Monday, February 09, 2009

"If You Can Play Scranton" by Nancy McDonald (1981)

"The city (of Scranton) has a reputation for being a tough audience. I did not find them that way."

Jack Benny, following his performance in Scranton on December 16, 1920

While working on a question last week about vaudeville, my colleague Evelyn Gibbons and I found what can be described as an unexpected gem in our Local History collection. The gem is a little book from 1981 by Nancy McDonald titled If You Can Play Scranton.

The cities of Scranton and Wilkes-Barre are notorious for their tough audiences when it comes to live entertainment---legend has it that, early in his career, Billy Joel was once quoted as saying, "If you can play Wilkes-Barre, you can play anywhere."

McDonald's incredible book from almost thirty years ago vividly verifies this famous attribution, in terms of Scranton. It has always been regarded by theater people as "a tough town to play" but, at the same time, Scrantonians were also quick to spot new talent and to praise actors and plays when they felt it was warranted. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the theatres and audiences of Scranton was often used as a "tryout" area for shows headed to New York.

The list alone of legendary actors and actresses that have played Scranton, according to McDonald's book, is incredible. Fanny Brice, Buster Keaton, Billie Burke, Rudolph Valentino, John and Lionel Barrymore, Betty Grable, Al Jolsen, W.C. Fields, Mae West...the list goes on and on.

The book also includes natives of Scranton who have gone on to successful careers in Hollywood--including several who have previously been featured in the blog, such as Gloria Jean and Lizabeth Scott.

There's even some dirt in the book that is absolutely fascinating. For example, Frank Sinatra (ol' Blue Eyes himself) was chastised by bandleader Tommy Dorsey himself when their tour stopped in Scranton and Sinatra blew off a local radio interview quipping, "(I was) hired to sing, not make personal appearances."

My favorite anecdote in the book is attributed to Will Rogers who, when he met a physician from Scranton at a baseball game in New York, was quoted as saying to him that there were three things about Scranton that he remembered--the Hotel Casey, the D. L. & W. Railroad, and Zenke's Restaurant.

In short, Nancy McDonald's If You Can Play Scranton is a thoroughly researched and enthralling record of a unique part of Scranton's history---and reputation.

In addition to two noncirculating copies in the Local History collection, a copy of If You Can Play Scranton is available to borrow from the library. To place a hold, click here. You can also purchase a copy of the book from the Lackawanna Historical Society Bookstore.

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