Walter Winchell? Michael Todd? Rose Bigman? Helene Hanff? Richard Rodgers?
Dear Quote Investigator: The most famous review in Broadway history is also the most controversial, and I hope you can help solve the following mystery.
In 1943 a hardworking theater group in New Haven, Connecticut was trying to prepare a major musical so that it could move to Broadway. The production was called “Away We Go!” and the local audience was welcoming. But an important visitor from New York saw the show and was decidedly unenthusiastic. The women in the cast wore appropriate period costumes, long dresses. The reviewer thought that the display of feminine pulchritude was fundamental to success, so the following devastating one-line analysis was communicated to New York:
No legs; No jokes; No chance!
A major investor threatened to drop out, but the company persevered. When the production was transferred to Broadway it had a new title: “Oklahoma!” and box-office records were smashed. “Oklahoma!” became the longest running and most successful musical of its era.
However, this popular Broadway legend has more than one version because the identity of the New York visitor is uncertain. Some say that the influential producer Mike Todd created the inaccurate review. Others say that Rose Bigman heard the statement or composed the statement and sent it via telegram to New York. She was the right-hand assistant of Walter Winchell the most powerful newspaper columnist and radio commentator of the period. The legend says Winchell published the now infamous appraisal in his widely distributed column. Another scandalous tale says the true unexpurgated comment was “No tits; No jokes; No chance.” What do you think?
Quote Investigator: The New Haven premiere of “Away We Go!” occurred on March 11, 1943. Some references claim that the lacerating evaluation was published shortly after this performance, but QI has been unable to find any evidence supporting this claim.
The Broadway production with the updated title “Oklahoma!” opened on March 31, 1943. Three months later, on June 24, 1943, Walter Winchell’s syndicated column was printed in the Augusta Chronicle with the following comment about the musical which was already a triumph. Note that the repeated dots in this text are part of Winchell’s writing style and do not represent an ellipsis [OKW1]:
The success of “Oklahoma” still is Broadway tabletalk. …The musical was “a sleeper.” …There was no advance gab about it. ..None of the usual excitement of a Theatre Guild first night …Even the ticket brokers were unimpressed after witnessing it at New Haven. One spec summed up this way: “No jokes, no legs, no chance!”
This is the earliest instance of the well-known remark that QI has located. Note that the first two elements, “No jokes” and “No legs”, are swapped when compared to the most common modern version.
Clearly, Winchell was not attacking the play in this piece; instead, he was criticizing a wildly inaccurate prediction. Also, he did not publicly attach a name to the harsh statement. The next week, on June 29th, Winchell printed a humorous and joyful follow-up response from a member of the theater company [OKW2]:
The quip here about “Oklahoma” being unappreciated during the try-outs and a N.Y. ticket spec summing up: “No jokes, no legs, no chance!” is topped by Jean Roberts of the cast .. “And now,” she telegraphs, “no tickets!”
More than a decade later in 1957 the notable Broadway press agent Richard Maney wrote about the early reception of “Oklahoma!” In one sentence he presented Mike Todd’s negative opinion of the show. In the immediately succeeding sentence he mentioned the notorious phrase which he attributed to a “Broadway ticket broker”. In a third sentence he listed the critique of theater owner Lee Shubert. A rapid reader might have connected the key comment to Todd instead of an anonymous ticket broker. In the following excerpt Lindy’s referred to a popular New York City restaurant [FFRM] [PPRM]:
“Are they going to ask $3.60 for that?” jeered Michael Todd, even then identified as a genius by the illuminati in Lindy’s. “No legs, no jokes, no chance!” was the verdict of a Broadway ticket broker credited with occult powers. Lee Shubert frowned on the proceedings. No musical could prosper in which a character was killed, he said.
In 1960 a columnist named Harlowe R. Hoyt writing in the Cleveland Plain Dealer attributed the remark directly to producer Mike Todd [CPMT]:
And the late Mike Todd jeered “Oklahoma” with: “No legs, no jokes, no chance.”
Starting in 1961 two strongly conflicting accounts about this episode in musical history emerged. One account was outlined by a publicist for “Oklahoma!” named Helene Hanff in an article published in Harper’s Magazine in March 1961. Another version was given by Walter Winchell in a series of rebuttals printed in his column and in his memoir. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Hanff’s story was titled “No Legs, No Jokes, No Chance” and the subtitle hinted at its main revelation concerning Winchell [WWHH]:
A reformed theatrical press agent recalls a chapter in her past which taught her—among other things—that even a Broadway columnist can miss a hit.
Hanff was employed by the Theatre Guild which was creating the landmark musical in the 1940s. The co-producers of long-standing for the Guild were Theresa Helburn and Lawrence Langner who were referred to as Terry and Lawrence in the article. Hanff performed press duties with her boss, Joe Heidt, who was identified only as “Joe” in the article.
Joe was excited about the show, but he felt that the preliminary out-of-town version was not quite ready for exposure to the fault-finding perspectives of New York theater professionals. After the New Haven premiere on March 11th Joe indicated that [WWHH]:
A few wiseacres had come up from New York and said the show was corn and wouldn’t last a week on Broadway.
But the next day the troubles for the production grew when Joe spoke to an unidentified columnist who delivered dire news [WWHH]:
According to the columnist, Winchell’s Rose had gone up to New Haven, seen the show, and wired Winchell her report. The wire read:
NO LEGS NO JOKES NO CHANCE
Winchell, said the columnist, had shown the wire to our principal backer, who was at this moment rumored to be pulling his $30,000 out of the show.
Joe called New Haven. Terry and Lawrence had heard about the wire, but they didn’t mention, the $30,000, and neither did he. They merely said calmly that the show would open in Boston on schedule.
Happily, the group overcame all obstacles, and the piece ended with the show on the cusp of glorious success on Broadway. The magazine story was reprinted in multiple newspapers such as the Emporia Gazette in Kansas [EGHH].
Hanff was spreading the claim about Rose Bigman and Winchell, but its veracity depended on an anonymous columnist of unknown reliability who spoke with her friend Joe, i.e., her knowledge was indirect. In fact, there were columnists who were very hostile toward rival Winchell. Winchell was furious that he and his secretary had been tagged with the quotation, and he used his column to respond in April 1961 [HHW1]:
Broadway History Lesson: Harper’s for March was misled by a fact butcher named Helene Hanff, formerly of the Theater Guild press staff . . . Reminiscing about the tryout of “Oklahoma” (in New Haven), she reported that Our Girl Friday had inspected the show there and wired us: “No Legs. No Jokes. No Chance” . . . It never happened and Miss Careless ought to return the check to Harper’s . . . Richard Rodgers (that hit’s composer-co-boss) is our star witness . . . In Sardi’s one night he told us Mike Todd and other wisenheimers had so described it in New Haven: ‘No Legs. No Jokes, No Chance!” . . . “And now,” chuckled Rodgers, “no tickets!”
In July 1961 Winchell complained that Reader’s Digest had reprinted the Harper’s story which he called “bunk”. He presented a letter that he said was sent to him by the composer Richard Rodgers [HHW2]:
“Dear Walter,” he writes, “it gives me the greatest pleasure to tell you that your entire account of the ‘Oklahoma!’ episode is completely accurate. I remember vividly sitting with you in Sardi’s and telling you the joke about the knockers saying ‘No legs, no jokes, no chance!’ You’ve recalled it with entire accuracy in your column, but if you need verification, here it is. Dick.”
Over time additional versions of the tale were propagated. Here is an example with a setting in Boston instead of New Haven that was printed in July 1961 in a gossip column called “Around the Town” [NTBO]:
Walter Winchell had a review of the show wired back to him from Boston by his secretary, who had seen it. The review went something like this: “No legs, no jokes, no chance.” She was a pretty wrong gal. It became one of the great success stories of the stage and the songs are still popular.
In 1969 the columnist Jack O’Brian described Mike Todd returning to Lindy’s restaurant in New York after seeing “one dull act” of “Away We Go!” in New Haven in 1943. Todd pronounced a variant of the phrase to the denizens of the eatery. The term “Minsky” referred to burlesque entertainment in the following passage [MTJO]:
Mikes analysis was of a more Minsky than artistic philosophy: “No broads, no jokes, no chance,” Mike stated.
In 1971 an interview with Helene Hanff was printed in the Saturday Review magazine. She continued to maintain the correctness of the story she wrote in Harper’s, and she specified the name of the investor who withdrew funding [SRHH]:
“I had written a little story of how Oklahoma came about. I took my title from the wire Walter Winchell’s secretary sent him after the New Haven opening—NO LEGS, NO JOKES, NO CHANCE.
“That was when,” Miss Hanff went on, “Howard Cullman took his $30,000 out, but don’t put that in—in fact, don’t put Winchell in at all—he’ll kill me. After the article, he called me ‘Harper’s Fact Butcher.'”
In 1975 Richard Rodgers published his autobiography “Musical Stages”, and he discussed this topic [RRWW]:
There was a celebrated remark, “No legs, no jokes, no chance,” quoted in Walter Winchell’s column. Somehow people got the mistaken idea that he’d made it up, but he had used it merely to show how wrong the Broadway crowd had been about Oklahoma!’s chances. The man generally believed to have originated the line was producer Mike Todd. Everyone knew that he had left in the middle of the show in New Haven. Later he apologized to me, explaining that a friend of his was in jail in New York and he had to rush back to bail him out.
Walter Winchell’s 1975 posthumous memoir “Winchell Exclusive” contained a short chapter outlining his viewpoint on this affair. He was adamant that his secretary, Rose Bigman, had not travelled to New Haven [WERR]:
The facts: My Girl Friday has never seen a show outside of New York. She has never been in New Haven. She never sent me such a telegram.
Winchell said that he lavishly praised the musical when it opened in New York. Later he was told about the atrocious capsule review by Richard Rodgers who heard it while unobtrusively listening to remarks made in the lobby during intermission. The actual phrase spoken by Michael Todd contained the word “tits” which was too vulgar to print in newspapers in 1943, so Winchell replaced “tits” with “legs” in his column. Here is an excerpt [WERR]:
Six months later—after Oklahoma! had been a daily sellout from the First Night (and for many years)—composer Richard Rodgers invited me to share his table for two in Sardi’s. He was dining solo.
“Remember the paragraph I ran after all the Oklahoma! notices embraced it? When I revealed how you listened to the New Haven lobby crowd to hear what was being said and you heard Mike Todd tell a group of Broadway people: ‘No Jokes, No Tits, No Chance!'”
Richard smiled and said yes.
“And now,” we quipped, “NO TICKETS!”
I ran that exchange with Richard in next day’s column. Of course I laundered it: “No Jokes, No Legs, No Chance.”
In conclusion, QI thinks that the preponderance of evidence suggests that Michael Todd originated the famous remark about Oklahoma! Also, when Winchell printed a version of the remark in his column in 1943 he was not criticizing the musical. He was demonstrating that initial reactions to the musical were sometimes wrongheaded. Other aspects of the conflicting accounts are difficult to evaluate. Individual readers may decide who they wish to believe. Perhaps more evidence will surface in the future.
(Many thanks to Mark Milano whose inquiry inspired the construction of this question and provided the impetus for this examination. Milano had already performed excellent research on this topic, and he shared his citations with QI as noted in the bibliographical material below.)
Comment about citations: Because Walter Winchell’s column was widely syndicated the same text was published on many different dates. Also, the column was sometimes edited to fit into a smaller space, i.e., text was removed. QI has attempted to select citations with full versions of the relevant material. QI has not tried to find the earliest publication date for a particular column instance.
Update History: On October 13, 2012 the citation for “Fanfare” by Richard Maney was added.
[OKW1]] 1943 June 24, Augusta Chronicle, Walter Winchell On Broadway [Syndicated], Page 9, Augusta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)
[OKW2] 1943 June 29, Augusta Chronicle, Walter Winchell On Broadway [Syndicated], Page 5, Augusta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)
[FFRM] 1957, Fanfare: The Confessions of a Press Agent, by Richard Maney, Quote Page 90 and 91, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)
[PPRM] 1958, The Passionate Playgoer: A Personal Scrapbook Edited by George Oppenheimer, [Reprint of Chapter: “Too Err is Human” from the book “Fanfare: The Confessions of a Press Agent” by Richard Maney; Published in 1957 by Harper & Brothers], Start Page 371, Quote Page 378, Viking Press, New York. (Verified on paper)
[CPMT] 1960 April 17, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Poor Old Broadway: Speculation Spectre Dims ‘Bright Lights’ by Harlowe R. Hoyt, Page 2-G, [GNB Page 154], Column 8, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
[WWHH] 1961 March, Harper’s Magazine, Volume 222, “No Legs, No Jokes, No Chance” by Helene Hanff, Start Page 45, Quote Page 45 and 47, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on microfilm)
[EGHH] 1961 March 17, Emporia Gazette, No Legs and No Chance by Helen Hanff, Page 4, Column 7, Emporia, Kansas. (GenealogyBank)
[HHW1] 1961 April 6, Daily Record, On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Page 4, Column 8, Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive) (Many thanks to Mark Milano who pointed out this column to QI)
[HHW2] 1961 July 19, San Antonio Light, NewsArch Page 30, Column 4, San Antonio, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)
[NTBO] 1961 July 20, Nashua Telegraph, Around the Town, Page 14, Column 7, Nashua, New Hampshire. (NewspaperArchive)
[MTJO] 1969 June 28, Schenectady Gazette, By Jack O’Brian, Page 14, Column 4, Schenectady New York. (Fulton)
[SRHH] 1971 January 09, Saturday Review, Volume 54, Trade Winds by Cleveland Amory, Page 14, Column 3, Saturday Review, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)
[RRWW] 1975, Musical Stages: An Autobiography by Richard Rodgers, Page 225, Random House, New York. (Verified on paper) (Many thanks to Mark Milano who pointed out this cite to QI)
[WERR] 1975, Winchell Exclusive by Walter Winchell, Page 181-182, Prentice-Hall, Englewood, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)