Light Opera of Manhattan
Light Opera of Manhattan, known as LOOM, was an Off-Broadway repertory theatre company that produced light operas, including the works of Gilbert and Sullivan and European and American operettas, 52 weeks per year, in New York City between 1968 and 1989.
Founded by William Mount-Burke, LOOM's first long-term home was in the Jan Hus theatre from the late 1960s to 1975, where it succeeded another small light opera company, the American Savoyards. At the Jan Hus, LOOM performed predominantly the Savoy operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, such as The Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado and H.M.S. Pinafore. Led by conductor-director Mount-Burke, principal comedian Raymond Allen and choreographer Jerry Gotham, the company mentored many young actors and singers who went on to careers on Broadway or elsewhere in theatre or music.
In 1975, the company moved across the street to a legitimate Off-Broadway theatre, the Eastside Playhouse. There it expanded its repertoire beyond Gilbert and Sullivan to American and continental operettas, such as those of Victor Herbert, Rudolph Friml, Franz Lehár, Sigmund Romberg, Jacques Offenbach and Johann Strauss II. LOOM was often featured on WQXR radio.
By 1979, diabetes had blinded William Mount-Burke, but he continued to conduct and even to direct new productions. The company remained strong until 1984, when Mount-Burke died and the company's playhouse was closed and subsequently demolished. After this, led by Allen and Gotham, with music director Todd Ellison, the company played in a series of theatres around New York that challenged its ability to keep its Upper East Side audience, and it was forced constantly to raise funds. In 1986, the company closed, opening for its final seasons from 1987 to 1989.
Beginning years at the Jan Hus
In the fall of 1968, William Mount-Burke (1936–1984), the former director of The Miami Light Opera and The Stamford Symphony, took steps to start an Off-Broadway company specializing in the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. He first presented a free showcase performance of The Pirates of Penzance at his apartment in New York City. The success of this performance encouraged Mount-Burke to move forward with his plan. Mount-Burke formed a non-profit organization, The Light Opera of Manhattan, which came to be known as LOOM. The producer and his company next offered a number of free performances at St. Michael's Church on East 99th Street in Manhattan. In 1969, LOOM moved into the basement gymnasium of The Jan Hus House on East 74th Street, previously the home of Dorothy Raedler's American Savoyards, intending to play a limited engagement. However, the company stayed at the Jan Hus for almost seven years, performing predominantly the Savoy operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, such as Pirates, The Mikado and H.M.S. Pinafore.
Raymond Allen, who had previously sung with the American Savoyards and made guest appearances at New York City Opera and the City Center Gilbert & Sullivan Company, was the leading comic actor for most of the company's performances. Allen wrote an introduction to The Best of Gilbert & Sullivan: 42 Favorite Songs from the G&S Repertoire, a songbook published by Chappell Music Company in 1974. The book includes many photographs of LOOM productions and states that LOOM's year-round performing season was the longest of any company in the United States.
Under LOOM's Equity union contract, casting consisted of seven union principals and over twenty non-union actors who could receive their Equity membership after an apprenticeship with the company. This arrangement was unique among full-time theatre companies in New York. The pay for the non-union actors was nominal, but many young actor/singers who aspired to be full-time professionals were able to receive training and could work their way up from the ensemble to featured roles in the course of a year.
Many future New York City Opera and Broadway professionals started out at LOOM, including writer/director Gerard Alessandrini of Forbidden Broadway; Craig Schulman of Les Misérables. Robert Cuccioli of Jekyll & Hyde; Stephen O'Mara, opera singer; Penny Orloff, City Opera and broadway performer; Carolyne Mas, recording artist; Susan Marshall, recording artist and songwriter; Michael Connolly of Annie, Amadeus and others; Larry Raiken (now a Professor at Hartt College, who appeared in Woman of the Year, Baby, Big River, Sheik of Avenue B, Can-Can, How to Succeed..., and Follies, among others); and Joan Lader, voice teacher whose pupils have included Madonna, Patti LuPone, Roberta Flack, Tonya Pinkins and others. Macaulay Culkin played Tom Tucker (the juvenile "midshipmite") in H.M.S. Pinafore.
LOOM initially bought a number of its costumes and stage properties from Dorothy Raedler's American Savoyards. It designed its own sets and other costumes, seeking to achieve a professional appearance on a small budget. Choreographer/stage manager Jerry Gotham (a former Broadway dancer) made much of the limited space and resources. The orchestra consisted of two players: pianist Brian Molloy, a graduate of Juilliard, who played every score by heart, and Mount-Burke himself, covering the organ and timpani, while conducting the performance.
The peak years
Moving up to the Eastside Playhouse
In 1975, the company moved out of the Jan Hus to the legitimate Off-Broadway Eastside Playhouse, just across E. 74th Street. This 284-seat house was still intimate, but the company could generate substantially more revenues than it could in the Jan Hus basement. In addition, the theatre had better stage facilities, good seating, stage lighting and a balcony. All the sight-lines were good, whereas in the Jan Hus there were vertical poles interfering with some views. At Jan Hus, the company's staging had been designed to refer to the positions of these poles, and even after the company moved to the Eastside Playhouse, Gotham taught the staging of the (by this time) two dozen shows in the repertory by reference to the imaginary positions of the poles, as they had existed at Jan Hus. While at the Eastside Playhouse, LOOM published a music book containing an introduction by Raymond Allen and many photographs of the company in its Gilbert and Sullivan productions.
Beginning in 1975 and through the 1980s, LOOM added American and continental operettas to its roster, eventually carrying over 30 shows in its repertory. Its first non-G&S show was Victor Herbert's Naughty Marietta, with guest artist Joan Sena-Grande in the title role, in 1975. Larry Raiken played Captain Dick Warrington. The next operetta with a guest star was Rudolph Friml's 1925 hit, The Vagabond King, with Broadway veteran Jeanne Beauvais as Huguette.
In the mid-1970s, the company asked Alice Hammerstein Mathias (Oscar Hammerstein II's daughter) to create a new translation of Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow. The translation is lighter and focuses more on the humorous aspects of the show than some of the standard translations. With Jeanne Bouvais again in the lead, The Merry Widow was a success that increased LOOM's audiences and received positive reviews. Friml's The Vagabond King and Rose-Marie; Sigmund Romberg's The Student Prince, The Desert Song, The New Moon; Herbert's Naughty Marietta, The Red Mill, Mlle. Modiste and The Fortune Teller; Jacques Offenbach's The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein; and Johann Strauss II's A Night in Venice, and others became favorites of the company. The Student Prince and Mlle. Modiste became showcases for Georgia McEver, LOOM's leading soprano for several seasons.
Alice Hammerstein Mathias was then asked to prepare a new book and lyrics for Victor Herbert's Babes In Toyland, which had not been given a professional New York production in many years. Her original story centered on two unhappy children who run away to Toyland but are eventually reconciled with their parents. Children were invited onstage from the audience to "wind up" the choristers who played toys in the "March of the Wooden Soldiers." Babes was a perennial hit for LOOM, offering parents an alternative to Radio City's annual Christmas show, and Victor Herbert's beloved tunes delighted older audience members. LOOM played Babes in Toyland each year from Thanksgiving through New Year's.
In the 1970s, LOOM also presented a series of September concerts at the Naumburg Bandshell, in Central Park, which were broadcast live over WNYC radio. The company was also featured on NBC's Today program, as well as numerous times on WQXR's The Listening Room.
The Festival Year and bright hopes
In At the end of its tenth year (1978–79), in the summer of 1979, LOOM staged all 13 extant works of Gilbert and Sullivan consecutively in a "festival" season, one opera per week. It was the first company in the world to attempt this schedule (the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company had played all 13 operas consecutively in its 1975 centenary season, but The Grand Duke was only a concert performance). In the last two of these weeks, Utopia Limited and The Grand Duke, Gilbert and Sullivan's last two G&S operas, were given rare New York professional revivals, although the American Savoyards had performed them two decades earlier, and LOOM had also introduced them before this season. Both shows played strongly and were given more extended runs the following season. During "The Festival Year", student tickets were available for $4.00. However, the strain of rehearsing and mounting a new production every week for so many weeks in a row took its toll on the cast.
Enjoying good ticket sales and hoping to ensure its future, LOOM sought to raise funds to purchase the Eastside Playhouse. However, by 1979, diabetes had blinded William Mount-Burke. He nevertheless continued to conduct performances from memory, to plan LOOM's future, and even to stage new shows after losing his sight completely. For example, in 1980, Mount-Burke directed the first professional production of Arthur Sullivan and B. C. Stephenson's The Zoo given anywhere in the world since 1879. These seasons, despite Mount-Burke's declining health, may have been LOOM's best, with the company attracting high-quality professional singers for their casts, generally improved costumes and sets, good reviews and a seemingly secure financial future. The New York Times wrote, in its preview of LOOM's 1981 spring season, "The three works (Pinafore, Pirates and The Mikado) ...will be done in the best Savoyard tradition. Do not expect a fully mounted D'Oyly Carte theatrical version.... Expect, however, to hear some fine voices and to be entertained."
This period in the company's history is lampooned in the 2003 comic novel, Jewish Thighs on Broadway: Misadventures of a Little Trouper by Penny Orloff, who played Josephine in Pinafore, Mabel in Pirates, and the title role in Iolanthe in the summer of 1980.
After Mount-Burke's death
Mount-Burke finally succumbed to his diabetes in 1984. Gotham and Allen took over as joint artistic directors to oversee the productions, and assistant music director Todd Ellison was promoted to music director. Jean Dalrymple, a producer of City Center's musical theatre revivals in the 1950s, who had been involved for many years in fundraising for the company, became president of LOOM and produced the shows, which continued uninterrupted, 52 weeks per year. But the company almost immediately ran into a number of misfortunes and costs, perhaps most importantly the loss of the Eastside Playhouse. The Building was scheduled to be demolished to make way for an apartment building, and LOOM was forced to leave.
LOOM transferred first to The Norman Thomas High School Auditorium, which was too large for its intimate productions and too distant from the Upper East Side neighborhood where it had built its reputation. Its reduced audiences were dwarfed by the large auditiorium. Next, from February 1985 to October 1986, LOOM performed at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village, but this black box theatre was too small. Although the company's ticket sales improved there, even sellout crowds were insufficient to generate sufficient revenues to stay ahead of the expenses of paying the large casts needed for light opera. Nevertheless, LOOM continued to introduce new productions, including Herbert's Sweethearts and William H. Smith's The Drunkard. Despite constant fundraising, LOOM fell further into debt and ceased performing in October 1986 with a matinee of The Vagabond King.
After more fundraising, Jean Dalrymple brought the company back together in 1987, and LOOM resumed its full-time production schedule at the 299-seat Playhouse 91, returning to the Upper East Side. The artistic team created an adaptation of George M. Cohan's Little Johnny Jones, called Give My Regards to Broadway. The show involved more tap dancing than any other show Off-Broadway and revived the company's popularity. Despite good box office performance, the company continued to suffer from debts and old tax problems. LOOM closed permanently in August 1989, with a run of The Pirates of Penzance – the company's first opera in 1968. After 1989, there were discussions about trying to revive the company, and one or two brief New York City productions used the LOOM name, but they were not by the same company.
Raymond Allen died on January 29, 1994 in Queens, New York, ending any possibility of a LOOM revival.
- "William Mount-Burke, Head of Light Opera of Manhattan". The New York Times, July 11, 1984, accessed April 18, 2011
- Kenrick, John, "A Brief History of LOOM", Musicals101.com, 2002, accessed October 26, 2013
- Scan of Raymond Allen's obituary in the NY Times, February 3, 1994
- The Best of Gilbert & Sullivan: 42 Favorite Songs from the G&S Repertoire. Introduction by Raymond Allen. Book design by Lee Snider. Distributed by Hal Leonard Publishing Corporation, HL00312177. Re-issued by Chappell in 1991.
- Interview with Craig Schulman
- Information about LOOM costumes
- Donadio, Michael. Site with numerous photographs of LOOM productions at the Eastside Playhouse
- 1981 NY Times preview of LOOM's 1981 spring season
- The Best of Gilbert & Sullivan: 42 Favorite Songs from the G&S Repertoire. Chappell Music Company, c. 1975. Introduction by Raymond Allen; book designed by Lee Snider.
- "Alice Hammerstein Mathias". Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, accessed May 10, 2011
- Crutchfield, Will. "Operetta: Babes in Toyland. The New York Times, December 17, 1987
- 1970s Naumberg Bandshell concert schedule
- 1981 Patience review in the New York Times
- Orloff, Penny. Jewish Thighs on Broadway: Misadventures of a Little Trouper. Authorhouse. ISBN 1-4033-9822-4
- NY Times review of Sweethearts
- NY Times review of The Drunkard
- Article about LOOM's closing at the Cherry Lane
- 1988 review of a LOOM Pirates at the Playhouse 91; review of The Student Prince at Playhouse 91
- "Ruth Recommends". New York magazine, July 11, 1988, p. 19, accessed May 11. 2011
- Allen's NY Times obituary
- Guernsey, Otis L. (1987). Curtain Times: The New York Theater, 1965–1987. Hal Leonard Corporation. ISBN 0-936839-24-4
- Allen, Raymond. The Best of Gilbert & Sullivan: 42 Favorite Songs from the G&S Repertoire. Chappell Music Company. Book designed by Lee Snider. Introduction, photos of Light Opera of Manhattan/First Night programmes.
- Obituary: Raymond Allen New York Times, February 3, 1994
- Text of Allen's NY Times obituary at NY Times archive
- LOOM homepage at the Musicals101 website with photos and history
- Orloff, Penny. Jewish Thighs on Broadway: Misadventures of a Little Trouper. Authorhouse. (ISBN 1-4033-9822-4) Contains several chapters spoofing LOOM.
- 1970s Naumberg Bandshell concert schedule
- Costume designs for LOOM by George Stinson
- Interview with Craig Schulman
- Off Broadway Musicals, 1910–2007
- NY Times discussion of LOOM's shutdown in 1986
- NY Times review of LOOM's production of Patience from 1981
- NY Times review of LOOM's production of The Red Mill from 1981
- NY Times Critics' Choice piece on LOOM's production of Ruddigore from 1981
- NY Times review of LOOM's production of Naughty Marietta from 1985
- NY Times review of LOOM's production of Sweethears from 1985
- NY Times review of LOOM's production of The Drunkard from 1986
- 1988 NY Times review of a LOOM Pirates at Playhouse 91
- 1988 NY Times review of a LOOM H.M.S. Pinafore at Playhouse 91
- 1989 NY Times review of LOOM's production of The Student Prince at Playhouse 91
- Photos and history