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15 Loverly Facts About My Fair Lady

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For decades, George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion looked like a play that could never be turned into a musical. Then, in 1956, it was adapted into the definitive musical. Sixty years ago today, My Fair Lady made its Broadway debut. Adapted from Shaw’s masterpiece, the new show dazzled critics and audiences alike—and, a few years later, was turned into an award winning movie featuring Audrey Hepburn. Here are a few facts about the crowd pleaser in honor of its birthday.

1. IT’S ROOTED IN GREEK MYTHOLOGY.

Pygmalion is named after a mythical artist who supposedly sculpted an ideal woman—only to fall in love with the statue. A product of ancient Greek folklore, this character would later be immortalized by the Roman poet Ovid, who wrote about him in Book 10 of The Metamorphoses. Similarly, the male lead in Shaw’s Pygmalion—phonetics professor Henry Higgins—tries to “sculpt” a lower-class working girl into a well-spoken English lady.

2. GEORGE BERNARD SHAW DIDN’T WANT PYGMALION TO GET THE MUSICAL THEATER TREATMENT.  

In 1908, composer Oscar Straus amazed audiences with The Chocolate Soldier, an operetta based on Shaw’s 1894 play Arms and the Man. But the success of this adaptation ultimately hurt the creator of its source material. During The Chocolate Soldier’s run, few theaters were willing to produce Arms and the Man—and Shaw’s wallet took a hit.

During his lifetime, several producers and directors told Shaw that Pygmalion might make for a terrific musical, but financial considerations kept him from letting anybody take a crack at converting it into one. As Shaw told Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Lehar, “A Pygmalion operetta is quite out of the question … Pygmalion is my most steady source of income: it saved me from ruin during the war, and still brings in a substantial penny every week.” Having been burned before, Shaw swore he’d never “allow a comic opera to supplant it.”

3. RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN TRIED (AND FAILED) TO MAKE A PYGMALION MUSICAL.

When Shaw died in 1950, producer Gabriel Pascal held the rights to Pygmalion. Over the next few years, he asked several writers if they could develop a musical adaptation. Most didn’t get very far. At one point, Pascal handed the assignment off to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. On paper, they looked like the perfect men for the job: The ingenious duo had defined and re-defined the American musical with classic shows like Oklahoma!, South Pacific, and The King and I. But despite their past successes, the challenge of Pygmalion proved too great. Apart from its heavy reliance on dialogue, the play—unlike most Rodgers and Hammerstein shows—didn’t come with an overt love story. Before long, they abandoned the project.

Undeterred, Pascal turned to the creative minds behind Paint Your Wagon: librettist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe. In 1952, he asked if these two would be interested. Both said “yes,” but just half a year later, they also gave up. Then, in 1954, Pascal passed away at the age of 60. His untimely death returned Lerner and Loewe’s thoughts to Pygmalion. Deciding that the project was worth one more try, they painstakingly began writing what was to become My Fair Lady.

4. MALE LEAD REX HARRISON GOT THROUGH HIS SONGS WITH A FLEXIBLE “TALK-SINGING” STYLE.

When Harrison landed the role of Henry Higgins, it certainly wasn’t because of his singing voice. Indeed, the veteran actor told Lerner and Loewe that he’d never sung on stage before. Fortunately, Higgins’ songs weren’t too vocally demanding and, throughout much of the show, Harrison simply talked to a musical beat. “I was using the melody, but not singing it,” he explained to the BBC. “I mean, I could use [musical] notes, and sometimes when I was doing the play I used to use quite a lot of the notes. Sometimes I would use hardly any of the notes. But I was able to sort of jiggle it about.” (In the show's movie adaptation, the intricacy of the patter songs led to Harrison singing them live on set—an anomaly at the time.)

5. DIRECTOR MOSS HART TOOK TWO DAYS OFF TO WORK WITH JULIE ANDREWS ONE-ON-ONE.

When Julie Andrews, then just 19, was cast as Eliza Doolittle, the young actress found herself intimidated by the part. “[It] became obvious … that I was hopelessly out of my depth as Eliza Doolittle,” she said. To help his star find her footing, Hart canceled a weekend of full-cast rehearsals and gave Andrews step-by-step assistance. “For those two days,” she recalls, “… [we] hammered through each scene—everything from Eliza’s entrance, her screaming and yelling, to her transformation into a lady at the end of the play.” All that hard work really paid off: Once normal rehearsals resumed, just about everyone noticed a dramatic boost in Andrews’ confidence.

6. THE SHOW HAD A NUMBER OF WORKING TITLES.

At first, the show went by Liza, which eventually evolved into Lady Liza. However, Harrison didn’t care for either name because he felt that they both relegated his character to second fiddle status. A number of alternatives were then tossed around—including Fanfaroon, a British slang term meaning “one who brags about himself.” Finally, Loewe and Lerner lifted the words my fair lady from the nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down.” This three-word title satisfied Harrison, and the rest is history.

7. A DEAD PENGUIN WAS THE ORIGINAL RUN’S BACKSTAGE MASCOT.

A dedicated Shaw fan, Harrison wanted My Fair Lady to resemble its source material as closely as possible. At rehearsals, he habitually brought along a Penguin edition copy of the Pygmalion script. Whenever a line of My Fair Lady’s dialogue didn’t seem right to Harrison, he’d look up and shout “Where’s my Penguin?”

One day, Lerner decided to have a little fun with this. “I went to a taxidermist,” he told the Glasgow Herald, “and purchased a stuffed penguin. The next time Rex cried out ‘Where’s my Penguin?’ the stuffed bird was rolled on to the stage … and everyone howled with laughter.” Apparently, Harrison took it with good humor. After the incident, he stopped asking for his Penguin script—and kept the deceased avian in his dressing room as a mascot.

8. THE RAIN IN SPAIN STAYS MAINLY IN THE … HILLS AND MOUNTAINS.

Get your facts straight, Henry Higgins! In one of Act I’s most popular songs, Higgins, Eliza, and Colonel Pickering declare that “the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.” But catchy as it may be, the little number is not meteorologically accurate. Every year, Spain’s northern hills and mountains receive far more rainfall than the plains to the south.

9. THE VERY FIRST PREVIEW WAS ALMOST CANCELED.

Before it came to Broadway, My Fair Lady had its opening preview in New Haven, Connecticut on February 4, 1956. Unfortunately, Rex Harrison nearly derailed the production. Earlier that day, there was a last-minute rehearsal with the orchestra—which Harrison had never heard before. As soon as they started playing, the actor’s self-doubts about his singing voice immediately resurfaced. “Mossy,” he said to Hart, “I’m not opening tonight and, as a matter of fact, I may never open.”

Hart decided to dismiss his cast and pull the performance. But Mother Nature had other ideas: A powerful snowstorm kept word of the show’s cancellation from getting out. Unaware of the backstage chaos, many ticket buyers showed up early. With a crowd gathering and the theater threatening legal action, Hart called everyone back. By then, though, the players had dispersed pretty widely. As assistant stage manager Jerry Adler recollects, messengers were dispatched “to restaurants, gyms, and even announced at a movie theater mid-screening that actors from My Fair Lady should report back to the theater.”

After everyone was tracked down, the curtain finally went up. To put it mildly, the audience got its money’s worth. Each number was met with uproarious applause—especially “The Rain in Spain.” There was so much clapping after the song that the actors felt compelled to take an unscripted bow before moving on.

10. FIFTEEN MINUTES OF MATERIAL WAS CUT.

The Connecticut crowd may have loved what they saw at the preview, but My Fair Lady’s creators thought there was room for improvement. To shorten the show's runtime, seven songs were deleted. Among them was a tender ballad called “Say a Prayer for Me Tonight.” Conceived as a solo for Eliza, this song later appeared in the movie musical Gigi (1958)—which Lerner and Loewe scored.

11. THE ORIGINAL CAST RECORDING TOPPED THE BILLBOARD CHARTS.

For 15 weeks, the show's album held down the number one slot. Within its first year alone, the My Fair Lady cast recording became the best-selling album that Columbia Records had ever seen, netting $5 million that year. Over the next 10 years, it would sell a then-impressive 5 million copies.

12. FOR THE 1964 FILM VERSION, AUDREY HEPBURN’S SINGING VOICE WAS DUBBED OVER.

When Warner Bros. decided to make an adaptation of My Fair Lady for the silver screen, the studio asked Rex Harrison to reprise his role. Julie Andrews, in contrast, received no such invitation: The actress was not yet a household name, so producer Jack Warner passed her over for the better-known Audrey Hepburn.

Hepburn’s inexperienced pipes caused some concern. Upon landing the role of Eliza, she began working tirelessly on her songs with a vocal coach. Still, director George Cukor decided that Hepburn would have to be dubbed over. Ultimately, 95 percent of Eliza’s singing in My Fair Lady was performed by Marni Nixon, who’d done similar dub work for The King and I (1956) and West Side Story (1961).

Meanwhile, being replaced by Hepburn was arguably the best thing that could have happened to Julie Andrews: It freed her up to star in a little movie called Mary Poppins. At the 1965 Golden Globes, Andrews was nominated for Mary Poppins, and Hepburn was nominated for My Fair Lady. Andrews was victorious, and after claiming her award, Andrews wrapped up her speech by saying, “Finally, my thanks to a man who made a wonderful movie and who made all this possible in the first place: Mister Jack Warner.” To his credit, he laughed right along with everyone else. Andrews would go on to win an Oscar for her performance in Mary Poppins, too.

13. AT ITS TIME, THE MY FAIR LADY MOVIE WAS THE HIGHEST-GROSSING PICTURE IN WARNER BROTHERS HISTORY.

Following its release on Christmas Day 1964, the film version of My Fair Lady brought in a studio-best $72 million. At the following Academy Awards, it won eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor (for Harrison), and Best Director (for Cukor). By comparison, the musical’s original Broadway production brought home six Tonys—one of which provided Harrison with yet another Best Actor title. 

14. HARRISON’S PROFESSOR HIGGINS HELPED INSPIRE A POPULAR FAMILY GUY VOICE.

A hardcore musical theater buff, Seth MacFarlane has long revered Harrison—and particularly his performance in My Fair Lady“In college, I had sort of worked up an impression of Rex Harrison in order to get girls,” show creator MacFarlane once said. While developing a voice for Stewie Griffin—Family Guy’s maniacal baby—he decided to go with a snobby British dialect that sounds distinctly Higgins-esque.

15. JULIE ANDREWS IS CURRENTLY DIRECTING A 60TH ANNIVERSARY REVIVAL IN AUSTRALIA.

To celebrate 60 years of Ascot races and dancing all night, Sydney’s world-famous Joan Sutherland Theatre asked Andrews if she’d consider directing a new production of the show that helped make her a star. Andrews said she was thrilled to accept. My Fair Lady is, as she puts it, “a beautifully-constructed musical, which is its strength, really.”

Andrews won’t be the revival’s only link to the 1956 version. The show, which opens this August, will also base its sets and costumes upon designs used by the original creative team. 

All photos courtesy of Getty Images.

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15 Things You Might Not Know About Mystery Science Theater 3000
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While the rest of America was slipping into a turkey coma on Thanksgiving Day in 1988, Minneapolis area residents lucky enough to get clear reception of local UHF channel KTMA were getting the first taste of what would soon become a Turkey Day tradition: Mystery Science Theater 3000, the classic cult television show which made a sport out of mocking schlocky movies of the past. The premise was simple: two mad scientists, Dr. Clayton Forrester and Dr. Laurence Erhardt, launch a janitor (local comedian Joel Hodgson, as Joel Robinson) into space to study the effect bad movies have on the human mind in order to determine the single film that can help them in their efforts toward world domination.

But as it turns out, human beings can withstand a whole lot of bad acting, sloppy pacing, and ridiculous dialogue. Rather than drive them to the brink of insanity, Joel and the robot friends he built while orbiting Earth—Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot, Gypsy, and Cambot—found a certain amount of pleasure in having to endure these B-movies, spending the bulk of the show offering their own bitingly funny analyses of the on-screen happenings. It didn’t take long for audiences to catch on, or for MST3K to migrate to a national stage.

1. MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 WAS BORN FROM FINANCIAL RESTRAINTS.

After trying his luck on the grander Hollywood stage for a few years, comedian Joel Hodgson moved back to Minneapolis with the idea of launching his own television show. There was just one problem: he had no budget. “Basically, Mystery Science Theater came from me saying, ‘What’s the cheapest possible show I could create that would still be novel and bring something new, [and] kind of have a new angle of doing something funny?’” Hodgson told Flavorwire of the show’s origins. “It all just came together, basically, at that point when I realized it could be like hosting a movie show, and if I utilized the silhouette thing, the characters will kind of run not only through the host segments, but through the entire movie, and they’ll be, like, companions.” 

2. THE “3000” IN THE TITLE WAS MEANT TO BE CONFOUNDING.

“The 3000 was a joke on all the people that were attaching the year 2000 to various programs,” said Hodgson in a 2011 interview with Art of the Title. “In the late ’80s it was everywhere: ‘America 2000’ was something that George Bush Sr. was talking about a lot so I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if I name it 3000 just to confound people?’ But there was a lot of confusion about it. I never meant for the show to take place in the year 3000. That simply makes no sense! If it is the year 3000, then why are all the films and the references about the end of the 20th century? For the concept of the show, it’s just a series number like Galaxie 500 or HAL 9000. Fords aren’t from the year 500 and the HAL wasn’t from the year 9000. In hindsight, I think it’s likely that the Mads were trying to snazz up the name of the show by tacking on the 3000.” 

3. IN ORDER TO GAUGE THE AUDIENCE’S REACTION, THE PRODUCERS SET UP A PHONE LINE.

Even after its initial debut, the creators of MST3K had no idea whether the show had connected with audiences. So writer-producer Jim Mallon (who voiced Gypsy) suggested they set up a viewer hotline and run the number during the next airing. “When we checked the answering machine on Monday, it was full,” Hodgson told Flavorwire. “So people just reacted to it.” This led Hodgson and company to set up a local fan club for the show, which quickly acquired 1000 members.

4. MST3K’S (FIRST) CANCELLATION WAS ALSO BORN FROM FINANCIAL RESTRAINTS.

As MST3K’s popularity was rising, the fortunes of its broadcaster—KTMA—were moving in the opposite direction, which led to the show’s (first) cancellation in May of 1989. As a thank you to the many local fans who had tuned in religiously, the cast put on a live version of the show at the Comedy Gallery, which attracted an audience of more than 600.

As MST3K neared the end of its run on KTMA, the producers put together a short “best of” reel in order to pitch it to other networks. The show caught the attention of executives at The Comedy Channel, a brand-new, 24-hour comedy network owned by HBO, which premiered on November 15, 1989. Three days later, Mystery Science Theater 3000 made its national debut as one of the channel’s anchor programs.

5. AS PART OF THE COMEDY CHANNEL DEAL, HODGSON AND MALLON INSISTED ON KEEPING ITS PRODUCTION IN MINNEAPOLIS.

While the bulk of The Comedy Channel’s programming was produced on site in New York City, the channel agreed to let Hodgson and Mallon continue shooting in Minneapolis. They did, however, spruce up the look of the show with new sets, revamped robots, and a new opening title sequence. 

6. THE BIGGEST CHANGE TO THE MST3K FORMULA WAS IN TURNING TO A SCRIPTED FORMAT.


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The early episodes of MST3K were ad-libbed, but in 1989, Hodgson decided that the show should take a turn for the scripted. As part of this change, Hodgson hired writer (and future host) Michael J. Nelson. “I hired Mike based on his act at an open mic and a recommendation from Josh [Weinstein],” Hodgson told Mental Floss. “Also writing the eps was my call.”

7. IN 1991, MST3K BEGAN A NEW THANKSGIVING DAY TRADITION.

MST3K became Comedy Central’s signature series, with executives nearly doubling its run from 13 to 24 episodes per year in 1991. On Thanksgiving of the same year it launched what would become an annual event: a 30-hour MST3K marathon that came to be known as “Turkey Day,” featuring back-to-back episodes plus behind-the-scenes spots and interviews. In the four years it ran, several of the stars of the films the series mocked—including Adam West (star of Zombie Nightmare), Robert Vaughn (of Teenage Cave Man), and Mamie van Doren (of Untamed Youth and Girls Town)—hosted “Turkey Day.” In honor of the show’s 25th anniversary, Hodgson brought back “Turkey Day” in 2013. For 2017, the marathon will stream via Shout! Factory, beginning at 12 p.m. ET.

8. JOEL’S DEPARTURE IN 1993 WAS THE RESULT OF CREATIVE DIFFERENCES.

After sitting through his final test of cinematic endurance (Mitchell, starring Joe Don Baker—a skewering that led Baker to claim that if he ever met anyone from the show he would “kick their asses”), Joel managed to escape the Satellite of Love with the help of an office temp, Mike Nelson, who the Mads then captured in place of Joel. In a 1999 interview with The A.V. Club, Hodgson admitted that his decision to leave the show was because of disagreements with Jim Mallon. “You can't really be fighting with someone and doing all the stuff you have to do,” said Hodgson. “I think what made the show work for me was that I really loved it. I really liked the audience, and the whole process was ... I was really happy doing it, and I realized that I'd turn into Jerry Lewis or something if I started to kind of hate it. And that was starting to happen, just because of these conflicts I was having internally with Jim … The thing would have blown up if we both would have stayed there. I like to look at it like the story of King Solomon, when the baby was brought before him.”

9. WHEN COMEDY CENTRAL CANCELLED MST3K IN 1996, FANS (A.K.A. MSTIES) TOOK IT UPON THEMSELVES TO RESURRECT THE SERIES.

Viewers put pen to paper and began a massive letter-writing campaign to save the series. The fan outburst didn’t change Comedy Central’s mind, but executives at the Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy) understood their plight. And so on February 1, 1997, MST3K began its eighth season on its third network. The episode introduced audiences to Professor Bobo, an ape from the year 2525.

In 1999, Mystery Science Theater 3000 was cancelled again, and fans once again launched a campaign to see the show resurrected, with Entertainment Weekly reporting that “efforts to save the show include more than a dozen ‘Save MST3K’ websites, a letter-writing push, and a pledge drive for ‘Save MST3K’ print ads.” The campaign led to a full-page ad in Daily Variety, but Sci-Fi Channel decision-makers remained unmoved, with then-VP of programming Bonnie Hammer citing low ratings coupled with the rising costs of securing film rights (for movies to be ridiculed by the cast) as the problem. Sensing the end was truly near, Nelson admitted: “I'm hoping to find a rich guy to just keep me in his living room and heckle live.” 

10. KURT VONNEGUT, JR. WASN’T A FAN.

In 1996, Jim Mallon and writers Trace Beaulieu and Kevin Murphy released the ultimate fan guide, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Amazing Colossal Episode Guide. In it, Murphy shares the story about meeting his literary hero, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and telling him about the show and its premise. Vonnegut was not impressed, telling Murphy that every artist deserves respect, even those who produce a bad movie. Still, Murphy couldn’t resist the opportunity to invite Vonnegut out to dinner, which the author politely declined, stating he had other plans. At dinner that night, Murphy and Vonnegut ended up dining at the same restaurant—except Vonnegut was alone, prompting Murphy to admit that he had been “faced ... but nicely faced.”

11. FRANK ZAPPA WAS A FAN.

Frank Zappa was an admitted monster movie fanatic, and wasn’t shy about his love of Mystery Science Theater 3000 during its run. A 1997 article in Total TV Online noted: “MST3K … made the late Frank Zappa an instant convert when he channel surfed into ‘this guy wearing a clown nose and a beanie copter roasting a puppet over an open fire.’ The clown was now-departed (and much beloved) Founding Father Joel Hodgson; the roasted puppet was plucky Tom Servo; and Zappa was equally bemused by the cinematic turkeys being roasted for the main course. ‘He just loved crummy old science fiction movies,’ says writer and voice of Servo Kevin Murphy, who thought ‘Frank Zappa on line one’ was a joke until he picked up the phone.” The show’s producers and Zappa had even discussed plans to collaborate on a giant spider movie; episode 523 was dedicated to Zappa following his passing. 

12. A HUMAN-LESS MST3K WEB SERIES DEBUTED IN 2007.

On November 5, 2007, Mallon debuted an animated Web series, The Bots Are Back!, which followed Tom Servo, Crow and Gypsy’s adventures in space. Fan response was not positive, and only four episodes were ever released.

13. THE WORLD HAS MST3K TO THANK FOR HOBGOBLINS 2.

While not every filmmaker whose worked featured on the series was happy about the development, Hobgoblins director Rick Sloane came to see the positive side of the skewering. "I met Mary Jo Pehl a number of years later and she said I was the only director who ever liked the MST3K treatment of their own film," Sloane told Esquire. "They improved the film dramatically. It was barely watchable in its original version. While I enjoyed every joke that was at an actor's expense, I was seriously horrified when they did the fake interview with me over the end credits. It's become a fan-favorite joke and is constantly quoted on the Internet." But there was an upside to the notoriety: Hobgoblins became so widely known, that it led to the opportunity for a sequel. "I admitted from day one that Hobgoblins 2 was only possible because of the success of MST3K's revival of the original," said Sloane. "I submitted Hobgoblins 2 to both Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax, but they both thought it was too easy of a target."

14. THE SHOW'S TITLE SPAWNED A VERB.

MSTing” is a practice that exists in the fan fiction universe, typically written in a transcript format, in which the characters of one piece of fic (or MST3K’s own characters) commentate another piece of fic. The process is also referred to as sporking.

15. THE RIFFING LIVES ON.

When new episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 stopped being produced, the original cast kept riffing. In 2006, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett introduced a Web series called RiffTrax, which allows customers to download commentary tracks to sync with a movie. Throughout the year, the group also presents several RiffTrax Live performances at cinemas around the country. In 2007, Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Josh Weinstein, Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl launched Cinematic Titanic, offering a selection of riffed DVDs and a series of live events.

In 2017, a new generation of fans were introduced to Mystery Science Theater 3000 when—after a successful Kickstarter campaign to bring the series back—Netflix debuted Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return, with Jonah Ray hosting.

An earlier version of this post originally appeared in 2013.

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Watch Boris Karloff's 1966 Coffee Commercial
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Horror legend Boris Karloff is famous for playing mummies, mad scientists, and of course, Frankenstein’s creation. In 1930, Karloff cemented the modern image of the monster—with its rectangular forehead, bolted neck, and enormous boots (allegedly weighing in at 11 pounds each)—in the minds of audiences.

But the horror icon, who was born 130 years ago today, also had a sense of humor. The actor appeared in numerous comedies, and even famously played a Boris Karloff look-alike (who’s offended when he’s mistaken for Karloff) in the original Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace

In the ’60s, Karloff also put his comedic chops to work in a commercial for Butter-Nut Coffee. The strange commercial, set in a spooky mansion, plays out like a movie scene, in which Karloff and the viewer are co-stars. Subtitles on the bottom of the screen feed the viewer lines, and Karloff responds accordingly. 

Watch the commercial below to see the British star selling coffee—and read your lines aloud to feel like you’re “acting” alongside Karloff. 

[h/t: Retroist]

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