Today we chat with Matthew Kennedy, someone born and raised in Redding. Today he lives in San Francisco where he’s a writer, film historian and anthropologist. He’s also the author of three biographies of classic Hollywood: “Marie Dressler: A Biography”, “Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory: Hollywood’s Genius Bad Boy”, and “Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes”.
Kennedy’s latest book, “Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicials in the 1960s”, has recently been published by Oxford University Press. Let’s get right to the questions, shall we?
Q: Welcome. Matt Kennedy, to aNewsCafe.com. I got a chance to read your book, “RoadShow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s” and enjoyed it very much.
Of course, I’m inclined to begin by asking about your local connection. You grew up in Redding, and attended Shasta High School. I love how your book’s opening sentence mentioned your memory of the Cascade Theatre here in Redding.
And in your latest book’s acknowledgments, you gave credit to your sister Anne Peterson for her help with your book. Can you expound upon your early years in Redding, and how they formed your interests?
I was bit by the performing bug early, and took every opportunity to be in school productions. The first one was Li’l Abner at Sequoia in the 7th grade. I played Hairless Joe with a long wig over my face rather like Cousin Itt from The Addams Family! Ken Putnam directed the Shasta High musicals back then, and I wanted to be in them so badly. I was in four of them, plus a summer school production. I have great memories of that.
My sister Anne Peterson has a background in journalism, she wrote for the Record Searchlight, and is very supportive of my literary efforts. She takes a pencil to my manuscript and edits and makes suggestions. She does a great job!
Q: Lucky you to have such a talented sister to call upon. Now, about “Roadshow!” – what’s your elevator description of your book?
How about an elevator in a tall building? Roadshow! traces what happened to the film musical in the seven years following The Sound of Music. Every major studio tried to duplicate its phenomenal success in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and with few exceptions, they lost public favor and the musical genre fell into disrepute.
Q: And because the word is in your book’s title, what exactly is – or was – a roadshow?
“Roadshow” was a film industry marketing term. Select large-scale prestigious movies would get the roadshow treatment. That meant opening on limited screens in lavish downtown theaters in big cities, with high ticket prices, reserved seats, an overture and intermission, souvenir programs, and the best sound and projection equipment.
It was meant to be the cinematic equivalent of a night on Broadway. Epics such as Ben-Hur and Cleopatra were roadshows, but so were big musicals such as Oklahoma! and My Fair Lady. Roadshows have gone the way of the dodo bird, and I don’t expect they’ll ever come back in their classic form. How we see movies has changed so much.
Q: Obviously, it took a lot of research. How did you go about getting information for the book? How many hours did you spend watching films?
I’m a library nerd. I start in San Francisco, where I live, at the Public Library with periodical searches, published memoirs, and reviews. It’s like being a detective, one clue leads to another. From there I go to special collections in New York or LA. That would be production files housed at USC, UCLA, the Academy Library, and the Museum of Modern Art. I contact eyewitnesses and hope they’ll agree to an interview. I’m also fortunate to have an informal network of fellow film historians who are generous with sharing resources.
How many hours watching films? I’ve never done the math. Let’s see, there are 21 highlighted in Roadshow! averaging well over two hours each. That’s over two days of movie watching. And I saw most of them more than once. Let’s say more than 72 hours – three days. Wow!
Q: It makes me tired just thinking of it! All this begs the question: Was there a moment that made you decide to write “Roadshow!” Why the interest in this subject?
There wasn’t a single moment. These movies came out when I was a kid and just discovering how powerful movies could be. They stuck with me and as I began to write about movies I wondered if they could somehow form a single book. It took a long time for the book to gel in my head.
Q: Your book has a lot of interesting behind-the-scenes information about the film musicals. Can you share a few especially surprising facts you discovered?
There are strongly held beliefs out there among movie buffs about the fate of the post-Sound of Music roadshow musicals. Some of them didn’t conform to what I found in the archives. Two big musicals widely believed to have flopped were Camelot and Hello, Dolly! Both actually had strong box-office, but they were so outrageously expensive to make that it took years and years of reissues, video, and television airings to break even.
There were surprises in possible casting. How about Doris Day or Angie Dickinson in The Sound of Music? Or Marlon Brando and Ann-Margret in Camelot? Or Paul Newman singing opposite Barbra Streisand inFunny Girl? Or Clint Eastwood singing in Paint Your Wagon. Oh, wait — that really happened!
Q: Writing this book allowed you access to some pretty impressive people. Care to name-drop?
Sure! I spoke with Petula Clark, Carol Channing, Michael York, Leslie Caron, Florence Henderson, David V. Picker, former president of Paramount and United Artists, and Norman Jewison, producer-director of Fiddler on the Roof.
Q: What’s your favorite film musical, and conversely, your least-favorite?
Oh, gee, Doni, I might have to go outside the late ‘60s and early ‘70s for this one. I’m gonna cheat – I can’t choose one. I love the classics – Top Hat, Gold Diggers of 1933, Love Me Tonight, The Wizard of Oz (of course!) and the best of Vincente Minnelli – Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris, The Band Wagon, and Gigi. And Fiddler and Cabaret. Least favorite? I’m not eager to see Song of Norway, The Great Waltz, Can’t Stop the Music, or The Apple again anytime soon! Maybe with friends at home, so we could have our own Mystery Science Theater style commentary!
Q: Duly noted. Thanks for the tips.
You explore the film musicals’ history, and their demise. Can you expound upon that magical period of time between the mid ’50s to the late ’60s, and the rise and fall of film musicals?
There was a point in the ‘50s when the great musical moviemaking studio, MGM, hit its peak. The best composers, directors, stars, and designers were there. As the studio system collapsed, Hollywood became more dependent on Broadway for musicals, and there were some excellent screen adaptations with West Side Story, The Music Man, and My Fair Lady. Then The Sound of Music made so much money Hollywood glutted the market with musicals over the next few years.
Many of them were ill-conceived and miscast. Audiences said, “Enough! Stop singing!.” Other factors were at play, including huge shifts in public tastes and corporate buyouts of the studios. It was a fascinating time, laying the foundation for modern Hollywood.
Q: Are film musicals forever dead?
I don’t think so. They’ve lost their exalted place in pop culture, but they haven’t gone away. There’s a bit of a comeback. We still see the occasional film adaptation from Broadway, and some of them like Mamma Mia!, Dreamgirls, Hairspray, and Les Misérables, do very well. Into the Woods is coming out later this year and you can expect a film version of Wicked.
Q: What would it take to bring them fully to life?
Any genre, be it westerns or romantic comedies or horror, must change with the times. Musicals are no exception. I think they ARE back to life, with a different look and sound.
Q: Thank you, so much, Matt, for taking the time to talk with us today. Is there anything else you’d like us to know?
Thanks for the opportunity to talk with a hometown crowd, Doni. You ask such good question, I have nothing more to add! 🙂
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.