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BIG ARTS to present a most remarkable fella

February 8, 2019
Island Reporter, Captiva Current, Sanibel-Captiva Islander

Just a few minutes into a conversation with John Loesser and it's clear that talking about his father, theater great Frank Loesser, is not an obligation, but a pleasure. It's one he will share with audiences on Feb. 28 at 7:30 p.m. at the BIG ARTS Strauss Theater as part of the "Theater Backstage" series.

Remembering his youth with the composer, lyricist and Broadway giant, and reflecting on his legacy, makes John Loesser a, well, "Most Happy Fella." The musical-verging-on-opera is his favorite show.

"It's sort of like the family show," Loesser said. "My father wrote it, mother (Lynn Loesser) produced it, my stepmother (Jo Sullivan, whom Frank Loesser married in 1959) was the leading lady."

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Frank Loesser

A May-December romance between a Napa grape grower and a "mail-order girlfriend" was the "score closest to his heart," Loesser said. It opened on Broadway in 1956 and enjoyed a 14-month run.

Since then, "The Most Happy Fella" has been produced by companies from Broadway to Main Street. In April, a New York City Center Encores! Production is set to open. Other Loesser musicals continue to be staples, including "Guys and Dolls," which 20th Century Fox recently bought the film rights to. The stage production opened in 1950; the 1955 film version starred Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra.

"'Guys and Dolls' is the most produced show every year by high schools and colleges," Loesser said. "We have a sort of a competition with 'Oklahoma!' but 'Guys and Dolls' usually wins."

That kind of staying power holds for plenty of his father's songs, as well. "Baby, It's Cold Outside" started life in 1944 as a duet that Frank and Lynn Loesser sang at parties and got a second life in the film "Neptune's Daughter" in 1949.

"He wouldn't sleep a lot. He'd nap a lot," Loesser said. "He'd be up playing on one of the first electric pianos at 3 a.m. And by 6 o'clock he'd want a martini."

He himself was assisting major Broadway producers by the time he was 16. Loesser has since had a career in music and theater production. While in his early 20s, he ran the west coast office of the Frank Music Corporation, the family publishing company before its sale to CBS. He subsequently produced records for Twentieth Century-Fox and was awarded Billboard Magazine's Special Disco Award for his "Broadway Brass" album. Loesser formed his own company to manage the Westwood Playhouse in Los Angeles, as well as the Las Palmas and Coronet Theatres. Most recently, he spent 18 years as the executive director of the Lyric Theatre in Stuart, from which he retired a year ago.

Loesser missed a film debut at about age 4. Alfred Hitchcock wanted him to play the little boy who finds the body in "The Trouble with Harry." When his parents found out he had to cry in the film, they did not allow it. Loesser remembers his father's friend John Steinbeck and playing with "the Steinbeck kids," but he would be an adult before he would recognize many of the names of his parents' friends.

"I didn't know who they were at the time," Loesser said. "They were just people. Now that I know who they are, boy do I have questions! But most of them are gone now."

"This guy I loved used to come over to the house (when Loesser was a child) and he'd give me piggyback rides and I'd pull on his beard. And I couldn't wait till the next time he came over," he said, adding that it was Columbia Records' recording artist and executive Mitch Miller.

"I've forgotten half the people I knew as a child," Loesser said. "Now I find out and I catch myself thinking, 'That's who that was?'"

"A lot of people have come back into my life. As a presenter, which I've done for the last 40 years, it's amazing how many people will remind me they knew me as a kid. All my life people I've been friendly with people who knew my father. He's an American treasure," he said.



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