Commentary: 'Conquests' leads buzz battle in East while West prepares for birthday bashes

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With the Tonys just two weeks away, this is the time eligible voters elbow their way into Broadway legit houses to check out nominated shows they might have missed.

The "must see" play of the moment seems to be "The Norman Conquests," nominated in the best play revival category, which means sitting through three full-length plays to get the full impact. Nonetheless, it has caught on like wildfire, fueled by its "event" status and solid payoff as a comedy gem

Out West: Garrett, Hope and Film Noir

It was 60 years ago that the lively, admired movie musical "On the Town" first saw the light of a projector. One of its co-stars was the lively, admired Broadway baby Betty Garrett, who celebrated her 30th birthday while the film was in production.

Years do fly by, and Betty officially turned 90 on Friday, as much of a surprise to her (she hadn't been counting) as to the rest of us (Betty Garrett 90? Impossible). But it's true. She's now officially a nonagenarian and enters that stage in her life in the best possible way: spunky, vital, interested and active.

She's also still tap dancing, something she'll demonstrate Sunday when she is toasted at a big-scale event at the Music Box @Fonda, spearheaded by Theatre West, Garrett's Los Angeles theatrical base for years and where she is a founding member.

"Betty Garrett's 90th Birthday Bash" will feature a star-crowded variety show and film clips compiled by David Engel, a master at the tricky art of editing whose challenge will include covering Garrett's life and career in a 10-minute montage.

The evening will be the kind of shindig Hollywood delivers better than any other place -- New York included. It's also a rare movietown event that has tickets available to the public.

Another major birthday is on the horizon: On Wednesday, Dolores Hope, widow of Bob Hope and a great philanthropist (and excellent singer in her own right), celebrates her 100th year. Two days later comes a first-day-of-issue celebration of the 44 cent Bob Hope commemorative stamp, set for the flight deck of the USS Midway Museum in San Diego.

Another West Coast doing: The Film Noir Film Festival in Palm Springs, Calif., created 10 years ago by mystery writer Arthur Lyons, begins Thursday, directed by Alan K. Rode and produced by Marvin Paige with guests including Barbara Rush, Robert Loggia, Anne Jeffreys and Ann Rutherford.

Fond farewells

The entertainment business recently lost two of its most loyal champions.

On the West Coast, Lee Solters, one of the last survivors among the big-time show-business publicists who spanned Hollywood's golden years of the 1940s into the 21st century, died May 18. He's a man I've admired for years, not only for his endless enthusiasm but also his ability to adjust to the changing times so smoothly.

When Lee began his tub-thumping for stars in a bygone era, it was during a time when there was gentlemanly courtesy between stars and the press, the paparazzi hadn't emerged as jackals and accuracy in a story was more important than expose.

Through the years, the rules of the game have changed. But Solters managed to remain a gentleman -- and a player and a force -- without losing his boundless enthusiasm to do best for his clients.

On the East Coast, writer-archivist Scott Schechter, a remarkable fellow who was an unflagging keeper of the flame for all things Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli, died suddenly May 14 of a heart attack at 48, a great shock to all his friends.

Schechter worked on everything from Garland and Minnelli CDs and DVDs to compiling books like 2002's "Judy Garland: The Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Legend," from Cooper Square Press, which literally listed Garland's daily activities from her birth at 5:30 a.m. on June 10, 1922, to her death June 22, 1969. (The research necessary to do that one staggers the imagination.)

If anyone wrote a word, pro or con, about Garland or Minnelli, Schechter was on the phone immediately to plead their case or say thank you for the mention. He also was an invaluable source when it came to fact-checking.

Beyond that, on his own, he was a rare, gentle and extremely nice human being.
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