Socialism and the lack of air conditioning in the 1920s have a direct connection to the past 60 years of musical comedy. Shows playing today on Broadway and stages around the world have their roots in a movement that began in a summer camp in Pennsylvania. Out of the desire to entertain refugees from a scorching New York City came a stream of writers, performers and directors who returned to the city to triumph in the commercial theatre, as well as do landmark work in film and television.
Before the spread of practical indoor refrigeration, working in New York City in the summer was debilitating. The heat generated by the machinery made matters worse; fainting at machines was common. Traditionally the rich coped with the city’s summer heat by going to resorts, and in the years following World War I, some labor and socialist organizations decided to make such escapes accessible to workers. As Martha Schmoyer LoMonaco explains in her book Every Week, a Broadway Revue, the socialist Rand School built such a camp with the idea that the income it generated would cover the camp’s expenses and also help support Rand’s educational mission.
Camp Tamiment opened in the Poconos in 1921. Tamiment was distinct from many of the other summer resorts of the time in that it didn’t cater to families: The campers tended to be in their twenties or thirties, and Jewish, with a preponderance of eager singles looking for mates. Visitors lodged in cottages scattered among the trees. (To discourage hanky-panky, sleeping facilities for single men and women were kept separate, which would have been a fine deterrent if the men and women in question hadn’t had feet.) As composer Jerry Bock once remarked, Tamiment was “the Club Med of Bushkill Falls.”
As might be expected for a facility affiliated with a socialist organization, the campers tended to be educated and politically engaged. They came from the motivated working class, as well as those who were beginning to claim their places in the middle class, and they prided themselves on a high cultural reference level. It was to cater to these tastes that the informal shows that had been presented at Tamiment from the first—usually amateur entertainments featuring the campers themselves, with material often pilfered from current Broadway shows—evolved into more professional offerings.
The major figure in this story appears at Tamiment in 1933. Max Liebman was lured from a smaller camp where he had been entertainment director by the opportunity to do more ambitious work supported by a bigger staff and budget on Tamiment’s larger stage. The task he set for himself was to create an original revue for every Saturday night of the 10-week summer season. The rest of the year he scouted talent.
And what an eye he had! Among the people he hired in those early years were Danny Kaye, Sylvia Fine (who soon married Kaye and wrote most of the special material that made his fame), Imogene Coca, Betty Garrett, Jules Munshin, Herb Ross and a dancer-choreographer named Jerry Rabinowitz. (Rabinowitz later changed his name to Robbins.) Liebman also hired and fired Carol Channing, something she never let him forget.
Liebman was born in Vienna but raised in Brooklyn. He had no formal education beyond high school, but he was obsessed with musical theatre, particularly the revue format that flourished in New York at the time. He threw himself into a self-imposed apprenticeship as performer, lyricist, sketch-writer and director, gaining through his experiments a reputation as someone who could polish an act to its fullest potential. Tamiment gave him his best laboratory yet.
It’s a Saturday in the 1930s. You’ve spent the day frolicking in the lake, or playing tennis or golf. The sun begins its descent and now, after a dinner served by college students, you drift to the Tamiment Playhouse for an hour’s entertainment. You might see a spoof of The Goldwyn Follies, the recent film in which dancer Vera Zorina emerged from a pool during a Balanchine-choreographed number, somehow completely dry; in tonight’s Tamiment version, Imogene Coca surfaces, utterly drenched, her first significant gesture being to knock water out of her ears. Or you might get a song written by Sylvia Fine called “Anatole of Paris,” featuring Danny Kaye as a designer whose hostility toward women motivates the outrageousness of the hats he compels them to wear.
Whatever you might have seen as one of those 1930s campgoers would reflect a mixture of Liebman’s interests—music and dance, combined with comedy. The tone was light, but Liebman and associates took on serious targets, too. The priest Father Coughlin was a constant presence on the radio with anti-Semitic rants, so he was frequently roasted, as was the populist Louisiana governor Huey Long. The writers also fashioned new words for old songs: Harold Arlen’s “Stormy Weather” was retooled (honest) as “Stormy Troopers,” making note of ominous developments in Germany. (The song included a reference to “hotsy-totsy Nazis,” a phrase that would reappear decades later in The Producers.)
At the end of each season, Liebman produced a “best of” program. A commercial producer saw the 1939 edition and moved much of the show to Broadway under the title The Straw Hat Revue, with a cast largely drawn from the Tamiment players. Coca already had the beginning of a reputation in New York, but this was her highest-profile appearance yet, and the production also drew attention to Kaye, Fine and Robbins. Though only a modest success, Straw Hat served as a calling card for Liebman’s operation. Agents began pushing to get their promising clients hired.
Among those who found themselves working in the Poconos in the decade or so that followed were actress Lee Grant, composer Bock, lyricist Fred Ebb, the writing team of Bob Wright and Chet Forrest, and a comic named Irwin Corey who would later slap the title “Professor” to the front of his name.
Liebman spent a few years away from Tamiment, but he returned in 1948 with the specific purpose of using it to get into a new medium he thought had potential—television. He put up a series of shows that persuaded the Admiral Television Company to sponsor a weekly broadcast. The stars? Coca and a comic Liebman had discovered while staging a show featuring members of the Coast Guard: Sid Caesar.
“The Admiral Broadway Revue” had the odd distinction of being too successful. The show’s popularity prompted the audience to place so many orders for Admiral TVs that the company couldn’t keep up with the demand. No longer needing the “Revue” to promote its sets, the sponsor canceled the program. But the enterprise was destined to return under a new title, “Your Show of Shows,” with stars Carl Reiner (who also wrote) and Howard Morris added to the mix.
Liebman’s experience at Tamiment turned out to be ideal training for putting up a new live revue every week on TV. “Your Show of Shows” and the subsequent programs teaming Liebman and Caesar are justly famous for having employed what was arguably the greatest team of writers ever to work in television, among them Woody Allen and Neil Simon (both of whom also clocked time at Tamiment in the post-Liebman ’50s) and such other luminaries as Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Michael Stewart, Joseph Stein, Lucille Kallen and Mel Tolkin.
Some of those names should look familiar from programs and cast albums. Simon, Brooks, Gelbart, Stein and Stewart between them have credits for the books of more than a dozen major musicals, among them Bye Bye Birdie; Sweet Charity; Promises, Promises; Hello, Dolly!; A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; City of Angels; Little Me; Fiddler on the Roof; Plain and Fancy; Take Me Along; All American; The Producers; and Young Frankenstein. Woody Allen’s résumé is graced by a charming film musical, Everyone Says I Love You. Lucille Kallen and Mel Tolkin served as the models for characters in the musical version of My Favorite Year (originally a film produced by Mel Brooks) and Neil Simon’s play Laughter on the 23rd Floor, both of which were fictionalized looks at Sid Caesar’s writers’ room. Factor into this the shows created by Tamiment alums Bock (She Loves Me, Fiorello!, The Rothschilds and The Apple Tree), Ebb (Chicago, Cabaret, Zorba and Curtains) and Wright and Forrest (Kismet, Song of Norway and Grand Hotel); the ever-popular Mary Rodgers/Jay Thompson/Marshall Barer Once Upon a Mattress,
which was presented in an early form in the Poconos—plus the classics in which Robbins had a hand as choreographer and/or director (including Gypsy, West Side Story and On the Town)—and the shadow of Tamiment seems to have touched much of American musical theatre since World War II.
Despite these shows’ diverse range of styles, there are recurring characteristics suggesting they originated out of a common pool. First, there’s the influence of Jewish history and culture. Many of the campers at Tamiment were the children of immigrants, and they had a love-hate relationship with their background. On the one hand, there were the natural bonds of family; on the other, their desire to join mainstream American society made them want to distance themselves from their parents’ and grandparents’ old-world ways.
This ambivalence was expressed in some of the Tamiment material. One of the numbers deemed “too Jewish” for Broadway’s Straw Hat Revue was “Der Richtiga Mikado,” a Yiddish version of the Gilbert and Sullivan classic (a satiric response to then popular jazz adaptations of The Mikado featuring all-black casts). Another
Tamiment favorite, as LoMonaco relates in her book, was a song co-authored by Liebman contrasting three 1936 performances of Hamlet—those of John Gielgud, Leslie Howard and a fictitious thesp named Epstein hailing from the Borscht Belt:
HOWARD : I play Hamlet where the tropic sun is glaring
GIELGUD : I play Hamlet in the North, where men are daring
EPSTEIN : And I play it where they live on pickled herring / cause I play Hamlet in the Catskills.
It’s not far from Epstein playing Hamlet to the monster in Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein dressing up in top hat and tails and singing Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” In both cases, the comedy comes from taking sophisticated material and putting it into the mouths of outsider characters to subvert that sophistication.
Since so much of the material by the children of Tamiment made gentle fun of the ways of their elders, Fiddler on the Roof is particularly significant. Fiddler featured
a book by Caesar alum Joseph Stein, and its music and staging were by Tamiment veterans Bock and Robbins (with lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, a graduate of a summer camp named Green Mansions that put up revues on a smaller scale than Tamiment). Robbins biographer Greg Lawrence wrote in Dance with Demons that working on Fiddler “afforded Robbins the opportunity to come to terms artistically with his heritage.” This could be said of the writers as well.
Parody is another common thread in the work. The tradition of Tamiment take-off was carried over into the Caesar-Liebman broadcasts. Perhaps the most memorable is a spoof of the film From Here to Eternity called “From Here to Obscurity.” In it, Caesar played Montgomery Bugle (combining the roles played by Montgomery Clift and Burt Lancaster) with Coca as his lover, Duchess (an improbable mash-up of Donna Reed and Deborah Kerr). The sketch builds to a
recreation of the iconic Lancaster-Kerr love scene on the beach, with Coca hiding her face in Caesar’s armpit to keep from breaking up on camera as unseen crew members douse the two of them with pails of water.
Parody continued to be a major element in the Caesar and Tamiment alums’ subsequent work for theatre, including the musicals Little Me (which starred Caesar in multiple roles), City of Angels and, of course, the Brooks shows. Brooks, Reiner, Simon, Gelbart and Allen have also devoted a substantial amount of their film careers to making fun of both specific works and genre conventions. Before you can take something apart, you have to know how it’s built. It could be argued that the time and effort these artists put into analyzing the works they deconstructed had the residual effect of teaching them something about how these works were put together, and that these lessons were applied to the more serious projects that many of them later undertook for stage and screen.
After he finished his extraordinary run on television with Caesar, Liebman went on to other projects, primarily producing TV specials (often employing Simon). In 1973, his film 10 from Your Shows of Shows, culled from kinescopes of the most famous sketches, renewed appreciation for the work he had helped bring into being.
By the time the film came out, Tamiment was a memory, as indeed was much of the Borscht Belt. In the camp’s later years, impressive people still came to get seasoned
for the big time, including Barbara Cook, Carol Burnett, Bea Arthur, Dorothy Loudon, Virginia Vestoff, Larry Kert and Arte Johnson. But the audiences were shrinking. People had less need to flee the city since they had air conditioning and television in their homes, and cheap air fares enabled them to travel to more exotic locales. The structure Liebman had set up to develop new revues was abandoned in 1960, and, after another few years of trying to sustain the place by booking in outside acts, management decided to close the camp for good.
Even after Tamiment was gone, the revue format continued to evolve, and Liebman hadn’t quite finished leaving his mark on it. His last project as a theatrical producer was the 1961 New York debut of a group of youngsters from Chicago who performed under the name the Second City.
Jeffrey Sweet’s new play, Class Dismissed, opens at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater in March, his 13th play to be produced there.
4 Tamiment Alumni Reminisce
MARY RODGERS on writing the first version of Once Upon a Mattress for Tamiment: “Moe Hack, the then producer, told Marshall Barer, Jay Thompson and me that we could proceed with our musical as long as we accommodated all the ‘stars’ (the people who received larger salaries). Lenny Maxwell, comic, became Prince Dauntless because he was pretty dopey. King Septimus, another comic, told us what a wonderful mime he was, so we used that. Evvie Layton never stopped talking, so she was the inspiration for Queen Aggravain. There was a charming little girl with an Yma Sumac–type high voice who fell over her own feet—clumsy doesn’t begin to describe it, so we slapped her in a cage and made her the Nightingale of Samarkand. Yvonne Othon, who went on to play Anybodys in the London West Side Story, was a dancer, not a singer; so the Carol Burnett role originally had no songs! In other words, we used what we had.”
JERRY BOCK on how Tamiment trained him to write under pressure: “The assignment to write the equivalent of a one-act revue each week for a 10-week season involved composing two, three, even four songs during the week to be performed over the weekend by our resident company. Sometimes we managed to stay a week ahead in writing for the next oncoming show. This pressurized creative cooker bore unforeseeable fruit when I was out of town with a musical heading for Broadway, replacing a song that wilted in Boston on a Wednesday matinee with one on Friday night that blossomed. Example? ‘Little Tin Box’ from Fiorello! Another example? ‘It’s Been Grand Knowing You,’ from She Loves Me (for which Sheldon Harnick and I had written some 40 songs to find the some 20 finalists). How do you get to Broadway? Practice, at Tamiment!”
BARBARA COOK on discovering confidence in Pennsylvania: “Tamiment was
a very important step for me. Until then I felt that the people I had seen on the
Broadway stage were not mere mortals. How could I ever hope to join them? Jack Cassidy, who would most often be my singing partner at Tamiment, had already appeared in 21 Broadway shows. Hearing about him before I arrived only added to
my apprehension. But when the  season ended, I left with two very useful things: The great sum of $500, and—best of all—the sure knowledge that I belonged on the stage.”
JOSEPH STEIN on working with Max Liebman for TV: “Max had several qualities
that made him an excellent producer. For one, he had a radar feel for talent. And he was a producer who took his title seriously; he demanded production. He was serious about his work and expected the same from everyone else. The kidding around and the hijinks in the writers’ room stopped when he dropped in. As he once put it: ‘Making comedy is not a funny business.’ And, of course, he was right. Finally, very important for a producer, Max was a nice man. He always kept his word and never…well, rarely…lost his temper.”
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!