May 20, 2015

It Happened on May 20th

Eliza Doolittle Day

Julie Andrews & Rex Harrison in the stage production.
The reference comes from the song "Just You Wait" in the musical My Fair Lady. Eliza fantasizes about her future successes:

One evening the King will say, "Oh, Liza, old thing.
I want all of England your praises to sing.
Next week on the twentieth of May
I proclaim Liza Doolittle Day!

"Just You Wait" is one of the few places in the movie where you can actually hear Audrey Hepburn's singing voice (at the beginning and end of the song.) Almost all of Eliza's Doolittle's singing was performed for Marni Nixon, who also sang for Deborah Kerr in The King and I and An Affair to Remember, and for Natalie Wood in West Side Story. She also hit the high notes for Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

The musical is based on George Bernard Shaw's play, Pygmalion. Shaw refused permission for anyone to make a musical of the play, so the project wasn't accomplished until after his death. Initially, the conversion of play to musical seemed impossible. The plot had no love story and no subplot, both almost unheard of in a musical. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe took a stab at it, but gave up. Rogers and Hammerstein had also previously attempted it, to no avail. Finally, Lerner and Lowe tried again after a two-year hiatus, and finally succeeded. The musical premiered on stage in 1956 and didn't close until 1962, after 2717 performances, a then-record for a musical. The movie version was made in 1964, and is unusual in that it contains all the songs from the stage play. It is the only Lerner and Lowe musical to be filmed without omissions.

If you're waxing nostalgic, here's a clip from My Fair Lady.

Fatal Accident at the Palais Garnier, 1896

The Palais Garnier in 1878.
The Palais Garnier, also known as the Opera de Paris, was the home of the Paris Opera for over a hundred years and an architectural marvel. It was commissioned by Emperor Napoleon III, and designed by Charles Garnier, the winner of an architectural competition for its design.

From the beginning, the Palais was plagued with difficulties. The site was on swampy ground, and it seemed that no matter how much water they pumped out, more would seep in from underground. By the time it was finished, there were rumors of a vast underground lake filled with fish under the opera house.

The Franco-Prussian War also interrupted building. Then came the end of the Second Empire, and after that, the Paris Commune. Building was intermittent during these years. The Palais Garnier might not have been completed at all, if it had not been for a fire which destroyed the Salle Le Peletier, which had previously housed the Paris Opera. The Palais Garnier was finished by 1874.

On May 20, 1896 there was a huge accident at the Palais Garnier, but accounts are a little confused as to exactly what took place. According to some accounts, the massive six ton chandelier fell. According to others, it was only a 700 pound counterweight. One thing that seems consistent is that one person was killed, and others were injured in the accident, but again, there are discrepancies. One story has the counterweight falling on a workman. Another has the chandelier killing a theater patron. It may be that there was more than one accident involved, and through the years the dates have been confused.

The 7-ton chandelier.
All of these features of the Palais Garnier -- the accident, the underground lake, and the network of passageways beneath the opera house -- captured the imagination of Gaston Leroux, who used the Palais as the setting for his classic novel, The Phantom of the Opera. The underground passageways are a fact, although they are brightly lit with electrical lights today. The underground pond is a fact also. It was created in order to halt the rising of any more water, after a number of attempts to pump the site dry failed. The weight of the water keeps any more water from rising, and the tank itself helps to stabilize the building. Today the tank is completely covered, except for a small grating. As recently as 2010, the tank was in use as a training ground for French firefighters learning to swim in the dark.

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