(USA) Still Entertaining, Mae West’s “Diamond Lil” Makes New Fans in New York City
“There came a point,” Frank Marino explained, “where several people at my table all turned to each other and mouthed the words, ‘It feels like we’re watching Mae West!’” The Brooklyn native, born and bred in the Gravesend section, had traveled to midtown Manhattan to see a performance of “Diamond Lil,” starring Darlene Violette in the title role. “Excellent!” pronounced Mr. Marino. “If it comes around again, I’d definitely buy tickets.”
In town for an Al Jolson convention, West Coast singer Richard Halpern strolled by Don’t Tell Mama and spotted a promotional postcard. He was happy to express his enthusiasm on camera (for the exit interviews) and he also congratulated the star, the cast, and the playwright. “I absolutely loved this wonderful show,” confirmed Richard Halpern. “I hope the group can re-stage it in Los Angeles.”
Rick Baynes, in Manhattan to catch three plays in the NY Fringe Festival, also traveled to Times Square to spend the evening with Mae West. The Baltimore, Maryland computer specialist said that the revised production was incredibly good. “I loved it! As I told the writer, she was able to bring Mae West alive,” said Rick Baynes. “All the actors were good, and I especially liked Darlene Violette, the actress who played the Mae West role, and the actor Jim Gallagher, who enlivened Chuck Connors along with several other parts. Everyone in the audience was enjoying themselves. Mae would have approved!” Mr. Baynes added, “I liked the use of the harmonica to accompany the musical numbers. I could listen to Mae’s songs all day.”
Surrounded by a dozen friends, lawyer Rory McEvoy smiled as he waved from his ringside table. “All three actresses have star quality,” he said. “Even though the play was written in 1928, it has wide appeal today. And the tragic sex slavery theme is still topical.”
New York City teacher Grace Blangiardo, who saw the show on Saturday, loved it so much that she returned the following day to enjoy it again. “Darlene Violette delivered some outstanding acting,” she said, “and she and her supporting cast provided great moments of emotional power and comedy.”
Darlene Violette starred in the role Mae West wrote for herself: Diamond Lil, Queen of the Bowery. Ms. Violette also directed the play which featured Joanna Bonaro, Juan Sebastian Cortes, Anthony DiCarlo, Kimmy Foskett, Jim Gallagher, Sidney Myer, and Gary Napoli. Brian McInnis provided live music.
The History of “Diamond Lil”
Mae West was living in a West 54th Street hotel when she first heard the folk song “Frankie and Johnny,” inspired by St. Louis prostitute and “sporting queen” Frankie Baker [1876—1952]. This black beauty, known for diamonds “as big as hen’s eggs,” shot her lover with a .32-caliber pistol on October 15, 1899. Though the ballad by Bill Dooley (a black “bar-room bard”) concludes with Frankie Baker at the gallows, in reality her murder trial in Missouri ended in an acquittal.
In 1928, Mae West and her collaborator Adeline Leitzbach began working on a play (for a cast of 33 actors) set in the Bowery during the Naughty Nineties. Mae correctly figured that the American theatre-goer, tired of living under the dry restrictions of Prohibition, would welcome a “melodrama of the underworld” that took place during a friskier era when a nickel bought a generous glass of beer.
For authenticity, “Diamond Lil” has characters based on real individuals such as Bowery Boss “Big Tim” Sullivan [1862—1913] and Chuck Connors [1852—1913], “Mayor of Chinatown.” Mae West cast Chuck Connors, Jr. to play his father for the Broadway debut of “Diamond Lil” on April 1928.
“Frankie and Johnny” became Mae West’s trademark song, featured in her 66-minute film “She Done Him Wrong” , many recordings, and her stage shows. Her 3-act (3 hour) play “Diamond Lil” had several tours between 1928—1951. Mae West, who never used an understudy, missed only two performances, once due to influenza and once because she broke her ankle.
Since this melodrama was successful for Mae West, why hasn’t the script been produced since 1951? The length is prohibitive (3 hours), the cast size is enormous (33 actors), and the third act is screwy. Staying faithful to the gritty themes in the novel, LindaAnn Loschiavo trimmed the work to 85 minutes for a cast of eight.
Media Coverage for Mae West’s 120th Birthday
In August 2013, three commemorative events were organized for Mae West’s 120th birthday by LindaAnn Loschiavo, who wrote the play “Courting Mae West: Sex, Censorship and Secrets.” A Monday mid-August afternoon at Hudson Park Library focused on the novel “Diamond Lil” as a readers theater extravaganza — — with two professional actors, a musician, and a New York historian bringing the book to life with words, rare vintage images, music, period songs, audience participation, and a Mae West raffle. Two performances of “Diamond Lil” took place in Manhattan during Mae’s birthday weekend.
On August 12th, The New York Times selected it for their “New York Today” section. The Village Voice listed it, and Jonathan Mandell reviewed the library event for NewYorkTheatre.me [http://newyorktheater.me/2013/08/17/mae-west-at-120-come-up-and-see-me-on-broadway/].
Brooklyn Daily’s reporter Joanna del Buono interviewed LindaAnn Loschiavo and Darlene Violette for her article “Is that Standing O in your hand?” [http://www.brooklyndaily.com/stories/2013/33/all_standingo_box_2013_08_16_bd.html]. There was also coverage in Stu Hamstra’s Cabaret Hotline column, in L’IDEA Magazine, and online publications.
Actress Darlene Violette and the wonderful cast who brought the Bowery denizens and Suicide Hall’s ne’er-do-wells to life will return in “Diamond Lil” for two 7 o’clock performances at Don’t Tell Mama [343 W. 46th Street] on Sunday September 15th and 22nd. Come up and see for yourself.
Updated information is online at The Mae West Blog: http://MaeWest.blogspot.com