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Interview with Larry Parks

Twenty years after he starred in "The Jolson Story," Larry Parks still meets people like the cab driver who took him to the theater the other day. Parks and his wife, Betty Garrett, got into the cab and the driver said, "Say, aren't you Larry Parks? I saw you in the Jolson picture."

And then, in tribute, the cabbie put a kazoo in his mouth and banged on a tambourine with his right hand and sang "My Mammy" while he was driving down Michigan Ave.

"He had a hell of a Jolson imitation," Parks said. "I guess he drives around the city singing to himself when he doesn't have a fare. But it was the strangest thing..."

There must be times when Larry Parks wonders if the world is filled with would-be Jolson imitators.

Indeed, it may be. There's a tavern in Old Town with Jolson records on the jukebox, and when somebody drops in a dime, half the customers raise their voices in unskilled harmony: "Because it isn't raining rain, you know, it's raining violets..."

But the funny thing is, Al Jolson himself didn't much approve of Larry Parks for the role, even though Parks eventually won an Academy Award nomination for his performance.

"It's quite a story," Parks recalled. "In the beginning, Jolson wanted to play himself. Well, that's understandable, but he was too old. He was 68. So then Jolson wanted James Cagney for the role. Cagney had just finished playing George M. Cohan. "Jolson was never too happy with me. And I had another problem. All of Jolson's movies were for Warner Brothers, and we were making 'The Jolson Story' for Columbia. So Harry Cohn, the studio boss, asked Jack Warner if we could borrow the Jolson films so I could study them. And Jack Warner, in a heartwarming display of reciprocity, said hell no.

"So I had to do Jolson without having seen him. I remember the one time Jolson visited the set I was doing a number. And be said, kid, you're moving around too much. So he did the song. And he did everything but bang from the rafters. Then he said, see? I didn't move a muscle."

Parks smiled. He and his wife sat in their suite at the Churchill Hotel, where they've stayed since taking over the leads in "Cactus Flower" at the Shubert. Parks occasionally got up to tend to the lamb chops, a light dinner before their performance.

"The studio called the picture Harry Cohn's Folly until we were about halfway through," Parks remembered. "Then everyone got excited. I had one particular problem. Jolson had pre-recorded all the songs before the script was ready, and he sang every one as if he were going to drop dead at the end of it. "Well, that was Jolson. He always sang like that, which was why people loved him. But it was difficult from an actor's point of view. In one scene, I was supposed to be singing as loudly as I could one second, and then collapse in the middle of the song. How do you taper off at the top of your lungs? I finally decided to play it as if I were singing so loudly out of desperation, struggling to get to the end of the song."

"The Jolson Story" has since become something of a classic, a regular on the late show. But Jolson's blackface songs, and Parks' version of them, have taken on different overtones since 1948.

"Here's a clipping from the Portland Oregonian," Parks said. It was an editorial suggesting that times had changed, that blackface was offensive, and that "The Jolson Story" should be quietly laid to rest by TV stations.

"I don't see it that way," Parks said. "The movie was made innocently enough, without any desire to offend. I think if you start suppressing old films for reasons like this, you're cutting off your own past. I thought Bill Cosby's special on TV was wonderful, the one tracing the rise and fall of the Negro stereotype in movies. I think that sort of approach to Hollywood's past is the wise one, instead of trying to ignore it or forget it."

Together and separately, Parks and Miss Garrett have had interesting acting careers. They trooped England from one end to the other in vaudeville; they've appeared in a score of films (she was the girl

opposite Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and "On the Town"); and in many plays (they were together on Broadway in "Bells Are Ringing").

Miss Garrett began her career with the Martha Graham Dance Company, and got her early theatrical experience with Orson Welles' original Mercury Players, perhaps the most talented company the American theater ever developed.

"Orson had an unbroken string of successes," she recalled, "but, unfortunately, I joined the company just in time for his first flop: a play called 'Danton's Death.'

"He was a genius, but in that one he let his genius get slightly out of hand. He loaded up that little Mercury Theater with thousands of dollars worth of lights, and he tore out the stage and put in elevator platforms, so all the actors were constantly moving up and down out of the depths.

"I remember we all had to do noises in the night, in addition to our roles. I did animal noises. Joseph Cotten had to do sex noises in the night. Can you imagine? Joseph Cotten?"

"Sex noises?" her husband asked.

"Oh, you know," Miss Garrett said. "Groans of ecstasy and all that. He started out with a lot of enthusiasm, but after two weeks he completely lost heart. You'd see him in the dressing room with a hunted look on his face."

Parks said he and his wife have more or less settled down into "Cactus Flower" and are enjoying themselves after a hectic period of preparation. "We learned on a Monday that we'd be replacing Hugh O'Brian and Elizabeth Allen in the play," he said. "We had to leave for Chicago that Thursday. Betty went out and bought the play, and we learned the lines before we left California, but still there were only 10 days for rehearsal."

"All the same," Miss Garrett said, "opening night went smoothly, thank goodness. It's a well-made comedy, I think; that helps. The other night my tongue got twisted and I bobbled a line, but the audience laughed anyway. That was sort of a blow to my ego."

"What helps," Parks said, "is that we've worked together so much. When my back is turned, I generally know what she's up to. Right, Betty?"

"Well," said Miss Garrett, "it sounds good."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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