March 10, 1959, was a dreary day in St. Louis. Temperatures hovered in the forties and rain showers played havoc with traffic. In the evening, as moviegoers attended the Tivoli, Granada, Maplewood, Rio, Tower and Wellston theaters to see Rosalind Russell's Academy Award-nominated performance in Auntie Mame, everyone was abuzz about that morning's announcement that the new museum for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial would be located underground so as not to detract from the stainless-steel arch that would soon begin to rise on the riverfront.
Songstress Jaye P. Morgan was headlining at the Chase Club; Somethin' Smith and the Redheads were performing down the street at the Embers Supper Club. But the place to be that night was the flaming orange-red Crystal Palace at Boyle Avenue and Olive Street. The city's socialites and sophisticates were all crammed into the saloon-theater, umbrellas tucked under their tables, eagerly awaiting the world premiere of The Nervous Set.
World premieres were nothing new to the Crystal Palace. In this, the bistro's inaugural season, three of its first five plays had been premieres, and the other two were fresh to St. Louis theatergoers. Because all five shows were performed by essentially the same professional acting company, a warm rapport had developed between cast and audience. But The Nervous Set was different: Whereas for theater lovers it was the hottest ticket in town, for its creator, 29-year-old Ted Flicker, the production was intended to be a ticket out of town.
Flicker had adapted The Nervous Set from an unpublished novel by Crystal Palace co-owner Jay Landesman. Loosely based on Landesman's experiences in New York City in the late 1940s and early '50s, the libretto concerned the uneasy marriage between Brad, the beatnik editor of an avant-garde magazine, and Jan, a square girl from Connecticut. Although the plot about variant lifestyles strove for a sense of tragicomedy, Flicker had cunningly crafted his musical to please audiences -- and not merely in St. Louis. Two days before the opening, Post-Dispatch theater critic Myles Standish revealed that the producer-director intended to present the show either on or off Broadway in the fall. That was so much bluff; Flicker didn't have the wherewithal to produce a Broadway show. But if his crisp, witty, minimalist musical was a hit, well, stranger things had happened.
As the opening night of The Nervous Set played out, Flicker -- who was highly nervous himself -- prowled the bar area at the rear of the theater. A cigarette ever dangling from his lips, he kept one eye on the stage and the other on the audience. What he saw gratified him. Viewers were responding to the musical's edgy originality. There was no dancing chorus, no orchestra; instead the sometimes tender, sometimes ribald songs were accompanied by an onstage jazz trio. The topical jokes skewered everyone -- Catholics, homosexuals, intellectuals -- and the opening-nighters laughed at them all, even when they themselves were the butt of the humor.
"We had an incredible first-act ending," Flicker recalls, speaking by phone from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. "Brad goes to a party at Jan's house in Connecticut, but it's not his scene at all, so it looks as if they're going to split up. At which point our broken-hearted heroine sang 'Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,' and then the guy sang it. It's a brilliant song, and it left the audience completely moved."
Act Two had its share of effective moments, as well, not the least of which came when a character inspired by Beat poet Alan Ginsberg performed "Pitch for Pot," a paean to marijuana. (Forty-five years later, cast member Barry Primus is still able to sing the first verse from memory: "My friends, tonight I've got the finest grade of pot you've ever seen/I guarantee it'll get you high/But please don't feel obligated to buy/My supply is to sample and to see/Tonight the smoke's on me.") The song was downright seditious -- and St. Louis audiences ate it up.
At the curtain call, the crowd erupted into prolonged cheering. But as Flicker watched the actors -- his actors, whom he'd brought to St. Louis from New York and Chicago -- take bow after bow, the evening's irony was not lost on him. Were it not for Flicker and his wildly inventive theater company, the new Crystal Palace might not even have been built. Now, on the night of his most successful production, he could hardly wait to get as far away from St. Louis as possible. How had the situation turned so sour so quickly?
In 1952 St. Louisans Jay and Fred Landesman opened the original Crystal Palace bar at 3516 Olive, just east of Grand Boulevard. For five years the tiny pub, festooned with chandeliers from the family-owned Landesman Galleries antique store nearby, attracted a devoted clientele. KWMU-FM theater and film reviewer Joe Pollack, who at the time was a sports reporter for the morning Globe-Democrat, recalls Jay's public function as Crystal Palace proprietor. "Jay was a kind of overarching Rasputin," Pollack says. "He enjoyed being a raconteur. To borrow a line from Noel Coward, he had a talent to amuse." Jay's older brother Fred, Pollack says, was not as outgoing. "I don't think he used as much dope as Jay did. He didn't have an open marriage like Jay and Fran did. He seemed to be a sane and sober guide to what was going on."
By 1957 the bar's novelty had begun to wear thin. Jay was looking for a way to reinvigorate the Crystal Palace when he heard about an improvisational company in Chicago called The Compass Players. He went up to the Windy City to take in a performance. "The minute I saw them, I knew they were for us," Landesman says by phone from London, where he and Fran, his wife of 54 years, have lived since 1964. "It was as if I had been looking for them all my life."
Jay promptly went backstage and entered into negotiations to bring a second Compass company to St. Louis. Compass veteran Theodore J. Flicker came to St. Louis to run the adjunct ensemble. "He was a human dynamo," Landesman writes of Flicker in his 1987 memoir Rebel Without Applause, "who never seemed to run short of ideas or ways to have fun." One such idea was to bring the then-unknown comedy team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May to St. Louis. When Nichols' prowess at improv seemed to throw the other Compass performers off kilter, it was also Flicker's idea to have Nichols fired.
After Nichols and May departed for New York, the local Compass Players came to an end. But rather than return to Chicago, Flicker had another ambitious idea: He wanted to direct a professional Equity production of Samuel Beckett's bleak tragicomedy Waiting for Godot, which had confounded audiences and critics when it opened on Broadway the previous year.
"The only way Fred would let me do Waiting for Godot in the old Crystal Palace was if I sold all the tickets first," Flicker remembers. "So I financed that production by pre-selling the tickets. It wasn't easy, but I have to tell you. Fred was a business genius, a Machiavellian character. I believed he could make anything happen. It's just that he couldn't exist in a world where he didn't own everything."
When Godot opened in February 1958, Post-Dispatch theater critic Standish praised the "imaginative experiment" as "extraordinarily well done." With the early weeks already pre-sold, the show became a hot ticket. "It was an amazing thing," recounts Flicker. "People could smoke and drink and see Beckett! You couldn't do that in New York."
Buoyed by his triumph, Flicker began to formulate an audacious plan. He envisioned his own St. Louis-based permanent professional theater company: "I planned a season of six plays running one month each and rehearsing one month each, which at that time was unheard of. The regional theater movement had not yet begun. You had the Alley Theater in Houston, and one or two others. But no one was doing the kind of theater I wanted to do."
At Flicker's prodding, Fred Landesman began to seek a larger venue. He didn't have to look far; an antique store at 4240 Olive, adjacent to the Landesman Galleries, suddenly became available. Whereas the old Crystal Palace could accommodate 120 theatergoers, the new space could seat 250. It would fit neatly into an arts-oriented block anchored by the Gaslight and Golden Eagle bars and known to habitués -- though not yet the general public -- as Gaslight Square.
In order to build the new Crystal Palace, Flicker says, "Fred and I set up a corporation. Being a naive jerk, it never occurred to me to look at any of the papers. I just did whatever Fred said, and I knew that I was part owner. Fred, who in addition to all his other talents also was a great painter, designed an ornate, wonderful-looking theater. One day, I remember, we stopped a truck that was loaded with leaded-glass windows. The driver told us they came out of turn-of-the-century mansions that were being torn down. He was taking them to the dump, so we gave him a buck apiece. Then Fred added them to the décor."
While Fred supervised the theater design and Flicker assembled a company of actors that included Godot veterans Tom Aldredge and Severn Darden, plus young up-and-comer Barry Primus, what did Jay do to keep busy?
"Made trouble," Flicker replies. "He was such a pain in the ass. He was a titanic pain in the ass. Jay loved to float around on the social scene and do the next hip thing. Fred wasn't too crazy about doing 'the next hip thing.'"
It was Jay who persuaded Flicker to open the theater with the world premiere of Love's Success by Chandler Brossard, a Beat writer who had served a stint as a bartender at the old Crystal Palace. The new theater opened on November 11, 1958, to a gala crowd of St. Louis socialites. The next day in his Post-Dispatch review, Standish praised the theater's "bizarre" décor but condemned the play as "a tawdry drama....a cloudy, pretentious affair."
For his second production, Flicker turned to one of his own pals. Friend of the Family, based on a comic novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky, was written by Flicker's ex-roommate at Bard College, Peter Stone. "I was the first one to give him a professional production," the director says of Stone, who went on to write such hit films as Charade, Arabesque and Father Goose, as well as the librettos for Broadway musicals including 1776, Woman of the Year and Titanic. Stone died last year at the age of 73.
Friend of the Family was well received, but with the third offering in January '59, the Crystal Palace Players truly hit their stride. Critic Standish hailed Flicker's production of Beckett's Endgame as "brilliant theater," and once again, local audiences responded with gusto. "A big part of our audience base was wealthy third- and fourth-generation St. Louisans who hadn't ever worked a day in their lives," says Flicker. "Some of the most decadent people I ever met were in that crowd. St. Louis was really fascinating then."
"Those were glorious days," adds actor Tom Aldredge, reached in New York during a break from rehearsals for the current Broadway revival of Twentieth Century, in which he co-stars with Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche. "We had such fun. Whenever a touring show would play the American Theater -- the Old Vic came through, and so did William Inge's The Dark at the Top of the Stairs -- all those actors would come to see us. We'd be their local guides."
"It was a great, great time to be in St. Louis," echoes Aldredge's former colleague Barry Primus, speaking by phone from his home in Los Angeles. "The people in the community were so supportive. I remember having Thanksgiving dinner at a mansion where Lindbergh had slept and going to the Pulitzers' home to see their Picassos. There was always something happening. Like the day I got a call from [Fred Landesman's wife] Paula. She said, 'We're reading The White Negro by Norman Mailer in our garage.' So we all went down to Fred's garage and listened to The White Negro. I felt I was on the forefront of culture.
"We'd eat all our meals at the Rex Café. Then at night we did these beautiful productions. Our designer, Dave Moon, was a kind of genius. He had to be, because between Fred and Jay, this was a very visual community. But can you imagine? At a time when there were hardly any regional theaters in America, we were doing Dostoyevsky and Beckett. How anybody let Ted Flicker get away with what he got away with is beyond me."
How did he get away with it? One explanation comes from Jerry Berger -- not the Post-Dispatch columnist, but an intimate friend of the Landesman family who was at the Crystal Palace almost every night during those years. "The one thing about St. Louis at that time is that nobody would help you, but you could do anything you wanted," Berger reflects. "If you decided that you could open a theater on a shoestring, you could do it. And if audiences liked what they saw, they would come back. I would see the same people every Friday night attending the same play. It was one great big party."
But behind the scenes, seeds of discord had taken root. "Fred did not want me to stage Endgame," Flicker explains. "I don't think he ever wanted a theater. He wanted a nightclub."
No one could wrest the theater from Flicker, because he was part owner. Or so he thought. When he finally took the time to read his contract, Flicker saw that Fred Landesman had incorporated the Crystal Palace in such a way that the Landesman family owned the place outright, with Flicker employed as a member of the staff. "Nothing. I was entitled to nothing," Flicker says today. "Essentially, the contract stated that I was expected to work for $75 a week for the love of it."
In a state of rage and despair -- "The plans I had! I was going to reshape theater in America!" -- Flicker now realized he'd be lucky to make it to the end of his first season. In order to honor his commitment to the actors, he needed to produce a show Fred would not axe. Something as far afield from Beckett as possible.
That's when Flicker had the brainstorm to concoct a new musical that would highlight lyrics by Fran Landesman, who had been writing songs with Crystal Palace house pianist Tommy Wolf. Already some of their collaborations were being performed by the likes of George Shearing, Shelly Manne and Mel Tormé. "I knew two things," Flicker says today. "First, I knew that Fran was the only person who had Fred's ear. She was the only person who could influence his decisions. He would be hard-pressed to say no to any request Fran made. Second, I knew Fran would kill to have a musical. So I figured if I could write a show around her songs, no way would Fred stop the season."
Here Fran Landesman picks up the story: "One day Ted said to me, 'I'd like to make a musical using the songs that you and Tommy have been writing. Can you think of a story that you'd like to use for the plot?' And I said, 'Jay's been working on a novel about when he edited a magazine called Neurotica, which might make a good book.'"
Flicker: "So I read Jay's novel about his life as a beatnik. But it didn't make any difference what the story was about. If Jay had written a dictionary I would have told him it could be a musical. Because that show was going to be my ticket out of St. Louis. Writing it was an act of desperation."
In his memoir, Landesman describes the writing process that produced The Nervous Set: "I would write a scene at the Galleries during the day, give it to Flicker at night at the Palace, and in the morning he would return a completed draft and I would start the next scene."
But others who were there credit Flicker with the lion's share of the writing. According to Berger, "Jay had the raw material and Ted put it into shape. It was Jay's novel, and Ted made it function and work on the stage."
Says cast member Aldredge: "The book credit went to Jay, but Ted wrote it."
The musical's final billing reads: "BOOK BY JAY LANDESMAN AND THEODORE J. FLICKER." But according to Flicker, Landesman's credit was "totally cosmetic. I have no recollection of Jay writing one word."
Speaking by phone from London, Landesman at first sticks to the description of collaborating with Flicker that he lays out in his autobiography. "That's in the book," Landesman says, referring to the account in his memoir. "We worked back and forth."
How would Landesman describe the division of responsibility?
"The division of responsibility was more or less my trip," he says, then pauses. "Ted was good at organizing it dramatically."
Fran Landesman remembers the process this way: "The characters and the plot, that was all Jay. But Ted showed him how to put it in dramatic -- you know, make it a play as opposed to a novel.
"I'll tell you one thing that Ted did," Fran adds. "He came up with great ideas for songs. I don't think Jay tended to think in song-y terms as well as Ted did."
By 1959 Fran's writing partner Tommy Wolf had moved his family to Los Angeles, so initially it made sense to showcase tunes they'd already written. But as the script evolved, Flicker encouraged the pair to write new songs that were germane to the plot. Wolf returned to St. Louis to serve as the show's arranger and music director.
After Flicker directed his season's fourth production -- Marcel Ayme's French farce Clarembard, another popular and critical success -- The Nervous Set went into rehearsals. Aldredge's wife Theoni was enlisted to design the costumes. "They wanted someone cheap," Aldredge says, "so I suggested my wife." (More than 100 Broadway shows later, today Theoni V. Aldredge is one of the theater's foremost costume designers.) Company members Aldredge and Primus were cast in the roles modeled after Beat writers Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Comic actor Del Close came down from Chicago to play a role based on Neurotica editor Gershon Legman (who later would be recognized as the world's foremost collector of dirty jokes).
By the time The Nervous Set opened on that rainy March 10, Flicker was reduced to a nervous wreck, but at least he had the satisfaction of knowing he'd conceived, produced and directed a hit.
With unexpected speed, what had seemed the greatest challenge -- transferring the musical to New York -- suddenly became the easiest. On March 25, two weeks after The Nervous Set opened, the show-business bible Variety printed a rave review penned by St. Louis stringer (and Globe-Democrat critic) Bob Goddard, heralding the audience's "ecstatic packed-house enthusiasm." Goddard's remark that The Nervous Set was "slated for a fall opening on Broadway" piqued the curiosity of producers Kermit Bloomgarden (The Music Man), Arnold Saint-Subber (Kiss Me, Kate) and the prolific David Merrick, formerly of St. Louis. But as it turned out, all three Broadway veterans were trumped by a neophyte.
Robert Lantz was an elegant Berlin-born talent agent who circulated among the upper echelon of New York society. Lantz, who'd been associated with such movies as I Want to Live! and The Barefoot Contessa, now wanted to dabble in theater. No sooner did the Variety review appear than he flew to St. Louis with a brazen scheme: Extend the current sold-out Crystal Palace run by four weeks and open on Broadway two weeks later.
It all seemed too good to be true -- and in a way it was.
"We sensed that David Merrick was interested in the show but not in our production," Flicker says. "Now here was Robbie Lantz telling us he wanted the whole package. The caveat was that there was no time to mull it over. Robbie demanded an immediate answer so that he could head off Merrick's trip to St. Louis. So I said yes."
Lantz's enthusiasm was evident -- he hired cartoonist Jules Feiffer to design the poster and fashion photographer Richard Avedon to shoot publicity stills -- but it soon became clear that he did not want the St. Louis production, at least not all of it. Forty-five minutes of the original three-hour-and-fifteen-minute running time had to be trimmed. But that was only the beginning. "One of the many things I did that helped to ruin the show in New York was to let myself be talked out of using the original leads," Flicker says. "In St. Louis the boy and the girl [Don Heller and Arlene Corwin] had really good jazz voices; in New York the new leads [Richard Hayes and Tami Seitz] didn't."
Although all the original principal actors remained with the show in smaller parts, Aldredge and Close were the only two who retained their starring roles. "The recasting hurt it," says Barry Primus, whose impersonation of Jack Kerouac was taken over by future I Dream of Jeannie and Dallas star Larry Hagman, in his Broadway debut. "We had developed a chemistry from working together all season in St. Louis; now we're in a bigger space with new people and new sets. The revised show didn't have time to jell."
Then there was the matter of Goddard Lieberson. Lantz persuaded Lieberson, the head of Columbia Records, to become one of the principal financial backers of the Broadway venture. In turn, Lieberson demanded excisions that eroded The Nervous Set's irreverence.
"Goddard would say, '"Pitch for Pot" has to go,'" Flicker remembers. "He felt that if the score included a song promoting marijuana, he'd never get radio play for any of the other songs. So I'd take it out. Then Robbie would say, 'You have to cut this anti-Catholic line because it will offend [New York Herald Tribune theater critic] Walter Kerr.' And I'd take it out."
Why was Flicker so submissive?
"I didn't realize it at the time, but I was clearly out of my depth," he says. "In St. Louis I knew that nobody knew anything, so I did whatever I wanted. But now I'm in a place where I'd never been before. I figured these two titans knew what they were talking about. I really fucked it up. I should have insisted on doing my St. Louis production. Instead, with the sight of Broadway my integrity went right out the window. I didn't know I was throwing it away, but I was."
The drugs surely played a part, as well.
"That was a time in America when the doctor would say, 'You're running out of energy? Here, take one of these a day,'" says Flicker. "I was taking Dexamil twelve-hour spansules. They enabled me to work twenty-hour days. I was lighting five packs of cigarettes and sixteen cigars a day. There was never a moment when smoke wasn't pouring out of my face. The Nervous Set came at the end of our St. Louis theater season, so I was already exhausted. By the time I got to New York, I was really nutso. It's not an excuse, it's just a fact. I collapsed during the New York rehearsals with nicotine poisoning. After the show closed and I went to my parents' home in New Jersey to rest, I realized that not only was I kicking nicotine, I was kicking speed. So that whole period of New York rehearsals is bizarre in my mind."
Flicker is perfectly clear when it comes to one thing, however. "In St. Louis, 'Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most' was the best song in the show. But it had already been written and recorded prior to The Nervous Set. It was the only song in the show for which Tommy didn't own the publishing rights, and Robbie refused to pay the publisher. And true to the fool I had become, I let him drop it from the Broadway production.
"Had that happened a few years later, when I understood what was important to me in my work, I would have said, 'Either that song is in the show or I'm out.' Or I would have said, 'No, I'm not changing any of the cast from St. Louis.' Or I would have said, 'No, we're not replacing the suicide with a happy ending.' Instead I destroyed The Nervous Set. The consequences of those decisions have followed me all the rest of my career, even now."
Two months after its world premiere in St. Louis, The Nervous Set opened at Henry Miller's Theater on May 12, 1959, with its revamped script and cast. Flicker hosted a post-performance party at the Lobster Restaurant on West 45th Street. The first review, by the eminent Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, hailed Broadway's newest entry as "the freshest satire on current manners New York has seen all season."
But the cast was so busy toasting Atkinson's prescience, they didn't bother to notice that he was only praising Act One. To Atkinson, the second half could not "hold a candle to the impudence of the first act."
Unknowingly, the reviewer had homed in on the ill-advised wholesale changes.
As review after review arrived, it became depressingly clear that most other critics didn't share Atkinson's enthusiasm even for Act One. The Nervous Set closed after only 23 performances. Columbia Records went ahead and released the original cast album, but even then Lieberson did not record Del Close's song, "Rejection," which Atkinson had singled out as "an exuberant hymn to mental illness."
"We couldn't believe how sophisticated people were in St. Louis," Fran Landesman says today. "And we thought, 'Wait'll they see The Nervous Set in New York!' It turned out that the New Yorkers were much squarer than the people of St. Louis."
Maybe; maybe not. "The New York production was neither fish nor fowl," says the Landesmans' old friend Jerry Berger. "In St. Louis, a small show on a small stage was great fun, but in New York it looked like a small show on a big stage. Even the jazz quartet was not quite as charming as it was in St. Louis." In fact, the notion of onstage musicians (a guitarist had been added to the original trio for the New York production) was much admired by Richard Rodgers, who became one of the show's champions. In his next musical, No Strings, he too put the orchestra onstage.
Primus offers another theory for the show's quick demise: "The next Broadway show to open after us was Gypsy. Ethel Merman was a major star; Jerome Robbins was a major director. It had big sets, lavish production numbers. That's the kind of show where audiences think they get value for their money. We were like a club act. New York audiences weren't hip to that in 1959."
A month after The Nervous Set closed, Flicker -- who knew he'd never return to St. Louis -- wrote a public letter to Myles Standish, in which he asked the Post-Dispatch critic to "tell the people of St. Louis...I think it is a wonderful theater town. Where else could a theater as unique as mine was, open and make a colossal profit in its first year?" After noting that the only production to lose money was the opener by Chandler Brossard, Flicker stated that "by the end of the season the Crystal Palace was not only solvent, but paid off things that ordinarily take from five to ten years. It was a season unique in the theater in this country."
But life goes on.
In June 1959, the same month Flicker's valedictory to St. Louis appeared in the newspaper, the Crystal Palace commenced to use "Gaslight Square" as its official address. In February of the following year, Jay and Fran Landesman, along with Tommy Wolf, collaborated with Nelson Algren on a musical adaptation of his novel A Walk on the Wild Side. This time David Merrick did fly out to see the production, but he didn't buy. In '62 Wolf and the Landesmans were enlisted by local journalist Martin Quigley to collaborate on Molly Darling, a musical set in 1899 St. Louis. It premiered that summer at the Muny but did not enjoy a continued life.
Jay Landesman continued to mount plays at the Crystal Palace. Though some of those productions were well received -- The Boy Friend was a popular Christmas offering -- they were tame stuff in contrast to Flicker's repertoire. But as the neighborhood's popularity escalated, even conventional theater gave way to nightclub performers. Crystal Palace bookings of Lenny Bruce, Barbra Streisand and the Smothers Brothers are now the stuff of local legend. Less remembered is the fact that Jay Landesman also introduced belly dancers and limbo dancers to his bistro.
"As it grew more popular, Gaslight Square became a series of honky-tonk joints," recalls KWMU critic Joe Pollack. "It lost its camaraderie, its closeness. It lost its appeal to the regulars. It became a spot for children."
Once that happened, "all hell broke loose," Jerry Berger picks up. "From a sort of wonderfully edited, interesting street, many of the new places were very schlocky. The elitist, snobbish air disintegrated. You could feel that its days were numbered, and indeed they were."
In 1964 the Landesmans moved to London. Fred and Paula moved to New York. He died in 1977; she passed away in 2000.
Out in Los Angeles, Tommy Wolf carved out a successful career as a rehearsal pianist for TV variety shows. He continued to write songs, some with Fran, others with the likes of Fred Astaire. Wolf died in 1979.
The members of the acting ensemble Flicker had nurtured in St. Louis went their separate ways. Aldredge has starred in 30 Broadway plays, including On Golden Pond and the Stephen Sondheim musicals Into the Woods and Passion. Primus forged a successful screen career, appearing in Boxcar Bertha; New York, New York; Absence of Malice; Night and the City; and Life as a House, among others. The eccentric Del Close returned to Chicago where, as an improv instructor, he served as a mentor to the likes of Bill Murray, John Belushi and Mike Myers. When he died in 1999, he left his skull to the Goodman Theatre so he could appear onstage as Yorick in future productions of Hamlet.
Never one to remain idle for long, Flicker in 1960 produced, directed and appeared in (along with Aldredge, George Segal and eventually Buck Henry) an evening of off-Broadway improv called The Premise. The set was by Crystal Palace alum Dave Moon. A smash hit, The Premise ran for three years and more than 1,200 performances. Flicker then wrote and directed feature films. His controversial 1967 satire The President's Analyst, with James Coburn and Severn Darden, is regarded as a classic. He also created the hit TV series Barney Miller. After the sitcom concluded its seven-season run, he sold the entire package to Coca-Cola. Flicker now lives on an estate in Santa Fe, where for the past eight years he has worked as a sculptor.
Fran Landesman has continued to write. As her lyrics have been interpreted by scores of jazz artists, from Ella Fitzgerald to Miles Davis, her reputation has continued to grow. Last December, at age 76, she returned to the United States for a sellout two-night appearance at Joe's Pub in the East Village. "My hero came: Stephen Sondheim," Fran recounts. "He said to me, 'I've just listened to The Nervous Set again. I wanted to see if I liked it as much as I did when I was young.' And he said, 'Every track was surprising.' He liked that show a lot. It's odd, because to tell you the truth, I feel like I've gotten better."
Jay Landesman founded a London publishing house, but his own writing remains ensnarled in the nostalgic past. His 1987 memoir Rebel Without Applause focuses on many of the same events depicted in The Nervous Set. He also wrote an unproduced film script that dramatizes those years. "There's a new book coming out about me," he adds. "It's going to be a great book. It's about the life I've led."
Asked about his memories of Ted Flicker, Landesman says, "All good. Ted Flicker was a very important character. He may not have gotten along too well with people, but he got along with me. I admired him."
What about Flicker's involvement in the Gaslight Square incarnation of the Crystal Palace? Was Flicker a partner?
"I don't remember any of that," Landesman replies. "Yeah, there was talk of that, but listen, you've got enough material for your story. I've gotta go now, Sweets."
End of conversation.
Most Broadway flops are relegated to oblivion, but The Nervous Set lives on, at least in lore. Jerry Berger tells a story about a reading of the play staged in New York by Fred Landesman's son Rocco, who's now a prominent Broadway producer. "It just all seemed so dated. [Playwright] Wendy Wasserstein was there. When Rocco asked her what she thought, she said, 'It's very simple: She didn't like his parties, and he didn't like her parties.' That's what she got out of The Nervous Set. But that isn't what people were getting back at the Crystal Palace."
But then, in 1959 The Nervous Set was not an isolated event. It was the culmination of something unique and unexpected: a brief, improbable season when St. Louis audiences reveled in theater productions as smart and savvy as any that were being offered anywhere in America.
In 1985, a quarter-century after the Broadway fiasco, the Theatre Factory mounted a successful local revival. And this week, after another nineteen-year hiatus, New Line Theatre is staging a second revival.
The press release for the production doesn't even mention Ted Flicker's name.
The New Line Theatre presents The Nervous Set March 4 through March 27 at the ArtLoft Theatre, 1529 Washington Avenue. Call 314-534-1111 for ticket information.