Cole Porter Comes Alive at the historic Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel
By Richard Davis
On May 22, at the historic Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, a standing-room-only crowd has come to hear the work of one of America’s premier songwriters. The invitation-only audience, luminaries from stage and screen, wait excitedly for the music to start. But what may be surprising is that Cole Porter, whose music they’ve come to hear, passed away in 1964.
The event, A Swell Party! — RSVP Cole Porter, was part of a weeklong celebration in Hollywood honoring one of America’s greatest composers. The week’s festivities started with Cole Porter’s star being placed on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. “The star was long overdue,” says John Grant, the Hollywood Walk of Fame chairman. “It should have been one of the first stars we placed on the walk.”
Academy-award®-nominated songwriter Carol Conner also had kind words for Porter. “He was one of the greatest music men in the whole world,” she said before the show. “It’s my honor to be here. His rhymes were so succinct and brilliant. They went beyond brilliant. When I write songs, I usually either write words or music. But Cole Porter always wrote both.”
The evening began as two Broadway veterans, KT Sullivan and Mark Nadler walked onto the stage. Dressed in the style of Cole Porter’s era, they performed remarkably, bringing him back in beautiful, rich melodies.
Ms. Sullivan’s vocal range is magical, often matching and surpassing the rich nostalgic tones of Loren Shoenberg’s tenor saxophone. Piano and song man Mark Nadler, full of fun and vivre, performed Porter’s most difficult pieces effortlessly, bringing out the artist’s character and talent beautifully. Acoustic bass player Yasushi Nakamura, despite his young age, matched the other artists in talent, completing the group’s sound wonderfully. Their performances proved them worthy of “playing” homage to Cole in all his shades and nuances.
Sullivan and Nadler selected an eclectic mix of Porter’s works, ranging from well-known favorites like “I’ve got You Under my Skin,” to virtually unknown gems like “The Tale of the Oyster,” which tells the story of an oyster who yearns for the high-life. His wish is fulfilled when he is eaten by Mrs. H, a socialite who later “un-swallows” him on her way back to Oyster Bay. The oyster concludes from the experience, “I haven’t a single qualm. I’ve had a taste of society and society has had a taste of me.
Sullivan and Nadler also offered interesting and poignant stories about how the songs related to Cole Porter’s life, making the experience even richer.
The combination of talent and skill gave the audience a full expression of Porter’s artistry and range. “Besides,” remarked Sullivan after the performance, “we had to choose a few obscure songs so the audience wouldn’t already know all the jokes.”
A native of Indiana, Cole graduated from Yale where he had been voted Most Entertaining, Most Original and Most Eccentric. He then went to Harvard where he studied law until a Dean, seeing Porter’s talent, told him to stop wasting his time with law and start studying music.
Soon after, Cole traveled to France as a member of the Duryea Relief Fund, a private organization that distributed food and clothing. It was there that he met his wife Linda Lee, who encouraged and financed his songwriting efforts.
Returning to the United States, Cole continued to write songs. Developing Broadway contacts and, with their help, produced his 1916 Broadway debut “See America First”. The musical was a smashing and utter flop. Success wouldn’t arrive for Porter until 1928 with his song “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love.”
But when Cole Porter’s success hit, it hit big. In the 1930s, when Cole was at the height of his popularity, he had a total of seven musicals on Broadway. Hollywood took notice and beckoned him to write for the movies.
Cole Porter loved Hollywood, telling a friend that “it was like living on the moon.” He soon began living there four of five months out of the year.
One of only a handful of composers who wrote both the music and lyrics for all of his songs, Cole Porter is considered the most prolific single contributor to The Great American Songbook.
An audience member put it well, saying “Cole Porter has become a part of our musical conscience. No other song can get in your head and stay there like a Cole Porter song can. You’ve probably even sung or hummed a Cole Porter tune not knowing it was his.”
Cole Porter passed away in Santa Monica at the age of 73. Today his work continues to influence artists and attract new audiences around the world.