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June Havoc: Exit a Star of Vaudeville

June Havoc, star of stage and screen and sister of the real Gypsy Rose Lee, died this week at age 97.

I met June Havoc in 1995 when she was preparing for the off-Broadway production of The Old Lady’s Guide to Survival. We had dinner in the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street in Manhattan. June was staying at the historic hotel, home to the famed Round Table, because it was right across the street from the Lamb’s Theatre where her show was in rehearsal. June Havoc died on Sunday at the age of 97.

If you know anything about American musical theater, you know June Havoc. She is a vivid character in what many consider the most perfect musical of all time, Gypsy, the Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim, and Jule Styne show based on the memoires of June’s sister, Louise, better known as Gypsy Rose Lee.

In the musical, June is the more talented of two children, forced into vaudeville by their domineering mother. Billed as “Baby June” and then “Dainty June,” she continues with the act until she can no longer tolerate her mother’s controlling ways. She then runs off with a boy from the act. Those elements of the story are, in fact, true.

June never liked the musical, because she felt it trivialized her vaudeville career. “You never could have twirled a baton in vaudeville,” she insisted. “The standard was just too high.”

I adored listening to June’s tales of vaudeville. She recalled favorite acts, many involving trained animals. She also recalled touring to Buffalo with special affection.

“You’re from Buffalo?” she enthused. “Is my beloved Lafayette Theatre still there?”

I hated telling her that it is not. Once located on Lafayette Square, the 1922 vaudeville house was torn down in 1962. Parts of its organ were installed at Temple Beth Zion on Delaware Avenue. The Lafayette had been the first theater where Baby June had pulled in a hundred dollars a week . She would eventually earn as much as $1,500 a week—an impressive salary during the Great Depression, when most American workers were earning that amount in a year. In Gypsy, the “All I Need Is the Girl” number, in which Tulsa shows Louise his nightclub act, is set in the alley behind the Lafayette Theatre in Buffalo.

“Don’t feel bad,” said June. “Vaudeville houses are gone all over the country. But wherever I go, I have a sixth sense for finding an old theater. It may have been turned into an office building or a garage, but if you put me in any city in this country, I can find the location of the old vaudeville theaters without a map.”

June recalled that the touring schedule always put her in Buffalo for Christmas week, and that the stage hands at the Lafayette, smitten with the beautiful child, would present her with a miniature Christmas tree.

“The Christmas tree was a gift for me,” remembered June. “I adored it and took it with me when we left Buffalo. I would hold onto it until it had started to drop its needles and was just a twig. My mother would have to throw it away when I wasn’t looking.”

I stayed in touch with June intermittently after that. Jim Santella and I did a Christmas interview with her for “Theater Talk” on WBFO once. At one point we were going to do an article for The Advocate in which she was going to talk about her mother, Mamma Rose’s life as a lesbian. June, who had already written two famous autobiographies of her own, later backed out, saying that she wanted to write her own book. The Advocate had Arthur Laurents, author of the Gypsy script, do an article rehashing tidbits that had already been published by June. She never did write the new book.

After the vaudeville era, June fell on hard times, sleeping in public parks while her sister rose to the heights of burlesque and lived in luxury as Gypsy Rose Lee. June and Bobby Reed (the boy she married from her vaudeville act) worked the marathon dancing circuit, where competitors would dance for thousands of hours in exchange for free meals. June’s memoires recount these grueling experiences, as does her stage play, Marathon ’33, which had a short Broadway run starring Julie Harris, for which June’s direction received a Tony award nomination. The Shaw Festival staged a revival several years ago, which I adored, but which June despised. “I told them the band had to be right on stage,” she objected.

I knew better than to disagree with June Havoc, and just told her that I loved her play.

June conceived a daughter by a marathon promoter and moved back in with her mother. By the time the girl (April Hyde, who died in 1998) was in school, however, June’s career was back on track. Even before Gypsy, she had achieved musical theater immortality through her own talent, creating the role of Gladys Bumps, the blackmailing chorus girl in the landmark 1940 Rodgers and Hart musical, Pal Joey. She starred in Mexican Hayride in 1944, and left the successful run of that show to replace Ethel Merman in the title role in Sadie Thompson during previews later that year. In later years, she would tour as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd; her final Broadway appearance was as Miss Hannigan during the original run of Annie. She made several film appearances, most notably as Gregory Peck’s self-loathing Jewish secretary who passes for Gentile in the 1947 film, Gentleman’s Agreement.

For all her success as an actress on stage and in film, as a director, and as an author, it is notable that the headline of her sizable New York Times obituary recognized her as a “Vaudeville Star.” I think June would have been pleased by that.