Obituary: Allan Carr

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The Independent Culture
THE PRODUCER of the screen musical Grease and the Tony Award-winning stage musical La Cage Aux Folles, Allan Carr was a colourful Broadway and Hollywood figure whose flamboyantly gay life style and wild parties were as noteworthy as his many show-business activities.

He was not only a producer but also a manager, handling such stars as Michelle Pfeiffer and Joan Rivers, and a promoter, co-ordinating the publicity campaign that brought The Deer Hunter its five Oscars. His work ranged from producing the Village People film Can't Stop The Music and the 1989 Academy Awards ceremony (regarded as the most vulgar presentation ever of a show not noted for quiet good taste) to presenting such prestigious events as The World of Carl Sandburg and the Royal Shakespeare Company's season on Broadway.

A literally heavyweight figure, short and stocky, he favoured outsize caftans and full-length furs, and once had his jaw wired shut to prevent himself from over-eating. After talking to him at his Waikiki home (one of five) Esquire magazine stated, "He looks like a beach-ball wearing aviator glasses."

Born in 1941 in Highland Park, Illinois, to Albert and Ann Solomon, he was an overweight teenager who dreamed of show-business stardom. "I thought my life was going to be Photoplay and Modern Screen," he said. "Then my parents took me to see a Chicago production of the Jule Styne musical High Button Shoes, and that began my love-affair with the theatre." When in his teens, he became the youngest "angel" on Broadway when he put $750 into a musical, Ziegfeld Follies, starring Tallullah Bankhead, but the show closed out of town.

Things improved when he invested $1,250 in the play The Happiest Millionaire (1957), starring Walter Pidgeon. It was a big hit, and by the time he was 20 Carr was a full-fledged impresario, his first venture having been as co-creator of the Playboy Penthouse television series, which paved the way for Hugh Hefner's Playboy clubs.

In 1961, eager to learn about the film business, he journeyed to Madrid to work as assistant to the director Nicholas Ray on King of Kings. The following year he re-opened Chicago's Civic Theater with his personal productions of The World of Carl Sandburg starring Bette Davis and Gary Merrill, Mary Stuart with Eva Le Gallienne directed by Tyrone Guthrie, and Tennessee Williams's Garden District.

Moving to Los Angeles he mounted a production of the comedy Sunday in the Park with an unknown, Marlo Thomas, later a big television star. His work expanded to take in television specials and night-club extravaganzas, and in 1966 he formed Allan Carr Enterprises, a talent agency, managing Ann-Margret, Melina Mercouri, Peter Sellers, Petula Clark and Peggy Lee. Among the performers he was credited with discovering were Michelle Pfeiffer, Steve Guttenberg and Mark Hamill.

As a creative consultant to the Robert Stigwood Organisation, he promoted their film of The Who's rock-opera Tommy (1975), and the following year he became a millionaire when he ingeniously dubbed and re-edited a low- budget Mexican exploitation movie based on the true story of a Uruguayan soccer team which resorted to cannibalism after a plane crash in the Andes. Retitled Survive!, it was Paramount's surprise success of 1976.

Two years later Carr produced for the Stigwood Organisation the film version of the stage hit Grease, adapting it from the Broadway original. It was to become one of the biggest moneymakers in Hollywood history. Carr took a chance on two relative newcomers in casting the leads. John Travolta had completed Saturday Night Fever, but it had not yet been released when he was cast, and Olivia Newton-John was chosen by Carr after he met her at a party and was "knocked out" by her. Grease earned Carr two People's Choice awards, for best movie of the year and for the year's most popular film.

It was while Carr was in Paris for the opening there of Grease that he was taken to see Jean Poiret's hit play La Cage Aux Folles. "I dreaded going," he said later. "I thought it was going to be another boulevard comedy in a language I wouldn't understand. And of course that night it hit me. I had to have the American rights." It took several years for Carr to get his production to the Broadway stage - many thought a musical about a homosexual couple would not have the broad appeal that a major musical must have to make a profit.

Carr persevered, gathered together the talents of the composer Jerry Herman, the writer Harvey Fierstein (who later praised Carr's "vision and faith in the show"), the director Arthur Laurents and the choreographer Scott Salmon, and in August 1983 the musical La Cage Aux Folles opened on Broadway to rave reviews and sell-out audiences. It won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and ran for five years. (Carr's estimated income from the show was $100,000 a week.)

The original play had been filmed by the French in 1979, and though Carr announced several times that a film of the musical would be made (it was almost set with Frank Sinatra and Danny Kaye in the leading roles) it never came to pass. Films which Carr did produce included a vehicle for the Village People which he co-wrote, Can't Stop the Music (1980), and Grease 2 (1982), an unsuccessful sequel to his earlier hit.

In 1989 Carr was put in charge of the Academy Awards telecast, memorable as an evening of high camp. Its opening number, in which Rob Lowe cavorted with a sexy Snow White, prompted legal action from the Walt Disney Organisation. In 1995, he sponsored the Royal Shakespeare Company in productions of Cyrano de Bergerac and Much Ado About Nothing both on Broadway and in Washington DC. The productions earned a total of 10 Tony nominations, including one for Carr.

Carr had homes in Beverly Hills, Malibu, Waikiki, Manhattan and London, and, though Broadway and Hollywood will miss his energy and wit along with his contributions to theatre and film, he will be missed most as a party-giver par excellence. The soirees he arranged for such celebrities as Elton John, Rudolf Nureyev and Neil Sedaka are legendary, and he once gave a party for Truman Capote in Los Angeles' abandoned Lincoln Heights gaol.

"I don't want a day to go by," Carr once told the LA Times, "that I feel I'm missing something."

Allan Carr, film and theatre producer, and actors' agent: born Highland Park, Illinois 27 May 1941; died Beverly Hills, California 29 June 1999.