The Bootleg Files: Dames at Sea

BOOTLEG FILES 849: “Dames at Sea” (1971 made-for-television musical starring Ann-Margret, Ann Miller and Anne Meara).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: There could be a rights issue preventing its release.


In 1966, the tiny Caffe Cino in New York City’s Greenwich Village offered “Dames at Sea, or Golddiggers Afloat,” a good-natured send-up of the 1930s Warner Bros. musicals. With music by Jim Wise and lyrics and a book by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller, this 50-minute mini-production presented an unknown 18-year-old Bernadette Peters as Ruby, a send-up of the kid-in-the-chorus-who-becomes-a-star role that Ruby Keeler played in the yesteryear extravaganzas.

For a no-budget show – the production had six actors and two pianos – this offering ran for a highly respectable 148 performances. In 1968, with the shorter title “Dames at Sea,” it reopened at Off-Broadway’s Bouwerie Lane Theatre and later moved to the Theater de Lys, with a combined run of 575 performances. A British production opened in London’s West End in 1969 and ran for 127 performances – that production was videotaped and shown on the BBC series “Theatre Date,” but sadly no copy of the telecast is known to survive.

In 1971, “Dames at Sea” was tapped for presentation by the Bell System Family Theater on NBC. But rather than retain the bare bones production values and minimal cast of the Caffe Cino and Off-Broadway presentations, this television version provided flashy sets, full orchestrations and a small brigade of dancer. The result drastically altered the nature of what the “Dames of Sea” creators intended. Rather than serve up a lo-fi spoof to the Warner Bros. extravaganzas, the TV version copied the source material that the stage show was spoofing.

But even if you don’t know the back story to “Dames at Sea,” the TV version doesn’t quite click. Despite the intentionally corny dialogue and lyrics that gently mock the soundtracks to the 1930s classics, the production is played as a standard musical-comedy rather than a tongue-in-cheek riff. The result is an entertaining distraction that nonetheless misses its mark.

“Dames at Sea” opens during the rehearsals of a 1930s Broadway musical starring temperamental star Mona Kent, played by Ann Miller. The opening number shows Miller at her finest, with corybantic tap dancing and an oversized hairdo that personifies camp. The show’s director Hennessy (played by Fred Gwynne) is a quiver of nerves in trying to mollify the star while the chorus girl Joan (Anne Meara, channeling Joan Bennett from the old flicks) piles on the wisecracks.

Into this mix arrives Ruby, a naïve would-be performer from Utah. She’s played by Ann-Margret – at the time, Bernadette Peters was still unknown outside of the New York theater scene and the producers felt they needed a bigger name to sell the show. Ruby comes with a suitcase that only contains her tap shoes, but her arrival proves to be fortuitous – not only does she immediately land a job in the chorus of the show, but she falls in love with Dick, a handsome blonde sailor who happens to be a songwriter (Harvey Evans, obviously spoofing Dick Powell’s screen persona).

But suddenly, there is some truly bad luck – the theater is being torn down. Dick convinces the captain of his ship to stage the show on their vessel – Dick Shawn plays the captain, and who should be his former lover than the wonderfully awful Mona Kent. But when Mona becomes seasick right before the opening, Ruby steps into the starring role and becomes an overnight sensation.

If there is a major flaw in “Dames at Sea,” it would be the feeling that the cast members seem to be doing their own things and never working together. Ann-Margret brings the silly sincerity of Ruby Keeler’s Warner Bros.-era naivete, but in the musical numbers she suddenly become the Ann-Margret that everyone knows and loves. New York Times television critic was especially cruel in diagnosing her performance, claiming, “Hefty of limb and husky of voice, she projects an interesting image but it is not quite that of an innocent ingenue.”

Ann Miller is doing her 1940s MGM shtick and Anne Meara lays on the smart-aleck observations a little too hard. Dick Shawn seems detached from the surroundings – considering his ability to steal scenes, he seems curiously eager to allow everyone else to shine. And I know it is wrong to say this, but it is impossible to watch Fred Gwynne and not hear Al Lewis bellowing “Hoiman!”

“Dames at Sea” was broadcast on November 15, 1971, but made no great impact on audiences. The show itself would continue to be a popular offering in regional and student theaters thanks to the minimalism required for staging, and it made its belated Broadway debut in 2015.

To date, there has been no commercial home entertainment release of “Dames at Sea.” I would assume music and performance rights issues keep this out of circulation, although a decent bootleg video has been uploaded to YouTube for anyone who cares.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

Listen to Phil Hall’s award-winning podcast “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud and his radio show “Nutmeg Chatter” on WAPJ-FM in Torrington, Connecticut, with a new episode every Sunday. His new book “100 Years of Wall Street Crooks” is now in release through Bicep Books.