play is the semi–autobiographical story of a strong–willed English schoolteacher working in a poverty–stricken Welsh coal mining town. The play opened at the National Theatre on November 26, 1940, with Tommy singing Welsh songs and playing one of the school children. He also understudied one of the larger parts.

 

Trivia:
– When Tommy left the show his part was eventually filled by the young actor, Tony Randall.
– In 1945 this story was made into a film starring Bette Davis.
– In 1979 a made–for–television movie of this story starring Katharine Hepburn was filmed on location in Wales.

Click to EnlargeBest Foot Forward (1941):
Late in the summer of 1941, while The Corn Is Green was still playing on Broadway, Tommy tried out for a new musical comedy called Best Foot Forward. Produced by George Abbott, who had just produced the successful musical Pal Joey, and co–produced by Richard Rodgers, the play was set in a Pennsylvania boy’s prep school and would feature a cast of young unknown performers. Tommy auditioned and received the standard request to leave his phone number so they could call him if he was needed. Tommy was unaware that his powerful voice had caught the attention of Abbott and the two 27–year–old composers who had written the score for the show, Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. Along with thirteen other songs, Martin and Blane had written a school fight song that they felt would be perfect for Tommy.

According to the book Beautiful Mornin’ by Ethan Mordden:

Historian Stanley Green informs us that it was Rodgers who gave Best Foot Forward’s prep school its famous name, for the show had gone into rehearsal without anyone’s being able to come up with a suitable sound for this place of youth in merry riot. The school’s fight song had been written around a “working title,” Wisconsin. This became “Tioga,” but that felt like . . . well, the musical comedy version of a prep school. “What we need,” said Abbott, “is a name that has something to do with winning with a lot of sock in it.” “That’s it!” said Rodgers, “ ‘Winsocki.’ ”

So the fight song that had been tentatively titled Buckle Down, Wisconsin now became Buckle Down, Winsocki. Tommy was called back and told he would be cast as Chuck Green, a small part but one that would feature him singing the school’s fight song at the opening of the second act.

Many years later Tommy learned that on opening night, after the first act was over, George Abbott felt the show was a flop. The audience response had been lackluster, and the show didn’t seem to have any punch. Then the curtain rose for the second act, and Tommy’s powerful baritone voice rang out with the rousing fight song Buckle Down, Winsocki. When he came to the end of the song and began to walk off stage the audience rose to its feet with a thunderous standing ovation, and the stage manager turned to Tommy and said, “Go out a take a bow, son, you’re a star now.” Soon after the play opened a reviewer for the New Yorker magazine wrote, “If ‘Buckle Down, Winsocki’ isn’t the best school song in America, I wish you’d name one.”

Tommy’s rendition of that song proved to be the spark that ignited the play, a point that was emphasized by Hugh Martin in a letter to Tommy dated October 4, 2001, which reads in part:

George Abbott has told me several times that the show might have failed if it hadn’t been for you. He said that until you stepped forward to sing “Winsocki” he was not at all sure which way the wind was going to blow. After you stopped the show for us, he told me he knew we were going to be a smash!

Click to EnlargeWithin days Abbott arranged to have Tommy record Buckle Down, Winsocki with Benny Goodman and His Orchestra. On the flip side of the record Peggy Lee sang another song from the musical, Shady Lady Bird (a song that was not used in the movie). The 78rpm record was an immediate hit around the country, and Buckle Down, Winsocki became one of the most popular songs of the early 1940s.

Toward the end of Best Foot Forward’s run, Arthur Freed came to New York City and attended a matinee performance of the show. Arthur Freed was the head of the Metro–Goldwyn–Mayer unit in charge of producing the movie studio’s musicals, and he liked Best Foot Forward. Although Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures, had initially offered to purchase the play’s movie rights, Arthur Freed out–bid him and M–G–M bought the rights to the musical for $150,000. In addition to the young composers Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, Arthur Freed decided to bring some of the young Broadway cast to Hollywood to do the movie version. Included in that group were Gil Stratton (who had played the male lead), June Allyson, Nancy Walker, Kenny Bowers, and Tommy Dix.

Trivia:
Best Foot Forward ran on Broadway for 326 performances.
– The top ticket price for Best Foot Forward was $6.60.
– Tommy was paid $75 per week to be in Best Foot Forward.
– The tune from the song Buckle Down, Winsocki was used for the 1970’s Buckle Up For Safety public service announcements.
– Gene Kelly did the choreography for the show.
– Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane each earned between $400 and $500 per week while Best Foot Forward was on Broadway.
– Ralph Blane’s real last name was Hunsecker.
– Hugh Martin graduated from the Birmingham Conservatory of Music in Birmingham, Alabama.
– Harry Cohn had wanted to buy the movie rights to Best Foot Forward for Rita Hayworth and Shirley Temple.
– Two months after Best Foot Forward opened on Broadway the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entered World War II.

Once Best Foot Forward had settled into its Broadway run, Tommy’s bestselling record and show–stopping performance began bringing numerous inquiries and offers to appear and sing. One of the offers he accepted was a booking at the Copacabana nightclub, just down the street from the Ethel Barrymore Theatre where Best Foot Forward was playing. Each night after his Broadway show was over, Tommy would walk over to the Copacabana and sing in their late show. He was such a hit that when Best Foot Forward closed in July 1942, Tommy was hired to sing at the Ritz Carlton in Boston for six weeks.

Trivia:
– Up until the 1960s, Boston’s Ritz–Carlton Hotel was regarded as a private club for the very wealthy. Guests were regularly checked to see if they were in the Social Register or Who’s Who, and the hotel sometimes went so far as to examine the quality of writing paper on which the guests wrote to the hotel requesting reservations (if it wasn’t of high enough quality, they were refused).

Tommy also used his sudden celebrity status to help schools and organizations raise money for various charities. Performing at Mrs. John Jacob Astor’s dinner dance for the women’s council of the Navy League in May 1944, and at the Hunter College Elementary School’s “Victory Rally” to help raise money for the Red Cross, were two such occasions.

 

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