Underfoot in Show Business
By Helene Hanff
Originally published Harper Row NYC 1961
Re-published Andre Deutsch UK 1980
To the Reader
You may have noticed this book was not written by Noel Coward. It's a book about Show Business, where fame is the stock in trade, and its written by a name you've never heard of and probably can't pronounce. There is a simple explanation for this.
Each years hundreds of stagestruck kids arrive in NYC determined to crash the theatre, firmly convinced that they're destined to to be famous Broadway stars or playwrights. One in a thousand turns out to be Noel Coward. This book is about life among the other 999. By one of them.
Cast of Characters
This is the story of Helene's life in New York trying to break into show business as a playwright. She was never successful. But she did write a funny book about her life in show business. This book was originally published in 1961. Her second book was published in 1971. That was the book that made her famous.
Helene was born and raised in Philadelphia by parents who loved the theatre. The family went to see theatre plays on a regular basis. Helene was inspired to write plays herself. After the end of the depression (I'm thinking around 1936 when she was 20), Helene submitted several plays to a playwriting competition run by the Theatre Guild in New York City. Then she received a letter from Theresa Helburn, the renowned Director of the Theatre Guild. Helene rushed up to NYC and was interviewed by Theresa Helburn. Helene underwent 4 days of playwriting tutoring. She travelled to NYC every Tuesday to be tutored by Theresa Helburn.
When the three winners of the scholarships were announced, Helene was one of the winners. By this time Helene had done one year of college and another year of working in various jobs as a secretary. So Helene packed up and moved to NYC permanently.
Helene writes about being involved with the Theatre Guild. Many of the Theatre Guild plays were flops but there was one musical that became a huge success. It was called Oklahoma, but that's not the name it started out with. It had another name, and Helene writes about what the PR team had to go through to change thousands of media releases, posters, programs etc.
As a theatre guild scholarship winner, Helen was required to attend a play during the entire scholastic process, from rehearsals to performance to reviews. In one of these plays, Helene met a young actress Maxine who was about the same age. They became fast friends and Maxine shows up a lot in this book. Because Helene was a poor writer, she would frequently have meals and sleep at Maxine's parents house.
Helene also writes about her roommates - or rather the others who lived in her floor. She writes about having to move from one building to a second to a third. She even mentions the orange crate book shelves. But not once does she mention writing letters to London, England. We know she was writing the letters during this time, because of her address changes. If you remember in 84 Charing Cross Road, she had her address at the top of all the letters. The two addresses in that book are the second and third apartment buildings she lived in. I believed she lived at the third apartment address until the year she died. (Helene died in 1997)
This is written in exactly the same humorous style as all the others. There is no change. No matter if you read this book first or last of all the 6 books that Helene wrote, the style is exactly the same. There are two reasons why I like helene so much. One reason is because of her humour. And the second reason is because just like me, she loved history and was not keen on fiction.
I loved this book. But knowing I love all the others as well, I am not surprised. I borrowed it from the library and I read it in 4 hours straight.