Cris Alexander: Actor who made his Broadway debut in 'On the Town'
His photo studio was a big success: ‘I entertained lavishly and had a constant flow of friends,’ he said
Tuesday 24 April 2012
The actor and singer Cris Alexander became a renowned photographer, but he will be best remembered for his prominent roles in the first two Broadway shows composed by Leonard Bernstein. In On the Town (1944) he was one of the three sailors on 24-hour shore leave, finding adventure and romance in New York City, and in Wonderful Town (1953), he was the nerdish drug-store manager who romances Eileen, the pretty sister of the show's main figure, Ruth. Both musicals had lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and were love letters to the city – Wonderful Town was set in the Greenwich Village of the 1930s.
In On the Town, Alexander was Chip, the small-town lad who is intent on taking in the sights of the city, but is frustrated in that hope by being vigorously courted by man-hungry Hildy, a taxi-driver who shares with him the show-stopping duet, "Come Up to My Place". He also sang with the other leading players two more fine songs, "Ya Got Me" and the wistful "Some Other Time". In the 1949 film version, Chip was played by Frank Sinatra.
In Wonderful Town, Alexander (whose understudy was Hal Prince) had some choice comic moments as the bashful, clumsy Frank Lippencott, notably in the "conversation piece" sequence, in which five dinner companions desperately try to find something to talk about. Attempting to save the day, Frank tells of a customer who ordered a banana sundae from the soda fountain, and ate all the trimmings but left the banana. Getting no response, he tries to explain the point of the anecdote to an embarrassed silence.
Alexander was born Allen Smith in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1920, and was raised by his father, a musician. He attended school with future star Tony Randall, with whom he put on a weekly radio show. Both were eager to act, and moved to New York in 1938, where Alexander studied at the Feagin School of Dramatic Art. He told the historian Jane Klain: "I had always taken pictures, and at 18 I opened my own studio. My first client was Gordon MacRae, who was hanging around my friend Sheila (whom he later married). They had no place to get together so they came to me. I had six rooms, entertained lavishly and had a constant flow of friends who needed a roof. Quite like The Apartment!"
He also gained stage experience working in summer theatres and studied at the American Ballet School. "I knew I could never be a ballet star, but I wanted to learn a bit of technique." On the Town marked his Broadway debut, after which he played the intense playwright Roland Maule in the New York premiere of Noël Coward's Present Laughter (1946), starring Clifton Webb.
Rosalind Russell was the star of Wonderful Town, and became a good friend, as did Carol Channing, who starred in the post-Broadway tour of the show in which Alexander played his original part. It was Russell who suggested that he appear with her in the stage adaptation of the Patrick Dennis novel Auntie Mame (1956); he played three parts, one of which, Mr Loomis, the excitable department manager at Macy's store, he repeated in the 1958 screen version.
On television, he recreated his original part in a 1958 adaptation of Wonderful Town, starring Russell. Peggy Cass, who played Mame's humorously frumpish secretary in both stage and screen versions, became another close friend of Alexander, as did the author Patrick Dennis. Ironically, the only star with whom his relationship was prickly was Nancy Walker, who played the forcefully romantic taxi driver in On the Town.
His last notable Broadway appearance was in Lanford Wilson's ground-breaking off-Broadway play The Madness of Lady Bright (1966), which is credited with prefiguring such gay-themed plays as The Boys in the Band. After that, he retired from the stage, though in 1977 he appeared in an Ethel Merman-Mary Martin benefit for the Museum of the City of New York in which he was one of the 32 singing waiters in the "Hello, Dolly" number.
Alexander provided the outrageous photographs that were an essential part of Dennis's best-selling mock showbiz biography Little Me (1961), and he became a distinguished photographer of celebrity and society portraits, with subjects as diverse as Vivien Leigh, Andy Warhol, Martha Graham, and Gloria Vanderbilt. The latter was a close friend of Alexander and his partner, Shaun O'Brien, who was a leading character dancer with the New York City Ballet for nearly 40 years. Alexander later became the ballet company's official photographer, and from 1980-86 he was the prime photographer for Warhol's large-format magazine, Interview.
In 2011, Alexander and O'Brien, who had many friends and a rich lifestyle, were among the first celebrities to take advantage of same-sex marriage legislation in New York, and when O'Brien died (13 days before Alexander) they had been together for 62 years. Alexander's death was officially from "natural causes", but friends declare that he died of a broken heart.
Allen Smith (Cris Alexander), actor and photographer: born Tulsa, Oklahoma 14 January 1920; married 2011 Shaun O'Brien; died Saratoga Springs, New York 7 March 2012.
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