Doctor, Dear Doctor! premiered at Philadelphia’s Shubert Theater in November 1951. Grandpa and his fellow scriptwriters apparently left Moliere’s original plot alone, as the gags about the dimwitted, dissolute woodchopper Sganarelle turned doctor proved just as funny then as they were during the “Grand Siecle.” The show received a glowing review from Henry T. Murdock in the Philadelphia Inquirer on November 21: “This reviewer wasn’t around in 1889 when Lurline launched the Wiggers’ history,” he wrote, “nor for a few years after that, but taking the standard of the last 25 years, few shows have been so attractively staged, so colorfully staged, or so swiftly danced as the current enterprise at the Shubert.”
Glancing through the program book, I found a big surprise: among those in the show’s cast are a senior named Sydney T. Fisher and a sophomore named Barry E. Knerr, both of whom I would one day sing with in the Orpheus Club of Philadelphia.
That was the last year Grandpa contributed songs and his time as a rehearsal pianist to the Mask and Wig Club. Perhaps, by then, he had realized that, despite his prodigious musical talent, making it big in show business was not in the cards for him. By then, his career as an insurance executive was taking up more and more of his time. Despite the fine reviews, Doctor, Dear Doctor! was his last hurrah, and he knew it. Within a few years, he had moved to New York, was widowed, married his second wife — my grandmother — and adopted her two small children — my uncle and mother. He enthusiastically supported my mother’s studies as a classical violinist — the two of them spent many hours playing piano and violin sonatas in their Manhattan living room.
Yet my guess is that despite the local success of Doctor, Dear Doctor?, Grandpa then realized that American musical theater was destined to be his pastime rather than his livelihood. He continued to attend shows and remain active in the Graduate Club — my New York-born grandmother said that back then, there was no where to eat in Philadelphia except Bookbinders (of course) — but it seems that he cut back on his musical contributions.
Grandpa Joe died in 1989, aged 81. I was ten at the time.I now live in West Philadelphia, not far from where he grew up and only a few blocks from the University. It is only now that I am asking questions that I wish my ten-year-old self could as he gleefully played the theme from “Peter and the Wolf” for my brother and me. But for now, I must be content with these old images and what others remember of him, as well as the whoosh-clang of the Lancaster Avenue trolley that runs along the line that probably once took Granda Joe to college and a better life.
It’s not just “Peter and the Wolf” that I associate with Grandpa, but a wistful Mask and Wig tune from the 1937 show Fifty/Fifty that for so long sat unplayed in my family’s record collection: “I Live the Life I Love.”