Charles B. Dillingham (1868-1934)
In an interesting progression, Charles Dillingham moved from his secure perch as a theater critic at The New York Evening Post to manage the careers of several prominent performers, only to catch the “bug” himself and start a new career as a producer. He also built and owned the Globe Theatre (now known as the Lunt-Fontanne).
One of Dillingham’s initial productions was a Ludwig Englander entry called The Office Boy (1903.34). This was followed by Victor Herbert’s Babette (1903.37), starring Fritzi Scheff. Dillingham mounted two more Englander shows in 1904 before producing five more Herbert operettas: Miss Dolly Dollars (1905.29), Mlle. Modiste (1905.57), The Red Mill (1906.33), The Tattooed Man (1907.11) and The Prima Donna (1908.40).
From 1909 to 1912, Dillingham produced two musicals by Gustave Luders and one by John Golden. Luders was born in Bremen and studied in Leipzig, before coming to New York. One of the Luders shows was The Old Town (1910.02), which ran for 166 performances at the newly constructed Globe Theatre. In 1912, Dillingham produced his last Herbert operetta, The Lady of the Slipper (1912.39).
Embarking on a major change in his production focus, Dillingham started a collaboration with a young composer, named Irving Berlin, on a revue called Watch Your Step (1914.31), starring the sensational dancing couple, Vernon and Irene Castle. He then teamed with Jerome Kern for the first time with Miss Information (1915.25), before producing his second musical revue with Berlin called Stop! Look! Listen! (1915.31).
While Kern would work with Ray Comstock during his “Princess Theatre” era (1915-1918), Kern would return to Dillingham at the Globe with She’s a Good Fellow (1919.09) and The Night Boat (1920.04), the last Frank Saddler orchestration for Kern.
Dillingham produced another seven shows with Kern, including Stepping Stones (1923.40), the first Kern show with orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett, and Sunny (1925.33), with Bennett’s orchestrations and Oscar Hammerstein II’s lyrics. According to Bennett, Dillingham had put a great deal of money into Sunny ($250,000 in 1925), and opening night in the Philadelphia tryouts did not go well. Ever the gentleman, Dillingham made the following comment under his breath to Bennett, as he passed by: “Well, it’s better than last night, isn’t it?” The creative team kept working hard on making the show better, leading to Bennett’s characterization: “And it kept getting better and better and ended up one of the best.”
It should be noted that operetta and musical comedy could flourish at the same time. Sunny (a musical comedy) successfully opened on Broadway the night after Rudolf Friml’s magnificent operetta The Vagabond King (1925.32). Both shows had massive runs with 517 performances for Sunny matched by 511 performances for The Vagabond King.
The cast of Sunny included Marilyn Miller, whose dancing was choreographed by Fred Astaire; Clifton Webb, who would go on to star in numerous motion pictures, including the unforgettable Laura; and Cliff Edwards, better known on the Vaudeville Circuit as “Ukulele Ike.” To modern audiences, Edwards is best remembered as the Voice of Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio (1940), and it is interesting that his lasting fame came from singing “When You Wish Upon a Star.”
For many of us, Edwards is an overlooked gem; listen to his voice toward the end of his singing career.
Dillingham produced two more minor Kern shows in 1925 and 1926 before collaborating with Vincent Youmans on a musical revue called Oh, Please! (1926.46). The cast included Helen Broderick, who would star as the older friend of Ginger Rogers in the Astaire-Rogers movies; Charles Winninger, who would be Cap’n Andy in Kern’s Show Boat in 1927 (and in the 1936 movie version with Irene Dunne) and who would play the part of an alcoholic but lovable sheriff in the movie Destry Rides Again (1939); and Beatrice Lillie, the English star of stage and screen, who would become known to most Americans as the evil hotel owner, Mrs. Meers, in the Julie Andrews hit movie, Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967).
After producing his last Kern show in 1927 (later that year, Florenz Ziegfeld would produce Show Boat), Dillingham produced his first and only show with Richard Rodgers, called She’s My Baby (1928.02), starring Irene Dunne, Jack Whiting, Clifton Webb and Lillie.
After She’s My Baby, Dillingham produced mostly plays until his death in 1934. In Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes, there is an entry on Dillingham: “Broadway producers Charles Dillingham and Florenz Ziegfeld were among the pallbearers at Houdini’s funeral. As they carried the coffin out of the church, Dillingham leaned across to Ziegfeld and whispered, ‘Ziggie, I’ll bet you a hundred bucks he ain’t in here.’ ”
R.I.P., Charles Dillingham.