Carol Bruce

Star of 'Show Boat' and 'Pal Joey'


Carol Bruce, actress and singer: born Great Neck, New York 15 November 1919; married 1945 Milton Nathanson (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1963); died Woodland Hills, California 9 October 2007.

Carol Bruce was a versatile actress and singer who had a prolific career on stage, film and television, but shone best as a star of stage musicals. In 1946 she took on the daunting task of playing Julie in the landmark musical Show Boat, the role that Helen Morgan had played to great acclaim in the original 1927 production, the 1932 revival, and the 1936 screen version. The reviews Bruce received assured her that she had nothing to fear by comparisons. Eight years later she triumphed in London with her acerbic portrayal of the sensual socialite Vera Simpson in a revival of another Broadway classic, Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey.

Born Shirley Levy in Great Neck, New York, in 1919, she started her career as a vocalist with the dance band of Lloyd Huntley in a Montreal nightclub in 1937, and in 1938 she appeared as a singer in a musical short, Larry Clinton and his Orchestra. She made her Broadway début with a small singing role in George White's Scandals of 1939, but she owed her breakthrough to the composer Irving Berlin, who was co-producing his new musical, Louisiana Purchase (1940), and discovered Carol Bruce (as she became) singing in a club. He not only hired her for the show, but tailored two major numbers for her – the durable title song and the rousing revivalist number, "The Lord Done Fixed Up My Soul".

"There are so many things I could say about Irving," said Bruce. "He was already a legend when he heard me sing and offered me a part in the show, but he was so caring and supportive." Berlin's biographer Laurence Bergreen wrote: "At the time Berlin discovered her, she was unknown, singing in a tiny nightclub in Newark, New Jersey. Still, she looked like a star, tall and thin, with legs that went on forever and a button of a nose." On opening night, Irving Berlin and Eddie Cantor mounted the theatre stage and asked Bruce to come out by herself. "They took my hands, and Irving said to the audience, 'I'm so proud of this young lady. I discovered her, and she exceeded our wildest expectations, and she's gonna be a big star.' I was in an absolute daze."

In 1940 Bruce's picture adorned the cover of Life magazine, and Louisiana Purchase was the season's biggest hit, running for over a year, after which Bruce accepted the offer of a film contract from Universal Pictures. It was not a good move, as the studio treated her poorly. In her first film, This Woman is Mine (1941), she was a stowaway on a fur-trading schooner who is fought over by the crew. It failed at the box-office, after which Universal cast her as foil to the comics Abbott and Costello in Keep 'Em Flying (1941) and the Ritz brothers in Behind the Eight Ball (1942).

She returned to Broadway in a revue, New Priorities of 1943 (1942), co-starring the comic Bert Wheeler, a failure despite Bruce's seductive singing. But four years later came Show Boat, where her throaty rendering of the torch songs "Bill" and "Can't Help Lovin' That Man", brought accolades from the press. The critic Richard Watts wrote: "She possesses a grave, romantic loveliness which gives her a physical advantage over her predecessor that is not to be overlooked in such a role . . . She captures a deeply moving and completely credible mood of lyric sadness in her playing as well as her singing."

In 1952 the Rodgers and Hart musical Pal Joey, which had proved so controversial when originally staged in 1940, was revived on Broadway with its original female lead, Vivienne Segal, and was recognised as a masterpiece. Bruce starred in a touring version, and after playing the role for a year she and Harold Lang headed the London company at the Princes Theatre in 1954. Elements that had shocked Broadway in 1940 were still able to confound some of the audience in London.

The Lord Chamberlain, who had to sanction theatrical productions at the time, cut three lines from the libretto, and the Associated Press described the show as "still pretty dirty by British standards". Though most reviews echoed the Daily Herald, which stated, "I never heard such sexy lines sung before on a British stage, but never minded them less", the Times commented, "The sordid story is chiefly redeemed by Carol Bruce, an actress of character . . . She has the best song, 'Bewitched [Bothered and Bewildered]', and she puts it across for a great deal more than its tasteless words are worth."

Bruce stopped the show nightly with "Bewitched", giving full value to the encores provided by Hart, and she also scored with the risqué lyrics (though tame by today's standards) to "What is a Man?", and in her beguiling duet with Sally Bazely, "Take Him", in which each of the ladies confesses their willingness to give up on the shallow Joey. The show's producer, Jack Hylton, capitalised on the publicity by labelling the show the "first X-rated musical", and it received more inadvertent publicity when its leading man, Lang, was deported after less than a month due to "importuning". (He was swiftly replaced by Richard France, who had been with the US touring company.) Bruce played Vera Simpson several times afterwards, both on tour and in a revival at New York's City Center in 1961.

In 1965 she appeared in another Richard Rodgers musical when she created the role of Signora Fioria, the worldly pensione owner in Do I Hear A Waltz?, based on Arthur Laurents' play The Time of the Cuckoo. It was not a happy experience – Rodgers was drinking heavily, and he and his lyricist Stephen Sondheim frequently disagreed on how to treat the project. A flawed play to begin with (David Lean's film version, Summertime (1955), improved it considerably), it had sour elements that music failed to disguise, and Bruce could do little with her solo, "This Week Americans", in which she itemised the stereotypical quirks of her tourist clientele. Her next Broadway musical, Henry, Sweet Henry (1967), was based on the film The World of Henry Orient (1964), in which two girls pursue their crush on a pianist (played by Peter Sellers in the film, Don Ameche on stage); Bruce took the role played by Angela Lansbury in the movie.

Throughout her career, Bruce also appeared in cabaret, and worked extensively on television. For four years, she starred as Mama Carlson, owner of a radio station, in the comedy series WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-82). Her last television appearance was in the series That's Life in 2000.

From 1945 until 1963, she was married to Milton Nathanson, a manufacturer's representative, and they had one daughter, whom Bruce named Julie after her character in Show Boat.

Tom Vallance

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