The Life and Times of a Broadway Baby
‘I was born in 1911. What am I: 90? 92?” Cy Feuer asked a visitor to his Upper East Side apartment. The 92-year-old show-business veteran can be forgiven for being a little foggy on his age — he remembers plenty about his long and storied career.
He spells out the tales of his life as a force on the Great White Way and in the Hollywood hills — a co-producer of the show “Guys and Dolls” along with the movie “Cabaret” — in his memoir, “I Got the Show Right Here” (Simon & Schuster), which he wrote with the help of author Ken Gross.
As with the paths of so many of Broadway’s Jewish greats, Feuer’s life began with few signs of impending success, working to help his family to get by in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Yet Feuer, past the twilight of his career, now living high above Park Avenue far away from his roots, still revels in the memories of the days when he and his longtime business partner, Ernie Martin, were just starting out.
Feuer chatted with a visitor about how he and Martin, who passed away in 1996, produced their first musical, “Where’s Charley?” As Feuer tells it, the story is one of show business acumen and a stroke of good luck. After Feuer and Martin managed to convince theater-great Ray Bolger to star in their show, the powerful theatrical lawyer Howard Rhineheimer introduced the duo to George Abbott. Hoping to convince the legendary writer-director to take the reins of the production, they brought a manuscript to Abbott’s office.
“He read it, and his ears went right up,” Feuer recalled with a smile. “He saw it right away and said, ‘Great! We’ll do it.’”
This plucky, happy-go-lucky spirit pervades Feuer’s memoir, which recounts half a century of adventures in “the Business.”
The anecdote-filled memoir walks the reader through Feuer’s life, recounting the days when — having dropped out of high school — Feuer supported his mother and brother by playing trumpet at “club dates.” During the late 1920s, he recalls in a story that evokes another, more magical New York City, the young musician would show up for open-air job calls on the corner of Broadway and 46th Street. It being the Depression, a good gig was a wedding or bar mitzvah reception, where the musicians were rewarded with a chicken dinner.
After a stint in the Radio City Music Hall orchestra — “Radio City was one of the wonders of the world back then” — Feuer landed a job with bandleader Leon Belasco in Southern California during the mid-1930s. “When I got to California I saw the sky for the first time, and I said, ‘This is for me. I’m not leaving,’” Feuer said.
He shared a house in Los Angeles with a group of future show-business luminaries, including composers Jule Styne and Frank Loesser, as well as Nat Perrin, who created the “Sergeant Bilko” television series. Feuer thrived in this pool of Jewish talent. He dated a red-haired, green-eyed beauty named Susan Hayward before she hit it big.
Feuer became musical director at Republic Pictures, which made singing-cowboy flicks known as “horse operas.” Feuer’s memoir recounts how a studio executive at Republic suspended Gene Autry in 1937 after the star demanded a raise. The executive asked about a kid with a guitar in a singing-cowboy group. Maybe he could fill Autry’s shoes? “The kid with the guitar was Roy Rogers,” Feuer writes.
Feuer spent part of World War II in Dayton, Ohio, with a group of Hollywood exiles who were making training films for the U.S. Army Signal Corps. “One of my main hits was ‘The Care and Maintenance of the Shimmy Damper Accumulator,’” Feuer said jokingly. The instructional film was made for mechanics who repaired bombers.
When the war in Europe was over, the Pentagon tapped Feuer to go to Germany to work with film crews documenting the bombing damage. He filmed Berlin, he said, as “a completely devastated city. It had been obliterated. I had never seen anything like it.”
After the war Feuer formed a partnership with Martin, and they proceeded to produce five consecutive hit musicals from the late 1940s through the 1970s. Their first show, “Where’s Charley?,” debuted on the Great White Way in October 1948, to less than stellar reviews.
Their next musical was a smash. Brooks Atkinson declared that “Guys and Dolls” was “a work of art” in The New York Times. The remaining members of the “seven butchers of Broadway,” as the daily newspaper theater critics were known, all loved it.
“It just took the town by storm,” said Feuer. “It was as big as anything I’ve ever seen come in.”
It’s hard to imagine a show business memoir with a more impressive collection of marquee names. Feuer’s Zelig-like career is peppered with encounters with George S. Kaufman, Abe Burrows (they attended high school together and later worked on several shows together), Frank Loesser (“Being screamed at by Loesser was part of the deal”), Julie Andrews, Rudy Vallee (a “notorious cheapskate” who starred in Feuer and Martin’s “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”), Sid Caesar (who introduced Feuer to the joys of pastrami with sweet red pepper) and Gwen Verdon (who got her first starring role on Broadway in Feuer and Martin’s “Can-Can”). It was for “Can-Can” that Cole Porter wrote “I Love Paris,” despite an admonition from Martin not to write any songs about the French capital.
In the early 1970s, Feuer was tapped to produce the motion picture “Cabaret.”
“Believe it or not, ‘Cabaret’ was made for $2.4 million,” he told the Forward. “$2.4 million for one of the greatest movies of all time. That’s all I had.”
Feuer picked Bob Fosse to direct “Cabaret.” Fosse’s “lunatic paranoia and wild self-indulgence” are detailed at length in “I Got the Show Right Here.” Nevertheless, the movie won eight Oscars in 1973 but lost best picture to “The Godfather.”
“It was the most disappointing moment of my professional life,” Feuer writes.
A close second may be his decision to take a pass on “The Music Man.”
“He did not know the life he had,” said Gross, his collaborator on the book. “I had to spend a year and a half with him before it dawned on him.”