Stage Door

By Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman

The Plot:

During the Depression, the Footlights Club in the west Fifties provides an affordable respite and community for the bevy of struggling stage actresses who reside there. They are an amusing and varied lot. The main story concerns Terry Randall, a headstrong and witty girl from the Midwest who is determined to become a leading actress on the Great White Way. While pursuing her career, she becomes involved with two completely different beaux: the left-wing arrogant playwright Keith Burgess, who eventually goes Hollywood as a screenwriter, and David Kingsley, a well-groomed elegant film producer who decides to return to Broadway. Among her co-residents at the Footlights Club are Jean Maitland, who lands the Holy Grail—a seven-year film contract; Kaye Hamilton, whose lack of stage success leads to suicide; Pat Devine, a nightclub dancer; and Linda Shaw, a society girl who shocks her mother by having an affair with a wealthy married man. Despite the vicissitudes of the theater trade, Terry sticks to her guns and wins both the leading role in a Broadway play and the affections and respect of the man she loves.

About the Play:

Stage DoorIt was Edna Ferber who first conceived of the idea of Stage Door; her niece, Janet Fox, was an aspiring actress who lived at the Rehearsal Club, the obvious model of the residence in the play. For Ferber and Kaufman, the situation offered a tantalizing conceit: telling the stories of two dozen young female characters, flinging themselves around the same central setting, keeping their various stories in the air for more than two hours. As a carnival of characterization, Stage Door is tough to beat; we come to know—and care for—each of the striving female characters in the play.

Stage Door is also a valentine to the legitimate stage. Hollywood—and the concomitant cheapening of acting talent—comes under consistent attack in the play. Not even Kaufman and Hart's Once in a Lifetime presents such a negative portrait of the vampire-like seduction of the film industry. Perhaps the most enjoyable characterization in the play is that of Keith Burgess, an arrogant agitprop playwright who sells out his politics for a fat juicy screenwriting contract in Hollywood. Obviously based on the playwright Clifford Odets, the portrait of Burgess even presages Odets' difficult struggles with his own conscience in Hollywood. David Kingsley, the play's tasteful and sophisticated film producer, is also a gentle valentine to MGM producer Irving Thalberg, who had died a month before the play's premiere, and for whom Kaufman was filled with admiration. In fact, probably no play of the 1930s so perfectly sums up the business of show business on both the East and West Coasts, and is extremely prescient about the ever-present tension between theater and film.

Stage History:

Stage Door opened on October 22, 1936 at the Music Box Theatre and ran 169 performances. Ironically, for a show that directed a fair amount of hostility towards Hollywood, the lead was played by a real film star, Margaret Sullavan. Sullavan's pregnancy late in the run curtailed a successful engagement. Broadway's loss was Hollywood's gain, however, when RKO picked up the film rights for a 1937 movie version, starring Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, and Adolphe Menjou (in a part created for the film). The movie was so radically altered in its plot by Kaufman collaborator Morrie Ryskind, working with Anthony Veiller, that Kaufman himself quipped that "it should have been retitled Screen Door." Indeed, the anti-Hollywood bias in the play had been discarded completely, but there are many compensatory charms in the film, almost all of which are in the spirit of the play. Joining Hepburn were such up-and-coming comediennes as Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, and Ann Miller. The movie, directed by Gregory LaCava received four Academy Award nominations and is also the film where Hepburn, acting badly onstage in Terry Randall's Broadway debut, intones her oft-mocked line, "The calla lilies are in bloom again." Although Stage Door is an ideal play for colleges or community groups with a large female membership, to this date, there has been no Broadway revival.

Production notes:

11 men, 22 women—not much doubling possible.

Two interiors—can be combined into one set.

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I live and breathe theater. That's what I'm crazy about. I want to play everything I'm suited for. Old hags of eighty, and Topsy, and Lady Macbeth. And what do I get? Ingenues—and very little of that. You don't know what it is to be an actress. You're a writer--if you feel something you can write it. But I can't act unless they let me. I can't just walk up and down your room, being an actress.

--Terry Randall in Stage Door

Flash box:

One of Hollywood's favorite classic movies has an even more impressive theatrical pedigree: the original Stage Door.