BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
Even as the eternally-previewing "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" re-spins its $65 million web-in-progress in front of paying customers, let's dig up its long-lost 1935 Broadway ancestor "Jumbo."
Just like "Spider-Man," the much-ballyhooed and much-postponed musical "Jumbo" was the most expensive-ever spectacle to arrive on Broadway; an accident-scarred behemoth featuring a score by popular songwriters plus some super-duper special effects that necessitated rebuilding its theater.
Costing an unprecedented $340,000 (most of it bankrolled by socialite John Hay Whitney), "Jumbo" was a circus musical masterminded by pint-sized producer Billy Rose. Contrary to his creed as a showman, Rose invested $35,000 of his own (and possibly his then-wife Fanny Brice's) dough into the production.
Starring Jimmy Durante and featuring a score by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, "Jumbo" boasted Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra, a real elephant (plus 500 other animals) and a 100-member company of Broadway artistes and circus performers. The mammoth 4,500-seat Hippodrome, located at 43rd Street and Sixth Avenue, was rebuilt into a circus environment complete with a big top, grandstands, a revolving stage and aerial rigging plus sideshow arcades in the lobby.
Outside the Hippodrome, Rose plastered a vast sign reading "SH-H-H-H! ‘JUMBO' IS REHEARSING!" And rehearse it certainly did: Following three months of rehearsals during the summer, the show's original Labor Day opening was pushed back six times into mid-November.
Unlike "Spider-Man" today, there were no such things as preview performances in 1935 so nobody actually paid to watch the show while its makers worked out the kinks over the next 11 weeks.
Ironically, it cost the performers: Equity ruled that "Jumbo" was a circus and not a musical. According to those stark union regulations, the performers were not paid salaries until after the opening night.
Meanwhile, various celebrities and chums of the producer continually dropped into the theater to observe them rehearse. "Billy isn't going to open the show until everybody in town has seen it," griped Charles MacArthur, who co-authored the script with his "Front Page" partner Ben Hecht.
Like "Spider-Man," which now employs a different performer in the key role of Arachne, "Jumbo" saw a change in leading ladies when singer Ella Logan was replaced as the heroine by Gloria Grafton.
History mentions a number of minor mishaps but apparently only one serious accident occurred during rehearsals. As the final run-through of a thrill number called "Diavolo" ensued, a Dutch aerialist named Vabanque took a fall from his trapeze when a safety catch broke. He tumbled into a cage containing six lions but was quickly pulled out before experiencing even worse injury. In a cruel coincidence, the "Diavolo" lyric reads in part, "Who will risk his life tonight to thrill the mob? Who has a date tonight with fate? Who will risk his life to make their pulses throb?" According to director John Murray Anderson, Vabanque recovered but never worked again.
During a less drastic incident, the show's makers suddenly realized their mistake in rehearsing the many animal acts separately when they finally gathered all of the exotic creatures together to practice the big finale. Instant pandemonium erupted as hundreds of elaborately costumed and bespangled animals ran amok at the sight of each other.
Apparently the critics did not mind the postponements. During those 11 weeks they were quite busy enough, thank you, reviewing the premieres of "Porgy and Bess," "Dead End," "Winterset," "Jubilee" and the Alfred Lunt-Lynn Fontanne "Taming of the Shrew" among other shows. Finally, Billy Rose swore out an affidavit that "Jumbo" would open officially on Nov. 16 and at last it did.
The resulting notices were highly enthusiastic, although the script about a Romeo and Juliet-style romance between the kids of two rival circus owners was dismissed as fairly paltry. "A story that MacArthur and Hecht must have spent all of half a day jotting down on scraps of paper," sniffed the Daily News in its 3 and-a-half-star assessment. "Downright enjoyable," said The New York Times, which described the attraction as "handsome, original and happily endearing...a gargantuan antic."
Starring as a wily press agent, Jimmy Durante shared the spotlight with Big Rosie, a pachyderm playing the title figure. Their biggest laugh reportedly erupted when Durante's character was stopped by the sheriff in the process of trying to smuggle Jumbo out of the circus. "Where are you going with that elephant?" demanded the lawman. Looking around innocently, Durante replied, "What elephant?"
Brilliantly returning to Broadway after several years in Hollywood, the team of Rodgers & Hart delivered three hit songs that endure today: "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" (sung while on horseback), "Little Girl Blue" and "My Romance." Dropped from the score but used that next spring in their "On Your Toes" was yet another Rodgers & Hart evergreen: "There's A Small Hotel."
Let's see what Bono and The Edge offers audiences in "Spider-Man."
So "Jumbo" turned out to be a big, fat hit ... except the show lasted 233 performances or only about five months. That was considered a substantial run during that Broadway era but "Jumbo" ultimately folded its tent some $160,000 in the red. Although attendance remained strong, exceptionally high running costs for the vast enterprise proved prohibitive. A subsequent transfer to the Texas Centennial in Fort Worth lost further money. Reportedly "Spider-Man" needs to sell every seat for eight performances a week for the next five years to clear a profit.
Aside from a 1962 movie version starring Durante and Doris Day, which used five of the original numbers and a completely different storyline, there are few reminders of "Jumbo" left today. Original cast recordings were not made back in those days and the musical has never enjoyed a major revival. (And have you ever seen a high school production of it?)
The Hippodrome vanished 70 years ago. Right around the corner from where "Jumbo" once played, in the Oak Room at the Algonquin, cabaret legend Steve Ross currently is singing "My Romance."
Just two blocks west of there, "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" continues previews at the Foxwoods Theatre. What will be remembered 75 years from now about this spectacular musical descendent of "Jumbo" still remains to be seen and, of course, heard.