Monday, February 15, 2010

Oscar Serlin and Broadway

Oscar Serlin featured in Life magazine enjoying Life With Father.

Oscar Serlin - Football 1924
DePaul has long had a rich tradition in the theatre world. In Uncovering Blue Demon Treasures, today's spotlight will be on football alum Oscar Serlin '26 and his place in Broadway history.

In the June 1945 issue of DePaul University Alumni News, unassumingly hidden in the Down Memory Lane... section was a small blurb about Serlin.

"Oscar Serlin, LA '26, who played football under Eddie Anderson and laid the foundations for his career as a producer here at DePaul, has been getting more publicity than ever as his "Life with Father" rolls on and on. Colliers and Coronet each featured Oscar in special articles during the last month.

His play has had a longer continuous run on Broadway than any other play...Oscar is always on hand in Madison Square, rooting for his Alma Mater, when the boys play in New York."

Serlin's Life with Father certainly had staying power. The original play is still the longest running play in Broadway history. Opening on Nov. 8, 1939 and running until July 12, 1947, Serlin's masterpiece was played 3,224 consecutive performances. A film version was released in 1947.

The production remains the 15th longest run in Broadway history. Life with Father ranks among the all-time greats of Broadway.

1. Phantom of the Opera - 9,163 performances
2. Cats - 7,485
3. Les Miserables - 6,680 performances
4. A Chorus Line - 6,137 performances
5. Oh! Calcutta - 5,959 performances
6. Chicago - 5,492 performances
7. Beauty and the Beast - 5,461 performances
8. Rent - 5,123 performances
9 . The Lion King - 5,077 performances
10. Miss Saigon - 4,092 performances
11. 42nd Street - 3,486 performances
12. Momma Mia! - 3,440 performances
13. Grease - 3,388 performances
14. Fiddler on the Roof - 3,242 performances
15. Life with Father, - 3,224 performances

Serlin and his production were featured in Time on Sept. 14, 1942.

For nearly three years the ten owners of Life With Father sat tight and looked haughty. They were in no hurry: oil was gushing in their own backyard, and Hollywood's checks could be waved away. The ten owners—Producer Oscar Serlin, Adapters Lindsay & Crouse, Mrs. Clarence Day, John Hay Whitney and the rest—saw Life With Father gross $973,000 on Broadway the first year, $860,000 the second, could still count on a tidy sum the third, while road companies grossed $2,000,000 more. Inwardly they rocked with laughter thinking of the $15,000 Warner Bros, had once offered for the film rights; but last year when Mary Pickford offered half a million, their no was just as brusque.

Last week the ten owners finally unbent. With Producer Serlin about to go in the Army, they announced to the movie industry that Life With Father could be had. It was hardly an announcement; it was more like a proclamation. The unprecedented terms at which the bidding could start would have satisfied even Father:*

> $500,000 down, plus a percentage of the gross receipts.

> The film rights revert after seven years, and only one film can be made.

> The picture must be made entirely from the material in the play.

> Mrs. Day and Lindsay & Crouse are to have editorial jurisdiction over the movie, especially in matters of "good taste," and can stop any script they dislike from being filmed.

> No radio or television rights go with the sale.

> The picture cannot be released before the end of 1944. (The owners believe that Father will run for five years on Broadway.)

In Hollywood, cinemakers first gasped, then gulped. The general feeling was that the terms were fantastic, and if accepted would create a dangerous precedent. Warner's Charles Einfeld came closest to a favorable reaction about Father: "It's a tough deal but ... a terrific property." Most other people think that Serlin & Co. may have overreached themselves.

Husky, Polish-born, 41-year-old Producer Serlin once played football for Catholic De Paul University, where he was the only Jew in the student body. Stagestruck, he became a smalltime actor, later a smalltime producer, putting on several flops while rejecting such hits as Once in a Lifetime and Room Service. He found his feet as talent scout for Paramount, where he discovered Cary Grant, Margo, Gladys Swarthout, many another. Sniffing a hit in Clarence Day's Father sketches, he tied up the stage rights, commissioned Lindsay & Crouse to write the play. His last chore before entering the Army will be to produce their new one, Strip for Action, which reaches Broadway late this month.

* In real life the late Clarence Day Sr., crusty Wall Street broker of the horsecar days, son of the New York Sun's Founder Benjamin Day.

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At this point little is known about Serlin's time at DePaul other than his own admission to playing football for DePaul in his Time interview and the editor's insertion about him playing for DePaul's Anderson on the gridiron in the alumni.

More digging will be required as we continue to work to Uncover Blue Demon Treasures.