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.