June Allyson breezes into the room tossing out hellos and interrupting conversation with the command, "Kiss me!"
A reunion is underway as the headliners of "A Celebration of the Classic Hollywood Musicals"--a nostalgia-drenched program of reminiscences, songs and film clips to be presented Tuesday through next Sunday at Pasadena Civic Auditorium--gather to talk about the movie musicals in which they starred in the '40s and '50s.
Allyson and Gloria DeHaven are here, as are Betty Garrett, Cyd Charisse and her husband, Tony Martin.
They have assembled in a private dining room of the Ritz-Carlton in Pasadena, a setting so imbued with old-time glamour--English manor furnishings and potted palms--that you half expect Fred Astaire to glide through the door, extend his hand to Charisse and whirl around the room with her in his arms.
Soon, however, the happy roar of conversation and salvos of laughter transform the room into an entirely different setting: the commissary on an old studio lot, where contract players choked down a few bites of food between Red Skelton's impromptu comedy routines and Mickey Rooney's clowning.
Studios in those days were "our home," Allyson recalls.
"The attitude was wonderful--everybody rooting for everybody else," adds Martin. "People would go from one set to another . . . to watch whoever was making a picture--Loretta Young or Joan Crawford."
"The commissary was the most fun," explains Garrett, because with so many high-spirited creative types in one room, you never knew what might happen.
"When Red Skelton and I were doing 'Neptune's Daughter,' " she recalls, "the tables would fight for us to sit there, because they knew that Red would do a show at the table. And I was like his stooge--I would do anything he told me to do.
"It was really a great, great time in my life."
That off-screen gaiety--not to mention the sheer thrill of singing and dancing and, well, making movies all day long--filtered through into their work.
"The joy that these pictures were made with comes across on the screen," Garrett says.
Revisiting that happy time, "Classic Hollywood Musicals" pairs clips from MGM, Warner Bros. and RKO films with the stars' reminiscences and songs.
Charisse will pay tribute to dancers--particularly Gene Kelly and Astaire, her partners, respectively, in such films as "Singin' in the Rain" (1952) and "The Band Wagon" (1953)--and will join Martin for a duet of "I Remember It Well." Accompanying a tribute to leading ladies, Martin will sing "You Stepped Out of a Dream," as he did to the follies girls in 1941's "Ziegfeld Girl."
Allyson, who performed in such musicals as "Best Foot Forward" (1943, opposite DeHaven) and "Good News" (1947), will look back on her life as a young star.
Garrett, who cozied up to Frank Sinatra in "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and "On the Town" (both 1949), will share her memories of Ol' Blue Eyes and will sing "You're Awful" (i.e. "You're awful. Awful good to look at. Awful good to be with. . . ."), which her lady cabdriver and his sightseeing sailor crooned to each other in "On the Town." And DeHaven will revisit the moment in "Three Little Words," a 1950 movie-musical biography of songwriters Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, in which she portrayed her mother, vaudeville star Mrs. Carter DeHaven, introducing the Kalmar-Ruby song "Who's Sorry Now?"
A 28-piece orchestra will accompany the singers, and four younger dancers will sail through the show. Tom Bosley will host, and Debbie Gravitte, a 1989 Tony Award winner for "Jerome Robbins' Broadway," and Lee Roy Reams, a 1981 Tony nominee for "42nd Street," will represent a younger generation.
The program is patterned after a pair of two-night-only celebrations at Carnegie Hall in 1997 and '99, at which these stars appeared in much larger lineups, with the likes of Donald O'Connor, Mickey Rooney, Ann Miller and Esther Williams.
Though the bigger lineup was feasible in New York, it would have proved too costly and unwieldy for the program's revision as a two-act revue, playing for a full week, explains co-producer John Schreiber. He chose his Pasadena headliners "based on familiarity and availability and performance value."
Even as they celebrate the golden age of movie musicals, the stars, now in their 70s and 80s, sadly agree that that era is probably gone for good.
Musicals were particularly dependent on the old studio system--on having writers, tunesmiths, actors and designers all under contract, ready to be assembled into all-star teams.
In "Ziegfeld Girl," for instance, Martin sang "You Stepped Out of a Dream" to Lana Turner, Hedy Lamarr and Judy Garland, in a number staged by Busby Berkeley.
Nowadays, you'd have to tack an awful lot of zeros onto a budget to assemble that sort of talent, then rehearse for weeks on end to ready the elaborate production numbers.