“Who wants people?”

July 21, 2017

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As misanthropic as that title sounds—”Who wants people?”—misanthropy wasn’t what Lorenz Hart had in mind when he wrote that lyric in 1935 to go along with Richard Rodgers’  melody for “There’s a Small Hotel.”

No, Hart was thinking about solitude when he wrote, “Looking through the window / You can see a distant steeple /Not a sign of people, who wants people?” It was all about a couple, Junior and Frankie, who were planning get cozy in a remote way station where, according to Hart’s imagination, the amenities included “cheerful prints of Grant and Grover Cleveland” and an organ that was tuned every other fall.

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Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart

By most accounts, Hart’s lyric was inspired by Rodgers’ visit to a place most recently known as the Stockton Inn, a restaurant and hotel whose history can be traced to a quarry-stone residence that was built in Stockton, New Jersey, hard by the Delaware River, in 1710, and still stands as the focal point of the establishment.

That area along the Delaware, including New Hope, Pennsylvania, a stone’s throw to the south, was once the haunt of New York’s creative community, including the Algonquin crowd.

If Dorothy Parker and Scott Fitzgerald were heading for the inn now, they’d be disappointed. We rushed down there for dinner recently after reading that it was closing in a week. It appears, and one hopes, that the original building will be preserved in the comprehensive redevelopment envisioned for the site. The structure does appear in a rendering, posted on the inn’s web site, of the mixed-use development proposed for the property.

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Jimmy Durante

Meanwhile, “There’s a Small Hotel” has a quirky history in that Rodgers and Hart wrote it for “Jumbo,” a famous Broadway show—and later a movie—produced by Billy Rose. It was in that show that Jimmy Durante got to utter one of the shortest and most enduring lines in Broadway lore. Durante is leading a live elephant across the stage in order to keep it from being seized as the circus goes bankrupt. He is stopped by a sheriff who asks, “Where are you going with that elephant?” to which Durante replies, “What elephant?”

Anyway, “There’s a Small Hotel” was cut from “Jumbo” because the show was running too long, but it was introduced by Ray Bolger and Doris Carson in 1936 in the Rodgers and Hart hit “On Your Toes.”

Hart reputedly didn’t like the melody of the song, and frequently made fun of it in Rodgers’ presence by making up off-color lyrics. Others took to the tune, though, and it has been recorded by Josephine Baker (in French), Erroll Garner, Petula Clark, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstein, Della Reese, Barbara Cook, Tony Bennett, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Diana Ross, Peggy Lee, Sammy Davis Jr., Jerry Orbach, and Frank Sinatra (in the soundtrack of “Pal Joey”).

You can hear Carmen MacRae and Sammy Davis Jr. sing their version of “There’s a Small Hotel” by clicking HERE.


3 Responses to ““Who wants people?””

  1. Lou Caruso Says:

    Loved the blog

  2. shoreacres Says:

    I’d forgotten the song, but as soon as I heard the tune, lyrics began coming back to mind.

    The elephant reminded me of this wonderful story about Mervyn Peake:

    “In 1939, Merryn Peake inveigled his wife-to-be, Maeve Gilmour, to his room in Battersea. It was a damp, run-down place on the first floor, with few facilities. But it had a bed, which was the important thing.

    In the middle of the night, however, they were wakened by noises from beneath, and when the lit a candle, they saw the floorboards were moving. Peake leapt up, and threw back the rug to reveal a trap door. He threw that back, too.

    While they were asleep, a circus had moved into the ground floor, and an elephant was scratching its back against the beams. For the rest of the night, they fed it buns.”

    Surely Rodgers and Hart could do something with that!

    • charlespaolino Says:

      That’s a wonderful story. There was a scene in the stage version of “Jumbo” in which Durante did a stunt with the elephant: Durante would lie down on the stage with a cinderblock next to his head, and the elephant would step over him and crush the cinderblock with his foot. After one performance, the big-game hunter Frank Buck went back stage to meet the cast. He told Durante, “I wouldn’t do that stunt with the cinderblock for a million dollars. You can never trust an elephant.” Durante went to the producer, Billy Rose, and told him the cinderblock was out.

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