Nick Corley is one of those special people that you love instantly upon meeting. I first worked with Nick in 2008 when a New York Musical Festival show that he was directing lost its stage manager in the middle of the rehearsal process. My friend Barbara Walsh was in the cast (apologies for the name dropping, but hey, this is how the story goes!) and suggested me as a last-minute replacement! Nick was an incredibly fun, free-spirited director and we had a blast! A year later, he took over as Interim Artistic Director at Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma and invited me out to stage manage Sweeney Todd. I will work for Nick whenever he calls! And not only is he a fabulous director, but he’s an established actor as well! Here, he gives us an up close glimpse at the New Amsterdam Theatre where he performed in Mary Poppins!
Theresa Flanagan: What was your favorite thing about the New Amsterdam Theatre?
Nick Corley: The interior design itself. The first show that played there was A Midsummer Night’s Dream so the theater was designed around that. It is truly like being in a magical forest. From the ladies on the swings that is part of the design of the ceiling to the scones, to the shape and look of the boxes. Disney did everything they could to recreate the look of the original and gave NYC back a truly special theater. The second thing I love is that it is so close to the 2/3 train. Just steps away which makes the commute to my apartment super easy- especially on a cold winter day.
TF: Any ghost encounters? The theater is known to host ghost sightings of a Follies chorus girl, Olive Thomas. Did you ever meet Olive?
NC: The closest I came to Olive was saying hello to her picture every time I came in the stage door. She was beautiful and her picture is right there next to the doorman when you walk in. As the story goes her beauty was her talent. The way her act was described to us (who knows if this is true but..) there was a huge urn on stage (in the more risqué upstairs late night roof garden show) and the orchestra would begin to play. Four stunning women of four different ethnicities would each enter and disappear into the urn. Then Olive would rise out of the urn to great fanfare representing the amalgamation of all beauty. Judging by the topless Vargas picture that Mr. Ziegfeld himself owned, she deserved her billing.
While Mary Poppins played there, several photographs of the theater right before the renovation were on display on stage right. There was one that had a weird orb of light in it- like you see on those Ghost Hunter TV shows. We knew that was Olive. A few folks claimed to have seen such a light at times. Poor Olive also got blamed for anything that went wrong. Like when the huge Banks house, that traveled from way upstage, got stuck in the middle of the show during previews - the rest of that performance had to be cancelled and the audience sent home. She was especially rambunctious on Halloween oddly - including sound and light glitches - a child losing his voice mid-show and being replaced and a fog machine in the roof top chimney caught fire. We had to plead with her to stop.
TF: Anything that stood out about working in this theater? Any challenges?
NC: One of my favorite spots was the beautiful downstairs lobby area. We would sometimes have rehearsals or meetings down there. It is a stunning space. There is also a secret listening spot. There is an area of seats in the back where if you whisper the person standing behind those seats can hear you as if you were right next to them. Rumor was that Mr. Ziegfeld would have the critics sit there so he could overhear their conversations.
The biggest challenge during Mary Poppins was the actual deck of the stage. Because the set had elevator units, mechanical traps and that huge house, the deck was made of steel supports. This took away some of the natural spring that you find on a normal stage. There were many foot and leg injuries during the run. I had to go to the hospital as I ended up with blood clots in my leg from jumping off the highest chimney in the back over and over. After that, I scurried down the side instead of leaping off. They were nice about letting me adjust for safety. Dancing and getting older ain't easy!
TF: Did you learn any fun facts about the history of the theater while working there?
NC: When we first moved to the theater from the rehearsal room they gave us an amazing tour of the whole building. The renovation of the upper floors was still in process - so we got to see Ziegfeld’s old office upstairs which had dirt in the floor for insulation and the old upstairs rooftop theater which would soon become Disney's new office space. We were probably one of the last people to see it almost as it was. Before it got too bad, they used to rehearse Broadway shows up there! My favorite thing was the secret tunnel: Closed off from the outside ages ago way down in the basement, but the old ladder was still there. It was used by the Ziegfeld girls and the famous men they dated. Rumor has it that they could climb this ladder that went straight up and into a newsstand on 42nd St. From there, the two of them could simply disappear into the crowd and avoid any press that was waiting at the stage door to catch them.
TF: Do you know of anyone that had shared your dressing room over the years?
NC: No-- I wish I did! We were way upstairs in a large room, so who knows. Hopefully our room was filled with many a glorious Ziegfeld Girl. Maybe even Olive!