The Pajama Game Dubuque’s Hometown Musical
Sometimes You Strike Gold
For many of us the story of The Pajama Game and its connection to Dubuque is familiar but as time passes the direct connections to the past start to dim. For members of the first Dubuque production of The Pajama Game, in 1963, those memories still burn bright. If you are of certain age you remember the Glover Factory, maybe you had a relative that worked there. For me, a kid who grew up in Dubuque and very early on found a passion for musical theater, finding out that a Tony Award winning musical directed and co-authored by legendary Broadway director George Abbot had its roots in Dubuque, and that old Glover Factory, was a big deal. The co-author of the musical was Dubuque’s own Richard Pike Bissell. When his 1953 novel 7 ½ Cents was chosen as a book of the month club selection it caught the attention of Mr. Abbot, and Mr. Bissell was on an unexpected adventure on the Great White Way.
The book and the musical are works of fiction but as the adage goes “write what you know” and that is what Richard Bissell did. Only a few years before his literary and Broadway success Richard was working at his family’s garment factory supervising production and soaking up the local color that would find its way into his work.
When the Grand began production on The Pajama Game we put out the word that we were looking for people with stories about the Glover factory and other personal connections to the story. When I first got a call from Jack Brandel I knew I made a very special contact. At 14 Jack started working at the Glover factory sweeping floors and at 18, in 1955, was cleaning the boilers once a week among other things when the factory closed. Jack’s father Leonard “Lenny” who had worked in maintenance at the factory since the 30s had gotten him the job and was a good friend of Richard Bissell. Over the phone he told me about the sewing machine from the factory he still had in his basement, photos of his father at the 1945 company picnic with Richard and letters he and his father had exchanged over the years.
Jack and his wife Jane were gracious enough to allow me to come to their home and take pictures of the sewing machine and the correspondence between “Lenny” and “Dick”. There were quite a few letters so I didn’t take the time to read them at their home but when I got back to my office and started to go through them I knew that I had struck gold! Several of the letters had been written to Lenny by Dick while he was working on The Pajama Game. It is rare when we discover something new directly from an artist written while he or she is in the midst of the creative process but that is what we have here.
Here is just one gem from a letter dated March 17, 1954, less than 2 months before The Pajama Game opened on Broadway!
“We are rehearsing for the show now and from now until May 12th. I work from 11 AM to 9, 10 or 11 PM, seven days a week. We get one day off each month. Of course it is a lot of work but also a lot of fun-we have twelve chorus girls working in the show, so it is not too hard to take. Old R. P. [Richard Pike] is having a pretty good time…
…I am working my ass off-hope I live through it. The show will probably be a flop but I don’t care, I’ve had a million dollars worth of experiences so far,- it is just like some crazy dream or nightmare being down here working on a Broadway show and a far cry from the Singer 241’s and Joe Lacke’s problems with the steam boiler.”
Well, the show was definitely not a flop and that old boiler most likely provided the inspiration for one of the greatest songs in musical theater, STEAM HEAT!
Lenny’s work at the factory included maintaining and fixing the sewing machines so it’s no surprise that when Dick wanted advice on a rigging a machine for a possible “big joke” they wanted to put in the show he reached out to Lenny.
Is there a way that a button sewing machine operator could jimmy her machine so that it would not sew the button on good, – so the button would only be sewed on with one or two threads, and would come off or fall off easily? In this show we are writing they want one of the button sewing girls to do this. Please grab a piece of paper and let me know. Give it to Ritta and tell her to send it to me air mail. Get the idea?
Well I sure miss the old factory and all the gang, but I guess it couldn’t be helped. Guess I was born to do this work I’m doing. And it sure is work. They are really working my ass off – about twelve hours or fourteen hours a day. But it will be worth it if it pays off.
We are getting along fine – we have a nice house for the winter, but I miss that old electric piano. Wish I had that Chevrolet coupe down here – I sure need it, but it’s a hell of a long drive.
Give my regards to everybody. Give me the dope right away on that buttonsewing deal. They want this girl to fix her machine so the buttons will fall off right away – a big joke, see
I’m not sure what Lenny’s reply was but that “big joke” made it into the show and became a very funny scene and an integral plot point in act 2 when Max, the company’s traveling sales rep, returns from Peoria with news of the sabotage.
We also struck gold with the stories, photos, newspaper clippings provided to us by Bill Zwack. Bill is the local host of AM 1370 KDTH’s “The Big Broadcast” and was just 20 years old when he starred as Sid Sorokin in the 1963 Dubuque premier of The Pajama Game. Well, 55 years later we are so fortunate to have Bill in the current Grand Opera House production cast. Bill provided us with photographs and articles about the 1963 production that originally appeared in the Telegraph Herald along with personal show photos his mother had saved and a copy of 1963 program signed by Richard Bissell. Bill and Carol Nebel, who played Gladys in the 1963 production, both agreed to be interviewed for a Telegraph Herald article about the history of the show and the Grand’s current production that ran on July 10, 2018. (Click HERE to read the TH article)
Both Bill and Carol remember how Richard Bissell’s family attended the 1963 opening night performance. From a TH article dated July 5, 1963 Richard Bissell is quoted as saying “Everyone did a real fine job” adding “You know this is a very difficult play to present and everyone connected with it did a wonderful job.” The article ends with a quote from Mrs. Bissell, “It was great fun returning home and watching home-town talent present the play.”
Memorabilia from Jack and Bill are currently on display in the Grand outer lobby. An additional display in the inner lobby was put together by Cathy Goodman with items from the personal collection of her parents Thomas G. & Geraldine M. Goodman. The display contains a signed copy of the book 7 ½ Cents, the Original Broadway Cast Album of The Pajama Game along with the book and Original Broadway Cast Album for Richard Bissell’s novel, Say, Darling which has also found its way to the Broadway stage.
Executive and Artistic Director