In the third quarter of the last century, the quintessential Lilli Vanessi in the English-speaking world was Patricia Morison, who originated the role on Broadway in 1948.
Kathryn Grayson’s performance in the 1953 movie may have been more accessible to more people, but nobody outdid Morison for the frequency with which she played the part in America and England, on stage and on television, right through to the age of 63 in 1978 (at Birmingham Repertory Theatre in England), and getting spanked every time.
But in Europe, Miss Morison had a rival. She first appeared in the original Austrian production of Kiss Me Kate, which opened on Valentine’s Day 1956 at the Vienna Volksoper and established a new credibility for American musicals in a conservative nation hitherto devoted to traditional European operetta; it had an initial run of 61 performances, more than any other show in the season. The motive force behind the production was Marcel Prawy, the Volksoper’s dramaturg and a good friend of the two authors, Bella and Sam Spewack; with their support, he pushed the musical into the repertory and translated the libretto. Fred Liewehr starred as Fred, and the role of Lilli was initially taken by American soprano Brenda Lewis:
Here she is earning herself a spanking:
Other Lillis in the production were Eleonore Bauer (of whom I have no picture) and Sonja Mottl-Preger:
But none of those ladies is the one I’m mainly talking about here. In 1956, she wasn’t playing Lilli, but rather ‘Mickey Lane’, as Lois was renamed in Prawy’s translation; her performance was praised as ‘a hurricane of life, exuberance and joy’. In 1962, like Broadway’s Lisa Kirk before her, she graduated to the title role, and was duly spanked. And although sadly I have no picture of the scene to show you, it’s historically significant. Why? Well, meet Pittsburgh-born Olive Moorefield,
the first black Lilli Vanessi in the history of Kiss Me Kate!
For much of the 1960s, Olive was the actress most associated with the role in mainland Europe. She traveled the continent, playing the part, singing the songs and receiving the spanking, in many different languages; in 1963 alone she starred in two separate television productions, respectively Italian and Dutch (the latter with the libretto in English). And together with Peter Alexander – better known to us as a relatively prolific film spanker of the era – she recorded the first German-language Kiss Me Kate album in 1966.
My point is that, for many European audiences, Kiss Me Kate was not just a backstage love story but an interracial one too. This made it a quintessentially American scenario: black faces were an uncommon sight in Vienna when Olive Moorefield arrived in the mid-1950s, whereas American economic history made for a much stronger element of racial diversity in its demographics.
Yet a stormy romance between a white Fred and a black Lilli was also much easier to present in Europe than America, where large sections of the country still supported racial segregation, and television broadcast its first interracial kiss only in 1968 (in Star Trek, between Kirk and Uhura). So it’s not very surprising that, in the US, traces of an interracial KMK are hard to find before the 1980s, and indeed remained uncommon until the turn of the century. But we’ll find a slightly different story if we change horses and follow the Shrew.
In the same year that Viennese audiences were watching Brenda Lewis being spanked in Kiss Me Kate, Joseph Papp’s renowned Shakespeare in the Park festival served up The Taming of the Shrew to New Yorkers as its inaugural production. The shrew herself was played by the distinguished Canadian actress Colleen Dewhurst:
Here she is with her Petruchio, John Donovan Cannon:
And at this point in history, Shrew productions still routinely featured this business:
No great surprise there, then. But fast-forward four years to the next Shakespeare in the Park Shrew in 1960, and John Donovan Cannon is still playing Petruchio, albeit with added facial hair:
Let’s have a closer look at his Kate:
She’s Jane White, the daughter of a New York civil rights leader, friend of the great Paul Robeson and a noted African-American actress in her own right who won enthusiastic reviews for her 1945 debut performance in Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit, about a forbidden interracial romance in Georgia. And fifteen years later, in 1960’s Shakespeare in the Park Shrew, she participated in the first known interracial spanking in American professional theater!
And remember, over in Europe at this point in time Olive Moorefield was still doing sterling and admired work playing Kiss Me Kate‘s Bianca; it would be another two years before she stepped up and got spanked as Lilli.
Since then, interracial or color-blind casting has become much more common in Shrew.
And, of course, spanking business has become much less frequent. But even so there are still productions in America that feature the smack of white palm across black bottom, as witness this one from North Carolina in 2011:
But there is an interracial casting option for Shrew that’s even more challenging, for those who worry about such things:
We can get a sense of just how problematic a black Petruchio would have been in the Sixties if we step aside from Shrew for a moment and consider the case of Kathy Sherman. She’s the title character of ‘There Was a Little Girl’, the April 6, 1966, episode of the espionage series, I Spy, which starred Robert Culp and Bill Cosby as a pair of globe-trotting undercover agents, Robinson and Scott. It is worth emphasizing that Kathy is not a little girl: she’s played by 22-year-old former child star Mary Jane Saunders.
But she is a headstrong teenager who gets herself into big trouble, and at the end of the episode she meets the same fate as the little girl in the Longfellow poem that gives the episode its title. In the final scene, the two agents, who have been assigned to protect her, decode their orders from ‘the man on top’. They are very simple and most emphatic:
Now, I Spy was not a show that pandered to any racists who might be watching: Robinson is white and Scott is black, and they work closely together and are treated as equals. But when the two-word instruction comes through concerning what is to be done with Kathy, there’s no discussion of the division of labor. All that’s said is that, given who it comes from, they have no choice in the matter. ‘Let’s do it,’ says Robinson, and advances apologetically on Kathy, while Scott sets about the ancillary business of closing the window to keep the sound inside. The spanking then happens entirely offscreen, while the camera pans across to show the decoded note which explains the squealing and protest that can be heard.
Of course, an offscreen spanking is frustrating, even when handled wittily like this one, and it’s the more frustrating in view of what Kathy is wearing:
But in retrospect the real interest of the scene is the tacit assumption about who will spank her. A few moments earlier, Robinson starts decoding and Scott takes over a game of solitaire he began, only to find he was playing it wrong: ‘Didn’t I tell you not to use a black joker on a red queen?’ It could almost be a wry, latent comment on the impossibility of using Bill Cosby to turn part of Mary Jane Saunders red.
Interracial spanking isn’t likely to have come up all that often, in either permutation, but when it did it’s something the networks obviously wanted to avoid. In 1961, the police sitcom Car 54, Where Are You? (like I Spy and indeed Star Trek, an NBC show) featured a storyline in which one of the cops is henpecked by his wife and decides to be masterful after seeing The Taming of the Shrew at the theater. Jane White was engaged to play the stage shrew, leaving historians a valuable filmed record of her performance, but not of the spanking business, which was pointedly omitted. No wonder there was never any question of letting Kathy Sherman be spanked by the black half of the I Spy partnership.
So has there ever been a black Petruchio spanking a white Kate? Yes, there has. The actor’s name was Richard Genece, and he played the role in spring 1983 at Cincinnati Country Day School in Ohio. Here he is with his Kate, Brooke Bobbitt:
And here he is doing the historic deed upon her:
Of course, it may not have been historic at all – it’s just the earliest and only example I’ve been able to find. Whereas, back with Kiss Me Kate, black Freds become more common as time goes on, and they don’t have the option not to spank the leading lady. But, for what it’s worth, it’s striking that the earliest one who has come to light was in another school production at roughly the same point in history and roughly the same area of the United States. We’ll be meeting him later this month.