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Before GREASE, BIRDIE was the Word
by Christopher Stone

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GREASE SING-A-LONG: Summer of 2010

GREASE SING-A-LONG: Summer of 2010
If you read this pillar regularly, then you know that once or twice yearly, I do a retro column. This is one of those times.

The love affair between Match-Flickers and light-as-air musical-comedy summer movies pre-dates HAIRSPRAY and GREASE by decades.

One classic example, the one upon which we'll focus, is 1963's BYE BYE BIRDIE. Fifteen summers before Danny told Sandy, "You're the one that I want!" BYE, BYE BIRDIE was flying high - packing movie theaters everywhere."

Based upon the 1960 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, BIRDIE, on stage, starred Dick Van Dyke, Chita Rivera and Paul Lynde.

This musical's story was thinner than the air that we breathe: Before being drafted into the army, Conrad Birdie, an Elvis Presley-like rock-n-roller, bestows "One Last Kiss" upon a devoted fan, Kim McAfee on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW. The stage musical primarily focused, not on Birdie, nor upon the lucky young lass he kisses, but upon "One Last Kiss" songwriter Albert Peterson, played by Dick Van Dyke, and his long-suffering girlfriend-secretary, Rosie Alvarez, played by
HAIRSPRAY: Summer of 2007

HAIRSPRAY: Summer of 2007
Broadway legend Chita Rivera.

For the movie, Dick Van Dyke reprised the role of Albert and Janet Leigh was cast as Rosie, redubbed Rosie DeLeon, not the more ethnic Alvarez.

Capitalizing on director George Sidney's obsession with beauteous, 22-year-old Ann-Margret, screenwriter Irving Brecher restructured the movie around the character of teenager Kim McAfee (Ann-Margret), the high school girl who receives Birdie's last kiss on television.

Thus Janet Leigh's starring role (Rosie) was slashed on the altar of the filmmaker's libidinous desire for his comely, curvaceous starlet. In the Broadway musical, Kim (Ann-Margret) has two songs; in Mr. Sidney's movie, she has five. Beyond that, George Sidney cut Rosie's (Janet Leigh's) key number, "Spanish Rose."

But George Sidney's aggrandizing of Ann-Margret didn't end with production. During post production, the director handed Ann Margret a movie-stealing plum. He filmed sexy opening and closing sequences, in which, against a blue screen background, Ann-Margret advances and retreats on a treadmill, singing the
BYE BYE BIRDIE: 1963, the Director was Obsessed with A-M.

BYE BYE BIRDIE: 1963, the Director was Obsessed with A-M.
title song, written especially for her. These sizzling sequences were featured prominently on last season's Emmy-winning MAD MEN, returning on the AMC network for a new season on Sunday (25).

George Sidney's infatuation with the 22-year-old performer was so pervasive that, at the BIRDIE wrap party, actress Maureen Stapleton, who played Albert's hypochondriac mother, famously quipped in front of cast and crew, "Well, it looks like I'm the only one on this picture who didn't try to f**k Ann-Margret."

When BIRDIE premiered at Radio City Music Hall, the critics compared George Sidney's restructured motion picture version unfavorably to the stage edition. They duly noted that the Role of Rosie (Janet Leigh) had been diminished dramtically, even as the role of Kim (Ann-Margret) had been inflated incredibly. Newsweek dubbed the movie, "Silly, even for a musical comedy." Saturday Review complained of the flick's "blatant, eye-damaging color." The New Yorker's acerbic Pauline Kael, hit the nail on the head, proclaiming, "Ann-Margret, playing a brassy 16-year-old with a
Ann-Margret handed opening and closing sequences by smitten George Sidney.

Ann-Margret handed opening and closing sequences by smitten George Sidney.
hyperactive rear end, takes over the picture." Movie lovers couldn't have disagreed more with the reviewers. Audiences loved BYE BYE BIRDIE. It delighted movie-goers throughout the summer of 1963, making the picture a box-office smash and catapulting Ann-Margret to superstardom.

The box-office, Match-Flickers and Ann-Margret won, big-time, but Janet Leigh lost. Previously, an A-list star, Leigh's career never fully recovered from the BIRDIE bashing. Adding insult to injury, while Leigh was being eclipsed on-screen by a younger woman, in real life, her husband Tony Curtis fell in love with a younger actress, whom he later married.

Dick Van Dyke went on to a highly successful motion picture and television career. As for Ann-Margret, let's put it this way: She went from being showcased in a 1963 movie about an Elvis-like rocker, to co-starring with Elvis Presley in 1964's biggest summer musical hit, VIVA LAS VEGAS. Once again, A-M was under the direction of George Sidney.

Enjoy the GREASE Sing-A-Long at the multiplex and watch the BIRDIE DVD. It's still great summer Match-Flicking.

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Mike Thomas
Jul 23, 2010 12:49 AM
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Bye Bye Birdie is one of my favorite stage musicals. If it wasn't for Paul Lynde, who re-created his role as Harry MacAfee for the movie, it would have been totally unwatchable.

When ABC was in their musical revival phase in the 90's, they re-did BBB with Jason Alexander and Vanessa Williams. They restored most of the original stage production and added a brilliant number for Momma Peterson (Tyne Daly, fresh from a Broadway stint as Momma Rose in a "Gypsy" revival) that is virtually a show-stopper.

You did some decent research on this one. I didn't know much back story about the movie, so I learned something.
Jul 23, 2010 12:13 PM
[X] delete

Thanks for your comments.

Are you aware that there was a 1981 Broadway sequel, BRING BACK BIRDIE? Chita again played Rosie, with Donald O'Connor as Albert. It only lasted for four B'Way performances.

Again, I appreciate and value your comments.

Mike Thomas
Jul 23, 2010 12:20 PM
[X] delete
I was aware of BBB II, but like every other Broadway sequel (Annie Warbucks), flopped miserably. We tried to do that show, but after the bad reviews, we dropped the idea.

Now there's talk of a BBB remake for 2011. It's in pre-production now, so there are no details, no stars lined up yet, but I found it on IMDB a few days ago.

The show has legs!

Mike Thomas
Jul 23, 2010 12:50 AM
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I just got the joke in the first sentence.
Jul 24, 2010 11:07 AM
[X] delete
A pillar is a column, right? Of course, right.

Best wishes,


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Does advertising, public taste, or overindulged stars determine a movie's box office fate? Christoper Stone explores what's going on behind the box office.

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Other columns by Christopher Stone:

The Cautionary Box-Office

Box-Office Holiday Season Heads Up. Part Two

Box-Office Holiday Season Heads Up, Part 1

Quality Is Independent

Oh, the Horror!

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Christopher Stone
Christopher Stone is the author of the international best seller Re-Creating Your Self. With Mary Sheldon, he co-authored three highly successful hardcover books of guided meditations.

He is a member of the Writers Guild of America, West.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Christopher Stone by clicking here.

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