Sunday, January 17, 2021

A Day with Conrad Green

Ring Lardner (1885–1933)
From Ring Lardner: Stories & Other Writings

Cover study for the October 3, 1925, issue of Liberty magazine. Oil on board with label paste-ups by American illustrator Ruth Eastman (1882–1986). Click on image to see full painting. Courtesy of MutualArt.
Soon after 22-year-old Ring Lardner arrived in Chicago to take on a job as a sportswriter for the Inter-Ocean newspaper, he went to see Follies of 1907 at the opulent 2,200-seat Nixon Theater. Advertisements in the Chicago papers touted the show as “Ziegfeld’s musical revue that made the Jardin de Paris famous,” with the promoters perhaps hoping that theatergoers wouldn’t know that “Jardin de Paris” was the name invented by Florenz Ziegfeld for the rooftop garden he leased from the New York Theatre in Times Square. American critics had roundly derided the new show as “vulgar” or “indecent” (“raw, common, and noisy,” grumbled one Chicago reviewer), but Lardner loved it. Encouraged by the success of his new extravaganza, Ziegfeld made it an annual event—and Lardner attended every subsequent edition. The young sportswriter could have hardly imagined, however, that two decades later he would work with the famous impresario on various stage productions.

By the 1920s Ring Lardner was a household name, but his greatest unrealized ambition was theatrical success and he hoped that he would find the key to Broadway fortune by working on Ziegfeld Follies of 1922. He wrote four skits for that year’s show, two of which were used in the final production: “Rip van Winkle, Jr.” (about a man who wakes up twenty years later, in 1943) and “The Bull Pen,” featuring Will Rogers as a baseball old-timer. Disheartened that so much of his script was reworked, revised, or flatly rejected by actors and managers alike, Lardner wrote about the experience in his trademark vernacular the following spring for Hearst’s International magazine:
It ain’t no secret neither that thousands of marks and rubles is spent on scenes which is throwed in the ashcan as soon as the producer has saw them in dress rehearsal. But I wonder if many people knows how much dough is just plain wasted in paying royalties to lyric writers, composers, and authors, a specially the last named.

I hope Mr. Ziegfeld is out fishing when this article is published because if he seen it he might start thinking. . . .
After Follies of 1922, Lardner began collaborating with Gene Buck on two plays for Ziegfeld, the first a comedy for Follies star Fanny Brice, which went nowhere, and later an adaptation of Lardner’s story cycle Gullible’s Travels, about a Chicago couple trying to find a husband for the wife’s sister. Ziegfeld torpedoed the latter play, titled Going South, when the team first presented it, but he had second thoughts in the summer of 1925 when Buck suggested that it might be reimagined as a musical comedy. Newly interested, Ziegfeld sent contracts to the two men. “There were clauses in them which I wouldn't sign even with a manager I could trust,” wrote Lardner, and to Buck’s dismay neither man would budge.

Meanwhile, box-office receipts for Ziegfeld’s current Broadway musical, Louie the 14th, were rapidly fading after a respectable six-month run. Desperate for a new show, Ziegfeld tried again in August to entice Buck and Lardner to transform the play into a musical, engaging composer Vincent Youmans, whose surprise hit musical No, No, Nanette made him a sudden celebrity that year. He capitulated to Lardner’s demands, sent each of the three men a $500 advance, and set an impossible deadline—October 1—to put together a full-fledged show. Lardner rewrote the show, but Youmans apparently didn’t think much of the result and the arrangement fell apart. “I was so sick and tired of the whole proceeding that I was glad of it,” he wrote to Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Buck still thought he could convince Ziegfeld and Lardner to stage the show but “between you and me, dear Scott and darling Zelda, Ziegfeld is not going to produce the show at any time, whether he wants to or whether he doesn’t.” The flailing Louie the 14th ended up playing to a half-empty house through December.

While Lardner was enduring one disappointment after another in the theater, he was still able to write some of his best and most famous stories, including those that would be collected in How to Write Short Stories (with Samples) and The Love Nest and Other Stories. He channeled his ambivalence about Ziegfeld into one of the selections. “I’ve got a story coming out in Liberty for October 3 [1925] of which Flo is the hero,” Lardner wrote to the Fitzgeralds. “When, and if, he reads it, he won’t offer me any more contracts, even lousy ones.” The story, “A Day with Conrad Green,” portrays a successful theater producer who (as H. L. Mencken put it) “turns out to have the professional competence of a chiropractor and the honor of a Prohibition agent.” There is no indication, however, that Ziegfeld ever found out about the story and he called again on the author at the end of the decade.

In 1929 Lardner finally had a bona fide Broadway hit: June Moon, a collaboration with George S. Kaufman based on the Lardner story “Some Like It Cold.” In the wake of this success, Lardner agreed to work on Smiles, a Ziegfeld musical featuring Marilyn Miller and Fred and Adele Astaire, with music by Vincent Youmans. At first Lardner merely contributed lyrics for a pair of songs, but one number, written for the Astaires, proved to be such a showstopper when the production was workshopped in Boston that (according to Lardner) Miller threatened to quit unless he wrote an equally humorous number for her. Knowing Ziegfeld was in a bind, Lardner demanded—and received—what he admitted was “an unheard of advance royalty,” took the train to Boston, and ended up writing a dozen songs, half of which ended up in the show.

Lardner was appalled by what he saw; as he wrote to his son John, “The book of the show, by William Anthony McGuire, was unbelievably terrible as I saw it in Boston, but it may be better when it opens here [in New York] Tuesday night. . . . The three stars are cutting one another’s throats and each trying to help him- or herself instead of the production.” Fred Astaire, for example, axed an opening number because the ensemble would precede him on stage in outfits that would detract from his entrance. Before Lardner left Boston, several of the performers and crew were discussing the show’s prospects in his hotel room, and one of them speculated that the “Astaires are going to steal this show.” “That would be petty larceny,” Lardner responded.

Lardner was mostly amused rather than annoyed by the debacle: “I wouldn’t have missed it because it was so ludicrous,” he told his son. The last-minute attempts to salvage the show were so frantic that Lardner and Youmans had to write or revise several of the songs by long-distance telephone. Unsurprisingly, Smiles, which opened in November 1930, was savaged by the critics, and it closed after 63 performances. It was the last time Lardner worked with Ziegfeld, who died in Hollywood during the summer of 1932. Lardner died of a heart attack a year later at the age of 48.

Notes: Ignacio Zuloaga y Zabaleta was a Spanish painter of the early twentieth century. Deems Taylor was an American composer and music critic who came to prominence in the 1920s. Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby were a songwriting team whose many hits included “Who’s Sorry Now?” and “Three Little Words.”

Donald Elder’s biography Ring Lardner (1956) is the source for many of the above details concerning Lardner’s career with Ziegfeld.

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Conrad Green woke up depressed and, for a moment, could not think why. Then he remembered. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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