Sunday, 15 September 2019

The Towel and Billboard Lady, Phyllis Newman

Game shows in the 1960s had a number of guest panelists who popped by on occasion, and audiences likely weren’t aware of the range of their talents because they appeared elsewhere than on television.

Phyllis Newman was one.

She did the Goodson-Todman shows out of New York—“What’s My Line?”, “To Tell The Truth,” “Match Game” (the original version), as well as “Password.” But her real fame came from the stage, where she had a very long career. Newman was nominated for a Tony at one point, and appeared in a well-received one-woman show, “The Madwoman of Central Park West.”

Let’s go back to her Tony-nominated role in this syndicated newspaper feature story from February 18, 1962.

Toweled Phyllis Newman, ‘Subways’ Show Stopper
North American Newspaper Alliance
NEW YORK—Phyllis Newman doesn't wear silk or satins or feathers or furs in "Subways Are for Sleeping." She wears a towel—a plain blue terry cloth towel that must have cost all of $2.98—and she's the hit of the show. Socko, as Variety would say.
Phyllis is extremely fetching in a towel, but it takes more than that to stop a show, as she does in the musical play at the St. James. She also is an adroit comedienne, and in the role of a "Miss Mississippi" runner-up, she's fairly irresistible.
"Is there any possibility that the towel will slip?" I asked as a matter of academic interest.
She said: "No, it's attached to a bra, so there's no danger of that. I have two towels, but I've never worn the other one because I'm superstitious about it. I stick to the towel I was wearing the first time we stopped the show in Philadelphia. They keep it washed for me."
• • •
IN "SUBWAYS," Phyllis plays a po’ little Southern girl with show-business aspirations, holed up in a room at the Brunswick Arms Hotel in New York. She owes the hotel $1,100. And she figures, with deadly feminine logic, that the management would be embarrassed to haul her screaming to the street in a towel, so she never wears anything else.
“I’ve tried to copy the accent of a friend of mine, Boaty Boatright, who was born in the South," she said. “Through Boaty I’ve met some other Southern girls and they all have such lovely manners.
"Where was I born? In Jersey City, the home of gracious living."
Phyllis, a bright and lively brunette (she wears a blond wig in "Subways") is married to Adolph Green, who with Betty Comden wrote the book and lyrics for "Subways" and other Broadway successes.
• • •
“THERE was a lot of opposition to my appearing in the show,” she said. “I had to do a number of auditions for David Merrick (the producer), Michael Kidd (director), Julie Styne (composer) and Betty. Adolph stayed away from them. I’m not sure that I'd want to do another show that's connected with Adolph because it's hard on him.
"He and Betty worked so hard on the road. They were writing all night until 6 in the morning then they'd sleep about four hours and start again. Their first script was much better than the one we have now...but we're selling out and people are liking it. It’s getting an excellent reaction.”
Phyllis met Adolph Green when she auditioned for "Bells Are Ringing." another Comden & Green musical. She was signed as standby for Judy Holliday.
"A few weeks later Adolph asked me for a date, then he didn't ask me for another date for a long time," she recalled. "I knew Adolph was an intellectual and on that first date I tried to impress him by dropping the names of books and authors I hadn't even read. He's found me out since then, obviously."
They have a year-old son, Adam, and an apartment on Central Park West. Phyllis is not the housewife type. "I don't sew or tat or make things, and I can't cook at all. My husband deserves better than my cooking."
Phyllis appeared on television in "Diagnosis Unknown" in 1960 and in four other Broadway productions. But she never stopped a show before. "It's thrilling. Orson Bean is so much fun to work with, and Sydney Chaplin is terribly attractive to the ladies."

Newman worked with Orson Bean on “To Tell The Truth.” But she appeared on another TV show that many may not remember her on, the American version of “That Was the Week That Was.” This AP column was published January 10, 1965.

They're Banging on the Door of Phyllis the Satirist
EDITOR'S NOTE: Phyllis Newman thought she was just doing satires for her own amusement until she tried them on TW3. Now she's famous for them, though it's a weekly scramble involving idiot cards the size of billboards, and her success has brought offers from all sides.
Associated Press Writer
New York — Not long ago Phyllis Newman's four-year-old son, Adam, was asked in nursery school what his mother did—professionally speaking. The little boy replied: "She gets up and she sits down."
"Well, it was true," said the dark-haired young performer later. "The only time he'd seen me on television was in To Tell the Truth, and although I did some talking, the only movements I made were to stand up or sit down."
Miss Newman, while still collecting a healthy weekly check as a regular member of the day-time To Tell the Truth panel, currently is causing comment as a regular member of the troupe that each week cooks up some mischief in a TV revue—or, more precisely, review—called That Was the Week That Was Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. on NBC.
"I was dying to get on the program," she recalled. "I'd known Leland Hayward (the producer) since I had a part in his 'Wish You Were Here.' And my husband and I kept running into him at parties. Each tune he'd say something like, ‘We've got to have you on the show,’ but that was as far as it went."
• • •
FINALLY, however, she made it, and surprised a large number of viewers by launching into a wicked and extremely funny imitation of Barbra Streisand, complete in mannerism and voice. Since then she has gone to work with the same naughty efficiency on Audrey Hepburn, Ethel Merman and Linda Bird Johnson, a portrait gallery which suggests her range.
"The only one that made me a little bit nervous was Ethel Merman," she added. "Partly because I personally think she's so great, and partly because she's not easy to mimic."
Phyllis really was not surprised that the TW3 people were not exactly beating down the door to get her. "Nobody thought of me as a satirist," she said, "In fact, I never really thought of myself as anything more than a bathroom satirist — like a bathroom tenor, doing those things for my own personal fun. In fact, nobody in show business was doing much thinking about me at all — I've been mostly on a daytime TV show lately and not many show business people watch at that time."
She laughed.
"And now," she added, "nobody thinks of me as anything but a satirist."
• • •
SHE HAS BEEN MARRIED for almost five years to Adolph Green who, with his partner Betty Comden, has turned out a long string of Broadway hits. She met him when she was Judy Holiday's understudy in the Comden-Green "Bells Are Ringing." Later, she auditioned five times for a part in their "Subways Are for Sleeping," finally won it, and received a Tony Award as the best supporting actress of the season. But it was one of the loneliest times of her life—the rest of the cast eyed her nervously and from a distance, because the author was her husband.
During the period before the birth of her daughter, Amanda, last year, Phyllis decided that she "had the ideal job for a pregnant performer: The panel show.
"I stayed on the show until a couple of days before she was born," she recalled. "All it took was a couple of mornings a week, a few changes of blouses or tops—all that showed was the tops."
• • •
IN TERMS of hours spent, TW3 also makes modest demands—but the hours themselves are crowded and frantic.
The whole thing is all so very urgent," she said. "Right up to air time— we're live, you know — they keep making changes to keep up with the news."
For one show she had an hour in which to learn the notes of a song and get a little familiar with the words. She is extremely myopic and unable to wear contact lenses.
"So when I work I can't use an electric prompter or even ordinary-sized idiot cards," she said. "When they hold up cards for me to read, they are about the size of billboards."
Now that the night-time audiences have discovered Phyllis Newman, all sorts of opportunities are flowing her way.
"I get sent scripts. I've had series offers from California —and I've been offered so much money you wouldn't believe it to make commercials."
• • •
THE TELEVISION networks fret considerably about the audience ratings of its programs, and NBC is something of a brave trailblazer in putting on TW3 in prime evening time. They know full well that sharp wit, satire and kidding the most dignified, powerful figures in the world is not exactly everyman's idea of the perfect TV show — not when Westerns and comedies top the ratings.
"I think we should have small ratings." she said. "As long as NBC is happy, I think small ratings give us a kind of class."
There’s a tribute to Phyllis in this story at Broadway World.


  1. Robert Klein did a bit about being on "Celebrity Jeopardy!" back in 1972 or so, where the gag was how good she was at getting all the answers and how bad Klein was at the game (Art Fleming: Phyllis Newman: $520. Robert Klein: Just watching). So apparently Ms. Newman had a pretty decent amount of general knowledge.

  2. I mainly remember her from the syndicated "What's My Line?" (the Bruner version). I thought she was good (certainly not snooty) and the panel seemed to have an amiable relationship.

  3. I remember her guest appearances on " The Man from Uncle ", " The Wild, Wild West ", and mostly..panel shows. A very familiar face from our generation. Sorry to hear of her passing.

  4. Hans Christian Brando24 September 2019 at 18:53

    You've probably heard this before, but it's good enough to repeat. Just before Ms. Newman's name was read as having won the Tony for Best Supporting Actress in "Subways," producer David Merrick, with his usual charm, leaned over and whispered in her ear, "I voted for Streisand" (who was also nominated, for Merrick's "I Can Get It For You Wholesale").