Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Val Parnell Room

Outside the Palladium - Guess who they're off to see   ©2011 Steve Ember

A couple of professional honors led to a trip to London earlier this month to attend an awards gala. As it was a major honor, I wanted the trip to be really special – an early birthday gift perhaps. And it was.

These London Vignettes relate some of the “special” parts of my visit, including a couple of theater evenings in the West End.

There is something so enchanting about letting a London theater speak to you of its rich history.  And sometimes, all it takes is open eyes and a mind that may have been genetically engineered to collect trivia. 

I hasten to add, while I do often refer to my own collection of gray matter as a veritable repository of trivia, much of it related to music and the arts, there will be nothing trivial about the talents referred to in this little account, occasioned by my first visit to the London Palladium.
                 Inside the magnificent London Palladium               ©2011 Steve Ember               

During the interval (“intermission” to my fellow Yanks) in the enchanting new production of “The Wizard of Oz,” being in a celebratory mood, I headed for the theater’s attractive bar for some refreshment.

On the way there, I passed the men’s room.  Someone had just entered, and while the door was open, I spied a photo on the wall.  Frank Sinatra - one of the entertainment legends to have performed at the London Palladium – in a tux, with that famous smile. Not surprising, of course, but “special,” as one visits this legendary West End palace of entertainment for the first time, and opens oneself to any and all manifestations of its rich history.

But what really stoked up the trivia synapses residing somewhere behind my eyeballs and between my ears was the “Val Parnell Room.” Hmmm, the Val Parnell Room….

Val Parnell…Val Parnell...

Now, while I have been known to live and breathe Musical Theater, including having been an active broadcast proponent of the best of the genre for many years, I’ll admit to ignorance regarding Val Parnell.  Well, sort of…

You see, one of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock films was his 1956 remake of “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” starring James Stewart and Doris Day with a superb British and European supporting cast.  I saw it for the first time in one of Baltimore’s grand old movie palaces as a kid…followed by countless times on TV…and now it is a staple of my DVD collection.

Now, when I love a film, it takes up permanent residence in those dendrites and synapses of the aforementioned gray matter trivia processing center.

Val Parnell – Of course! When Dr Ben McKenna (James Stewart) and his wife Jo, a former musical comedy star, who, by the way also “played the Palladium” (Doris Day) come to London to track down their son Hank, who has been kidnapped in Marrakesh by an innocent looking British couple, the Draytons (Bernard Miles and Brenda de Banzie) and brought to London as insurance against some important information Dr McKenna picked up regarding an imminent assassination of a diplomat coming to the attention of authorities….

Well, as you may recall if you are a fellow devotee of this wonderful film, Dr McKenna phones ahead to London to Jo’s old Palladium friends, “the Parnells,” for assistance with booking  a hotel.

Back to the “real” Val Parnell (and this is what I didn’t know), he was a London impresario from the mid ‘40s through the ‘60s, in charge of some of the city’s most prestigious theaters, including the Palladium. He was also a famous television presenter. And, if you take away nothing more from this ramble, next time you listen to the original cast recording of “My Fair Lady” or “Camelot” or watch “The Sound of Music,” you may wish to raise a glass to Mr. Parnell’s memory.  He introduced a twelve year old Julie Andrews to her manager.

And, yes, I will now respond to Wikipedia’s “Personal Appeal from Founder Jimmy Wales” with a contribution.

So, to draw up that connection between my first enchanting visit to the London Palladium and a favorite Hitchcock film – and say “thank you” to my trivia-collecting gray matter neurons…

Hitchcock’s resourceful screenwriter for “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956 version), John Michael Hayes, paid a most appropriate homage to Val Parnell (and his wife Helen) while giving added facets to the “back story” of  Doris Day’s character, Jo McKenna, by making Mr. and Mrs. Parnell characters in the screenplay. 

Veteran British actor Alan Mowbray played Mr. Parnell, I daresay making the impresario’s name even more widely known, and the very lovely American actress Alix Talton played his wife Helen.  Together, they create some charming moments with two other gals who played the Palladium with Jo, including, of course, their repartee over “Ambrose Chapel” (“It’s not a man; it’s a place!”) and speculate as to whether all the running about over the Chapel thing isn’t part of some sort of American gag. To which, Val says, “I’ll ask Danny” – apparently a reference to American entertainer Danny Kaye, another star who appeared at the Palladium around the time of the movie.

See the movie…take it down from that dusty VHS shelf…rent it or purchase a new DVD …oh, yes, and visit the Palladium. Now would be a good time, so you can enjoy the new production of “The Wizard of Oz.” It enchants.

During the interval, look in on the Val Parnell Room.

Oh, and do remember, if your back yard has been overrun by snails, there’s always a Frenchman.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I shall put Doris Day’s recording of “Que Sera, Sera” on my trusty Technics turntable, while I enjoy the photos and memories from my first night at the London Palladium.

Oh, yes, then ‘twill be time for another viewing of “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

©2011 Steve Ember

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