The dazzling, disastrous premiere of Camelot at the O'Keefe Centre.
Toronto had been astir through most of September 1960. Men and women descended upon formal wear shops to reserve dinner jackets, formal gowns, and furs; they reserved limousines and tables at the finest restaurants. It was all in anticipation of the gala opening of the O’Keefe Centre on October 1, for the worldwide premiere of Camelot, a much-publicized production reuniting Broadway hit-makers Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, and headlined by Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, and a then-unknown Robert Goulet.
Twenty police officers directed a blocks-long traffic jam of limousines and taxis conveying fashionable passengers from glitzy Saturday evening cocktail parties to the grand modernist theatre built by E.P. Taylor as his gift to the city. As each vehicle pulled under the O’Keefe’s iconic cantilevered canopy, ticket-holders stepped out onto a red carpet aglow in klieg lights and the flashbulbs of ever-present photographers. Searchlights lit the sky, and a marching band provided appropriate fanfare.
The social elite of Toronto mixed with Broadway’s brightest lights and backstage impresarios, and were interviewed for local media outlets broadcasting live from the scene. Then, they stepped into the majestic foyer to enjoy champagne and hors d’oeuvres under R. York Wilson’s impressive 30-metre-wide mural before taking their seats. “I have never seen so many men in evening dress,” dancer Agnes de Mille was overheard to say.
Torontonians without tickets lined Front Street and crowded grandstands erected for the event, all eager to catch a glimpse of one of the many stars in attendance, including singer Gisele MacKenzie, comedienne Carol Channing, dancers Gower and Marge Champion, actor Stanley Holloway, film producer David Susskind, and TV host Joyce Davidson.
The Camelot premiere, and the worldwide attention it garnered for the O’Keefe, the theatre’s manager Hugh Walker assessed, “marked the dawn of a new era in Toronto’s cultural life.” But behind the scenes, the stage production was a shambles. And, in its three weeks in Toronto, Camelot was plagued by comical misadventures that included one actor love-sick for his cast-mate and another prone to all-night boozing, petty bickering and infighting among the producers and a physical altercation between two of their wives, numerous trips to the emergency room, and an appearance by the fire department.
Months earlier, as winter turned to spring, Alexander Cohen sat in Alan Jay Lerner‘s East 56th Street office. Savvy and articulate, the 39-year-old pitched Lerner, Frederick Loewe, and their director Moss Hart. Camelot, their adaptation of T.H. White’s telling of the King Arthur legend, was the most hotly anticipated musical since Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady had been an unprecedented success. Cohen was determined to secure the premiere of Camelot—then still being written—as the inaugural event for the O’Keefe Centre, then under construction in Toronto. Acting as surrogate of Hugh Walker, managing director of the theatre, Cohen made an offer they couldn’t refuse.
In the mid-1950s, Toronto was, for all intents and purposes, a cultural backwater, regularly bypassed by the leading performers and companies. Even the city’s few adequate theatres, like the Royal Alexandra, were woefully shabby. Businessman and philanthropist E.P. Taylor stepped forward, spearheading the design and construction of a much-needed performing arts venue that could inject a touch of glamour into the arts scene. Taylor named it the O’Keefe Centre for one of his Canadian breweries’ brands of beer.
After delays in overcoming opposition from teetotalling church groups steadfastly convinced that the brewery kingpin was “prostituting the arts”—as Walker put it in his history of the theatre—the project received final municipal approval and permits in 1958. Construction began shortly afterward to designs by a young English architect at Page and Steele, Peter Dickinson, who was then enlivening the staid Toronto cityscape with a modern aesthetic. The result was a restrained and dignified exterior blending elements of granite, glass, and limestone—defined by its immense cantilevered canopy, a Dickinson signature—and a lush interior, although some described the facility as resembling an airplane hangar or Brewers’ Retail outlet.
When Walker, Taylor’s former executive assistant and an entertainment industry novice, was installed as manager of the theatre, he surrounded himself with the best staff he could assemble, including Cohen, a well-respected veteran of the New York theatre scene. Cohen was hired in March 1959, to act as theatrical consultant and booker.
As the opening of their as-yet-incomplete theatre approached, Walker and Cohen debated options for the opening show. Cohen was convinced that re-staging the ever-popular My Fair Lady was the best choice. Walker, as he recalled in The O’Keefe Centre (Key Porter Books, 1991), wanted to roll the dice on a high-profile production rumoured to be ready for the stage by the early fall of 1960. Walker convinced his younger compatriot, and Cohen was dispatched to New York to make it happen.
At the time, the norm was for the attraction and venue to share gross revenues on a 70/30 per cent basis. Now, sitting in Lerner’s office, Cohen made an unprecedented offer: not only could Lerner and Loewe stage previews in Toronto rent-free, receiving 100 per cent of the box office, but the O’Keefe would also bankroll all associated costs, including transporting the sets from New York and housing the cast and crew.
From a financial perspective, it was an easy decision for Lerner, Loewe, and Hart. Camelot was the most ambitious Broadway production to date and earned the moniker “Cost-A-Lot.” In his autobiography, The Street Where I Live (Hodder and Stoughton, 1978), Lerner admitted that alleviating the financial load was the producers’ primary consideration.
In accepting Cohen’s offer, Gene Lees notes in The Musical Worlds of Lerner & Loewe (University of Nebraska Press, 2005), Lerner replied: “On one condition. And that is that no critics come up.” Camelot had already endured more than its share of challenges, and perhaps Lerner suspected it was to be a star-crossed production. Adapting The Once and Future King proved difficult for Lerner and Loewe. Over the course of 21 months, the pair penned script and songs in the Côte d’Azur, Palm Springs, New York City, and Long Island—travelling in deference to the wishes of the elder Loewe, who’d had health problems.
Encountering nagging flaws with the musical’s tone and challenges with the words—which he was never able to fully resolve—Lerner hoped that holding out-of-town previews so far from Broadway would ensure minimal press coverage and critical attention until the show’s kinks could be smoothed over. But Lerner’s condition about critics wasn’t formalized in the contract the producers’ signed with Cohen. And it was naive for Lerner et al. to believe that a high-profile new venue in a city which had never before hosted a pre-Broadway musical would pay such a steep price to secure the show without seeking to maximize publicity.
Even as the parts were cast, and the show was announced with a full-page spread in a New York Times supplement in late March 1960—prompting the sale of three-quarters of a million dollars in advance tickets within weeks—Lerner’s struggles had not yet produced a workable script. The play simply got longer and longer.
Moreover, Lerner’s efforts ground to a halt with the collapse of his marriage in the summer of 1960. When his French wife, Micheline, decamped to Europe with their son, threatening never to return, Lerner grew despondent. “I felt torn, trapped, and helpless,” the New York–born lyricist and playwright wrote in his autobiography. “I lost all control of my tear ducts and other bodily functions and could not get out of the chair.” Finally, fuelled by psychiatrist-prescribed “pills of unusual potency,” Lerner managed to complete the Camelot script only three days before rehearsals began in New York in early September. At the first read-through, cast and crew discovered that it ran over three hours, and Lerner and Loewe began the first of innumerable cuts to the script.
Richard Burton arrived in Toronto from New York by train—accompanied by co-star Robert Coote, who played Pellinore—and greeted at Union Station by Mary Jolliffe, the O’Keefe’s publicity rep. She suspected that the pair had been up all night on the train drinking. On the way to their quarters at the King Edward Hotel—some of the cast and crew were also stationed on the upper floors of the Royal York Hotel—Jolliffe ushered them past the O’Keefe Centre. Observing the grand theatre, Burton exclaimed: “Jesus, think of the hangovers that went into this.”
Burton was among his generation’s most acclaimed actors of stage and screen, but his Hollywood career was stagnating. It still afforded him the wealth needed to keep his family living in comfort, but his most recent films had been moribund duds. “I’d reached a stage where the only thing that could keep me acting was a real challenge—and lots of money!” he admitted, as quoted by biographer Michael Munn.
The 34-year-old had been cast as King Arthur, the lead in Camelot, without anyone knowing for certain whether he could sing. The producers claimed they’d heard Burton sing at a party, a duet with either his wife Sybil or Laurence Olivier, depending on whose account you believe. But Burton professed that no such performance had ever taken place. He accepted the part on the basis of $4,000 per week and a percentage of the box office.
Burton’s prowess on the stage was only matched by his legendary mastery of the bottle. He was known to down copious amounts of booze before, after, and—on at least one occasion to win a bet—during performances, which were nevertheless impeccable. A night owl, Burton regularly drank late into the night and well into the following day. When confronted with a request that he attend the O’Keefe’s scheduled publicity photo shoot at 10 a.m., a dumbfounded Burton exclaimed: “What, in the middle of the night?”
Lerner accompanied his star on one such evening excursion. “I decided to see for myself,” Lerner explains in Horris Alpert’s biography of the actor. “We visited a couple of bars, and while I nursed one drink, he would down double vodkas with beer chasers at an absolutely incredible rate.” Lerner concluded: “I’ve never in my life seen anyone drink like that.” By three or four in the morning, Lerner conceded, abandoning Burton in the hotel bar. When the songsmith came down at noon the next day, Burton was still going strong, holding court at the bar. After a nap at the theatre, Burton was set for the performance. On that occasion and others, Burton might emerge with a croaking voice. But as soon as he was on stage, his voice seemed to return, as if “by some occult magic,” Lerner said. He hit every note.
Magnetically drawn to the leading man, a coterie of cast and crew regularly joined Burton for drinks in his dressing room. Among them was the French-Canadian-by-way-of-Massachusetts actor portraying Lancelot, Robert Goulet, whose casting had been purely accidental. On the last day of auditions that winter, the producers were getting ready to leave the theatre when Goulet took the stage in blue jeans and a T-shirt—having lost his luggage en route from Bermuda to Toronto where he was a regular of CBC-TV’s Showtime variety hour. His song stopped Lerner, Loewe, and Hart in their tracks and they returned to their seats. The handsome baritone followed up with recitations of Shakespeare. Within the hour, Goulet was signed to play Lancelot, the role that would turn the unknown actor into a superstar.
Over the course of his drinking sessions with Burton and others, Goulet admitted his lovelorn infatuation with Julie Andrews, who portrayed Guinevere, his on-stage love interest. Loyal to her husband, Andrews rebuffed his advances. Goulet sought advice from Burton, a notorious womanizer, but was rebuffed by his mentor. “Why did he come to me?” Burton later asked Lerner. “I couldn’t get anywhere either.” Andrews was one of the few leading ladies Burton didn’t lay.
When Lerner and Loewe walked into the O’Keefe Centre, the carpet in the main foyer still hadn’t been laid—and wouldn’t be installed until the morning of opening night. They pondered delaying the opening, but the carpet was the least of their concerns about opening a show in a brand-new facility. The backstage crew was unpracticed with their technical equipment, causing delays in hanging Camelot‘s elaborate sets. And Loewe was horrified to discover that the orchestra pit was, to his mind, too deep and the acoustics of the hall were abysmal.
Rehearsals began at the O’Keefe Centre with the producers sticking to their conviction that media attention be minimized. Security guards were posted at every theatre door to keep the press at bay, casting such a tight net that, at one point, even E.P. Taylor was refused entry. The producers tried to prohibit interviews with their stars, but of course journalists found a way—and Burton even did a two-hour CBC radio play during his free time. Even without the stars, the O’Keefe’s publicity reps drummed up Camelot fever in Toronto with fashion shows, luncheons, and other events leading up to the premiere. “All you had to say was Camelot and O’Keefe, and you had the press coming in droves,” publicity rep Jolliffe explained to Lees.
But Cohen’s publicity coup de maitre was to bring in planeloads of theatrical movers and shakers from New York and London. “Not only did we not escape from the theatrical horde of ‘well-wishers’,” Lerner complained, “but they were cordially invited, all expenses paid.” Cohen wanted to show off the theatre and secure future bookings for the O’Keefe Centre. The gambit was entirely successful but came at the expense of Lerner’s peace of mind. The out-of-towners were housed on the upper floors of the Royal York, where Lerner and Loewe and Hart already had their suites.
Lerner’s anxiety grew, compounded by his efforts to wean himself off the prescription pills. It was enough to fray his nerves. Then, exasperating the situation further, his estranged wife showed up in Toronto with their son and her mother in tow. “I was overjoyed to see my son,” Lerner later admitted, “but his travelling companion added considerably to the tense and nerve-racking [sic] atmosphere.”
And so, while celebrities and local sophisticates took their turn on the red carpet on October 1, Lerner could be found in a backstage corridor, being berated by his hysterical wife, furious that he’d left her behind at the hotel. Moss Hart’s wife, Kitty, had been drafted to escort Micheline to the theatre so their husbands could attend to the small details of an inaugural performance. After having given up trying to locate Lerner’s wife at the hotel, Kitty came upon this backstage scene, and immediately grabbed Micheline, pulling her down the hallway and out a fire door. “Micheline’s ravings were out of control, so I did the only thing I could think of,” Kitty recorded in her memoirs. “I hauled off and smacked her.”
Stepping to centre stage at 8:15 p.m., Moss Hart looked out over the audience packing every one of the threatre’s 3,200 seats. “Camelot is lovely, Camelot is going to be glorious, Camelot is long,” he explained, admitting that even the producers knew the musical was flawed. “You’re going to be a lot older when you get out of here tonight.”
Soon after the curtain rose, members of the audience detected the faint smell of smoke. Cohen and Jolliffe stepped into the lobby to investigate, discovering smoke billowing from the escalator’s overheated motor. There was no real danger to the building or audience, and the escalator was repaired through the generous application of grease by the time the fire department dispatched two trucks to the scene. Firemen inspected the scene discreetly at Jolliffe’s behest; then she ran to the King Edward Hotel for air freshener so that, by the time the audience spilled out of the auditorium at intermission, few were aware there’d been an incident.
As Hart had warned, the inaugural performance of Camelot was long. Very long. The curtain didn’t drop until 12:40 a.m. Afterward, the cast, crew, and 500 or 600 guests retired to the Royal York where, hosted by E.P. Taylor, they celebrated both the premiere and Julie Andrews’ 25th birthday. The party continued well into the morning. Although there were no Sunday papers, Lerner could guess at the journalistic appraisal based on the comments of “well-wishers” at the party. “It needs work,” one told Lerner. Another added: “Well, that’s what you’re out of town for.” Within days, it was accepted orthodoxy in New York that Camelot was nothing short of calamitous.
The Toronto Star‘s drama critic, Nathan Cohen, thought the show was a mess, though he said so with tact. In the Globe and Mail, Herbert Whittaker‘s column was headlined, “There Is Work to Be Done.” On the whole, the Toronto critics were generally kinder than their American cousins, withholding outright vitriol in favour of dolling out suggestions for fixes and improvements regularly during the show’s remaining weeks in Toronto.
On Sunday morning, Lerner, Loewe, and Hart gathered to start cutting the musical down to size, aiming to jettison at least an hour and a half. The character of Morgan le Fay was excised, as was her ballet; they eliminated a 12-minute number in which Lancelot recounts his knightly quests. Putting on a brave face for the local press, the producers claimed that the show just needed “tightening.” But Lerner later admitted of his rewriting struggles: “I could not tell at that point whether there was too much story to tell in order to reach the end of the journey, or if the same story could be told with fewer incidents or if the journey was simply too long in the first place.” The task required not a scalpel, but an axe.
Friction grew between the long-time songwriting collaborators. While Loewe had a greater ability to step away when tensions mounted, removing himself from the situation, Lerner wound himself tighter and tighter to the point of mental exhaustion. Reporting dizzy spells on Monday, Lerner consulted a doctor and was rushed to Wellesley Hospital, where he was diagnosed with a bleeding ulcer. Placed under sedation by a doctor, the playwright would be unconscious for five days, and he remained in hospital for nearly two weeks, as Camelot continued its Toronto previews. Rewrites were put on hold.
On the day he was cleared to be released, Lerner discovered that Moss Hart had been admitted to the same hospital. Camelot‘s director had suffered a heart attack. Lerner and Loewe disagreed vehemently on how to proceed in Hart’s absence. The former intended to assume directorial duties by day until Hart recovered, revising the script at night. Loewe was adamant his partner ought to concentrate only on rewrites, and insisted they hire a replacement director. By the time they left Toronto in late October, the two were communicating only through intermediaries.
Lerner confided the untenable situation to his leading man. “Don’t worry, luv, we’ll get through,” Burton responded, and rallied to Lerner’s aid. He coached the understudies to free Lerner for other tasks. Beloved by cast-mates and crew alike, the actor was able to maintain morale on stage and off, even as rewrites cut lines and entire roles. Burton helped steer the production through perhaps its roughest water.
Throughout this period, newspapers in New York and elsewhere were filled with daily reports of Camelot‘s trials and tribulations and coverage followed when the show moved on for previews in Boston and Philadelphia and its (delayed) Broadway premiere on December 3, 1960.
Despite middling reviews and initially disappointing crowds, Camelot eventually found success in New York—but only after an appearance by its stars on the Ed Sullivan Show allowed the public to hear the show’s musical numbers with fresh ears, separated from the production’s backstage melodramas. Camelot played two years on Broadway, and another two in London; the original cast recording was America’s top seller for over a year; and the film rights were sold for two million dollars. Richard Burton won a Tony Award before relaunching his film career as Elizabeth Taylor’s co-star and lover. Goulet became a worldwide star, and Lancelot’s “If Ever I Would Leave You” became his signature song.
Camelot‘s success over the long term is attributable in part to the sold-out audiences in Toronto. The packed houses, Lerner said, were “a great tranquiliser,” helping maintain spirits for a cast and crew that might easily have fallen into despair. And their 100 per cent take of ticket sales surely provided the troubled production the impetus to stagger on.
Alex Cohen and Hugh Walker succeeded. The hefty price tag they’d paid to lure Camelot to Toronto paid dividends, putting the O’Keefe Centre on the map as a first-rate performing arts venue and attracting top-flight acts to the city in the years to come.
Other sources consulted: Horris Alpert, Burton (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1986); Melvyn Bragg, Rich: The Life of Richard Burton (Hodder and Stoughton, 1988); Kitty Carlisle Hart, Kitty: An Autobiography (Doubleday, 1988); Edward Jablonski, Alan Jay Lerner: A Biography (Henry Holt and Company, 1996); John Martins-Manteiga, Peter Dickinson (Dominion Modern, 2010); Michael Munn, Richard Burton: Prince of Players (JR Books, 2008); Richard Rohmer, E.P. Taylor: The Biography of Edward Plunket Taylor (McClelland and Stewart, 1978); and articles in the Globe and Mail (June 7, 1980; November 15, 1996; and May 24, 2003) and the Toronto Star (October 31, 2007).