BWW Interview: Barry Yellen Took Broadway to Puerto Rico 50 Years Before HAMILTON
After graduating from Manhattan's High School of Performing Arts in 1953, Barry Yellen wore many hats: stage manager, lighting designer, car show producer, managing director, touring show booker, film producer and distributor, fund manager.
San Juan Mayor Felisa Rincón de Gautier had restored the Teatro Tapia, a theater built in 1827, and it became home to 24 of Yellen's dramatic productions such as ARSENIC AND OLD LACE starring Boris Karloff and THE PLEASURE OF HIS COMPANY starring Joan Bennett.
He also produced the first overseas production of WEST SIDE STORY at the University of Puerto Rico's Río Peidras campus, but political unrest brought down the curtain.
"When the last season was announced," Yellen recalls, "there was a whole uproar. El Mundo, the Spanish-language newspaper, had cartoons of me strangling Puerto Rican culture. 'How dare the government invest in a theatrical enterprise with a norteamericano!'" He says independentistas were behind it all.
"On opening night of AUNTIE MAME with Gypsy Rose Lee there was a big party, and someone came in to tell me they had set fire to the theater. We worked very hard to rebuild sets and opened a little late the second night, but the government wanted to end it."
Back in New York, Yellen started booking bus-and-truck-tours for shows like MY FAIR LADY in Buffalo and Pittsburgh. During this time, he befriended a United Artist Theater film buyer who introduced him to Pat De Lieto (Miss Subways October 1950) and they were married 55 years ago.
His confidence restored, Yellen bought a 1951 Italian movie called THE SEVEN DWARFS TO THE RESCUE and left with Pat for Italy to rewrite it and dub it into English. DWARFS was re-released in January 1965 and made a lot of money for their Childhood Productions company.
He then went to Germany and via Italy returned with nearly a dozen more children's films. "Disney was furious! Here we are releasing SNOW WHITE, SLEEPING BEAUTY...but we always said, ALL LIVE! in big letters."
Each of these films and their musical companion records were narrated by Paul Tripp, who had hosted the CBS-TV children's show MR. I. MAGINATION. Tripp rewrote one episode into a full-length feature and Yellen produced THE CHRISTMAS THAT ALMOST WASN'T at Cinecittà Studios in Italy.
Tripp played Sam Whipple (also the name of his character in TALES OF TOMORROW) who tries to help Santa Claus out of a financial jam. Rossano Brazzi directed and played the villain Phineas T. Prune; his wife Lydia Brazzi was Mrs. Claus.
Yellen cast little people from DWARFS as Santa's helpers -- opposite six-foot-two character actor Mischa Auer as the elf foreman. Although the actors spoke English, the set was too noisy, so everything had to be dubbed after shooting wrapped.
"Mischa's syncing was so far off. He'd turn to me and say, 'Right on the nose, Barry!' And I'd say, 'Let's do another take, Mischa.'"
Yellen's gamble broke matinee records in New York City during Thanksgiving Week of 1966, so why not Christmas Week? "We made 400 prints and arranged to release it all over the country with a heavy advertising campaign, but nobody's really interested in a Christmas film after Christmas and we lost a lot of money."
Left with two choices: go bankrupt or go public, Yellen sold stock in his company and raised half-a-million dollars. He bought a string of movie theatres and started distributing foreign films like Golden Globe nominee THE VIRGIN AND THE GYPSY and PERFECT FRIDAY.
Then along came pay-per-view television and stock value plummeted; shareholders bought Yellen out. Once again, he reinvented himself and became a major VHS movie distributor in Oklahoma and Texas.
In the 1970s, Yellen formed a joint venture with Steve Carlin, creator of THE $64,000 QUESTION, and pitched Viacom to distribute an updated version of the 1950s game show. THE $128,000 QUESTION became the highest-rated show in syndication and Yellen decided to give films another shot.
Creative differences with NYIT's president prompted them to sell the musical tracks conducted by Tony Award-winning Lehman Engel - who was Yellen's musical director for the San Juan Festival.
The second idea involved artist-friend Dong Kingman who was recruited as art director for an animated musical called THE ROCK HOBBIT based on J. R. R. Tolkien's fantasy works. Yellen's project was blocked by Saul Zaentz who would later produce Ralph Bakshi's rotoscoped THE LORD OF THE RINGS.
"We had a lot of rock stars and a big album lined up, but Zaentz started this lawsuit, so I sold him the merchandising rights and quit show business. I'd had enough ups and downs in my life. I decided to do something extremely conservative - covered option writing."
Eventually, Yellen bought back the rights to CHRISTMAS and earned even more money. "I made a deal with HBO and they paid me a little over a million dollars. I still get royalties each year, but at this point I would sell the rights to someone."
If he did, he'd likely donate any proceeds to one of Pat and Barry Yellen's research endowments at the University of Arizona Cancer Center, Weizmann Institute of Science or Massachusetts General Hospital.
Like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Yellen's legacy could do more than entertain.