ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Memories of Easter Bonnets Past

By Seth Rudetsky
22 Apr 2013

Kathleen Marshall
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

When we were rehearsing the opening number, the assistant choreographer was walking across the stage, that's right, walking, and suddenly his Achilles snapped! Horrific! Anyhoo, the following year BC/EFA asked me to graduate from playing to actually writing the entire opening number! The only experience I had doing something like that was writing the comedy number for Grease. I really had no idea if I could pull it off, but I was so excited to challenge myself that I said yes. Right after that, I got an offer to do Forever Plaid for a good amount of money ("good amount" because I wasn't making much at that time, so "any" amount was "good"). The most amazing part was that it was going to be in Hawaii! I had always fantasized about going there, and this would be a paid vacation. I thought about it for a few days and decided that even though I would lose out on the money and the delish vacation aspect, I really wanted the challenge of doing something I had never done before. So, BC/EFA teamed me up with an up-and-coming choreographer: Kathleen Marshall! I wrote the song ("Food Glorious Food" changed to "Hats Glorious Hats"), and this time I was the writer, rehearsal pianist, conductor and orchestrator! The coolest part about the number was right near the end; the lyrics and the dance break were all about hats and more hats and suddenly everything stopped and out walked… Elaine Stritch. She looked at the audience and hauled out her signature "Ladies Who Lunch" line: "Does anyone…still wear…a hat?" The dancers came back and we had a big finish. Elaine loves to do that great comedy thing where you say a line while you're involved in another activity so the whole time she was saying "Does anyone still wear a hat" (and she stre-e-e-e-etched it out), she was taking off white gloves and putting them in her purse. Brava!

The next year I did another opening number with the great David Marquez, and the year after that Tom Viola and Michael Graziano asked me if I wanted to work with a young dancer from Cats. I knew who he was because we would both ride the uptown 1 subway after our respective shows, and I saw some work he had done at Easter Bonnet when he did the Cats number. I said yes and thus began a long association with a great choreographer named Chris Gattelli. The year was 1998 and Easter Bonnet was going into the refurbished New Amsterdam Theater where Lion King was playing. The first half of the number was like most Easter Bonnet's opening, meaning lots of jokes about Broadway. One of them I remember was based on the cast of Cabaret having to play instruments. I extended it to imply they were also doing stage hand work and had them sing (to the part of "Cabaret" that goes "Come blow your horn start celebrating, right this way your table's waiting"):
"Though every night we play a Nazi
All of us have joined IATSE"
(PS IATSE, is the Stage hand union and rhymes perfectly with "nazi"!)
Anyhoo, the New Amsterdam was the home of the original Ziegfeld Follies, and Chris' father made giant pictures of Zigfeld dancers in their heyday. The pictures rolled out onstage and then, from in back of the photos, the remaining Zigfeld ladies themselves emerged. They were all in their 90s, and the last lady to emerge was 94-year-old Doris Eaton Travis who was a Zigfeld dancer back in 1918! Doris took a bow and then did a full-out dance! Watch!