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Rediscovering ‘Mame’

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Stages’ Auntie Mame director and star, Kenn McLaughlin and Sally Edmundson, demonstrate the joie de vivre that permeates Patrick Tanner’s signature character, Mame Dennis.

Research for Stages’ revival of the classic comedy reveals local ties

by Donalevan Maines
(Photos by Dalton DeHart)

Going into this,” director Kenn McLaughlin says of Stages’ upcoming revival of the 1957 Broadway smash Auntie Mame, “I thought it was a true story. I found out that it’s a completely fictional story, and that Patrick Dennis created this incredible character.”

Not only that, but Patrick Dennis was the pseudonym of relatively unknown writer Edward Everett “Pat” Tanner III, who also gave the name Patrick Dennis to Mame’s 10-year-old nephew who becomes her charge.

“I read tons of stuff, seeking out the soul of Patrick Tanner,” says McLaughlin. “He was an amazingly eccentric character, absolutely sexually free and so far ahead of his time.”

In 1955, the novel became an instant New York Times best-seller, and was quickly adapted by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee as a Broadway play starring Rosalind Russell. Reprising the title role in the film version, she earned her fourth Oscar nomination for Best Actress. In 1966 came the Broadway musical Mame starring Angela Lansbury (featuring Jerry Herman’s classic score) followed by the ill-fated 1974 movie version of Mame with Lucille Ball.

McLaughlin’s research also revealed that Mame’s creator once lived in Houston. The time was 1972, according to Eric Myers’ bubbly biography Uncle Mame: The Life of Patrick Dennis. Tanner fled Mexico to lick his wounds after being suckered by a servant he had described as “so breathtakingly handsome that people stop on the street to gape, and so sweet, so innocent, shy, and stupid that he can’t get to the corner without being helped.”

Actually, the servant was stealing from Tanner, leaving the washed-up writer about as penniless as Mame when the banks failed in 1929. Depressed but not defeated, Tanner moved to Houston to work with a gay couple who was opening a gallery in the Galleria (“where people were ice-skating,” shuddered Tanner’s pal, actress Dody Goodman).

Tanner’s biographer concluded, “Never had a fish flopped farther out of water than Pat Tanner when he’d landed in Houston.” But the author himself wrote in a letter: “Houston is very nice; unbelievably cosmopolitan for Texas; rich, rich, rich; and starved for the kind of painting, sculpture, and just plain junk which we can supply in vast quantities.”

However, a year later Tanner reinvented himself again, this time as “Edwards Tanner,” a butler!

“In no time,” Myers wrote, “Edwards Tanner landed a plum post in Palm Beach, Florida, in the villa of a retired U.S. ambassador. His new employer was especially impressed with Tanner’s “28 years of experience” and a most flattering reference letter “which was signed by the well-known author Patrick Dennis.”

Learning about the man who created the character of madcap Auntie Mame has freed McLaughlin to present the play at Stages in a new light.

“I don’t think I’m using any of the conventions you think of, such as Auntie Mame entering down a grand staircase,” he explains. “The story is told from a boy’s memory. It’s a mythology. Everything about it will be fresh, with anachronisms in design. There will be a lot that’s familiar, but a lot that’s unexpected, and the closing is going to blow people away.”

As Auntie Mame, Stages mainstay Sally Edmundson inherits a role that has been played by dozens of actresses, including Oscar winners Greer Garson, Susan Hayward, Celeste Holm, and Ginger Rogers; Tony Award winners Alexis Smith and Elaine Stritch; comediennes Eve Arden, Beatrice Lillie, and JoAnne Worley; and musical-comedy stars Gisele MacKenzie, Ann Miller, and Juliet Prowse.

Cast in the role of a young poet whom Mame takes as a lover is David Matranga, co-star of recent Stages outings Grey Gardens, The Man from Nebraska, and The Complete History of America (Abridged).

“We are going to use his beauty in a different way, daring to be as sexy as I can make him,” says McLaughlin. “Shirtless, soaking wet, dripping sex.”

Auntie Mame begins previews on Sept. 15. Opening night is Friday, Sept. 17. The play runs through Oct. 10 at Stages, 3201 Allen Parkway. Tickets and info: 713/527-0123.

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.

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Don Maines

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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