Cultural Commentator

When Woody Allen Walked Out, (Some Of) Broadway Followed

Cultural Commentator

When Woody Allen Walked Out, (Some Of) Broadway Followed

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Today is the anniversary of the October 15, 1969 Moratorium to End The War in Vietnam—an international day of protest which was just like Occupy Wall Street, except that people took it seriously. Three weeks after President Nixon declared that “under no circumstances will I be affected whatsoever” by anti-war protestors, a group of ex-McGovern and Kennedy staffers decided to test his resolve. On October 15, students walked out, marchers marched, and rally-types rallied to enjoy speeches from liberal luminaries like George McGovern, Teddy Kennedy, Joseph Heller and Norman Mailer. Even a young Bill Clinton got in on the act, organizing a protest at Oxford that he would later be hounded for during the ’92 campaign.

It’s difficult to appreciate how widespread these protests were. Today a few dozen hippies taking an extended camping trip in downtown New York qualifies as a Major Movement. In 1969, 10,000 students lied down in Central Park to symbolize the 10,000 Americans killed in Vietnam since Nixon took office, and released 10,000 black balloons as a preemptive memorial of those who would die next. What today would be a major achievement was a only minor moment in the Moratorium, and merited just a paragraph blurb in the Times.

In New York, cultural institutions got in on the act. Harold Prince, producer of Cabaret, West Side Story and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, told the cast of Fiddler On The Roof to come for the matinee and go home for the evening. Though he and his partners waived their royalties for the performance, he made sure the actors got paid.

Seized with fears of a mass walkout, Actor’s Equity issued a warning that, “Despite what our individual feelings may be regarding the war, Equity cannot condone any unauthorized absence from performance.” Rather than skip work, a gang of actors took the morning off to lead a parade through Times Square. From the next day’s Times: “Led by Stacey Keach, the star of Indians, the crowd began to sing a new refrain in soft, almost subdued tones: ‘All we are saying is give peace a chance.'” You can almost smell the good vibes.

Not everyone was such a sport. Producer David Merrick pitched a fit when Woody Allen, author and star of Play It Again, Sam announced that he was walking out for the day. Merrick refused to cancel the play, saying through a spokesman that “there’s been insufficient advance notice to the theatergoing public,” and threatened the young Woody with a breach of contract. Nevertheless, Allen said he was ready, “to face the consequences whatever they could be, because I think my commitment is not to the theater but to the moratorium.” He skipped out of work that evening, leaving his part to be played by understudy Lawrence Pressman, later of Doogie Houser fame, and was never heard from again.

Taking advantage of his rivals’ dark theaters, Merrick chose October 15 to open a new play, The Penny Wars, a soft-hearted anti-war drama which the Times called “out of key and out of focus,” “melodramatic,” “doomed” and “a bore.” It closed on October 18 and has yet to be revived.