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Broadway Dame ~ The Life & Times of Mrs. Henry B. Harris ~ by Randy Bryan Bigham and Gregg Jasper

Jordan Wright
September 10, 2019

“A woman brings to the stage a woman’s point of view.  After all, it is what in the long run pleases a woman that makes a show a success.” — Renée Harris, 1920.

Broadway Dame by Randy Bigham and Gregg Jasper has been optioned for a film by Lara Slife

Last month in a piece for The New York Times, Michael Paulson wrote an interesting  piece on a group of current female Broadway producers.  In an industry where women are significantly underrepresented, these women are seeking gender parity.  Some of these now-famous female producers climbed the ranks as apprentices to male producers – others had their own personal fortunes.  Each had their challenges in a male-dominated industry.

But in a new book by Randy Bryan Bigham and Gregg Jasper, all of these women had a powerful predecessor they may never have known of, Renée Harris, of Washington, DC who nearly a century before them came to be the first and most successful female producer Broadway had ever seen.  It is an eye-opener of a book and since its publication this summer, it has been optioned by award-winning producer/writer/director, Lara Slife of Livin’ Large Productions for an upcoming feature film, Broadway play, and television series based on Broadway Dame.

Henry B. “Harry” Harris and Renée Harris at their Hudson Theatre, 1910

With a keen eye for detail and a wealth of photos and personal letters from the late Mrs. Harris’ private collection, period theater posters, and celebrity glamour shots, the authors give us an indelible portrait of a woman who broke Broadway’s glass ceiling over a hundred years ago beginning in 1899 when she met Henry “Harry” Harris, a prominent producer who owned a New York-based theatrical agency with his father.  Through the agency young Harry was becoming a powerhouse, eventually managing such major stage stars as Ethel Barrymore, Mae West, and Lillie Langtry.

A Hudson Theatre program cover for George M. Cohan’s The Tavern (1921), managed by Renée.

After their marriage Harry started producing his own shows at the Hudson Theatre which he owned. Keeping Renée at his side whenever he was producing or directing a new show, she soon became an important influence and creative force in staging, costume design, and even finding and approving talent.  In time Harry came to own a large number of theaters on the Great White Way including Broadway’s Folies Bergère theater featuring an Irving Berlin-written song, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and starring Ina Claire.

The Harris’ enjoyed a posh lifestyle with New York’s theatre royalty until a fateful voyage aboard the Titanic on April 15, 1912 when Harry drowned along with many other men who had sacrificed their lives to see their wives and children safely onboard lifeboats.

The lifeboat in which Renée escaped from the sinking of the Titanic.

Against all odds, a condemning Variety and a vitriolic Walter Winchell who didn’t cotton to a woman producer, Renée thrived, never forgetting the needs of the actors.  She debuted Barbara Stanwyck and Clare Boothe Luce and launched the career of playwright Moss Hart.  The iconic song-and-dance vaudevillian, George M. Cohan became a familiar draw at the Hudson Theatre.  Some of the biggest names in show business performed in her shows including Fanny Brice, Billie Burke, Alfred Lunt, Douglas Fairbanks, “Fats” Waller, and many more.  Yet amid all the socializing and producing, her humanitarian side cared deeply for the needs of the actors, standing on the frontlines as the only woman in the Producing Managers Association during the Actors’ Equity strike.

Renée Harris at a party in Palm Beach, 1925.

Thanks to the close friendship between Jasper and Renée later in her life, and the theater and historical knowledge and writing style of both he and Bigham, this dazzling photo-filled biography of Renée Harris is chockful of showbiz tales, Titanic memorabilia, and fascinating insider stories of Harris’ extraordinary rise from legal secretary to a 20-year career as the most successful female producer on Broadway.

Renée directing a play in 1936.

Inspiring and indelible – every theater lovers’ must-have biography.

Broadway Dame ~ The Life & Times of Mrs. Henry B. Harris (Hayes-Stokes Press Group 2019) by Randy Bryan Bigham and Gregg Jasper.

Available on Lulu.com .

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