Wendy Johnson’s Not Concealing Judy Holliday or Herself

by DEBORAH BEHRENS |  April 18, 2012

Dan Cole, Kevin Quinn and Terrence Elton in “Concealing Judy Holliday”

Wendy Johnson may not be an exact double of the late stage and screen star Judy Holliday, but she channels the same quixotic mix of deft comedic timing and deeply earnest artistry.

Over lunch in a booth at Los Feliz’s retro-eclectic House of Pies, Johnson offers up a spot-on Billie Dawn, the Born Yesterday role Holliday originated on Broadway before trumping both Bette Davis’ Margo Channing and Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond for the Best Actress Oscar in the 1950 film version. Last year Nina Arianda earned a Tony nomination for her portrayal of Billie in the 2011 Broadway revival.

Wendy Johnson

Johnson is equally adept at conjuring the voices of other ditzy but life-savvy dames such as Guys and Dolls‘ Miss Adelaide, Oklahoma’s Ado Annie or Audrey, the  Little Shop of Horrors’ Skid Row flower shop girl. But it is Holliday, a woman with a 172 IQ who felt trapped by the roles studio bosses and Broadway producers wanted her to play, with whom Johnson most feels a personal kinship.

Johnson spent the last decade writing and workshopping a “funny and poignant” play calledConcealing Judy Holliday that now features seven actors playing various roles with her as the titular lead. It premieres April 21 at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice, directed by Guillermo Cienfuegos and featuring PRT artistic director Marilyn Fox. Other cast members include Dan Cole, Melody Doyle, Terrance Elton, Kevin Quinn and Sarah Zinsser.

“Judy said, ‘I just need to remember to be smart when I’m at home and dumb when I’m outside’,” Johnson explains about Holliday. “That’s the concealing – ‘I have to squelch my intelligence in certain situations. I can only really be me in private.’ Even walking out on the street or when she was on What’s My Line?”

Judy Holliday on “What’s My Line” on July 5, 1953

Each week the What’s My Line? TV show’s panelists were blindfolded for its famed celebrity mystery guest segment, during which stars gamely attempted to camouflage their voices. Bennett Cerf quickly surmised Holliday’s identity despite her husky cover-up. He then asked if she would speak like Billie Dawn, as his wife had been trying to duplicate it for weeks.

“You can see the expression on her face when he says, ‘Would you do that Born Yesterdayvoice?” Johnson elaborates. “She kind of looks down and she’s like, ‘Here we go again.’ She had a love-hate relationship with the character. Anybody who has been just extraordinary in a part runs a risk of that becoming all anybody ever wants to see.”

A Forgotten Holiday

Judy Holliday was born Judy Tuvim [which suggests a Hebrew/Yiddish phrase for a holiday greeting] in New York in 1921. She landed her first theater-related job in 1938 as a switchboard operator at Orson Welles’ legendary Mercury Theatre. She also joined the Revuers, a new cabaret act featuring Adolph Green, Betty Comden, Alvin Hammer and John Frank, which got its start at Max Gordon’s Village Vanguard. Better supper clubs, an NBC radio show, and stints at Radio City Music Hall ensued over the next five years. In 1943, the group minus Frank accepted a Hollywood film offer that fell apart upon arrival. Ultimately the studios wanted Holliday but not the group. Out of loyalty, she refused to sign but relented under pressure from the others. Twentieth Century Fox cast her in small parts includingWinged Victory, directed by George Cukor, but released her in late 1944.

Judy Holliday and Broderick Crawford in “Born Yesterday”

Back in New York, Comden and Green were penning what would become On the Town, and introduced her to director Herman Shulmin who cast Holliday in 1945’s Kiss Them for Me, which earned her the Clarence Derwent Award. In 1946, Garson Kanin’s new play Born Yesterdaywas in trouble because of its high-strung and unhappy star Jean Arthur who finally dropped out. Six other actresses refused the role, and Kanin sought out Holliday on a tip from a wardrobe designer.

After he convinced producer Max Gordon, Holliday stepped in with just four days to learn the part in time for the show’s out-of-town Philadelphia tryout. The critics loved her and the show opened on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre in February 4, 1946. It ran for 1642 performances and remains the Lyceum’s biggest hit and longest run. Columbia Pictures paid $1 million for the film rights and proceeded to test 35 actresses despite Holliday’s stardom in the role. Studio head Harry Cohn didn’t think she had what he wanted.

Cukor signed on to direct the film version but was concurrently at work on Adam’s Rib,starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy and written by Kanin with wife Ruth Gordon. The group conspired to write Holliday a supporting role in the film that would prove she had screen presence. It worked. Billie Dawn, the ex-chorus girl, went on to upset Davis and Swanson at Oscar time.

In 1952, Holliday was called before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee to address rumors she was a communist and had lent her name to communist organizations. She named no one but became blacklisted when leaked transcripts revealed she had utilized her Billie Dawn persona to circumvent the answers. It kept her off television for three years and forced the cancellation of her I Love Lucy-type show in the pipeline. She continued to work in films until the furor died down.

Judy Holliday singing “I’m Going Back” from “Bells Are Ringing” on the Ed Sullivan show

Holliday appeared in Cukor-directed films likeThe Marrying Kind and It Could Happen to You, plus The Solid Gold Cadillac. In 1956, she returned to Broadway in Comden and Green’sBells Are Ringing and took home a Tony Award. She introduced the song “The Party’s Over,” which was written especially for her. In 1960, she appeared in the film version opposite Dean Martin.

Holliday had planned to play her idol Laurette Taylor in a new drama called Laurette until she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which ultimately led to her death at age 43 in 1965.

Jumping Off the Empire State Building

That Johnson should come to play Holliday was not a linear progression. The daughter of a Unitarian minister, she was born in Cleveland but moved to Northern California’s Marin County in second grade when her dad transferred to a church in Terra Linda. She adapted Judy Blume’s young adult novel Deenie into a play that he helped type up.

“It’s about a girl who’s got scoliosis and she has to wear a brace,” Johnson explains. “She’s very popular at school and it’s about how her friends deal with it. She’s very funny. When people ask her, ‘what happened to you’ she goes, ‘I jumped off the Empire State Building.’ I thought that was really funny as a kid. So when I fell off the bars and had to get stitches, people said, ‘what happened?’ and I said, ‘I jumped off the Empire State Building’ thinking that it was just the funniest thing.”

Wendy Johnson

When she was in fourth grade, Johnson starred in an outdoor production of Heidi. “I just had in my skull from an early age that I wanted to be in a play.” She soon started studying with noted Bay Area teacher Marilyn Izdebski whose musical theater workshops for kids 8-18 are still going strong at The Playhouse in San Anselmo. Johnson wanted to be in Fiddler on the Roof and took the bus at age 11 from Fairfax to Corte Madera just to be in the chorus.

“I did Adelaide in Guys and Dolls,” she grins, then sings a few verses of Adelaide’s Lament. “That was the beginning of funny voices. The boys were really short but really good. It was a good class with really talented kids. I was in ninth grade. I think that was my last show for Marilyn.”

It wasn’t until high school that Johnson got cast in her first dramatic role — as Karen in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour. “I’d been griping a little bit about musicals. I wouldn’t always get a good part because I was good at the character thing like Adelaide.  But I wasn’t really a trained singer. When I did Children’s Hour, it was like, ‘Oh, this is what I can really do.’ My mom said that to me, too. She said, ‘I know you like the singing and dancing, too, but this is really something.”

Johnson says she comes from a very creative family and that creativity is held in high regard. Her younger sister is a teacher and a published poet. Her older sister is a writer and a former textbook editor.

“My dad is also a very wonderful poet,” adds Johnson. “I’ve written poetry, then I’ve also written a lot of sketch comedy. Kind of like Judy, which is partly why I can identify with her in a way – very, very funny but then also a very deep person. There’s a poem in my play calledTwilight and Snow that she wrote in the ninth grade, and it’s a really startling poem for someone that young to have written, I think. So she definitely covered both spectrums in her life.”

In high school, Johnson went from playing the doctor in Agnes of God to Ado Annie in Oklahoma. She studied at the Marin Academy under Sharon Boucher and performed in shows like Tell Me That You Love Me Junie Moon as Junie before heading off to NYU and Circle in the Square. She joined a sketch comedy group called The Sterile Yak started by award-winning children’s book writer Mo Willems. She did a show at La MaMa called Collateral Damage that needed a few NYU students to be cheerleaders in a staging of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Whom Bomb.Vanessa Redgrave was featured in another.

“We were in ridiculous little outfits and we did the poem and I got to meet Allen Ginsberg,” Johnson recalls. “It was like a series of different poems or pieces. So Vanessa Redgrave was totally different from ours. I remember seeing her offstage and said, “I’m in this ridiculous little skimpy outfit.” And she goes, “Ridiculously brilliant” and put us right at ease.”

A Relentless Pursuit of Judy

After college, Johnson appeared in several NYC shows including Elevator Repair Service’s infamous 1994 Language Instruction: Love Family vs. Andy Kaufman at the Here Theater in SoHo. She also did odd jobs including a telemarketing gig that evoked shades of Holliday’s answering service character Ella in Bells Are Ringing. “I tried to mimic the voice of whoever answered the phone to make the job more fun for me.”

Wendy Johnson and Melody Doyle; Photo by Norman Scott

She married actor Terrance Elton and decided to move to LA, but a bout with Graves disease delayed her diving right in. But when fellow NYU grad and Relentless Theatre Company co-founder Olivia Honegger asked Johnson what play she wanted to do, Johnson replied The Crackwalker by Judith Thompson. The critically acclaimed production helmed by Honegger introduced Johnson to futureJudy Holliday Concealed director Cienfuegos, who was acting in it.

Johnson credits good friend actor/critic Travis Michael Holder for opening the door to Judy. “He had come see some Relentless productions and actually it’s kind of his fault that this play was born. He came to review And Baby Makes Seven and wrote, “Judy Holliday clone Wendy Johnson.” I thought, “What?” That kind of gave me the push to start finding out who she was.”

She found the extensive Judy Holliday Research Center website, read both biographies of the star as well as countless articles and documents including FBI files, which were created when Holliday was suspected of being a communist.

“The FBI files alone were over 100 pages,” explains Johnson, who printed them out. “I wanted to know everything. So I just had to read, read, read, watch, watch, watch, listen, listen, listen and then I had all this information. I started the research in like 2001, but what would happen is I would get in a play and so I’d put it on the shelf. Then I’d come back to do it. So when I say I started you know, over 10 years ago, it’s not that I was working on it every day. It’s only in the last five years that I’ve really been honing it.”

Some of the plays that distracted her include Flow My Tears, The Po­liceman Said and Small Craft Warnings at the Evidence Room; Out Of Time with nom de guerre; Sideways Stories At The Wayside School at South Coast Rep; plus They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?and Jose Rivera’s Sonnets For An Old Century at Greenway Court Theatre.

Judy Holliday, Broderick Crawford and William Holden in “Born Yesterday”

Learning about Holliday was one thing, doing something with that information was another. While Honegger suggested she consider doing a one-woman show, Johnson wanted to work with other actors. When asked what surprised her in investigating Holliday’s history or the catalyst that drew her in, Johnson admits, “It’s been so long, she’s such a part of me now.”

“I think the initial kind of draw was someone so smart, so funny and so very talented,” she offers. “I was intrigued by that and then the fact that she really wanted to be taken as seriously as an actress. Some unfulfilled dreams in her life struck a chord with me. Unrealized potential. Her personal life had a string of bad relationships and poor choices. She’s kind of been forgotten, and her career was very hurt by the hearings even though she didn’t name any names. She wasn’t blacklisted but at the time on television, the sponsors didn’t want their product associated with anybody who had appeared before the Senate subcommittee.”

According to Johnson, PR man Robert Green was the one to advise Holliday to give the senators what they saw in her screen roles, not the genius I.Q. reported in the media. “He said, ‘Just play that dumb blonde’ and she did. That’s what was so fascinating about reading the FBI files because she answers questions, but in such an intelligent way. Intelligently playing dumb.”

Judy Holliday

Examples include:

Question: Are you sure Betty Comden and Adolph Green do not have Communist records?
Answer: “I am as sure of that as I can be of anybody who isn’t me.”

Question: What about the Communist-front records of Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein?
Answer: “I am sure that they got into it the same way I did, because I am sure none of them are Communists. I mean if you are a Communist, why go to a Communist-front? Why not be a Communist? Whatever you are, be it.”

“She got hurt when the transcripts were leaked because people were able to read what she said. The headlines were along the lines of ‘Evil Genius Outwits Honorable Committee.’ The tragedy of her life was interesting to me but also the amount of joy that she was able to convey at the same time. How hard it was to be an super-intelligent woman in Hollywood in that day and age, and having to conceal it.”

A Trip to Venice

Johnson says she had no interest in doing a biopic on stage with a linear story line. What caught her attention were the last 12 days of Holliday’s life, where the actress drifted in and out of consciousness.

Wendy Johnson and Sarah Zinsser; Photo by Norman Scott

“What are the things a person might be thinking about?” Johnson asked. “Remembering or regretting? So I thought that kind of a swirling collage could be the format. That’s what initially helped, but because she was a very private person I needed to flush it out and read between the lines, too.”

After multiple readings with friends and numerous drafts, she did a public workshop in November 2008 at Greenway Court Theatre by invitation of co-founder Pierson Blaetz. The show had a vaudeville format then but was missing elements of Holliday’s personal life. During a subsequent reading a few years later, she asked Guillermo Cienfuegos, who had since helmed critically acclaimed productions of Vincent Melocchi’s Julia and Lions at Pacific Resident Theatre, if he would direct the piece.

They held a reading a PRT’s Co-op space featuring PRT founding member Sarah Zinsser as Tallulah Bankhead and PRT artistic director Fox playing Holliday’s mother and Laurette Taylor. Fox had been cajoled into joining the cast after seeing a previous reading and became a champion of the piece. A last-minute cancellation opened up a three-week workshop opportunity last October. The response encouraged the group to move forward into production this spring.

Marilyn Fox and Wendy Johnson

“We developed this synergy between all of us, and Marilyn really got the piece,” adds Johnson. “Judy’s mother was very neurotic, but very funny and very sweet. A complicated woman, and Marilyn’s got the kind of comic timing you cannot teach. She told me I needed a ‘rosebud’ moment in the play and that’s when I added the Laurette Taylor part. Not being allowed to play her after the cancer set in was the biggest regret of Judy’s life.”

In Concealing Judy Holliday, Johnson never leaves the stage as vignettes from the actress’s life play out in kaleidoscopic fashion, ranging from meeting her musician husband David Oppenheim to appearing before the Senate subcommittees, doing radio sketches with Tallulah Bankhead on The Big Show to writing songs with last beau Gerry Mulligan. And dealing with her mother. “So it’s funny in spots as anyone’s life is, you know? It’s very funny and sad and all over the place, just like someone’s mind would be as they lay there on morphine.”

Johnson hopes the play will spur people to revisit or learn more about Holliday. “It’s really kind of incredible as a writer to just see this baby being born. I mean it’s an extraordinary thing to see it come to life, and not just with rinky-dink people slapping it together, but with artists who are committed and passionate. They bring me to tears,” she admits, tearing up.  “It’s really – I still can’t believe I’ve been so lucky.”

Concealing Judy Holliday, presented by Pacific Resident Theatre. Opens April 21. Plays Thur-Sat 8 pm; Sun 3 pm. Through May 27. Tickets: $20-28. Pacific Resident Theatre, 705½ Venice Boulevard, Venice. www.PacificResidentTheatre.com. 310-822-8392.

***All Concealing Judy Holliday production photos by Keith Stevenson, except where noted

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