Been There, Done That

Jane Connell's seen the brightest lights on Broadway

Apr 16, 2003 at 4:00 am
Talk about your Broadway babies: For nearly 50 years now, Jane Connell has been a New York theater fixture. Broadway musicals and comedies, summer stock, national tours, cabaret: She's been there, done that, time and again -- all except for St. Louis.

"I think I played the Muny once," she qualifies. "Isn't that the big outdoor stage with those sliding booms? But don't ask me what show I did. At 78, a lot of those memories have become a blur."

Now, after too long an absence, Connell is back in town, in the national company of The Full Monty at the Fox. She's the one who keeps her clothes on -- which is just as well, because every time she walks onstage, she brings a half-century of theater baggage with her.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, she married her college sweetheart, fellow performer Gordon Connell, when she was 23. In the early 1950s, they headed east. "We found we weren't really prepared for New York," Connell says, "so after three months, we beat the retreat and returned to San Francisco. In two weeks' time we got a job at the Purple Onion [nightclub], on the same bill with Maya Angelou, who was then pretending to be a calypso singer. She said she was part Watusi. It was terribly funny. I confront her with it whenever I see her."

Their confidence bolstered, the Connells returned to New York. In 1955, Jane was cast as Mrs. Peachum in the now-legendary off-Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera. "That show ran for so many years," Connell says, "that I was able to use it like a security blanket. I'd leave to do something that would flop and then come back."

When she made her Broadway debut in the musical-comedy revue New Faces of 1956, Connell shared a tiny dressing room with a 21-year-old neophyte, newly arrived from England, named Maggie Smith. "Maggie was magnificent in the show," Connell recalls, "but she kept saying, 'Jane, this isn't what I want to do.'" After the revue closed, Smith returned to England and -- like Angelou -- reinvented herself. Connell returned to The Threepenny Opera.

In late 1956 and early '57, she was part of the cast of Stanley, a now-forgotten TV series whose young writing staff included Woody Allen and Neil Simon. Buddy Hackett played Stanley. His girlfriend was another unknown: Carol Burnett.

"Carol was very jealous of me because I was doing Threepenny at night," Connell says, a smile in her voice. Two years later, Burnett became an overnight sensation as Princess Winifred in Once Upon a Mattress. Connell played Burnett's role in London. She returned to the States just in time to appear in Threepenny yet again, in a stock production memorable for the unlikely casting of Gypsy Rose Lee as Jenny. "She was a grand old flag who drove herself, and me, around in a big Rolls-Royce," Connell says. "I liked her very much. I even liked her two ugly hairless dogs."

In 1966 Connell created the role of Agnes Gooch in the original Broadway megahit Mame, starring Angela Lansbury. A decade later, she repeated her performance opposite Lucille Ball in the not-so-mega film version. "They cast Madeline Kahn as Gooch," she explains, "but Lucy didn't understand Madeline's kooky style of comedy. Two weeks into filming, Lucy had Madeline fired, and I was brought in. Lucy could be quite mean and bossy, but she was also very bright. I think she knew she wasn't right for the part. For whatever reason, I became Lucy's darling, and we got along great."

Back on Broadway, Connell was featured in such hits as Me and My Girl, Lend Me a Tenor, Crazy for You and Moon Over Buffalo (which reunited her with old pal Burnett). Now, there's The Full Monty.

"There's no question that theater has changed through the years," Connell says. "The one thing that bothers me is that so many of today's young actors come from television and have not been taught theater technique. They don't realize when they're upstaging you. It's not done out of meanness or trickery. They just think there's a camera over their shoulder that is filming the other actor. But I don't complain about it. I just look out front and deliver the lines."