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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, May 6, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 18
Guys, dolls, and gangsters and Damon Runyon
A brief history of Guys and Dolls
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Guys, dolls, and gangsters and Damon Runyon
A brief history of Guys and Dolls

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN Contributing Writer

Guys and Dolls
May 12-June 5
5th Avenue Theatre


Before Robert Alda even created the role of Nathan Detroit on Broadway in 1950, the worlds of Sky Masterson, Harry the Horse, and Miss Sarah Brown had already been established in the pages of Damon Runyon's short stories. By reflecting the legendary personas of Al Capone, Arnold Rothstein, Jack Dempsey, and Babe Ruth, Runyon drew on personal experiences for his writing, giving the public a glimpse into the world of gangsters and gambling.

Damon Runyon (originally Runyan) was born October 4, 1880, in Kansas. Following the newspaper trade, the family moved to Pueblo, Colorado, where the boy's mother died when he was 7. After working for several newspapers (including one that changed the spelling of his last name, which he kept), Runyon enlisted in the Spanish-American War in 1898 and began writing for the Manila Freedom and Soldier's Letter. After leaving the military, Runyon moved to New York City, where his work appeared in Harper's Weekly and his first book was published in 1911. In the years that followed, Runyon covered many sporting events, developing a writing style of human interest instead of strict reporting, while nursing the beginnings of a gambling habit. Runyon quickly garnered a daily readership numbering in the millions. It was his coverage of the infamous Snyder/Gray murders in 1927 that became the source for James M. Cain's novel Double Indemnity, and later the film by the same name.

Guys and Dolls was a collection of short stories published in 1932 and became an instant hit. A cynical reporter mingling among gangsters became synonymous with Runyon's style and image, as his work practically created the archetype. His colorful creations presented (and parodied) the worlds of organized crime and street corruptions. Known for his distinctive vernacular, his writing mixed slang and formal speech while always keeping the present tense, and he strictly avoided any contraction usage in his writing. This distinctive form of speech instantly became associated with Brooklyn and Midtown Manhattan circa 1920.

Runyon's work eventually caught the eye of Hollywood, and was the inspiration for many motion pictures. Based on the short story Madame La Gimp, the 1933 movie Lady For A Day earned four Academy Award nominations and was later remade (with Bette Davis) in 1961 as Pocket Full of Miracles. The story The Girl in Pawn became the film Little Miss Marker in 1934, and gave Shirley Temple her movie debut. It would inspire several remakes and another film based on the lead character, Sorrowful Jones.

In the late 1930s, Runyon developed throat cancer. Despite being left without speech after an operation in 1944, he continued to socialize with friends through written notes, especially at Lindy's restaurant. Among his friends was WWI air ace Eddie Rickenbacker, the man who, two years later, would use his plane to scatter Runyon's ashes over Broadway.

The 1950s saw two main revivals of interest in Runyon's work. The Damon Runyon Theatre dramatized over 50 of his stories for radio broadcasting. Broadway moguls Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows became interested in one particular short story, The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown, and in 1950 used it (with a nod to several others) as the foundation for the hit musical Guys and Dolls. The story tells of gamblers Sky Masterson and Nathan Detroit, who bet on the results of a liaison between one of their own and Salvation Army worker Miss Sarah Brown.

Guys and Dolls first opened on Broadway November 24, 1950, with music/lyrics by Frank Loesser and a book by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling. Originally starring Robert Alda, Isabel Bigley, and Vivian Blaine, the musical ran for 1,200 performances and won five Tony Awards including Best Actor and Best Featured Actress in a musical, and Best Musical of 1951. Subsequently, Guys and Dolls would grace Broadway in six separate incarnations and would star many others with several more nominations/wins: Walter Matthau, Alan King, Jerry Orbach (1965 nominee), Robert Guillaume (1977 nominee), Peter Gallagher, Nathan Lane (1992 nominee), Faith Prince (1992 win), Craig Bierko, and Oliver Platt are just a few to enact the lively world of Nathan and Sky, or to complain with 'Adelaide's Lament.'

The 1955 film version starred Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando (who, contrary to rumor, did sing his own songs), and Jean Simmons. Vivian Blaine and Stubby Kaye would be the only ones to recreate their original roles from the stage. Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable, Bob Hope, Gene Kelly, and Clark Gable were all considered for the film but dismissed for various reasons. Three new songs by Loesser were added to showcase Frank Sinatra's vocals, while five songs were removed. The movie would be nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Music, and graced by Golden Globe wins for Best Motion Picture and Best Actress (Jean Simmons).

For tickets, go to 5thavenue.org or call (206) 625-1900.

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