Broadway Billy Rose

24 Sep

Billy Rose (1899-1966) was a lyricist and Broadway impresario, the co-writer of such hit songs as “Me and My Shadow”, “Does the Spearmint Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight” and “I Found a Million Dollar Baby”, and the producer of shows like the Ziegfeld Follies of 1934, Jumbo (1935) and Carmen Jones (1943). In 1946 he published an entertaining autobiography, illustrated by Salvador Dali, which contains this martini-related anecdote.

Time Magazine, 2 June 1947.

Why didn’t I join the crowd and have a few drinks? For two good reasons. First, hard liquor tastes to me like something you take for the grippe. Second, I’ve been selling it in my nightclubs for years, and taking on a cargo of lightning bugs has no glamour for me. It would be like a soda jerk going on a walnut sundae binge.

But before the Anti-Saloon League sends around that long, white ribbon, let me say I don ‘t object to other people drinking. There’s only one drink at which I draw the line. That’s the Martini.

Scotch and soda is a lullaby that puts you to sleep in easy stages. The Martini is a baseball bat to the base of the skull. Eight ounces, and dowagers do the bumps.

This yellow mixture had spoiled my first two summers at Mt. Kisco. Our week-end guests had been witty and civilized folk, and I had enjoyed their company very much—during the day. But around 7 P.M., these arthritic athletes would come off the tennis court and congregate in the game room for what they called “Happy Cocktail Hour”. Eleanor, always the good hostess, would have a big pitcher of Martinis waiting.

During the first couple of drinks, everybody would have a good time, including me. And then—whammo! Martini number three would take hold. From them on, everyone would have a good time, excluding me.

By the time we hit the dinner table at 9, our guests would be more bleary than bright. And for the rest of the evening, I’d be the sober little guy in the corner everybody felt sorry for.

“Once and for all, I’ve got to slug it out with Mr. Martini,” I said to myself. And the following summer I did.

I started by holding a stop-watch on my guests. Few of them consumed more than two Martinis the first hour. I realized that if I could throw some hot soup into them before they buddied up to the third Martini, everything would be all right. The problem was how to get my guests to the dinner table an hour earlier.

The plan I finally evolved darn near broke me. It was to build a small movie theatre and substitute Ginger Rogers for gin, Veronica Lake for vermouth and Olivier for the olive. This meant ripping the stalls out of the stable, bringing in half a mile of electric cable, building an asbestos booth, buying a couple of projectors, and bulldozing the film companies out of their new pictures. I finally finished it late in July, and George Jessel christened it “Loew’s Rose.”

If peace of mind is worth anything, the theatre paid for itself the first month. The day it opened, I casually remarked at lunch, “We’re showing the new Bing Crosby movie tonight. We’ll have to start dinner early because the operator lives in Mt. Vernon.”

Nobody squawked. And so, instead of sitting down at 9 with a bunch of howling hooligans, I picked up my soup spoon at 8 in the company of reasonably reasonable people. Marc Connelly was there that evening, and it was nice to hear him talk like Marc Connelly.

And it’s been that way for the past seven summers. After the movies, the guests usually come back to the game room. And if they feel like a Martini, it’s all right with me. My bedroom is on the other side of the house.

— Billy Rose, Wine, Women and Words (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1948 [1946]), pp. 109-110.

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