This day in theatre history: Noel Coward's Chicago

December 16, 2010

On this date, Dec. 16, Noel Pierce Coward was born in London in 1899. You may ask, what does the sophisticated English master-of-all-theatrical-trades have to do with Chicago? The answer is: plenty. Chicago was a regular personal stop for Coward for 40 years for several reasons.

First, the great acting couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne lived on a marvelous rustic estate in the rolling kettle moraine countryside southwest of Milwaukee (Lunt was born and raised in the area). Coward would visit his lifelong friends, The Lunts, every few years, arriving in Chicago by train or (later) plane on his way to Wisconsin, and often stopping for a few days.

By the mid-1950s, Coward had a second reason to visit Chicago: his personal physician was here. In 1955, Coward flew into Chicago on a return Eastbound trip from Los Angeles. Feeling acutely unwell, he checked himself into Passevant Hospital (now Northwestern Memorial Medical Center) where he came under the care of Dr. Ed Bigg, a prominent physician and socialite who often treated visiting celebs. Bigg’s tests confirmed a kidney stone and Coward promptly underwent successful surgery. He and Bigg hit it off, and thereafter Coward came to Chicago every few years specifically to see Ed Bigg, who later diagnosed the arterial sclerosis that eventually killed lifelong smoker Coward in 1973. Bigg is mentioned often in Coward’s diary, in part because of his enlightened views on homosexuality (remember, it was the 1950s and 1960s), which won Coward’s trust and respect.

Of course, Coward sometimes combined the professional and personal in Chicago. In the late 1940s, on his way to Wisconsin, he took time to see Tallulah Bankhead in a tremendously successful production of his  play, “Private Lives.” Coward’s diary entry the next day reads, "Breakfast-Lunch with Tallulah, then we all went to the Riverview Park where we went on everything and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves . . . then went to dine at Chez Paree in order to see Carmen Miranda. From then on the evening became a nightmare” as Bankhead dragged the unwilling Coward to a succession of noisy bebop joints. For those too young to know, Chez Paree was Chicago’s top nightclub and Riverview was a legendary Chicago amusement park. The idea of Coward and Bankhead on The Bobs roller coaster, or the Chute-the-Chutes, or the parachute jump conjures images as potent as cheap bebop.

But my favorite Coward in Chicago story concerns his very first visit here in 1926, as the brilliant young author, star and director of his first hit play, “The Vortex.” A sensation in London and New York, it bombed in Chicago where Coward complained audiences laughed at the serious moments and sat in stony silence “at my wittiest lines.” Supposed to run a month, “The Vortex” closed in two weeks. The dejected Coward left a graffito on the dressing room wall: “Noel Coward died here. 1926.”
 

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