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Theater rats hit the gym and find camaraderie

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I was never a gym guy, but some stints a few years ago led me to the Cardiac Health Center, a small workout facility run by New York Hospital Queens, where members of the mainly Medicare generation exercise to keep up with their grandchildren and all you other kids. It’s a friendly place, staffed by medical pros who look after your health and show you how to work the equipment, and frequented by a lot of interesting old-timers who have some good stories to tell.

So it was there that I met the Browns, Bill and Barbara, a retired show business couple.

Living now in Woodside — he’s from the Boston area, she from Flushing — they met during the Broadway run of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” in the early 1960s, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Dancing began for Barbara Newman at the age of 3 1/2, but her professional career — as a dancer, singer and actress — didn’t start until she auditioned for the Danbury Fair, one of the first theaters in the round under a Big Top (something like the old Westbury Music Fair). When she flashed a big smile for the director, she got the job. A lot of hard work followed — performing a show at night and rehearsing for next week’s during the day.

A couple of seasons later, Barbara’s work ethic and talent landed her on the Broadway stage in “Texas Li’l Darlin,” a musical with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, and a story about a bloviating politician — c’mon, is that possible! National tours followed with “Paint Your Wagon,” “The King and I,” and “Damn Yankees,” and a return to Broadway in the original cast of “Bells Are Ringing” starring Judy Holliday.

Barbara’s most prominent role was as Lola, the captivating seductress in “Damn Yankees,” who is certain that whatever she wants, she gets. She performed in the Australian company for a whole year, and I understand that the natives have never been the same.

Bill Brown is a classically trained French Horn player with a long list of impressive credits, having played in orchestras conducted by Fritz Reiner, Leopold Stokowski, Leonard Bernstein and Arturo Toscanini. Among his stage shows: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” “Pal Joey,” “Kismet” and “Mr. President.” Bill denies the rumor that musicians are always surrounded by women, but he did hook up with Barbara during one of his gigs. She still has the big smile, and he got the girl.

A few weeks ago the Browns and I found our way to Queens Theatre — yes, it’s still in Flushing Meadows Corona Park — to see “Heat Wave: The Jack Cole Project.” Jack Cole was the first choreographer to bring jazz dance to the musical stage. His work was a strong influence on many others, including Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins and Alvin Ailey. Perhaps his most famous student was Gwen Verdon.

The nearly 30 musical numbers at the Queens Theatre show were recreated from the movies, where Cole did most of his work. Ray Cullom, one year and counting as QT’s producing artistic director, is hopeful that this production — certainly QT’s most elaborate to date — will have future commercial success.

June 14 is Flag Day as well as the birthday of one of The Outrageous Fortune Company’s favorite assistants, so a salute and greetings to Bari Plaut on her special day!

Contact Ron Hellman at RBH24@Columbia.edu.

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