Green Grow the Lilacs, Red Flows the Ketchup: Tex Ritter and the Fickle Finger of Fame
January 26, 2013 § Leave a comment
On January 26, 1931, the Theatre Guild’s “Green Grow the Lilacs” opened on Broadway at the Guild Theater. A Western show with cowboy songs, “Green Grow the Lilacs” was set in pioneer Oklahoma and the Theatre Guild would rework it into the enormous hit, “Oklahoma!”, in 1943.
“Green Grow the Lilacs” made Woodard Maurice “Tex” Ritter a star for the first time. The show’s cowboy and folk songs were the type of music Ritter had studied and collected during his years (1922 to 1927) at the University of Texas.
When Ritter first heard that the Theatre Guild was putting together “Green Grow the Lilacs,” he was part of the cast of “The New Moon.” While “The New Moon” was playing in Chicago late in 1929, Ritter enrolled as a law student at Northwestern University, where he had appeared as “The Singing Lecturer.” But when “The New Moon” moved from Chicago to Milwaukee, and then to Indianapolis, Ritter was forced to miss his final law school exams.
Then Ritter heard that the Theatre Guild was putting together “Green Grow the Lilacs.” When he auditioned in the fall of 1930, his drawl — which had negated any speaking role in The New Moon — proved an invaluable asset. He read his lines with a natural twang, and then sang cowboy tunes in his matchless style, prompting actress-singer and music consultant Margaret Larkin to declare, “This boy’s authentic.”
Ritter was cast as Cord Elam, and as understudy for Curly McClain, the male lead part. During three musical interludes between scenes, Ritter’s character led the other cowboys and cowgirls in singing such cowboy standards as “Git Along Little Dogies,” “Goodbye Old Paint,” and “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.” In Scene Four, Ritter soloed on the classic “The Old Chisholm Trail.” Ritter wore fancy stitched cowboy boots, checkered shirt, red bandanna, and a felt hat.
Following rehearsals the show first opened at the Tremont Theater in Boston on December 8, 1930. It moved on for runs in Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and Baltimore before opening on Broadway. The program defined for its New York patrons such cowpoke terms as “Dogies” and “Mavericks” and “Shivaree.” The set featured a rustic, turn-of-the-century farmhouse interior. “The whole affair is likable,” remarked one reviewer. The reviews were favorable, and there was special praise for the “old songs born and reared humbly in the West.”
“Green Grow the Lilacs” ran for eight weeks on Broadway and then hit the road again, playing Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Chicago. Ritter and Everett Cheetham roomed together. Ritter’s exuberant performance of his cowboy songs made him one of the hits of the show, while Cheetham, who played banjo, attracted special attention with his rendition of his own composition, “Blood on the Saddle.”
Before the show left Chicago, Ritter and Everett auditioned for radio work at NBC’s studios in Chicago and were offered attractive contracts, with work to begin within a few weeks. They eagerly signed, because after its Chicago engagement, Green Grow the Lilacs was scheduled for only one more week, in Detroit.
They traveled by train back to New York, where Cheetham had stored his car, and drove to Chicago, where they learned that they would be working in NBC’s New York studios. They returned to New York, made rehearsal tapes, and then went on the air. Ritter performed his songs and dialogue capably, but the microphone scared Cheetham “to death,” and his discomfort was obvious to listeners. After a couple of weeks NBC canceled the pair. Cheetham went home to Wyoming, while Ritter decided to visit Texas.
After his visit to Nederland and Austin, Ritter was back in New York by the fall of 1931. He could not find theater work, so he sang for his supper at Greenwich Village, where his staggering rendition of “Rye Whiskey” was a hit. He regularly made the rounds of theatrical and radio agencies, but landed only a few radio commercials. At Thanksgiving he found only ten cents in his pocket. “That time I took my dime down to a restaurant and ordered french fries and poured ketchup all over them,” he reminisced. “This Greek that ran the joint gave me hell for using so much of his ketchup.”
But with the dawning of 1932, Ritter won the role of “Sage Brush Charlie” in The Roundup, a revival of a 1907 romantic comedy that had made Fatty Arbuckle a star. This updated version included Western music during the interludes between the four acts, a device adapted from Green Grow the Lilacs. Ritter sang and played the type of cowboy ballads that had been such a popular feature of Green Grow the Lilacs.
The Roundup opened at New York’s Majestic Theater on March 7, 1932. The reviewer for the New York Herald-Tribune wrote that “Tex Ritter is excellent as a bronco buster,” while the critic for the New York Evening Post found that Ritter “has an exceptionally winning personality.” Otherwise, The Roundup did not fare well with reviewers. The best seats in the house cost only one dollar, but crowds did not materialize, and The Roundup folded after a short run.
Ritter could not find another theatrical role. Aware that the American Record Corporation was producing Western recordings by radio singer Gene Autry, Ritter approached Art Satherly, head of ABC’s hillbilly division. Satherly had seen Ritter in Green Grow the Lilacs, and he let the singer record “The Cowboy’s Christmas Ball.” Ritter accompanied himself on the guitar. The song was recorded on October 31, 1932, but was never released.
Nevertheless, Ritter’s recording career had started, however haltingly, and he would go on to become the country western star we remember and revere today.