Saturday, January 1, 2022

Finding the Real Tulsa: chorus boys, lost and found

While we mourn the loss of some great stars of stage, TV and film,
 I’m thinking about an actor-dancer who was more forgotten than most, 

and undeservedly so.

Paul Wallace and Natalie Wood in Gypsy

2021 had some major celebrity deaths, including most prominently 

 Stephen Sondheim and Betty White, mostly because of the timing. 

Sondheim died just before a revival of his musical Company was 

hitting the stages on Broadway. And Betty White died on New Year's Eve 

at nearly 100 years old.

Another prominent death in the Broadway world was Harvey Evans

who was one of the Jets as a first replacement in the original stage production 

of West Side Story as well as the 1961 film version. By focusing on the two musicals 

that featured the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story and Gypsy

I found a loss, a surprising survivor, and another tragic death that happened long ago.

Harvey Evans recently died and was celebrated for his long career in many musicals 

including How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying and a touring 

production of La Cage aux Folles, in which he played ZaZa. 

He even posed nude on the cover of After Dark magazine in a very sexy pose.

In the multiple times that I watched the original film West Side Story  

–on television as a kid, in theaters (including a 1988 screening in New York City 

where I had the pleasure of meeting director Robert Wise), and then on the 

50th anniversary DVD, I basically followed one dancer after another 

with each viewing. 

I'd be fascinated by every one of Russ Tamblyn's gymnastic tumbling moves. 

In another viewing (including three times at a Columbus repertory cinema 

while a Dance major at Ohio State University, one time bringing a few classmates), 

I would focus on the stunningly handsome Tucker Smith (Ice). 

Evans was another Crush as well, as was George Chakiris.



A touchin’ good story

 One actor-dancer who continuously intrigued me was David Bean

who played Tiger, a renamed role from his original performance as 

Big Deal in the London production of West Side Story and then later in the film. 

His bright red hair, sturdy looks and dancing abilities beguiled me, including 

his comic flair as the dopey cop in “Gee, Officer Krupke.”  

But for years I couldn't find any information about him.

That all changed with his endearing new memoir,
When You're a Jet

which was recently published. In it, Bean discusses his early career 

as one of the Lost Boys in a production of Peter Pan with Mary Martin, 

his friendship with British actor Cyril Ritchard, who played Captain Hook, 

and his touring life as a dancer.

His romance with dancer Jean Deeks (who played Anybodys) led to a marriage 

and a life beyond dancing as a shopkeeper, farm owner, among other career moves 

at various homes in Upstate New York. Bean caps off his memoir with a recent update 

and a well-timed description of his cameo role as a fabric seller in the 

2021 Steven Spielberg production of West Side Story

Imagine being a young dancer in such a prestigious film and 

getting to meet one of the original dancers and hear stories about 

working with greats like Jerome Robbins.

Bean's memoir never goes too far into dishy gossip; 

he's respectful of all his colleagues and his life is far from the fictional version 

of a gang member in 1950s New York City. 

But considering that his good friend George Chakiris, 

as well as his boss, Jerome Robbins, and the show’s dance captain 

(and Robbins’ boyfriend) Tommy Abbott (Gee-tar), were gay, 

Bean never mentions that. But, hey, it was the late ’50s and early ’60s.

Paul Wallace (2nd left) in the Broadway Gypsy









Historical news

Let's go back to Gypsy. My seventh novel Finding Tulsa is about a gay 1990s 

film director who reconnects with his summer theater crush from a production 

of the musical based on the life of burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee. 

My fictional narrator, Stan Grozniak, played the young Tulsa while 

Lance Holtzer played the young adult version. Their reunion years later 

leads to an unusual romance as Stan navigates his Hollywood comeback and 

Lance gets finally gets a starring role in Stan’s film.

While I did a lot of research about the 1990s Los Angeles scene and film 

directing as well, I didn't need to do much research about being a boy in a 

production of Gypsy because that actually happened at a small College 

in Ohio where I was raised.

And while my fictional novel focuses on the two versions of Tulsa, in real life 

I actually played Yonkers, another newsboy. While I did have a crush on the actor 

who played the older Yonkers, I actually realized while looking through the 

old program from 1976 that pretty much all the older newsboys were the 

objects of my teenage affection. I couldn't find much information about them 

(except for one guy who is still a social media friend), but it led me down another 

path of research that I could have done while finishing the novel Finding Tulsa

But what I found would not have been searchable exactly in the 1990s 

when most of the novel is set.

I'm talking mostly about Paul Wallace, who played Tulsa in the original 

Broadway cast that starred Ethel Merman. Wallace also recreated his role as Tulsa 

in the film version in which starred Natalie Wood 

(side note: Bert Michaels was in both shows and films of Gypsy and West Side Story.)

All I need now is…

In recently re-reading Gypsy Rose Lee's memoir, I enjoyed discovering certain 

scenes that were different from the film and stage play, but also some that matched 

it very closely. For example, Tessie Tura the stripper is in the memoir, whereas the 

other two strippers are made up. But some lines in the musical were directly taken 

from Lee’s memoir, like “Maybe there’s somethin’ wrong with your bumper.”



But here's an interesting discovery; in the memoir, Lee discusses how one

male dancer is discovered in a back alley working on a routine and Louise 

discovers him. That dancer's name was actually Stanley, which is ironic considering 

the narrator in my novel is named Stanley as well. 


The dancer who ends up running away with June was actually a different guy, 

but of course in the stage script and screenplay, combining the two made for 

better dramatic intent.

This all led me down a path I could have taken while finishing my novel, 

that of the life of Paul Wallace. The death of Evans, White and Sondheim 

didn't induce grief as much as cause for a celebration of their lengthy 

accomplished lives. Wallace did not enjoy that privilege.

Little can be found about Paul Norton Willens (stage name Paul Wallace), 

except that he was born on May 26, 1938 in Los Angeles, California, 

and is known for his work on Gypsy (1962), Johnny Trouble (1957) 

and The Wild Wild West (1965). He died on November 30, 2001 

at age 63 in Cathedral City, California. Wallace also had a recurring role 

as Kippy in the TV series Father Knows Best.

Here he is with Ethel Merman in the 1960 TV special, Ford Star Time.




That the city of his death is known for a large gay male community might be a clue 

that my preteen gaydar may have been accurate in his case, whereas it went haywire 

in my real-life summer theater days.

But what did Wallace do in the subsequent decades of his life? Who, if anyone, 

were his boyfriends, friends, and who attended his memorial, if there even was one?

An IMDB comment notes, “A fan [on a Father Knows Best Facebook page] 

responded to my post stating that sadly Paul Wallace died of AIDS a long time ago.”


While in
Finding Tulsa I did include characters who die of AIDS, 

and an openly HIV-positive character, I did not go down an obsessive path where 

Stan tries to find out what happened to Wallace himself. In the mid-1990s, 

the internet was in a very early stage, and there's no way he could have even 

discovered that Wallace had died. This could have taken on a theme not unlike

Geoff Ryman's magnificent novel Was, which is partially about an actor who 

plays the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz and slowly dies of AIDS.

Instead I chose a path of reunions, rediscovery and hope. 

My point is that while it's great to honor those who lived full lives 

and accomplished a lot, it’s not ‘tragic’ when someone dies at nearly 100. 

The true tragedy is people like Paul Wallace, who seemingly disappeared.


Fellow writer Jim Baxter shared some rare news clippings about Paul Wallace from 1962, 1972 and 1977. He had quite a career after being the show-stopping Tulsa on Broadway, starring in regional musicals, becoming a choreographer, and giving private dance lessons to other performers. Click on the images or download them to read. Of course, there's no mention of his personal life, so I still consider his later years to be remain a mystery.

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