Just as watching ‘Star’ led to visiting Alexander Woolcott’s island retreat (see below), so has that detour led to today’s detour. George S. Kaufman, Broadway craftsman playright/director/theater critic/Algonquin Round Table wit, was one of Woolcott’s regular visitors, cronies, pals, co-sophisticates. In the fifties he took to appearing on network game shows and became a fixture on a show called ‘This Is Show Business’, a clip of which is posted above. It’s interesting to see this legendary figure of the Broadway golden era in action. Frankly, Kaufman is something of a mess–gangly, awkward, messy-haired etc. but very dry and clever. It’s a little hard to see from this vantage what made him such a legendary (and apparently successful) Lothario, but such is the power of wit (and the ability to employ I suppose).
Kaufman wrote literally dozens of plays spanning from the 1920s through the early 60’s. Though a great many were highly admired hits, it’s curious to note how few are now remembered or revived. Only ‘The Man Who Came To Dinner’, co-written with Moss Hart, still receives semi-regular productions. (By the way, it’s still wickedly funny). In spite of Kaufman and Hart’s fame and theatrical glory, none of their other plays are really on anyone’s radar (except Sondheim enthusiasts, who have kept the flop 1981 musical ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ alive–it was based on a non-musical early-thirties play of the same name by K&H which was also something of a flop). A few more of Kaufman’s plays may be recognizable names but only because of TCM–‘Dinner At Eight’ and ‘Stage Door’ (both co-written with Edna Ferber) are still out there and are both charming movies. But ‘George Washington Slept Here starring Jack Benny and ‘The Solid Gold Cadillac starring Judy Holliday are negligible items at best and then I’m afraid we’ve more or less run out of titles that will ring any bells. (The two other memorable titles associated with Kaufman, ‘The Front Page’ and ‘Guys And Dolls’ were directed by Kaufman but not written by him). It makes one wonder what future generations will take away from Neil Simon’s oeuvre. I have a feeling that ‘The Odd Couple’ will last forever. And after that, delightful as a handful of his other plays are, how many will actually stick? The two best for my money, ‘The Sunshine Boys’ and ‘Prisoner Of Second Avenue’ are both firmly rooted in specific cultural times and contain cultural references that are already distant and increasingly forgotten-‘Sunshine Boys’ requires a nostalgia for forgotten show-biz culture and ‘Prisoner’ requires a knowledge and feeling for the disastrous New York City of the 70s. Maybe this will make tomorrow’s detour Neil Simon?