The calmest little bombshall on Broadway
Diana van der Vlis hit the Great White Way with a splash few girls even dream about . . . star of a hit play, rich movie contract, talk of the town. Everybody’s excited about it except Diana
At the Lyceum Theatre around the corner from Broadway, where a minor comedy called The Happiest Millionaire is attracting comfortable business, a twenty-one-year-old Canadian actress named Diana van der Vlis is having the heady experience of abrupt and spangled success.
Last year she was earning sixty-five dollars a week with Toronto's struggling Crest Theatre company, where she was damned with faint praise by Toronto's critics and ignored stonily by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s casting directors, without whose approval the Canadian acting profession has a thin existence. Within a few weeks of her arrival in New York last summer, the same girl was the subject of an experienced New York theatre columnist's prediction that she would be one of the Cinderellas of the Broadway season. Before autumn, Diana van der Vlis had made a Hollywood screen test, was offered the starring role in a television series to be filmed in Paris, was chosen from a field of three hundred applicants to play the lead in The Happiest Millionaire opposite Walter Pidgeon and signed a contract to make three movies for one hundred and ten thousand dollars.
Diana currently is living the most star-struck dream a little girl ever conjured out of young hope and brimming fantasy. Brooks Atkinson, the New York Times' respected dean of critics, wrote after her Broadway opening night that she was “an uncommonly talented young lady.” For a period of several weeks, she was interviewed and photographed every day. On successive days last December, for instance, she was photographed in color for a feature in the Sunday edition of the New' York Herald Tribune and interviewed at dawn by Will Rogers Jr., on a network television show. For the former she wore boxing gloves and sparred with Lou Nova in Jackie Gleason's gymnasium; for the latter she was accompanied by a live alligator.
Diana spends six nights a week, plus two matinees, on the stage of the Lyceum. Afterward she usually joins other young actors and actresses in a nearby restaurant, where they order their main meal of the day at midnight and linger for hours over coffee talking shop. Occasionally she meets with one of her agents (she has one in New' York and the other on the west coast). She is aware, through them, that movie companies consider her an exciting prospect.
“She's got class, for want of a better word,” explains Howard Erskine, co-producer and codirector of The Happiest Millionaire. “She’s got that same quality that Grace Kelly has, a kind of breeding. It makes her stand out.”
Most experts agree that Diana is likely to find her greatest success in movies, where her unusual poise and composure are expected to lead to her coronation as the new Grace Kelly. This was prophesied eighteen months ago by the late Frederick Valk, the massive actor who came to Canada from England to play Shylock in The Merchant of Venice at Stratford and lingered a few weeks to repeat his most famous role, Othello, at the Crest'Theatre. Murray Davis, co-founder of the Crest, chose Diana van der Vlis to play Desdemona opposite Valk, earning himself a round of hearty criticism because Diana was inexperienced in classical theatre.
“She can’t act,” said one critic, but her tests were a sensation
“She was right for Desdemona,’’ Davis insisted recently. “She had the height, the youth and the beauty.” He nevertheless waited nervously for Valk’s verdict.
Valk watched her through his heavy brows during the first few rehearsals without comment. Then he drew Davis aside. “Watch that girl,” he murmured, "she’s going to get in the movies.”
Except for the Crest Theatre, which kept Diana steadily employed through the winter of 1955-56, no one appeared to share Valk’s opinion. The Globe and Mail’s Herbert Whittaker wrote of one of her performances that she was "a lovely, ladylike blonde” and of another that she was “pleasant.” Nathan Cohen, pungent critic for the CBC. observed, “She can’t act at all. but she’s awfully pretty.” She got a few parts on CBC radio but was rejected for television. “You’re too rare a type to be used frequently,” one television producer explained to her.
Last summer, having little to lose in Toronto, she decided to try New York. She had only one contact, an NBC casting director named Martin Begley whom she had met the previous spring when
she had been visiting an American actress friend of hers. She had made the rounds of casting directors with her friend, stopping off at NBC. Begley was charmed immediately and hired her on the spot for a commercial that night on the Red Buttons show. She was returning to Toronto the next day but he urged her to look him up if she ever returned to New York.
Begley, accordingly, was her first call. "Get yourself an agent, first of all,” he advised her. "Here is a list of the best.”
She stood outside his office and studied the list. An NBC pageboy leaned over her shoulder and helpfully put his finger on one of the names. “Go see BaumNewborn," he urged. Obediently Diana checked the address and set off.
It was a fortuitous boost from a fate that had not. to that point, been overly benign. Martin Baum and Abe Newborn are the “hottest agents on Broadway,” according to the show-business newspaper Variety. Of the some three hundred roles currently being played on Broadway, Baum-Newborn clients fill close to ninety of them. Before Van der Vlis became one of their most celebrated properties, Baum-Newborn were best known as the agents who had the uninspired idea of putting a bikini bathing suit on Jayne Mansfield.
“The minute Diana walked in the office.” the agents later reported, "we knew she had it. At one point, shortly afterward, she had a choice of roles in four plays coming to Broadway.”
The agents sent her to Warner Brothers' New York office, where her impact was just as immediate. They did a test of her, and then, in considerable excitement. paid her expenses to Hollywood for a full-scale screen test.
The test ran seven minutes but took six hours to film. A young actor, Dennis Hopper, who had just finished a role in Giant, was assigned to play a scene from a forthcoming movie, Sayonara, opposite Diana. Both reported for make-up at seven in the morning. Accordingly, Diana and Hopper had skipped breakfast; it turned out to be an embarrassing oversight. The first shot was an intimate embrace. As they kissed and regarded one another with mute passion, the mike clearly picked up the rumblings of their empty stomachs. “We did ten takes before we got one with our stomachs simultaneously silent,” Diana recalls ruefully.
In spite of this inelegant beginning, the test electrified everyone who saw it. Warners was in the process of changing ownership so, temporarily, there was no one to sign her to a contract. Word of the newcomer’s phenomenal test got around and she was offered contracts by other companies, which her agent advised her to turn down. To put in time she did a bit part in a grade B thriller called Black Stockings, delivering four lines while in a state of suspended horror at the tawdriness of the endeavor. She now refuses to tell interviewers even the name of the picture.
Henry Potter, the director originally assigned to direct The Happiest Millionaire, was in Hollywood auditioning young actresses to play the part of Cordelia Drexel Biddle. The role is a curious one because it requires a talent for being a tomboy in the first act, complete with boxing gloves, and a clearly definable blue-blood in the second. Diana read for Potter, one of close to a hundred Hollywood actresses who did. He was impressed.
“Walter Pidgeon is coming to my house for dinner tonight,” he told her. “You come too and read for him.”
In this odd setting, Diana auditioned again and Pidgeon was delighted. He spent the rest of the evening going over the script with her in mounting enthusiasm.
‘This child is unbelievably good,” he later told an interviewer. “She’s going to be great, simply great. Nothing can stop her.”
Diana and her Hollywood agent began toying with new names to replace her own, which they felt too cumbersome for a marquee. Diana was writing her name Vandervlis at the time, according to the simplified way her father had been writing it since his arrival in Canada from Holland. They discussed Diana Vander as a good substitute and weighed Diana Bliss, Diana Victor, Diana Vaughn and Diana Dervis. They were wasting their time.
A starlet with a star’s pay
“If hunches and long shots intrigue you,” Bert McCord of the New York Herald Tribune wrote in his theatre column one afternoon, “take note of a newcomer called Diana van der Vlis . . . (she) may be one of the Cinderellas of the coming Broadway season.”
The first reaction was that Diana’s future became solidified with her real name, broken down to its original three parts. Next, in New York she walked everywhere on red carpets. A television producer wanted her to star in a series to be filmed in Paris. She turned this down because a Broadway role seemed a firmer beginning. She had a choice of these. She began by reading for The Happiest Millionaire again, this time for the newly hired director, Guthrie McClintic. Potter had retired with a previous film commitment. She read before McClintic, who is Katharine Cornell’s husband, and the show’s producers, Howard Erskine and Joseph Hayes.
“Cordelia Biddle is the toughest role we’ve ever cast,” Erskine said recently. “We knew when we heard Diana that she was perfect but we kept on auditioning other actresses to confirm our decision. In all, we tried about three hundred. Then we started negotiations with Diana’s agent.”
The producers had a nasty shock. Newcomers to Broadway generally get a minimum salary. Diana’s agents pointed out that this untried soul was in enormous demand.
“They started by asking a salary Roz Russell wouldn’t get,” moaned Erskine. “I couldn’t tell if they were bluffing about the other offers or not, but I couldn’t take the chance. We signed her for the salary of a good experienced performer.” (A good guess is $750 a week.)
At the same time, Diana signed to make three movies for an independent company headed by David Susskind. She will be paid $25,000 for the first movie, $35,000 for the second and $50,000 for the third.
“They speak of me having an ‘overnight success,’ ” Diana has complained, mildly. “I wasn’t discovered in a soda fountain or anything like that. I worked and studied for years.”
Considering her youth, Diana has condensed a remarkable amount of studying and working. She is one of two daughters born in Toronto to Hollander Adrian Vandervlis and his Scottish wife. When she was in public school, the family moved to Vancouver for a year and then to Winnipeg, where her father was a department-store executive. Her older sister Sylvia joined the Royal Winnipeg Ballet but Diana concentrated on acting. She started with high-school plays and when she was sixteen won a rose bowl in an acting competition sponsored by
the Manitoba Drama League. This led to the award of a scholarship at the Banff School of Fine Arts that summer. She won another to the same school the following summer and then won a third scholarship. She didn't use this one because she had gone with her mother to New York to audition for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, a London, England, acting school with an international reputation and high standards for entrance. Diana, then nineteen, was one of ten hopefuls chosen from the two hundred who auditioned and that sum-
mer she sailed for England to study.
Rada, as the school is called, taught Diana diction, voice production, breath control and movement. Its teachers, who are fiercely devoted to imposing a cultivated English accent on each of their charges, had no difficulty with Diana. She adapted to British enunciation the moment she unpacked her suitcases.
This flair for absorbing inflections has given a weird effect to her speech. Currently Diana speaks with such a mixture of New York, London and Toronto accents that she bewilders not only linguists but her own cohorts. Fellow workers assumed, throughout the rehearsals of The Happiest Millionaire, that Diana was speaking with a Canadian accent. They pinned her in a corner after the play opened in Toronto.
“Diana,” one of the actors told her grimly. “I’ve been talking to these Canadians. None of them say ‘yahcht’ the way you do. They say ‘yawcht,’ the way we do. How do you explain this?”
"I can't help it,” wailed Diana. “I spent a winter in England!”
Luckily for Diana’s health, she spent only one winter in England. She is afflicted with a chronic asthma which became so severe in London that she was warned she was in danger of losing her voice. She returned to Toronto, where her parents had moved, in such an exhausted state she could do little but sleep and rest for six months.
When she had recovered, she turned up one afternoon at the Crest Theatre where auditions for the final play of the 1954-55 season, Hay Fever, were in progress. Murray Davis has remarked since that hers was the most memorable audition of his experience.
"The other girls were reading for this part and some did it cleverly and some did it badly, but all were a little tense. I wanted to give Diana, since she was a stranger, all the encouragement 1 could so 1 said, ‘Just make yourself comfortable on stage, it's only an audition.' ”
Diana took him literally. She read a few lines, looked around and then plopped herself down on a nearby couch. Continuing to read, she put up her feet and leaned back. At one point she said, “Wheeeee!”
Stages don’t scare Diana
She got the part and was hired to join the Davis’ summer stock company at two Ontario vacation spots, Gravenhurst and Port Carling. The following season she became a Crest Theatre regular, opening with Othello. Seven plays later, she went to New York to launch her own version of the pumpkin-into-golden-coach story. Just as she had casually gone through her first reading for Davis, she was quite undisturbed by the prospect of Broadway.
Diana has never suffered from stage fright in her life, which accounts in part for the stunning impact she makes during auditions, ordeals that have strangled very experienced actors. The night The Happiest Millionaire opened on Broadway, Diana was astonished to observe that several of the cast were so nervous they were sick. She is a great admirer of the attitude toward acting typified by a remark actor David Wayne once made to The Happiest Millionaire cast. “1 just go out on that stage every night,” he told them with a grin, “and shoot pool.”
Diana’s composure, a calmness in such depth that she never seems unsure, is the only personality trait a stranger encounters. She is charming and polite to people she doesn’t know well, but watchfully withdrawn. With friends she shows a zany humor, however, and on stage she exhibits unexpected warmth.
However real Diana’s composure may be, it eases visibly when she enters the stage door of the Lyceum. She usually arrives about an hour before curtain time and collects her mail from the stage-door man. Her dressing room is a flimsy temporary box of canvas only a few feet from the stage. This is, in part, a concession to the quick costume changes she is required to make but mostly for casualty insurance. Diana has a truly spectacular knack of falling up and down stairs. Fier shins are bruised much of the time and once, while doing summer stock.
she performed with a wide gaping cut in her leg and blood soaking in her shoe.
While Diana changes into the first costume she must wear, black tights and a shapeless blue sweater, an animal trainer arrives with two of the performers—live alligators. He begins taping the jaws of the smaller one, which Diana must pick up and carry around the stage in the first act. A stagehand watches fascinated.
“He’s laughing tonight,” he ventures.
The trainer looks up pompously. “Oh yes, he’s happy. I’ve yet to see an alligator that wasn’t happy.”
Beyond the curtain that separates the stage set from the bustle of the arriving audience, the overture begins. Diana comes out of her dressing room and chats with a visitor, a handsomely dressed woman who commiserates with her on the number of times the play was rewritten before its Broadway opening.
"It's wonderful doing it now," laughs Diana, "but it was wild for a while. Wc had a whole new third act to learn overnight, you know. Lines were coming out and going in until we couldn't remember for sure what we were supposed to do.”
Throughout the running of the play, which takes better than two hours, the area in front of Diana's dressing room is furiously busy. Alligators come and go, trays of wax hors d’œuvres are carried to the wings by the prop man and handed to the actress-maid, a prop door slams repeatedly. Diana rushes off. unfastening her costume, and hurries into her dressing room.
“The audience sounds nice out there, don’t they.” comments an actress agreeably, as she settles her costume over her hips.
Diana emerges in a pink party dress, her long blond hair bound back with flowers. George Grizzard. who plays her fiance in the play, stands beside her in the wings and kisses her gently. Grizzard and Diana are together a good deal, holding one another in tender affection so obviously that they have won themselves a mention in New York gossip columns. Grizzard makes his entrance first and Diana watches him fondly, waiting for her cue. When she goes on stage her place in the wing is taken by Walter Pidgeon, being helped into his jacket by a valet. “They’re laughing tonight.” he comments.
When the curtain calls arc finished, Diana removes her make-up. Offstage, she is indifferent about her appearance. She fastens her hair in a knot at the back of her head, wears no make-up but a pale-pink lipstick and favors loose sweaters, slender skirts and tent-like overcoats. To this, she sometimes adds a scarf over her hair, black stockings and flat shoes. .She has observed frequently that the money she makes is of little interest to her, since she always spends whatever amount she happens to have. Currently, she is on a budget in order to build a savings account with which to furnish an apartment.
She leaves the stage door with Grizzard and they start up Broadway toward their favorite restaurant. When she wears her fiat shoes, Grizzard is slightly taller than her five foot seven. If she forgets and wears high heels, he walks beside her, on his tiptoes, with an expression of weary dignity. Diana holds his hand and giggles.
Going down Broadway together, they walk slowly and stare at the lights. “Wonderful city.” Diana murmurs. “Wonderful, wonderful.” Plainly dressed and shiny-faced, she looks up and adores the palace around her. And why not? This year, Diana van der VI is is Cinderella. ★