It says something about the talents of the people who created Bye Bye Birdie that a musical inspired by a very specific news story of the late 1950s (the drafting of Elvis Presley into the U.S. Army) and devised as a humorous commentary on the cultural ethos of that era (the rise of teen culture and the tension between musical traditions and that brash newcomer, rock ‘n’ roll) has over the last 50 years become timeless.
Birdie’s creators – composer Charles Strouse, lyricist Lee Adams, and author Michael Stewart – approached their subject with tongues firmly in cheek. Birdie, in fact, was envisioned as the “anti-West Side Story.”
Both musicals (and their subsequent films) were about young people. But whereas WSS, a 1957 Broadway hit, was a serious tragedy set in the world of adolescent street gangs (and based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet), Birdie (produced three years later) was a good-natured goof that affectionately skewered both youth culture and reactionary adults.
The story finds music agent and songwriter Albert Peterson (played by a lanky unknown named Dick Van Dyke) in a dilemma when his biggest client, preening rock star Conrad Birdie, is drafted. Albert’s Hispanic girlfriend/secretary Rosie (Chita Rivera, who had originated the role of Anita in West Side Story) has a brainstorm:
Why not have Birdie record one last song before his induction? He’ll sing it to a typical American teenage girl to be chosen as part of a nationwide search – on Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night TV show.
The winner of this honor is small-town Ohioan Kim MacAfee, a typical teen whose boyfriend Hugo isn’t so sure he likes the idea. But Kim’s parents (rubber-faced Paul Lynde played the dad) are giddy at the prospect of being on national TV.
Meanwhile Albert and Rosie must deal with his own domineering (and racist) mother, who is determined to break them up.
All this is set against a background of swooning, shrieking teenage girls.
The stage Birdie was a huge hit, winning the Tony Award for best musical and playing for more than 600 performances. Leading man Van Dyke became an overnight sensation and missed a week of performances in order to go to LA and shoot a pilot for what would become the monstrously successful Dick Van Dyke Show.
Naturally, a movie version was the next step. Columbia Pictures snapped up the rights and most of the creative team was put to work adapting the show for celluloid.
According to Strouse, who wrote extensively about the experience in his memoir Put on a Happy Face, it was a disorienting experience. All of the stars of the Broadway show were screen tested, but only Van Dyke and Lynde made the cut.
When Strouse and Adams protested that Chita Rivera owned the role of Rosie, “The suits at Columbia Pictures made a point to adamantly tell us that there were no Hispanics in America (or South America or Spain, I suppose) who could sing or dance.”
Rivera was deemed “not suitable for films.” (In fact, she has rarely appeared in film, though she did have a co-starring role in 1969’s Sweet Charity. Mostly she has appeared on stage.)
Fumed Strouse: “Blond Janet Leigh, as Caucasian as you can get, could neither sing, dance, nor speak with a Latina accent. So, of course, she’d been cast in the role of Rosie Alvarez, a singing, dancing, Hispanic spitfire because ... well, because.”
Strouse was also dead set against the casting of 19-year-old starlet Ann-Margret as Kim.
“I thought her wrong for the part – she who turned the film into a hit; she, who was beautiful, lithe, and sweetly idealistic; she, who became a sexpot when she performed and who gave the film much of its impact. That’s how stupid I was.”
The film version of Bye Bye Birdie is a pleasant hoot despite some obvious missteps (Leigh as Rosie, the instantly forgettable Jessie Pearson as the hip-swiveling Conrad Birdie, teen crooner Bobby Rydell as Hugo).
For example, “The Telephone Hour,” a number in which Kim and her friends gossip over the phone, had been staged in the theatre in a series of stacked boxes (kind of like phone booths), each containing a teen. Sidney took that idea and created a multi-screen effect that simultaneously showed a dozen kids in a dozen different houses.
The film cemented the career of Van Dyke (who was already known to the public thanks to his hit sitcom) and thrust into immediate stardom Ann-Margret. A third beneficiary was Paul Lynde, whose snide, fey persona became an audience favorite, leading to his long-running gig on TV’s Hollywood Squares.
Other films in the series “50 Years Ago at the Movies”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- January 5: Lilies of the Field (1963) Not Rated
- January 12: Hud (1963) Not Rated
- January 19: Tom Jones (1963) Not Rated
- January 26: Captain Newman M.D. (1963) Not Rated
- February 2: Charade (1963) Not Rated
- February 9: Bye Bye Birdie (1963) Not Rated
- February 16: The Birds (1963) Not Rated
- February 23: The Great Escape (1963) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.