The character Horace Vandergelder first appeared in Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play, The Merchant of Yonkers. Wilder had adapted the story from John Oxenford’s 1835 one-act farce, A Day Well Spent, which was then extended into a full-length play entitled, Einen Jux will er sich machen, by Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy in 1842. The Broadway production of The Merchant of Yonkers opened on December 28, 1938 at the Guild Theatre, where it ran for 39 performances. For those familiar with Wilder’s works, he also wrote Our Town, which opened in early 1938,winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama that same year.
The plot of The Merchant of Yonkers revolves around Horace Vandergelder, a wealthy Yonkers, New York businessman in the market for a wife.
Fifteen years later, director Tyrone Guthrie expressed interest in a new production of the play, which Wilder extensively rewrote and rechristened The Matchmaker. The most significant change was the expansion of a previously minor character named Dolly Gallagher Levi, who became the play’s centerpiece. A widow who brokers marriages and other transactions in Yonkers, New York at the turn of the 20th Century, she sets her sights on local hay and feed merchant Horace Vandergelder, who has hired her to find him a wife. After a series of slapstick situations involving mistaken identities, secret rendezvous behind carefully placed screens, separated lovers, and a trip to night court, everyone finds themselves paired with a perfect match.
The play was a success at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland and at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London’s West End before finally opening on Broadway on December 5, 1955 at the Royale Theatre, later transferring to the Booth to complete its run of 486 performances. Ruth Gordon’s performance in the title role earned her a Tony Award nomination as Best Actress; Guthrie won as Best Director.
The 1958 film version, adapted by John Michael Hayes and directed by Joseph Anthony, starred Shirley Booth, Anthony Perkins, Shirley MacLaine, Paul Ford, and Robert Morse.
In 1964, the play enjoyed yet another incarnation as the musical, Hello, Dolly!, with lyrics and music by Jerry Herman, a book by Michael Stewart and starring Carol Channing in the title role of Dolly. Then Broadway diva, Ethel Merman, was intended for the part, but passed to rest up from other shows. Merman did play Dolly Levi on Broadway in 1970, until the show closed.
Hello, Dolly! was first produced on Broadway by David Merrick in 1964, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical and nine other Tonys. The show album Hello, Dolly! An Original Cast Recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002. The show has become one of the most enduring musical theatre hits, enjoying three Broadway revivals and international success. It was also made into a 1969 film directed by Gene Kelley, starring Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau as the miserly “well-known unmarried half-a-millionaire,” Horace Vandergelder. The movie was considered a financial loss at the box office, grossing 13 million with a reported budget of 25. Still, the movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won three, including Best Art Direction, Sound and Score.
There have been three Broadway revivals of Hello, Dolly! since opening night in 1964, including an all African-American cast, starring Pearl Bailey. Carol Channing, who’s best known and originated the role, starred in the other two—the latest in 1994. There have also been three West End revivals, with one in 1979 starring Ms. Channing. Most recently, unconfirmed rumors of a 2012 revival starring Patti LuPone was reported on Broadway.com in December, 2010.
The town of Garrison, New York, was the filming site for scenes in “Yonkers.” In the opening credits, the passenger train is traveling along the Hudson River. Provided by the Strasburg Rail Road, the train is pulled by Pennsylvania Railroad’s #1223 (which is now located in the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania) built up as a New York Central & Hudson River locomotive. The railroad car used “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” was restored specifically for the film, and is still running on the Strasburg Rail Road in Strasburg, Pennsylvania. Many of the building and structures seen in the movie still stand, including Vandergelder’s Hay and Feed, which formally was a inn, and is now the independent film company, Ironbound Films and a law office. Also, the historic Garrison Train Station, which is now The Philipstown Depot Theatre.
The Poughkeepsie (Metro-North station) trackside platform was used at the beginning when Dolly was on her way to Yonkers.
The church scene was filmed on the United States Military Academy grounds, but the façade was built for the film. The New York City scenes were filmed on the 20th Century-Fox lot in California. Some of the exteriors still exist. In the Harmonia Garden’s scene, part of the ballroom from the film, Sound of Music was used in the background. Roger Corman’s The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre re-used sets from Hello, Dolly! and The Sound of Music. Corman actually had the resources of a studio behind him, and probably could have built new sets, but stuck to cost-saving measures out of habit. Also, Beneath the Planet of the Apes reused at least two sets from the film.
In 2008, a surge of interest in Hello, Dolly! was the result of music and clips from the 1969 film were featured repeatedly in the Pixar animated feature, WALL-E. They were also included in the WALL-E soundtrack. “I’m still blown away by the fact that two songs of mine that are close to 50 years old have been used as the underpinning” of the movie, Hello, Dolly! composer and lyrist, Jerry Herman told The Associated Press in an interview from Los Angeles.
Writer-director Andrew Stanton used the tunes “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “It Only Takes a Moment” to express the psyche of the love-starved, trash-compacting robot WALL-E.
Other influences, popular culture and trivia
- In 1964 Louis Armstrong’s recording of the song, “Hello, Dolly!”, rose to number one on the pop chart, making Armstrong, at age 63, the oldest person to ever accomplish that feat. In the process, Armstrong dislodged The Beatles from the number-one position they had occupied for 14 consecutive weeks with three different songs.
- A French recording of the title song by Petula Clark charted in the top ten in both Canada and France, and her Spanish version, “¿Qué tal Dolly?”, was a hit as well.
- The title song was sung in the 1999 film Dick by actor Dan Hedaya, playing President Richard Nixon.
- The red satin, sequin-bedecked costume, designed by Freddy Wittop, that Channing wore during Hello, Dolly! was donated to the Smithsonian by Channing and theatrical producer Manny Kladitis, following the thirtieth anniversary tour of the show. It is currently on display at the National Museum of American History. While Miss Channing’s Harmonia Gardens gown is in the Smithsonian, the remainder of the original Freddy Wittop costumes are now housed in the permanent collection of the Costume World Broadway Collection, a theatrical museum dedicated to Broadway costuming located in Pompano Beach, Florida. These costumes are used for design reference, and in certain circumstances, rental to select professional theatres across the United States.
- The very first core plugin for WordPress was Hello, Dolly! by founder, Matt Mullenweg. The plugin still comes bundled on every WordPress installation. As described in the official WordPress plugin directory, “This is not just a plugin, it symbolizes the hope nd enthusiasm of an entire generation summed up in two words sung most famously by Louis Armstrong: Hello, Dolly! When activated you will randomly see a lyric from Hello, Dolly in the upper right of your admin screen on every page.” There are approximately 63,00,000 WordPress blogs online, or hosted through WordPress.com.
- The 1981 Tom Stoppard farce On the Razzle also is based on the same story.