Articles

WHITEHEAD the hitmaker

He looks like a small-town banker, acts like a diffident diplomat and confounds the experts by turning leftovers into bonanzas

June Callwood September 14 1957
Articles

WHITEHEAD the hitmaker

He looks like a small-town banker, acts like a diffident diplomat and confounds the experts by turning leftovers into bonanzas

June Callwood September 14 1957

WHITEHEAD the hitmaker

Articles

He looks like a small-town banker, acts like a diffident diplomat and confounds the experts by turning leftovers into bonanzas

June Callwood

Last winter’s theatrical season on Broadway was distinguished by blight, with a whopping percentage of gaudy-talented producers, directors, writers and performers involved in disasters. When the debris was examined in the annual spring post-mortems, one producer was discovered to be relatively unmangled. He is a composed and complicated Canadian, Robert Whitehead. who last year presented a record total of six plays in New York and saw four of them become hits. This nudges the realm of impossibility: the odds on having a single hit on a Broadway stage are one in four.

In token of these triumphs, which theatre historians suspect are unprecedented on Broadway, Whitehead was named on the honors list of Theatre Arts, a magazine devoted to New York theatre.

Whitehead, in fact, wears the solid-gold halo of the twentieth century’s ideal: a profit-making visionary. His plays have a high quality of intelligence and taste and they also make money. He has a faculty for making a fortune out of plays other producers have rejected as totally uneconomical. Most notable of the Cinderellas to whom he has been Prince Charming are his first production, Medea, starring Judith Anderson; The Member

of the Wedding, with Julie Harris in her first major role; and Mrs. McThing, starring Helen Hayes. Mrs. McThing, which in 1950-51 placed second for the Critics Award, had been shopping for a producer for two years.

Although Whitehead left his home in Montreal more than twenty years ago, as a stage-struck young man who wanted to act on Broadway, he has never changed his Canadian citizenship. Except for five years during the war spent as an ambulance driver in North Africa, Italy and Burma, Whitehead has lived in New York with the status of resident alien.

“I don’t really feel that strongly about nationality,” he explains. ‘T suppose in part I’m just lazy; it’s a nuisance to change citizenship. That's what I usually tell people who ask about it. But it's more than that, really. If 1 deny my Canadianism. I’m denying part of myself. I lived the first half of my life in Canada; I can’t throw that away.”

Whitehead claims to notice his Canadian citizenship only once every four years. He has campaigned strenuously for his friend Adlai Stevenson, twice Democratic candidate for president, and

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He shuns flag waving, but for struggling young Canadian actors he’s ready with a helping hand

feels faintly foolish on election day when he recalls that he can’t vote.

In spite of his insistence that he disapproves of chauvinism, Whitehead is an unobtrusive but potent patron of Canadian theatre. Last winter he used his influence to arrange interviews with hard-to-see headliners to help Tom Patterson, founder of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, who had come to New York to shop for this season’s stars. Whitehead also keeps in touch with Canadian actors struggling for a toe hold in the violent competition for Broadway roles. Actor-writer Donald Harron. who has been in New York for three years, recently commented, “When I first came here to look for work, 1 did something unusual—I didn't go to Bob Whitehead.” Last winter Whitehead hired Harron anyway, for a role in Separate Tables.

Whitehead has dropped few clinkers in the ten years he has been producing plays but one of them, by unfortunate coincidence, was the Stratford Festival’s Broadway debut in January 1956, in Christopher Marlowe’s wordy Tamburlaine the Great. Tamburlaine closed with graceless speed but Whitehead, when chided about it by Canadian relatives, never bothers to explain that the choice of the play wasn’t his.

One of the most striking commendations of Whitehead’s talent as a producer came early this year when he was ap-

proached by the New York Herald Tribune's tough and brilliant critic. Walter Kerr. Kerr and his wife Jean had written a musical, Goldilocks, and they had decided to ask Whitehead to produce it. Whitehead accepted, with some uneasy reservations about the awkwardness of an alliance with a critic. Shortly after the deal was set. for production this winter, it was apparent that Kerr felt unfettered by the odd partnership. Reviewing his producer’s final play of the past season, A Hole in the Head. Kerr wrote tersely, “The hole is in the middle.”

Veteran Broadway hands can’t recall any other active producer presenting as many as six plays in a single season— A Hole in the Head made the half dozen —but Whitehead is accustomed to multiplicity of effort. In 1950 he produced five plays and four of them were hits. Asked during the run of Tamburlaine what other productions of his were also running in New York, Whitehead reflected, “Well, there’s Bus Stop and . . . ” He stopped, appalled. “Good heavens, Bus Stop is all I have!”

As a producer, the man who co-ordinates, defends and defines the work of the director, cast, set designer, publicity department, playwright and stage manager, Whitehead spends much of his time in the rarefied reaches of outer diplomacy. He is remarkably effective in dealing with volatile folk because he disguises his reso-

lute determination with cheeriness, charm and a certain seedy shyness. Whitehead is implacable once he has decided on his course, but he gives the appearance of confused retreat. He dresses with a dowdiness that some feel is calculated. His suits are pin-striped, with matching vests, his shirts have stiff collars reminiscent of Woodrow Wilson’s and his ties are diffident. “He’s so provincial looking,” a Broadway columnist once remarked, “that he’s ostentatious.” Even Whitehead’s face is neat, with a proper-looking mustache, a tidy arrangement of silvering hair and bland grey eyes.

He has great sensitivity to the turbulent moods of the theatre and frequently demonstrates a skill for tactfulness. Prior to an opening night, he stays away from the garish and gay audience and loiters backstage, where he makes soothing and patting comments to his rattled cast. Many performers, as he well knows, are so nervous on opening nights that they are physically ill. Don Harron, waiting tensely in the wings just before the curtain rose on Separate Tables, was approached by Whitehead. “You’ve been looking for roles for the past three years,” Whitehead told him warmly. “Well, I just want you to know that I’ll be chasing you for the rest of your life.” Harron, in relating the incident, always stresses that the high value of the remark was that it was made before his performance.

A member of the cast of The Sleeping Prince, a play that last winter was ruthlessly attacked by New York critics, recalls that Whitehead turned up backstage the night after the opening. “Bob Whitehead had been only one of about four producers of that turkey,” the actress reports, “but he was waiting for us all alone. He gave a short embarrassed speech, somehow praising us all. It was so wonderfully kind that it enabled us to go on.”

Whitehead, however, is not always infallible in his dealings. His most notable failure occurred with Judith Anderson, the strong-willed star of his first production, Medea. Whitehead attempted to suggest to Miss Anderson that she curb some of her exuberant dramatics during her performance. The actress was enraged and for a considerable proportion of the run of Medea, star and producer were not speaking. Whitehead spent weeks with Clifford Odets, brilliant but erratic playwright spawned in the Depression, patiently waiting for Odets to complete his play. The Flowering Peach, which Whitehead produced in 1954. Odets talked learnedly of nature, ships and law, but rarely of theatre. “The only thing wrong with him as a playwright,” observed Whitehead afterwards, “is that he hates writing plays.” The third act of The Flowering Peach was put together, after rehearsals had started, from scraps of dialogue and plot written on menus, cigarette boxes and match folders.

Whitehead conducts his operations from a white-walled office on the sixth floor of a building that houses a Broadway movie house. The room is furnished with abstract paintings, a black concert piano, a long grey sofa facing a marble-topped coffee table, and two cluttered desks, back to back. Shelves under opaque windows hold books on theatre, and plywood models of stage sets. Whitehead apologizes to newcomers for the glazed windows.

"I used to have a marvellous view of Broadway through those windows,” he mourns. “They've put a big sign, six stories high and a block long, over all the windows. You should have seen it when it advertised Baby Doll.”

“Can't you complain about it?”

“Not exactly,” he replies, looking uncomfortable. “We own the building.”

The building—in fact, the entire block on Broadway between 45th and 46th Streets—-is owned by City Investing Company, one of the largest real-estate firms in the United States. The president of City Investing, which also owns or controls six theatres in New York, is Robert W. Dowling. Dowling, with Roger L. Stevens who heads the syndicate that in 1951 purchased the Empire State Building for roughly fifty million dollars, is Whitehead’s partner in the producing firm called Producers Theatre Inc. The two real-estate tycoons are fascinated with theatre but too busy for any but the large decisions, such as: “Let’s do it.” Whitehead is the active producer in the unit.

Complicated as the interlocking arrangement of Producers Theatre and City Investing already is, Whitehead has devised some extensions that are an auditor’s nightmare. There is a corporate organization called Whitehead-Stevens, which produces plays that Dowling dislikes, and another, Robert Whitehead Productions, which does the plays that

both Stevens and Dowling reject. All have their main office in the same room —Whitehead’s office.

“I’ve been here almost a year,” Whitehead’s secretary recently observed, “and 1 haven’t figured it out yet. I think Mr. Whitehead has something to do with the Playwrights Company, down the hall, but I’m afraid to ask. 1 don’t know what I’d do if he answered yes.” (Whitehead isn’t a member of Playwrights, but Stevens is.)

Whitehead is comfortable in this moneyed maze, partially because he is accustomed to wealth. His father, W. T. Whitehead, who died when Robert was four, was a successful importer and textile manufacturer in Montreal. His mother was Lena Labatt, a member of the brewing dynasty. Robert Labatt Ward, the Whiteheads’ second son, was born in 1916 and educated mostly in private schools. He spent his summers in the Muskoka lake country north of Toronto with his cousin, Hume Cronyn. and the two passed the time enacting plays.

When he was nineteen, Whitehead left school to become a photographer. He liked cameras but grew restive at the subjects presented him—office buildings and the contents of coffins in funeral parlors. A year later, in 1936, he drove to New York and sold his car to bankroll himself for a career as an actor.

He found the New York stage embroiled in a civil war between elegance

and earthiness. Until Eugene O’Neill began to write plays about the American scene that were filled with stark, characters and bitter realism, many dramas done in New York tended to be European imports, and performers imitated English accents and continental manners. A new kind of acting had to be evolved to conform to O’Neill and, following him, Clifford Odets. From this necessity, Group Theatre was begun. Its followers, dubbed “vulgarians in dirty shirts,” included founders Fee Strasberg and Harold Chuman, Elia Kazan, Van Heflin and Odets, who wrote for them.

The two styles of acting fought bitterly, each despising the other. Whitehead was spraddled in a curious position. His sympathy was entirely with the honesty and vigor of the new movement but he was better suited to the “Anyone for tennis?” school. He lived in a rooming house, got small parts in the winter and drove a truck, built scenery and stagemanaged for stock companies in the summer. Sometimes he got parts on radio soap operas.

When war broke out Whitehead returned to Montreal to enlist and was advised to wait until there was an opening at a naval officers’ school. He returned to New York and discovered that a faster way to get into the war was with the American Field Service, driving an ambulance. He served with the 8th Army, saw the battles of Tobruk, El Alamein, Tunisia, Anzio and Cassino. Shivering in Italy in the winter, he volunteered for Burma. “I just wanted to get warm,” he explains. He served in the jungle until the atom bomb ended the war.

He returned to the U. S. on the first day of 1946. New York looked strange so he wandered to California. “1 formed the philosophy that a real contribution to society lay in doing nothing, since every action has the possibility of harming someone,” Whitehead recalls. He spent months testing this theory on the flat of his back on a beach. Eventually, with a sigh, he abandoned it and returned to New York.

He renewed acquaintances with a buddy of the Anzio beach, Oliver Rea. They resumed a discussion they had started in a foxhole about becoming Broadway

producers 'with lofty standards. “Why not?” they asked one another. They decided to begin with Medea, a Greek drama newly translated by the poet Robinson Jeffers. They obtained an option cheaply because Jeffers had been waiting five years to have his play produced. Four producers had taken options, only to drop them.

Rea and Whitehead estimated that they would need seventy-five thousand dollars to produce Medea. Rea had money and Whitehead had inherited some from his mother, who died while he was in North Africa. Between them they put twentyfive thousand dollars toward the cost of Medea. Rea went after the rest, assisted by a former actress named Terry Fay who concentrated on small investors such as waiters, secretaries and switchboard operators. It took a year to collect.

Whitehead’s job was to sign the cast. He wrote Judith Anderson and won her agreement to star by concentrating his arguments on the meatiness of the part, distracting her questions about financing. John Gielgud consented to direct the production and was incurious about money, fortunately. With Gielgud and Anderson in the stable, fund raising became easier. The play opened in October 1947, and was acclaimed. One of the major successes of the season, it paid off the backers in seven weeks. Whitehead, then only thirty-one, was widely praised as a boy wonder and had no trouble raising eighty thousand dollars for an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment that Gielgud wanted to do. Crime and Punishment opened in December and closed eight weeks later, with a loss of forty thousand dollars. The boy wonder was no longer considered wonderful.

The partners continued to look at scripts, most of them submitted only in desperation after all other producers had turned them down. In 1948 Whitehead married the former Virginia Bolen, a dancer and singer whom he had hired for the soundness of her taste in decor, casting and costumes. Terry Fay remained in the tiny office. A year passed, with an untranquil lack of activity.

In 1949 Whitehead read Carson McCullers’ first play, an adaptation of her novel The Member of the Wedding. Its plot was a wisp but Whitehead was fas-

cinated. “I saw the casting immediately,” he recalls.

He found an unknown, Julie Harris, whom he had admired in a bit part of a flop play. She agreed to play the part of a twelve-year-old. Whitehead pursued a reluctant night-club singer. Ethel Waters, to play the lead and finally got her signature on a contract in a basement night club in Detroit toward dawn one morning. He found the other main character, seven-year-old Brandon de Wilde, by walking in and out of New York classrooms.

Backers recoiled sharply from the project. Whitehead needed forty thousand dollars and contributions came in small shabby amounts. He and Rea put the last of their capital, thirteen thousand dollars. into the kitty but the production was still short twenty-five thousand dollars a few days before the rehearsals were scheduled to begin. A friend of Whitehead’s grandly wrote a cheque.

Member of the Wedding opened in January 1950. It won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and the Donaldson Award and was beaten for the Pulitzer Prize by South Pacific. The venerable Times critic, Brooks Atkinson, wrote at the conclusion of a glowing review. “It isn't a play, but it’s art.”

Viewing the lineup outside the box office a few days later, a friend of Whitehead's commented sardonically, “Think what might have happened if you'd had a play!”

The following season Whitehead was managing director of American National Theatre and Academy, an organization chartered by the U. S. Congress to promote theatre. He produced five plays for ANTA, among them a revival of Odets’ Golden Boy, starring the late John Garfield, and then quit. He disagreed vehemently with ANTA’s board on the definition of quality in the theatre.

His stubborn defense of his principles impressed two members of the board, Dowling and Stevens, in 1953 they approached him to form Producers Theatre with them. Whitehead accepted and brought into the new organization all his former associates—Terry Fay to be casting director, her husband Oscar Oleson as general manager, Barry Hyams, his publicity director since Medea, and his wife, who continues to help “reacting,” Whitehead calls it, to stage design and costumes.

In recent years Whitehead's surpassing failure has been a thing called The Emperor’s Clothes. It was a thundering disaster and lost sixty thousand dollars. Whitehead has framed one of the placards advertising The Emperor’s Clothes in the reception room of his office.

"The same people usually invest in my plays, year after year,” he observes. “1 got them their money back the next season, thank heavens, with Bus Stop.’’ Bus Stop earned its investors three hundred percent profit.

I his coming season, in addition to the musical Goldilocks by Walter and Jean Kerr with EeRoy Anderson, Whitehead will launch two touring companies of his last-season hits, Separate Tables and The Waltz of the Toreadors. For Whitehead, it will be a quiet season, giving him plenty of time to reflect on the catastrophe, The Emperor’s Clothes.

“1 don t know what went wrong with that production, but it just didn't come off," he murmurs. “But I'd do it again, even knowing what would happen. It was worth doing.”

Comments Harold Clurman, who has directed more than fifty Broadway plays, "Whitehead is the best producer on the continent. Everything he does is worth doing.” ★