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The History of Auntie Mame
Auntie Mame has charmed readers and audiences for more than 50 years, from her first appearance in 1955 as the title character of Patrick Dennis's novel to the innumerable productions of the play and musical. Her crazy antics and free-spirited words of wisdom have been translated into more than 30 languages and appeared on the world's stages from Denmark to Japan. For a fictional character, she has led an amazing and vital life.
After the success of the novel, she took to the Broadway stage a year later in an adaptation by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee starring larger-than-life actress Rosalind Russell. The comedy ran for almost two years and Warner Brothers, an investor in the play, decided to proceed with a film version. The film also starred Russell and much of the Broadway cast and premiered in 1958. It was nominated for six Academy Awards® and although it did not win, it was seen by more Americans than any other movie in 1959. While the movie was being filmed, the play continued to run on Broadway with Greer Garson in the title role, followed by Beatrice Lillie, who then took the role to London.
Before the film opened, Patrick Dennis published a sequel to the novel entitled "Around the World with Auntie Mame" in which Mame conquers the crowned heads of Europe with Patrick in tow. The book was dedicated to Rosalind Russell.
The huge popularity of the books, play, and the movie finally led to the development of a musical in 1964, an idea that had been floating about since 1955. Hiring the talents of young composer and lyricist Jerry Herman (still fresh from the success of Hello, Dolly!), Lawrence and Lee refashioned the story into its Broadway incarnation with Angela Lansbury in the title role. Though she ultimately claimed the part as her own, she was not the creators' first choice. The part was originally envisioned for Mary Martin but she turned down the role after hearing the score. Dozens of other major stage and film actresses were considered--from Doris Day to Katherine Hepburn--but it was the candidate put forth by Jerry Herman who after four auditions finally captured the role. The show opened on Broadway in 1966 to rave reviews and sold-out houses and was nominated for eight Tony Awards® with three wins for acting. After 775 performances, Angela Lansbury left the production and the search began for her replacement. One actress eager for the part was Judy Garland, who had never done a musical on Broadway. Despite being seriously considered, it was ultimately decided her declining health would prevent her from sustaining the rigorous eight-shows-a-week schedule. The coveted part went to stage veteran Janis Paige, then to Jane Morgan, and finally Ann Miller (with the addition of a few tap dance sequences thrown in for good measure). The Broadway production played for almost four years. The production was revived in 1983 with original star Lansbury but its popularity had waned and it only played for a month.
Meanwhile, Hollywood wanted to reap a little more of Mame's magic, so in 1972 Warner Brothers decided to bring the character to the silver screen again. With an eye on maximizing profits, the studio overlooked Angela Lansbury to star in favor of America's most popular comedienne, Lucille Ball. Despite her lack of singing and dancing abilities, the studio thought her star power would make the movie successful. Ball did request some of the original Broadway cast be hired. Beatrice Arthur returned to her role as Vera Charles and after a disastrous first-day reading with Madeline Kahn, the role of Agnes Gooch was reprised by its original actress, Jane Connell. After a delay in the release date, the film opened in March of 1974 to poor reviews. Many critics felt Ball was too old for the part and complained the film version neglected the relationship between Patrick and his aunt in favor of the romance between Mame and Captain Burnside.
Since then, various Mame television projects have been gossiped about (starring everyone from Cher to Bette Midler) as well as talk of a new film version of Auntie Mame. Though none of these has yet come to fruition, there continue to be many productions of the play and musical, from amateur to professional, that have kept this deliciously dizzy character alive.