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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Bye bye childhood

A couple of weeks ago I found a copy I had made (legally, for archival purposes only!) of Bye Bye Birdie, and we all sat down and watched it. This wasn’t the original 1963 version with Dick Van Dyke and Ann-Margret. It was the 1995 made-for-TV version with a bunch of sitcom stars.

The original Bye Bye Birdie has a special place in my heart and, I suspect, in that of my childhood best friend Eric. I recall vividly the two of us going down to a matinee in the State Theater (in the bygone days when our little hometown still had a functioning cinema) and, well, how should I put this, becoming men. Okay, that may be overstating the experience, but any male of a particular age who saw the opening sequence of that movie with Ann-Margret bigger than life sashaying and singing the title song and frequently bending over to show off the delights of her low-cut dress, I can guarantee you, has never forgotten it. In a mere matter of minutes, I had a whole new appreciation of human female anatomy.

As it happens, that particular song wasn’t even in the original Broadway version. It was written specially for the movie. In fact, that opening sequence, consisting entirely of Ann-Margret singing “Bye Bye Birdie” to the camera, as well as the reprise that appeared at the end of the movie, was filmed a full six months after principal photography had been completed. The story goes that director George Sidney (whose other films had included The Harvey Girls, Annie Get Your Gun, Kiss Me Kate and Pal Joey) was so taken with the young starlet’s talent, he filmed those sequences at his own expense when the studio balked at the additional cost. It certainly paid off in helping the success of the movie, not to mention Ann-Margret’s career. That title song was also used in the 1995 version, but not in the same way. Instead, it was worked into the narrative proper of the film and sung by a group of teenage girls.

The 1995 version also included three new songs that had never been included in the original film version or in the stage version. I’m not sure that was a good decision, since it made the new version seem a bit long. Generally, the new version kept frustrating me because I preferred the original one. Of course, it would be interesting to see the 1963 version again, to see if it was really as enjoyable as I remember it and if it has held up well. As I mentioned, the 1995 version was populated by TV stars, which isn’t inappropriate since the story has a lot to do with television and some of the stars of the original (Dick Van Dyke, Paul Lynde and none other than Ed Sullivan) were notably identified with the small screen. The Van Dyke role was taken by Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander, and that of his mother (Maureen Stapleton in the original) went to Cagney & Lacey’s Tyne Daly. The Ann-Margret part went to Chynna Phillips, late of the musical group Wilson Phillips. Alexander’s love interest was played singer/actor Vanessa Williams, who went on to roles in Ugly Betty and the current season of Desperate Housewives. She contributed a rather sizzling tour de force number (“Spanish Rose”) that was clearly the stand-out of the movie. Strangely, with total confidence, I informed the wife and kid that Rita Moreno had played Rose in the earlier movie. And I sincerely believed it. It was only when I went online that I realized that it was none other than Janet Leigh (who had traumatized Eric and me a mere three years earlier, as she dealt with yet another mama’s boy, in Psycho) who played opposite Van Dyke. But it was an easy mistake to make. Apparently, the role was originally written specifically for Moreno, who turned it down. Still, it makes me wonder what else I only think I remember.

Bye Bye Birdie was Van Dyke’s first movie. (He would follow up within a year with What a Way to Go! and Mary Poppins.) On stage, the role of mother-dominated songwriter Albert Peterson and his rendition of the song “Put On a Happy Face” had been his career breakthrough. By the time the movie came out, he was already well established with television audiences in his classic sitcom, The Dick Van Dyke Show. (In case you’re drawing a blank, kids, we’re talking about the guy Ben Stiller replaces as a museum guard in the first Night at the Museum movie.)

When you look at the cast of the original, it is not hard to see why the remake, for all its find qualities, pales in comparison. Jason Alexander is a funny man and not a bad performer at all, but he’s no Dick Van Dyke. And, as Kim MacAfee, Chynna Phillips seems like a nice young woman, but I’m here to tell you she’s no Ann-Margret. And, of course, we all loved George Wendt as Norm on Cheers, but as Mr. MacAfee in Bye Bye Birdie, he is strangely passive. There is no chance that he would eclipse the memory of the very, very funny Paul Lynde in the role. As Kim’s boyfriend, Hugo Peabody, Jason Gaffney doesn’t really register. In the original version, the character was more high-profile, as played by then-teen idol/singer Bobby Rydell. In the cast of the original Bye Bye Birdie, by the way, a few of the ensemble of teenage girls went on to become better known, at least for a while. These would include Kim Darby (True Grit), Melody Patterson (F Troop) and Linda (Kaye) Henning (Petticoat Junction).

As a musical, Bye Bye Birdie was something of a hybrid. It had Van Dyke and Leigh and standard type songs like “Put On a Happy Face,” “Kids” and “Rosie” for the grown-ups. And it had Ann-Margret and Bobby Rydell and songs like “The Telephone Hour” (in which the ensemble of teens chat simultaneously antiquated landlines), “One Last Kiss” (a parody of an Elvis rocker) and “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” for the kids. Charles Strouse composed the music, and Lee Adams wrote the lyrics. Their other best known musical was Annie.

Interestingly, these days Bye Bye Birdie doesn’t seem as old-fashioned as it might have even just a half-decade ago. Thanks to the High School Musical movies and TV’s Glee, seeing high schoolers breaking into song and/or dance doesn’t seem as strange as it would in less musical-friendly eras. What comes around, goes around, it seems.

-S.L., 30 September 2010

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