Birdie Watching: Reflections on Bye Bye Birdie

My kids were in a production of Bye Bye Birdie over the last month. So, playing the part of the good father, I attended several shows. My kids had small parts in the chorus, so it wasn’t just their limited time in the spotlight that got me going back six times. I loved the production and I genuinely liked the show. In fact, songs like “Rosie,” “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” “Kids,” and “A Healthy Normal American Boy” are still wafting through my noggin, morning, noon and night.

The film version of Bye Bye Birdie, released in 1963, was a big deal when I was a kid. I don’t think I ever saw it in a real movie theater, but I certainly saw it on TV. And I saw it countless times in Jay Soffian’s home. Jay was a kid on the block who had a 16 mm projector and his own movie theater in his basement, candy counter, curtains, stereo sound and all. He would charge kids a quarter to get in, and even showed cartoons and trailers. A babysitting bargain for our parents to be sure!

I think Bye Bye Birdie was Jay’s favorite movie of all-time because when he showed other movies, he always played the soundtrack to Bye Bye Birdie before the film began and after the film’s fadeout as kids were being ushered out of Jay’s basement.

Bye Bye Birdie had everything a kid—at least in those days–could want in a film: Comedy, memorable music, cool dancing, a pop star, a great cast that included a teen idol and the actor who would be Bert in Mary Poppins…and Ann-Margret. The Swedish beauty was only 21 when she played Kim MacAfee, the Sweet Apple, Ohio high school student chosen to kiss hip-swiveling singer Conrad Birdie on The Ed Sullivan Show. Is she believable as a teenager here? Not really, but who cared, especially when she sings the title and closing song in that short, tight, light dress?

While watching the play, I noticed some attention-getting alterations that were made from stage to screen. For one thing, that sexy, famous “Bye Bye Birdie” theme song was written expressly for the film—it’s nowhere to be found in the play. Also, the film has a subplot involving a Russian orchestra and a stimulant pill, which is thankfully MIA in the live incarnation.

Most prevalent, however, is the change of the Rosie character.

On stage, her moniker is “Rose Alvarez,” the trusted secretary and put-upon love interest to Albert Petersen, manager and songwriter for Conrad Birdie. She is Hispanic; her signature song “Spanish Rose” comes late in the proceedings. It is one of a couple of songs excised from the film.  On the screen, the character is renamed Rose DeLeon — the Spanish heritage has been dropped. Janet Leigh, wearing a black wig, takes the role that Tony-nominated Chita Rivera originated when the play premiered at the Martin Beck Theatre on April 14, 1960.

There is a lot more tension—some of it racially motivated–between Mama Petersen and Rose in the play. Further, Rose’s role in the movie has been diminished greatly. In fact, I was surprised how much of the play focuses on Rose:   She’s the brains, the catalyst and sometimes the manipulator for many of the plot complications. In the film, the screenwriters and, especially director George Sidney (Annie Get Your Gun, Kiss Me Kate) gave Ann-Margret’s Kim MacAfee a lot more attention. Why? Well, because she was Ann-Margret and the 47-year-old Sidney was seriously smitten with his young star in much the same manner he was with Leigh when she appeared in his film The Red Danube 14 years earlier.

I notice now that are several references in the play that leave contemporary audiences scratching their heads. For example, there are lines about Margo and Shangri-La (the movie Lost Horizon), Abbe Lane (a singer married to bandleader Xaviet Cugat before Charo), Peter Lawford, Albert Schweitzer and Arpege perfume.

Typically, one of the highlights of any production of Bye Bye Birdie remains “The Hymn for a Sunday Evening,” Harry MacAfee’s tribute to Ed Sullivan. A coup for the movie production was the fact that the real Ed Sullivan made an appearance as himself, even though the speeding Russian conductor routine appeared dumb even when I was a kid and nearly made Ed’s appearance moot. We get the “Cold War” spoofery, too, but the stuff still seems out of place here.

Paul Lynde, who originated the role of Mr. MacAfee on stage and got the nod to bring the acerbic father to the big screen, excels throughout, whether saluting Sullivan, offering his thoughts on fatherhood or belting out the show-stopping ”Kids.” It’s no wonder that Lynde is such a scream: He took the role on spec, allowing the show’s producers to tailor it to his own brand of, well, Paul Lynde-ness.

As Birdie, Jesse Pearson brought charisma to the rock star part, a mix of Presley and Conway Twitty –notice the similarity in the names. Dick Gautier, best remembered as “Hymie the Robot” on the Get Smart TV series, originated the Birdie role onstage, but Pearson got the screen job.  (Pearson’s success, however, was short-lived. After Birdie, he acted on TV shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, co-starred in a few films, and delved into writing and directing adult movies before he succumbed to cancer in 1989 at the age of 49.)

While it’s tough to argue with Dick Van Dyke as Albert—the show essentially served as an audition for the classic “The Dick Van Dyke Show”—the character is still a spineless creep for most of the story’s length. His irritating personality was definitely been toned down for the movie, but in the play, it’s difficult to see why the sharp Rosie would fall for this nebbishy Mama’s boy in the first place.

50-plus years since it entered the public consciousness, Bye Bye Birdie—inspired by Elvis Presley being drafted into the Army in 1958—remains an entertaining ode to pop culture, circa the Eisenhower Era. It was the “Grease” of its day, successful as a Tony-winning play and performing well as a movie, taking in $5 million and making it the ninth highest grossing film of the year. It has been a staple at schools and community theaters and has spawned a decent TV remake (with Jason Alexander, Vanessa Williams, George Wendt, Chyna Phillips and some new songs), a disastrous Broadway sequel (1981’s “Bring Back Birdie” with Donald O’Connor and Chita Rivera, which lasted only four performances), and 2009’s mildly successful Broadway revival starring John Stamos, Gina Gershon and Bill Irwin.

So, Bye Bye Birdie–with music by Charles Strouse (“Annie”) and Lee Adams (“Applause”) and a book by Michael Stewart (“Hello, Dolly!”)–  chirps on.

As my oldest daughter carries on a conversation with other teens by singing a couple lines from “The “Telephone Hour” and my other daughter stomps her feet and joins the chorus during the reprise of “Kids,” I begin to understand why we love you, Conrad, we really do, all these years later.

  • Oceanblues

    I had not heard or thought of Jay Soffian in a zillion years.He and I actually double-dated on a double blind date at the Lincoln Drive-In,honest!Longest night of my life.

    • Irv

      Was “Bye Bye Birdie” playing?

  • Maxfabien

    I agree with almost all your comments. Paul Lynde shines (should’ve gotten a supporting actor nod from Oscar for it), the Russian ballet and speeding turtle were totally stupid and imbarrassing. Dick VanDyke and Maureen Stapleton were excellent. Janet Leigh and Bobby Rydell were miscast. And, althought Ann-Margret was a box office draw, her part in the film was overblown, and she didn’t come off as the teenager she was suppose to be. Her actions and especially her dances were too “mature” to be believable. I disagree that Jesse Pearson was a good “Birdie”. He got the part in the film from playing it on stage in the Chicago production. He doesn’t come off as a “heartthrob”. I don’t think he had the looks for it. My favorite part of the film is “The Telephone Hour”. Probably my favorite song in the show, maybe 2nd only to “You Gotta Be Sincere”. The Jason Alexander/Venessa Williams version was more loyal to the original stage production, but sadly it lacked Paul Lynde.

    • RD Cochran

      Agreed on the casting….and I thought the Conard Birdie character was a real drip.

    • Cahmc5

      I thought Pearson was a hoot!!  I saw his character as making fun of the Presley’s of the time.

    • Irv

      Agree all around although I understand Paul Lynde played his part even more broadly in the Broadway production leaving little doubt that MacAffee was gay–for those who picked it up at the time.  

  • Blair Kramer

    In my humble opinion, the Disney Company TV remake of BYE, BYE, BIRDIE was better than the original 1963 version.  Although Jason Alexander isn’t nearly as entertaining as Dick Van Dyke, in some very important respects, the remake stuck much closer to the stage play.

    • Irv

      Blair. I agree it is much closer, but is it better?

      • Blair Kramer

        Other than casting, I believe the TV remake is better in content. The ’63 version has its merits but badly derailed with the climactic slapstick ballet on the Ed Sullivan show!  Also, personal relationships in the remake come across as a great deal more genuine.

        • Irv

          Got it–and agree.

  • Bob Campbell

    Great Thanks Irv for the fascinating backstory on this terrific gem! It brings back such sweet memories! I was 18 years old when I first saw Birdie at a sneak preview screening at the West Coast Theater in Long Beach, CA on a Saturday night in 1963. The audience being clueless as to what the “sneak” feature would be – a western, a drama, a comedy — the moment the curtain parted and Ann-Margret broke into that sensuous performance of the title song the filmmaker had the entire audience seduced into a spontaneous collective experience memorable to this day. Some movies were just meant to be enjoyed with an audience!      

    • Irv

      Thanks for the kind words. What makes revisiting soem of these films interesting is to read what relaly went on behind the scenes than see how the experiences differs these days.  

  • Mike

    Isn’t Rose Deleon a latin name also? I loved Janet Leigh, she was a nice woman in person, and she was the biggest proven box office star in the movie at the time. If they wanted to make her a latina, why cut “Spanish Rose”? Note, that they left the in shriner’s ballet. Go Figure? I loved distinguished stage actress Maureen Stapleton as Mae. Tyne Daly is a hoot in the remake. Ann Margret was too sexy and too old for Kim but much better than that skinny old looking dame in the TV remake. I always thought Annette Funicello would have been the perfect Kim. Ripe but virginal.

    • Talynir

       Ponce DeLeon certainly wasn’t Irish..

    • Irv

      I think they siggested her Hispanic heritage, but nothing more. I read that Ms. Leigh punched sidney at the premiere foer cutting out soem choice material and making it more about Kim than Rosie.

  • HB

    Noting George Sidney being “smitten” with Ann-Margret, there is an apocryphal story of a BBB wrap party in which male after male stood up and sang the praises of young Ann-Margret. The story goes that Maureen Stapleton (who apparently had a razor-sharp sense of humor) got up to speak and said, “I guess I’m the only one here who doesn’t want to sleep with Ann-Margret.”

  • dpharrington

    Despite all the admiration for Ann-Margret’s performance, it wasn’t the performance the musical called for.  Her casting as a young teenager — which she wasn’t and which she didn’t play — greatly diminished the satirical bite of the book.

  • BillinFla

    I’m surprised that the biggest (and frankly, best) plot change wasn’t mentioned. In the stage show, Van Dyke’s Albert is Bridie’s manager. Anyone with a brain – even in those days – would know that the manager was rolling in money (think Elvis’ Colonel Tom Parker) and the money would not have stopped even if Birdie was drafted (after all Elvis continued to sell records all the way through his stint in the Army).

    In the film, they explain that Albert discovered Birdie, but let his friend manage him – making his  poverty and reluctance to marry Rosie much more believable.

    I always thought that Janet Leigh was supposed to be Hispanic in the movie – hence the black wig instead of her usual blond locks.

    Having seen the movie in the theaters on its original release as a young pre-teen, I never even thought that Ann-Margaret was too old for the part. I was definitely smitten and remember staying through till another showing started just to see her sing the title song again.

    I thought the Disney remake was very poor. Jason Alexander was no Dick Van Dyke and George Wendt was no Paul Lynde. Tyne Daly did a nice job, but outside of that, it was a waste.

    It also seems to me that much of the choreography in the production numbers of the film version of “Grease” were a deliberate homage to Oona White’s dances in the original “Birdie” film.

    • Irv

      I have to disagree on a couple points. you’re right about albert’s prfession, but this is pretty much his opnly act and he’s portrayed in the play as anything but wealthy. And I think there may be  a suggestion that Ms. Leigh was Hispanic but nothing obvious in the film. All of the dialogue and  her signature song I believe erased that idea. The disney remake was closer to the original play in many ways, but I agree that Alexander and Wendt were merely servicable in the roles. And Alexander’s hair with that bad toupee and cowlick–errr! .

  • Gary

    Not a great musical at all. The part of Kim played by Ann Margaret was rewritten way beyond what the Broadway play depicted her role to take advantage of the popularity and sex appeal of Ann Margaret, and it was not a good decision. 

    • Lorraine M.

      Paul Lynde was quoted as saying the film version should have been titled “Hello, Ann-Margret!”

  • Voyttbots

    I so wish they had gotten Elvis to play Birdie in the film. That would have been great.

    • KarenG_958

      I disagree, Jesse Pearson was amazing as the sexy but shallow star.

      • Irv

        Jesse seems to have divided audiences. I believe Elvis was actually offered the part but turned it down. I think at that point he was a star and wouldn’t take on a supporting role.

  • Hlucas103

    I just watched the film the other evening, hadn’t seen it since it came out, and really disliked it, so far from the wonderfully satirical staging and the book of the original.  Too bad they couldn’t have used aGower Champion’s staging of the Shriner Ballet.  I saw Bring Back Birdie at a matinee, and O’connor at one point stopped and said, Where’s Vera-Ellen when you need her.

    • Irv

      That’s a funny anecdote about O’Connor! I believe Gower Champion was going to make his film debut with “Birdie,” but the studio opeted for George Sidney instead.  

  • Lorraine M.

    I don’t remember how young I was the first time I saw “Bye, Bye Birdie” on television (I would have been five when the movie was released in theatres) but I do recall loving Paul Lynde’s acerbic Harry MacAfee (my mother would tease my little brother and me by singing “Kids” to us a la Lynde, perhaps her favorite comic actor) and being mesmerized by Ann-Margret’s sexiness, especially the “A Lot of Livin’” number and her breezily seductive reprise of the title theme. Yeah, she was waaay too mature for the character she was supposedly playing but I liked her anyway. I wanted a dress just like the one she wore in the film’s open and close so I could mimic her. Years later I never bothered watching the television remake–without Lynde, what on earth was the point?–but might reconsider just to check out Tyne Daly’s characterization of Mae. Much as I admired Maureen Stapleton, I can see Daly shining in that role. Oh, and Pearson as Presley/Twitty? Even as a kid I could only believe it as a very broad parody of the rock idols of the era, he had little appeal for me otherwise.

  • DonnaB

    There’s a scene in the play that we had to change/make better when mounting it on stage — the ice house scene. We thought it was badly written and a bit risqué (this was several years ago), and we thought the movie version of that scene was much better, and more audience friendly.  And yes, it is always tough to get across Albert, so he has to be cast with a friendly, nice and naive Dick Van Dyke  type of character,  and with that kind of casting,  the audience will like him regardless who is picking on him on stage.  There are positives in both play and movie, and I’m glad they are both provided to us on into perpetuity.  

  • Frank

    Lets not forget Bobby Rydell.

    • Irv

      Mr. rydell, who shails from my part of the woods, seems to have divided audiences as hugo. I thought he was fine, but those who saw Michael J. Pollard (!?) in the original Browadway production say he was much funnier in the part.  

      • Daisy

        I didn’t see Michael J Pollard, and I was in a local production of the play, as one of the teenage girls in the crowds, but I’ve seen Pollard in lots of other stuff.  Hugo was supposed to be a nerdy kinda kid (like Pollard), not a teen idol type like Rydell.

  • pocroc

    An appealing, but dated musical.  Memorable for one of the steamiest one person song and dance scenes ever – Ann-Margaret wearing just a sweater in her bedroom number.  Wow! 

    • Marjben

      Yeah, wow!  I about flipped when my daughter who played Kim in her h.s. production had to do this scene.  It was tricky, but she did a great job!

  • Daisy

    Having been familiar with the stage musical before the movie even hit the screen (I was a Broadway buff from an early age), I went to see the movie and was horrified. I know a lot of people love this movie, but I hated it.  Every time I see it on TV I hate it all the more.  It is over-the-top silly, the songs and story are all rewritten, and the sweet melodiousness of so many of the songs was mostly gone.  True, in the remake, Jason Alexander isn’t Dick Van Dyke – but he wasn’t so bad, and the film used the more appealing tone and style of the late 1950′s, and was so much more like the original stage play.  So this is the only version I will now watch.

    • Irv

      Many people who saw the original production are not fans of the movie. since I don;t have the opportunity to compare, I can sawy I like the movie on its own terms, but wanted to note what made it different.

  • Kokopeli52

    The original movie with Ann Margaret Paul Lynde and Dick Van Dyke was great in its day. I still enjoy some of it still. The best is the end of the movie with Ed Sullivan and the Russian Opera with the conductor on speed. Too funny. Great fun film. The recent sequel has no humor no class. Typical of the sicko Hollywierd studios so high on drugs and booze they are completely out of touch with any class or talent. I also do not have any respect for actors they are just that ACTORS> meaning their opinions mean nothing at all. Brad Pitt is way overrated. He is just a skinny little twerp.

  • Jim

    Not too long ago, Columbia released a re-mastered cd of the original broadway cast. It actually sounds pretty good with only a trace of digititis.

  • Frosty

    I’ve seen both the play and the movie. The movie is better.

  • Frosty

    And the movie has Ann-Margret. I have to disagree with Irv – I thought she made a very believable teenager. Did any of the actors in “Grease” look like teenagers? Stockard Channing? Give me a break.

  • tone26

    i remember after seeing bye bye birdie at the age of 13,i couldn’t sleep for a week,thinking of ann- margret

  • rodahaco

    The character of Conrad Birdie was a drip (who would want to faint over that). And I couldn’t buy Ann-Margret as a teenager.

  • Mike48128

    Elvis was actually offered the Conrad Birdie role, but he (obviously) turned it down. I have an old VHS as well as the DVD. Thank God they issued it “wide-screen” on DVD. The old pan and scan was terrible. It didn’t do well as a DVD re-release. It ended up in the $5 Walmart bin because nobody there knew was the movie was about. in this and in “Viva Las Vegas”-Ann Margret “sizzles.”
    Like, Elvis, she made few really-good films.

  • Mike48128

    I always thought the “speed-up” gimmick was stupid, having seen other versions. Also the film seems to end too fast after Conrad’s “glass-jaw” finish. It feels like a scene was edited out.

  • John M

    Let us not forget the song, “Put On A Happy Face” by Strouse and Adams, I assume…..a really well written song that’s the most memorable to me. Good review!

  • gary

    From what I’ve read, Elvis was offered the part of Conrad Birdie and was interested in doing it. However, his manager, Col. Parker, would not allow Elvis to paly a role that was a spoof of him.