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October 9, 2015

Remembering THE ROTHSCHILDS’ Hillard Elkins

Faithful readers will recall that last week I spoke to THE ROTHSCHILDS’ bookwriter Sherman Yellen and lyricist Sheldon Harnick about their revised version called ROTHSCHILD & SONS. (It’s now at York Theatre Company through Nov. 8.)

Any conversation about the 1970 hit musical had to involve producer Hillard Elkins, who first optioned the property but couldn’t get it on the boards. Lester Osterman came to the rescue with extra monies allowing THE ROTHSCHILDS to open at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Oct. 19, 1970 for a 507-performance run.

Yellen did give Elkins credit for one thing: “Not many producers would give a Broadway musical to an untested librettist. Hilly took chances. He was a reckless man.”

Here’s where Harnick added one of the few things he would say about Elkins: “‘Reckless’ is a very good word for him.”

Yellen went on. “I had written a play about a murder in Jacobean England. Hilly read it and saw that I could write about history – and offered me THE ROTHSCHILDS partly because he knew that I wouldn’t cost much.”

(What Elkins also did was hire Yellen as one of his writers for a new revue he was planning: OH! CALCUTTA!)

Said Yellen, “Elkins was the most interesting and yet malicious character I’d ever known. He called my wife -- ” well, this is a family blog, so we’ll excise the word that is used repeatedly in THE BOOK OF MORMON.

“She almost socked him and so did I,” recalled Yellen. “And then he made matters worse by giving us free tickets to (his production of) SIZWE BANZI IS DEAD.”

Was the play that bad? No – that wasn’t it.

“It dealt with apartheid,” said Yellen, “and each night an actor would come into the audience and bring on stage a white person who represented apartheid. Believe me, my wife is a flag-carrying liberal and there she was being insulted as a white supremacist.”

“Hilly used to come to my house with Claire Bloom,” said Yellen, citing the producer’s wife at the time. “He’d play ping-pong with my six-year-old son and would come out of the game crowing ‘I won! I won again!’ I had to tell my son, ‘Hilly plays to win,’ to which he said, ‘No, daddy – he plays to bleed.’ And he showed me his bloody knuckles that came about from Hilly’s purposely hitting the ball low so that my six-year-old would injure his hands.”

Despite Elkins’ inability to raise the money, he led people to believe that he did. Said Yellen, “Lester had matchbooks printed with his name on them, saying he was the real producer of THE ROTHSCHILDS because he said Hilly wouldn’t give him enough credit.”

The mention of Claire Bloom brought me back to the time when I interviewed her in 1998 when she was doing ELECTRA. When I brought up Elkins’ name, she said “Stop right now and start the interview all over again.”

Of course I did, but there was a part of me that wanted to tell her the story I’ll tell you now.

I first became aware of Elkins in 1962, when he was the over-the-title co-producer of Garson Kanin’s COME ON STRONG, starring Van Johnson and Carroll Baker. The title may not mean much to you – nor did it to Broadway, where it ran only 32 performances – but it does to me because it was the very first non-musical I ever saw on stage during its Boston tryout at the Wilbur.

Two years later I saw a more high-profile Elkins production: GOLDEN BOY with its riveting Strouse and Adams score. It was based on the Clifford Odets classic about a young Italian-American violinist-slash-boxer who fell in love with his manager’s girlfriend. Elkins had the idea to change the Italian-American into an African-American, and got Sammy Davis, Jr. to play the lead. Now that’s adventurous producing.

All right, after that Elkins produced THE BEST LAID PLANS, a three-performance 1966 flop, but he had under option two of my favorite novels -- Robert Gover’s ONE HUNDRED DOLLAR MISUNDERSTANDING and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s classic CAT’S CRADLE, -- and planned to have them musicalized. He also planned to import LA LUPA, an Italian play that would star Oscar-winner Anna Magnani -- who’d do it in Italian.

Cut to the summer of 1967, when my summer job was working as a desk-clerk at a Ramada Inn in suburban Boston. It was a most exciting summer, because The Mirisch Corporation took almost all our rooms to house Steve McQueen and the staff of the movie they were filming: THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR. (The movie even opens in the motel.)

Every day, coming to work meant checking to see what theatrical personality might be coming to stay with us. I met Biff McGuire, whom I saw give a great performance in the national tour of MARY, MARY; Leon Janney, who had done two musicals in 1965, with the one-performance KELLY being the more successful because PLEASURES AND PALACES closed in Detroit; Sidney Armus, the first understudy I ever saw go on, in the tryout of NEVER LIVE OVER A PRETZEL FACTORY, a dim-witted comedy that marked the Broadway debut of one Martin Sheen. Even working the graveyard shift could be exciting, especially when McQueen called down to the front desk to ask if anyone could provide him with a condom. (No one could, and a cab had to be sent to a 24-hour drug store.)

One July day I came to work and found a reservation for Hillard Elkins. I later learned that he was also an agent, and in fact was McQueen’s.

When he arrived, I immediately started babbling about all the shows listed above. Elkins listened and gave a pleasant enough smile that indicated he expected the world to know all this about him. Still, I put him in 401, one of our best suites.

The next day I had to work a double shift -- 7 a.m. till 11 p.m. Around 8:30 in the morning, Elkins came to the desk holding a pair of mustard-colored pants. There was no smile for the clerk who had recognized him, just “I need these cleaned and pressed.”

“Ohhh,” I said sympathetically, “the cleaners only come once a day -- at eight -- and I’m sorry to say you missed them.

Elkins put the pants on the counter and gave me a pointed look that was meant to intimidate. “Get. Them. Done,” he said, then whirled around left.

Around five he returned. From the way he said, “I left some pants here to be cleaned this morning,” I could see that he still didn’t recognize me. When I brought out the pants from the closet, he could see they were in the same condition even before I could hand them to him.

“What!?!” he squawked. “These weren’t done! And I was ASSURED by the clerk on duty this morning that they’d be cleaned and pressed!”

I became apoplectic. “I was the clerk on duty this morning! And I told you they WOULDN”T be done!”

Elkins sighed deeply, as if to say what-am-I-gonna-do-with-this-guy. But he wasn’t embarrassed and certainly not apologetic. He just put out his palm, moved four fingers back and forth, back and forth and dully said, “Give ‘em back.”

Years passed. In 1990, when THE ROTHSCHILDS was having an off-Broadway revival, I wrote a piece about the history of the show. I mentioned Elkins and some of the not-so-nice things that Christopher Davis had written about him in a book called THE PRODUCER. And a full eight months after the article was published, I received a phone call.

“This is Hillard Elkins,” said a most serious voice. “Mike Burstyn just told me what you wrote about me.”

Well, I was taken aback, but not enough to forget that the best defense is a good offense. “Mr. Elkins,” I said, “you don’t remember me, but I first met you when you were staying at a Ramada Inn where I was worki -- ”

“ -- I have never,” he interrupted, “stayed at a Ramada Inn.”

I smiled. “Yes, you did, when you came to Boston during the filmi -- ”

“ -- I have NEVER stayed at a Ramada Inn.”

“Room Four! Oh! One!” I blared. “At the Ramada Inn on Soldiers Field Road in Boston in the summer of 1967.”

“For your information,” he said airily, “in the summer of 1967 I was in a completely different part of Massachusetts producing the movie of ALICE’S RESTAURANT.”

“For YOUR information,” I said pointedly, “it was in the summer of 1968 that you were in a completely different part of Massachusetts producing the movie of ALICE’S RESTAURANT. In the summer of 1967, you were at the Ramada --”

“-- I have NEVER stayed at a Ramada Inn. You must be confusing me with someone else.”

“You produced GOLDEN BOY, COME ON STRONG and THE ROTHSCHILDS! You were going to do musicals of ONE HUNDRED DOLLAR MISUNDERSTANDING and CAT’S CRADLE! You were going to import an Italian play called LA LUPA and have Anna Magnani do it in Italian!”

“Your memory is extraordinary,” he conceded, “except for one thing: I have NEVER stayed at a Ramada Inn. Are you sure that you didn’t work at the Ritz-Carlton?

Now I was even more apoplectic. “And one day you came down in the morning and threw a pair of pants at me and said to get them cleaned and pressed by that evening! And I told you that the cleaners had already picked up and wouldn’t be back until the next day! And you said to get them done no matter what! And when you came back that night I was still on! And when I told you they didn’t get done, you said, ‘I was ASSURED by the clerk on duty this morning that they’d be done!’”

“Oh,” he said, sounding immediately contrite. “That does sound like me.”

         — Peter Filichia



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