John Shelton Reed on “Lousy With Charm”

John Shelton Reed

Essay by John Shelton Reed

On a steamy New Orleans evening in August 1937 a crowd gathered in the air-conditioned comfort of the Group Theatre, which had been founded a couple of years earlier to foster “experiment in all branches of the theatre arts.” They were there by invitation, for the world premiere of Lousy With Charm, a play by Roark Bradford.

Roark Bradford

Bradford was a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer best known, alas, for comic short stories in Negro dialect. He had come to New Orleans in 1924 to write for the Times-Picayune, and he soon become a fixture on the French Quarter scene. He and his wife Mary Rose lived in a Creole cottage on Toulouse Street, where they kept more or less permanent open house for the Quarter’s Bohemian set and literary visitors from out-of-town. Bradford also moved in affluent “artistic” circles uptown, where he mixed with people like Dorothy Feibleman, who came from German-Jewish financial circles in New York — her father was a banker with Kuhn, Loeb – and who was an enthusiastic amateur actress and a patron of the Group Theatre. Her husband James, a scion of a prominent family whose interests included Feibleman’s department store, was an accomplished poet and, later a philosophy professor at Tulane.

As Bradford told the story, perhaps unreliably (he was a well-known fabulist), he and Mary Rose were playing bridge with the Feiblemans one evening when Dorothy suggested that he should write a play. The next time he was dummy, he started writing. He had no writing paper, though, so he “had to use the back of an old, unpaid bill for $186.73 for termite eradication.” That gave him the idea of setting the play in the termite-infested French Quarter, “and naturally it was filled with tourists, art students, the noseless woman and the cripple who peddles lottery tickets.”

He had never written a play before and seems to have enjoyed the challenge. He also decided to direct it, with Dorothy as his assistant. Although “public tryouts” were announced in the newspapers, the resulting cast of 21 comprised pretty much the same uptown crowd who performed in other Group Theatre productions, along with a couple of professionals recruited from the New Orleans branch of the Federal Theatre Project, where they had just played in Doctor Faustus. Mary Rose Bradford also secured a role.

Many of Bradford’s friends were journalists, so his play got a lot of free publicity in the city’s three hotly competitive newspapers. In the Item, a note on the society page announced that he was going to read a scene from the play to a ladies’ book club luncheon and a gossip columnist retailed a long and rather pointless story about how Bradford had a dream about seeing his upcoming play, which had people “rolling in the aisle with laughter,” but when he woke up he realized that what he’d seen wasn’t what he’d written and couldn’t remember what he’d seen, “since when he has been a nervous wreck.” In the Times-Picayune, Albert Goldstein (former editor of the Double Dealer magazine), whose wife Betty had a leading role, gave readers a lengthy description of a rehearsal, with Bradford “running around in circles, hurdling chairs, perspiring, gesticulating, yelling, lighting one cigarette on another, and from time to time tearing what little is left of his hair.”

Description in original manuscript of set for Act One

The evening before the premiere the Times-Picayune ran both a news story about the play and an article on the society page; the next morning the Item did the same. This was despite the fact that (as both papers mentioned) admission was by invitation only. The Item billed Lousy With Charm as “the first modern play with New Orleans, and particularly the Vieux Carre, as a locale.” Unlike earlier plays about New Orleans, which “inevitably contained romance with all its trappings—Creoles, a hero, moonlight and magnolias and at least one turbaned mammy”­—this would be “a satiric comedy of today.” (In other words, the play might trade in stereotypes, but they would be different stereotypes.) A society column in the Item, headlined “Bradford’s Play Heads Day’s Events,” said, “The event is an outstanding one of the summer [which] a large number of fashionables will attend.” There would be two performances, on August 16 and 17.

Most of the “fashionables” in attendance were probably family and friends of the large cast and crew, but reviewers from all three newspapers were also there, and afterwards they agreed about what they had seen. “The plot, if there be one, is incidental,” wrote the Item’s reviewer. “The piece is episodic with a string of wise-cracking dialogue holding together a series of sketches.” The States concurred: the play was “a group of skits loosely strung together into a hilarious whole that, to this writer’s mind, defies and makes superfluous critical analysis.” The Times-Picayune said it was “a series of sketches, strung upon a meager plot,” into which Bradford had thrown “garbage cans, art, marihuana, tourists, balconies, race horse tips and absinthe frappes.”

Lousy With Charm is indeed hard to summarize, not to say incoherent. Several characters make brief appearances simply to provide local color (and perhaps to provide roles for Bradford’s friends).  As the play opens, for instance, two “Negro nuns” (played by white women in blackface) cross the stage, left to right. Later they cross right to left, each carrying a string of catfish.

That’s it.

Another character ambles on stage and rings a doorbell. When an offstage voice asks who it is, he replies, “Termite eradicator,” and is buzzed in. Later, a rat catcher (“with half a dozen traps hanging by strings over his shoulder”) rings the same doorbell and identifies himself as “W.P.A. Project Number OJ496-dash-221-W.”  Asked what the hell project that is, he answers, “Rat catcher.” Then he is buzzed in.

And that’s it for them.

Two local-color figures with more substantial parts are Handsome, who sells lottery tickets, and Sunflower, who peddles chewing gum and horserace tips. Handsome is described as “a youngish man with locomotor ataxia, St. Vitus dance and has a harelip. He is shabbily dressed, needs a shave, badly.” Sunflower is “a frumpy hag with her nose eaten away, dirty, whiny, and scuttles instead of walking.” Their big scene comes when they intend to sell fake marijuana to some Midwestern tourists and accidently sell them the real stuff. Hilarity ensues.

Another subplot hinges on the efforts of Katy Lee, an innocent and earnest art student from McComb, Mississippi, to lose her virginity, because her instructor has jokingly told her it will help her art. When she goes to Sunflower for advice about how to get seduced, Sunflower says, “When I was young, it was the style for all the girls to try to keep from gittin’ seduced.” (She cackles.) “The young gentlemen called it ‘ruinin’’ girls, then. Now they calls it ‘makin’ ‘em.” She tells Katy Lee to “git drunk and let nature take its course.” Katy’s fellow student Raoul offers to help, but he may not be the man to do it. Earlier, when a tourist saw Raoul at his easel and said he looked “quaint,” another student replied, “Quaint, hell, lady. He’s queer, if you ask me.”

Title page from original manuscript

Then there’s the continuing repartee between Joe and Betty, two other art students. Joe, who has just bought a handsome antique four-poster, asks Betty about sacrificing a little of her virtue “on my altar of love.” Betty, who has been teasing Joe about being cheap, accuses him of buying the bed just so he could “lure an occasional girlfriend into it, and save yourself three dollars on Conti Street [the red-light district].” Joe retorts that Betty, an ex-debutante, gets money from her father “so you can live in the French Quarter and be an artist, because you were too dumb to go to Newcomb [College] and be a lady.” And so on.

Meanwhile Joe is trying to find out who keeps stealing his garbage cans, and Hester, a tour guide, is trying to sell a house to a tourist from Cincinnati because the gangster who owns it has promised her a thousand dollars if it’s sold it before the termites destroy it.

The last act finds the police rounding up “Reds” to distract the society ladies who have demanded that they do something about illegal slot machines. Bussey, a bar owner, decorates his tavern with two flags, one American and one Confederate, to show his patriotism. (Bradford said the proprietor of a tent show called Billy Renfroe’s Jolly Pathfinders once told him, “If you haven’t got a flag in the last act, you haven’t got a show.”) The play ends with a chaotic melee in Bussey’s bar involving tourists and art students, most of them drunk. “Isn’t the French Quarter simply lousy with charm?” is the next-to-last line; the last is, “Hit her over the head. That’ll shut her God damned mouth.”

The three reviews could be described as mixed. The States said that the play was “strongly lacking in continuity and plot with a third act that leaves the ends loosely dangling in the air,” and the Times-Picayune agreed that it needed to be “tightened dramatically to utilize its rich substance in a form of sharper lines,” adding that “It would be a pity . . . for this background to be lost for want of a better third act.”

Dorothy Feibleman in a Group Theatre production (New Orleans States)

But most of the criticism was merely implied. The actors playing Handsome, Sunflower, and Hester the tour guide were singled out for praise, as were Betty (Mrs. Albert) Goldstein as Betty; and Mary Rose Bradford as a tourist from Nebraska. (Mary Rose was a teetotaler, unusual for the time and place, but “for a temperate person [she] made a most convincing drunk.”) As for the other sixteen players, the Item said merely that “the cast was for the most part capable.”

Another problem: when the States said the play “left nine-tenths of the audience in a fine fit of exhaustion induced by excessive laughter,” it did not say outright that the other tenth were either offended or bewildered, but that seems likely. Perhaps no police officers were there to hear their force matter-of-factly dismissed as corrupt and brutal, but some members of the exclusive ladies’ literary society Le Petit Salon may have witnessed a scene in which the tour guide points out their clubhouse, where “the most charming ladies of the city gather for their cultural exercises,” and a nearby art student spits out, “That fat bunch of dowagers!”

The play was also too racy for some. The Item’s reviewer thought it just as well that it wasn’t open to the public because “the subject matter in spots is too raw, and the dialogue in parts too profane for popular consumption.” The States reviewer agreed: “As realistic as the faint emanation of unwashed flesh that one sometimes meets in the confines of the Quarter,” he wrote, “the play may shock the sensibilities of those to whom vulgarity is anathema.”

And the Item hinted at yet another problem when it said the play had “an enthusiastic reception by a hand-picked audience.” Much of it wasn’t funny or even intelligible to anyone outside the circle. The States observed that it was “written by a man long a resident of the Quarter for an audience almost as familiar as with its life,” and wondered about its “possible popular appeal to an audience unfamiliar with its background.” And the Times-Picayune spelled it out: Bradford, it said, “had an invitation audience that warmed to his subtleties and cackled at his gibes” and “the author, in a back seat, had a nice evening laughing at his own jokes,” but it would take “a little broadening of situation and anecdote” to reach “outside audiences who must be let in, after all, on the jests.” My friend Gay Leonhardt has aptly observed that Lousy With Charm‘s inside jokes and lack of structure make it less like an ordinary play than like an extended dinner-table conversation among friends, trading gossip and amusing stories about French Quarter “characters” and types.  Bradford had far more experience with that than with writing plays, and maybe it shows.

Lousy With Charm is not really a candidate for revival, at least not as popular entertainment. Those structural problems and its lame third act aside, it wouldn’t work as comedy. Even if present-day audiences could catch the jokes that eluded “outside audiences” in 1937 New Orleans, those jokes often aren’t funny. Although playgoers these days may be less disturbed by mere vulgarity, for instance, they’re more sensitive about matters of race and sexuality. As Kyle Smith puts it, humor ages more like Borden’s than Bordeaux. Drama lasts; comedy fades.

But the play is not worthless. It’s an interesting historical curiosity that tells us much about its time and place. With appropriate context provided, I for one would pay to see it.




[An original typescript of Lousy With Charm can be found in the Roark Bradford Papers at Tulane’s Howard-Tilton Memorial Library. Thanks to Gay Leonhardt for photocopies of it and many of the relevant newspaper articles. (I have silently corrected errors of grammar and spelling.) The artist Olive Leonhardt, Gay’s grandmother, was very much a part of this scene, and Gay’s biography of her is forthcoming.]






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