Broadway impresario Billy Rose was born William Samuel Rosenberg on September 9, 1899, in The Bronx, New York. Known as "The Little Napoleon of Showmanship," the diminutive Rose made his name and his legend as a producer, writer, lyricist, composer, director and theatre owner/operator, as well as the husband of "Funny Girl" Fanny Brice.
Young Billy Rosenberg grew up in the immigrant neighborhoods of Manhattan's Lower East Side. He attended New York City's High School of Commerce, and after graduating, he was trained in shorthand by John Robert Gregg. The 16-year-old Rose won a high-speed dictation contest and went to work in Washington, DC, as the shorthand reporter for the War Industries Board in 1917. As a stenographer, he served the great financier Bernard Baruch, who was the head of the Board, during World War I.
Rose first made a name for himself as a lyricist, mostly in collaboration with other songwriters, writing the lyrics to such famous songs as "Me and My Shadow" and "It's Only a Paper Moon" (the latter co-written with E.Y. Harburg). His first hit, a collaboration with Con Conrad, was 1923's "Barney Google," inspired by the comic strip character. Other hits included the novelty song "Does the Spearmint Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?" and "That Old Gang of Mine."
Rose's biographer Earl Conrad wrote that Rose likely didn't write many of the songs he was credited with, other than adding an idea or a phrase or two, but publishers wanted to credit him as the lyricist to boost sales, and his collaborators didn't mind as Rose was successful at plugging "his" songs. Ira Gershwin claimed that Rose, who shares equal credit for "their" song "Cheerful Little Earful," added only a minor change to a single line. Other Rose "co-writers" claimed that Rose insisted upon being credited as an author when he came up with a clever title for their song. Rose's collaborators gave in to his demands because he was a brilliant negotiator who was able to wrest the best terms from music publishers, thus boosting their royalties even when Rose's share was subtracted. Rose would become famous, and infamous, for his hardball business tactics when he became a producer.
Rose had earned respect as a lyricist, and he was undoubtedly unmatched when it came to thinking up great titles for Tin Pan Alley songs. Rose was a great "titles" man who thought up "I Found a Million Dollar Baby (In a Five and Ten-Cent Store)," for Harry Warren and Mort Dixon. They knew that the title alone would ensure the song's success and did not begrudge him authorship credit.
In 1931 Rose was one of the three founders, along with George M. Meyer and Edgar Leslie, of the Songwriters Protective Association (SPA), now known as The Songwriters Guild of America. Created to advance, promote and benefit the songwriting profession, the SPA issued the first Standard Uniform Popular Songwriters Contract in 1932. The SPA was resisted bitterly by music publishers, but the solidarity of the songwriters eventually won its acceptance. Even those songwriters who didn't join the Guild benefited from the SPA's existence because its contracts raised the level of individual publisher's boilerplate contracts. Rose served as the president of the SPA for three years.
Billy Rose married Fanny Brice, the legendary comedienne and singer from Ziegfeld's Follies, in 1929. He produced his first show, the musical revue "Sweet and Low," in 1930. The revue, which opened at Chanin's 46th Street Theatre on November 17, 1930, featured music by Rose and performances by Brice, George Jessel and Arthur Treacher, running for a total of 184 performances. His next two Broadway shows, the 1931 musical revue "Billy Rose's Crazy Quilt" (a reworking of "Sweet and Low"), which was produced, directed, and written by Rose and featured Brice and Ted Healy, closed after only 79 performances at the 44th Street Theatre. He next produced Ben Hecht's drama "The Great Magoo" at the Selwyn Theatre in 1932, and it flopped, lasting but 11 performances. Rose wouldn't produce another Broadway show until 1941, when Clifford Odets's "Clash by Night," starring Tallulah Bankhead and Lee J. Cobb and directed by Lee Strasberg, lasted only 49 performances.
Rose reinvented himself as a showman in 1934. For the second year of the Chicago World's Fair, known officially as "A Century of Progress International Exposition," Rose constructed a huge dinner theatre, Casa Manana, that featured a huge revolving stage on which ecdysiast Sally Rand performed. Rand, whom he had purloined from the "Streets of Paris" concession run by rival impresario Michael Todd, did her "bubble dance" on the revolving stage. The "bubble dance," in which the petite Sally appeared with a large balloon that was as tall as she was, was the enticing sequel to her fabled "fan dance" that had made her a hot number and led to her arrest the year before. This second year of bare-bottomed ballyhoo by Rand helped consolidated her fame as well as make Billy Rose successful again. The great Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. himself had been a promoter at the famous Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, where he presented the strongman Sandow.
Rose went back to Broadway as a producer. He produced the extravaganza "Jumbo" at New York's Hippodrome Theatre, which stretched a full city block, at a cost of $350,000 (approximately $5.8 million in 2005 dollars), the highest budget for a Broadway show at that time. The show combined a Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart musical with circus acts, including aerial stunts, high-wire acts and wild animals. Headlined by the great comic Jimmy Durante, and Paul Whiteman, then known as "The King of Jazz," the show garnered good reviews. Despite playing for 233 performances to full houses, "Jumbo" failed to become profitable due to its exorbitant cost. It did, however, make Billy Rose famous.
He produced "Sally Rand's Nude Ranch" at the 1936 Fort Worth Centennial as part of his Casa Manana show at the fairgrounds. The "Ranch" consisted of 18 girls clad in cowboy boots, a cowboy hat, a green bandanna and a short skirt. These wild gals of the naked west were "branded" (rubberstamped) with a large SR on their rumps. Rand was paid $1,000 a week (apprxomimately $13,500 in 2005 dollars) as the headliner of the act.
In 1937 Rose introduced The Aquacade at Cleveland's Great Lakes Exposition. A floating amphitheater, the Aquacade featured water ballet and hundreds of swimmers, including former Olympic swimming champ Johnny Weissmuller, more famous as the cinema's "Tarzan," and Olympian Eleanor Holm. At the height of the Great Depression, a group of New York City businessmen decided to create an international exposition for the Big Town, and the New York World's Fair was realized in 1939. Rose had returned to New with his "Billy Rose's Aquacade," which was the hit of the World's Fair. The Aquacade remained the hit attraction of the World's Fair the following year, despite his nemesis Mike Todd's attempt to box him in with his neighboring attraction, Gay New Orleans. The water show was billed as "a brilliant 'girl' show of spectacular size and content" (years later, a bankrupt Todd would try his own variation of the Aquacade at Jones Beach).
Rose, who had divorced Fanny Brice in 1938, married Eleanor Holm in 1939. Their marriage would last 15 years before it broke up in spectacular fashion worthy of the Rose reputation.
Rose took the Aquacade to San Francisco for that city's world's fair in 1940. He also opened Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe nightclub in New York that year, which was the sensation of the city with its vaudeville-style entertainment, including a chorus line of 250-pound women. Rose's nightclub, which helped launch the career of its choreographer Gene Kelly, was featured in a 1945 movie.
Rose was famous for his huge ego. When he applied for the position with the government as the head of military entertainment during World War II, he wrote in a letter to the commanding general that the job should be his, not just because he knew everyone and had done everything in show business, but because he had also "paid over a million dollars in taxes last year!" Rose was passed over for the position.
In 1943, Rose produced Oscar Hammerstein II's "Carmen Jones," an operetta with an all-African American cast based on Georges Bizet's 19th-century opera "Carmen." With a World War IIcontemporary narrative told from an African-American viewpoint, it was a huge hit. The NY Telegraph called it "far and away the best show in New York," while The NY Times said it was "beautifully done . . . just call it wonderful." The show played for 502 performances.
Billy Rose made the cover of the June 2, 1947, edition of "Time" magazine, which featured a painting of Rose amidst a circle of women's well-turned-out gams. The cover story, entitled "Sweet Corn at Glen Island," was about Rose's new nightclub, the refurbished Glen Island Casino, which opened with saxophonist Tex Beneke heading The Glenn Miller Orchestra. In 1944 Billy Rose bought the old Ziegfeld Theatre at 54th St. and 6th Ave., which had been a movie house for the previous 11 years, and turned it back into a legitimate theater. It remained a theater for 11 more years, until NBC acquired it and turned it into a TV studio. Before being turned back into a grindhouse, albeit of the TV variety, Rose's Ziegfeld Theatre presented many top entertainments, including "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," the Laurence Olivier-Vivien Leigh twin-bill "Casear and Cleopatra"/"Antony and Cleopatra," "Porgy and Bess" and "Kismet." Rose lived in an apartment above the Ziegfeld, where he reportedly carried on numerous affairs. When his ex-lover Joyce Mathews, the ex-wife of Milton Berle, slit her wrists in his bathroom, it became a major scandal fanned by the New York tabloids. The notoriety led to messy divorce from his second wife Eleanor Holm, which the press called "The War of the Roses" (after his divorce from Holm, Rose wed Matthews in 1956; the marriage ended in divorce three years later, although they briefly remarried. Rose subsequently married Doris Warner Vidor in 1964, but she filed for divorce after just six months on the grounds of "extreme mental cruelty").
In 1947 Rose began writing a syndicated newspaper column, "Pitching Horseshoes," that featured illustrated stories recounted by Rose. One of the illustrators was future Oscar-winning actor Martin Landau, who was then a staff cartoonist on the NY Daily News. The column eventually appeared in over 200 newspapers, and excerpts were used by Rose in his autobiography "Wine, Women and Words," which was illustrated by Salvador Dalí.
In its June 12, 1950, edition, "Time" Magazine ran a piece entitled "Billy Rose Gives A Party" in which it noted the similarity between a Rose story in his "Pitching Horseshoes" column and a short story written by Evelyn Waugh. Both featured downcast and absent-minded women who died broken-hearted after they staged a party, but no one came, as they had forgotten to send out the invitations. When queried for his reaction, '"Time" reported that "Rose, who had never read the Waugh story [said]: 'It's one of those stinking, unbelievable coincidences.'"
In 1950 Rose hosted "The Billy Rose Show" (1950) on the ABC television network, a 30-minute dramatic series that debuted on October 3. The show, which was directed by Broadway legend Jed Harris, featured adaptations of stories that had appeared in "Pitching Horseshoes." Two of the shows were entitled "The Night Billy Rose Shoulda Stood in Bed" and "The Night They Made a Bum out of Helen Hayes." Among the actors appearing on the show were the Broadway actors Alfred Drake, Leo G. Carroll and Burgess Meredith. The show was canceled on March 27, 1951.
In 1954 at the Royale Theatre, Rose produced an adaptation of 'Andre Gide''s novel "The Immoralist," starring Geraldine Page and Louis Jordan. The play, which ran for 96 performances, featured James Dean's last performance on Broadway. Dean won a 1954 Theatre World Award portraying the lusty Arab boy Bachir, who seduces the repressed homosexual Michel, played by Jourdan, with an electrifying "scissors dance." In 1959 the National Theatre was renamed the Billy Rose Theatre (it still exists as the Nederlander Theatre) and opened under Rose's management with a revival of George Bernard Shaw's "Heartbreak House" starring Maurice Evans, who had broken Edwin Booth's record as Hamlet in a production produced by Mike Todd.
One of Rose's last major contributions to the theater was providing his theater for the staging of the latest play by Edward Albee, who had shocked the establishment with the vulgarity of his "Zoo Story." His new play, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", opened at the Billy Rose Theater on October 13, 1962, and closed on May 16, 1964, after a total of 664 performances. The production, which cost $42,000 to mount (approximately $260,000 in 2005 dollars), won five Tony Awards for Best Play, Best Producer, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Actress. It was the sensation of the theatrical season, if not of the decade of the 1960s. In addition to providing the theater, Rose also was one of the angels for the play.
Rose once again took over operation of the Ziegfeld Theatre when NBC gave up the lease. The last two shows to appear in Billy Rose's lifetime, at the Ziegfeld, where "An Evening with Maurice Chevalier" and a Danny Kaye revue, both in 1963. The Ziegfeld Theatre subsequently was razed to make room for a skyscraper.
Billy Rose donated his collection of sculptures to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. To house the collection, Isamu Noguchi designed the Billy Rose Sculpture Garden from 1960-65, in which the sculptures were placed in courtyards with sparse vegetation, stone-paved terraces, and intimate spaces.
Billy Rose died of lobar pneumonia on February 10, 1966, at his vacation home in Montego Bay, Jamaica. He was 66 years old.
The collection of performance materials at The New York Public Library was named after Rose. The Billy Rose Theatre Collection is one of the greatest theatrical archives in the world, covering the performance arts in all their diversity. The Collection's holdings cover virtually every type of performance art, including drama, musical theatre, film, television, radio, the circus, magic, vaudeville, and puppetry.
|Doris Warner||(1 March 1964 - 10 September 1964) (divorced)|
|Joyce Mathews||(29 December 1961 - 1 April 1963) (divorced)|
|Joyce Mathews||(2 June 1956 - 23 July 1959) (divorced)|
|Eleanor Holm||(14 November 1939 - 27 February 1954) (divorced)|
|Fanny Brice||(8 February 1929 - 27 October 1939) (divorced)|
Was hired by the creator of the Gregg shorthand system to prove its efficacy. This led to a position as stenographer to Bernard Baruch during WWI, where his duties included the reorganization of the War Manpower Commission's stenographic corps.
Born at 11:00pm-EST.
It was once commonly reported in error that Rose had written an entirely new set of songs for the 1929 part-talkie film version of Show Boat (1929), but he actually wrote only one song, "Here Comes the Show Boat," and for that one he wrote only the lyrics. Rose was never involved with any other film version of "Show Boat," but he did have an influence on the 1946 Broadway stage revival, for which he convinced orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett to arrange a new overture.
Inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.
Never invest your money in anything that eats or needs repairing.
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